Mission Impossible? Counting Iceland’s wintering Oystercatchers

If Norwegian Oystercatchers migrate south and west for the winter, how is it that thousands of Oystercatchers can adopt a stay-at-home strategy in Iceland, which lies at a higher latitude than most of Norway?

Braving the cold

As part of a project to try to understand why some Oystercatchers spend the winter in Iceland, when most fly south across the Atlantic, researchers needed to count the ones that remain. Unlike in the UK, where the Wetland Bird Survey can rely on over 3000 volunteers to make monthly counts of waders and waterfowl, it’s tough to organise coordinated counts of waders in Iceland. Winter weather, a small pool of birdwatchers and short days don’t help when you are trying to cover the coastline of a country the size of England.

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Up until 2016, the only winter wader data in Iceland came from Christmas Bird Counts, first run in 1956. These coordinated counts suggested that most Oystercatchers were to be found in southwest and west Iceland, which is also where most birdwatchers live, but with smaller numbers in areas such as the southeast. The maximum number of Oystercatchers found in any one year was 4466 birds but this excluded known wintering sites which were inaccessible or very hard to access. Some contributors to Christmas bird counts live in areas away from the well-populated west of the country, and they provided evidence that there were no Oystercatchers in the north, for instance. This information gave some guidance as to where to look for Oystercatcher flocks but could a small team of researchers and birdwatchers do a complete count of the resident component of the species in the middle of winter?

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Part one of the survey involved a group of well-prepared birdwatchers and researchers spending several days counting Oystercatchers in as many areas as possible of the southeast and in the whole of the west, from the southwest tip of Iceland (where Keflavik airport is situated) through to known wintering locations in the northwest fjords. The north and south coasts could largely be discounted; the north is too cold and the south coast is very barren.

Part two of the survey was carried out by air, allowing the addition of counts of the islands and inaccessible coastal sites in the Breiðafjörður Bay, as well as some key sites in Faxaflói Bay (see map). Flocks of roosting Oystercatchers were usually seen from afar and photographs were used to make counts without flushing the birds.

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Survey results

The ground-based wader surveys were carried out between 28 January and 3 February 2017 and the aerial survey took place on 16 February. In total, 11,141 Oystercatchers were counted, which nearly triples the previous Christmas total. As expected, the vast majority of Oystercatchers were found on wintering sites in SW and W Iceland. Large numbers of birds were found on sites not covered by the Christmas counts, particularly on the north side of Faxaflói Bay and during the aerial survey over Breiðafjörður Bay.

blog BoddiThe full results of the paper are presented in a new paper in the BTO journal Bird Study. (Click on title for link)

Population size of Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus wintering in Iceland Böðvar Þórisson, Verónica Méndez , José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill , Kristinn H. Skarphéðinsson, Svenja N.V. Auhage, Sölvi R. Vignisson, Guðmundur Ö. Benediktsson, Brynjúlfur Brynjólfsson, Cristian Gallo, Hafdís Sturlaugsdóttir, Páll Leifsson & Tómas G. Gunnarsson.

Resident or migrant? 

One of the key questions that researchers wanted to answer was ‘what proportion of the Icelandic breeding population is migratory?’ This is part of a bigger project exploring the causes and consequences of individual migratory strategies, as you can read in the previous WaderTales blog: Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers. This project is a joint initiative by the universities of Iceland, East Anglia and Aveiro, led by Verónica Méndez.

blog familyIn order to estimate the proportion of migrants and residents it was necessary first to determine the total size of the Icelandic Oystercatcher population, based on a recent estimate of 13 thousand breeding pairs (Skarphéðinsson et al. 2016) . How many sub-adults are there to add to the 26,000 breeding birds?

Verónica Méndez and her team have shown that Oystercatchers fledge on average about 0.5 chicks per pair. Using estimates that 50% of these chicks are alive by mid-winter, that there is then a 90% chance of annual survival and birds typically breed when they are four years old, it was possible to come up with a total population of just over 37,000 birds.

Although the authors of the paper have produced the best winter estimate thus far, they note that it is a minimum – there could be small numbers of birds in other areas. At 11,141 out of 37,177 birds, the minimum estimate of the residential part of the population is 30%, leaving 70% to be distributed around the coasts of the British Isles and (in smaller numbers) along the coastline of mainland Europe.

Latitudinal expectation 

blog ringed birdTo put the migratory status of the Icelandic Oystercatcher into context with other Oystercatcher populations breeding in NW Europe, the authors collated information about the proportion of resident and migratory Oystercatchers in coastal countries between Norway and the Netherlands. They show that there is a strong latitudinal decline in residency. From Northern Norway (69.6°N) to Southern Sweden (57.7°N), where mean January temperatures are typically in the range of -1 to -4°C, only occasional individuals are found in winter, whereas populations in Denmark (55.4°N), where mean January temperatures 0.8°C, and sites that are further south and warmer mostly comprise resident individuals.

blog scenicThis cline in migratory tendency is also seen within the British Isles, which stretch from 60.8°N to 50.2°N. Writing in the BTO’s Migration Atlas, Humphrey Sitters reports that birds from the north of the British Isles have a median recovery distance of 213.5 km, whereas in the west, east, south and Ireland the respective figures are 35.5, 27.0, 6.0 and 13.5 km. In each group, there are birds that travel over 800 km, implying some degree of migratory tendency in birds breeding in every part of the British Isles.

Iceland lies between 63.2°N and 66.3°N, which puts it well within the latitudinal range of the ‘almost-all-migrate’ group of Scandinavian birds. The Icelandic proportion of 30% residency is likely to be a function of the temperature and geographical isolation of the island. Bathed by the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream, some coastal areas, particularly in the west of Iceland, provide a relatively mild oceanic climate and apparently ample food stocks to support high survival during most winters. On the other hand, days are very short. For an Oystercatcher that spends December in Reykjavik, the time between sunrise and sunset is just four hours and the average January temperature is -0.6°C. For a bird in Dublin day-length figure is almost twice as long, at seven and a half hours, and temperature is 5.3°C. Food availability may well be compromised by the time available to collect it, as previous studies have shown that feeding efficiency is on average lower at night.

blog of other wadertalesIceland might hold a higher proportion of residents than would otherwise be the case as it is far enough away from Britain (about 750 km to mainland Scotland) and Ireland for the sea crossing to potentially be a significant barrier. For migrants, time will need to be spent acquiring the reserves needed for the journey south in the autumn and north in the spring and the flights may well add costs in terms of survival probability.

There is a blog about the broader project to understand how individual birds become ‘programmed’ to be migrants or residents here: Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers.

The migration option 

blog sightingsIf 30% of Oystercatchers are staying in Iceland this implies that up to 26,000 birds of Icelandic origin are to be found in the British Isles and on the western coast of Europe during the winter. Some of these – young birds that are yet to breed – can be found in these areas in the summer too. By the end of the summer of 2017, Verónica Méndez and her team had colour-ringed about 800 (500 adults, 300 juvenile) birds in Iceland, in order to try better to understand the reasons for the migratory/residency decisions that individuals make. Every dot on the map alongside (which was created on 1st June 2018) represents a migratory bird. Each record is valuable and there are lots more birds to try to find! Are there really no Icelandic Oystercatchers in the vast flocks of eastern England?

If you come across a colour-marked Oystercatcher, please report it to icelandwader@gmail.com 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Site-fidelity in Black-tailed Godwits

Shorebirds are generally philopatric (site-faithful to breeding areas) – youngsters settle to breed in areas near where they were raised and adults don’t move far in subsequent years. What happens to this process when a species is expanding its range or if chicks are reared away from their parents?

Successful head-starting

In a recent trial, to see if head-starting might help to secure the future of limosa Black-tailed Godwits in the Washes of Eastern England, one of the questions to be answered was “would youngsters reared in captivity be able to gather all of the information they need to return to the same area to breed?”

blog nestEggs collected from nests on the RSPB’s Nene Washes nature reserve were taken to the WWT’s facilities at Welney, about 35 kilometres away, to be head-started. Here, the eggs were hatched and the chicks were raised in captivity. As they got bigger, the birds were colour-ringed and moved into a large pre-release cage before being given their freedom, when old enough to fly. With 26 successful head-started chicks, this process added far more young Black-tailed Godwits to the local population than birds in the wild could manage, subject as they were to predation and to flooding of nests. You can read more on the Project Godwit website and in this WaderTales blog Special Black-tailed Godwits.

Limosa Black-tailed Godwits migrate south for the winter, most flying to countries such as Senegal in West Africa but with an increasing number short-stopping in Spain and Portugal. (There’s a blog about the wisdom of crossing the Sahara).

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In this picture of three head-started chicks, Remi is the chick on the right

As birds moved north in the spring, Project Godwit staff were on the look-out for the previous year’s chicks. They were overjoyed when the first of these appeared at Welney, as had been hoped and might be expected, but puzzled when the second was sighted in Doel, near Antwerp in Belgium, showing signs of pairing with what was assumed to be a local, unringed male. So, what had happened to site-fidelity? Why had this colour-ringed female, named Remi, decided to settle over 300 km away? What are the implications for the project to boost the East Anglian population?

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Sites mentioned in this blog. Remi was collected (as an egg) in the Nene Washes, raised at Welney and turned up next spring in Doel, Belgium. Friesland is Roos Kentie’s study area (see below).

Philopatry in Black-tailed Godwits

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Manea – all grown up and back on the Ouse Washes

The head-starting team had been fairly confident that site-fidelity would ensure that head-started birds would recruit locally, as long as the hand-rearing process did not mess with the innate processes that initiated recruitment.

A paper based on ringing recoveries of the limosa subspecies in The Netherlands, published in 1998 by Kruk et al, suggested that young Black-tailed Godwits tend to settle to breed close to where they previously fledged, with most moving no further than 6 km and no appreciable difference between the sexes.

Natal philopatry in the Black‐tailed Godwit L. limosa limosa and its possible implications for conservation, Ringing & Migration, 19:1, 13-16, DOI: 10.1080/03078698.1998.9674156

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The expanding range of breeding Black-tailed Godwits within Iceland

In Iceland, where the islandica population of Black-tailed Godwits breeds, colour-ringing of chicks has also allowed dispersal patterns to be measured. Here, youngsters of the islandica race are still pretty site-faithful but there are appreciable differences between the two sexes, with some females dispersing far more than males. In their paper published in 2011, Tómas Gunnarsson et al found that males dispersed an average of 2.3 km (with a range of distances of 0.5 to 7 km) and females dispersed an average of 48 km (with a range of 1 to 204 km). As has been discussed in a previous WaderTales blog, Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit numbers have been increasing for a century, with birds moving into new breeding areas further away from the heartlands of the south coast. Dispersal is a necessary part of the expansion process. There’s more detail here:

Rapid changes in phenotype distribution during range expansion in a migratory bird. Proc. Royal Soc. B, 279:1727 (2011). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0939

postThe conservation problems being faced by limosa Black-tailed Godwits have spawned a lot of recent research in The Netherlands and along the subspecies’ annual migration route (see Dutch Black-tailed Godwit numbers down by nearly 75%, for instance). In a recent paper, Roos Kentie showed that three-quarters of the adults in her Friesland study site in The Netherlands breed within 500 m of their previous nest site, with a maximum movement of 15 km. Having successfully fledged and migrated south and then north, new recruits settled within 18 km. As in the previous paper about the limosa subspecies, there was no discernible difference between the distances moved by males and females, but there were differences in mean dispersal distances of youngsters raised in different habitats. Birds hatched on grass monocultures moved about twice as far as those from herb-rich meadows, but the mean distances were only 915 m and 1700 m for the two habitats. Young birds moved at a higher rate from the predominant monocultures to meadows than the other way around.

Age-dependent dispersal and habitat choice in black-tailed godwits across a mosaic of traditional and modern grassland habitats Journal of Avian Biology 45: 396–405 (2014). DOI: 10.1111/jav.00273

If limosa Black-tailed Godwits recruit to local sites then what was Remi, the head-started bird from the Washes of eastern England, doing in Belgium? Does this failure to be site-faithful impact upon the conservation programme that aims to boost local populations through hand-rearing and releasing chicks?

Back to the Belgian defector

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Protecting nesting waders by setting up electric fences

By early May, five of the Project Godwit head-started Black-tailed Godwits (three males and two females) had been seen on the Ouse Washes, at Welney and other sites. This was excellent news and in line with what might be expected, given that the Dutch study has shown that only 30% of recruitment is in the first summer, with most birds not starting to breed until their second year. No birds had returned to the Nene Washes, where these eggs had been laid. In terms of site-fidelity, this is what had been expected. It was great news; head-starting works and can give a conservation boost for the species in areas where insufficient young are produced to maintain local populations. It may therefore be possible to reintroduce (or even introduce) Black-tailed Godwits to suitable sites, simply by releasing hand-reared fledglings when they are ready for their independence.

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The Nene Washes

And then came number six. On 6 May, another of the ringed, head-started birds was seen on the Nene Washes, just a short distance from where the eggs had been collected. She was ‘home’ but did not know it, having been transported 35 km to Welney when in the egg. Amazingly, this bird turned out to be Remi, the female that had been consorting with a male in Belgium three weeks earlier. She was with an unringed male, a bird that members of the Project Godwit team felt looked ill-at-ease, not as accepting of their vehicles as were local birds. Perhaps Remi had acquired her mate in Belgium and brought him with her to England? If so, wouldn’t that be a result – this head-started Black-tailed Godwit had not only returned to breed but she might also have brought an extra bird with her!

Remi's chicks

In terms of site-fidelity, Remi fits with the patterns discussed above; she has not moved very far from the site she knew as a fledgling, as suggested by the studies of limosa birds, but she has dispersed further than any of the males, in line with the islandica study. It will be interesting to see what happens to subsequent groups of head-started birds.

** Fantastic update from Project Godwit **

“Delighted to share news that Remi, released last year at WWT Welney, now has chicks of her own at RSPB Nene Washes! Godwits don’t usually breed in their first year and we hope this is the first of many” 14 June 2018

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For the latest news of the head-starting project, check out projectgodwit.org.uk or follow @projectgodwit on Twitter.


 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

 

 

Green Sandpipers and Geolocators

In a paper in the BTO journal, Ringing & Migration, Ken Smith and his collaborators review how wearing a tag, attached using a harness, affects the preening and feeding behaviour of Green Sandpipers. What did they find and where do their Hertfordshire birds spend the summer?

The lives of Green Sandpipers

Tom SpellerAccording to BirdLife International’s Data Zone page, there are between 1.2 million and 3.6 million Green Sandpipers across Europe and Asia. The breadth of this estimate reflects the difficulty of assessing the population of a species that breeds in wet forest clearings, from western Norway to about 155 degrees east in Russia. It’s hardly any easier to count them in the winter, sprinkled as there are around small pools, in ditches and along river valleys from West Africa to Japan.

The occasional pair of Green Sandpipers breed in the UK and Population Estimates of Birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom, published in British Birds by Andy Musgrove at al suggests, that fewer than 1000 birds spend the winter here, although rather more are seen on passage between Scandinavia and Africa. In an ever-changing world, studying populations of a species that is at the edge of its range has the potential to explain patterns of loss (or gain) that are less obvious in the heart of a species’ distribution.

Why use geolocators? 

In a previous blog (Bar-tailed Godwits: migration & survival), it was shown that colour-rings, which enable individual recognition of a bird without capture, provided 30 times as much information about annual survival as a metal ring. Adding a geolocator takes you into a new data-rich environment. A geolocator is a small device that records the location of an animal. By recapturing a bird a year after ringing and downloading these data, important information about the timing of migration, the duration of stop-overs at fuelling sites and the exact breeding and/or wintering location can be ascertained.

One of the important things to appreciate about scientists who study bird migration is that they are as keen as any other birdwatcher to ensure that the tracking devices they use cause as little disturbance to the normal life of their study birds as possible.

Attaching geolocators

light geolocator

Geolocator with a light-stalk

In shorebird research, the most common form of geolocator is one that is attached to a ring on the bird’s leg. For most individuals, these devices do not have any negative effects but for smaller waders there can be some problems. Shorebird ecologists from around the globe cooperated to review these issues , publishing it in Movement Ecology. It is summarised in the WaderTales blog, Are there costs to wearing a geolocator? Hopefully, anyone contemplating a new shorebird study will read these before starting. Any data that are collected are only valuable if the birds are either unaffected by the equipment and attachment methods or, if there are effects, these do not prejudice the scientific integrity of the study or the welfare of the birds.

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GPS geolocator, fitted with elastic loops to form the harness

In this study, the Green Sandpipers were fitted with leg loop harnesses, first described by Rappole and Tipton, the authors having decided that ring-mounted geolocators might be too bulky on such a small wader. These harnesses are looped around the top part of a bird’s legs so that the geolocator sits like a small rucsac on the lower back, nestled in the feathers. In the figure below, the left picture shows a tagged bird; you may just make out a slight lifting of the back feathers over the top of the geolocator light stalk. The right-hand picture has been annotated to show how the ‘rucsac’ is fitted.

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The geolocators and harnesses represented 1.4–1.6% of the body mass of the birds. In the study, two different types of device were used, light-level geolocators and GPS geolocators – see the details in the paper. The effects of tagging on behaviour patterns have been examined and written up as a paper in the BTO journal Ringing & Migration, using data collected from seven Green Sandpipers that were fitted with harnesses.

Feeding and preening behaviour

Ken Smith and his colleagues have been studying the Green Sandpipers wintering at Lemsford Springs Nature Reserve in Hertfordshire, southeast England for over thirty years. These shallow lagoons were previously managed as watercress beds. In this particular investigation, the scientists compared the behaviour patterns of individual birds fitted with geolocators, before and after tagging, with a control group of untagged birds. They were particularly interested in the proportion of time spent feeding and preening. Feeding time was thought to be an indication of normal foraging behaviour and preening would be an indication of any discomfort or unfamiliarity caused by the tags and harnesses.

lemsford

Green Sandpipers spend their time feeding, preening and roosting, with most of the feeding activity occurring in loosely defined territories. Four of the tagged birds could be viewed regularly and their activities were observed alongside seven untagged (but colour-ringed) individuals. The amount of time spent feeding increased as days lengthened in the spring and birds prepared for migration. Previous research has shown that the Green Sandpipers on this site are not constrained by feeding opportunities, except in the coldest of condition. In these latter circumstances birds will also feed at night but normally they only feed during the day.

Investigating tag effects

Picture1Lemsford is a well-watched site. Most birdwatchers couldn’t tell which birds were tagged and which ones were not. The tags were so well preened into the plumage that they were extremely difficult to see, even in high-quality photographs. The tags could only be spotted by experienced observers and tag-effects could only be established using 20,000 minutes of observations. A less-intensive study would have showed no significant effects. These bullet points summarise more detailed findings in the paper:

  • All four tagged birds that were closely observed in this study returned successfully from their breeding areas and three of the tags were retrieved. There were no apparent signs of any problems such as skin abrasion or feather wear, caused by the tags or harnesses, and the birds continued to be observed after their tags were removed. The one bird that evaded capture and whose tag was not retrieved was present throughout the second winter.
  • Within the wider group, eight out of ten birds with tags returned the next winter, which is not significantly different from the overall return rate for untagged birds.
  • Tagged birds spent a small but significantly higher percentage of their time preening than untagged birds (untagged birds 4.6%, tagged birds 6.3%). Comparing the periods immediately before and after tagging for the four tagged birds for which detailed observations were collected, there were no differences in the time spent feeding but a significantly higher proportion of the time was spent preening (rather than just resting).
  • Birds may well get used to their tags over time. Of the three tagged birds for which there was sufficient data, two showed significant declines in the proportion of time spent preening over time (15% down to 5%), whereas one was at 6% throughout.

Where do these Green Sandpipers go?

Colour-ringing at Lemsford had already shown that birds are very site-faithful during the winter, once autumn passage birds have moved through. There’s more about this in a previous paper in Bird StudyHabitat use and site fidelity of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus wintering in southern England.

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This map is available from the BTO website

At the time that the Migration Atlas (Movements of the Birds of Britain & Ireland) was written, using data collected between 1909 and 1997, there was only one record of a BTO-ringed bird in its breeding area. That bird was found in Sweden, and there has been one other in Finland since. Green Sandpipers are not easy birds to observe and, although the long-term colour-ringing project at Lemsford Springs has generated large numbers of local re-sightings, there have been none elsewhere. Early results from the geolocator study show that the Lemsford wintering birds breed in Norway (2), Sweden (3) and Finland (1). A paper will be produced once a larger sample of results is available for analysis; it will look at migration strategies as well as breeding locations.

There is a WaderTales blog that summarises migration of over 40 wader species to, from and through Britain & Ireland: Which wader, when and why?

This paper

Neil Beadle - twoAlthough this study has involved small numbers of tagged and untagged birds, it has shown a consistent pattern of increase in the proportion of time spent preening by birds after tagging, with some evidence that this subsequently decreases over time. There is no evidence of an adverse impact on return rates of tagged birds from one winter to the next, although with such small sample sizes only a major change would have been detectable.

This paper is published in the BTO journal, Ringing & Migration:

The effects of leg-loop harnesses and geolocators on the diurnal activity patterns of Green Sandpipers in winter Ken W. Smith, Barry E. Trevis and Mike Reed


 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

 

 

Just one Black-tailed Godwit

When you receive a list of sightings of a colour-ringed bird that you have reported to a scheme organiser, it can hide a wealth of information. Here’s one such bird.

Blue Red – Yellow Green-flag

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BR-YGf photographed in Caithness (north of Scotland) in the spring of 2017

There are some colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits that have generated two hundred or more sightings at well-watched locations but BR-YGf is more typical. When seen in Cambridgeshire on 26 March, that was only the 12th observation in the database.

The Black-tailed Godwit that was soon to become BR-YGf was wintering in Portugal when caught in a mist net, by José Alves and a team of other ringers, just before dawn on 25 October 2014. It was given a unique set of three colour-rings and a flag that would enable it to be identified in the field by birdwatchers. Measurements of wing length and bill length, taken at the time, meant that it could be identified as a male, using criteria described in this paper in Bird Study.

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Wader-ringing team in Portugal

Colour-ringing of Black-tailed Godwits started in Portugal in 2006, when José was working on a PhD at the University of East Anglia, in which he studied the ecology of Black-tailed Godwits wintering on the Tagus and Sado Estuaries of Portugal. Colour-ringing has continued since, contributing to coordinated studies of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits in Spain, Portugal, France, the UK, Ireland and, of course, Iceland.

Breeding in Iceland

Almost all of the islandica Black-tailed Godwits breed in Iceland, with small numbers on the Faeroes, a handful on the Lofoten Islands of Norway and an occasional breeding pair on a Scottish island. Jenny Gill and I saw BR-YGf in the west of Iceland in April 2016, as we checked for marked birds in a flock of 1100 birds, many of which were new arrivals. He was feeding in a newly-ploughed cereal field, that had been previously spread with pig-muck from the neighbouring industrial-scale piggery. We managed to look at 800 pairs of legs in that flock; there was another green-flagged bird from Portugal, two orange-flags from France, a bird from Ireland and three from England.

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The history of BR-YGf since he started wearing coloured rings in 2014

We have been checking flocks of Black-tailed Godwits arriving in Iceland for many years. One of the most significant recent outputs is a paper that explains that young birds, recruiting into the population, are driving the advancing arrival of the species into Iceland in spring. The results are summarised in this blog: Why is spring migration getting earlier?

Autumn moult

Most of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits that winter in Portugal stop off to moult en route in autumn. We see some of these birds in the UK but BR-YGf is one that, from the sightings in September 2016, probably moults into winter plumage in France. Moulting is an energetically expensive process; birds that are mid-moult don’t usually migrate so these autumn staging sites are very important to the flocks that use them. When first caught in Portugal, in late October 2014, BR-YGf was in full winter plumage, probably having recently arrived from France.

Spring overtake

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The Samouco salt-pans, where BR-YGf was ringed, with Lisbon in the background

Portugal is a warm place to spend the winter, with relatively long days and plenty of food – very different from the east coast of England, for instance. The only down-side is that Portugal is a long way from Iceland, which you might think leads to later return in the spring. Most Portuguese birds get around this problem by migrating in two legs, the first of which takes them to either the Netherlands or the British Isles. This blog explains this migratory strategy: Overtaking on migration.

BR-YGf has been spotted in two springs since ringing. On 14 March 2016 he was seen at Old Hall Marshes in Essex by Steve Hunting and on 26 March 2018 he was seen by the Project Godwit team on the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire. Mark Whiffin and colleagues were looking for limosa subspecies godwits, newly returned from Africa to breed, but their birds were outnumbered by large flocks of islandica, fattening up for the trip north. There’s more about the differences between the two subspecies in Godwits in, godwits out: springtime on the Washes with some hints on distinguishing which is which.

Portuguese birds, on an earlier migratory schedule, tend to be further ahead in terms of moult, standing out in their red finery against the greyer local birds, some of which will travel to Iceland up to four weeks later. You can read more about the spring moult in this WaderTales blog: Spring moult in Black-tailed Godwits. Did you know that waders smell different in summer plumage?

Why Caithness?

BR-YGf has been following a well-used migration route: breed in Iceland, moult in France, winter in Portugal, spring in England, back to Iceland and repeat, for perhaps twenty or more years. What was he doing in Caithness, in the very far north of Scotland on 22 April 2017?

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Although the average timing of arrival of individual godwits in Iceland has not changed, the small amount of annual variation in their timings may be related to the weather they encounter en route. In the spring of 2017, we were in Iceland waiting for birds to turn up. The weather was lovely – if cold – but northerly winds appeared to bring a brief halt to most migration. In our two-week stay we saw only 28 colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits; not quite as bad as the spring of 2013, when winter returned to Europe in April, but close.

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In some years, Black-tailed Godwits, and other waders making the trip to Iceland, may get part way across the Atlantic and have to turn back or they may reach the north of Scotland or the Western Isles and stop. Colour-ring sightings alert colour-ring coordinators to these events, as presented in the blog: Waiting for the wind.

Thank you

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Looking for Black-tailed Godwits in Moita (Portugal) – José Alves, Jenny Gill and me

Thousands of birdwatchers have contributed to the studies of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits. Every sighting is valuable, especially repeat records from the same site. This WaderTales blog tells the stories of some of the birdwatchers who contribute their sightings to these projects: Godwits and Godwiteers.

It’s great to see old friends, when out ‘godwitting’. Jenny Gill and I have seen BR-YGf in Portugal (2016 & 2017) and in Iceland (2016). We recognised him but he probably will not have recognised us.

Please report any colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits to j.gill@uea.ac.uk and she will forward them to the appropriate coordinator as necessary. Thank you!


 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

 

International Shorebird Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How science can inform policy

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

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

Dutch Black-tailed Godwit numbers down by nearly 75%

Black-tailed Godwits expand their range in Russia and Iceland

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

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

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Fencing – an effective treatment plan?

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

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

How are fences deployed in  lowland wet grassland?

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

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The key role of estuaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spoon-billed Sandpipers – true teamwork

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

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

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

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

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Quick mention of climate change

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

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Notice > Diagnose > Treat

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

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

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

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


 GFA in Iceland

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

@grahamfappleton

 

Wetland Bird Survey: working for waders

Red-listed Curlews, Scottish Oystercatchers, a boom in Black-tailed Godwits and the need for safe roost sites. Here’s a selection of WaderTales blogs that may appeal to counters who contribute to the UK Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) and other birdwatchers who like waders/shorebirds.

Blog RINGOS

It’s 70 years since UK birdwatchers started to count waders and waterfowl and there are now over 3000 registered Wetland Bird Survey volunteers.

WeBS70logo6a_smallThe work that volunteers do to chart the rises and falls of species as diverse as Redshanks and Whooper Swans provides a unique insight into the fortunes of our wintering waterbirds. As a tribute to the people behind the binoculars and telescopes, I highlight seven WaderTales articles that use WeBS data. Click on the links in bold if you want to read a particular story.

Curlew counts

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WeBS counts for Curlew in Great Britain between 1974 and 2016

In the blog Is the Curlew really near-threatened? WeBS counts are used to show how numbers have changed over the decades. There might have been a boost in numbers when Curlew came off the hunting quarry list in Great Britain in 1981 but declines in the last 15 years reflect issues birds face in the breeding season in many parts of their European range.

Internationally, Eurasian Curlews are classified as near-threatened and in the UK they are now red listed. WeBS counts in Northern Ireland, alongside I-WeBS counts in the Republic, were successfully used to argue for the cessation of shooting across the island of Ireland in 2012.

Scottish Oystercatchers

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Oystercatchers are unusual, amongst waders, in that they feed their young

Surely the Oystercatcher is one wader species that we don’t need to worry about? Although the blog Oystercatcher: from shingle beach to roof-top leads with nesting behaviour, WeBS counts are used to illustrate regional trends in different parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, there is concern about poor breeding success, while in parts of Wales and England, WeBS counts may provide a way of measuring the population-level effects of cockle fishing and diseases affecting shellfish.

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Three very different trajectories for national WeBS counts for Oystercatchers since 1974

Mid-winter movements

figureThe annual WeBS report highlights the months in which counts are at their highest in different estuaries. For Knot, for instance, the highest counts on the Wash are in September, in other east-coast estuaries and on the Dee the peak is in December, whilst further north, in Morecambe Bay and the Solway, top numbers occur in January and February.

In Godwits & Godwiteers, which focuses on the superb work of observers who track the movements of colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits, WeBS counts from east coast estuaries and the Ouse Washes illustrate the move inland that occurs as the winter progresses.

National patterns and local counts

blogGroups of WeBS counters who cover local estuaries will be the first to notice changes in the numbers of the key species that use their own sites. If the number of Dunlin drops, is that a local phenomenon or part of a national picture? Is there always a strong link between national declines (or increases) and site-based counts? Interpreting changing wader counts provides some answers. It emphasises just how reluctant waders are to change wintering sites between years.

High-tide roosts

horse-and-flockEvery WeBS counter will appreciate the value of a safe (undisturbed) roosting site, whether this be used by waders or by ducks and geese. In A place to roost, WeBS counts for Black-tailed Godwits are used to assess the national and international importance of an individual roosting site in northwest England. The main thread, however, is about the energy expenditure associated with sleeping (not very much) and travelling to and from a safe roost site (lots). An interesting add-on is the story of what happened to Cardiff’s Redshanks when the estuary was turned into a lake.

New recruits

If adult birds don’t change their winter homes then increases in local populations may well reflect good breeding years for wader species. 2017 seems to have been one of the good years for several species that breed in Iceland, particularly Black-tailed Godwits. WeBS counters should not be surprised if there are really high counts this winter.

T with BTGA great summer for Iceland’s waders puts this year’s productivity into context and gives an update on wader research that is being undertaken by the South Iceland Research Centre (University of Iceland), the University of East Anglia (UK) and the University of Aveiro (Portugal). If you have ever seen a colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher or Whimbrel you may well find this interesting.

On the open shore

NEWS tableThe blog News & Oystercatchers was written to promote the Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey of 2015/16, or NEWS-III. There are a lot of waders on the shorelines that link the estuaries that are covered for WeBS and, every few years, volunteers are asked to count these birds. In NEWS-II (2006/07), it was estimated that 87% of Purple Sandpipers were to be found on the open shore (see table) with high numbers of several other species. There’s an initial assessment of the results for NEWS-III in the latest WeBS report and I look forward to writing up the results as a WaderTales blog, once a paper is published.

Links to blogs mentioned already

Many more to choose from

There are over 40 WaderTales blogs to choose from in this list. Four of these articles might be of particular interest to WeBS counters:

  • knot

    Knot migration

    Which wader, when and why? gives an overview of the migration of waders into, out of and through Britain & Ireland. The patterns help to explain why the peak numbers for Sanderling occur on the Wash in August, on the Dee in November and on the North Norfolk coast in May, for instance.

  • Bar-tailed Godwits: migration & survival  contrasts the different migration patterns of the two races of Bar-tailed Godwits that use British & Irish estuaries and explains the importance of colour-rings in the calculation of survival rates. On the other side of the world, Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea shows how quickly numbers can change if the annual survival probabilities of adults fall. sum plum
  • The not-so-Grey Plover focuses on the Grey or Black-bellied Plover but the real story is about moult. British and Irish estuaries are important to huge numbers of moulting waders. WeBS counters often don’t have time to look at individual birds but, with the right camera, you can learn a lot about waders by checking out the right feathers.

Thank you

Blog Counter 1I use WeBS data a lot – in my blogs and in articles – and I appreciate the tremendous value of data collected each month by thousands of contributors. They monitor the condition of their local patches and have directly contributed to local, national and international reviews of the conservation status of wintering waterbirds. To every current and past WeBS counter – ‘thank you!’

There’s a (large) selection of papers using WeBS data here, on the BTO website. The Wetland Bird Survey is run by the BTO, in partnership with RSPB and JNCC (which acts on behalf of NE, NRW, SNH & DAERA), and in association with WWT.


 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

A great summer for Iceland’s waders?

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

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Flock of juvenile Black-tailed Godwits in Devon

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

Winter into spring

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

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

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

Breeding studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressures on Iceland’s waders

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

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

Deploying and collecting geolocators to study migration

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

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

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

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

So how good a breeding season was it?

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

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

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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

 

 

 

Which wader, when and why?

This is a quick summary of wader migration, for British and Irish birdwatchers. The maps are taken from the migration book Time to Fly by Jim Flegg, published by the British Trust for Ornithology, and most of the images are kindly provided by Graham Catley.

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Autumn wader migration is one of the high-points of a birdwatcher’s calendar but why does it start in July (or even June), are the Dunlin that we see in August the same ones that are present in December, what are the vagrant waders we should be looking out for and which species migrates from here to Galapagos and Chile?

Starting simple – birds from the northeast

greplFor two wader species that arrive in Britain and Ireland in the autumn, the migration story is straightforward: Grey Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwits fly here from the northeast.

The Grey Plovers we see are birds from western Siberia, leaving in a southwesterly direction in autumn to escape the winter cold and taking up territories on the mud of our estuaries. As spring comes to an end, they moult into a smart summer plumage, ready for departure in May. The first, failed breeders will return in July.

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Bar-tailed Godwit migration

All of our Bar-tailed Godwits fly from the northeast but there are two subspecies to consider; there are passage birds from eastern Siberia that move to Africa for the winter, and birds from further west in Siberia, Finland, Sweden and Norway that spend the winter with us. There’s more about Bar-tailed Godwit migration in this blog.

Other northeastern-breeding waders turn up each autumn, such as Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint, but weather patterns and breeding success will dictate just how many we see on our side of the North Sea.

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Adult Curlew Sandpiper

As is common in most wader species, adult Curlew Sandpipers get here earlier than juveniles, which don’t turn up until August or September.  Most adult Curlew Sandpipers seem able to make long migratory journeys between Siberia and wintering grounds as far away as South Africa but juveniles stop more frequently, many using coastal sites in Europe and Africa as they make their way south.

The breeding distribution of Broad-billed Sandpiper and Temminck’s Stint stretches further west than those of Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints, but we see far fewer of the first pair of species. The migratory strategies of Broad-billed Sandpiper and Temminck’s Stint take them south and southeast, respectively, rather than southwest.

Other eastern arrivals

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Woodcocks pour into Britain and Ireland between October and December

Lapwing, Woodcock and Curlew are all birds that breed in the UK but their local numbers are dwarfed by arrivals from the east each autumn. There are three WaderTales blogs that include information about the migration of these important species.

The UK and Ireland are particularly important wintering areas for Curlew – one of many of the large wader species that are globally threatened as discussed in this blog.

Scandinavian and Russian breeders

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Spring and autumn movements of Common Sandpiper

Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers are not really high-arctic waders. When they head south, many to travel to African countries, they are not as dependent upon coastal resources as other waders. The beeding distribution of Common Sandpiper is further west than those of the other two species and there are lots of movements of ringed birds between Britain and Ireland and Scandinavia. (see BTO’s on-line ringing report).

BTO mapA relatively small number of Scandinavian Green Sandpipers spend the winter in Britain and Ireland but there is a strong autumn passage. Wood Sandpipers are usually vagrants – just passing through en route to Africa (see map to the left). There’s a blog about Green Sandpipers here. 

The Spotted Redshank is similarly distributed to the three sandpipers mentioned above and we see relatively few each year, although 60 were caught together on the Wash in late July 1975. I wonder what wind and weather conditions pushed so many birds this far west in that year? It was a memorable catch! The Marsh Sandpiper’s distribution is further east still, so we see even fewer of them.

greenshank
Greenshank

Three of the UK’s rarest breeding waders – Greenshank, Ruff and Dotterel – are on the western fringe of much bigger continental breeding populations. The most numerous is the Greenshank, about 1000 pairs of which nest in Scotland. Some of these Scottish birds winter around the coast of these islands while others join an autumn passage of Scandinavian and Russian birds, travelling as far south as Ghana. Read more about Greenshanks here.

There are only about 600 pairs of Scottish-breeding Dotterel but we also see passage birds heading north to Scandinavia or south to Spain and North Africa. Here’s a blog about the threats to Scottish Dotterel.

ruffAlthough a few Ruff do breed here in some years, the vast majority are seen on migration between European/Scandinavian breeding areas and wintering areas in Europe and west Africa. This paper reveals that it is the females that travel further and consequently have different patterns of autumn moult than males.

Birds from the west – mostly

There are four Arctic wader species that we associate with northwesterly spring migration to Greenland and even as far as Canada – Knot, Sanderling, Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper. A May trip to the Outer Hebrides, the Solway, Morecambe Bay, the Dee or the Severn will reveal swirling flocks of these waders, resplendent in their fresh summer plumage. These birds will be feeding up for the flight to Iceland – the next stage of a journey which will take some of them to northeast Canada.

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knot

The complexities of Knot migration

Most of the Turnstone that winter in the British Isles will head off to Greenland and Canada to breed but we also see a spring and autumn passage of birds from the continental population. These birds breed as close as Finland and can fly as far south as the Atlantic coast of southern Africa.

It’s a similar, although less clear-cut story, for Sanderling (map above), with most wintering birds thought to be from breeding populations in Greenland, and spring and autumn passage of individuals between the Russian Arctic and Africa. As can be seen from the map, Knot add an extra tweak; our wintering birds are mostly heading for breeding grounds in Canada and Greenland, via Iceland, but some stage in northern Norway instead.

PurpsPurple Sandpipers that spend the winter around our shores are drawn from a diverse range of breeding areas, such as the mountains of southern Norway, the islands of the Arctic ocean that lie north of Scandinavia and Russia, Iceland’s uplands, and further west in Greenland and eastern Canada. The birds mix in the winter but there is a tendency for Norwegian birds to be found in the east of Scotland and Canadian birds in the west. See information and references here.

Waders that breed here

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Golden Plovers on the move

When we add in species that breed in these islands, the migration story gets even more complicated. Take Golden Plovers, for instance. A bird found on the wintry mudflats of the Firth of Forth probably bred close by, in the hills of lowland Scotland, one in an East Anglian field would probably have crossed the North Sea from Scandinavia or Europe, while one in Ireland is quite likely to be from Iceland, although it also could have flown from the east. It is a similar story for Snipe but birds in the west of these islands have an even stronger link to Iceland. There’s a blog about the migration of Snipe and Jack Snipe. Redshank mix more; any flock could include relatively local birds, Icelandic birds and birds from the northeast.

oystercatcher
Oystercatcher – the ringed bird in Greenland was  blown off course

Oystercatchers demonstrated the international tensions that can be caused by migration, when the culling of birds in the Burry Inlet of South Wales in the 1970s upset Norwegians. Cockle-eating winter habits may have been an issue for fishermen in Wales but Oystercatchers are a popular breeding bird in Norway, where they nest in gardens and on roof-tops. Although there can be a mix of nationalities on any winter site, Icelandic Oystercatchers are most likely to be seen in the west and north and Scandinavian birds in the east. There is more about Oystercatchers here.

ringed-ploverOur breeding Ringed Plovers winter in a wide range of locations. For instance, many colour-ringed, breeding birds in Norfolk stayed near their nest sites while others migrated to France, Ireland and Scotland. There is a strong passage of birds between wintering areas in Africa and southern Europe and northern breeding areas in Canada, Greenland and Iceland, in the west, and Scandinavia in the east.

There is a relatively small population of Whimbrels breeding here, almost all of which are in Shetland. Most of the birds we see elsewhere are of Icelandic or continental breeding origin, with large numbers seen on spring migration between Africa and Iceland in May, at the same time as other birds are leaving to head east. There is a WaderTales blog about Whimbrel migration.

dunlin

Dunlin: Yellow arctica. Green schinzii. Orange alpina.

The most complex story is probably told by the Dunlin. Three races can be encountered in these islands – arctica, alpina and schinzii. Arctica are the most westerly birds, passing through in spring and autumn as they travel between Greenland and Africa, and alpina are the most easterly. The Dunlin we see in the winter are these alpina birds; they moult out of grey winter plumage and into the brightest plumage of the three races in the spring. Our breeding birds are schinzii, the same subspecies found in Iceland, southern Scandinavia and southern Greenland. These birds head to the coasts of northern Africa for the winter.

Dunlin races neatly demonstrate that differential patterns of migration are separated by time as well as direction of travel. In May, British-breeding schinzii birds may well be on eggs but there will be flocks of alpina on the coast, resplendent in summer plumage but still waiting for their cue to depart. They will leave with black-bellied Grey Plovers and glowing orange Bar-tailed Godwits, heading for breeding areas such as the Taymyr Peninsular of Siberia.

Black-tailed Godwits

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Juvenile Black-tailed Godwits, newly arrived from Iceland

There are many WaderTales blogs about Black-tailed Godwit but these three illustrate the very different timings and movements of the two subspecies that we see in Europe – limosa and islandica. Islandica spend the winter in western Europe and breed in Iceland. The small number of limosa breeding in Britain head south each autumn to join the much larger populations from The Netherlands and neighbouring countries, heading for Iberia and western Africa.

Heading south

For four species, these islands are at the northern edge of the breeding range – Little Ringed Plover, Stone-curlew, Avocet and Black-winged Stilt. Little Ringed Plovers that breed along river valleys, on gravel pits and in other industrial sites largely spend the winter in western Africa. Most stone-curlews leave behind the heaths and fields of England to feed in open farmland and uplands of Spain and North Africa, although a few now spend the winter here.

avocetAvocets are quite mobile; there is a lot of autumn movement within Britain, especially into the south and west of England, but BTO-ringed birds can turn up anywhere from The Netherlands to Morocco. The newly-arrived Black-winged Stilts are expected to spend the winter in Africa or southern Europe.

Phalaropes

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Red-necked Phalarope

In one of the most amazing recent migration discoveries, RSPB scientists followed the journey of a Red-necked Phalarope using a geolocator. This Shetland-breeding bird didn’t migrate southeast to the Arabian Gulf, like its Scandinavian cousins. Instead it behaved like an Icelandic bird, flying west to the Canadian coast and then south and further west to the Pacific Ocean, between Galapagos and the west coast of South America. See this BOU blog. I guess that any Red-necked Phalaropes seen in England on passage are most likely to be Scandinavian birds, Grey Phalaropes are thought to be birds heading from Arctic breeding grounds to the Atlantic Ocean coast of Africa, and Wilson’s Phalaropes are vagrant birds from North America.

American vagrants

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Pectoral Sandpiper

The westerly winds across the Atlantic deliver American vagrants to these shores, especially during autumn storms. The wader that probably turns up most frequently in Britain and Ireland is the Pectoral Sandpiper. Males are unusually mobile, even during the breeding season, when they fly thousands of kilometres on the hunt for successful matings. There’s a blog about this. Come the autumn, the vast journeys some Pectoral Sandpipers make between eastern Canada and Argentina may bring them a long way east, far out from the eastern coast of the United States, as they follow great circle routes. This could explain the number of records, especially in Ireland. Alternatively, given the mobility of the species and its distribution in Russia, perhaps some of the Pectoral Sandpipers we see are visitors from the east. See this paper.

Other long-distance migrants that may make it across the Atlantic include White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, two species of dowitcher and Lesser (or even Greater) Yellowlegs  – and there’s always the challenge of trying to prove that a stint is actually a Semipalmated sandpiper or a Least Sandpiper. There’s a great Irish article by Eric Dempsey on American vagrant waders here. 

What else?

If you want to learn more about the migration of the birds of Britain and Ireland then the BTO’s Migration Atlas or Time to Fly are great places to look.


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.

 

 

Special Black-tailed Godwits

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

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

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

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Time to stretch their wings

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

Blog GY-GE

GY-GE (green yellow – green E)

Sightings can be reported to the Project Godwit Team https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/ or to jennifer.smart@rspb.org.uk

Background

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

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

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

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

Head-starting

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

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

Where to next?

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

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RL-GE (red lime – green E)

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

The return journey

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Spring godwit flock takes off from a Portuguese rice field

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

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

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

Hang out the bunting – time to party!

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

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

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

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

Funding

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


 GFA in Iceland

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

@grahamfappleton

 

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

There is a global review of survival rates in this paper: Méndez, V., Alves, J. A., Gill, J. A. and Gunnarsson, T. G. (2018), Patterns and processes in shorebird survival rates: a global review. Ibis. doi:10.1111/ibi.12586. The paper is summarised in this WaderTales blog: Measuring shorebird survival.

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.

Update – January 2018

“Great news for shorebirds! China to halt coastal land reclamation”. Read more in this BirdLife International article.

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