Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea

An important paper by Colin Studds and colleagues shines a spotlight on the Yellow Sea, where waders/shorebirds have lost vast areas of feeding habitat during China’s economic boom.

headerWaders make some of the most remarkable migratory journeys in the bird world and many rely on a few key estuaries to refuel, especially as they head north to breed. For hundreds of thousands of waders on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, from tiny Red-necked Stints to Far Eastern Curlews, the Yellow Sea is absolutely crucial. A new paper by Colin Studds and sixteen colleagues collates the available information on current population trends of waders using this flyway and shows how these relate to the reliance of each species on the Yellow Sea. The more a species relies on disappearing mudflats, between China and the Korean peninsular, the faster it is declining.

As Colin Studds says: “Scientists have long believed that loss of these rest stops could be related to the declines, but there was no smoking gun.” Now there is. The new paper is published in Nature Communications.

Rapid population decline in migratory shorebirds relying on Yellow Sea tidal mudflats as stopover sites (Nature Communications 8:14895 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14895)

Establishing the routes

barwit

Bar-tailed Godwits make epic migratory journeys

Over the last twenty years, satellite tracking has revealed the amazing migratory journeys of shorebirds on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. The most famous wader ever must be E7, which was the first Bar-tailed Godwit to be tracked from Alaska to New Zealand in one continuous journey, covering the 11,600 km journey in 9 days. When E7 flew from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea in the next spring, on the first leg of its return journey, that was another flight of 10,200 km in 7 days.

It’s not just Bar-tailed Godwits that link New Zealand and Australia to the Yellow Sea. Colour-ringing has established that at least 10 wader species use this staging area during their northward migration in spring.

Counts by Birdwatchers

FE Curlew standing

Far Eastern Curlew is one of the fastest declining species on the flyway. There is a WaderTales blog about the global plight of members of the curlew/godwit family here.

Annual counts of waders have been taking place in sites across Australia and New Zealand since the early 1980s. Colin Studds and his colleagues use data collected during the non-breeding seasons between 1993 and 2012 from 43 of these key locations. The analysis relies on the work of scores of volunteer birdwatchers who undertake these counts during the months from October through to March. The count data used in this paper focused on December and January, when there is least likelihood of within-season movement. Some of the declines have been dramatic; in twenty years, the number of Far Eastern Curlew fell by about 60%, with a 75% drop in Curlew Sandpipers, just to give two examples.

If numbers are going down, then that suggests that these waders are failing to breed as successfully as they once did or that the adults themselves are dying in larger numbers than used to be the case – or both. The fact that no changes have been observed in the proportion of juveniles in flocks strongly suggests that survival rate is the key demographic parameter upon which to focus when trying to understand population declines.

Declining survival rates

Colour-ring observations not only establish migratory links, they also provide the raw data from which annual survival rates can be estimated. A typical annual survival rate for an adult wader is between around 70% and 90%. If the survival rate is 90%, and 50 female waders lay an average of 4 eggs during a breeding season, then only 10 of the chicks need to hatch and reach breeding age for the population to remain stable. If that same level of productivity occurred but the survival rate for adults changes to 80%, then the chance of an adult dying in any given year doubles and the population will drop by half in just six years. This illustrates that a fall in survival of just 10% can have serious implications for the population trajectory.

great knot

Changing Great Knot survival from 86% to 68% could reduce life-expectancy by two-thirds

The counts of non-breeding waders in Australia suggested that there were major changes in numbers for several species between 2010 and 2012. When Theunis Piersma and colleagues analysed the colour-ring sightings for populations of three species that spend the non-breeding season in Australia and breed in eastern Siberia – Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot and Red Knot – they discovered a decline in annual survival of between 18% and 19% in just two years. Their paper raised serous alarm bells. All three populations spend time in the Yellow Sea on their spring migration and Theunis argued that rapid habitat loss in the Yellow Sea was the most likely explanation of reduced summer survival, with dire (but uncertain) forecasts for the future of these flyway populations.

survival table

Reliance on the Yellow Sea

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Bar-tailed Godwits watch on as their habitat disappears (Dave Melville)

It is estimated that nearly 30% of Yellow Sea tidal mudflats have been lost to coastal development in the last 30 years and China is forecast to undergo up to 14% expansion in urban development over the next 15 years, much of it concentrated on the margins of the Yellow Sea. Within the remaining mudflats, there have been increases in algal blooms, heavy metal deposits and areas of invasive Spartina alterniflora, the last of which reduces mudflat availability. All of these changes have the potential to put huge pressures on waders that are fattening up for the last leg of their migratory journey to arctic breeding grounds.

Previous work focused on waders in Japan, by Tatsuya Amano and colleagues, had shown that wader species relying on the Yellow Sea while on migration are declining more quickly than those that are not but Japan is on the migratory flyway so this result could have been confounded by changes in migratory route. By using data from the the non-breeding season and looking at a wider range of species, Colin Studds and his colleagues have been able to link reliance on the Yellow Sea with the magnitude of population changes.

Main graphA key element of the new paper is the compilation of available data on flyway population sizes, migratory connectivity and Yellow Sea count data, in order to estimate the proportion of each species that rely upon the Yellow Sea. At the lowest end is the Grey-tailed Tattler, only 3% of which use the area, whilst 100% of the menzbieri subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit rely on the Yellow Sea. When reliance is plotted against annual population trend the fit is remarkable. Interestingly, there are two very similar subspecies in the analysis; whilst the menzbieri Bar-tailed Godwits are estimated to have been declining by 6.1% per annum, the baueri subspecies, which is only 50% reliant on the Yellow Sea, has ‘only’ been declining at 1.4% per annum. 

Emerging Conservation Action

Good newsThis paper provides further evidence of the huge importance of the Yellow Sea. To quote Richard Fuller, the team leader of this research “Every country along the migration route of these birds must protect habitat and reduce hunting to prevent the birds declining further or even going extinct.”  Issues facing birds that use the flyway are being successfully highlighted by the East Asian-Australian Flyway Partnership. Australia has signed agreements with China, Korea and Japan to protect migratory birds, and China and South Korea have recently begun the process of listing parts of the Yellow Sea as World Heritage Sites. As well as development controls, a range of mitigation actions are discussed in the paper – let’s hope that they are pursued with enthusiasm.

The paper is free to download

GK flockThe results of this study have been published as Rapid population decline in migratory shorebirds relying on Yellow Sea tidal mudflats as stopover sites (Nature Communications 8:14895 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14895)

The authors are: Colin E. Studds, Bruce E. Kendall, Nicholas J. Murray, Howard B. Wilson, Danny I. Rogers, Robert S. Clemens, Ken Gosbell, Chris J. Hassell, Rosalind Jessop, David S. Melville, David A. Milton, Clive D.T. Minton, Hugh P. Possingham, Adrian C. Riegen, Phil Straw, Eric J.Woehler & Richard A. Fuller.


 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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A place to roost

Safe roost sites are important for waders such as Black-tailed Godwits

top-picIt has been said that Black-tailed Godwits are the laziest birds in the world, usually in a frustrated tone while waiting for a marked bird to wake up and reveal the rest of its colour rings. Roosting is not laziness, however; it’s an important resource conservation strategy in the daily balance of energy inputs and outputs.

When Black-tailed Godwits are feeding in tidal systems they have a limited amount of time each day to access the shellfish and worms that make up their diet. These foods are unavailable over the high-tide period, and sometimes in the lull between the ebb and flood, so birds conserve energy by gathering together at roosts. They seek out sites which are safe and sheltered and go to sleep – often for several hours if undisturbed. Theunis Piersma and colleagues have shown that sleep is the most energy efficient form of activity for shorebirds.

In two interesting papers, focusing on Red Knot and Great Knot in Roebuck Bay, North-Western Australia, Danny Rogers and colleagues showed that choice of roost sites seems to involve several criteria:

  • Birds try to find a roost as close as possible to feeding sites, probably to reduce travel costs between feeding areas and high-tide roosts.
  • In particular, birds appear to turn down feeding opportunities that take them further from preferred roost sites.
  • Open roosting sites that provide clear views of any approaching predators seem to be preferred
  • Availability of safe night-time roosts seems to be more restricted, with birds flying further to find a suitable site to wait out the high tide period.
  • The estimated ‘commuting costs’ associated with flying to and from these roosts accounted for between 2% and 8% of daily energy expenditure.
  • Flocks of Knot that were disturbed at roosts and forced to fly around for thirty minutes had an estimated increase in their daily energy expenditure of c 13%.
  • roosting-curlew

    These Curlew, roosting on the shores of the Humber, are minimising energy expenditure in very cold conditions

    Temperatures in Roebuck Bay can frequently exceed 38⁰C, and the waders chose wet sites in which they could keep their feet and legs cool. That’s not a problem for waders wintering in the UK.

The details can be found here:

What does this mean for Black-tailed Godwit in UK conditions?

turnstone-header

Waders often roost in mixed flocks. These birds are resting on an Icelandic beach after crossing the Atlantic

Although the facts, figures and conclusions listed above relate to Red Knot and Great Knot, the authors point out that they gather in mixed roosts with other species to which similar decision-making might apply. The Australian studies took place in very hot conditions but many of the factors influencing roosting site choice are likely to also apply to our cold and wind-swept estuaries in NW Europe. For instance, a study of Knot on the Dee Estuary by Mitchell et al in England estimated that costs of commuting to roosts could account for 14% of daily energy expenditure.

energy-figEnergetic constraints are likely to present different issues for arctic waders that spend the non-breeding season in the northern hemisphere than for ones that choose to cross the equator, and experience warmer conditions and heat stress. Even within Europe, the energetic balances that waders can experience on different estuaries can vary widely. In their 2013 Ecology paper on Black-tailed Godwit energetics, Costs, benefits, and fitness consequences of different migratory strategies  José Alves and colleagues showed that mild weather and abundant food supplies result in a positive energy balance for godwits wintering on the Tagus estuary in Portugal and, to a lesser extent, the estuaries of south Ireland. In east England estuaries, however, the costs of keeping warm can sometimes exceed the energy available from the food supplies (see figure). In such circumstances, an undisturbed roost, located as close as possible to feeding areas may well be especially important.

Consequences of roost loss

redshank

Colour-marked Redshank demonstrated the individual consequences of habitat loss

Although it is very hard to demonstrate population-level consequences of removing roosting sites, we have some clues about the how birds respond to removal of roosts and foraging sites from impact assessment work carried out by the BTO on Redshank in the Cardiff Bay area. When this bay was closed and flooded for commercial development, Redshanks lost both feeding areas and traditional roosting sites. Tracking of colour-ringed Redshanks showed that displaced birds moved to new feeding areas and roost sites up to 19 km away, but mostly stayed close-by on the mudflats of the River Rhymney. Cannon-net catches of these flocks provided measurements of bird mass before and after the closure of the Bay, which revealed that adult Redshank from the Bay had difficulty in maintaining body condition in the first winter following closure and that their survival rates in subsequent winters remained lower than birds that had previously been settled in the Rhymney area. Three papers are essential reading for anyone interested in the consequences of displacements caused by development projects.

ynrx-for-blogA key point of both the Knot work in Australia and the Redshank impact assessment study in Wales is the energetic costs to individuals that can result from the disruption caused by the loss of roosting or foraging sites. Indeed, individual waders may even have favoured locations within roosts that they consistently use. For example, at Gilroy Nature Park, a shallow pool where up to 3500 of the Black-tailed Godwits that feed on the Dee estuary in NW England regularly gather to roost, observers of colour-ringed birds have noticed that marked individual godwits (eg YN-RX pictured here) are often seen in exactly the same place within the pool and flock.  Losing a roosting site of which individuals have such detailed knowledge, and forcing flocks of birds to find alternative roosting locations, may therefore have bigger consequences than just the kilometres covered.

Importance of individual sites

mapThe total number of Icelandic Black-tailed godwits was estimated to be 47,000 in 2004, a figure that is likely to be closer to 60,000 now as the population has continued to grow. This means that a flock of 3,000 birds represents about 5% of the total of the entire breeding population. There is a small number of sites across the United Kingdom that hold these sorts of numbers at different stages of the year. According to the latest figures from the Wetland Bird Survey, numbers on the Wash and Humber estuaries in east England peak at averages of 8198 and 3413 in September, there are 4339 Black-tailed Godwits on the Welsh side of the Dee estuary in October and 5909 on the English side in November. The mean count on the Thames also peaks in November (5883). As the winter progresses, numbers on the nearby Ribble estuary rise to a mean of 4234 in January, there is a mean maximum of 3236 on the Washes in February and 3191 on the Blackwater in March. Although all of these sites are important to Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits throughout the non-breeding period, the different timing of peak counts illustrates the reliance of Icelandic birds on a network of sites. To get a feel for the range of strategies used by individual birds, see Godwits and Godwiteers.

Conservation

horse-and-flock

Roosting Black-tailed  Godwits at Gilroy Nature Reserve share their pool with a horse and Canada Geese

While estuarine feeding areas across Europe are well safeguarded, through the network of Special Protection Areas, roost sites are not always as well served, especially if birds spend the high tide period on sites outside the SPA boundary of their foraging areas, such as the freshwater pool at Gilroy Nature Reserve, inland of the Dee Estuary. Some roost sites such as North Killingholme Haven Pits on the Humber have been included within a designated SPA formed by the adjacent mudflats but others, such as Gilroy, are discrete sites outside the SPA. Maintaining the wader populations that forage on our estuarine mudflats may depend upon our capacity to protect their safe roosting sites, even if they are not currently designated.


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