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.

Paper

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.

@grahamfappleton

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Interpreting changing wader counts

Blog mixed flockWhen you count the number of Redshank on your local estuary and discover that there are fewer now than there were last year –  or five, or twenty years ago – what are the implications? Is this part of a national or international trend or has something changed within the estuary itself?

The first question to ask is, ‘what is happening elsewhere?’ and then to wonder about the ways in which numbers of birds in different sites might relate to each other. What actually happens to local counts when national counts go down – or go up, for that matter?

The UK Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) data provide comprehensive and long-term monitoring of estuarine wader populations around our coastline. Thanks to volunteers who collect monthly counts each year, these data present an excellent opportunity to explore how bird distributions can change over time. A new paper by Verónica Méndez and colleagues from the University of East Anglia and British Trust for Ornithology uses counts of 19 species (18 waders plus Shelduck, an honorary wader) over a 26-year period to ask what happens to distribution and local abundance across our estuaries when overall population sizes go up or down.

Consequences of population change for local abundance and site occupancy of wintering waterbirds Verónica Méndez, Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, Niall H. K. Burton & Richard G. Davies Diversity and Distributions. 2017;1–12. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12653

The counters

Blog Counter 2A WeBS count can be a tough assignment for a volunteer birdwatcher. Being allocated to a stretch of an estuarine coastline and asked to visit it, whatever the weather, on a given weekend of every month, in every winter, is not the same as an invitation to go birdwatching in September to look for a Curlew Sandpiper.

The counts used in this paper are from the months of November through to February, when waders are largely settled for the winter and the weather can be less than clement. Many of the data-points for individual sites have been collected by the same person in all of the years analysed in the paper and every contribution is important.

WeBS70logo6a_smallWeBS is the successor of other, similar count schemes which are celebrating 70 years of continuous monitoring this year. It is organised by BTO, in partnership with RSPB and JNCC and in association with WWT. There are over 3000 registered WeBS volunteers, collecting data about the waterbirds that can be found on estuaries, in wetlands, on inland lakes, along river valleys and in local parks and villages.

Understanding change

Many populations of migratory birds are changing in number quite rapidly at present, but are these changes more likely to result in changes in occupancy (eg colonisation of or extinction from some sites) or changes in abundance within sites? Put simply, if extra waders arrive in the autumn, how do they distribute themselves across available sites? If fewer arrive, where will the gaps be found?

DN and BTG graphs

The contrasting fortunes of Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit over the period covered in the new paper

Over the period studied in the paper (between 1980-85 and 2002-07), populations of five species declined, with the greatest losses occurring in Purple Sandpiper and Shelduck (both declined by about 25%), while there were increases for four, the biggest of which were Avocet (+1690%), Golden Plover (+554%) and Black-tailed Godwit (+418%). No birdwatcher will be shocked by the figures for Avocet or Black-tailed Godwit, wintering numbers of which have shot up, but Golden Plover is more of a surprise and may be linked to a move from inland fields to estuaries.

When the size of a wintering population of waders declined, Verónica Méndez and her colleagues found that the main consequence was a reduction in numbers across all sites. Birds were likely to stay on a site even if local numbers were dwindling. This suggests high levels of site-fidelity by individual waders, which is something we know from ringing and tracking studies. If you’re still alive then just do the same again – there could be a better site with a higher number of conspecifics somewhere else but it would be risky to try to find that out.

 

Blog Avocets

Thirty years ago, few people can have expected that they would ever see such a large flock of Avocets on the Humber

If the size of a wintering population increased, generally numbers went up within all occupied sites. The exceptions tended to occur in species for which original numbers were very small, such as for Greenshank, or species for which the change in numbers has been rapid – as seen in Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit.

If adults don’t change their wintering sites then increases are presumably being driven by juveniles. Their settlement decisions may be influenced by the distribution of adults of the same species, resulting in increased local abundance, rather than colonisation of new sites. For the two rapidly-expanding species, Black-tailed Godwit and Avocet, there was colonisation of 25 and 15 new sites, respectively, between 1980-85 and 2002-07, with some indication of more similar increases in sites that were closer together, which may reflect local movements among groups of nearby sites.

Designating sites

Blog Blackwit

Juvenile waders may well settle in areas where there are already populations of wintering adults

One of the key conservation measures for waders across Europe is the Special Protection Area (SPA) network, a collection of sites that are designated because they hold internationally or nationally important numbers of species, measured as a percentage of the population. Designated sites need to maintain numbers of all the species that hit this threshold percentage. However, if a national or European population gets larger (for example because of high breeding success) but the number on a particular site does not grow (or grows more slowly), then the species might drop below the threshold for protection, even if the site is unchanged. Theoretically this could affect a site’s protected status for that species, although is unlikely to be a problem, as most sites are designated for many species.

This new paper shows that gains and losses tend to be fairly constant across all sites, making it unlikely that a site designation would be affected by national or European-scale changes. In only one species (Ringed Plover), have numbers declined so much in some sites that the total number of sites exceeding the threshold for that species has decreased.

Keep counting!

Blog Counter 1Habitat availability and site fidelity, along with species longevity, may explain the strong tendency for local population abundance to change much more than site occupancy, in our wintering waders. Given the statutory importance of maintaining waterbird populations in designated protected areas, it is important to continue local and national surveys that can identify changes in local abundance and relate these to large-scale processes.

Returning to the earlier question – When you count the number of Redshank on your local estuary and discover that there are fewer now than there were last year –  or five, or twenty years ago – what are the implications?

This new paper shows that it is unlikely that a local drop in a species’ numbers is caused by a redistribution of birds. Factors that might lie behind a local decline need to be investigated locally, if the trend is not replicated elsewhere. The authors could only reach this conclusion because they had 26 years of WeBS data from a range of sites at their disposal. Future generations of WeBS counters will hopefully continue to monitor the conditions of our estuaries, working together throughout the country to interpret local counts within a national framework.

Paper

Consequences of population change for local abundance and site occupancy of wintering waterbirds Verónica Méndez, Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, Niall H. K. Burton & Richard G. Davies Diversity and Distributions. 2017;1–12. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12653

Blog RINGOS


 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.

@grahamfappleton