The Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG)** started with a bang on 18 August 1959, when the team made a catch of 1,132 birds in a Wildfowl Trust rocket-net at Terrington, in Norfolk. Over the years, cannon have replaced rockets, catches have become generally smaller and the scientific priorities have been refined, but the Group continues to focus upon discovering more about the waders that use the Wash. This blog attempts to summarises what has been learnt about the waders that rely upon the Wash, the vast muddy estuary that lies between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, on the east coast of England.
** The Wash Wader Ringing Group changed its name to the Wash Wader Research Group in 2022, reflecting the broader range of studies that have evolved over the years.
Wee quiz: What’s the best match between these Wash waders and the countries that they are quite likely to have come from? Answers at the end of the blog:
- Species: Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Sanderling & Turnstone
- Countries: Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway & Russia
Sixty years ago, the first goal was to understand where the vast flocks of waders that visit the Wash came from – a task that would provide great insights into the way that the whole East Atlantic Flyway works. In this time, over 300,000 birds have been caught and ringed on the Wash, as you can see in the table below. Equally importantly, hundreds of bird-ringers from across the UK and scores of visitors from around the world have joined WWRG teams, in order to learn more about the study of shorebirds. Further international collaboration has been fostered through overseas visits by WWRG members and emigration of some key personnel. The impact of the Group is truly global, as you can read in the WWRG report for 2014/2015.
A total of 307,226 birds is impressive, especially when some of the species totals are compared to the national totals of the BTO Ringing Scheme for the whole of Britain & Ireland since 1909. WWRG is responsible for over 40% of the Grey Plover, Knot, Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit, with Grey Plover topping the list at nearly 60%. These are terrific achievements for a group of volunteers. I don’t have the figures but I reckon that Nigel Clark has been responsible for the largest number of catches.
In the early days, rocket nets were borrowed from the Wildfowl Trust for an annual summer week of catches, but the development of cannon-nets gave opportunities for all-year ringing. The intensity of the Group’s activities grew in the 1970s, when there was a threat to build a freshwater reservoir on the mudflats. For a couple of years, Clive Minton (founder and leader) persuaded us to visit fortnightly, so that we could get better data on weight-gain and turn-over, using a mixture of cannon-netting and mist-netting. Everything we knew was published by the Group as The Wash Feasibility Study in 1975. These days, the Group gets together about ten times a year for catching and colour-ring-reading sessions.
By catching and ringing large numbers of the key species that visit the Wash, the Group was able to generate maps showing what are now well-known patterns of migration (see Which wader, when and why?). Early on in the Group’s history, there was a focus on nine species, with Black-tailed Godwit added as a tenth when numbers increased. Each of these species has its own section below. The maps were prepared for the Wash Wader Ringing Group 2016/2017 Report by Ryan Burrell, using data stored within the BTO archives. Blue dots represent WWRG-ringed birds that have been found abroad. Red triangles represent foreign-ringed birds caught on the Wash. The base maps used are by courtesy of Natural Earth (www.naturalearthdata.com).
The map alongside clearly demonstrates the strong link between the Wash and Norway. Other interesting things that have been discovered about Oystercatchers:
- They live a long time. An Oystercatcher that we caught at Friskney on 30 July 1976 broke the longevity record for a BTO-ringed wader when it was shot in France on 4 April 2017 (41 years 1 month and 5 days). It was ringed as an adult so we don’t know the exact age – but it must have been at least 43 years old. There’s a WaderTales blog with a list of longevity records for BTO-ringed waders.
- When life gets tough, Oystercatchers fail to complete their autumn moult, retaining some of their outer primaries for an extra year. The ability to complete moult and annual survival rates are both affected by cockle and mussel supplies on the Wash. There’s more about this in two papers in Biological Conservation and the Journal of Applied Ecology.
In the early days of the WWRG, Grey Plovers occurred in much smaller numbers than they do now. Writing in an article about the first 40 years of the Group, Clive Minton told the story of the first catch of 100, made in 1963, that was celebrated with three bottles of champagne provided by the late Hugh Boyd, delivering on an incentive that he had promised.
- Over half of the Grey Plover that have been ringed in Britain & Ireland since 1909 have been ringed by WWRG since 1959 (58.9%)
- All of the Grey Plover using the Wash breed in Siberia. Some birds spend the winter on the Wash but there are autumn moulting flocks of birds that will go on to winter in other parts of Britain & Ireland, and spring and autumn passage of birds that travel as far south as West Africa.
- Grey Plover are late to leave the Wash, with the last departures not occurring until the start of June. Unsurprisingly, they are some of the last waders to return at the end of summer, which puts pressure on birds to finish moult before the short, cold days of winter. Some adults fail to complete primary moult, especially if food supplies are low. There is more about Grey Plover moult in this WaderTales blog.
Knot (or Red Knot) are truly international waders, as is shown in this map of movements of islandica (and a few canutus) birds to and from the Wash. Several WWRG members have been heavily involved in efforts to understand the decline in numbers of the rufa subspecies in Delaware Bay (on the North American eastern seaboard) and Clive Minton has been at the heart of efforts to explain the sudden drop in survival of piersmai and rogersi adults that winter in Australia and migrate to Arctic Russia via the Yellow Sea (see Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea).
- We are still learning about Knot migration. The cluster of reports of WWRG-ringed birds in Northern Norway looks odd on this map projection but it turns out that this is a well-used stopping-off point for islandica Knot heading for northern Greenland and NE Canada. This route was first confirmed in 1985, when a joint Durham University and Tromsø University expedition caught 18 Wash-ringed birds in a total catch of 1703 birds.
- The dot in Siberia looks odd but isn’t. This will be a bird of the canutus race, small numbers of which pause on the Wash in autumn and spring, on their way between the Russian Arctic and west Africa.
Many birdwatchers visit the Wash in autumn and winter to see the swirling Knot flocks at Snettisham and Holme. If high tide is at first light, Knot and other waders sometimes roost on Heacham Beach, giving the occasional opportunity to make a significant catch. The most recent of these, on 11 February in 2012, included 2757 Knot, 77 of which were already wearing rings.
- Knot numbers on the Wash are highest in autumn. After moulting, many birds fly west. Colour-flagging by WWRG is designed better to understand these movements.
- The most recent analysis of wader populations in Great Britain showed that there was a drop of nearly 20% in wintering Knot numbers (from 320k to 260k) in less than a decade (see Do population estimates matter?). Regular catches on the Wash will help produce estimates of annual survival rates and age ratios of the islandica subspecies.
The biggest catches of Sanderling are generally in the summer, when the Wash is a meeting point for birds from Greenland and Siberia. July can sometimes see catches of 200 or more birds. Traditionally, a Sanderling catch was the curtain-raiser at the start of Wash Week, an opportunity for the whole team to make one catch before splitting into ‘Terrington’ and ‘Lincolnshire’ teams for the rest of the main summer trip.
- Wintering Sanderling on the Wash are thought to be exclusively of the race that heads northwest in the spring, to Greenland via Iceland.
- Late summer and spring see the addition of birds passing through on their way from/to Siberia and extra birds from Greenlandic breeding areas.
- I well remember the first time we caught a Sanderling (on 26 July 1975) wearing an Italian ring (caught in Italy 9 May 1975). Thanks to Jeroen Reneerkens (whose work is covered in this blog) I now understand that this is probably a bird that migrates from Namibia to Greenland in spring, via the Mediterranean. It will have been on its way back to Namibia when caught in July.
Nearly half of the waders caught by WWRG have been Dunlin – a total of 140,168 up until the end of 2018. There were really big flocks of Dunlin in the 1970s but numbers have dropped over the years, with peak counts now half what they were, according to WeBS data.
- We caught over 3,500 Dunlin in one week in 1976 but the annual total has exceeded 1,000 in only four of the last ten years. Partly, this reflects a change in behaviour in the summertime, with fewer waders roosting on fields and hence less catchable.
- Three races of Dunlin visit the UK. Our winter birds are alpina, from Siberia, NW Russia and northern Scandinavia. A lot of July birds are schinzii, breeding in the UK and as far north as Greenland, and we occasionally try to convince ourselves that we have caught an arctica from northern Greenland.
- Data collected for the WeBS survey suggest that national winter totals have dropped by over 40% in 25 years. This could perhaps partly be explained by a redistribution of alpina, with new generations of young birds settling in wintering areas on the other side of the North Sea. Warmer winters may well make this a more practical proposition than in the 1970s. There’s more about this in this paper.
Black-tailed Godwits became a priority species in 1995, when Jennifer Gill (University of East Anglia) started a project to study the movements of individuals, using colour-rings. Nearly 25 years later, the WWRG-ringed Black-tailed Godwits have contributed data to numerous papers, largely focusing upon migration.
- The Wash is a hugely important area for moulting islandica Black-tailed Godwits. Some birds stay in East Anglia for the winter but others move south and west within the UK, west to Ireland and south to France, Portugal and Spain.
- There are several blogs about Black-tailed Godwits in this WaderTales contents list.
One of the key things that was learned from the sudden decline in annual survival rates in a range of species that use the Yellow Sea (as mentioned above) is a need for regular monitoring of marked birds. The WWRG’s Scientific Committee set up colour-flagging projects for Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Grey Plover, in order to increase the reliability of estimates of annual survival for three species that the Group does not catch in sufficient numbers to generate good retrap histories. Birdwatchers can help by reporting colour-marked birds here.
- In Bar-tailed Godwits: Migration & Survival there is a comparison of the data generated by a catch of 505 Bar-tailed Godwits in 1976 with the information that has been generated recently, using colour-flags.
- Bar-tailed Godwits are long-lived birds. A WWRG bird holds the current record for a BTO-ringed Bar-tailed Godwit: 33 years and 11 months between ringing in 1978 and recapture in 2008. BTO longevity records are discussed in this WaderTales blog.
- Colour-ring reading is now a significant element of Group activities, as described by Rob Pell in the WWRG Report for 2016/2017.
Back in the 1970s, Curlew were still hunted on the Wash (paté made from autumn-shot birds was reported to be very tasty). Shooting stopped in Great Britain in 1981, when the maximum winter count on the Wash had dropped to about 3,000 birds, and by 2003/04 the maximum winter count was 15,336. Since then, numbers have declined, in line with national and international trends.
- A large number of Curlew on the Wash in winter are from Finland and surrounding countries. Surprisingly few are of UK origin.
- Birds wearing WWRG leg-flags have been observed breeding in the Brecks (Norfolk/Suffolk).
- The Curlew is internationally designated as ‘Near Threatened’. Is this really true when we can still see a field with 1000 roosting Curlew in Norfolk? Answers here.
The latest population estimates suggest that Great Britain has lost 26,000 wintering Redshank in less than a decade, representing a drop of 20%. Perhaps WWRG data can be used to help to explain these declines? Here are some of the things we know:
- The Redshank on The Wash in the winter are mainly a mixture of birds from around the Wash, across the UK and from Iceland.
- In cold winters, Redshank wintering on the Wash die in large numbers. After a period of severe weather in 1991, nearly 3,000 wader corpses were collected from along the tide-line, about 50% of which were Redshank. The winter WeBS counts for Redshank dropped by 50% after this mortality event but have recovered somewhat since then.
- An analysis of nearly 1,000 dead Redshank showed that about two-thirds were of Icelandic origin. There was a tendency for smaller birds to be more susceptible to cold weather mortality than larger birds of the same species (More information in this paper by Jacquie Clark)
Winter Turnstone are birds that will head for Greenland and NE Canada in the spring but recoveries of birds in Finland and other Scandinavian countries indicate a passage of continental birds. African recoveries of WWRG-ringed birds probably include birds from Canada/Greenland and Finland/Scandinavia.
- Turnstone wearing US Fish & Wildlife Service rings are occasionally caught on the Wash. Some of these rings were put on by Guy Morrison and his colleagues in Alert, Ellesmere Island, Canada. Guy was an early member of WWRG. It’s a small world!
- The first Wash Turnstone were colour-ringed in 1999, as part of a study to understand why birds were feeding on the docks at Sutton Bridge. There is a WaderTales blog about the resulting paper by Jen Smart and Jennifer Gill. Colour-ringing continues, to measure annual survival rates.
- Turnstone have a reputation for eating almost anything (including dog excrement and a human corpse) so do not be surprised if you see a colour-ringed bird scavenging for chips on the Hunstanton sea-front.
A few more highlights
Ringed Plover: this is not one of the ten key study species but 1,432 have been ringed between 1959 and 2018. Some birds are local breeders that hardly move anywhere but other birds link the Wash with Greenland, northern Norway, Morocco and Senegal.
Greenshank: The Group supports a colour-ringing project that was initiated by Pete Potts, in Hampshire. More information here.
Spotted Redshank: During the period 1959 to 2018, WWRG ringed a total of 85 Spotted Redshank, representing over 20% of the total ringed in Britain and Ireland since 1909. Amazingly, sixty of these birds were ringed on the same day – 27 July 1975. There is a blog about this catch and the recent decline in the number of Spotted Redshank visiting the UK. Fewer Spotted Redshanks.
Ruff: Until its closure, WWRG members spent many a smelly night at Wisbech Sewage Farm. This was a great place to catch Ruff, Curlew Sandpipers, Green Sandpipers etc. in mist-nets. Group members wrote a paper about Ruff moult and migration.
Rares: Occasionally there are surprises! WWRG has caught one each of Stone Curlew, Pectoral Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Terek Sandpiper. The last bird features in this WWRG blog.
What do we know now?
Migration studies have revealed the importance of the Wash to half a million or more waders each year – birds that spend the whole winter, others that refuel in the spring and vast numbers that rely on the food supplies in the mud to provide the energy for the post-breeding moult. There’s a selection of papers that have included WWRG data here, on the Group’s web-site.
The Group still aims to maintain its general ringing programme, so that a representative sample of the key species carry rings. Colour-ringing projects aim to provide survival estimates for Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Turnstone, with Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwit colour-rings contributing to migration studies. Birdwatchers who visit the Wash can help by reporting colour-marked birds here, on the WWRG web-site.
WWRG data have been used to help inform decisions about the future of the Wash but the threats keep coming. Studies of migration and seasonal turn-over in numbers contributed hugely to decisions to provide national and international protection to the area and to fend off the 1970s plan to build a freshwater reservoir on the rich mudflats. The information that has been generated by many generations of volunteers over a period of sixty years has been used to manage the level of shellfish exploitation, to inform decisions about wind turbine locations and to manage activities that can cause disturbance.
The Wash Wader Ringing Group is very keen for its data to be used – and not just for impact assessment studies. Click here to learn more.
Over one thousand people are estimated to have contributed to sixty years of the Wash Wader Ringing Group’s activities. We have lived in barns, rolled cars, dug tens of thousands of holes, carried nets for miles, made important catches, had depressing failures, got frostbite, been threatened by surge tides and made friends for life.
In the whole of this period, there have been only two leaders of the Group – Clive Minton* (1959-1981) and Phil Ireland (1981-present). Bird ringers, wader biologists and millions of waders owe them both a huge debt of gratitude.
You can read more about the history of WWRG on the Group’s website:
- Blog (18 August 2019)
- Article on history (Ruth Walker)
- Memories (Clive Minton*)
- Memories (Daphne Watson)
*Clive Minton died in a car crash a few months after this blog was written. Friends and colleagues have shared some wonderful memories on the IWSG website.
Photo at the top of this blog is by Cathy Ryden. Many thanks to her and to other photographers.
- Bar-tailed Godwit – Russia
- Black-tailed Godwit – Iceland
- Curlew – Finland
- Oystercatcher – Norway
- Sanderling – Greenland
- Turnstone – Canada
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.
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