Flyway from Ireland to Iceland

There are thirty WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection of ten that may appeal to birdwatchers in Ireland.

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The Ireland to Iceland air link opens in February and does not close until well into May, as swans, geese, ducks, waders, gulls and passerines head north. At the end of June it opens again, with the first failed breeders returning to Ireland. Species such as Oystercatcher and Black-tailed Godwit spend much more of the year in Ireland than they do in Iceland.

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Most Oystercatchers are being ringed with two letter engraved rings, along with two colour-rings: Photo Tómas Gunnarsson

The island of Ireland holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Grey Plovers from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada – but there is  special relationship with Iceland. It’s the next stopping off point for passage Sanderling, as they fly from Africa to Greenland, and the ultimate destination for lots of wintering birds such as Redshank and Golden Plovers.

Oystercatchers lead the way

A lot of the Oystercatchers seen around Ireland’s coastline breed in Iceland, as has been shown by the Dublin Bay Birds Project. Birds start moving north very early, as shown by the appearance of four yellow-ringed Dublin Bay birds in Tiree before the end of February this year. Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers explains how a new Icelandic project is examining the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Irish reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers – and the Dublin Bay birds are providing great additional data.

snipe-1Each autumn, Irish-breeding Snipe are joined by much larger numbers from the north and east. About a quarter of foreign-ringed snipe that have been found in the island of Ireland are of Icelandic origin, compared to just one out of 255 in England. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.

whimbrel-mig-fig1Some of the last waders to use the Ireland to Iceland flyway are Whimbrels, many of which stop off in Ireland on spring migration. Whimbrels on the move summarises a paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a new paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they sometimes need to stop off on the way north. See Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird by José Alves and colleagues.

Black tailed-Godwits

WaderTales was invented as a way of providing feedback to colour-ring readers who focused on Black-tailed Godwits. There are 10 blogs about the species, some of which may well appeal to birdwatchers who have spotted colour-ringed birds anywhere between Belfast Harbour and the Shannon Estuary.

pairs-mapWe are all aware that migration is getting earlier but how does this happen? Monitoring the annual arrival of individual colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits in Iceland may well have provided an answer. Why is spring migration getting earlier? reveals that it is new recruits into the breeding population that are setting the pace; they are reaching Iceland earlier than previous generations.

Another fascinating story that is revealed by colour-ringing is the synchronous arrival of the two members of breeding pairs of Black-tailed Godwits, even if one wintered in Ireland and the other in France. You can read more here.

Breeding Waders

WaderTales were developed in East Anglia so many of the articles about breeding waders have an English feel to them. Hopefully, some of the blogs will still appeal. Anyone trying to support breeding Lapwing populations might be interested in A helping hand for Lapwings, which also talks about Redshanks.

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There’s an Icelandic focus too and a new blog, which looks at the attitudes of farmers, will resonate with conservationists (scientists, birdwatchers and farmers) who are trying to work together to improve conditions for Irish breeding waders. As Icelandic farming expands, what are farmers prepared to do to support breeding waders, many of which are destined to spend the winter on Irish estuaries. See: Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?

Ireland – a special place for Curlews

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Curlews fly vast distances to spend the winter on the estuaries of Britain & Ireland (© Graham Catley)

Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why BirdWatch Ireland, RSPB, BTO and GWCT  are focusing on this species How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Ireland, completely?

The threat to the Curlew is real, especially when set in an international context. Two species of curlew are probably already extinct and other members of the Numeniini (curlews, godwits and Upland Sandpiper) are facing a similar set of problems to those that probably caused the demise of the Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew. Why are we losing our large waders? outlines the background to a global problem.

Conservation issues

Hundreds of  birdwatchers take part in the Irish Wetland Bird Survey (Republic) and the Wetland Bird Survey (Northern Ireland). These counts identify and monitor key sites for wintering waders – and wildfowl. Whilst mud  and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. It has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders.

Further reading

b-stubble-godwitsHopefully, this summary  gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Irish waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already 30 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look here.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?

When working with Icelandic farmers to conserve internationally important wader populations, a shared understanding of beneficial practises may be more important than financial incentives.

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Species like Snipe, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits have been squeezed out of lowland areas of countries such as the UK and the Netherlands by centuries of drainage, increasingly homogeneous landscapes and the introduction of quick-growing grassland monocultures. Adults have lost nesting sites, chicks have fewer feeding opportunities and pre-fledged youngsters fall victim to farm machinery. Do the same fates await waders in Iceland or might it be possible to work with farmers to leave space for birds?

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Pools, set within semi-natural lightly-grazed fields, are important

As part of her PhD at the University of Iceland, in collaboration with the Universities of East Anglia (UK) and Aveiro (Portugal), Lilja Jóhannesdóttir asked farmers what they think about having birds on their land, what their plans are for their farms, whether they might be willing to leave some pools and focus farming activities in areas less important for birds, and if farm subsidies might encourage them to be more proactive conservationists. The sometimes surprising results of this questionnaire have been published in Ecology & Society.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

The Waders of Iceland

tableIn a recent report prepared by AEWA (Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds), in response to concerns about the effects of afforestation on Iceland’s waterbirds, Dave Pritchard & Colin Galbraith say “Iceland is second only to Russia in its importance as a breeding ground for migratory waterbirds in the AEWA region. It supports the most important breeding populations in Europe for six species of waders, and is the second most important country for three.”

Data in the table alongside have been extracted from Annex 4 of their report, which was discussed at the 12th Standing Committee of AEWA in Jan/Feb 2017. Iceland is home to c 75% of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel, over half of the area’s breeding Dunlin and perhaps half of its Golden Plover. The importance of Iceland has increased with the collapse of wader populations in other countries.

Waders on farmland

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Spring flock of Black-tailed Godwit feeding in a stubble field

Farmed landscapes in Iceland provide opportunities for waders. In the spring, newly-arrived flocks of Golden Plover spread out over hayfields, Black-tailed Godwits target the previous year’s barley stubbles and parties of feeding waders can be seen in sedge pools on farms. During the breeding season, the application of fertilisers, especially in areas where volcanic ash deposition is low, increases soil productivity and wader densities, as was shown in this blog about regional productivity. Come the autumn, hayfields attract flocks of birds fattening up for migration. Despite drainage of an estimated 55% to 75% of wetlands in Iceland in the last seventy years, the country is still a great place for waders.

The amount of intensively-farmed land in Iceland is increasing, to some extent driven by rapid recent increases in the number of tourists, who consume milk products and meat. This can be seen in the ongoing development of hayfields, to feed cattle, and barley production, for pig-feed. There is concern that these developments will impact upon wader numbers, through the reduction in the amount of semi-natural habitat, especially in the lowlands, loss of pools and reduced landscape heterogeneity. On top of these changes, warmer temperatures allow earlier cuts of silage which increases the risk of killing wader chicks that nest within these fields.

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More and more semi-natural land is being lost to grass monocultures

Lilja Jóhannesdóttir’s PhD is focused on how birds use the gradient of habitats that comprise farmland in lowland Iceland – from more intensively farmed fields through to lightly-grazed, semi-natural habitats. The paper that forms the focus of this blog looks at farmers’ attitudes to the birds that share Iceland’s farms and their plans for the future. It then attempts to reveal the willingness and capacity of landowners to engage with conservation management practises.

The questionnaire

To understand the views of Icelandic farmers toward bird conservation, given the current potential for agricultural expansion, Lilja interviewed 62 farmers across Iceland, using a structured questionnaire. Some of the key findings are:

  • Over 60% of farmers are likely or very likely to increase their area of cultivated land
  • Over 90% of farmers think it is important or very important to have rich birdlife on their estates
  • About 60% would consider modifying grazing regimes to help birds
  • More than 80% would be unlikely or highly unlikely to consider changing the timing of harvesting operations.
  • More than 80% would be happy to consider keeping pools intact
  • Information on conservation needs are more likely to change attitudes than financial incentives

The information collected in the questionnaires was analysed by region and by the age of the interviewee but no strong patterns emerged. Older farmers seem to appreciate birdlife more than their younger colleagues but are no more likely to change their behaviours to support conservation objectives. The detailed figures are reported in the paper.

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Creating new hayfield to produce cattle-food is at the expense of areas of semi-natural land

The majority of the Icelandic farmers who took part in the survey plan to expand their agricultural land in the next five years, and this is likely to be driven further by increasing demands for farming products. This implies that conversion of semi-natural land into farmland is likely to greatly increase in the near future, with potentially severe and widespread impacts on the internationally important bird populations that currently breed in these areas. Such expansion could put Iceland on a similar trajectory to many other countries that have experienced substantial biodiversity declines on the back of agricultural intensification and expansion. On the positive side, Icelandic farmers like wildlife and the results suggest that if they are better informed about the consequences of their actions they might well try to modify plans in ways that reduce negative impacts. The possibility of financial incentives to off-set potential losses did not seem to influence farmers’ views, but the authors suggest that this might be because there is no tradition for farmers to receive subsidies for conservation action.

b-horsesA clear finding of the study is that farmers are unlikely to change the timing of agricultural operations in order to help birds. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a country with a very short growing season and where periods of settled weather are rare. With relatively few consecutive dry days, opportunities to mow and turn silage or hay crops just have to be taken. The timing of farming operations, such as harvesting/mowing, can be crucial for breeding waders because they can result in the destruction of nests, chicks, and adults during the breeding season. For example, advances in timing of mowing of hayfields in the Netherlands has meant that this now coincides more frequently with wader nesting and chick rearing, causing unsuccessful breeding attempts and leading to lower recruitment. There is more about the Dutch experience in this Ibis paper.

If Icelandic farmers are unlikely to delay operations, perhaps other strategies, such as mowing fields from the centre – as used in the Outer Hebrides to reduce Corncrake losses – might be more acceptable to farmers who are so constrained by the weather? Read more about the Corncrake issue here. 

The Future

b-whimbrelAs a signatory to international agreements on the conservation of birds and wetlands (Ramsar Convention, Bern Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity and African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement), the Icelandic government is required to take action to protect the internationally important bird populations breeding in the country. Given that there is no strong tradition of using planning laws or centralised agricultural policy to influence farmers’ decisions, working with individual farmers might be the best way to deliver conservation objectives.

Farmers’ views on the importance of having rich birdlife on their land and their willingness to participate in bird conservation provide a potential platform to work with landowners to design conservation management strategies – and to do this before further substantial changes in the extent of agriculture take place in this subarctic landscape. With three-quarters of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel and about half of the Golden Plover and Dunlin dependent upon decisions made in Iceland, there is a lot at stake.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

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 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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Black-tailed Godwit pairs – the importance of synchrony

How long does a godwit wait around to see if last year’s mate will turn up?

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Newly-arrived Black-tailed Godwits. Time for a wash & brush up and then off to territory?

Colour-ringing enabled Tómas Gunnarsson to follow the lives of pairs of Black-tailed Godwits nesting near his parents’ home in Iceland. In this world, that is ruled by timing and opportunity, the pairings, divorces and re-pairings could form the plot for a TV soap-opera. The studies turned into a fascinating Nature paper that was written up in The Telegraph newspaper. The two main characters were christened Gretar and Sigga  by the journalist but they’re more commonly known as RY-RO and RO-RO.

A tale of two godwits

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How long should this godwit wait for its mate?

2002: Colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits RY-RO (red yellow – red orange) and RO-RO bred successfully in Laugaras, in the inland part of Iceland’s Southern Lowlands. Come the autumn, they left Iceland. The female (RO-RO) probably spent the winter in Portugal, although she was only seen there in later years, and the male (RY-RO) opted for the somewhat colder conditions of eastern England.

2003: Next spring, RO-RO arrived on territory on 6 May, before her mate. She cannot have known whether he was late or dead when she made the decision to move in with a new male, who was later colour-ringed as OR-OO.  When RY-RO arrived back a week later, on 13 May, he had to find himself a new female (GG-YO), who had been paired to a different male in 2002.

2004: Come the spring of 2004, RO-RO and RY-RO arrived at the same time and got back together.

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Tómas Gunnarsson with one of the colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits

This is only one story but it seems to illustrate that there are good reasons to nest with a partner that is well known to you. This could help to illustrate why individual godwits are generally very good at timing their arrival back on territory, to synchronise with their partners, as revealed in this Nature paper, published in 2005.

Gunnarsson, T.G., Gill, J.A., Sigurbjörnsson, Þ. & Sutherland W.J. (2004) Arrival synchrony in migratory birds. Nature, 431, 646-646. DOI: 10.1038/431646a

In the paper the authors described the return of pairs of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits to Laugaras in the spring of 2003. Godwits generally arrive in Iceland over a one-month period, between mid-April and the middle of May.

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Each line joins the wintering locations of a pair of godwits

On average, previously paired males and females in the study arrived within 3.1 days of one another, despite the fact that males and females from the same pair had spent the winter on average about 1000 km apart and that there is no evidence that any pairs had met at passage sites prior to crossing the Atlantic. Arrival synchrony seems to be related to mate retention, as the only divorces occurred in two of the three pairs that arrived more than eight days apart.

Synchrony in timing of arrival on the breeding grounds may be important for retaining a mate from the previous year and avoiding a costly divorce – but how it is achieved is a mystery.

Warmer springs

Tómas Gunnarsson and his father, Gunnar Tómasson, have been studying the timings of spring arrival in south Iceland of a range of species since 1988. In a 2011 paper in Bird Study they estimated that the timing of arrival of the first black-tailed godwit moved earlier by about 5.5 days per decade over that period. Here’s a link to the paper.

graphAs this advance in spring timing of migration was already happening when Tómas was making observations of the paired birds in Laugaras in 2003, we were all interested to see whether the schedules of marked birds would advance in similar ways. Interestingly, we have been able to show that the timing of arrival of individual Black-tailed Godwits is actually not changing at all. There is year-to-year variation in the dates on which individuals arrive, but no trend. Instead it is new recruits into the population that are driving the earlier migration. There’s a blog about this here.

Whilst there are processes in play that mean new recruits are migrating earlier than their predecessors, there must also be reasons why time-fidelity is important for individual birds. Perhaps synchrony increases the probability that individuals will be able to nest with the same mate in subsequent years? This is hinted at by the fact that godwits have been observed to re-pair with previous partners if opportunities present themselves.

Potential benefits of re-pairing with the same mate

For Black-tailed Godwits, not enough is known about the benefits of retaining the same mate. Given that divorce events are rare, it would be hard to measure any consequences for productivity – even if the nests were easy to find and youngsters easy to track – neither of which is the case. For the moment, all that is available is evidence of divorce and the possibility that females will not wait for males that are late.

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Nests are well hidden

Black-tailed Godwits are long-lived birds, with breeding territories in which resources are generally predictably distributed, and a pair is likely to be familiar with local predator densities and distributions. Whilst one member of the pair is incubating the eggs, the other spends a lot of time looking out for potential predators, and this mutual protection may well confer benefits for the adults and the eggs. Perhaps knowing the behaviour of one’s partner is important during the incubation period?

The complexities of incubating eggs

If the daily routines associated with parental change-overs at the nest become established over time, might this be an important driver towards fidelity? Fast forward to a paper on shorebird incubation patterns, published in Nature in 2016 by Martin Bulla et al, which might provide some clues:

Unexpected diversity in socially synchronised rhythms of shorebirds Nature 540,109–113 (01 December 2016) doi:10.1038/nature20563

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This actogram from the Bulla Nature paper creates some wonderful patterns

This paper is the result of a collaboration between Martin Bulla and 75 of his wader biologist colleagues, all happy to share data on nest incubation patterns which Martin then analysed. This resulted in an amazing data-set of 729 nests from 91 populations of 32 shorebird species, from which Martin was able to report remarkable within- and between-species differences in nest incubation rhythms.

This study suggests that energetic demands are not an important ecological driver of incubation bout length, but instead that pairs have developed idiosyncratic incubation patterns, possibly as an anti-predation strategy. Effectively, risk of predation, rather than risk of starvation, may have a key role in determining some of the variation in incubation rhythms. This means that species that hide their nests (and themselves) incubate for longer and change places less frequently.

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Incubating Ringed Plovers change places frequently

Ringed Plovers, for instance, walk away from their eggs when a potential predator approaches and change places on the nest frequently. A male or female Redshank, on the other hand, will sit tight and brood for about six hours before exchanging with its partner. While partner A is hunkered down on the nest, partner B leaves the area, so as not to draw any attention to the pre-packaged protein that partner A is sitting on. If B is only going to return when A is ready for a surreptitious change-over then the activities of the two need to be well synchronised.

As the authors point out in the paper, although the context for this comparative study was diversity in biparental incubation, it is possible that diverse behavioural rhythms may also arise in other social settings (for example, in the context of mating interactions or vigilance behaviour during group foraging). These are other circumstances in which it may well be beneficial to know one’s partner.

What does this mean for RY-RO and RO-RO?

Perhaps fidelity and synchronicity are really important to Black-tailed Godwits? If only their nests were easier to find and nest success was easier to measure! For the moment, all that we know is that pairs of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits are remarkably synchronous in their arrival times on breeding territory, and something important must have driven the evolution of such a finely tuned migratory strategy.


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

Dutch Black-tailed Godwit numbers down by nearly 75%

Colour-rings and radio-tracking are helping to chart the ongoing decline of the Dutch Black-tailed Godwit population.

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A Portuguese rice field, full of limosa Black-tailed Godwits; most are Dutch breeders

The Black-tailed Godwit is the national bird of the Netherlands, the country in which the vast majority of the West European limosa race breed. These Dutch birds are an important part of the country’s cultural heritage and are of major international significance. Large amounts of money have gone into supporting the species, and the meadows that they share with others such as Redshank and Snipe, but efforts so far have failed to reverse a Black-tailed Godwit decline that has been going on since at least the 1970s. This negative situation is in stark contrast to the increases seen in the islandica subspecies that breeds in Iceland and winters in countries between Scotland and Spain. (There’s a comparison of the two subspecies in this WaderTales blog)

Counting Black-tailed Godwits

vero-pretty-flockIt is often easier to measure changes in numbers of waders on the wintering grounds, when birds are in flocks, than when pairs are thinly spread across their breeding ranges. For Dutch Black-tailed Godwits, most of which spend the winter in African countries, south and west of the Sahara, however, the best opportunity to monitor population trends occurs in Spain and Portugal in February, when the birds are on their way back to breed.

Each year a small group of ornithologists visit key sites in Extremadura, the Doñana Wetlands and the rice fields of the Tagus Estuary, to count flocks of birds and to look for colour-ringed birds. They’re able to use these counts and sightings of colour-ringed birds to assess what has happened to numbers in the previous twelve months.

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grutto met ringen (ringed Black-tailed Godwit)

In three of the years since 2007 they’ve witnessed increases but in most years the numbers have gone down. As February 2017 approaches, what will this year’s score be? How many of last year’s birds will have died and how many chicks hatched in 2015 and 2016 will be making the migratory journey north for the first time?

When assessing how many breeding godwits there are in the Netherlands the researchers collect and use the following information:

  • Counts of birds seen in flocks in Spain and Portugal.
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    It’s not always easy to see the colour-rings in rice fields

    Counts of colour-ringed birds. There’s a great one-line comment in the newly-published paper that forms the basis of this blog: ‘In total, we checked 420,206 godwits for colour-rings at Spanish and Portuguese staging sites’. That’s a lot of legs – and a huge effort.

  • An assessment of the proportion of islandica Black-tailed godwits in the flocks, so that they can be removed from the estimation process. This proportion had been established previously but were also monitored using sightings of colour-ringed birds of the islandica and limosa subspecies, and by taking account of the proportion of each population that wears rings.
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    Rosemarie Kentie in the rice fields of the Tagus estuary (Portugal)

    An estimate of the number of the birds that will be flying north to the Netherlands, as opposed to other countries. Limosa Black-tailed Godwits that pass through Iberia are on their way to a range of countries, stretching from the tiny population that breed in the UK, in the Ouse and Nene Washes, across to Germany in the east. This proportion was calculated by monitoring the movements of satellite-tagged individuals.

The results have just been published in a new paper, which also presents annual survival rates, obtained using colour-ring sightings. There is a full explanation of the methodology in the paper. You can also see maps from the satellite-tagging project on the King of the Meadows website.

postEstimating the size of the Dutch breeding population of Continental Black-tailed Godwits from 2007–2015 using resighting data from spring staging sites. Ardea 114: 213–225. doi:10.5253/arde.v104i3.a7

The authors are Rosemarie Kentie, Nathan R. Senner, Jos C.E.W. Hooijmeijer, Rocío Márquez-Ferrando, Jordi Figuerola, José A. Masero, Mo A. Verhoeven & Theunis Piersma.

Latest findings

Over the eight years of the survey work, the average decline in numbers of limosa Black-tailed Godwits has been 3.7% per year. Numbers appeared to go up between 2009 and 2011, when the calculated survival rate of young birds was high, but the magnitude of this perceived recovery may have been artificially elevated by an increase in the number of Icelandic birds. From WeBS counts in the United Kingdom, the number of islandica birds is continuing to rise.

Since 2011, the estimated annual decrease has been 6.3% per year. Such large declines can only occur if there is both low recruitment and reduced adult survival.

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Agricultural intensification has seriously affected Dutch Black-tailed Godwits

The estimated breeding population in the Netherlands in 2015 was 33,000 pairs, representing a drop of nearly 75% since 1967. However, the agricultural grasslands of the Netherlands are still the single most important stronghold for breeding limosa  Black-tailed Godwits using the East Atlantic flyway.

The authors finish with a sad conclusion. “Although enormous amounts of money and effort have been expended to conserve continental godwits, our findings make clear that these have been ineffective or insufficient.”

One wonders how much worse the situation would have been without Dutch and European support for Meadow Birds and the ‘King of the Meadows’ in particular?


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Estimating the size of the Dutch breeding population of Continental Black-tailed Godwits from 2007–2015 using resighting data from spring staging sites.  

The authors are Rosemarie Kentie, Nathan R. Senner, Jos C.E.W. Hooijmeijer, Rocío Márquez-Ferrando, Jordi Figuerola, José A. Masero, Mo A. Verhoeven & Theunis Piersma.


 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

Wales: a special place for waders

From winter beaches to summer moorland and woodland, Wales provides essential habitats for waders. 

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There are thirty WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection of ten that may well appeal to birdwatchers in Wales.

Winter beaches & estuaries

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Most Oystercatchers are being ringed with two letter engraved rings, along with two colour-rings: Photo Tómas Gunnarsson

Wales holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Bar-tailed Godwits from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada. Some of the Oystercatchers seen in sites such as the Burry Inlet or the Menai Strait are from Iceland, where they can be found alongside Redshanks and Golden Plover that have also arrived from the north. They emphasise the close links between Wales and Iceland when it come to birdlife.  Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers explains how a new project is examining the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Welsh reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers.

snipe-1Interestingly, while there are similar links between Ireland and Iceland, the migratory provenance of Welsh Snipe may be very different to that of Irish ones. A quarter of foreign-ringed Snipe reported in Ireland have been found to be wearing Icelandic rings but, so far, no Reykjavik-ringed Snipe have been spotted in Wales. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.

Protecting key wintering sites is a high priority when it comes to wader conservation. A new BTO and WWT project aims to provide better information as to how species as diverse as Dunlin and Shelduck make use of the Severn Estuary. This is important work, with major relevance to discussions as to how power might be generated within the estuary. Tracking waders on the Severn urges birdwatchers to look for colour-marked birds. Initial results, shared at the recent International Wader Study Group conference, indicate that the home range of a Redshank is ten times as big as originally thought. It will be interesting to see what else this study reveals.

horse-and-flockHundreds of Welsh birdwatchers take part in the Wetland Bird Survey and the intensive work involved in periodic Low Tide Counts. These identify and monitor key sites and establish the most important feeding sites within estuaries. Whilst mud  and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. I had not realised that it has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders.

Passing through

whimbrel-mig-fig1There is exciting work going on in Wales to understand why so many Whimbrel spend time in the country in the spring. Whimbrels on the move summarises a recent paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a new paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they sometimes need to stop off on the way north. See Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird by José Alves and colleagues.

Breeding Waders

Wales provides homes to many breeding waders, from Ringed Plover on the coast, via Little Ringed Plover and Commons Sandpiper along rivers and into the moorland for Curlew and Dunlin, passing a forest with Woodcock en route. And that’s only giving a mention to half of the country’s breeding wader species.

CattleStarting on salt-marsh, Big-foot and the Redshank nest investigates appropriate cattle stocking levels for successful Redshank breeding. Although the work was undertaken in northwest England, there is no reason to believe that Welsh cattle area any less careful as to where they put their feet. There are several other blogs about Lapwings and Redshank on the WaderTales site.

We are all aware of the issues facing upland waders. The next blog was written to promote a survey in England, looking at the distribution of waders along the moorland/farmland interface, but the stories will have resonance with Welsh birdwatchers. All downhill for upland waders outlines changes to breeding numbers and distributions of waders breeding in England’s uplands.

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Curlews fly vast distances to spend the winter on the estuaries of Britain & Ireland (© Graham Catley)

Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why RSPB, BTO, GWCT and BirdWatch Ireland are focusing on this species How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Wales, completely?

Predation is acknowledged as a major issue for Curlew but is this going to be a problem for Oystercatchers too? Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops reveals a significant decline of the species in Scotland, mediated to some extent by range expansion in three dimensions. There’s a specific mention of the Burry Inlet control programme of the 1970s.

The strangest Welsh wader has to be the Woodcock – probing about in winter fields and nesting in forestry plantations. Conserving British-breeding Woodcock focuses on worrying results from the latest GWCT/BTO survey and work to reduce losses during the shooting season.

Further reading

Hopefully, this summary  gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Welsh waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already 30 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look here.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Can habitat management rescue Lapwing populations?

Can a mosaic of habitats boost hatching success in grassland-breeding Lapwings?

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Lapwings are becoming more and more restricted in their distribution within the United Kingdom, with an increasing proportion dependent on a small number of lowland wet grassland sites, particularly nature reserves. Working in this habitat, a team from the RSPB and the University of East Anglia has been trying to work out if it is possible to substantially improve Lapwing productivity without using intensive, costly predator management, in the form of permanent electric fences.

Background

graphThe RSPB has been monitoring breeding waders on their Berney Marshes reserve in Norfolk for over 20 years. Even with fox control, a wader-friendly grazing regime and sensitive regulation of water levels, Lapwing nesting success on this site is still below 0.6-0.8 chicks per pairs in most years, which is the estimated range required for population stability (Macdonald & Bolton 2008a). Predation is the main issue that is still limiting productivity.

Previous work has shown that:

  • Providing areas of tall, dense grass (often along field verges) can encourage populations of small mammals, which are the main prey of most wader nest predators (Laidlaw et al 2012).
  • The lay-out of wet features can influence Lapwing nesting densities (Eglington et al 2008).
  • Nest survival is higher when Lapwing densities are higher (Macdonald & Bolton 2008b).

The team believe that these three factors – small mammal distribution, surface water and Lapwing nesting density – are very likely to influence the behaviour and distribution of red foxes, the key predator in this study area.

There is more background information in the WaderTales blog entitled A Helping Hand for Lapwings and in a perspectives article in Wader Study by Jen Smart.

ditchIn a recent RSPB/UEA project, Dr Becky Laidlaw has investigated these relationships further and has then used the trends that have been established to model different potential management scenarios. What could happen if nesting densities, wetness and the proximity of verges with small mammals could all be varied in the best ways possible? Is there a theoretical scenario in which productivity is high enough to fuel population growth?

The paper is published as: Scenarios of habitat management options to reduce predator impacts on nesting waders. Rebecca A. Laidlaw, Jennifer Smart, Mark A. Smart and Jennifer A. Gill 2016 Journal of Applied Ecology doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12838

The right habitat mix?

Using relationships established from previous studies and collating seven years of information on over 1400 individual nesting attempts, Dr Becky Laidlaw and her colleagues from UEA and RSPB saw that, not only was nesting success being influenced by wetness and the proximity of tall grass, there were some subtleties relating to the way that habitats are distributed. Might it be possible to  redesign the site so as to create a patchwork that could achieve the required productivity levels? Becky had two variables to play with – verges and wet features.

Verges influence predation rates, with Lapwing nests further from tall vegetation areas having a higher likelihood of being predated. This makes sense if foxes are concentrating on catching small mammals in areas with high mammal densities, and are more likely to ignore eggs that are laid in short grass close to mammal-rich verges.

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There are plenty of wet features at Berney. The River Yare is in the foreground.

Water also influences wader nest predation rates. This is not surprising; if you are a fox, it is probably going to be harder to search for nests in a wet field with lots of pools and ditches than in a dry field. Interestingly, the study found that nests in the centre of dry fields were more at risk than those at the centre of wet fields. In a wet field, it’s riskier to nest along the edge, whilst in a dry field the risk increases the further the nest is from the edge.

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Part of a figure in Scenarios of habitat management options to reduce predator impacts, published in Journal of Applied Ecology by Laidlaw et al (Journal of Applied Ecology, 2016)

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The team want to see more Lapwing chicks. These are newly-hatched.

The study confirmed that isolated Lapwing nests are more at risk of predation, potentially because single pairs don’t benefit from the mobbing defensive behaviour provided by having plenty of nesting neighbours. They found a similar pattern with Redshank nest predation risk; these scarcer breeding waders appear to be protected by the presence of more Lapwing.

Scenario modelling

Becky then worked with Mark Smart, the RSPB manager with responsibility for Berney Marshes, to model some potential future management scenarios for the site. They worked out where it would be feasible to add or remove verges and increase or decrease surface wetness within fields. Becky then used existing relationships to predict what changes in nest predation rates might be expected. Were there management options that could significantly increase survival rates of nests?

ralphBecky compared the different modelled management scenarios with the long term average nest predation rate for the site. She found a significant (roughly 20%) reduction in nest predation could potentially be achieved with the addition of tall vegetation, but only for nests close to field edges in areas of high Lapwing nest density. Importantly, this sort of decrease in nest predation levels could potentially increase the number of chicks hatching by around 100 each year, but such management relies upon areas of sufficiently high Lapwing breeding density being available.

The influence of nesting density

The aim of this applied research was to find a way to manage breeding habitat for Lapwing that could be rolled out to areas of conservation-sensitive farming outside nature reserves. Given the subtleties of creating the right patchwork of wet features and long grass at Berney, it’s going to be tricky to get similar benefits on other sites. If habitat management alone is not enough, even when used alongside fox control, then what else can be done?

Becky has a possible answer. “The breeding density measure we are using is the number of active nests within 100 metres of a nest. It may therefore be important not only for nests to be clustered in fields with appropriate conditions, but also that they are at the same stage at the same time. Synchronous nesting is something that we think might be very important.”

fenceFrom data collected on RSPB reserves with and without electric fences (which exclude foxes), it is clear that fencing greatly increases the synchrony of nesting attempts (because most of the early nesting attempts are successful). Given that the density of active nests has a major effect on nest survival rates, increasing the number of nests active at the same time may well provide a greater level of protection, through the mobbing behaviour of Lapwing, and therefore lead to greater hatching success.

As part of a new piece of research (funded by NERC, a UK government research council), Becky and the UEA/RSPB team are going to test whether the provision of temporary electric fences for just the early part of the breeding season can provide sufficient protection to increase hatching success, as a consequence of nests being more synchronous. If early-reared chicks are more likely to fledge than late-reared chicks, there also may be additional knock-on benefits post-hatching and through to the recruitment stage.

Becky is hopeful. “We understand how wader predation rates are influenced by the proximity to verges, the accessibility issues caused by water and the mobbing, defensive behaviour of waders. We are now interested in determining the best way to use this information in management. With the new work with fences we’re going to be specifically exploring the importance of synchrony to both nest success and productivity”.

Scenarios of habitat management options to reduce predator impacts on nesting waders. Rebecca A. Laidlaw, Jennifer Smart, Mark A. Smart and Jennifer A. Gill 2016 Journal of Applied Ecology doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12838

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GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

WaderTales: a taste of Scotland

Here are four uniquely-Scottish WaderTales blogs to read:

scottish-wadertalesEstablishing breeding requirements of Whimbrel  focuses on the different habitat needs of adults and chicks in Shetland.

Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops details significant declines in Scotland, at least partly explained by predation. An increasing number have now taken to nesting on roofs.

UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57% presents the results of an RSPB survey that was published in Bird Study.

Prickly problems for waders explains how SNH are trying to deal with introduced Hedgehogs in the Outer Hebrides, where they are a major problem for breeding waders.

And here are another six which may well appeal to Scottish birdwatchers:

  • NEWS and Oystercatchers focuses on the waders that  winter on coasts, instead of estuaries. It was written to promote the 205/16 coastal survey run by BTO.
  • A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. What are waders looking for?

There are 30 WaderTales blogs. The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Black-tailed Godwits and Volcanic Eruptions

Around 360 earthquakes were detected in Iceland in the week beginning 4 December, which is pretty normal. Earthquakes can give hints about impending volcanic eruptions so they’re important to Icelanders –  and, by implication, to Icelandic waders too.

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In the long term, volcanic ash provides the nutrients that improve fertility, as you can read in How volcanic eruptions help waders, but short-term effects can be seriously negative. This was what Tómas Gunnarsson discovered when he went out to count godwit broods at what should have been the height of the 2011 breeding season. He found only two pairs that showed signs of having broods. Was the Grímsvötn eruption between 21 and 28 May to blame?

Assessing producivity

Iceland hosts internationally important breeding populations of several wader species, including almost the entire population of the islandica subspecies of Black-tailed Godwits. For several years, wader biologists in Iceland have been monitoring the breeding performance of Black-tailed Godwits in the Southern Lowlands, by counting pairs with broods along a 198 km transect. Their theory was that breeding performance would be better in warm years because of the advantages of early nesting in warm springs.

graphWith six years of data, a team drawn from the universities of Iceland, Aveiro (Portugal) and East Anglia (UK) have published a paper in the BOU Journal IBIS, which fouses upon the relationship between spring temperature and the number of Black-tailed Godwit broods. In the top graph, taken from the paper, it is clear that there is a lot of variation in productivity, with the lower graph showing a strong association between mean May temperatures and the number of Black-tailed Godwit pairs with chicks. What stands out is  the outlier for 2011, which is excluded from the calculations that produce the regression line. For the five other years R² = 0.94, indicating a very close link between May temperature and productivity, as predicted. Using the mean temperature for May 2011, the number of pairs of godwits with chicks that might have been expected to have been seen in 2011 is about 25 – rather than just two.

The full methods can be viewed in this paper:

Effects of spring temperature and volcanic eruptions on wder productivity. Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson, Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A Alves, Böðvar Þórisson & Jennifer A Gill. IBIS (2017) DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12449

The ash effect

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Eyjafjallajokull in 2010

We all remember the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. This produced copious amounts of ash, most of which was blown south to mainland Europe, disrupting air travel. Grimsvötn, which erupted in May 2011, was less famous but actually depositied a lot more ash in Iceland, especially in the Southern Lowlands.

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Ash  covered pools and clogged insect traps

On dry days, fieldworkers working in this study area used face masks to protect their respiration, as simply walking through vegetation disturbed large amounts of ash into the air. A layer of ash was frequently observed covering pools in wetlands and traps for invertebrate sampling were often clogged with ash. Short-term negative effects of volcanic dust on birds have been reported previously, probably acting through increased invertebrate mortality, and the low count of successful broods in the warm summer of 2011 seems to bear this out.

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An alarming parent godwit

By monitoring breeding Black-tailed Godwits in southern Iceland, the wader scientists have shown that volcanic activity can have a major impact  on bird productivity. Productivity was back to what appears to be normal (when corrected for mean temperature) by the next summer. The lack of recruitment in 2011 seems to have been reflected in a slight decrease in the counts of Black-tailed Godwits in the United Kingdom in the winter 2011/12 (as measured by WeBS counts), with a resumption in what is generally an upward population trend in 2012/13.

The rapid recovery of productivity in the year following the volcanic eruption (2012) indicates that the negative effects of the incident seem to be have been short in duration. Whimbrels in the same region were also affected by volcanic activity in the summer of the 2011 eruption (Katrínardóttir et al. 2015). In the long-term, the effects of volcanic activity on waders in Iceland are most likely to be positive, as volcanic dust recharges vegetated land with nutrients and buffers pH. Densities of waders across Iceland are generally higher where volcanic dust inputs are higher (Gunnarsson et al. 2015).

singleThis study shows how annual variation in productivity can vary greatly in response to rare and extreme events. As expected for a long-lived species, effects of a single year of very low productivity were short in duration and probably had a limited effect on the population growth rate. The pronounced effect that spring temperature has on annual variation in productivity is likely to be a more significant factor in the future population trajectory of waders, given the ongoing and rapid warming of Arctic and Sub-arctic regions.

Effects of spring temperature and volcanic eruptions on wder productivity. Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson, Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A Alves, Böðvar Þórisson & Jennifer A Gill. IBIS (2017) DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12449


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

Establishing breeding requirements of Whimbrel

Breeding Whimbrel may be associated with wet heaths but chicks need small pools and ditches too

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One of the advantages for waders (shorebirds) is that parents can lead their chicks to suitable feeding areas almost as soon as they are hatched. This means that the habitat in which parents choose to secrete their nests can be very different to the habitat in which their youngsters will later forage.

ad-for-blogAs part of a study into the potential impacts of a large wind farm proposal on Shetland, a team from Alba Ecology Ltd and Natural Research Projects Ltd collected data on the habitat associations of wader species, particularly Whimbrel, on Mainland Shetland. A new paper, in the BTO journal Bird Study shows that habitats used by Whimbrel chicks for feeding are significantly different to those used by adults for feeding and nesting.

Habitat characteristics of breeding Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus on Mainland Shetland, Scotland, UK by Kate Massey, Peter Cosgrove, Fergus Massey, Digger Jackson & Mark Chapman

Fourteen sites across Mainland Shetland were studied, in order to identify the three main requirements of Whimbrel – adult territorial and foraging habitats, nest site habitats and chick feeding habitats. The sites were spread across central and west Mainland Shetland, focusing on areas regularly used by breeding Whimbrel. Between them, these held between 90 and 100 pairs, out of a local total of 150 local pairs.

chick-for-blogWhilst adult Whimbrels used blanket bog, dominated by ling heather, cottongrass and other species associated with wet heath, when both nesting and feeding, the structure of habitats used by chicks was very different. These were characterized by small, wet and often linear features, with plenty of mosses and plants such as purple moor-grass and bulbous rush. The presence of these flashes, ditches and former peat-cuttings may be crucial to the successful breeding of Whimbrels.

Sad times for the Curlew family

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Based on IUCN BirdLife assessments

As outlined in the blog Is the Curlew really near-threatened? we have probably already lost 2 out of 8 of the members of the curlew family – definitely Eskimo Curlew and possibly Slender-billed Curlew. Although Whimbrels are not currently causing official concern, there is certainly a need to be watchful. This paper is therefore an important addition to the written information about the habitat requirements of the species. The conclusions reached by the authors may well be of interest to scientists tackling tricky issues relating to the conservation of European Curlew. Across Wales and Ireland, breeding populations have been decimated (literally).

 Providing the right habitat for Shetland’s Whimbrel

 For Shetland’s Whimbrel, the habitat differences between adult feeding/nesting locations and chick foraging locations were very striking and suggest that the presence of both types of habitat may be of importance. Chicks move out of the heavily grazed open heather areas, in which nests are often made, and into wetter and taller, mixed, and structurally-diverse vegetation, where it is easier to hide from predators such as gulls, corvids and skuas, and to find food. If suitable habitat for Whimbrel chick foraging is limited, then chick growth and survival may be compromised. This paper suggests that management aimed at benefiting breeding Whimbrel needs to address the habitat needs of chicks, in terms of wet features, as well as the habitat needs of adults for foraging and nesting. You can read more in the paper.

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Grazed heather areas (left) are favoured by feeding and nesting adults, while chicks prefer wet flashes (right). Photos: Peter Cosgrove

 Work on other upland wader species has shown that food availability, vegetation structure and cover from predators may at least partly explain habitat preferences of chicks. When tracking Golden Plover families in northern England, Mark Whittingham and colleagues found that chicks selected the edges of marshy habitats. They recommended that drainage ditches should be blocked, in order to provide more suitable feeding habitat. An added benefit of this sort of measure is that more water is held on moorland, which helps to reduce flooding downstream.

Lowland wet grasslands in Broads

Shallow ditches increase Lapwing productivity: Mike Page/RSPB

As Peter Cosgrove, one of the authors of the new paper has commented, “The more I read and discover about wader chicks, the more I see the importance of small, wet flushes with cover – maybe this is a general feature of many species?” As you can read in A helping hand for Lapwings, the provision of wet features, particularly foot-drains, is crucial to the successful fledging of species in a more open landscape.

A matter of scale?

Creating the right habitat mosaic for adults and chicks will depend upon the scale of the movements of family parties of the wader species that is causing conservation concerns. Tómas Gunnarsson reports that family groups of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits can cover large distances. One brood of small chicks (less than five days old) was found a week later 3 km away. Whimbrels may be able to select areas with suitable nesting and nearby chick-rearing potential or perhaps they can also move their chicks longer distances, if necessary? Research into the movements of family parties might tell us whether moving chicks for a kilometre or more could have adverse consequences, in terms of growth or survival. Presumably, adults would prefer to find the right mix of habitats within relatively close proximity, which suggests that managing grazed heath to provide a suitable mosaic of cover for nests, areas of short vegetation and wet features may be a sensible conservation prescription for Whimbrel.

Habitat characteristics of breeding Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus on Mainland Shetland, Scotland, UK by Kate Massey, Peter Cosgrove, Fergus Massey, Digger Jackson & Mark Chapman


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

 

 

 

Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-top

After over 150 years of successful exploitation of new breeding areas, there are signs that UK Oystercatchers are experiencing predation problems in the Scottish hills and facing disease-related issues on at least one Welsh estuary.

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Oystercatcher parents can fly off in search of food for chicks (Tómas Gunnarsson)

There are Oystercatchers flying over our Norfolk garden with worms to take back to their chicks, travelling up to a mile each way on feeding trips. This commuting behaviour opens up nesting opportunities not available to more conventional wader chicks which find food for themselves, albeit with some coaching. A pair of Oystercatchers can nest on the island of a former gravel pit and move up and down a river valley, to feed in wet grassland, pastures and arable fields, or hatch their chicks on the flat roof of a school and probe for worms on the playing fields. This flexibility has facilitated the spread of the species in England, and may be helping to compensate for declining numbers in the core breeding areas of Scotland.

A 150-year story of expansion

P1000520The Oystercatcher is a very distinctive and noisy bird. When pairs move into new areas they get noticed, providing us with a reliable history of their range expansion over the last two centuries. We might not now be surprised to see breeding pairs well inland, in lowland river valleys or on upland sheep pasture, but these were solely coastal breeders until about 1840, when the first pairs were recorded inland of the north Grampian coast. This nesting behaviour spread within Scotland and reached the English side of the Solway in about 1900 and Northumberland twenty years later.  You can read more in The Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds

The left-hand map below, from Bird Atlas 2007-11, illustrates the continuation of the expansion of the Oystercatcher breeding range between 1968-72, when the first few pairs had established themselves on gravel pits in the English Midlands, through to 2008-11, when pairs were well spread through English counties north of the M4. Oystercatchers have continued to colonise new counties; areas occupied over the last forty years are shown as red triangles, with larger ones being more recent.

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Maps of Oystercatcher breeding distribution from Bird Atlas 2007-11, which was a joint project between the Briitish Trust for Ornithology, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club

At first glance, all looks well. However, the right-hand map, which shows the change in abundance between the breeding season surveys of 1988-91 and 2008-11, tells a different story. Densities have been increasing in England (pink colours – darker means higher increase) but there have been major declines across much of Scotland (grey colours – darker means bigger drop).

websAlthough there has not been a large drop in the number of wintering Oystercatchers across the whole of the United Kingdom, the declining number of breeding birds in Scotland may well be to blame for the drop in winter Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts for the country.  The graph alongside suggests that Scottish estuary counts are down by nearly 50% since the peak counts of 2002/03.

Breeding Season

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Schematic summary of migration of Oystercatchers ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland, from Time to Fly by Jim Flegg (BTO)

Oystercatchers nest early in Britain and Ireland and most will have been on territory for several weeks by the end of March. At the same time, there can still be big flocks on the coasts. Some of these are young birds, which won’t breed until two or three years of age, but others will be adults that are fattening up in preparation for migrations to countries such as Iceland and Norway.  Oystercatchers breed beyond the Arctic Circle and all the way to the northern tip of both countries, where spring arrives several weeks later than it does in the UK.

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Verónica Méndez-Aragon

When choosing a territory, a pair of Oystercatchers will look for food and somewhere to place a nest. The archetypal nest site might be on a beach, where the eggs blend in with the shingle that forms the nest cup, marine invertebrates can be collected from below the high tide-line and earthworms may be available on near-by fields, golf-courses or lawns, but the species has learnt to breed in a wide range of habitats.  When selecting somewhere to lay a clutch, usually of 2 to 3 eggs, a simple stretch of the imagination can turn the image of a beach into a river-bank, a gravel track or a bare patch in a field.

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Three Oystercatcher chicks on the roof of The Cotterell Building at the University of Stirling (Ben Darvill / BTO Scotland)

Adding in a third dimension takes Oystercatchers to the flat roofs of buildings, such as those of Stirling University.  Here, all that lies between the fox-free shingle roof and worm-rich lawns below is a vertical drop for the chicks, when they are old enough. High-rise living is an international trait in Oystercatchers; one of the birds ringed in Norfolk by the Wash Wader Ringing Group nested in a window-box in Norway and the practice of roof-nesting is common in the Netherlands.

Oystercatchers look after their chicks for much longer than other wader parents.  Most wader chicks start finding their own insect food from day one, following their parents as they learn to pluck prey from the undersides of plant leaves or from the surface of mud and grass mosaics. Oystercatcher chicks expect a lot of their food to be brought to them. Roof-nesting chicks have no choice other than to wait for dinner to be delivered whilst those on the ground are able to do some of the work themselves.  Youngsters will beg for food for several weeks, even when they can fly, extending the parenting period beyond that which is normal for most waders. The team studying the changing migratory behavior of Icelandic Oystercatcher has found youngsters on mussel beds begging for food in October. (See Migratory Decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers)

Population Trends

The Oystercatcher is an amber-listed species of conservation concern in the UK, to reflect the importance of these shores to the European breeding population of the species and their reliance outside the breeding season on a small number of estuaries. Although we know that individuals can live for up to 40 years, all is not completely rosy for the species, with predation and food supplies causing problems.

SAMPLED_5990014_300____As has been discussed in the recent Moorland Forum, ‘Understanding Predation report, declines in Oystercatcher numbers have occurred in some moorland parts of the range and there has been a drop in numbers of 29% across Scotland as a whole, since the start of the Breeding Bird Survey in 1995.  The English population had increased by 56% in the same period but this does not compensate for the numerically larger losses from the core northern areas. Local representatives and researchers who contributed to the Moorland Forum report highlighted crows, foxes, buzzards and ravens as the four main predators that threaten the success of breeding Oystercatchers.

Coastal food supplies are critical for Oystercatchers in the winter months and for at least the first two summers of a young bird’s life.  While they take a wide range of shellfish and worms, one of the key elements of the diet on many estuaries is cockles. In the past this has brought Oystercatchers into conflict with cockle fisheries. There was a major controversy in the 1970s when, at the behest of cockle fishers and despite the objection of conservationists in the UK and in Norway, permission was given to shoot 10,000 Oystercatchers on the Burry Inlet in South Wales – and embarrassment when cockle numbers continued to decline.

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These cockles have died very recently (image from CEFAS report)

The latest cockle problem is affecting both birds and people, again on the Burry Inlet but also in sites as far apart as the Dee, the Wash and the Dutch coast. Mass die-offs of young cockles are happening in most years, caused by three new parasites, first identified in Spain, America and Portugal, the worst of which causes the haplosporidian infection. In the five winters up until 1999/2000, the average peak count for Oystercatcher on the WeBS count on the Burry Inlet was 17,188, dropping in each of the next three periods to reach 12,195 in the five years up until 2014/15. This represents a 30% decline.

With no available treatments and with the parasites spreading into new areas, life could get tough for human cockle-gatherers and flocks of Oystercatchers, which rely on shellfish for their income and survival, respectively. You can read more about these issues in a CEFAS report which focuses on the Burry Inlet.

Summary: caring, spreading, declining and threatened by disease

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Unlike most wader parents, Oystercatchers find food to feed to their chicks (Tómas Gunnarsson)

  • Cockle die-offs have not as yet had a major, national population-level effect on wintering Oystercatchers but the presence of this threat to Oystercatchers and to other species that feed on young cockles, such as Knot and Turnstone, emphasises the need for continued monitoring and the value of WeBS counts.
  • Breeding Oystercatchers are in decline in the uplands and there is agreement that the role of predators in the moorland environment needs to be better understood. The Moorland Forum report mentioned above also focuses on four red-listed species: the near-threatened Curlew (see separate WaderTales blog), Lapwing, Grey Partridge and Black Grouse.
  • The Oystercatcher has been successfully expanding its breeding range and making use of new nesting opportunities for at least 150 years. Increases in England are, to some extent, compensating for declines in Scotland.
  • The fact that parents collect food for their young opens up breeding opportunities in areas where there are inadequate supplies of food adjacent to safe nesting sites. Clever birds!

This is a modified version of an article that first appeared in Shooting Times & Country magazine.


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