Chicks and ticks

How do ticks affect Golden Plover chicks? pic chick on moveBy utilising data from an existing study, David Douglas and James Pearce-Higgins have discovered that Golden Plover chicks that carry more sheep-ticks Ixodes ricinus have a lower chance of survival. Their findings are written up as a paper in Bird Study. The work is only based on a small sample and the data don’t identify the mechanism that leads to increased mortality but, given the current interest in the biological effects of ticks, the findings are interesting.

Costs of carrying ticks

Carrying ticks has three potential effects on wader chicks

  • Ticks suck blood, which could be costly.
  • Ticks can introduce diseases, via tick-borne bacteria and viruses.
  • There may be effects on feeding efficiency, via impaired vision, hearing etc.

Sheep ticks act as vectors for a variety of pathogens, including the louping ill virus (LIV) which can affect a range of domestic and wild mammals, as well as wild birds. LIV is known to cause high mortality of Red Grouse chicks but there has been no previous assessment of the effects of sheep ticks on other moorland birds, such as breeding waders. It should be noted that wader chicks eat ticks – so they are not ‘all bad’.

pic ticks

Ticks can clearly be seen on the unfeathered lower eyelid of this young chick. There are smaller ticks attached to the gape at the base of the beak as well.

All sorts of things could influence the probability of tick infestation in birds:

  • Ticks may be able to survive better in warmer conditions.
  • Tick numbers can be affected by the number of mammalian hosts.
  • Mammal to bird transfer could be affected by land management and habitat structure.

Ecological interactions between ectoparasitic ticks and waders are not well understood. Given possible increases in tick abundance with climate change, the authors of the new study felt that it would be useful to test whether ticks have detectable effects on the Golden Plover chicks that carry them.

Spotting an opportunity

The Golden Plover chicks that provided the data used in this paper were caught as part of a wind farm study at Gordonbush in northern Scotland, a site made up of 33 km2 of blanket bog. There is more information about the study in these two papers:

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Gordonbush, prior to the development of a wind farm

Tick numbers on Golden Plover chicks were collected at the time of ringing (within 24 hours of hatching) and during subsequent recaptures. Recapture was facilitated by locating tagged birds using radio-location. On each capture, chicks were weighed and the number of ticks visible on the bare parts of the head (around the eyes and bill) were counted. Most ticks attach themselves to the bare parts of the head and neck.

Variation in tick loads on Golden Plover chicks

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Incubating adult. Golden Plovers commence primary moult at the start of (or before) incubation. Read more here.

The number of sheep-ticks found on these Golden Plover chicks was higher than those previously reported for waders but were within the range of those found on Red Grouse on moorland. Previous wader studies had been focused upon areas with sheep, which were routinely treated to reduce tick infestations. In the current study it was found that:

  • 90% of chicks were carrying ticks, with between 1 and 12 ticks being found on each affected Golden Plover chick. The highest tick-load was found in mid-age chicks.
  • Tick loads were higher during periods with warmer maximum temperatures and when chicks were estimated to have moved through taller vegetation between recaptures.
  • Chick growth rates were depressed by high tick-loads, especially when temperatures were warmer.
  • Of the 21 chicks, 4 fledged, 13 died and the outcomes for the other 4 were unknown. Half of the deaths appeared to have been due to predation and half to starvation/exposure.
  • Chicks that were heavier (for their ages) were more likely to survive. Those with higher tick loads (for their ages) were less likely to survive.

With the small sample size, it was not possible to detect a correlation between tick load and chick growth rates but low survival was correlated with high tick-loads. This had not previously been documented for waders.

Implications for wader conservation

pic red deerGordonbush is an area where there is no grazing by domestic animals so the likely mammalian tick-hosts are Red Deer in particular and also Mountain Hare. The correlation between warmer weather and tick numbers, found in this study, could be explained by increased tick activity, while the link to taller vegetation may well be explained by ticks seeking damper microhabitats. In their discussion of the results, the authors suggest potential ways that ticks and waders, of different ages, might interact. Anyone looking to expand the work, in order to understand the mechanics of tick infestation, is likely to spend more time looking at ticks than waders!

pic Curlew

Could ticks be reducing survival probabilities for  young Curlew?

The authors of this paper were not able to test for the presence of disease (such as LIV) in their Golden Plover population but this is a plausible cause of the increased probability of mortality. In a study in Yorkshire by Newborn et al. (2009), no evidence was found of LIV in wader chicks, whereas it was present in 3.6% of a sample of Red Grouse chicks at the same sites. Newborn and colleagues report that a single Eurasian Curlew chick has previously been recorded to be seropositive for LIV. In the Newborn study, the lowest incidence of ticks among waders was in Lapwings (6% of broods), followed by Golden Plover (47% of broods had ticks) and Curlew (91% of broods). There is a hint, in these data, that ticks might more commonly attach themselves to wader chicks that are found in taller vegetation.

Despite high tick loads on chicks, and the correlation with lower chick survival, the overall percentage of Golden Plover chicks known to fledge in the Gordonbush study (19%) is comparable with other studies. Perhaps ticks are only causing the deaths of chicks that would have died anyway?

pic Red GrouseThe authors suggest that no case should be made for tick-control, to help breeding waders, until it is clear whether tick-based chick mortality limits Golden Plover and other wader populations on moorland. In the paper, they argue that previous attempts to reduce moorland tick abundance and tick loads on Red Grouse have failed to detect convincing evidence of improvements in grouse survival, breeding success or post-breeding densities.

A range of methods have been deployed in attempts to reduce moorland tick abundance and tick loads on Red Grouse, including reducing densities of mammalian tick hosts (Mountain Hare and deer) and deploying acaricides (as used in sheep dips). See this link to material from GWCT on ticks and Red Grouse.

In conclusion

pic older chickWork at a single site over two years appears to have documented a level of tick infestation in Golden Plovers that is associated with chick mortality. It is not clear how chicks are being affected, particularly given that there is insufficient evidence thus far that ticks affect chick growth rate.

The authors collected the data analysed in this paper for other studies – the focus was not on tick effects – and they hope that funding might be found for future research focusing upon the associations between ticks and waders, other birds and other animals. Until that happens, it would be useful if shorebird biologists who repeatedly handle wader chicks, in order to measure growth and survival rates, could routinely record the presence or absence of ticks.

Given that warming temperatures could lead to increased tick abundance, this seems to be a good time to discover more about tick behaviour, the importance of ticks as a food source for wader chicks and whether tick-loads are reducing growth rates and fledging success in other wader species.

Paper

This research is published in the BTO journal Bird Study. Click on the details below to link to the full paper:

Variation in ectoparasitic sheep tick Ixodes ricinus infestation on European Golden Plover chicks Pluvialis apricaria and implications for growth and survival. David J. T. Douglas and James W. Pearce-Higgins. Bird Study. June 2019.

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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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Ireland’s wintering waders

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There’s still space for a few Knot

The island of Ireland is a great refuge for wintering waders, washed as it is by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. It’s just a quick hop across the Atlantic from Iceland for Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plovers, Redshanks and Oystercatchers. For birds travelling from Siberia, such as Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers, it’s a longer journey but one that’s well worth making.

If Ireland is such a great destination for shorebirds, why do the latest population estimates reveal a decline of nearly 20% in wader numbers in just five years?

This blog summarises the wader information, published in Estimates of waterbird numbers wintering in Ireland, 2011/12 – 2015/16 in Irish Birds. The totals in the report are split into counts for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland but, given that waders don’t recognise borders, most of the comments in this blog relate to the whole of Ireland. The results for 2011-16 have been compared to the equivalent figures for 2006-11 and set in the context of the totals of wintering waders throughout the East Atlantic flyway, as combined by Wetlands International. The Irish data were collected by the amazing volunteers who make monthly, winter counts for I-WeBS (BirdWatch Ireland & National Parks & Wildlife Service) and WeBS (BTO/RSPB/JNCC in Northern Ireland).

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Headline figures

Fifteen species are considered in this report. The most numerous are Lapwing and Golden Plover, which account for an estimate over 170,000 individuals between them, whilst the smallest contributions are made by Purple Sandpiper (662) and Greenshank (1317). In total, the average estimated number of waders in the winters during the period 2011-16 is 429,170 birds but it should be noted that this total excludes two widespread and common species – Woodcock and Snipe – as well as the enigmatic Jack Snipe. To update previous estimates for these three species, which were last made using distribution and abundance data collected during Bird Atlas 2007-11 fieldwork, it would be necessary to run a special inland survey. There is also some question about Lapwing and Golden Plover numbers, simply because so many of these birds are found in areas that are not covered by monthly waterbird counts.

Biggest changes

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The Irish Sanderling population has increased by 13.2% in five years

The combined average winter maximum count of the 15 wader species examined in the report declined by 102,310 birds (19%) in the five-year period between 2006-11 and 2011-16. This is extremely worrying. If Lapwing and Golden Plover are excluded from consideration, as there is uncertainty about the completeness of counts, there are five species that are of particular concern; Knot numbers dropped by more than 40% and Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Redshank and Turnstone numbers by more than 20%. The Purple Sandpiper population estimate dropped by over 30% but relatively small numbers of this species are encountered around the rocky coast of Ireland. The only species to show increases were Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit and Greenshank.

In a previous WaderTales blog, there is detailed information about population estimates for Great Britain: Do population estimates matter? In Great Britain there were similar rates of decline for Redshank and Turnstone (measured over an eight-year, rather than five-year period) but much smaller falls for Knot, Oystercatcher and Dunlin. The possible causes of the changes in Ireland are discussed in the paper in Irish Birds. They include flyway-scale declines (e.g. Knot and Curlew) and the possibility that more birds from the east are now wintering on the coasts of mainland Europe (e.g. Dunlin and Grey Plover).

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European context

Blog tableThe table alongside gives an indication of the relative importance of Ireland, Great Britain and, together, the British Isles to the birds that use the East Atlantic flyway during the winter period. The three columns show the percentage of each species found in each of the three regions. Summarised international counts, as used in the paper, were kindly provided by Wetlands International. In the case of four species, Ireland is host to a significant proportion of the Icelandic breeding population (Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank).

Notes: As mentioned earlier, there are questions about the precision of estimates for Lapwing and Golden Plover, although the population trends are reliable. The Ringed Plover percentage seems high (98% for British Isles) but this may well reflect the fact that the Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey has uncovered significant numbers of the species on the open shores of Great Britain. These extra birds are included in the new totals for GB but not in the flyway total. The percentages for Black-tailed Godwit seem low, as discussed further down.

Ireland is particularly important for Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit, as well as for the Icelandic subspecies of Redshank. Greenshank is excluded because the percentages are below 1% of the flyway population for Ireland and for Great Britain.

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11% of Bar-tailed Godwit on the East Atlantic Flyway spend the winter in Ireland

Although there are important populations of breeding waders in Ireland, the shores and wet fields of the island really come into their own during July and August, when the first ‘winter’ waders arrive, and they only become quiet again in April and May, when the last birds head north and east to nest. A successful breeder is likely only to be away for four or five months, meaning that these waders will spend by far the largest part of the year in Ireland. The island is even more important for immature birds. Young Oystercatchers that arrive from Iceland, Scotland or perhaps Norway when just a few months old are likely to spend the next 30 months in Ireland before making their first trip north. There is a WaderTales migration blog about the Oystercatchers that fly from Iceland: Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers.

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Curlew in the Republic

Curlew numbers in the Republic of Ireland illustrate the relative importance of the country for breeding and non-breeding populations. The winter population estimate for Curlew in the Republic is 28,300 but the most recent survey conducted by BirdWatch Ireland and NPWS, as summarised in the WaderTales blog Ireland’s Curlew Crisis, reveals that the number of breeding birds has crashed to just 138 pairs. Accounting for young Irish birds that have not started to breed, and even if we assume that all Irish birds stay in the country for the winter, then the total number of home-grown Curlew seen in non-breeding flocks is at most about 400. This means that every winter flock of 70 Curlew will contain an average of just one Irish bird. Far more deliver their curl-ew calls with a Scottish, Finnish or Swedish ‘accent’. The map below shows the migration pattern for Curlew ringed in or found in Britain & Ireland.

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Black-tailed Godwit

In the table above, it looks as if 18% of Iceland’s Black-tailed Godwits spend the winter in Ireland. This is probably an underestimate of the importance of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to the species. The flyway total for Black-tailed Godwit is given as between 98,000 and 134,000 in the Irish Birds paper and the percentage figure is based on 110,000. These three figures are almost certainly too high, as they build upon country-based estimates that have subsequently been revised. The true figure is likely to be around 60,000 to 65,000 (J. Gill pers. comm.), which would suggest that the maximum winter count in Ireland of 19,800 represents at least 30% of the islandica Black-tailed Godwits. Add in extra birds that moult in Ireland in the autumn, before moving further south to countries such as Portugal, and other birds that spend spring months on the island, and Ireland becomes even more important for Black-tailed Godwits!

blog BTMost birdwatchers might associate flocks of waders with estuaries but Black-tailed Godwit is an excellent example of a species that also relies on inland fields, either close to estuaries or along river valleys. Whilst undertaking PhD research on Black-tailed Godwits in south-east Ireland, Daniel Hayhow showed that there is insufficient time to find enough estuarine food during the mid-winter tidal cycles, with birds topping up their resources on grassland. You can read more about the energetic consequences of choosing to winter in eastern England, Portugal and Ireland in this blog: Overtaking on migration. Site designation and planning decisions need to take account of the grassland feeding requirements of Black-tailed Godwits and other waders that do not spend all of their time on estuaries, particularly Curlew.

Conservation implications

Some of the issues facing waders may be related to threats that species face in the breeding grounds. However, it may be easier to introduce measures that provide better protection and feeding opportunities in the wintering area, as ways of maintaining populations through the non-breeding season, than it is to deal with problems in the High Arctic. (Although we can all help by reducing carbon emissions, in order to minimise global warming, of course).

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Reading the report, I was reminded of the need to consider a range of conservation issues:

  • Care needs to be taken when considering shoreline developments. These can directly remove habitat or squeeze the width of the intertidal zone.
  • Increased harvesting of shellfish can affect species such as Oystercatcher and Knot and brings risks of introducing alien species and diseases.
  • In the drive to cut carbon emissions, tidal, wave and wind power developments need to be sited in appropriate places.
  • Off-shore harvesting of growing kelp beds has been suggested, as a way of producing fertiliser and biofuels. This process could reduce protection for beaches and change the availability of resources for species such as Turnstone and Sanderling.
  • Grassland areas need to be considered (and not just estuaries) when planning protection for species such as Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.

blog RKPaper

Estimates of waterbird numbers wintering in Ireland, 2011/12 – 2015/16. Brian Burke, Lesley J. Lewis, Niamh Fitzgerald, Teresa Frost, Graham Austin, and T. David Tierney. Irish Birds No. 41, 1-12.

There is a complementary paper in British Birds, covering Great Britain. The wader information is summarised in this blog: Do population estimates matter?


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

Do population estimates matter?

blog top godwitsThis month (March 2019) saw the publication of Population estimates of wintering waterbirds in Great Britain, which includes all the wader species from Little Stint to Curlew. Given that the Wetland Bird Survey already covers about 2000 wetlands and provides annual monitoring, why do we need to know the total number of birds in Great Britain?

I suggest four reasons:

  • If we count the number of Curlew and we have a figure for the European population then we know that Great Britain is responsible for nearly 20% of Europe’s Curlew each winter, thereby strengthening the case for national conservation action;
  • If we have a national figure, then we know that a flock of 2000 Black-tailed Godwit represents (as it turns out) over 5% of the British total, which is a useful criterion when assessing the conservation importance of individual sites;
  • blog GKPopulation totals help to put annual percentage changes into context;
  • And simply because people ask questions such as “how many Greenshank are there in the country during the winter?”

So, here’s the bottom line. In their 2019 review of waterbird numbers in British Birds, a team from BTO, WWT, JNCC & RSPB reveal that an estimated total of 4.9 million waders spend the winter in Great Britain. That’s about one third of all waders on the East Atlantic Flyway. Impressive!

Please note that Northern Ireland figures are included in an upcoming report for the island of Ireland.

Making the counts

The population estimates owe a lot to those who undertake monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts on estuaries, lakes and waterways, during the winter months, year in and year out. Counts from the period 2012/13 to 2016/17 are used in the population estimates that form the basis for the 2019 review. WeBS data have many other uses, as you can read here: Wetland Bird Survey: working for waders.

blog CUFor species of wader that also make use of the open coast, the Non-estuarine Waterbirds Survey of 2015/16 (or NEWS III) provided additional data, updating the NEWS II figures from 2006/07. The vast majority of our wintering Purple Sandpipers are found on open beaches and rocky shores, as well as large numbers of Turnstone, Ringed Plover and Sanderling, together with significant numbers of Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. There’s more about NEWS in this slightly dated blog: NEWS and Oystercatchers for Christmas.

The last assessment of winter wader populations was made by the Avian Population Estimates Panel and published in British Birds in 2013 as Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom (APEP3). In here, estimates for waders were largely based on WeBS data for the period 2004-09 and NEWS II. The new assessment is presented as Population estimates of wintering waterbirds in Great Britain and also published in British Birds. It uses WeBS information for the period 2012-17 and NEWS III data. Effectively, there is an 8-year or 9-year difference between the two sets of figures.

The biggest losers

blog graphicGreat Britain is extremely important in the context of the East Atlantic Flyway, as is obvious from the fact that the area holds nearly five million waders. The WeBs counts already monitor the ups and downs on an annual basis but this review provides an opportunity to turn the percentages into actual numbers. It is concerning that, over a period representing less than a decade, the average maximum winter count for six of the species that were surveyed dropped by a total of over 150,000. These big losers were Knot, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin, ordered by number of birds lost, with Knot seeing the biggest absolute decline.

In preparing the new estimates for the British Birds paper, an opportunity was taken to refine the way that populations are calculated, based on Use of environmental stratification to derive non-breeding population estimates of dispersed waterbirds in Great Britain, by Verónica Méndez et al. The new methodology explains some of the differences between percentage changes reported by WeBS and the percentage changes obtained by comparing the latest population estimates to those in APEP3.

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The Knot estimate dropped from 320,000 to 260,000. This figure is higher than might be expected from the counts that take place at sites covered by WeBS, being larger than the ten-year decline of 14% reported in the last WeBS report. Knot are mobile species within the North Sea and Atlantic Coast wintering area and it is possible that British losses may be explained, at least to some extent, by redistribution.

blog oyc graphThe drop in Oystercatcher numbers from 320,000 to 290,000 appears to be less than 10%, compared to a ten-year decline of 12% on WeBS. Improved analysis of NEWS data helped to add some more birds to the open-coast estimate so the 10% fall may underestimate the seriousness of the Oystercatcher situation. The 25-year Oystercatcher decline on WeBS is 26%, which is not surprising if you look at the changes to breeding numbers in Scotland, where most British birds are to be found. There’s more about this in: From shingle beach to roof-top.

blog RKThe Redshank decline of 26,000 is higher than would be predicted from WeBS figures, suggesting a drop of over 20% since APEP3, rather than ‘just’ 15% for the ten-year WeBS figure. This is a species that also features strongly in the Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey and that might explain the difference. Wintering Redshank are mostly of British and Icelandic origin, with the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) suggesting a ten-year decline of 24% in our British breeding birds.

The Curlew is now globally recognised as near-threatened. The latest winter estimate is 120,000, down from 140,000 in APEP3. The new total represents between 14% and 19% of the European population, which means that we have a particular responsibility for this much-loved species. Only the Netherlands holds more wintering Curlew than Great Britain. Is the Curlew really nearly-threatened? is one of several blogs about Curlew in the WaderTales catalogue at www.wadertales.wordpress/about .

blog 2 DNIt has been suggested that the long-term declines of Grey Plover and Dunlin  may be associated with short-stopping, with new generations of both species wintering closer to their eastern breeding grounds than used to be the case. WeBS results indicate a 31% drop in Grey Plover and a 42% drop in Dunlin, over the last 25 years. There was a loss of 10,000 for both species between APEP3 and the new review, representing declines of 23% and 3% respectively.

The biggest winners

There are four big winners in the period between APEP3 (2004-09) and the new review (2012-16), although, even here, not all as it seems.

The Avocet has seen further dramatic gains. with the estimated wintering population rising to 8,700. The increase is not quite as big as might have been expected, based on the 43% rise seen in ten years of WeBS counts, but it is still a dramatic continuation of a 40-year trend.

The numbers of Bar-tailed Godwit and Ringed Plover are both substantially higher but at least a proportion of each of these changes is linked to the better coverage and more sophisticated sampling methods that were discussed earlier. Bar-tailed Godwit increases may also reflect redistribution around the North Sea.

blog BW graphOne of the consequences of improved statistical techniques, as used this time around, is the apparent decline in the estimated population of Black-tailed Godwit. The new figure of 39,000 is 4,000 smaller than in APEP3, despite the fact that the WeBS graph clearly shows an increase. Interpolation using WeBs figures suggests that the earlier population estimate should have been 31,000, rather than 43,000.

There are other winners too, as you can read in the paper. At the start, I posed the question “how many Greenshank are there in the country during the winter?”.  The answer is 810, representing an increase of 200 since APEP3.

Game species

The estimates for the three wintering waders that are still on the UK quarry list have not changed since APEP3 (published in 2011) as there are no new data available.

Golden Plover: The winter estimate remains as 400,000, as there has been no comprehensive, winter survey since 2006/7. Large numbers of Golden Plover arrive from Scandinavia, Europe and Iceland in the late summer, joining the British birds that choose not to migrate south or west. The GB breeding population is probably less than 50,000 pairs. Most breed in Scotland which has seen a breeding decline of 23% in the period 1995 to 2016 (BBS). Golden Plover is still ‘green listed’.

snipe-headerSnipe (Common): The winter estimate remains as 1,100,000 – a figure that was acknowledged in APEP3 as being less reliable than that of most species. At the same time, the GB breeding population was estimated as 76,000 pairs, indicating at least a 4:1 ratio of foreign to British birds, and that does not take account of the number of British birds that migrate south and west. Snipe are ‘amber listed’ but BBS suggests a recent increase of 26% (1995-2016). There is a WaderTales blog about  Snipe and Jack Snipe.

Woodcock: The winter estimate remains as 1,400,000 – another figure that is not considered to be particularly precise, with much variation between years. The diminishing breeding population is dwarfed by winter numbers, as you can read in this WaderTales blog, with increased attention being given to ways to afford better protection of red-listed, British-breeding birds.

January counts

blog BTThe paper in British Birds also includes a table of January population estimates, to provide data that are comparable to mid-winter counts in other countries. These figures are used in waterbird monitoring for the International Waterbird Census for the African Eurasian Flyway. The main table (and figures mentioned above) are average maximum winter counts (in the period September to March). Black-tailed Godwit is one species that illustrates the difference, with a mean of 30,000 in January and a mean peak count of 39,000. Having moulted in Great Britain, some Black-tailed Godwits move south to France and Portugal in late autumn, returning as early as February. January counts are therefore substantially lower than early-winter and late-winter counts. There is more about the migratory strategy employed by Black-tailed Godwits that winter in southern Europe in Overtaking on Migration.

Looking forward

blog BB coverThe authors have done a tremendous job. They have refined the way that estimates are calculated, they have combined the results from WeBS and NEWS III, and they have delivered population estimates for 25 wader species and many more other species of waterbirds. These population estimates will be used in conservation decision-making until the next set of numbers becomes available. Meanwhile, thousands of birdwatchers will count the birds on their WeBS patches in each winter month, every year. Without them, this paper could not have been written.

Before the next assessment, there will need to be another NEWS survey, to check up on species that use rocky and sandy shore birds, such as Purple Sandpipers, Turnstone and Curlew. Hopefully, there will also be a dedicated survey to assess Lapwing and Golden Plover numbers and perhaps we might find a way to refine the old estimates for Woodcock, Snipe and Jack Snipe.

Paper

Population estimates of wintering waterbirds in Great Britain. Teresa Frost, Graham Austin, Richard Hearn, Stephen McAvoy, Anna Robinson, David Stroud, Ian Woodward and Simon Wotton. Published in British Birds Volume 112. March 2019.

British Birds is a subscription journal. The issue containing this paper can be purchased separately. At some stage, the paper will become free-to-view.

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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

Designing wader landscapes

blog whimbrelMuch has been written about the negative impacts of agriculture on breeding birds – but farming can be good for some species. In Iceland, where high-input agriculture is relatively recent, breeding waders are commonly found in nutrient-rich environments that are associated with increased production. How can high breeding densities of waders be maintained, as farming continues to expand and intensification increases?

In her paper in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment Lilja Jóhannesdóttir investigates the distribution of breeding waders across landscapes with varying amounts of highly-cultivated fields and semi-natural areas. She discovers that, in some circumstances and at an appropriate level, adding cultivated land within a broader mosaic of habitats may benefit breeding waders. Is this a model system that provides clues as to how to design landscapes that can support sustainable breeding wader populations in other parts of the world?

The waders of Iceland

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Breeding populations of waders in Iceland (AEWA report)

Iceland is a hot-spot for breeding waders, holding half or more of Europe’s Dunlin, Golden Plover and Whimbrel, in a country that is a bit smaller then England. The paper at the heart of this blog is written by Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, who worked with colleagues from the University of Iceland, the Agricultural University of Iceland, the University of East Anglia (UK) and the University of Aveiro (Portugal). They investigated how different ways of increasing agricultural productivity might impact upon these species, and others such as Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Snipe.

Much of Iceland’s upland interior is not suitable as farmland but there is still plenty of room for agricultural expansion. Only 7% of the area between sea level and an elevation of 200 m is currently under cultivation but it is estimated that it would be possible to increase this to 63% – an eight-fold extensification. Icelandic lowlands currently comprise a fine-scale mosaic of open semi-natural habitats and cultivated fields (primarily for silage production to feed animals), making most of the landscape much more heterogeneous than in countries with a longer history of commercial farming.

blog hay and semi-naturalTwo previous WaderTales blogs have already shown that:

Given that farm production is predicted to increase, that farmers like breeding waders and that some intensively-managed fields can be attractive to waders, is it possible to design farmed landscapes that will work for birds and farmers?

Increasing inputs and reducing heterogeneity

blog nice wetlandGlobally, the expansion and intensification of agriculture has altered landscapes and the associated homogenisation has greatly influenced bird abundance and reduced biodiversity. Populations of numerous species, particularly specialist species, have declined, as agriculture has expanded, while generalist species have often thrived in agricultural habitats.

There is no shortage of examples in which highly intensively managed farmland is shown to be bad for breeding waders. In the monoculture hay-meadows of the Netherlands, Black-tailed Godwit productivity is really low, for instance. These fields have been drained, fertilised and re-sown, in order to create easily-managed carpets of single-species grass that can be cut several times a year. There is more about this in this paper by Roos Kentie.

blog hay fieldAlthough there are some areas of Iceland in which farming is quite intensive, there are many others where farmers have a lighter touch. For instance, nutrient-poor dwarf birch marshes may occasionally be grazed by sheep in the summer but these areas have never received applications of artificial fertiliser. At this end of the intensification continuum, increasing agricultural operations may have benefits for breeding waders. When a patch of rough grazing is ploughed and turned into a hay meadow, the addition of fertilisers can potentially increase soil fertility and create an attractive place for waders to feed. A hay meadow within a local area that is dominated by dwarf birch marsh could effectively increase the heterogeneity (& nutrient-richness via spill-over) of the local area, albeit in an artificial way. In the UK, Golden Plovers breeding on moorland are known to travel up to 7 km to feed on fertilised hayfields with high earthworm densities. This paper by James Pearce-Higgins & Derek Yalden in IBIS provides a nice example of how low intensity agriculture can provide resources for waders in the wider landscape.

Researching waders and landscapes

blog dbmLilja’s work in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland focused upon understanding how agriculture influences breeding wader densities and how these relationships might influence future change. At its heart were counts of adult waders encountered along 200 transects (totalling over 100 kilometres) within semi-natural habitats, visited at several stages during the breeding seasons of 2011 and 2012.

As well as counting birds, Lilja categorised habitats within 500, 1000, 1500 and 2500 metres of the transects, which she called buffer area in the paper. Interestingly, and usefully for later analyses, the distribution of different habitat types is pretty uniform across these scales, in this part of Iceland, with little substantial difference according to elevation. In the diagram below, the 200 transects (a) have been split between those below 50 m above sea level (b) and those higher than 50 m (c).

buffers

Landscape-scale effects

To fulfill the various demands of parents and their offspring, waders need diverse resources on or near their territory. An adult can feed a kilometre or more away from its nest, between incubation bouts, and chicks are mobile from an early age. Tagging has shown that young Black-tailed Godwits can move up to 3 km in the first five days of life, just to give one example. In this open landscape, breeding success is likely to be a function of habitat availability at a broad scale. This is explored in a WaderTales blog about nesting Whimbrel.

blog redshankUsing data collected from these 200 lowland transects, Lilja was able to establish relationships between breeding wader densities and the amount of cultivated land and wetland in the surrounding landscape. These two habitat types were considered because future agricultural expansion is likely to take place on drained wetlands that have high conservation value. In her analyses she assessed the extent to which the amount of cultivated land in the surrounding landscape affects wader densities on semi-natural land, and then considered the potential effects of future agricultural expansion on wader populations. There was substantial variation in the density of all of the six most common wader species recorded on the transects, ranging from 0 to 284 birds/km2.

Lilja found that wader densities in semi-natural habitats were consistently greater when the surrounding landscapes had more wetland, at scales ranging from 500 m to 2500 m, indicating the importance of wetland availability in the local neighbourhood. However, the effects of cultivated land in the surrounding landscape varied with fertility and landscape structure, which was largely defined by altitude.

  • In fertile, low-lying coastal areas (from sea-level to 100 m altitude), wader numbers declined with increasing amounts of cultivated land (and the lowest densities occurred in areas dominated by cultivation). This suggests that further conversion of semi-natural habitats into farmland is likely to severely impact waders in low-lying areas.
  • In less fertile habitats at higher altitudes (between 100 m and 200 m), the lowest densities occurred in areas without cultivated land. This suggests that additional resources provided by cultivated land may have a more positive affect in the less-fertile, higher altitude areas.

blog blackwitThe relationships between the areas of wetland and agriculture in the surrounding landscape and the density of waders vary between species, as you can read in some detail in the paper. A few highlights are:

  • With increasing area of cultivated land, densities of Golden Plover, Dunlin and Whimbrel declined significantly at lower altitudes but increased at higher altitudes. These are the three species that would appear to respond most positively to the addition of pockets of cultivated land within a semi-natural matrix of less fertile land, that tends to be found at higher elevations.
  • Higher amounts of wetland were associated with increased densities of Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit, but lower densities of Redshank. Golden Plover numbers were unaffected by amount of wetland in the surrounding landscape.
  • Whimbrel densities increased with wetland area, at higher altitudes. Wet patches have been shown to be very important to Whimbrel chicks, as you can read in this WaderTales blog about research in Shetland.
  • At lower altitudes, Snipe densities increased with the amount of wetland area in the local vicinity. This relationship was less pronounced at higher altitudes, which tend to be less effectively drained and hence generally wetter.

dunlin graphic

What now?

Changes in Icelandic landscapes are to be expected in the coming years, as most farmers intend to increase their areas of cultivated land. This expansion will inevitably have impacts upon the internationally important breeding wader populations of Iceland but the level of such impact will depend on where the expansion will occur. This paper shows that increases in the area of cultivated land at lower altitudes in Southern Iceland are more likely to result in declines in wader density than in less fertile areas, when tend to occur at slightly higher altitudes (still under 200 m above sea level). An important next step will be to identify the landscape structures and scales of management that can continue to support high densities of breeding waders.

blog coastal wetlandGiven the international importance of Iceland as a home for breeding waders it would be nice to think that this paper can be used to develop national land management policies that can prevent the unintended loss of species such as Golden Plover and Snipe, which landowners value and wish to preserve. At the farm and community level, the paper highlights the key importance of maintaining the complex and heterogeneous landscapes of lowland Iceland, retaining as many as possible of the remaining wetland patches and pockets of semi-natural land within even the most intensive of farming areas.

The paper may well be of interest to conservationists who are struggling to reverse wader declines in other parts of the world. In Southern Iceland, where 7% of the land is being farmed relatively intensively within a fine scale mosaic of both wet and dry semi-natural habitats, it is possible to support hundreds of waders per square km across the wider countryside. Can this situation be replicated across large tracts of land in other countries?

Take home message and paper

blog heterogeneousThis paper provides a useful reminder that the links between land use changes and biodiversity implications can be highly context-dependent. Further agricultural conversion of wetlands and rough grazing areas in the fertile low-lying areas of Iceland is likely to be detrimental for breeding waders, but such effects may be less apparent in less fertile, higher altitude areas. Here, the conversion of some land from rough-grazing to hay meadows may provide feeding opportunities off-territory for Dunlin, Golden Plover and Whimbrel. The scale at which the addition of cultivated areas is beneficial to breeding waders has yet to be determined.

This paper is published as:

Interacting effects of agriculture and landscape on breeding wader populations. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, Sigmundur H. Brink, Ólafur Arnalds, Verónica Méndez and Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2018.11.024

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@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.

 

Starting moult early

In waders (shorebirds), the main moult (molt) usually takes place after the migration that follows the breeding season. Golden Plovers adopt a different strategy, starting wing moult while still nesting. Given that these adult birds are not going to fly anywhere any time soon, this seems like a very efficient strategy. So, why do Icelandic and Scandinavian Golden Plovers moult differently? Is this a reflection of available resources?

The post-breeding moult

MOULT CYCLEMoult is an energetic process, especially the post-breeding moult, which includes a change of all of the wing and tail feathers. To complete the whole process, birds ideally need to find a three-month period when resources are good, climatic conditions are benign and there is no need to migrate. For birds on the East Atlantic Flyway that spend the non-breeding season in Europe, moult typically takes place after the breeding season and before days get shorter and the weather gets colder.

One place with plenty of food-rich mud is the Wash, in eastern England. Here, up to 300,000 waders gather each autumn, including Knot from Greenland and Canada, Grey Plover from Siberia and Curlew from countries such as Finland. A relatively small proportion are juveniles, which will only moult their body feathers, but there are probably at least 200,000 waders in full moult at this time of year – dropping and growing a grand total of perhaps a billion feathers between them. Some populations use the Wash as a feeding station, before moving on to moult in their wintering grounds, but this is a minority. This group includes taymyrensis Bar-tailed Godwits (more about these birds here) and schinzii Dunlin, which will travel further south, to Africa.

wing moult

Golden Plovers start their moult during or before the incubation period

There are Golden Plovers spread across the autumn mud-flats of the Wash too, made up of a mixture of birds that have bred in Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Iceland. Although they end up in the same winter flocks, their moult strategies are different. Recent research by Paula Machín and colleagues has focused upon how breeding season conditions impact upon the moult strategy of two distinct Golden Plover populations, birds breeding in Scandinavia and Northern Russia and others breeding in Iceland. The resulting paper is published in the Journal of Avian Biology.

Conditions at the breeding grounds and migration strategy shape different moult patterns of two populations of Eurasian golden plover Pluvialis apricaria Paula Machín, Magdalena Remisiewicz, Juan Fernández-Elipe, Joop Jukema & Raymond H.G. Klaassen

Icelandic Golden Plovers

scopeUp to one million Golden Plovers arrive in Iceland each spring, mainly from Ireland and western parts of the United Kingdom. This is estimated to be nearly half of the European breeding population. Iceland might seem small, when compared to the vast land-mass of the European continent, but it’s a haven for waders. This status is threatened by the spread and intensification of lowland farming, increased afforestation and by the ‘summer cottage’ industry – but those are stories for another day.

eggsThe Heiðlóa (Golden Plover) is a welcome sight and sound at the end of the Icelandic winter. The first migrants appear about 23 March and nesting can commence as early as 26 April. The usual clutch size is four eggs, with both parents sharing incubation duties. Some first nests are lost, due to predation, but females can lay another clutch. Joop Jukema studied Golden Plovers nesting near Selfoss in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland, timing his captures of nesting birds to coincide with the later part of the incubation period. He was able to assess the progress of moult by scoring the growth of the primary feathers and to work out when each bird would have dropped its first primary. The estimated mean start date of primary moult for males was 19 May (95% confidence interval 27 April – 10 June) with females starting an average of 9 days later, on 28 May (95% confidence interval 6 May – 19 June). On average, males started to moult their primary feathers nine days before the start of incubation, while females started to moult at the same time as incubation began. Potentially, hormone changes associated with the stage of the breeding season could be linked to the onset of moult.

moult graphic

Icelandic Golden Plovers complete their moult prior to departure from the country. By making catches of birds in late August and early September, it was possible to show that the primary moult period is about 100 days. No birds were caught in suspended moult, strongly suggesting that Icelandic Golden Plovers do not attempt to cross the Atlantic before they have attained a complete, fresh set of feathers.

Swedish Golden Plovers

Paula Machín’s main study site was in Ammarnäs in Sweden, on roughly the same latitude as Selfoss and hence with the same amount of daylight. Ammarnäs is colder in spring than Selfoss, not benefiting from the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream which wash the shores of southern Iceland. The average start of incubation in Ammarnäs was eight days later than in Selfoss with the commencement of moult being seventeen days later. Males started primary moult three days after the start of incubation, with females starting twelve days into incubation. It is interesting to note that the difference in timing of the two sexes is nine days, just as in Iceland.

chickFemale Golden Plovers left the Ammarnäs breeding territories at the end of July. From observations of females caught on their nests, it seemed likely that individual females were not starting the moult of their outer primaries, typically completing the moult of primary four and not dropping primary five. Males stayed with chicks for an extra fortnight. Given the longer period of time available to males, it is likely that they were able to moult more primary feathers than their partners, prior to departure from the area.

Catching birds during the chick-guarding phase or just before migration is very difficult but Raymond Klasssen and colleagues were able to study birds on similar strategies by catching birds at Lund, in southern Sweden, and in the Netherlands. Here, birds from Swedish breeding areas and further afield gather to moult, recommencing primary moult at the point at which it had been suspended. Inspecting moulting birds in the period August through to November enabled the research team to monitor the second part of the moult of Continental birds. Given that the distance between breeding areas and these staging areas is relatively short and that tracking showed that it could be completed in one or two days, it is possible that adults might be able to migrate while in active moult.

Spot the difference

measuringOverlapping the breeding and moulting period is rare in migratory birds but it makes sense in a time-constrained annual cycle. The research team suggest that Icelandic plovers presumably need to initiate moult early in the season, in order to be able to complete it at the breeding grounds. This is not an option for Continental plovers, as their breeding season is much shorter, due to a harsher climate and an earlier drop-off in the number of arthropods, their main food source. These Golden Plovers cannot delay the start of the moult period until after the autumn migration because there is insufficient time to compete a full moult in areas such as Lund or the Netherlands, prior to the onset of winter frosts. The fact that Golden Plover are largely associated with farmland, rather than estuarine sites, may make them more susceptible to sub-zero temperatures than, for instance Grey Plover.

When incubating and looking after chicks, Icelandic and Swedish Golden Plovers were able to moult at the same rate. However, there were differences in the second part of the primary moult season. Away from their territories, Icelandic birds continued to moult at the same rate as previously but, having moved to Lund or the Netherlands, Continental birds could moult twice as fast as before. The availability of earthworms in these staging areas may make it easier to acquire resources for the energetically-expensive moult process.

TGG flying

Despite the faster rate of moult of Continental birds in the later period of their moult, the total period of primary moult is longer than that of Icelandic birds. Birds completing their moult in Iceland took an average of 100 days to replace their primaries, whilst Swedish-breeding birds took 16 days longer. This difference may be associated with the time taken to complete the first stage of moult, prior to the migratory flight away from the breeding sites.

alarmA key finding of this paper is that splitting the moult period extends the total period of primary moult. For Swedish breeders, this is the best option, however, as there is insufficient time to complete autumn moult close to the breeding grounds or after the breeding season. As the authors conclude, “Meeting the energy demands of breeding, moult, and migration calls for different timing and spacing of these events in their annual cycle, adjusted to conditions at their breeding and stopover sites, and to their migration strategy.”

There’s more from Paula Machín and her colleagues on this blog-site: https://overthetreeline.wordpress.com/

More moult

There are more WaderTales blogs about moult: 

  • The not-so Grey Plover includes general information about wader moult and talks about some of the stresses that may occur.
  • Lapwings can moult while on migration. Read more in Lapwing Moult, which also talks about how to study moult without catching birds.
  • Bar-tailed Godwit; migration and survival mentions the different strategies of two subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit, both of which can be found on the Wash in autumn.

I look forward to future papers about moult strategies to add to WaderTales. Here’s a list of the 60+ blogs that are already available: https://wadertales.wordpress.com/about/

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@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.

 

 

Scottish Wader Woes

The report on Scotland’s terrestrial bird species, covering the period 1994-2016, did not make easy reading for wader lovers. All but one species was 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 figures from the report have been update in the Breeding Bird Survey for 2018 (published 2019) and these figures are now included below. Golden Plover is no longer part of the ‘over 40%’ club.

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)

The updated Breeding Bird Survey results are available on the BTO website (https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/bbs/latest-results)

One species has been increasing – Snipe up 22% *

snipe abundance change* BBS results for Snipe for 1995-2017 revise the change figure to show an increase of 32%.

The 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 picture* BBS results for Lapwing for 1995-2017 revise the change figure to show a decrease of 55%.

When 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 P* BBS results for Curlew for 1995-2017 revise the change figure to show a decrease of 61%.

The 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%

IMG_2123

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% *

* BBS results for Oystercatcher for 1995-2017 revise the change figure to show a decrease of 38%.

In England, the latest BBS report shows an increase of 49% 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% *

* BBS results for Golden Plover for 1995-2017 revise the change figure to show a decrease of 10%.

As noted in the press release about the SNH 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% *

* BBS results for Common Sandpiper for 1995-2017 revise the change figure to show a decrease of 23%.

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

 

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.

@grahamfappleton

 

 

Interpreting changing wader counts

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

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

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

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

The counters

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

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

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

Understanding change

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

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

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

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

 

Blog Avocets

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

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

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

Designating sites

Blog Blackwit

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

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

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

Keep counting!

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

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

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

Paper

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

Blog RINGOS


 GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

 

 

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. 

More blogs about Lilja’s research

In other papers from Lilja’s PhD, we learn about the way that Iceland’s breeding waders make use of opportunities presented in different types of farm landscapes and discover that the effects of increased intensification depends upon where new fields are created.

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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