Scottish Wader Woes

The latest report on Scotland’s terrestrial bird species, covering the period 1994-2016, does not make easy reading for wader lovers. All but one species is contributing negatively to the upland bird indicator, with declines of over 40% for breeding Lapwing, Curlew, Dotterel, Oystercatcher and Golden Plover. In this short blog, there are links to information that helps to explain what might be going wrong for Scotland’s waders.

The full report is available on the SNH website (

One species has been increasing – Snipe up 22%

snipe abundance changeThe one spot of good news is that breeding Snipe numbers in Scotland have risen over the period 1994 to 2016. This is particularly encouraging, given declines in much of the rest of Britain and Ireland, as you can see in the map alongside and read in this WaderTales blog Snipe and Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland.

In the map, produced for Bird Atlas 2007-11 (BTO, BirdWatch Ireland & SOC), pink colours show abundance increases and grey areas show decreases.

Lapwing declines largest – down 63%

GHH pictureWhen a widespread species such as Lapwing is in decline this is bad news. Subtle difference in the way that lowland valleys are farmed may be part of the problem, as illustrated in this WaderTales blog based on work by Mike Bell, written up with the help of John Calladine, of BTO Scotland: 25 years of wader declines.

Curlew down 62%

Blog Jill PThe Curlew is causing huge concerns in Ireland and Wales, where conservationists are contemplating its disappearance as a breeding species. Scotland holds much larger numbers but a decline of nearly two-thirds suggests that there are major problems here as well.

Two WaderTales blogs tell the Curlew story. Is the Curlew really near-threatened explains why we should be so worried about what is happening and Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan summarises a BTO-led paper from Sam Franks and colleagues which attempts to explain the patterns we are seeing in the species’ decline.

Dotterel down 60%


Alistair Baxter

Most of the information about Scotland’s breeding birds comes from annual data collected by volunteers contributing to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), organised by the BTO, in partnership with JNCC and RSPB. Dotterel is different; here the counts are dependent on dedicated surveys of Scotland’s high-mountain plateaus. Concern for the species is very much linked to climate change but this blog, based on a paper by the RSPB’s Daniel Hayhow and colleagues, shows that there may well be other reasons for the species decline: UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57%. The figure for the decline may be slightly out-of-date but the blog isn’t.

TGG OycOystercatcher down 44%

In England, the latest BBS report shows an increase of 50% in Oystercatcher numbers but, in Scotland, where there are far more breeding pairs, the species is in decline. Oystercatchers: from shingle beaches to roof-tops looks at the history of the species’ spread from the shoreline, into the hills and onto roofs and considers the role of predation in recent declines.

Golden Plover down 43%

As noted in the press release about the new report ‘The golden plover population has declined by 43% since 1994 and stands at its lowest point since the BBS survey began. Declines may be linked to climate change, in part due to impacts on the abundance of craneflies during the breeding season’. There are two interesting papers about this by James Pearce-Higgins and colleagues.

golden ploverPearce-Higgins, J.W., Yalden, D.W. & Whittingham, M.J. 2005. Warmer springs advance the breeding phenology of golden plovers Pluvialis apricaria and their prey (Tipulidae). Oecologia 143: 470–476.

Pearce-Higgins, J.W., Dennis, P., Whittingham, M.J. & Yalden, D.W. 2010 Impacts of climate on prey abundance account for fluctuations in a population of a northern wader at the southern edge of its range. Global Change Biology 16: 12–23.

Common Sandpiper down 39%

The Breeding Bird Survey does not properly capture trends for species found mostly along rivers. Data for Common Sandpiper are derived from the BTO Waterways Bird Survey and the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey.

Why no Redshank?

Unfortunately, breeding Redshank are now patchily distributed across Scotland, with too few being picked up by BBS surveyors to make a contribution to Scottish population indices. Across the UK, the latest published BBS decline is 38%. UK graphs for Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew are shown below.


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.




Well-travelled Ringed Plovers

Waders breeding in Chukotka, in the north-east corner of Russia, have a long way to travel at the end of the summer, in search of suitable habitats in which to spend the non-breeding season. A new study, using geolocators, shows that Ringed Plovers from this area fly between 8,900 and 12,100 km each autumn and in a very different direction to most other shorebirds that breed in the same area.

RP no geolocatorThis blog is based on a new paper in Wader Study, written by a team led by Pavel Tomkovich of the Moscow Zoological Museum. Their study describes the seasonal movements of tundrae Ringed Plovers from the easternmost edge of the subspecies’ distribution.

Pavel and his colleagues work in the south-eastern part of Chukotka, the region of Russia that is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Arctic Ocean to the north. The data used in the paper were collected from five males that carried geolocators on their journeys to and from their wintering locations. Incredibly, during the mid-winter period, the birds were scattered from the Persian Gulf to the Nile Delta and south to Somalia, all of which are a very long way from Chukotka.

Range and distribution

RP snowy welcoms.jpg

Scene awaiting Ringed Plovers arrive in Chukotka in spring

Ringed Plovers breed over much of the Arctic region, from Greenland (and the eastern fringe of the northern Canadian islands), eastwards through northern Norway and right the way across Russia to the far eastern corner of Chukotka. The missing piece of the Arctic, between Newfoundland in eastern Canada and the western islands of Alaska, is the home of the very similar Semipalmated Plover. Additionally, there is a latitudinal spread in Ringed Plovers, with pairs in Europe breeding from Iceland throught to France.

Ringed Plovers breeding in the west

TTFReaders in Britain & Ireland will see Ringed Plovers in every month of the year. A colour-ringing study in Norfolk showed that many marked birds remained near their breeding sites for the whole year, while others migrated in a variety of directions in the autumn, exemplified by individuals flying south to France, north to Scotland and west to Ireland. In the spring, we see a strong passage of birds that have been wintering in countries in western Africa and southern Europe. They are on their way to breeding areas in Canada, Greenland and Iceland, in the west, and (to a lesser extent) Scandinavia in the north.

Ringed Plovers breeding in the north and east

Ringed Plovers breeding along the Arctic coastal fringe of Russia were believed to winter in eastern and southern Africa, right down to the southern tip of the continent. This new study, written up in Wader Study, the journal of the International Wader Study Group, is the first to reveal the migration routes of birds from the very far east of the range. The results are amazing, as illustrated by the map below which shows the movements of one male bird that wore a geolocator for a year. During that time he flew north-west to the Arctic coast of Siberia, south-west and south to Somalia, returning home through Siberia in the spring by a more southerly, inland route. His annual migrations totalled 25,000 km.

Global map

The migration route of one Ringed Plover. Map provided by Ron Porter

In the paper, the authors map and discuss the journeys of this Ringed Plover and four other males, in great detail. The ultimate winter destination of the birds that are not shown in this blog were the Nile Delta, the Persian Gulf (2) and the Red Sea. Unlike some other wader species, the migration strategy of Ringed Plovers is to use a wide range of suitable wetlands (often small and temporary) for only brief stops. It is unusual to see large flocks; the only important staging area to be identified so far, across the whole of Asia, is in north-central Kazakhstan.

Global perspective

global illustrationChukotka attracts birds from across the world. As well as Ringed Plover that fly here to breed from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, there are Knot from Australia and New Zealand, Semipalmated Sandpipers from South or Central America and Spoon-billed Sandpipers from anywhere from India to China – just to select three species that share the tundra with Ringed Plovers. The diagram alongside hints at the many different directions in which birds depart at the end of the breeding season. It’s really quite amazing!

RP three spcies

The Chukotka melting-pot: Knot from Australasia, Semipalmated Sandpiper from the Americas and Spoon-billed Sandpiper from Asia.

Historical perspective

Most Chukotka waders follow the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and it may seem surprising that Ringed Plovers are so different. The authors suggest that bird migration routes repeat the direction of expansion of a species’ historical breeding range, which will have changed markedly since the last Ice Age. In the late Pleistocene, Ringed Plovers may have had a largely Western Palaearctic breeding distribution with migration south to Africa each autumn. As the ice melted, and large areas of suitable habitat became available, the breeding distribution may have expanded eastwards, with these eastern breeders continuing to winter in Africa but travelling a lot further in autumn and spring.

Read the full paper here

RP geolocatorTranscontinental pathways and seasonal movements of an Asian migrant, the Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula tundrae. Pavel S. Tomkovich, Ron Porter, Egor Y. Loktionov & Evgeny E. Syroechkovskiy. Wader Study 124(3)

Further Reading in WaderTales

If you would like to learn more about migration to, from and through Britain & Ireland, have a look at Which wader, when and why?

RP lesser sandplover

Lesser Sandplover is one of the Chukotka species that migrates via the Yellow Sea

Geolocators are providing new and important information about migration but they need to be used safely. There’s a review here that will be of interest to anyone who is thinking of attaching devices to birds: Are there costs to wearing a geolocator?

There is a lot of concern about species such as Knot and Spoon-billed Sandpiper that breed in Chukotka and rely upon resources in The Yellow Sea. Read more in Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea.


RP habitat

 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.




Sheep numbers and Welsh Curlew

Blog Jill PThis new paper from Ian Johnstone and RSPB colleagues, in The BTO journal Bird Study, provides some interesting evidence as to how the distribution of breeding Curlew in Mynydd Hiraethog (North Wales) relates to habitat. Amongst other things, they conclude that the amount of sheep grazing is critical to the future recovery of the species in this area.

Correlates of Distribution and nesting success in a Welsh upland Eurasian Curlew population by Ian Johnstone, Dave Elliot, Chris Mellenchip & Will Peach. Bird Study

The bigger picture

old blogsInternationally, the Eurasian Curlew is designated as near-threatened because of the rapid declines in numbers across the species’ range. Irish conservationists are worried that the species may soon disappear as a breeding species and Welsh birds may not be many years behind, if the current population trajectory continues. For more background see this WaderTales blog: Is the Curlew really near-threatened?

While conservation measures such as ‘habitat improvement’ and ‘predator control’ are already being used in specific recovery projects it is still important for scientists to use current evidence to tease apart the factors that may be affecting the distribution and breeding success of Curlews. An earlier WaderTales blog, summarising a paper by Sam Franks and colleagues from BTO and RSPB, concludes that habitat changes and predator impacts have combined to cause declines and lists some of the specific factors involved. Across Great Britain, they found that semi-natural grasslands support the highest densities of Curlew and population declines were highest in areas with more crows and foxes. See this WaderTales blog: Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.

The Curlews of Mynydd Hiraethog

H site

Looking down from the moorland of Hiraethog into intensively manged farmland in the valley

Mynnydd Hiraethog is a discrete 150 km2 upland block of high grass and heather moorland with adjacent lower, enclosed and largely agriculturally improved farmland. The area is managed for livestock farming and forestry and nearly half of the moorland was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1989 because of the importance of its upland habitats for birds. The mountains of North Wales have long been grazed by sheep, with peak densities occurring in the Hiraethog region in about 1999. Agreements with farmers have reduced stocking levels, in order to enable overgrazed habitats to recover.

This study focuses upon the relationship between habitat variables and Curlew numbers in a landscape containing agriculturally improved farmland and moorland that was partly protected and subject to grazing reductions for nature conservation. Thirty, random 1 km squares, stratified by historical population trend, were surveyed for Curlew density and nesting-success. Habitat-related and predation-related variables such as ground cover, plant communities and crow numbers were collected to test for associations between Curlew distributions and environmental variables.

Blog BelseyCurlew numbers in the study area declined by 29% between 1994 and 2008, which is much lower than the decline of 46% across the whole of Wales in the same period (Breeding Bird Survey). By studying a mix of squares in which Curlew numbers had increased, remained stable and declined, the researchers were able to maximise the power of the tests. As expected from previous studies, densities in the moorland edge were higher than in improved farmland (there’s plenty of detail in the paper). There were fewer Curlews in areas with higher vegetation density, with 78% of pairs in survey squares with below-average ground cover. In dense cover, prey may be harder to detect and access.

By focusing on key plant species that are associated with particular habitat types, the team were able to identify links with Curlew abundance and nesting success. As predicted, they found that breeding abundance was positively related to the presence of mat-grass Nardus stricta, which grows as tussocks and is associated with rough grazing. Nesting success was higher in areas with more cover of deer-grass Trichophorum germanicum, a sedge that is found in bogs and on wet moorland. Blanket mires are known to support populations of surface invertebrates, which are particularly important to chicks.

GT predatedWoodland may provide look-out perches and nesting habitat for avian predators and den-sites for foxes and other studies have shown that waders are less numerous close to woodland, either because of a direct predation effects or because waders avoid areas of perceived danger (as discussed in this WaderTales Blog – Mastering Lapwing Conservation). There was only weak evidence of reduced Curlew abundance in areas with more woodland in the Hiraethog area. Fox and crow control takes place across the whole area (for livestock protection) so there was insufficient variation to look at any effects that predator numbers may have on distribution or breeding success.

What next for Curlews?

On Hiraethog, much of the rough grazing, characterised by Nardus stricta, and mire, characterised by Tricophorum germanicum, is contained within the SSSI, and the RSPB authors affirm that these habitats should continue to receive protection from developments such as agricultural intensification and tree planting.

Curlews preferentially occupy locations within the moorland/farmland edge. Historically there has been concern over impacts on upland breeding waders of high sheep grazing pressure but more recently worries have been expressed over under-grazing of some upland habitats in Wales. In Hiraethog, the fact that fewer breeding Curlews were found in areas of dense vegetation is consistent with under-grazing having potentially contributed to a decline in habitat suitability.

somewhere else

Welsh moorland, with blanket bog in the foreground and a mosaic of grassland in the background

There was a 46% drop in sheep numbers in Hiraethog between 1995 and 2009, according to figures from Natural Resources Wales, in order that priority habitats would recover from historical overgrazing. This reduction in grazing pressure has probably resulted in increased vegetation density and reduced sward suitability for Curlew. Vegetation density was higher inside the SSSI than in comparable habitats outside, particularly for habitats preferred by Curlew such as heath and rough grazing.

The authors recommend that management of the SSSI for Curlew should include increases in livestock grazing of appropriate type and intensity.  These should be targeted at rough grazing and mire, in areas that have a history of Curlew occupation and that have high current vegetation density. It is hoped that modest and localised increases in grazing pressure can reduce vegetation density without negatively impacting on protected habitats. If successful, and implemented in an experimental manner, then similar treatments may well be trialled elsewhere.

The full paper can be accessed here

Correlates of Distribution and nesting success in a Welsh upland Eurasian Curlew population by Ian Johnstone, Dave Elliot, Chris Mellenchip & Will Peach. Bird Study

 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.





Farming for waders in Iceland

Across the world, agriculture is one of the primary threats to biodiversity, as we tear up natural environments to create more space to feed an ever-growing and increasingly meat-hungry human population. Agricultural land can, however, also provide key resources for many species whose behaviours align with the rhythms of the farming year.

blog cows

In Iceland, farming areas support large and important populations of several wader species, including 75% of Europe’s Whimbrel and over half of Europe’s Dunlin. As the country welcomes more tourists and expands the range of crops grown for food and fuel, what might be the implications for iconic species such as Whimbrel, Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit?

This paper by Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, of the University of Iceland, and colleagues there and at the universities of Aveiro (Portugal) and East Anglia (UK), investigates the use of farmland by waders living in a semi-natural landscape.

Paper details: Use of agricultural land by breeding waders in low intensity farming landscapes Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill, & Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson Animal Conservation. doi:10.1111/acv.12390

A dynamic landscape

blog snipe postIn Iceland, volcanic activity poses serious short-term threats to agriculture, especially in areas close to the mid-Atlantic ridge, which runs through the island from south-west to north-east. Threats from volcanoes include ash-fall, lava, flooding of glacial rivers and earthquakes but, on the plus side, nutritional inputs from volcanoes have beneficial effects on soil fertility in these central areas. Over time, and with the assistance of wind and water, many of these nutrients collect in the lowlands of the country – the areas that now form the main agricultural areas, especially in the warmer south.

The distribution of breeding waders varies across lowland Iceland. A survey carried out between 2001 and 2003 showed that wader densities were greater in areas of the country that had been subject to higher rates of volcanic ash deposition with, for instance, three times as many waders in the south as in the west. See How volcanic eruptions help waders. As was shown in the paper at the heart of that blog, the nutrient signal associated with ash-fall breaks down in farmland. Here, perhaps as a consequence of the application of natural and artificial fertilisers over decades or even centuries, there is no association between ash-fall and wader density. Across the whole country, irrespective of the proximity of volcanoes, nutrient-rich agricultural land attracts waders – but which wader species and across which farmland habitats?

Waders and agriculture

In a previous paper, Lilja Jóhannesdóttir showed that over 90% of Icelandic farmers think it is important or very important to have rich birdlife on their estates, but that farmers also expect to increase the area of farmed land in the coming years. There’s more about this in the WaderTales blog: Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation? It is important to understand the ways that waders currently use farmland, in the hope that nesting waders can continue to be accommodated within the future farming landscape of Iceland.

blog oyc bare

Perhaps Oystercatchers think that the fields have been ploughed especially for them?

Agriculture in Iceland is still relatively low in intensity and extent, and internationally important populations of several breeding bird species are abundant in farmed regions. Only about 2% of land is cultivated (about 7% of lowland areas), of which about 85% is hayfields (grass fields managed to produce crops of grass for storage as winter feed) and 15% consists of arable fields (mostly barley). This is similar to areas such as Norway, northern Canada and northern and western areas of the British Isles but contrasts sharply with the US and many countries in the EU which, on average, have 20% or more of their land under cultivation.

In these high-latitude landscapes, agricultural land can potentially provide resources that help to support wader species. To address these issues, Lilja conducted surveys of bird abundance on 64 farms in northern, western and southern areas of Iceland that vary in underlying soil productivity, and quantified:

  • Levels of breeding bird use of farmed land managed at three differing intensities, ranging from cultivated fields to semi-natural land
  • Changes in patterns of bird use of farmed land throughout the breeding season.

Farm survey

In Iceland, there are still large patches of natural or semi-natural habitats; they surround the hay-fields and arable fields that are at the heart of many farms. This arrangement creates gradients of agricultural intensity from the farm into the surrounding natural land, tapering from intensive management to moderate and light management.

BLOG gradient

The three intensity levels within Icelandic farmland can be roughly described as follows:

  • Intensive: Hayfields (85%) and arable fields (15%) fields. Most hayfields are mown twice per year and ploughed and reseeded every few years.
  • Moderate: Old hayfields that are rarely or never mown but are used for grazing, or fertilized grasslands used for livestock grazing.
  • Light: Semi-natural or natural areas under low intensity grazing, usually by sheep or horses, or with no agricultural influence, ranging from sparsely vegetated habitats to habitats with abundant vegetation (where grasses and bushes dominate the vegetation) and with a broad wetness gradient.

Fields corresponding to these three categories were surveyed on the 64 farms, firstly during the egg-laying and incubation period and then later, to coincided with chick rearing.

blog 3 habitats

Gradient of management from intensive (left) to wet semi-natural (right)

Where were the waders?

blog RK on postLarge numbers of waders were encountered in all transects in all parts of Iceland, with Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank contributing most records. There were also important numbers of Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Snipe and Whimbrel. Overall, wader densities on farms did not vary significantly between regions or between early and late visits but there were some subtle differences:

  • Wader density varied significantly along the management gradient, with lower densities tending to occur in more intensively managed areas, particularly in the early (nest-laying and incubation) season.
  • Intensively managed fields in the west (where underlying soil productivity is lower) had higher densities of waders than in the north and south of the country.
  • There were seasonal declines in wader density on all three management types in the south, but seasonal increases on intensive and moderate management in the west and in fields under moderate management in the north.
  • There were some differences between species in these patterns (more details in paper).

blog redshank westOne of the interesting differences in the west was the redistribution of Redshank as the season progressed. There were three times as many pairs of Redshank in cultivated land during the chick-rearing period than during incubation, suggesting that adults may be moving broods into cultivated land. Resources for chicks may well be relatively more abundant or accessible in these areas, given the relatively low levels of nutrients in areas that are a long way from the active volcano belt. There’s also a suggestion that drainage ditches around cultivated fields in the west may provide important resources for Snipe.

What about the future?

blog distributions

Wader densities during the early (red) and later (blue) part of the breeding season (Modified from the paper in Journal of Animal Conservation)

Although the density of birds in Iceland’s agricultural landscapes tends to be higher in lightly managed than intensively managed agricultural land, densities in the areas under the most intense agricultural management are still high, suggesting that agricultural habitats provide important resources within these landscapes (see figure alongside). These density estimates (between 100 and 200 waders/km2) are typically much higher than those recorded in other countries in which these species breed.

Farmers in Iceland expect to expand their cultivated land in the coming years in response to increasing demand for agricultural production (Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?), and evidence from other countries throughout the world has shown how rapidly biodiversity can be lost in response to agricultural expansion and intensification. Protecting these landscapes from further development is crucial to the species that they support.

The authors suggest ways in which farming practises might change wader distributions in Iceland. Here are a few of the interesting points that they make:

  • When wader-rich semi-natural land is replaced by arable farming and intensively-managed hayfields, this is likely to reduce overall wader densities.
  • Losing wet features, which provide insect food for waders, may well have impacts for chick growth. Here’s a WaderTales blog that discusses the importance of wet features to Lapwings in the UK.
  • In other countries, early grass mowing is a direct threat to nests and chicks. Clutch and brood losses are already being observed in Iceland and, with warmer springs encouraging earlier grass growth, this could become more of a problem.
  • The conversion of less-intensively managed areas into farmland is likely to have most effect on Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel, which tend to occur in their highest densities in the least intensively managed lowland areas.

blog walk WhimbrelIt is estimated that between 4 and 5 million waders leave Iceland each autumn, for Europe, Africa and the South Pacific (Red-necked Phalarope). Iceland’s farmland supports many of these birds and this study highlights the need to protect them from the agricultural developments that have led to widespread wader losses throughout most of the world.

You can read the paper here

Use of agricultural land by breeding waders in low-intensity farming landscapes Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill, & Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson. Animal Conservation. doi:10.1111/acv.12390

blog oycs & chick


 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.




International Shorebird Rescue

Huge numbers of birdwatchers and conservationists across the globe are involved in shorebird/wader conservation.  It all starts with noticing that numbers are changing, then you need to work out why species are in decline, before suggesting ways to treat the problem and monitoring what happens afterwards. The whole process can be regarded as ‘International Shorebird Rescue’ and anyone who takes part in systematic counts of waders is part of the team.

This blog is based upon the plenary presentation that launched the global BOU Twitter conference on 28 and 29 November 2017. You can see the rest of the presentations here, storified on the BOU website. In this talk, entitled International Shorebird Rescue, I tried to highlight the role of shorebird scientists and volunteers in the conservation process.

A Twitter talk is a series of tweets delivered within an allocated time-slot, each of which is usually accompanied by a slide providing more detail. In this blog, I have allowed myself a few more than 140 (or even 280) characters, to try to make the links a little smoother. The first slide, showing all of the speakers, was produced by Steve Dudley, the BOU’s Chief Operations Officer.


I introduced myself and WaderTales to the BOU audience, explaining that I have been studying waders for 40+ years and that my current focus is science communications, particularly via WaderTales blogs, a full list of which is available at


“International Shorebird Rescue” celebrates the role of wader researchers and birdwatchers in conservation. I describe shorebird rescue as a four-stage process – notice there is a problem, diagnose what it is, start a treatment plan and monitor what happens.


Shorebird conservation is fuelled by the passion of researchers and policy-makers. I could have chosen many other excellent people to exemplify the way that ‘waderologists’ engage in conservation.


Shorebird conservation is not easy because many populations rely on a complex suite of sites during the course of a year. Migratory species such as this Marbled Godwit in North America face different conservation challenges in different seasons. There’s  more about the threats faced by the numeniini in this WaderTales blog. Why are we losing our large waders?


Migratory movements of waders were not always well understood. Here’s an example from the 1970s, when shellfishery interests in Wales conflicted with conservation interests in Norway. 


How science can inform policy

Thankfully, wader conservation is now more joined-up. In the next few slides I show how counts & scientific papers turn into conservation policy, using the Black-tailed Godwit as an example.


Black-tailed Godwits have been experiencing contrasting fortunes with declining numbers of the limosa subspecies and increases in islandica. These two WaderTales blogs provide background:

Dutch Black-tailed Godwit numbers down by nearly 75%

Black-tailed Godwits expand their range in Russia and Iceland


By contrasting the different fortunes of the two subspecies, Black-tailed Godwit Species Action Plans were developed at an International Wader Study Group workshop and then published as a Wader Study paper, and by EU and AEWA. There are links to all three here: Wader Study paper, EU Management Plan and AEWA Action Plan. 


One of the common problems for declining wader populations at present is poor breeding success. For many species, productivity is too low for sustainable populations to persist, as discussed in this paper about demography.


Fencing – an effective treatment plan?

One of the emerging conclusions of recent research in the UK is that we need open discussion about reducing predator impacts on nesting shorebirds. One of the suggested approaches is to deploy electric fences, as in this paper by Lucy Mason (née Lucy Malpas). Lucy presented some of her more recent work later in session one of the BOU Twitter conference.


In which circumstances are fences effective and value-for-money?

How are fences deployed in  lowland wet grassland?

Fences are being used to try to reduce predation pressures on Curlew


The key role of estuaries

Estuaries are of vital importance to a whole range of wader species outside the breeding season. Here they face a multitude of threats, largely because ‘empty’ mudflats can be seen as being ripe for development. In the next few slides I have picked a selection of case studies in which an issue has been identified, data have been collected and conservation action has been proposed/implemented.


Waders have been losing mudflats for centuries, as exemplified on the Wash estuary, that sits between Lincolnshire and Norfolk in the east of England. The Wash was at its smallest in the 1970s. Recognition of the importance of the site has acted as a deterrent to planners, who might have claimed even more land for farming or created a large fresh-water reservoir.


A more recent physical threat is tidal power, as in the Severn Estuary, between England and Wales. Impact assessments have funded vital research in the area, as discussed in this blog.


The booming economy of Asia has put huge pressure on the Yellow Sea. Habitat removal is affecting annual survival rates and severely reducing populations of wader species that are most dependent upon the area. Fortunately, it is not too late to make a difference, as you can read here: Wader declines in the Yellow Sea


Conflict with fisheries is usually indirect but the reliance of shorebirds on the eggs of horseshoe crabs is turning the spotlight on fishing regulations in Delaware Bay. Effects of Horseshoe Crab Harvest in Delaware Bay on Red Knots; Are Harvest Restrictions Working?


Climate change threatens waders in the breeding grounds and on estuaries. Rising sea-levels and hard sea-walls are squeezing intertidal feeding areas.


Spoon-billed Sandpipers – true teamwork

As the presentation drew to a close, I wanted to finish with a positive story. Critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers have a desperate need for International Shorebird Rescue and a huge amount of multinational effort is going into their conservation.


Head-starting Spoon-billed Sandpipers has been really successful, producing huge gains in productivity. This may be an important conservation tool for other threatened species, as exemplified in this WaderTales blog about Black-tailed Godwits in the washes of Eastern England.


Away from the Arctic, Spoon-billed Sandpipers face many challenges. The same bird may be impacted by habitat loss in the Yellow Sea during the autumn and by hunting pressure in Myanmar later in the winter.


Shorebird scientists are working with colleagues and policy-makers in China, S Korea and N Korea to save space for Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the Yellow Sea.


Quick mention of climate change

Much of current shorebird research is set in a context of climate change. Here’s a link to a blog about the change in timing of migration of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits.


Notice > Diagnose > Treat

In the wader world , the time between ‘paper’ and ‘policy’ can be pleasingly short – because scientists and policy makers keep communication channels open, as has been demonstrated in the case of Yellow Sea.


‘International Shorebird Rescue’ works because passionate birdwatchers, scientists & policymakers work together. They operate within a system of international agreements that have been designed to protect migratory systems and the estuaries and wetlands upon which they rely.


This blog is based upon the plenary presentation that launched the global BOU Twitter conference on 28 and 29 November 2017. You can see the rest of the presentations by checking out #BOU17TC on Twitter or by visiting the BOU website.

joinThis was a global Twitter conference, organised by the BOU (British Ornithologists’ Union – publishers of IBIS). It involved 70 scientists and science communicators from around the world, tweeting in their own time-zones for 26 hours. The BOU plays a pivotal role in ornithological communication and this was a great example of global cooperation – it does seem appropriate that ornithologists have taken to Twitter so readily!

 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.



25 years of wader declines

This article summarises a Bird Study paper arising from a 25-year Scottish study of breeding Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Redshank & Curlew. The story is set against a backdrop of a changing farming landscape.

RC LapThe interesting and sobering feature of this paper about breeding waders by Mike Bell and John Calladine is that its focus is a ‘normal’ area of farmland in Scotland. If you’ve taken the A9 north of Stirling, through Strathallan, then you’ll have driven past the fields. Perhaps you might even have noticed displaying Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank? Over a 25-year period, the number of breeding waders in this valley and another one that runs northwest and that can be seen from the B827 has dropped from 600 pairs to just 76 – that’s a loss of 87%, or over 20 pairs per year.

So, what has changed in this part of Scotland that might be linked to these declines? The authors conclude that the reduction in numbers can be linked to changes in field management. Put simply, there are too few bare fields in the spring for Oystercatcher (down 95%) and Lapwing (down 88%). These two species hide their nests in ‘plain site’; they watch out for predators, take off early and hope that the eggs are coloured cryptically enough to avoid detection. Having left their nests, they attempt to deter and/or distract prowling crows etc.  Redshanks (down 87%) and Curlew (down 67%) have also declined, even though they hide their nests in long grass, about which more later.

map graph

Lapwing declines in the Strathallan area are not that much different to those that have been charted across much of Britain & Ireland

In for the long haul

In a survey in the late 1980s, this area of Strathallan held an important assemblage of farmland breeding waders, with particularly high densities of nesting Lapwing. Land use in the valley is predominantly agricultural, with a mixture of arable fields and grazing by sheep and beef cattle. It is a relatively open landscape with few hedgerows, some scattered shelter belts and small conifer plantations.

KS RedshankThis study started in 1990, when breeding densities of nesting Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Redshank and Curlew in the core area were still high, at 11.7, 35.6, 4.7 and 3.3 pairs/km2 respectively. Unlike a PhD project, which might include three years of data, Mike Bell has kept this survey going for 25 years. Mike is the volunteer Regional Representative for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Perthshire region.

Breeding waders within a core area of 65 fields and a small amount of wet fen were surveyed annually from 1990 to 2015. The field sizes were small, by modern standards, with only five fields larger than 20 ha. An additional 1 km2 of lowland mixed farmland was surveyed in most years, 4 km2 of moorland rough grazing was surveyed in four years and another 5.3 km2 of enclosed and unenclosed rough grazing and moorland was surveyed at the beginning and end of the survey period only.

Land management and usage were recorded for each field on the first visit in April or early May. Spring sward height in each field was recorded as one of three categories: no vegetation, short (<10 cm) or long (>10 cm). These sward categories comprised the following field types:

  • bare – ploughed or tilled land with no emergent vegetation
  • short – managed grass for grazing or mowing for hay or silage, rough grass, rush pasture, spring arable, setaside/fallow.
  • long – managed grass, rough grass, rush/pasture, setaside/fallow, heath/moorland, marsh/wetland, unmanaged rank grassland and woodland/scrub.

Where to find waders in Strathallan

In the early 1990s, Strathallan supported around 36 Lapwing pairs/km2 across the core study area, which is comparable with some of the highest densities reported anywhere in the UK. During the 25-year study, as the numbers of Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew declined, an increased proportion of the remaining breeding waders became restricted to areas with fields classed as ‘bare’ in spring, while the greatest losses were in fields with ‘short’ and ‘tall’ spring sward heights (see figure).


Changes in breeding densities of waders in Strathallan, on fields with different sward heights

Breeding densities of Curlew were low throughout the study area and, although overall numbers declined, there was low power to detect statistically significant changes. There were different patterns of change for Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank within fields of different spring sward heights:

  • The least marked changes were in fields with no vegetation in spring.
  • Fields with short swards showed the largest declines.
  • The tallest spring sward heights supported the lowest densities of the three wader species, with Redshank present generally at low densities in all vegetation categories.

UK-wide Breeding Bird Survey trends for Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew. BBS is organised by BTO in partnership with JNCC and RSPB.

A changing farmland landscape

Sward heights reflected changing farming methods. Looking at the fields in terms of cropping regimes.

  • The highest densities of Oystercatcher were in spring-sown arable crops.
  • Rush pasture was the most favoured field type for Lapwing and Redshank at the start of the study but the amount of this habitat declined during the study, as farmers created semi-permanent pastures for over-wintering sheep. When this happened, birds became more restricted in their nesting distribution.
  • By 2015, very few fields were still under a crop rotation of grass and spring arable, that would have delivered a mosaic of sward structures. By this time, half of the Lapwing pairs were nesting in just four fields.

Breeding success

The breeding success of Lapwings was estimated in five sample fields that could easily be observed from roads or tracks without disturbing the adults. Lapwing productivity was less than 0.60 young fledged/pair (the bench-mark for a typical stable population) in all but three years and it was less than 0.25 young fledged/pair in 14 of the 22 years. With very low recruitment rates, it is not surprising that the Lapwing is in decline.

There are several WaderTales blogs about Lapwings breeding in lowland wet grassland, including A helping hand for Lapwings. A full list of WaderTales blogs can be found here.

What is changing?


The changing fortunes of Oystercatcher are discussed in this WaderTales blog

Within a mixed arable-pasture farmland environment, bare field and short swards in spring appear to be important to breeding waders. Losses of these preferred habitats type don’t appear to fully account for the decline in numbers, however.

Alongside changes to farmland habitats, other potential factors that could have contributed to the decline of the wader population in Strathallan include an increased incidence of poor spring weather, increased disturbance (including from dog-walkers in some fields in some years) and an increase in predators. Mike Bell thinks that one of the reasons for a possible link between productivity declines and wet weather is that birds are nesting in sub-optimal (long) grass and hence more affected by wetter conditions. He writes about this and potential reasons for increased disturbance in an upcoming article in Scottish Birds. A link to the Scottish Birds article will be included when available.

Densities of avian predators increased in Strathallan during the study period, with higher breeding densities of Carrion Crow and Buzzard and an increasing frequency of bigger flocks of non-breeding crows. There was no detectable change in breeding success during the study but it is possible that nest success was already depressed by predation when the study commenced.

A relentless decline

GHH pictureAlthough previously identified as a good area for breeding waders, in a Scottish context, there is nothing unique about this Strathallan study area. It is good to see these issues explored in Bird Study, the BTO journal. I am sure that the editor, Ian Hartley, will have been pleased to publish a paper based on a nice mix of dedicated fieldwork and scientific analysis – that’s what the BTO is all about.  If you want to understand the (not yet fully explained) sad demise of breeding waders in Scotland, check out the figures in the paper. These show a relentless, 25-year decline in nesting densities across a range of habitats and some less-than-subtle changes in the way that fields are now managed.

Here’s a link to the paper:

The decline of a population of farmland breeding waders: a twenty-five-year case study by Michael V. Bell & John Calladine in Bird Study, 64:2, 264-273 DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2017.1319903

 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.




Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan

Europe is losing 5000 Curlews every year. What can we all do to stop – or even slow down the decline?

RC single bird muddy edgeIf a patient presents with a problem, it’s the job of the health professional to work out the root cause, to come up with a treatment plan and to check that it works. That’s the process that is used for bird conservation – notice, diagnose, treat and monitor. Sometimes, however, the patient is in such a serious condition that you cannot wait for a full set of test results, you just have to try something. That’s the situation with Curlew in the United Kingdom; the losses are so rapid that people are already taking local action to try to increase chick numbers (see some links at the bottom).

This blog focuses on a new paper, by Samantha Franks and colleagues from the BTO and RSPB, that tries to identify the primary factors associated with the species’ decline at a national scale. Unsurprisingly, the answers point to changes in ‘habitat’ and ‘predation’ but it’s worth looking at the detail.


The United Kingdom is one of the key breeding areas for Eurasian Curlew, accounting for an estimated 19-27% of the global population. Within the UK, breeding Curlew numbers have dropped by 48% in the last 20 years – earning the species the dubious distinction of red-listed status in 2015. We are responsible for a staggering estimated loss of 13.5% of the European population during this period.

categoriesThere’s more about the national and international problems for Curlew in this blog (Is the Curlew really near-threatened?). Sadly, the Eurasian Curlew is not alone – almost every member of the Numeniini (curlews, godwits and Upland Sandpiper) is in trouble, as you can read here (Why are we losing our large waders?).


The aim of the new study by BTO and RSPB scientists is to use national figures to assess whether there is evidence to support or refute previous theories about the causes of Curlew declines. The paper starts with a thorough and fully-referenced overview of existing evidence for potential causes of the population change. At its heart is a discussion as to how management affects Curlews, through things like changes to upland grazing patterns and land-use modifications which may have had unintentionally positive effects on generalist predators. Changes to weather patterns provide additional challenges. The suggested drivers of the declines that have been observed and in some cases measured are summarised here.

Potential positive effects on Curlews:

  • GT inbye

    Adding some improved grassland to the habitat matrix

    Increased fertility of improved grassland could boost invertebrate numbers and support Curlews

  • Gamebird management may provide better habitat conditions for breeding Curlew
  • Site protection might limit development and protect habitat

Potential negative effects on Curlews:

  • Intensification of agricultural activity – e.g. removal of rough, damp patches used by Curlew
  • Conversion of open habitat into woodland may reduce feeding opportunities and harbour predators
  • Increases in numbers of general predators
  • Climate change – warmer summer temperatures/reduced rainfall may change prey availability
  • Declining quality of heaths and bogs may reduce nesting opportunities

Data analysis

BBSThe paper uses data collected by thousands of volunteers who contribute to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), organised by the BTO in partnership with JNCC and RSPB. The team focused upon Curlew breeding distributions in Great Britain during the periods 1995-99 and 2007-11, separately. They then considered patterns of change between the two periods.

The following potential correlates of distribution and change were investigated:

  • Changes to habitat – as evidenced from land cover maps
  • Site protection – as included in the World Database of Protected Areas
  • Topography – altitude, slope and organic carbon content of soils
  • Climate – summer and winter rainfall and temperature data
  • Game management – assessed from maps of strip-burning in the uplands and BBS data on gamebird abundance
  • Predator populations – crow and fox data from BBS counts

GT chickSo, how well did the patterns of change fit with the theories as to which factors might be causing the collapse of Curlew numbers? Let’s start with a couple of the strange findings from the 1995-99 period. It illustrates just how hard it is to interpret correlative relationships. Just because A and B happen at the same time, does it mean that A is actually causing B?

1995-99 anomalies

When the research team investigated links between Curlew abundance in 1995-99 and the variables that might explain the species’ distribution, they found that Curlews were associated with semi-natural grassland, heathland and bog, as one might expect. However, Curlew were also more abundant in areas with a greater amount of woodland in the landscape, albeit this being a relatively weak relationship . Given previous research by David Douglas et al in the Journal of Applied Ecology had shown a negative effect of woodland on Curlew abundance, this seemed strange. This unexpected association with woodland was reversed when data for 2007-11 were considered and when the changes between the two periods were analysed. The authors’ explanation is that tree planting prior to the 1995-99 surveys may have taken place in some Curlew breeding areas, that the trees were still becoming established and that the Curlews still present.  Whether these birds were successfully raising chicks we shall never know.

RC burnt moorland

Moorland managed for Grouse shooting

Another anomaly in this first period was that Curlew density was highest in areas with high crow abundance. This may look odd until you also consider the strong association between Curlew numbers and numbers of Red Grouse and Pheasant. Provide the right conditions for these ground-nesting species to flourish and you’re likely to draw in predators.

The bigger picture

Fortunately, and thanks to the volunteers who collect Breeding Bird Survey data every year, the researchers were not constrained to one time period. They could also look at 2007-11 and changes in Curlew distribution in the intervening period. Anyone interested in the finer detail will want to read the whole paper but here are my take-home messages.

Habitat associations

  • GT nest in uncut juncus

    Nesting in rushes

    Semi-natural grassland supports the highest densities of breeding Curlew, of any habitat.

  • Enclosed farmland, particularly when fields contain arable crops, has far fewer Curlews, supporting the theory that the ‘improvement’ of semi-natural habitats is bad news for the species.
  • While ‘improved’ grassland was positively associated with curlew abundance in 1995–99, the more recent results suggest these habitats have declined in importance. Perhaps Curlews have withdrawn from these nutrient-rich, structure-less habitats as numbers have declined?
  • While upland heath and, to a lesser extent, bog habitats are important breeding habitats for British Curlew, they appear to have become less important through time. 

Game management and predation

  • GT predated

    Predated nest

    High Curlew densities were associated with areas with more Red Grouse and Pheasant, despite management for Red Grouse and Pheasant occurring in largely different habitats.

  • Curlew population declines were greatest in areas with high crow abundance and numbers of Curlews were lower in areas with more foxes. “Our findings support the hypothesis that measures to reduce predation pressure from generalist predators such as foxes and crows are likely to be very important for Curlew”.
  • While Red Grouse abundance was positively associated with Curlew abundance in both time periods, rotational strip burning was negatively associated with Curlew abundance in 2007–11, though weakly so. The authors suggest “while low levels of strip burning could plausibly be beneficial for Curlew, by creating variation in habitat structure, too much may be detrimental, as burning can impact peatland hydrology and consequently soil moisture, reduce invertebrate prey, or alter vegetation structure or composition”.
  • Significant areas of semi-natural habitats in Britain are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserves and/or Natura 2000 sites. Curlew densities are now higher where there is a greater extent of protected area coverage.

Climate change

  • Curlew abundance is lower if summer temperatures are higher.
  • Declines were greatest in areas of high winter temperature, conditions which may have negative impacts on invertebrate populations.
  • Declines were greatest in areas of low summer rainfall.

What to do for Curlews?

nest in short vegetation

Nowhere to hide – Curlew nesting in cut rush

We cannot do much about climate impacts in the short term, and site protection is unlikely to reverse the national declines. The key things to focus on, according to the authors of this new paper, are “habitat restoration and reducing the negative impacts of predators”. Even if the details of the treatment plan have not been worked out, there appears to be a general diagnosis – there is not enough habitat of sufficient quality for Curlews to raise their chicks. While predator impacts may not have been the original cause of population declines, there is a broad consensus that reducing predator pressure is essential for successful species recovery.

So, we’ve noticed a decline, there is a diagnosis of the problem and there is a broadly accepted treatment plan of creating better habitat and reducing predator pressures. The next phase is to monitor what works, which is where national collaboration comes in. Curlews are not only found on nature reserves; they are ‘out there’ in land owned and managed by all sorts of people with a broad range of motivations, including farmers, shooting estates, statutory agencies and conservation charities. Single land-owners and local groups are working in partnerships to try to improve breeding habitat and reduce predation. What is working – and in which circumstances?

GT ad and chickAt the end of the new paper is a key section advocating “the need for the rapid establishment of intensive studies to identify the mechanistic drivers of the patterns observed here and to test potential conservation management interventions”. Ideally, these will look at issues such as:

  • RC poolHow Curlew numbers relate to variations in how intensively land is used for agriculture, forestry and grouse moor management.
  • How predator abundance and invertebrate resources relate to Curlew abundance and importantly, reproductive success.
  • Which potential restorative conservation management interventions best improve habitat quality and reduce the impacts of generalist predators.
  • Whether there are agri-environment schemes that can improve habitat quality for Curlew more broadly in the wider countryside. This may well involve better understanding the impacts of drainage on soil invertebrates.

In the absence of sufficient funding to conduct all these experiments as proper trials, it is to be hoped that the RSPB’s Trial Management Project and a new initiative by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (links below) will enable local experiences to be shared in a national framework. Further collaboration is being encouraged through the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group and a series of workshops organised through The Curlew Forum.

Links to local and collaborative initiatives in the UK and Ireland


This list will be updated as and when I am notified of appropriate links.


Environmental correlates of breeding abundance and population change of Eurasian curlew Numenius arquata in Britain

The paper appeared in Bird Study, published by BTO, on 31 August 2017.

The authors are Samantha E. Franks (BTO), David J. T. Douglas (RSPB), Simon Gillings (BTO) and James W. Pearce-Higgins (BTO). BTO work on this paper was funded via the Trust’s Curlew Appeal.

RC roosting

 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.




A great summer for Iceland’s waders?

As July 2017 turned into August, the first juvenile Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits started to arrive in the UK – soon they were everywhere. Had this been a good year for waders and wader research in Iceland?

juvvy blackwits

Flock of juvenile Black-tailed Godwits in Devon

An increasing amount of wader research is taking place in Iceland, much of which is part of an international partnership between the South Iceland Research Centre (University of Iceland), the University of East Anglia (UK) and the University of Aveiro (Portugal). Although the main focus has been on Black-tailed Godwits, Whimbrels and Oystercatchers, there is a lot more to this collaboration.

Winter into spring

january surveyThe spring season started early for Verónica Méndez, who is studying the migratory decisions made by Iceland’s Oystercatchers. About one third of these birds stay in Iceland for the winter but most are thought to migrate to Ireland and western coasts of the UK. By looking for colour-ringed individuals in January she was pretty sure that she would be sampling resident birds. There’s a blog about this project here. At the same time, sightings of migratory birds were being reported from the UK and Ireland.

Since 2000, there have been annual spring surveys of arriving Black-tailed Godwits. Jenny Gill and I arrived on 13 April and started our survey routine of regular visits to estuaries, wetlands and stubble fields in south and west Iceland. Icelandic birdwatchers cover other sites in the east and south of Iceland. The dates of the arrivals of individual birds have already contributed to a paper about what is driving earlier spring migration of the species, which is written up in this blog.

FrenchIn cold northerlies, migration from Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe was slow in 2017. This is something we have seen before and described in this blog about the appearance of large flocks in Scotland. A record number of Black-tailed Godwits – 2270 birds in total – were seen on the Scottish island of Tiree on 25 April 2017, including a minimum of 23 colour-ringed birds. We saw one of these birds four days later, fast asleep on a hay field near the south coast of Iceland.

Breeding studies

The 2016/17 winter had been relatively warm and wet in Iceland and the ground was not frozen when waders returned from Europe. The Black-tailed Godwits did not stay for long on the estuaries before moving inland to breeding territories.

The Oystercatcher project got off to an early start. oyc crossIn collaboration with Sölvi R Vignisson, Ólafur Torfason and Guðmundur Örn Benediktsson, the team colour-ringed 177 new adults and 144 chicks in a range of sites around Iceland. This year’s adults have white rings with two letters on the left leg and two colour-rings on the right, whilst chicks have grey instead of white. A smaller number of youngsters ringed in 2016 have green rings with engraved letters and some adults from previous years have green flags.

As part of a study to try to understand the migratory behaviour of young Oystercatchers, José Alves & Verónica Méndez have fitted GPS/GSM transmitters to a small number of big chicks. Which birds will migrate and what determines the strategy? Two birds have already made what appear to be exploratory trips around southwest Iceland, before returning to their natal sites.

FIRST2OYCSAt the time of writing (26 August), none of the birds with trackers has yet left Iceland but the first two colour-ringed birds have been seen in Ireland – an adult from the east and a juvenile from the south (see map).

Breeding studies of Black-tailed Godwits have been ongoing since 2001 and a small number of adults and chicks were ringed this year. This graph, which appears in the blog Why is spring migration getting earlier? showed that recent recruits to the population arrive in Iceland earlier than birds from previous generations.

timing hatching

Dates of spring arrival into Iceland of 46 individuals hatched in different years and subsequently recorded on spring arrival (reproduced from Gill et al. 2014)

Pressures on Iceland’s waders

tableIceland is hugely important for breeding waders. It holds about 75% of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel, over half of the region’s Dunlin and perhaps half of its Golden Plover. Although changes to the way land is farmed may have provided opportunities for some species, such as Black-tailed Godwits, intensification and the timing of operations have the potential to impact distribution and breeding success. A paper by Lilja Jóhannesdóttir was written up as a blog Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation? and she successfully completed her PhD Links between agricultural management and wader populations in sub-arctic landscapes in June 2017.

T with BTGThe amount of woodland is changing in Iceland, with more forestry and shelter belts around summer cottages. This is an issue that was highlighted in an AEWA report published in the autumn of 2016. In the spring, Aldís Pálsdóttir started a new PhD at the University of Iceland, in which she will explore the effects of forestry on breeding waders in Iceland. Her first task in the field was to measure the effects of forest patches on breeding wader distribution, which involved walking over 400km of survey transects! Complementary work this summer by Harry Ewing, as part of his Masters in Applied Ecology and Conservation at the University of East Anglia, has explored how levels of wader nest predation vary with distance from forest patches. There’s more about the effects of woodland on breeding waders in this recent Lapwing blog: Mastering Lapwing Conservation.

Deploying and collecting geolocators to study migration

Geolocators provide a cost-effective way of collecting information on the year-round movements of individual birds, as long as birds can be recaught in the breeding season following the deployment of the tags. This blog summarises a useful paper about the safe use of geolocators.

whimbrelCamilo Carneiro is studying for a PhD at the University of Aveiro. His project, entitled Bridging from arctic to the tropics: implications of long distance migration to individual fitness, takes him to Iceland in the summer and to Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau in the winter time. By putting geolocators on Whimbrels in Iceland, he can establish the migration strategies of individuals. He has already mapped 96 migrations of 32 individual birds and we look forward to seeing the results from his studies. A flavour can be found here, in blogs about the migration of Icelandic Whimbrel and the first results of initial geolocator work by José Alves, one of Camilo’s supervisors.

RingoRinged Plovers that breed in Iceland are thought to spend the winter in southern Europe and northern Africa. Böðvar Þórisson has been studying breeding Ringed Plovers for many years, with recent work including using geolocators to explore the migration routes and timings of individuals. This year he managed to retrieve 7 of the 9 geolocators that he put on in 2016 – look out for a poster on this at IWSG 2017 in Prague. These birds had spent their winters in Mauritania, Portugal, Spain, France and southern England. 16 new tags were deployed during 2017, including a number on the same birds as in 2016.

RNPIn collaboration with Yann Kolbeinsson and Rob van Bemmelen, Jóse Alves and other members of the team have been using geolocators to study Red-necked Phalarope migration. Some birds migrate to the Pacific Ocean around coastal South America and the Galapagos but how do they get there and what is the timing of their movements? These two articles tell the story of one bird from Shetland (UK) and moulting flocks in the Bay of Fundy (Canada). Sixteen new geolocators were deployed but none of the ten deployed in 2016 were retrieved. Perhaps Red-necked Phalaropes are not that site-faithful?

So how good a breeding season was it?

2017 chick surveyAs described in this blog, the productivity of Iceland’s Black-tailed Godwits is closely linked to May temperatures – unless a volcano erupts. Each June, Tómas Gunnarsson collects information on the number of successful broods, based on a 198 km car-based transect through south Iceland. Repeating this survey in 2017 he discovered a record number of broods, adding the right-hand orange dot to the graph alongside. May 2017 was warmer than any spring during the study period covered for the IBIS paper and the number of June broods was higher too. It is not surprising that there are so many reports of juvenile Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits in Britain and Ireland this August.

For other species, where productivity is recorded in the same manner (Whimbrels, Oystercatchers and Golden Plovers), the 2017 season was also the best in the period since 2012. Perhaps other species, such as Redshank and Snipe, did well too? Will these cohorts of juveniles be big enough for there to be a detectable uplift in number on this winter’s I-WeBS and  WeBS counts?


 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.





Special Black-tailed Godwits

What will happen to 25 head-started juvenile Black-tailed Godwits that were released at Welney, Norfolk, yesterday (12 June)? Here’s how birdwatchers can help to provide answers.

blog header

Black-tailed Godwits nest in the grazing marshes of the Nene Washes in the UK. Photographs in blog from Mark Whiffin, Jennifer Smart, Ian Dillon, Verónica Méndez & Haije Valkema.

If you have heard anything about Project Godwit, you’ll know that eggs from seven pairs of Black-tailed Godwits nesting in the RSPB’s Nene Washes reserve in Eastern England have been hatched in incubators and reared in captivity at WWT Welney. By head-starting’ these eggs/chicks, it is hoped that the tiny, Fenland Black-tailed Godwit population, estimated at around 40 pairs, can receive a much-needed boost in numbers. These birds belong to the limosa subspecies. In the winter, the Washes are home to thousands of islandica Black-tailed Godwits. There’s a blog about the two subspecies here.

blog release pen

Time to stretch their wings

On 12 June, 25 head-started godwits were released from their aviary. What will happen now? The Project Godwit Team from RSPB and WWT is appealing to birdwatchers to look out for these special birds as they leave the Washes. They are expected to spend time around the East Anglian coast before heading for Spain, Portugal and African countries such as Senegal and Gambia. The chicks have been individually marked but each member of the group has a green ring above a lime ring (engraved with a letter E) on the right tibia (top part of the leg), as can be seen in these pictures.

Blog GY-GE

GY-GE (green yellow – green E)

Sightings can be reported to the Project Godwit Team or to


The small number of Black-tailed Godwits that breed in East Anglia’s wet grassland belong to the limosa subspecies. There are far more birds of this subspecies on the other side of the North Sea but nowhere near as many as there were just a few years ago. (Read this blog about the 75% decline in numbers in The Netherlands).

blog soggy nest.jpg

Innundation can be a problem in the Washes, which are designed to store flood-water

Unsurprisingly, the tiny breeding population in the UK, individuals of which follow the same migration route as those in The Netherlands, is also under threat. By taking a few first clutches of eggs, and hatching and rearing chicks away from the dangers of predators and flooding, it is hoped that numbers can be given a boost. Most of the pairs from which eggs were taken have laid replacement clutches – giving them a chance to raise a second family themselves.

If a significant number of godwit chicks return to breed then that will be excellent but that’s looking a long way ahead. For now, the Project Godwit team want to know if the released juveniles are going to behave in the same way as they would have done had they been reared by their parents. That’s where birdwatchers come in. As these special birds learn to fly and then disperse from their Welney release site where will they go?


revised mapRSPB scientists colour-ringed free-living Black-tailed Godwits between 1999 and 2003 and more have been marked over the last 3 years. The map alongside indicates sites in East Anglia where previous generations of chicks and adults have been seen in the months from June to September. You’ll see that a lot of them have been spotted on the North Norfolk coast and others in Suffolk – which are also places where there are a lot of birdwatchers. Young godwits – like most other waders – are deserted by their parents before they themselves are ready to make their first migratory journeys. When it is time to move, they rely on an in-built sense of direction but they could also perhaps follow the lead of adults that are not their parents. The hope is that the head-started chicks will behave in a similar way to their naturally-reared brothers and sisters but the Project Godwit team will only know what happens when birdwatchers send in their sightings. It’s an exciting and anxious time for Hannah Ward, the project leader, and her RSPB and WWT colleagues.

What happened? There’s an update about where the chicks were seen in this blog from Project Godwit

Where to next?

Birdwatchers in Norfolk and Suffolk probably have the biggest chance of finding these colour-ringed birds but some of the young Black-tailed Godwits may be seen further south, in Essex and Kent, before crossing the English Channel. During autumn, godwits from this population start to be seen around the Iberian coast, with sightings from between the Tagus Estuary (Lisbon) and Alicante in southern Spain.

blog RLGE
RL-GE (red lime – green E)

The Limosa Black-tailed Godwits (the subspecies that breed in East Anglia, The Netherlands and surrounding countries in mainland Europe) spend the mid-winter period either in Africa or Iberia (Spain and Portugal). As numbers have declined, so the proportion of birds wintering in Europe has become more significant. Some of the newly ringed chicks – which all have a green ring with lime E scheme marker on the right leg – may venture as far as countries on the other side of the Sahara but others could stay in Iberia. Dutch researchers will be visiting African wintering areas to catch up with their limosa birds from the Netherlands and have found Nene Washes birds in previous years. If they get a photograph of one of the head-started birds that will be a day of huge celebration for the Project Godwit team. A sighting in Spain or Portugal will be equally encouraging – anyone planning a birdwatching break in Cota Doñana or the Algarve this winter?

The return journey

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Spring godwit flock takes off from a Portuguese rice field

In the late winter and early spring, the more adventurous Black-tailed Godwits that flew as far as west Africa will cross the Sahara and head for Spain and Portugal. Here, vast flocks gather in places such as the rice fields of the Tagus Estuary. Roos Kentie has been studying these birds; there are two WaderTales blogs about her work that may well be relevant to the head-started birds from the Fens.

There has been a 75% decline in the Dutch population:

headerOn average, godwits that fly all the way to Africa nest earlier than those that short-stop in Iberia:

Hang out the bunting – time to party!

If the Project Godwit team is very lucky, the first of this year’s young Black-tailed Godwits will return to the Ouse and Nene Washes in April or May in 2018. At this time of year, flocks of 1000 or more Black-tailed Godwits are already feeding on the flooded washes but these are birds of another subspecies – islandica godwits that are moulting and putting on fat for their return journeys to Iceland. By the middle of May these islandica flocks will have moved north and the limosa birds should be breeding. There’s a blog about the two subspecies here.

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There’s a worm in here somewhere – will one of these godwits return next year?

Roos Kentie has shown that some Dutch godwits nest in their first year. Imagine how exciting it will be if one of this year’s head-started bird is found breeding in the Nene or Ouse Washes next year. Time to ice the cake and have a party!

You can follow the fortunes of these pioneering Black-tailed Godwits on Twitter via @projectgodwit


Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT, with major funding from the EU Life Nature Programme, The HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

 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.



Mastering Lapwing conservation

Predation and perceived risk of predation in Lapwings

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Students from the University of East Anglia and conservation organisations such as the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science benefit greatly from applied conservation research by MSc students. Two recent papers, reporting on projects by Sam Leigh and Nik Bertholdt, focus on risks and perceived risks to nesting Lapwings.

Lapwings – a diminishing asset

Blog adultLowland, breeding waders are increasingly confined to nature reserves, and the wet grasslands of the Norfolk Broads retain some of the largest remaining populations of Lapwing and Redshank in England. Over the last two decades, a collaboration between Dr Jennifer Smart of RSPB and Professor Jennifer Gill the University of East Anglia (UEA) has helped to identify some of the key habitat management options that can attract breeding waders. A series of dissertation projects by nine students on the Masters in Applied Ecology and Conservation course at UEA have contributed greatly to this knowledge, complementing four PhD and three post-doctoral projects, as described in Jen Smart’s Wader Study perspectives paper.

Blog chickIn a previous WaderTales blog – A helping hand for Lapwings – there is a summary of some of the actions that can support breeding populations. Short, grazed grass and surface water are attractive to waders at the start of the breeding season and invertebrate densities are greater around these wet features, which generally dry out as the season progresses. However, unsustainably high levels of nest predation mean that numbers of breeding waders are struggling to recover, despite the creation of great breeding habitat. We need to understand which landscape features might influence the risk of nest predation, especially if these features might be managed in ways that could reduce predation rates.

Two  recent MSc dissertations by Sam Leigh and Nik Bertholdt have focused on different aspects of predation risk. Both have recently been published, in Animal Conservation and Bird Study.

Sam LeighBlog Sam

Sam Leigh asked whether patterns of nest predation on a major RSPB nature reserve (Berney Marshes, in the Norfolk Broads) were influenced by management of the surrounding area. Much of the land adjacent to Berney is managed as arable farmland, whilst other areas are grassland. Some of the latter fields are within agri-environment schemes (AES) for breeding waders, and are therefore managed more sympathetically than the commercial land. The main nest predators of Lapwings are foxes, and their activity around the reserve might vary depending on surrounding land (given the large areas over which they can roam).

Blog foxSam compared nest survival rates within the reserve at different distances from the reserve edge, in areas with different surrounding land. He found that foxes tend to avoid parts of the nature reserve next to commercial farmland that is not being managed to favour breeding waders. In parts of the nature reserve that are adjacent to AES-managed land, fox activity was higher and nest predation rates remained constant with increasing distance from the reserve edge into the reserve. This lack of an ‘edge effect’ would suggest that foxes do not distinguish between fields within the nature reserves and AES land managed outside the reserve when they are searching for wader eggs.

Impacts of grassland management on wader nest predation rates in adjacent nature reserves. Leigh, S.J., Smart, J. & Gill, J.A. (2016) Animal Conservation DOI: 10.1111/acv.12283

Nik BertholdtBlog Nik

Nik Bertholdt worked at Stanny Farm in Suffolk, a commercially-farmed site with breeding waders nesting on the wet grasslands. He had help from extremely supportive landowners, Paul & Louise Cooke, who provided Nik with somewhere to stay and a grant to help with research costs, and local wader enthusiasts (led by Rodney West). Nik wanted to know if the presence of trees and small copses within wet grasslands could potentially influence patterns of Lapwing nest predation. Predators such as foxes and corvids could be attracted to these areas by the presence of small mammal prey (within and around the woodland), the availability of perches for birds or den sites for mammals.

Blog Hay picNik found that Lapwings avoided nesting close to (within 500 m of) the copses but that nest predation rates did not vary with distance from copses at greater distances. This could either mean that predator activity is not focused on these copses or that the Lapwings have avoided predation risk by nesting further away – and hence outside the area of influence of predators. Whatever the reason, Lapwings are not using what would otherwise be thought of as suitable nesting habitat, thereby potentially reducing the numbers of pairs that could nest in the area. Removal of small woodlands in grasslands in which breeding waders are a conservation priority could increase habitat availability for Lapwings.

Landscape effects on nest site selection and nest success of Lapwing Vanellus vanellus in lowland wet grasslands. Bertholdt, N. P., Gill, J.A., Laidlaw, R.A. & Smart, J. (2016). Bird Study DOI:10.1080/00063657.2016.1262816.

UEA MSc in Applied Ecology & Conservation

logoBy working alongside conservation organisations throughout the world, students on the Masters in Applied Ecology and Conservation course at the University of East Anglia have been well placed to combine research experience with learning that is directly aimed at furthering a career in ecology. Sam Leigh is now undertaking a PhD at the University of Reading on ecosystems services in agricultural systems and Nik Bertholdt works for Natural England. On average, three projects each year are later written up as peer-reviewed publications, with support from project supervisors at UEA and in partner organisations, resulting in a WIN-WIN-WIN situation for the students, the university and the partner organisations.

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Harry is using dummy nests, containing hens’ eggs to study predation associated with proximity to Icelandic woodlands.

Students on the MSc AEC course at UEA travel all over the world to carry out conservation-related research projects. For example, Harry Ewing (pictured here) is in Iceland, studying the effects of woodland patches on breeding waders. Other MSc students from this group are currently working on a wide range of projects, including warblers in East Anglia, invasive caterpillars in the Seychelles, sloth bears in India, critically endangered turtles in Vietnam and tropical forest restoration in Brazil.

To learn more about the UEA AEC course please read page 16 of this brochure. Download here. 

 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.