Tagus estuary: for birds or planes?

blog samoucoA planned new airport that will serve Lisbon threatens the future of internationally important flocks of waders and other waterbirds. These same birds pose safety concerns for the passenger aircraft that will fly through the airspace that is currently reserved for them.

The development site of the proposed Montijo airport abuts the part of the Tagus/Tejo estuary that is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and an Important Bird Area (IBA). This designation is based upon counts of 49,000 Black-tailed Godwits, 12,000 Dunlin, 6000 Avocet, 4500 Wigeon, 3300 Greylag Geese, 2000 Grey Plover and 1600 Greater Flamingos. That’s 23 tonnes of birds, representing just a few key species, before you add in gulls, Spoonbills and up to 6,000 Glossy Ibises. This blog focuses upon the importance of the Tagus/Tejo Estuary for just one of the species, the Black-tailed Godwit.

blog map

The planning process

At first sight, turning the air force base in Montijo into a commercial airport looks like an obvious option, given that planes already take off and land there. However, the runway will need to be longer, there will have to be a vast new infrastructure and planes will be landing every few minutes, rather than during scheduled periods of military training. There will be some habitat removal, and it will be hard to avoid run-off of fuel and chemicals into the estuary, but the big problem will be disturbance of the flocks of birds within this IBA, as planes land and take-off and when airport employees frighten away flocks that are too close to the main flight-paths. Each time a flock of birds takes to the air, a large amount of fuel is burnt – as fat laid down for migration is wasted.

blog flamingoPlanes and birds do not mix, as we saw on 15 January 2009, when US Airways Airbus Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River after an encounter with Canada Geese. How many Greater Flamingos will it take to stop a jet engine? Each one weighs about three kilogrammes and there are 1600 on the SPA, many within a few hundred metres of the airport site.

Around the world, there have been many bird/plane incidents, some causing significant loss of (human) life, which explains why there’s not a ‘Boris Island Airport’ in the Thames Estuary. History suggests that bird-strike risks are underplayed at the planning stage but have to be coped with later. Once the airport is operational, it is likely that nests will be removed and attempts will be made to disperse flocks through disturbance and shooting.

Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits

The Tagus is particularly important for Black-tailed Godwits. Although the published count, associated with the designation of the estuary, is 49,000, it is agreed that the maximum late-winter number for the estuary and surrounding rice fields is now 70,000 or more, which includes birds of both the islandica and limosa races.

mapThere are Black-tailed Godwits on the Tagus during every month of the year. Numbers are lowest in the summer, chiefly comprising young islandica birds that do not travel back to Iceland in their first spring. Adults arrive back from Iceland between July and November, the later birds having stopped off to moult in sites such as the Wash (Eastern England) and coastal France. Numbers drop again as early as January, when adults move to the Netherlands and England, to fatten up for the trip back across the Atlantic to Iceland. There is a blog about this ‘overtake manoeuvre’ and the advantages it confers.

Given that islandica Black-tailed Godwits can spend the winter anywhere between Scotland and the south of Spain, it could be argued that disturbance on the Tagus, to try to disperse flocks, would be no big problem, as there are other places for individuals to spend the winter. Two things are wrong with this theory. Firstly, as was described in Generational Change, individual Black-tailed Godwits are creatures of habit, typically using a suite of about four non-breeding sites during their entire lives. If a Black-tailed Godwit is on a patch of mud in December one year then it will be back there the next year, and possibly for the next twenty.

blog RedshankThere is no reason to believe that Black-tailed Godwits are unique in being site-faithful. In the WaderTales blog called A place to roost there is a description of the consequences of site removal for Redshank in Cardiff Bay. Birds displaced by the flooding of the bay had much lower survival rates in the next year and in subsequent years than other Redshank with which they shared their new winter homes. This illustrates the second point; even though these Redshank were only forced to move a few kilometres, they were still severely disadvantaged.

Limosa Black-tailed Godwits

The Tagus really comes into its own during the late winter, as limosa Black-tailed Godwits pour into the area, en route to their breeding grounds in continental Europe. An increasing number of the limosa subspecies now spend the winter on the estuary and in surrounding fields but numbers grow rapidly in January, as others join them from sites as far south as Guinea, in West Africa. On the Tagus, they moult into summer plumage and build up fat reserves that will fuel flights to The Netherlands and surrounding countries, and prepare them for the breeding season that lies ahead. A favourite rice field may hold up to 70,000 Black-tailed Godwits in late February, which includes half of what’s now left of the Dutch breeding population. This is also where many of the birds that are heading back to the Nene and Ouse Washes of Eastern England fuel up for the final leg of their journeys home. Several of the Project Godwit head-started birds (youngsters raised from eggs and released when just about to fledge) have been seen on the Tagus in February.

blog flock ground

To watch vast feeding flocks of Black-tailed Godwits, or their swirling aerial displays, when disturbed by a hunting Peregrine, is an amazing experience – a highlight for locals and for visiting birdwatchers, who holiday here in late winter and early spring. It’s especially impressive to watch the godwits at dusk, when clouds of Glossy Ibis create a backdrop to the action, as they move off the fields and cross the IBA to roosting islands on the far side of the estuary.

blog take offAs indicated earlier, The Tagus Estuary is designated as an EU Special Protection Area because of its crucial role in the lives of a suite of species, just one of which is the Black-tailed Godwit. Over the last few years, the average peak godwit numbers on the Tagus and Sado Estuaries in Portugal have risen from 44,000 to 51,000, at the same time as the breeding population of the subspecies has dropped rapidly (see this WaderTales blog about 75% drop in Dutch numbers). The Portuguese increase has coincided with a rapid decline in spring totals in Extremadura (Spain).

Without colour-rings, it might be assumed that individual Black-tailed Godwits have changed their migration routes, suggesting a flexible response to changing conditions. This is not the case. In their paper, Generational shift in spring staging site use by a long-distance migratory bird, Mo Verhoeven and colleagues show that nearly all of the older birds stick to the routes that they know, with young birds establishing routes that are more likely to include the Tagus and Sado Estuaries. Western Portugal has become vitally important to limosa Black-tailed Godwits, a subspecies that is in huge trouble and upon which millions of conservation Euros are being spent in The Netherlands and elsewhere.

blog godwits in air

What next?

The Portuguese Environmental Agency (Governmental institution) has given the go-ahead for the development of the airport at Montijo, despite robust arguments from researchers and conservationists about the inevitable effects on the IBA, and errors and limitations they have identified within the Environmental Assessment Study. There are also concerns about flooding risk, air pollution and other issues that seem not to have been fully assessed.

AEWASPEA, the Portuguese BirdLife partner, together with wader researchers who have studied waterbirds in the Tagus for decades, have submitted a request to the UNEP African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds Agreement (AEWA) to open an Implementation Review Process, to help Portugal to ensure that it complies with its obligations as a signatory to the treaty. The approach to AEWA is particularly appropriate for Black-tailed Godwits, as AEWA has already published a Single Species Action Plan to try to support efforts to restore populations of the rapidly declining limosa subspecies.

Black-tailed Godwits may be the most numerous of the key waterbird species for which the Tagus/Tejo Estuary is designated but let’s not forget the next most numerous six: 12,000 Dunlin, 6000 Avocet, 4500 Wigeon, 3300 Greylag Geese, 2000 Grey Plover and 1600 Greater Flamingos.

flamingo and ibis

Key conservation point

The most important conservation fact to bear in mind is that, as has been shown for Black-tailed Godwits, individual birds tend to be remarkably inflexible. Circumstances determine the migration pattern in the first year of life and, if a bird survives, it will continue to do the same things in subsequent years. Building an airport and then trying to reduce plane/bird interactions will quite probably affect the quality of the IBA for waders and other species. Individuals are unlikely to move elsewhere; they are more likely just to try to cope with altered circumstances. Habitat loss and disturbance on this scale are very likely to result in high levels of mortality and declines in the numbers of birds using this critically important site on the East Atlantic Flyway.

blog flock ground


GFA in Iceland

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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