Do population estimates matter?

blog top godwitsThis month (March 2019) saw the publication of Population estimates of wintering waterbirds in Great Britain, which includes all the wader species from Little Stint to Curlew. Given that the Wetland Bird Survey already covers about 2000 wetlands and provides annual monitoring, why do we need to know the total number of birds in Great Britain?

I suggest four reasons:

  • If we count the number of Curlew and we have a figure for the European population then we know that Great Britain is responsible for nearly 20% of Europe’s Curlew each winter, thereby strengthening the case for national conservation action;
  • If we have a national figure, then we know that a flock of 2000 Black-tailed Godwit represents (as it turns out) over 5% of the British total, which is a useful criterion when assessing the conservation importance of individual sites;
  • blog GKPopulation totals help to put annual percentage changes into context;
  • And simply because people ask questions such as “how many Greenshank are there in the country during the winter?”

So, here’s the bottom line. In their 2019 review of waterbird numbers in British Birds, a team from BTO, WWT, JNCC & RSPB reveal that an estimated total of 4.9 million waders spend the winter in Great Britain. That’s about one third of all waders on the East Atlantic Flyway. Impressive!

Please note that Northern Ireland figures are included in an upcoming report for the island of Ireland.

Making the counts

The population estimates owe a lot to those who undertake monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts on estuaries, lakes and waterways, during the winter months, year in and year out. Counts from the period 2012/13 to 2016/17 are used in the population estimates that form the basis for the 2019 review. WeBS data have many other uses, as you can read here: Wetland Bird Survey: working for waders.

blog CUFor species of wader that also make use of the open coast, the Non-estuarine Waterbirds Survey of 2015/16 (or NEWS III) provided additional data, updating the NEWS II figures from 2006/07. The vast majority of our wintering Purple Sandpipers are found on open beaches and rocky shores, as well as large numbers of Turnstone, Ringed Plover and Sanderling, together with significant numbers of Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. There’s more about NEWS in this slightly dated blog: NEWS and Oystercatchers for Christmas.

The last assessment of winter wader populations was made by the Avian Population Estimates Panel and published in British Birds in 2013 as Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom (APEP3). In here, estimates for waders were largely based on WeBS data for the period 2004-09 and NEWS II. The new assessment is presented as Population estimates of wintering waterbirds in Great Britain and also published in British Birds. It uses WeBS information for the period 2012-17 and NEWS III data. Effectively, there is an 8-year or 9-year difference between the two sets of figures.

The biggest losers

blog graphicGreat Britain is extremely important in the context of the East Atlantic Flyway, as is obvious from the fact that the area holds nearly five million waders. The WeBs counts already monitor the ups and downs on an annual basis but this review provides an opportunity to turn the percentages into actual numbers. It is concerning that, over a period representing less than a decade, the average maximum winter count for six of the species that were surveyed dropped by a total of over 150,000. These big losers were Knot, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin, ordered by number of birds lost, with Knot seeing the biggest absolute decline.

In preparing the new estimates for the British Birds paper, an opportunity was taken to refine the way that populations are calculated, based on Use of environmental stratification to derive non-breeding population estimates of dispersed waterbirds in Great Britain, by Verónica Méndez et al. The new methodology explains some of the differences between percentage changes reported by WeBS and the percentage changes obtained by comparing the latest population estimates to those in APEP3.

blog KN graphic

The Knot estimate dropped from 320,000 to 260,000. This figure is higher than might be expected from the counts that take place at sites covered by WeBS, being larger than the ten-year decline of 14% reported in the last WeBS report. Knot are mobile species within the North Sea and Atlantic Coast wintering area and it is possible that British losses may be explained, at least to some extent, by redistribution.

blog oyc graphThe drop in Oystercatcher numbers from 320,000 to 290,000 appears to be less than 10%, compared to a ten-year decline of 12% on WeBS. Improved analysis of NEWS data helped to add some more birds to the open-coast estimate so the 10% fall may underestimate the seriousness of the Oystercatcher situation. The 25-year Oystercatcher decline on WeBS is 26%, which is not surprising if you look at the changes to breeding numbers in Scotland, where most British birds are to be found. There’s more about this in: From shingle beach to roof-top.

blog RKThe Redshank decline of 26,000 is higher than would be predicted from WeBS figures, suggesting a drop of over 20% since APEP3, rather than ‘just’ 15% for the ten-year WeBS figure. This is a species that also features strongly in the Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey and that might explain the difference. Wintering Redshank are mostly of British and Icelandic origin, with the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) suggesting a ten-year decline of 24% in our British breeding birds.

The Curlew is now globally recognised as near-threatened. The latest winter estimate is 120,000, down from 140,000 in APEP3. The new total represents between 14% and 19% of the European population, which means that we have a particular responsibility for this much-loved species. Only the Netherlands holds more wintering Curlew than Great Britain. Is the Curlew really nearly-threatened? is one of several blogs about Curlew in the WaderTales catalogue at www.wadertales.wordpress/about .

blog 2 DNIt has been suggested that the long-term declines of Grey Plover and Dunlin  may be associated with short-stopping, with new generations of both species wintering closer to their eastern breeding grounds than used to be the case. WeBS results indicate a 31% drop in Grey Plover and a 42% drop in Dunlin, over the last 25 years. There was a loss of 10,000 for both species between APEP3 and the new review, representing declines of 23% and 3% respectively.

The biggest winners

There are four big winners in the period between APEP3 (2004-09) and the new review (2012-16), although, even here, not all as it seems.

The Avocet has seen further dramatic gains. with the estimated wintering population rising to 8,700. The increase is not quite as big as might have been expected, based on the 43% rise seen in ten years of WeBS counts, but it is still a dramatic continuation of a 40-year trend.

The numbers of Bar-tailed Godwit and Ringed Plover are both substantially higher but at least a proportion of each of these changes is linked to the better coverage and more sophisticated sampling methods that were discussed earlier. Bar-tailed Godwit increases may also reflect redistribution around the North Sea.

blog BW graphOne of the consequences of improved statistical techniques, as used this time around, is the apparent decline in the estimated population of Black-tailed Godwit. The new figure of 39,000 is 4,000 smaller than in APEP3, despite the fact that the WeBS graph clearly shows an increase. Interpolation using WeBs figures suggests that the earlier population estimate should have been 31,000, rather than 43,000.

There are other winners too, as you can read in the paper. At the start, I posed the question “how many Greenshank are there in the country during the winter?”.  The answer is 810, representing an increase of 200 since APEP3.

Game species

The estimates for the three wintering waders that are still on the UK quarry list have not changed since APEP3 (published in 2011) as there are no new data available.

Golden Plover: The winter estimate remains as 400,000, as there has been no comprehensive, winter survey since 2006/7. Large numbers of Golden Plover arrive from Scandinavia, Europe and Iceland in the late summer, joining the British birds that choose not to migrate south or west. The GB breeding population is probably less than 50,000 pairs. Most breed in Scotland which has seen a breeding decline of 23% in the period 1995 to 2016 (BBS). Golden Plover is still ‘green listed’.

snipe-headerSnipe (Common): The winter estimate remains as 1,100,000 – a figure that was acknowledged in APEP3 as being less reliable than that of most species. At the same time, the GB breeding population was estimated as 76,000 pairs, indicating at least a 4:1 ratio of foreign to British birds, and that does not take account of the number of British birds that migrate south and west. Snipe are ‘amber listed’ but BBS suggests a recent increase of 26% (1995-2016). There is a WaderTales blog about  Snipe and Jack Snipe.

Woodcock: The winter estimate remains as 1,400,000 – another figure that is not considered to be particularly precise, with much variation between years. The diminishing breeding population is dwarfed by winter numbers, as you can read in this WaderTales blog, with increased attention being given to ways to afford better protection of red-listed, British-breeding birds.

January counts

blog BTThe paper in British Birds also includes a table of January population estimates, to provide data that are comparable to mid-winter counts in other countries. These figures are used in waterbird monitoring for the International Waterbird Census for the African Eurasian Flyway. The main table (and figures mentioned above) are average maximum winter counts (in the period September to March). Black-tailed Godwit is one species that illustrates the difference, with a mean of 30,000 in January and a mean peak count of 39,000. Having moulted in Great Britain, some Black-tailed Godwits move south to France and Portugal in late autumn, returning as early as February. January counts are therefore substantially lower than early-winter and late-winter counts. There is more about the migratory strategy employed by Black-tailed Godwits that winter in southern Europe in Overtaking on Migration.

Looking forward

blog BB coverThe authors have done a tremendous job. They have refined the way that estimates are calculated, they have combined the results from WeBS and NEWS III, and they have delivered population estimates for 25 wader species and many more other species of waterbirds. These population estimates will be used in conservation decision-making until the next set of numbers becomes available. Meanwhile, thousands of birdwatchers will count the birds on their WeBS patches in each winter month, every year. Without them, this paper could not have been written.

Before the next assessment, there will need to be another NEWS survey, to check up on species that use rocky and sandy shore birds, such as Purple Sandpipers, Turnstone and Curlew. Hopefully, there will also be a dedicated survey to assess Lapwing and Golden Plover numbers and perhaps we might find a way to refine the old estimates for Woodcock, Snipe and Jack Snipe.


Population estimates of wintering waterbirds in Great Britain. Teresa Frost, Graham Austin, Richard Hearn, Stephen McAvoy, Anna Robinson, David Stroud, Ian Woodward and Simon Wotton. Published in British Birds Volume 112. March 2019.

British Birds is a subscription journal. The issue containing this paper can be purchased separately. At some stage, the paper will become free-to-view.

blog flying godwits


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.



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