Northern Ireland is a great place for wintering waders but the same can no longer be said for its breeding species. There are far too few places left in which Curlew bubble and Snipe drum.
Waders provide some of the best birdwatching spectacles in Northern Ireland, as flocks swirl around coastal estuaries, when the tide rises on a winter’s day. Birds fly in from as far away as Canada and Russia but there are particularly strong links to Iceland, about which there will be more later. Every year, winter counts by volunteers, who help with the Wetland Bird Survey, alert us to the ups and down in wintering populations on loughs and estuaries. Unfortunately, we know much less about breeding species such as Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe and Curlew – four species that featured in a Northern Ireland survey in the summer of 2019. Although the annual Breeding Bird Survey monitors birds such as Song Thrush and Willow Warbler, waders are just too thinly spread in Northern Ireland for it to be possible to pick up any year-to-year changes. That’s why they needed a special survey.
We know that there were some great wader hot-spots in the years 1985 to 1987, when a major Northern Ireland survey took place, and that large drops in numbers were reported in 1999 and again in 2013, after other dedicated surveys, but what is happening now? Are there still places where Snipe drum and Curlew bubble? In 2019, the BTO in Northern Ireland asked local and visiting birdwatchers to revisit some of the best places that were identified in previous surveys, to look for breeding waders and to assess the habitats that remain. This work complemented work undertaken by RSPB Northern Ireland during the same period.
Not looking good?
Although it would have been nice to be proved wrong, the expectation was that breeding wader numbers would have declined still further by 2019. This meant, of course, that any remaining sites that still hold species such as Redshank and Lapwing, are going to be even more important than they were thirty years ago. Pessimism is based on trends elsewhere; numbers of breeding waders are falling throughout the UK and increased agricultural intensification within the Republic of Ireland has caused sharp declines in the focal species of the 2019 survey – Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe and Curlew.
The results of the survey are available in a BTO report that can be downloaded HERE. Here are some headlines:
- Data were received from 75 lowland grassland sites around Northern Ireland, covered by a combination of volunteers, professional surveyors and the RSPB.
- All of these sites held at least one breeding pair of Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank or Snipe in the late 1980s.
- 48 of these previously-occupied sites produced zero counts in 2018 and 2019. That’s no Lapwing, no Curlew, no Redshank and no Snipe in 64% of sites.
The following notes give some highlights about Northern Ireland’s waders.
The Lapwing has quietly disappeared from much of Northern Ireland over the last fifty years. The black triangles in the map alongside represent 10-km squares that lost their breeding Lapwings between the two atlases of 1968-72 and 2008-11. Previous Northern Ireland surveys of breeding waders in 1985-87 and 2013 suggest that the number of pairs dropped from an estimated total of 5250 to a total of 860 – that’s a loss of 5 out of 6 pairs.
The latest survey focused on the best sites for breeding waders in Northern Ireland. In these key areas, pairs of Lapwing declined by 70% between 1985–87 and 2018–19.
There is no recent estimate for the number of breeding Redshank in Northern Ireland. Across the UK, the Breeding Bird Survey suggests that we have lost over 40% of breeding birds since 1995, and the decline was well underway by then. The 2019 survey provided a good opportunity to learn as much as possible about this threatened species. Sadly, across all the key sites surveyed, the number of pairs of Redshank declined by 76% between 1985–87 and 2018–19, .
In the late summer, the tiny Northern Ireland population is joined by Redshank from Iceland and Scotland. There are also a small number of movements linking Northern Ireland with Wales and England; some of these might be of birds from further east in Europe that were ringed in Britain. Strangford Lough peak counts of over 2000 in October illustrate just how much of an influx there is each autumn.
The lowland wader survey in 1985-87 suggested that the Northern Ireland population of Snipe was about 5725 pairs. By the time of the next survey in 1999, that number had dropped to 3993 and then to 1123 in 2013. That’s a drop of 80%. Snipe seem very sensitive to habitat change, especially drainage. The map alongside shows the change in abundance between 1988-91 and 2008-11 across Britain & Ireland. There is an interesting mix of losses (grey) and increases (orange) in Northern Ireland. It would have been great if the 2019 survey has picked up some new Snipe hot-spots. Sadly, in line with other waders, the number of pairs in key sites dropped by 71% between 1985–87 and 2018–19.
There’s a WaderTales blog about Snipe & Jack Snipe. Many of the birds that are seen in Northern Ireland in the winter have flown across the Atlantic to escape the snow and cold of Iceland but there are also birds from Scandinavia and continental Europe
The Curlew is in huge trouble across the whole island of Ireland. Surveys of random squares in 1985-87, 1999 and 2013 suggest that the number of breeding pairs in Northern Ireland dropped from 5000 to about 500 over the period. There is talk about potential extinction as a breeding species in Ireland and Wales. This may seem ridiculous when you can see flocks totalling 2000 birds around Lough Foyle, on a winter’s day. However, these are almost exclusively migrants, from Finland, Scandinavia and Scotland. This blog explains why, internationally, Curlew is considered to be near-threatened.
Across all of the key sites surveyed between 1985–87 and 2018–19, pairs of Curlew declined by 80%. There is already concerted action to try to bolster numbers through the Lough Erne Landscape Partnership and it is pleasing to report that Lower Lough Erne region had retained generally higher numbers of breeding waders than elsewhere.
Other Northern Ireland waders
Oystercatcher: Many wintering Oystercatchers leave Northern Ireland in the spring, heading for Iceland, Scotland or perhaps Norway (more in this wader migration blog). By that time, resident adults will already have moved inland or onto beaches to breed and other birds will have returned from southern wintering areas.
Flocks of young birds are found on estuaries in the summer, as Oystercatchers typically don’t breed until three years old. We know that the number of breeding Oystercatchers in Scotland dropped by 39% between 1994 and 2018 but English numbers rose by 49% (read more here). We don’t know what’s happening in Northern Ireland.
Turnstone: Wintering birds are mostly thought to come from Greenland and Canada but a December capture of a bird from Sweden suggests that there might be a link to the east as well.
Ringed Plover: The most recent UK-wide survey of the species was in 2007, when the Northern Ireland population estimate was 147 pairs, similar to the estimate at the time of the previous survey, in 1987. In the same period, numbers dropped in Scotland (-42%) and England (-29%). Link to summary of paper.
Golden Plover: Ireland is a winter destination of choice for many Golden Plover that breed in Iceland. The recovery of a Belgian-ringed bird in 2006 suggests that some birds may arrive from the east as well. Wintering numbers are half what they were 25 years ago, according to WeBS data for Northern Ireland. A few breeding birds can still be found in the western parts of Northern Ireland but they have been lost from most other areas.
Grey Plover: It’s a long way from Siberia to Northern Ireland, so perhaps it is not surprising that not many Grey Plover make it this far west! A recent colour-ringing programme has been set up in northwest England to see how much movement there is of Grey Plover around the Irish Sea. There’s a recent WaderTales blog about the global migration patterns of Grey Plover.
Knot: The best place to see Knot is in Strangford Lough, where numbers peak at over 4000 in some winters. The only two foreign-ringed birds were shot wearing Icelandic rings in 1957 and 1975 (when shooting them was legal). Northern Ireland’s wintering Knot largely breed in Greenland or Canada and migrate via Iceland. This blog provides the latest information on numbers of waders wintering throughout the island of Ireland. Knot is one of the biggest recent losers.
Sanderling: The Sanderling that are seen around the coast in winter months, in small numbers, will almost certainly breed in Greenland. Numbers are higher in spring, when birds from further south stop off on their way to Iceland and then Greenland. Fascinating new research compares the costs and benefits of travelling different distances in the autumn. Some young birds travel only as far as Northern Ireland, while others migrate to south Africa. Travel advice for Sanderling reveals the best options.
Dunlin: Most breeding schinzii Dunlin have been lost from the island of Ireland, with the population now thought to be as low as 50 pairs. Large numbers of birds of the schinzii (green arrows) and smaller numbers of arctica (yellow) race pass through in spring and autumn, on their way to Iceland and Greenland, but the wintering birds are of the alpina race (orange).
Woodcock: The black triangles in the map opposite show the parts of Northern Ireland that have lost breeding Woodcock in the last 50 years. Data are from Bird Atlas 2007-11 (BTO, BirdWatch Ireland & SOC). In late autumn, birds fly in from counties such as Germany, Norway and Russia. See this blog.
Black-tailed Godwit: All is not gloom and doom in the world of waders; there are six times as many Black-tailed Godwits wintering in Northern Ireland as there were 30 years ago. Great views of these Icelandic visitors are provided at the RSPB reserve at Belfast’s Window on Wildlife. This blog explains why numbers have taken off in recent years.
Bar-tailed Godwit: The Bar-tailed Godwit that are seen in Strangford Lough and elsewhere are birds from northern Norway and Russia. There seems to have been little change in numbers, according to Northern Ireland WeBS counters.
Whimbrel: A few Whimbrel drop in during autumn passage but far more appear in spring. Most Icelandic Whimbrel can fly straight to West Africa in the autumn but 80% stop off on the way north, many in Northern Ireland (see graphic above). You can read more here.
From Avocet to Pectoral Sandpiper
There is a supporting cast of waders that visit Northern Ireland. This blog provides more information on wader migration: Which wader, when and why?
Information about the waders of Northern Ireland is collected annually via the Breeding Bird Survey and the Wetland Bird Survey – new volunteers are always welcome. In the summer of 2019 the special breeding survey, targeted areas shown in this map. Birdwatchers were asked to count Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank and Snipe and to record additional habitat about grazing, rush cover and dampness.
Sites were located in five broad areas :
- Loughs Neagh and Beg
- Blackwater Catchment
- Tyrone Fairy Water Bogs
- Upper Lough Erne
- Lower Lough Erne (these sites will be covered by the RSPB)
Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland. He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.