WaderTales blogs in 2022

Here are brief summaries of the sixteen WaderTales blogs that were published in 2022. I have grouped the blogs into sections; problems with trees, more research from Iceland, Curlews, news from the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, tracking and updates.

As ever, I am grateful to the authors of the papers that underpin the blogs; they have worked with me to make sure that I get the stories right!

Problems with Trees

Everyone agrees that forests are immensely important to the future of the planet. Keeping the trees we have is obviously much better than planting new forests, especially if rich habitats that are home to breeding waders are turned into single-species blocks of trees, in dubious plans to lock up carbon.

Hiding in the trees. In the second paper from her PhD, Triin Kaasiku looks at the breeding success of Estonian coastal waders that nest at different distances from woodland. Keep away from the trees describes these ‘edge effects’. In a part of the world where waders are in diminishingly short supply, hatching success is six time as high in open areas as in areas that are within one kilometre of forest edge. The Baltic coast used to be a haven for species such as Curlew and Dunlin but reduced grazing and forestry plantations have provided hiding places for predators. Alongside increased predation, breeding waders are also having to contend with an increasing numbers of nest inundations, arising from summer storms.

Conflict with forestry. By mapping distributions of breeding waders in the vicinity of Icelandic forests, Aldís Pálsdóttir has shown that new plantations have a massive effect on distributions. In lowland Iceland, the most vulnerable species appear to be Dunlin and Oystercatcher, followed by Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover. Aldís and her fellow authors argue that Iceland’s waders need a strategic forestry plan. They estimate that recently-planted woodland and forests have already removed the breeding territories of tens of thousands of waders.

Icelandic Research

WaderTales blogs started out as a promotional vehicle for research findings from Iceland. This explains why there are so many stories featuring Black-tailed Godwits, for instance, in the full catalogue of blogs. Iceland is hugely important, in the context of the East Atlantic Flyway, with 75% of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel and about half of the Golden Plover and Dunlin.

Power-line problems. We have seen huge changes in Iceland, since we first visited in 2000, but how are these affecting shorebirds? In the first paper from her PhD (Effects of land conversion in sub-arctic landscapes on densities of ground-nesting birds), Aldís Pálsdóttir investigated how distributions of breeding waders are affected by power-lines. She discovered significantly depressed numbers several hundred metres from the transmission lines, with Whimbrel and Redshank being the most obviously impacted. Her results are written up as Power-lines and breeding waders. With an increasing global reliance on electricity, these are important findings for planners.

Oystercatcher: mixed marriages. Research by Verónica Méndez and the Icelandic Oystercatcher team looks at the costs and benefits of being migrants. In the 2022 paper they investigate the timing and success of breeding attempts by resident, migratory and mixed (resident/migratory) pairs. The results are summarised in When mates behave differently.

A Whimbrel’s year. How easy is it for waders to make up for lost time if they experience delays during breeding, wintering or migration periods? For instance, what happens if a pair of Whimbrel loses a first clutch and a successful, late breeding attempt delays departure from Iceland? Is there the flexibility to make up for lost time during a west-African winter? Some answers are provided in a paper by Camilo Carneiro et al in The American Naturalist and summarised in A Whimbrel’s year.

Personal appreciation of Whimbrel. On 27 April, Jenny Gill and I were at Eyrarbakki, on the south coast of Iceland. As we watched, small groups of Whimbrel were coming in off the sea. Others were resting on the seaweed-covered rocks, a few were feeding and some flew straight by. Watching waders arrive in Iceland is always magical but, from sightings of satellite-tagged Whimbrel, we could be pretty sure that these tired birds had just completed five-day, direct flights from west Africa. I could not wait to get back to base and to share our observations in Whimbrels arrive in Iceland.

More about Curlew

By the end of 2021 there were nine Curlew blogs in the WaderTales catalogue, with three more added in 2022. These all relate to Eurasian Curlew but much of the research may well be relevant to other members of the family.

Curlew hunting. Curlew hunting stopped in Great Britain in 1982, when the declining wintering population received protection under the new Wildlife & Countryside Act. A fascinating paper by Ian Woodward and BTO colleagues teases apart the positive effects of the cessation of shooting and more benign winter weather. It is summarised as Curlew: after the hunting stopped.

I am old enough to remember when Curlew were hunted in East Anglia. The pâté made from autumn-shot birds is reputed to have been very tasty; I recall Clive Minton getting back in his land-rover and reporting that he had been offered some, when asking for permission to cannon-net Curlew on a Norfolk land-owner’s estate.

Tale of a Norfolk Curlew. Tracking information can provide some amazing detail about the lives of individual waders. When Harry Ewing, Sam Franks, Nigel Clark and others caught a small number of birds, on 2 April, just before the start of the breeding season, they had no idea that Bowie’s movements would reveal how stoats and forest fires could ruin his summer – but that’s only part of the story in A Norfolk Curlew’s summer.

Captive-reared Curlew. There is no doubt that England’s Curlew are in trouble, with far too few chicks making it through to fledging. While conservation scientists try to work out how best to improve breeding conditions, might head-staring (captive rearing) give populations a temporary boost? What is being learnt by teams in different parts of England – particularly through tracking work in Norfolk? Will head-starting work for Curlew?

East Asian-Australasian Flyway

Three of the sixteen blogs of 2022 focus on research on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Australian stock-take. One of the great joys of writing WaderTales blogs is that I get to ‘visit’ the flyways of the world without having to burn carbon. How many shorebirds use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway? is a flyway-wide stock-take of the waders that visit Australia and New Zealand, led by Birgita Hansen. It is shocking that a flock of 350 Far-eastern Curlew now constitutes 1% of the global population and that the population of Curlew Sandpipers has halved in double-quick time, but the key strength of the paper is the clear explanation of a methodology that can be used in the future, to monitor changes in numbers.

Losing feeding areas in the Yellow Sea. Previous blogs have talked about the problems faced by waders on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. So What happens when the mud disappears? In a thought-provoking paper in Biological Conservation, Xiaodan Wang and colleagues consider how assemblages of waders have changed, as available habitat has been lost on this flyway. Their results suggest that conservation of these migratory shorebirds will depend upon lots of local initiatives.

Chick vocalisation. Big analyses of data sets are very important but it’s lovely when you learn more about the natural history of species that birdwatchers know well. In Australia, Kristal Kostoglou recorded the calls of the chicks of Red-capped Plovers and Southern Masked Lapwings, that were being ringed and measured in the hand. In Chick squeaks I describe how calls get deeper with age, which is not surprising, but that the calls of males and females can become distinguishable from a very early age. Male Red-capped Plover chicks are more demanding than their sisters!

Tracking stories

This is such an exciting time to be writing about shorebirds, thanks to technologies that enable us to watch individual birds as they cross the globe or just move around our estuaries. The two blogs in this section illustrate research findings at both of these ends of the scale – Hudsonian Godwits crossing the Pacific and Black-tailed Godwits taking advantage of French hunters’ ponds – once the shooting season has closed.

Trans-oceanic migration. There have been several recent wader papers that interpret data obtained from birds when on migration. One of the interesting questions being asked is, “Do shorebirds account for wind displacement continuously or correct for drift later?”. Navigating a vast ocean summarises Jenny Linscott’s work on Hudsonian Godwits, as they cross the Pacific Ocean and then the Gulf of Mexico, on their way from Chile to Alaska. She and her fellow authors show that flocks make continuous adjustments, demonstrating that birds ‘know where they are’ and giving them the ability to fly extremely long distances without running out of energy. There’s some clever maths too!

French Black-tailed Godwits. Species such as Dunlin and Knot are well-served by conservation measures that aim to protect estuaries but the same is not necessarily true for Black-tailed Godwits. In a 2022 paper in the journal Wader Study, Clément Jourdan and colleagues describe the movements of ten tagged Black-tailed Godwits, showing how much time they spend on poorly-protected inland sites and how the species’ use of these habitats changes over the seasons. The work is summarised in Inland feeding by coastal godwits.

Updates and Wales

I try to keep blogs up-to-date, so new additions will appear at the end of old stores when new trend data appear or if there is something extra to say which does not make a whole blog. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper tale from 2020 is an excellent example of a blog that keeps growing. In December, I took the opportunity afforded by the publication of the latest Birds of Conservation Concern in Wales to refresh the 2017 blog about Welsh waders. The other refresh turned into a separate blog, when I marked the publication of the BTO book Into the Red. Sandwiched in the middle is a tale about Welsh Oystercatchers.

The waders of Wales. From winter beaches to summer moorland and woodland, Wales provides essential habitats for waders. The blog Wales: a special place for waders was originally written in 2017, to bring together WaderTales stories that were of particular relevance to Welsh birdwatchers. The publication of Birds of Conservation Concern Wales 4, in 2022, created the perfect excuse for a revamp. The first part of the blog focuses on BoCCW4. This is followed by updated sections about the birds that spend winter in Wales, pass through in spring and autumn, and breed in the country.

Welsh Oystercatchers. In this blog, we learn how flexible Oystercatchers can be in response to changes in their food supply. Katharine Bowgen has brought together long-term data collected by wader ringers and WeBS counters, and added in annual assessments of cockle stocks on the Burry Inlet (South Wales) to tell her story. This paper has a particular resonance, as I remember teaching students about the Burry Inlet Oystercatcher controversy of the 1970s, when complaints from shellfishers led to the deaths of thousands of birds. We understand more about the relationship between shellfish stocks and bird numbers now and this paper makes a strong case for the protection of networks of sites, so that individuals have alternatives when needed. What happens when Oystercatchers can’t find food?

Into the Red. To support a BTO initiative to raise money for the Trust’s science and to support the UK Rare Breeding Birds Panel, I was pleased to write the blog UK Waders: “into the red”. It features the eleven species that find themselves on the list. Some won’t surprise people – the Eurasian Curlew is in trouble everywhere – but why are Dunlin and Purple Sandpiper on the list? The book is a wonderful mixture of words and art, including the lovely Lapwing picture by Jo Wright at the head of this blog.

Blogs from previous years

WaderTales blogs in 2021

WaderTales blogs in 2020

WaderTales blogs in 2019

WaderTales blogs in 2018

WaderTales blogs in 2017

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.The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published. There’s a full list of blogs here.

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