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 (https://www.nature.scot/information-library-data-and-research/official-statistics/official-statistics-terrestrial-breeding-birds)

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%

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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.

UK BBS


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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WaderTales: a taste of Scotland

11 Dec RK LWhy is Scotland losing its breeding waders? The latest WaderTales blog with a Scottish flavour is a story from Strathallan, based on observations by Mike Bell.

“If you’ve taken the A9 north of Stirling, through Strathallan, perhaps you might 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.”

Click here for a link to the blog

 

And here are five more uniquely Scottish WaderTales blogs

headerWaiting for the wind – spring flocks of Black-tailed Godwit on Scotland Observations from Tiree by John Bowler and others gave a unique insight into what happens if northerly winds set in at migration time.

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 nine 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?
  • The not-so-Grey Plover focuses on the moult of the Grey Plover but the principles are relevant to determining the ages of birds of other species.

There are over 40 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.

UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57%

Research from RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, with University of Aberdeen (School of Biological Sceinces), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Natural Research Ltd

Male Dotterel brooding chicks: Alistair Baxter

Male Dotterel brooding chicks: Alistair Baxter

I have only once climbed a mountain to count Dotterel, with Phil Whitfield decades ago, but that is enough to appreciate how many hundreds of hours of hard work lie behind the statement, “The number of Dotterel breeding in the UK declined by over half between 1987/88 and 2011”. This is the headline in a paper published in the November 2015 issue of the BTO journal, Bird Study:

Changes in the abundance and distribution of a montane specialist bird, the Dotterel Charadrius morinellus, in the UK over 25 years. Daniel B Hayhow, Steven R Ewing, Alistair Baxter, Andy Douse, Andrew Stanbury, D Philip Whitfield & Mark A Eaton Bird Study 62:4, 443-456

As Des Thompson and Phil Whitfield wrote at the conclusion of their account for the 1988-91 Breeding Atlas, “The Arctic affinities of the British Dotterel, its beauty, its rarity and its likely sensitivity to habitat and climate change secure its place as one of our most fascinating breeding birds”.  Well-documented stories of females laying clutches in Scotland, to be brooded by their male partners, and then flying on to Norway to lay second clutches add an air of mystery too.

The 2011 Dotterel Survey was carried out under the Statutory Conservation Agencies/RSPB Annual Breeding Bird Survey (SCARABBS) programme and was funded by the RSPB and SNH (Alistair Baxter)

The 2011 Dotterel Survey was carried out under the Statutory Conservation Agencies/RSPB Annual Breeding Bird Survey (SCARABBS) programme and was funded by the RSPB and SNH (Photo: Alistair Baxter)

The population estimate of 423 breeding male Dotterel in 2011 represents a decline of 43% since 1999, when the comparable total was 747 pairs, and of 57% since 1987/1988 (981 pairs).  All regions except the West Highlands had lower numbers in 2011 than in 1999, with the core area of the East Highlands (the Grampians east of the A9) experiencing a significant decrease of 32% since 1999 and 56% since 1987.  This massif has become increasingly important, with 60% of the pairs in what amounts to 30% of the potential breeding habitat for Scottish Dotterel.

No Dotterel were recorded outwith Scotland during the systematic national survey but Bird Atlas 2007-11 fieldwork did add a record from Northern England.  In the absence of annual monitoring, a national survey can only provide a snapshot for a species.  However, information gathered during the four summers of the Bird Atlas project and as part of an ongoing detailed study suggests that the results for 2011 are representative of the current UK Dotterel population – and that the declines are therefore very much real.

Population changes across the range

Large-scale surveys of Dotterel are difficult, due to the remoteness of many of their breeding sites, and monitoring elsewhere across their European breeding range tends to be based on visits to particular sites or using transects.  Given the plasticity shown by the females – including an ability to nest in two countries in one year – changes in apparent numbers could potentially reflect the fact that birds breed further north in some springs than in others.  The best series of data come from Swedish Lapland, where Svensson & Anderson reported no changes in the population over the period 1972 to 2011.

In, Finland, Pulliainen & Saari observed that most females left their study area after egg-laying and hypothesised that this was in order to secure more mates further north. Lucker et al. have found evidence for higher rates of shared incubation by females at the more northern extent of the species’ breeding range than those breeding further south, providing some evidence to support this hypothesis.  Saari had previously estimated the Finnish population to be 90% less than in the early 1900s and suggested that hunting in early 20th century and overgrazing by reindeer may have been to blame.   Since the 1960s, the tree line has advanced and large areas of the mountain heath are now covered by scattered Scots Pines, making the habitat largely unsuitable for Dotterel.  Similar processes, associated with warmer conditions, could have major, negative impacts the number of Dotterel breeding in Scotland.

Is the SPA network working for Dotterel in Scotland?

Racomotrium heath is an important and increasingly rare habitat (Alistair Baxter)

Racomotrium heath is an important and increasingly rare habitat (Alistair Baxter)

The designation of Special Protected Areas (SPA), based on the results of the 1987/88 survey has been a key tool in the efforts to conserve Dotterels in Scotland.  This network of montane sites has helped to provide a focus for research funding and planning considerations.  Encouragingly, SPAs have supported between 50% and 60% of the population since designation.

The decline in numbers of Dotterel within and outwith the SPA network is of concern, but in terms of site occupancy, sites in SPA/SSSIs were more likely to be occupied than those outside the protected area network.  Protected area designation has been shown to be good for a group of northern species at the trailing edge of their distribution in the UK, although this effect decreased at higher latitudes and altitudes (Gillingham et al. 2015).

Explaining the declines

The well-referenced, discussion section of the paper looks at the potential reasons for the changes to Dotterel populations and assesses the available evidence.

Habitat change in the high mountains: Racomitrium moss heath has been shown to provide important foraging opportunities for Dotterel of all ages; this is a habitat that has been in a long-term decline over the last half century.   Studies have outlined how overgrazing and levels of atmospheric nitrogen interact, resulting in changes to the composition and extent of montane heaths.

A frequent prey of both adult and juvenile Dotterel is Tipulid (cranefly) larvae which require dense mats of moss vegetation.  Changes in composition and extent of Racomitrium heath could result in reduced prey availability, potentially affecting settlement decisions and breeding success for Dotterel.

Raven abundance has increased across much of the Dotterel's range (Map from Bird Atlas 2007–11, which is a joint project between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club)

Raven abundance has increased across much of the Dotterel’s range (Map from Bird Atlas 2007–11, which is a joint project between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club)

Predation in the breeding season: Predation of Dotterel eggs by Ravens can cause localised declines, and lower return rates have been reported for adult male Dotterel after clutch loss by predation. The period of decline in Dotterel is coincident with an increase in range and abundance, of Ravens in Scotland.  Although previous work has found no significant negative associations between Raven numbers and upland wader populations, this interaction may well warrant further investigation.

Disturbance: There is little strong evidence for widespread effects of increased visitor numbers, despite negative impacts of such activities on heath condition.

Pressures in wintering areas: Pesticide use and hunting on the wintering grounds, North Africa and Spain, have been suggested as possible factors in the decline.

More attractive conditions further north: Upland species, such as Dotterel, are cold-adapted and may well find northerly areas more conducive to breeding.  Without a flyway approach to Dotterel monitoring it is not possible to distinguish between a northerly shift in the breeding area of Dotterel and population-scale declines.

What next?

The 2011 Dotterel survey clearly shows the decline in numbers of Dotterel breeding in the UK and contraction to core sites in the East and Central Highlands.  Further, detailed work is required to understand the mechanisms driving the observed population trends, which may well involve studies in wintering areas and migration hot-spots, as well as a mixture of ecological research and ongoing monitoring in the mountains of Scotland.

The 2011 Dotterel survey has provided a spring-board for detailed research by Alistair Baxter, which is being written up as part of his PhD at the University of Aberdeen.  By repeating studies carried out during the 1980s by SNH, he hopes to see whether changes in habitat availability, habitat quality and invertebrate abundance can help to explain the decline in numbers in the last thirty or so years.

Ptarmigan is another montane species that will be targeted by

Ptarmigan is a key montane species that is being targeted by “What’s Up?” (Alistair Baxter)

Given how much effort has to go into any survey of upland species and the relative infrequency of national surveys, it is great that two recent initiatives are making the most of the calories burned to climb our highest peaks.  Many volunteers involved in the annual Breeding Bird Survey of upland squares now add an adjacent square to the original, randomly-selected plots, in order to increase the sample size in these sparsely populated but special bird areas.  Another valuable contribution is being made by mountain-lovers who know their birds and who are now contributing to the BTO Scotland led “What’s Up?” project.  This focuses on species that are sensitive to climate change and disturbance, such as Ptarmigan, Snow Bunting and Dotterel.

In an era of ever tightening budgets, it is unclear when it might be possible to organise another national survey for Dotterel.  Let’s hope that, until then, “What’s Up?” can help to alert us to distribution changes and that annual surveys of key sites might provide indications of national population changes. 

Dotterel was moved onto the red list of species of conservation concern on 3 December 2015.


 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