Interpreting changing wader counts

Blog mixed flockWhen you count the number of Redshank on your local estuary and discover that there are fewer now than there were last year –  or five, or twenty years ago – what are the implications? Is this part of a national or international trend or has something changed within the estuary itself?

The first question to ask is, ‘what is happening elsewhere?’ and then to wonder about the ways in which numbers of birds in different sites might relate to each other. What actually happens to local counts when national counts go down – or go up, for that matter?

The UK Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) data provide comprehensive and long-term monitoring of estuarine wader populations around our coastline. Thanks to volunteers who collect monthly counts each year, these data present an excellent opportunity to explore how bird distributions can change over time. A new paper by Verónica Méndez and colleagues from the University of East Anglia and British Trust for Ornithology uses counts of 19 species (18 waders plus Shelduck, an honorary wader) over a 26-year period to ask what happens to distribution and local abundance across our estuaries when overall population sizes go up or down.

Consequences of population change for local abundance and site occupancy of wintering waterbirds Verónica Méndez, Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, Niall H. K. Burton & Richard G. Davies Diversity and Distributions. 2017;1–12. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12653

The counters

Blog Counter 2A WeBS count can be a tough assignment for a volunteer birdwatcher. Being allocated to a stretch of an estuarine coastline and asked to visit it, whatever the weather, on a given weekend of every month, in every winter, is not the same as an invitation to go birdwatching in September to look for a Curlew Sandpiper.

The counts used in this paper are from the months of November through to February, when waders are largely settled for the winter and the weather can be less than clement. Many of the data-points for individual sites have been collected by the same person in all of the years analysed in the paper and every contribution is important.

WeBS70logo6a_smallWeBS is the successor of other, similar count schemes which are celebrating 70 years of continuous monitoring this year. It is organised by BTO, in partnership with RSPB and JNCC and in association with WWT. There are over 3000 registered WeBS volunteers, collecting data about the waterbirds that can be found on estuaries, in wetlands, on inland lakes, along river valleys and in local parks and villages.

Understanding change

Many populations of migratory birds are changing in number quite rapidly at present, but are these changes more likely to result in changes in occupancy (eg colonisation of or extinction from some sites) or changes in abundance within sites? Put simply, if extra waders arrive in the autumn, how do they distribute themselves across available sites? If fewer arrive, where will the gaps be found?

DN and BTG graphs

The contrasting fortunes of Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit over the period covered in the new paper

Over the period studied in the paper (between 1980-85 and 2002-07), populations of five species declined, with the greatest losses occurring in Purple Sandpiper and Shelduck (both declined by about 25%), while there were increases for four, the biggest of which were Avocet (+1690%), Golden Plover (+554%) and Black-tailed Godwit (+418%). No birdwatcher will be shocked by the figures for Avocet or Black-tailed Godwit, wintering numbers of which have shot up, but Golden Plover is more of a surprise and may be linked to a move from inland fields to estuaries.

When the size of a wintering population of waders declined, Verónica Méndez and her colleagues found that the main consequence was a reduction in numbers across all sites. Birds were likely to stay on a site even if local numbers were dwindling. This suggests high levels of site-fidelity by individual waders, which is something we know from ringing and tracking studies. If you’re still alive then just do the same again – there could be a better site with a higher number of conspecifics somewhere else but it would be risky to try to find that out.

 

Blog Avocets

Thirty years ago, few people can have expected that they would ever see such a large flock of Avocets on the Humber

If the size of a wintering population increased, generally numbers went up within all occupied sites. The exceptions tended to occur in species for which original numbers were very small, such as for Greenshank, or species for which the change in numbers has been rapid – as seen in Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit.

If adults don’t change their wintering sites then increases are presumably being driven by juveniles. Their settlement decisions may be influenced by the distribution of adults of the same species, resulting in increased local abundance, rather than colonisation of new sites. For the two rapidly-expanding species, Black-tailed Godwit and Avocet, there was colonisation of 25 and 15 new sites, respectively, between 1980-85 and 2002-07, with some indication of more similar increases in sites that were closer together, which may reflect local movements among groups of nearby sites.

Designating sites

Blog Blackwit

Juvenile waders may well settle in areas where there are already populations of wintering adults

One of the key conservation measures for waders across Europe is the Special Protection Area (SPA) network, a collection of sites that are designated because they hold internationally or nationally important numbers of species, measured as a percentage of the population. Designated sites need to maintain numbers of all the species that hit this threshold percentage. However, if a national or European population gets larger (for example because of high breeding success) but the number on a particular site does not grow (or grows more slowly), then the species might drop below the threshold for protection, even if the site is unchanged. Theoretically this could affect a site’s protected status for that species, although is unlikely to be a problem, as most sites are designated for many species.

This new paper shows that gains and losses tend to be fairly constant across all sites, making it unlikely that a site designation would be affected by national or European-scale changes. In only one species (Ringed Plover), numbers have declined so much in some sites that the total number of sites exceeding the threshold for that species has decreased.

Keep counting!

Blog Counter 1Habitat availability and site fidelity, along with species longevity, may explain the strong tendency for local population abundance to change much more than site occupancy, in our wintering waders. Given the statutory importance of maintaining waterbird populations in designated protected areas, it is important to continue local and national surveys that can identify changes in local abundance and relate these to large-scale processes.

Returning to the earlier question – When you count the number of Redshank on your local estuary and discover that there are fewer now than there were last year –  or five, or twenty years ago – what are the implications?

This new paper shows that it is unlikely that a local drop in a species’ numbers is caused by a redistribution of birds. Factors that might lie behind a local decline need to be investigated locally, if the trend is not replicated elsewhere. The authors could only reach this conclusion because they had 26 years of WeBS data from a range of sites at their disposal. Future generations of WeBS counters will hopefully continue to monitor the conditions of our estuaries, working together throughout the country to interpret local counts within a national framework.

Paper

Consequences of population change for local abundance and site occupancy of wintering waterbirds Verónica Méndez, Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, Niall H. K. Burton & Richard G. Davies Diversity and Distributions. 2017;1–12. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12653

Blog RINGOS


 GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

 

 

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The not-so-Grey Plover

sum plumThe Grey Plover may be grey in the winter but in its summer plumage the American name of Black-bellied Plover is far more appropriate. Each spring, adults moult into this breeding finery but what happens to first-years, are there differences between the sexes and are Grey Plovers ‘typical’ of the wader family as a whole?

This blog is inspired by the moult chapter from Shorebirds in Action, a new book by Richard Chandler, published by Whittles Publishing. The descriptor “an introduction to waders and their behaviour” gives a clue to the fact that Richard has used his excellent photographs to illustrate aspects of shorebirds’ lives, such as moult, migration, territorial behaviour and physiology. Many of the photographs in this blog have been provided by Richard.

‘Dressing for the Occasion’

Back in the ‘old days’ a group of wader ringers would huddle over the outstretched wing of a shorebird, often in the dark, by the light of a paraffin lamp, in order to try to understand the moult of individual birds. In the case of the Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, the primary feathers sometimes revealed an interesting story of previous difficulties experienced by an individual. More of this later.

Thanks to the development of digital photography and long lenses, the study of moult is no longer restricted to ringers looking at birds in the hand. Birdwatchers can all share in the detective work and learn more about how plumages of waders change with age and season, allowing us to identify males and females and to think about the stresses that individuals face.

The moult of Grey Plovers

Most waders moult their main flight feathers in the autumn and take on summer plumage in the spring. This adult Grey Plover (below) was photographed on the Wash in Norfolk in August. It is not in full summer plumage, having started its moult before migrating from the Taymyr region of Siberia. There’s lots more about wader migration here. Two of the primaries (P1 and P2) are new, with crisp white edges to the feathers. Over the course of the next few weeks, this bird will recommence moult by dropping P3, with moult then progressing outwards through the primaries and inwards through the secondaries. The main feather tracts are labelled.

structure of wing

Summer plumage feathers can be seen in the scapulars and in the coverts. In some individual Grey Plovers, and in other species, there can also be summer plumage in the tertials. In this photograph, these are hidden by the large, showy scapulars. Juvenile birds of many species are often aged by looking for buffy tips on the median coverts. The inner median coverts are protected from wear by the scapulars, so this is the best place to look for hidden evidence that a bird is a youngster. This is where to find the odd buffy fringe in a young Dunlin in its first spring, for instance, when it is  about 10 months old.

adult winterFor an adult wader, the post-breeding moult is complete. The photograph alongside shows an adult bird in full winter-plumage bird; the picture is from Norfolk (UK) but the same photograph could have been taken in South Africa, India, Australia or South America, so global is the Grey Plover’s distribution. The bird has discarded all of the breeding plumage it acquired in the spring, and the flight feathers that were a year old. All of the coverts of the wing have been moulted and have a uniform appearance, and look at the fresh-edged tertials that fold neatly over the dark (almost black) tips of the primaries.

juvenileThe next photograph shows a first-winter juvenile, newly arrived from the breeding grounds. This bird is a Black-bellied Plover in Florida. Having started life as a tiny, downy chick, it will have acquired this new set of feathers before migration. The spangling of the back is diagnostic of a juvenile Grey Plover but the golden spots can confuse a novice wader-handler, who might want to turn it into one of the golden plover family. Before winter starts, new non-breeding-type body feathers moult in, so the bird loses the spangling of the upper parts and a lot of the streaking of the under-parts.

first winterIt is not thought that one-year-old Grey Plovers breed in their first summer, with most staying on their ‘wintering’ grounds for well over a year, through to the second April or May. The photograph alongside was taken in May in Norfolk; the bird may have been sharing the beach with gorgeous summer-plumage birds that were preparing to depart for Siberia. Grey (or Black-Bellied) Plovers are nearly circumpolar breeders. They are missing from Greenland and Northern Scandinavia but breed across the northern coasts of Russia, Alaska and Canada – only three countries but a vast area of tundra.

age characteristicsThe next figure is a composite of two of the photographs, created to show the key diagnostic features of an adult and immature in winter plumage. The notches on the tertials are particularly pronounced in the young bird because the feathers were already nearly a year old at this point – it is not always this easy! When assessing the age of any wader, the tertials and coverts are key feathers to check out.

Primary exceptions

In many ways, the Grey Plover is a fairly typical medium-sized wader; adults moult their main flight feathers (wings and tail) in the autumn but juveniles have to wait until the early summer of their second year before they do the same. This first primary moult of these young birds may start as early as June and is completed in August or early September, two months ahead of breeding adults. To learn more about Grey Plover moult see this paper by Nick Branson & Clive Minton from the Wash Wader Ringing Group.

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Smaller waders, such as the alpina Dunlin that spend the winter in Britain & Ireland, typically breed when only a year old. Unlike Grey Plovers, Dunlin moult into breeding plumage in their first spring. When they return from Russia in the same summer they can still be aged if there are juvenile inner median coverts with unworn buffy fringes. Primaries in these one-year-old birds tend to be more worn than those of adults, being three months older and having been used for one more migratory journey.

In some species, such as Semipalmated Sandpiper, you can find young birds in the spring with a small number of fresh outer primaries. By moulting the outer, and most worn, of their flight feathers during the wintering period they are presumably able to increase flight efficiency for the journeys north and south. Young birds of the tundrae race of the Ringed Plover take this early primary renewal strategy even further, by undergoing a complete primary moult in their first winter, while on the wintering grounds.

Under stress        

Moult is an energetically expensive activity. When resources are low, it may not be possible to complete the moult process. In this BTO report by Phil Atkinson and colleagues, about wader mortality associated with die-offs of cockles and mussels in the Wash (UK), they showed that more Oystercatchers suspend moult in years with very low food supplies. In these ‘bad shellfish years’, it was not uncommon to find Oystercatchers with one or more unmoulted outer primaries – old feathers that would be retained until the next autumn moult.

suspendedThe same thing can happen in Grey Plovers but it is more likely that they will suspend moult in the autumn and then finish in March. In the Branson & Minton paper mentioned above, it was estimated that 30% of adults suspended moult for the harsh winter months. The paper was written in 1976 and it would be interesting to know whether the proportion of birds suspending has dropped, given that winter weather now tends to be less severe.

Suspended moult is found in Grey and Black-bellied Plovers across the world. The photograph alongside was taken in Florida on 20 December. The unmoulted outer primary is more pointed and browner than the other nine.

Gender

greplThe gender of winter-plumage Grey Plovers cannot be determined, even in the hand, but the summer plumage is pretty diagnostic. A bird with a jet-black belly, with perhaps the odd white tip to a feather, and an almost pure white band behind the black face and neck is probably a male (as here). If the bird is less well-marked – brownish-black on the front with more mottling – then you are likely to be looking at a breeding plumage female. Come the autumn, all of this finery will disappear and the Black-bellied Plover will become a Grey Plover once more.

Moult in other species

cover with outlineThis blog focuses on the moult of one species. If you want to learn more about moult in general and many other aspects of the behaviour of waders then immerse yourself in Shorebirds in Action, An Introduction to Waders and their Behaviour by Richard Chandler. Click here for link

Moult features strongly in this WaderTales blog about Black-tailed Godwits and in this blog about Lapwings.


 GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton