Curlew Moon

In deference to the scientific papers that underpin them, stories in previous WaderTales blogs are expressed in facts and correlations, not emotions. This blog, which is in part a review of Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell, is a little more personal.

Curlew Moon – a special book

book coverCurlew Moon, is based upon Mary Colwell’s walk from the West of Ireland to the East of England, raising money for the BirdWatch Ireland, BTO, RSPB and GWCT Curlew appeals and researching material for the book. She takes the reader into the stripped-bare peat bogs of central Ireland, shares the excitement of feeling the beating heart of a newly-ringed Curlew and meets some great people who care about Curlews in their own, local patches. The book is a fascinating blend of Curlews, agricultural history, culture and poetry – written beautifully.

Global problems

blog flightCurlews are large waders that live long lives. The family to which they belong, the Numeniini, is not coping well with the speed with which the world is changing. Two species of curlew are probably extinct – functionally if not actually – and the godwit members of the family are faring little better. The blog Why are we losing our large waders? summarises an excellent review by the BTO’s James Pierce-Higgins and colleagues from thirty other organisations/institutions around the world. In it, they assess the stresses that humans are imposing upon curlews & godwits, through direct activities and the impact we all have on the climate. It’s not just our Eurasian Curlew that we need to worry about.

British breeders and foreign visitors

Mary’s walk from west to east began on 21 April 2016, so the bulk of her story focuses upon the Curlew breeding season. The book, however, starts with a couple of trips to see flocks that consist mostly of wintering birds, in Norfolk and the Moray Firth.

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The Wash estuary, the bite out of the east coast of England, between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, holds up to a quarter of a million waders in some months, with a peak annual count of 8,000 or so Curlew. Mary went to Snettisham to see some of these Curlews for herself. Most of the birds had crossed the North Sea in the autumn, from countries such as Finland, Germany and even Russia. There are British-bred birds here too but these are in a minority. The WaderTales blog Is the Curlew really near-threatened? is also rooted in Norfolk. If a Curlew can live for 32 years and there are flocks of 1000 in Norfolk, why are they red-listed as a species of conservation concern?

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Tagging a Curlew: Mary Colwell, with Ron Summers of the Highland Ringing Group

Mary’s next trip was to the Moray Firth, where she met up with members of the Highland Ringing Group. Here, Bob Swann and his colleagues caught eight Curlew, in a mixed cannon-net catch of waders and gulls. I love the way that the strange activities of these dedicated, well-trained volunteers are described! The Curlews were all fitted with geolocators, to track their movements over the next twelve months. A previous bird had revealed a fascinating journey to Sweden and back, with only 53 days on her breeding grounds. She spends by far the largest part of each year in Scotland. What will these new birds tell us about the lives of our largest waders?

Habitat and predators

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An Irish marsh, freshly prepared for the peat-cutting machines

The long walk started in Ireland, where breeding Curlew are closest to extinction. In the Irish Republic, the latest survey revealed a breeding population of 124 pairs, down from perhaps 4,000 pairs in the 1980s. I had read about the causes of the demise of the Irish Curlew but Curlew Moon helped me to understand them. I could hear the silence that made an old man cry, I could see the rows of peat-devouring machines and I could understand the impact of changing farming methods. There may have been economic benefits (for some), associated with funding from the EU and the cessation of the Northern Ireland troubles, but Curlews have not been able to keep up with the changes that prosperity has delivered.

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Curlew nest, tucked away in some long grass

The situation is not dissimilar on the other side of the Irish Sea. In a paper reviewing associations between Curlew numbers in Britain and changes that may be causing them, Sam Franks and BTO and RSPB colleagues conclude that Curlew are less numerous and have shown greater population declines in areas with more arable farming, woodland cover and higher generalist predator abundance. Putting it simply, the key thing that conservationists should focus on are “habitat restoration and reducing the negative impacts of predators”. There’s more about this in Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.

blog chickIn the book, Mary describes the disappointments experienced by the Curlew Country team in Shropshire; in the years 2015 and 2016, 32 nesting attempts yielded no fledged chicks. Foxes were the main problem – with additional pressure from other predators and farm machinery. There was better news in 2017, perhaps associated with more fox control; three chicks were raised naturally and others were head-started. By taking ten eggs at the point of laying, replacing them with dummy eggs, and switching again at the point of hatching, the team increased the total number of fledged chicks to eight. After two blank years, this was an encouraging success for the team.

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Grouse

Much has been written about grouse moors and waders. As Mary moved on towards the Staffordshire Moors and then The Peak District she knew that she would “come face-to-face with some of nature conservation’s most bitter conflicts”.

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Curlew, nesting in the short grass on a grouse moor

I shall not attempt to summarise the Curlews and Controversy chapter – read it for yourself – but Mary, who describes herself as “left-wing, vegetarian with vegan tendencies” and who has never even held a gun, found more Curlew on a grouse moor she visited in early April than anywhere on her walk.

By removing predators, burning heather to encourage new growth and keeping trees at bay, shooting estates create habitat that is good for both Red Grouse and Curlew. It also suits Hen Harriers which feed on the youngsters of both species. And that’s when the potential for conflict really starts!

One of the arguments in favour of grouse shoots is a financial one. If there is no shooting, land-owners are going to want a return on their investments and an obvious replacement is serried rows of non-native forestry. This will not only take away moorland but will also have effects beyond the woodland edges, due to the actual and perceived risks of predation.

Making space

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Mary with Neal Warnock of RSPB Northern Ireland

There are conversations to be had about how space can be made for Curlews in upland farms and moors, while enabling these areas to be farmed profitably, or at least without loss. As Mary points out, if one farmer is being compensated for managing land in ways that suit breeding waders, the chance of success becomes vanishingly small if a neighbour receives subsidies to grow carbon-capturing trees. How can we ensure that planners understand the bigger picture?

Curlews need plenty of space and three WaderTales blogs talk about how farming and habitat heterogeneity might be impacting upon their success.

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Rachel Taylor, downloading data from a tracking station

In Curlew Moon, Mary writes about a day in Migneint moor, which lies to the south of Mynydd Hiraethog (mentioned above). Here, she and Rachel Taylor of BTO Cymru went in search of tagged Curlews that are contributing to a study Rachel is running with Steve Dodd of the RSPB. Four males have revealed the scale at which the species operates – “One bird flew a staggering 21 km away to a favoured feeding spot”. A paper in Wader Study by Steven Ewing and colleagues suggests that birds are highly variable in the way they use the landscape; two of their males travelling 1.6 km each evening but one bird staying close to the nest. Curlews need more space than perhaps we appreciated.

The people who care

In researching for her new book, Mary Colwell seems to have learnt as much about the people who study and love Curlew as she has about these special birds.  From her close encounters with cannon-netters, using geolocators to chart Curlews’ movements, through to gamekeepers who control predators, Tom Orde-Powlett managing a grouse shoot and others who are improving breeding habitats and monitoring nesting success, she focuses upon the respect so many people have for this fast-disappearing species. At the same time, she shares her own passion for this emblematic bird, the haunting calls of which echo across too many abandoned moors.

The Book

Curlew Moon is published by William Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-824105-6

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 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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Green Sandpipers and Geolocators

In a paper in the BTO journal, Ringing & Migration, Ken Smith and his collaborators review how wearing a tag, attached using a harness, affects the preening and feeding behaviour of Green Sandpipers. What did they find and where do their Hertfordshire birds spend the summer?

The lives of Green Sandpipers

Tom SpellerAccording to BirdLife International’s Data Zone page, there are between 1.2 million and 3.6 million Green Sandpipers across Europe and Asia. The breadth of this estimate reflects the difficulty of assessing the population of a species that breeds in wet forest clearings, from western Norway to about 155 degrees east in Russia. It’s hardly any easier to count them in the winter, sprinkled as there are around small pools, in ditches and along river valleys from West Africa to Japan.

The occasional pair of Green Sandpipers breed in the UK and Population Estimates of Birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom, published in British Birds by Andy Musgrove at al suggests, that fewer than 1000 birds spend the winter here, although rather more are seen on passage between Scandinavia and Africa. In an ever-changing world, studying populations of a species that is at the edge of its range has the potential to explain patterns of loss (or gain) that are less obvious in the heart of a species’ distribution.

Why use geolocators? 

In a previous blog (Bar-tailed Godwits: migration & survival), it was shown that colour-rings, which enable individual recognition of a bird without capture, provided 30 times as much information about annual survival as a metal ring. Adding a geolocator takes you into a new data-rich environment. A geolocator is a small device that records the location of an animal. By recapturing a bird a year after ringing and downloading these data, important information about the timing of migration, the duration of stop-overs at fuelling sites and the exact breeding and/or wintering location can be ascertained.

One of the important things to appreciate about scientists who study bird migration is that they are as keen as any other birdwatcher to ensure that the tracking devices they use cause as little disturbance to the normal life of their study birds as possible.

Attaching geolocators

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Geolocator with a light-stalk

In shorebird research, the most common form of geolocator is one that is attached to a ring on the bird’s leg. For most individuals, these devices do not have any negative effects but for smaller waders there can be some problems. Shorebird ecologists from around the globe cooperated to review these issues , publishing it in Movement Ecology. It is summarised in the WaderTales blog, Are there costs to wearing a geolocator? Hopefully, anyone contemplating a new shorebird study will read these before starting. Any data that are collected are only valuable if the birds are either unaffected by the equipment and attachment methods or, if there are effects, these do not prejudice the scientific integrity of the study or the welfare of the birds.

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GPS geolocator, fitted with elastic loops to form the harness

In this study, the Green Sandpipers were fitted with leg loop harnesses, first described by Rappole and Tipton, the authors having decided that ring-mounted geolocators might be too bulky on such a small wader. These harnesses are looped around the top part of a bird’s legs so that the geolocator sits like a small rucsac on the lower back, nestled in the feathers. In the figure below, the left picture shows a tagged bird; you may just make out a slight lifting of the back feathers over the top of the geolocator light stalk. The right-hand picture has been annotated to show how the ‘rucsac’ is fitted.

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The geolocators and harnesses represented 1.4–1.6% of the body mass of the birds. In the study, two different types of device were used, light-level geolocators and GPS geolocators – see the details in the paper. The effects of tagging on behaviour patterns have been examined and written up as a paper in the BTO journal Ringing & Migration, using data collected from seven Green Sandpipers that were fitted with harnesses.

Feeding and preening behaviour

Ken Smith and his colleagues have been studying the Green Sandpipers wintering at Lemsford Springs Nature Reserve in Hertfordshire, southeast England for over thirty years. These shallow lagoons were previously managed as watercress beds. In this particular investigation, the scientists compared the behaviour patterns of individual birds fitted with geolocators, before and after tagging, with a control group of untagged birds. They were particularly interested in the proportion of time spent feeding and preening. Feeding time was thought to be an indication of normal foraging behaviour and preening would be an indication of any discomfort or unfamiliarity caused by the tags and harnesses.

lemsford

Green Sandpipers spend their time feeding, preening and roosting, with most of the feeding activity occurring in loosely defined territories. Four of the tagged birds could be viewed regularly and their activities were observed alongside seven untagged (but colour-ringed) individuals. The amount of time spent feeding increased as days lengthened in the spring and birds prepared for migration. Previous research has shown that the Green Sandpipers on this site are not constrained by feeding opportunities, except in the coldest of condition. In these latter circumstances birds will also feed at night but normally they only feed during the day.

Investigating tag effects

Picture1Lemsford is a well-watched site. Most birdwatchers couldn’t tell which birds were tagged and which ones were not. The tags were so well preened into the plumage that they were extremely difficult to see, even in high-quality photographs. The tags could only be spotted by experienced observers and tag-effects could only be established using 20,000 minutes of observations. A less-intensive study would have showed no significant effects. These bullet points summarise more detailed findings in the paper:

  • All four tagged birds that were closely observed in this study returned successfully from their breeding areas and three of the tags were retrieved. There were no apparent signs of any problems such as skin abrasion or feather wear, caused by the tags or harnesses, and the birds continued to be observed after their tags were removed. The one bird that evaded capture and whose tag was not retrieved was present throughout the second winter.
  • Within the wider group, eight out of ten birds with tags returned the next winter, which is not significantly different from the overall return rate for untagged birds.
  • Tagged birds spent a small but significantly higher percentage of their time preening than untagged birds (untagged birds 4.6%, tagged birds 6.3%). Comparing the periods immediately before and after tagging for the four tagged birds for which detailed observations were collected, there were no differences in the time spent feeding but a significantly higher proportion of the time was spent preening (rather than just resting).
  • Birds may well get used to their tags over time. Of the three tagged birds for which there was sufficient data, two showed significant declines in the proportion of time spent preening over time (15% down to 5%), whereas one was at 6% throughout.

Where do these Green Sandpipers go?

Colour-ringing at Lemsford had already shown that birds are very site-faithful during the winter, once autumn passage birds have moved through. There’s more about this in a previous paper in Bird StudyHabitat use and site fidelity of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus wintering in southern England.

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This map is available from the BTO website

At the time that the Migration Atlas (Movements of the Birds of Britain & Ireland) was written, using data collected between 1909 and 1997, there was only one record of a BTO-ringed bird in its breeding area. That bird was found in Sweden, and there has been one other in Finland since. Green Sandpipers are not easy birds to observe and, although the long-term colour-ringing project at Lemsford Springs has generated large numbers of local re-sightings, there have been none elsewhere. Early results from the geolocator study show that the Lemsford wintering birds breed in Norway (2), Sweden (3) and Finland (1). A paper will be produced once a larger sample of results is available for analysis; it will look at migration strategies as well as breeding locations.

There is a WaderTales blog that summarises migration of over 40 wader species to, from and through Britain & Ireland: Which wader, when and why?

This paper

Neil Beadle - twoAlthough this study has involved small numbers of tagged and untagged birds, it has shown a consistent pattern of increase in the proportion of time spent preening by birds after tagging, with some evidence that this subsequently decreases over time. There is no evidence of an adverse impact on return rates of tagged birds from one winter to the next, although with such small sample sizes only a major change would have been detectable.

This paper is published in the BTO journal, Ringing & Migration:

The effects of leg-loop harnesses and geolocators on the diurnal activity patterns of Green Sandpipers in winter Ken W. Smith, Barry E. Trevis and Mike Reed


 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

 

 

Just one Black-tailed Godwit

When you receive a list of sightings of a colour-ringed bird that you have reported to a scheme organiser, it can hide a wealth of information. Here’s one such bird.

Blue Red – Yellow Green-flag

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BR-YGf photographed in Caithness (north of Scotland) in the spring of 2017

There are some colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits that have generated two hundred or more sightings at well-watched locations but BR-YGf is more typical. When seen in Cambridgeshire on 26 March 2018, that was only the 12th observation in the database.

The Black-tailed Godwit that was soon to become BR-YGf was wintering in Portugal when caught in a mist net, by José Alves and a team of other ringers, just before dawn on 25 October 2014. It was given a unique set of three colour-rings and a flag, that would enable it to be identified in the field by birdwatchers. Measurements of wing length and bill length, taken at the time, meant that it could be identified as a male, using criteria described in this paper in Bird Study.

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Wader-ringing team in Portugal

Colour-ringing of Black-tailed Godwits started in Portugal in 2006, when José was working on a PhD at the University of East Anglia, in which he studied the ecology of Black-tailed Godwits wintering on the Tagus and Sado Estuaries of Portugal. Colour-ringing has continued since, contributing to coordinated studies of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits in Spain, Portugal, France, the UK, Ireland and, of course, Iceland.

Breeding in Iceland

Almost all of the islandica Black-tailed Godwits breed in Iceland, with small numbers on the Faeroes, a handful on the Lofoten Islands of Norway and an occasional breeding pair on a Scottish island. Jenny Gill and I saw BR-YGf in the west of Iceland in April 2016, as we checked for marked birds in a flock of 1100 birds, many of which were new arrivals. He was feeding in a newly-ploughed cereal field, that had been previously spread with pig-muck from the neighbouring industrial-scale piggery. We managed to look at 800 pairs of legs in that flock; there was another green-flagged bird from Portugal, two orange-flags from France, a bird from Ireland and three from England.

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The history of BR-YGf since he started wearing coloured rings in 2014

We have been checking flocks of Black-tailed Godwits arriving in Iceland for many years. One of the most significant recent outputs is a paper that explains that young birds, recruiting into the population, are driving the advancing arrival of the species into Iceland in spring. The results are summarised in this blog: Why is spring migration getting earlier?

Autumn moult

Most of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits that winter in Portugal stop off to moult en route in autumn. We see some of these birds in the UK but BR-YGf is one that, from the sightings in September 2016, probably moults into winter plumage in France. Moulting is an energetically expensive process; birds that are mid-moult don’t usually migrate so these autumn staging sites are very important to the flocks that use them. When first caught in Portugal, in late October 2014, BR-YGf was in full winter plumage, probably having recently arrived from France.

Spring overtake

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The Samouco salt-pans, where BR-YGf was ringed, with Lisbon in the background

Portugal is a warm place to spend the winter, with relatively long days and plenty of food – very different to the east coast of England, for instance. The only down-side is that Portugal is a long way from Iceland, which you might think leads to later return in the spring. Most Portuguese birds get around this problem by migrating in two legs, the first of which takes them to either the Netherlands or the British Isles. BR-YGf chooses the British option. This blog explains this migratory strategy: Overtaking on migration.

BR-YGf has been spotted in two springs since ringing. On 14 March 2016 he was seen at Old Hall Marshes in Essex by Steve Hunting and on 26 March 2018 he was seen by the Project Godwit team on the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire. Mark Whiffin and colleagues were looking for limosa subspecies godwits, newly returned from Africa to breed, but their birds were outnumbered by large flocks of islandica, fattening up for the trip north. There’s more about the differences between the two subspecies in Godwits in, godwits out: springtime on the Washes with some hints on distinguishing which subspecies is which.

Portuguese birds, on an earlier migratory schedule, tend to be further ahead, in terms of moult, standing out in their red finery against the greyer local birds, some of which will travel to Iceland up to four weeks later. You can read more about the spring moult in this WaderTales blog: Spring moult in Black-tailed Godwits. Did you know that waders smell different in summer plumage?

Why Caithness?

BR-YGf has been following a well-used migration route: breed in Iceland, moult in France, winter in Portugal, spring in England, back to Iceland and repeat, for perhaps twenty or more years. What was he doing in Caithness, in the very far north of Scotland on 22 April 2017?

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Although the average timing of arrival of individual godwits in Iceland has not changed, the small amount of annual variation in their timings may be related to the weather they encounter en route. In the spring of 2017, we were in Iceland waiting for birds to turn up. The weather was lovely – if cold – but northerly winds appeared to bring a brief halt to most migration. In our two-week stay we saw only 28 colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits; not quite as bad as the spring of 2013, when winter returned to Europe in April, but close.

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In some years, Black-tailed Godwits, and other waders making the trip to Iceland, may get part way across the Atlantic and have to turn back or they may reach the north of Scotland or the Western Isles and stop. Colour-ring sightings alert colour-ring coordinators to these events, as presented in the blog: Waiting for the wind.

Thank you

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Looking for Black-tailed Godwits in Moita (Portugal) – José Alves, Jenny Gill and me

Thousands of birdwatchers have contributed to the studies of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits. Every sighting is valuable, especially repeat records from the same site. This WaderTales blog tells the stories of some of the birdwatchers who contribute their sightings to these projects: Godwits and Godwiteers.

It’s great to see old friends, when out ‘godwitting’. Jenny Gill and I have seen BR-YGf in Portugal (2016 & 2017) and in Iceland (2016). We recognised him but he probably will not have recognised us.

Please report any colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits to j.gill@uea.ac.uk and she will forward them to the appropriate coordinator as necessary. Thank you!


 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