Sixty years of Wash waders

wwrg tt balance

Weighing a Turnstone

The Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) started with a bang on 18 August 1959, when the team made a catch of 1,132 birds in a Wildfowl Trust rocket-net at Terrington, in Norfolk. Over the years, cannon have replaced rockets, catches have become generally smaller and the scientific priorities have been refined, but the Group continues to focus upon discovering more about the waders that use the Wash. This blog attempts to summarises what has been learnt about the waders that rely upon the Wash, the vast muddy estuary that lies between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, on the east coast of England.

Sixty years ago, the first goal was to understand where the vast flocks of waders that visit the Wash came from – a task that would provide great insights into the way that the whole East Atlantic Flyway works. In this time, over 300,000 birds have been caught and ringed on the Wash, as you can see in the table below. Equally importantly, hundreds of bird-ringers from across the UK and scores of visitors from around the world have joined WWRG teams, in order to learn more about the study of shorebirds. Further international collaboration has been fostered through overseas visits by WWRG members and emigration of some key personnel. The impact of the Group is truly global, as you can read in the WWRG report for 2014/2015.

wwrg table

A total of 307,226 birds is impressive, especially when some of the species totals are compared to the national totals of the BTO Ringing Scheme for the whole of Britain & Ireland since 1909. WWRG is responsible for over 40% of the Grey Plover, Knot, Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit, with Grey Plover topping the list at nearly 60%. These are terrific achievements for a group of volunteers. I don’t have the figures but I reckon that Nigel Clark has been responsible for the largest number of catches.

Wee quiz: What’s the best match between these Wash waders and the countries that they are quite likely to have come from? Answers at the end of the blog:

  • Species: Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Sanderling, Turnstone
  • Countries: Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland & Russia
wwrg box

Firing box connected to 4 cannon-nets

In the early days, rocket nets were borrowed from the Wildfowl Trust for an annual summer week of catches, but the development of cannon-nets gave opportunities for all-year ringing. The intensity of the Group’s activities grew in the 1970s, when there was a threat to build a freshwater reservoir on the mudflats. For a couple of years, Clive Minton (founder and leader) persuaded us to visit fortnightly, so that we could get better data on weight-gain and turn-over, using a mixture of cannon-netting and mist-netting. Everything we knew was published by the Group as The Wash Feasibility Study in 1975. These days, the Group gets together about ten times a year for catching and colour-ring-reading sessions.

wwrg oldies

By catching and ringing large numbers of the key species that visit the Wash, the Group was able to generate maps showing what are now well-known patterns of migration (see Which wader, when and why?). Early on in the Group’s history, there was a focus on nine species, with Black-tailed Godwit added as a tenth when numbers increased. Each of these species has its own section below. The maps were prepared for the Wash Wader Ringing Group 2016/2017 Report by Ryan Burrell, using data stored within the BTO archives. Blue dots represent WWRG-ringed birds that have been found abroad. Red triangles represent foreign-ringed birds caught on the Wash. The base maps used are by courtesy of Natural Earth (www.naturalearthdata.com).

Oystercatcher

wwrg map OCThe map alongside clearly demonstrates the strong link between the Wash and Norway. Other interesting things that have been discovered about Oystercatchers:

  • They live a long time. An Oystercatcher that we caught at Friskney on 30 July 1976 broke the longevity record for a BTO-ringed wader when it was shot in France on 4 April 2017 (41 years 1 month and 5 days). It was ringed as an adult so we don’t know the exact age – but it must have been at least 43 years old. There’s a WaderTales blog with a list of longevity records for BTO-ringed waders.
  • When life gets tough, Oystercatchers fail to complete their autumn moult, retaining some of their outer primaries for an extra year. The ability to complete moult and annual survival rates are both affected by cockle and mussel supplies on the Wash. There’s more about this in two papers in Biological Conservation and the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Grey Plover

wwrg GV GVIn the early days of the WWRG, Grey Plovers occurred in much smaller numbers than they do now. Writing in an article about the first 40 years of the Group, Clive Minton told the story of the first catch of 100, made in 1963, that was celebrated with three bottles of champagne provided by the late Hugh Boyd, delivering on an incentive that he had promised.

  • Over half of the Grey Plover that have been ringed in Britain & Ireland since 1909 have been ringed by WWRG since 1959 (58.9%)
  • All of the Grey Plover using the Wash breed in Siberia. Some birds spend the winter on the Wash but there are autumn moulting flocks of birds that will go on to winter in other parts of Britain & Ireland, and spring and autumn passage of birds that travel as far south as West Africa.
  • Grey Plover are late to leave the Wash, with the last departures not occurring until the start of June. Unsurprisingly, they are some of the last waders to return at the end of summer, which puts pressure on birds to finish moult before the short, cold days of winter. Some adults fail to complete primary moult, especially if food supplies are low. There is more about Grey Plover moult in this WaderTales blog.

wwrg map GV KN

Knot

wash knot

First-winter Knot (subterminal bands on wing coverts and, as yet, unmoulted juvenile fethers on upper-parts)

Knot (or Red Knot) are truly international waders, as is shown in this map of movements of islandica  (and a few canutus) birds  to and from the Wash. Several WWRG members have been heavily involved in efforts to understand the decline in numbers of the rufa subspecies in Delaware Bay (on the North American eastern seaboard) and Clive Minton has been at the heart of efforts to explain the sudden drop in survival of piersmai and rogersi adults that winter in Australia and migrate to Arctic Russia via the Yellow Sea (see Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea).

  • We are still learning about Knot migration. The cluster of reports of WWRG-ringed birds in Northern Norway looks odd on this map projection but it turns out that this is a well-used stopping-off point for islandica Knot heading for northern Greenland and NE Canada. This route was first confirmed in 1985, when a joint Durham University and Tromsø University expedition caught 18 Wash-ringed birds in a total catch of 1703 birds.
  • wwrg net set

    Setting cannon-nets

    Many birdwatchers visit the Wash in autumn and winter to see the swirling Knot flocks at Snettisham and Holme. If high tide is at first light, Knot and other waders sometimes roost on Heacham Beach, giving the occasional opportunity to make a significant catch. The most recent of these, on 11 February in 2012, included 2757 Knot, 77 of which were already wearing rings.

  • The most recent analysis of wader populations in Great Britain showed that there was a drop of nearly 20% in wintering Knot numbers (from 320k to 260k) in less than a decade (see Do population estimates matter?). Regular catches on the Wash will help produce estimates of annual survival rates and age ratios of the islandica subspecies.

Sanderling

wwrg sanderlingThe biggest catches of Sanderling are generally in the summer, when the Wash is a meeting point for birds from Greenland and Siberia. July can sometimes see catches of 200 or more birds. Traditionally, a Sanderling catch was the curtain-raiser at the start of Wash Week, an opportunity for the whole team to make one catch before splitting into ‘Terrington’ and ‘Lincolnshire’ teams for the rest of the main summer trip.

  • Wintering Sanderling on the Wash are thought to be exclusively of the race that heads northwest in the spring, to Greenland via Iceland.
  • Late summer and spring see the addition of birds passing through on their way from/to Siberian and Greenlandic breeding areas.
  • I well remember the first time we caught a Sanderling (on 26 July 1975) wearing an Italian ring (caught in Italy 9 May 1975). Thanks to Jeroen Reneerkens (whose work will be covered in an upcoming blog) I now understand that this is probably a bird that migrates from Namibia to Greenland in spring, via the Mediterranean. It will have been on its way back to Namibia when caught in July.

wwrg map SS DN

Dunlin

wash dunlin

Sam Franks, looking for the buffy tips on inner coverts, which distinguish first-year birds from adults

Nearly half of the waders caught by WWRG have been Dunlin – a total of 140,168 up until the end of 2018. There were really big flocks of Dunlin in the 1970s but numbers have dropped over the years, with peak counts now half what they were, according to WeBS data.

  • We caught over 3,500 Dunlin in one week in 1976 but the annual total has exceeded 1,000 in only four of the last ten years. Partly, this reflects a change in behaviour in the summertime, with fewer waders roosting on fields and hence less catchable.
  • Three races of Dunlin visit the UK. Our winter birds are alpina, from Siberia, NW Russia and northern Scandinavia. A lot of July birds are schinzii, breeding in the UK and as far north as Greenland, and we occasionally try to convince ourselves that we have caught an arctica from northern Greenland.
  • Data collected for the WeBS survey suggest that national winter totals have dropped by over 40% in 25 years. This could perhaps partly be explained by a redistribution of alpina, with new generations of young birds settling in wintering areas on the other side of the North Sea. Warmer winters may well make this a more practical proposition than in the 1970s. There’s more about this in this paper.

Black-tailed Godwit

wash blackwit

Newly ringed Black-tailed Godwit, caught in a mist-net at night.

Black-tailed Godwits became a priority species in 1995, when Jennifer Gill (University of East Anglia) started a project to study the movements of individuals, using colour-rings. Nearly 25 years later, the WWRG-ringed Black-tailed Godwits have contributed data to numerous papers, largely focusing upon migration.

  • The Wash is a hugely important area for moulting islandica Black-tailed Godwits. Some birds stay in East Anglia for the winter but others move south and west within the UK, west to Ireland and south to France, Portugal and Spain.
  • There are several blogs about Black-tailed Godwits in this WaderTales contents list.

Bar-tailed Godwit

One of the key things that was learned from the sudden decline in annual survival rates in a range of species that use the Yellow Sea (as mentioned above) is a need for regular monitoring of marked birds. The WWRG’s Scientific Committee set up colour-flagging projects for Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Grey Plover, in order to increase the reliability of estimates of annual survival for three species that the Group does not catch in sufficient numbers to generate good retrap histories. Birdwatchers can help by reporting colour-marked birds here.

wwrg barwit map etc

  • In Bar-tailed Godwits: Migration & Survival there is a comparison of the data generated by a catch of 505 Bar-tailed Godwits in 1976 with the information that has been generated recently, using colour-flags.
  • Bar-tailed Godwits are long-lived birds. A WWRG bird holds the current record for a BTO-ringed Bar-tailed Godwit: 33 years and 11 months between ringing in 1978 and recapture in 2008. BTO longevity records are discussed in this WaderTales blog.
  • Colour-ring reading is now a significant element of Group activities, as described by Rob Pell in the WWRG Report for 2016/2017.

Curlew

Back in the 1970s, Curlew were still hunted on the Wash (paté made from autumn-shot birds was reported to be very tasty). Shooting stopped in Great Britain in 1981, when the maximum winter count on the Wash had dropped to about 3,000 birds, and by 2003/04 the maximum winter count was 15,336. Since then, numbers have declined, in line with national and international trends.

wwrg curlew map etc

  • A large number of Curlew on the Wash in winter are from Finland and surrounding countries. Surprisingly few are of UK origin.
  • Birds wearing WWRG leg-flags have been observed breeding in the Brecks (Norfolk/Suffolk).
  • The Curlew is internationally designated as ‘Near Threatened’. Is this really true when we can still see a field with 1000 roosting Curlew in Norfolk? Answers here.

Redshank

wash redshThe latest population estimates suggest that Great Britain has lost 26,000 wintering Redshank in less than a decade, representing a drop of 20%. Perhaps WWRG data can be used to help to explain these declines? Here are some of the things we know:

  • The Redshank on The Wash in the winter are mainly a mixture of birds from around the Wash, across the UK and from Iceland.
  • In cold winters, Redshank wintering on the Wash die in large numbers. After a period of severe weather in 1991, nearly 3,000 wader corpses were collected from along the tide-line, about 50% of which were Redshank. The winter WeBS counts for Redshank dropped by 50% after this mortality event but have recovered somewhat since then.
  • An analysis of nearly 1,000 dead Redshank showed that about two-thirds were of Icelandic origin. There was a tendency for smaller birds to be more susceptible to cold weather mortality than larger birds of the same species (More information in this paper by Jacquie Clark)

wwrg map RK TT

Turnstone

wash ttWinter Turnstone are birds that will head for Greenland and NE Canada in the spring but recoveries of birds in Finland and other Scandinavian countries indicate a passage of continental birds. African recoveries of WWRG-ringed birds probably include birds from Canada/Greenland and Finland/Scandinavia.

  • Turnstone wearing US Fish & Wildlife Service rings are occasionally caught on the Wash. Some of these rings were put on by Guy Morrison and his colleagues in Alert, Ellesmere Island, Canada. Guy was an early member of WWRG. It’s a small world!
  • The first Wash Turnstone were colour-ringed in 1999, as part of a study to understand why birds were feeding on the docks at Sutton Bridge. There is a WaderTales blog about the resulting paper by Jen Smart and Jennifer Gill. Colour-ringing continues, to measure annual survival rates.
  • Turnstone have a reputation for eating almost anything (including dog excrement and a human corpse) so do not be surprised if you see a colour-ringed bird scavenging for chips on the Hunstanton sea-front.

A few more highlights

Ringed Plover: this is not one of the ten key study species but 1,432 have been ringed between 1959 and 2018. Some birds are local breeders that hardly move anywhere but other birds link the Wash with Greenland, northern Norway, Morocco and Senegal.

wwrg GKGreenshank: The Group supports a colour-ringing project that was initiated by Pete Potts, in Hampshire. More information here.

Spotted Redshank: During the period 1959 to 2018, WWRG ringed a total of 85 Spotted Redshank, representing over 20% of the total ringed in Britain and Ireland since 1909. Amazingly, sixty of these birds were ringed on the same day – 27 July 1975. There is a blog about this catch and the recent decline in the number of Spotted Redshank visiting the UK. Fewer Spotted Redshanks.

Ruff: Until its closure, WWRG members spent many a smelly night at Wisbech Sewage Farm. This was a great place to catch Ruff, Curlew Sandpipers, Green Sandpipers etc. in mist-nets. Group members wrote a paper about Ruff moult and migration.

Rares: Occasionally there are surprises! WWRG has caught one each of Stone Curlew, Pectoral Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Terek Sandpiper. The last bird features in this WWRG blog.

What do we know now?

Migration studies have revealed the importance of the Wash to half a million or more waders each year – birds that spend the whole winter, others that refuel in the spring and vast numbers that rely on the food supplies in the mud to provide the energy for the post-breeding moult. There’s a selection of papers that have included WWRG data here, on the Group’s web-site.

wwrg cr TTThe Group still aims to maintain its general ringing programme, so that a representative sample of the key species carry rings. Colour-ringing projects aim to provide survival estimates for Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Turnstone, with Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwit colour-rings contributing to migration studies. Birdwatchers who visit the Wash can help by reporting colour-marked birds here, on the WWRG web-site.

WWRG data have been used to help inform decisions about the future of the Wash but the threats keep coming. Studies of migration and seasonal turn-over in numbers contributed hugely to decisions to provide national and international protection to the area and to fend off the 1970s plan to build a freshwater reservoir on the rich mudflats. The information that has been generated by many generations of volunteers over a period of sixty years has been used to manage the level of shellfish exploitation, to inform decisions about wind turbine locations and to manage activities that can cause disturbance.

The Wash Wader Ringing Group is very keen for its data to be used – and not just for impact assessment studies. Click here to learn more.

Diamond Jubilee

PLI

Phil Ireland releasing a Curlew

Over one thousand people are estimated to have contributed to sixty years of the Wash Wader Ringing Group’s activities. We have lived in barns, rolled cars, dug tens of thousands of holes, carried nets for miles, made important catches, had depressing failures, got frostbite, been threatened by surge tides and made friends for life.

In the whole of this period, there have been only two leaders of the Group – Clive Minton (1959-1981) and Phil Ireland (1981-present). Bird ringers, wader biologists and millions of waders owe them both a huge debt of gratitude.

You can read more about the history of WWRG on the Group’s website:

wwrg sunset

Photo at the top of this blog is by Cathy Ryden. Many thanks to her and to other photographers.

Wee quiz:

  • Bar-tailed Godwit – Russia
  • Black-tailed Godwit – Iceland
  • Curlew – Finland
  • Oystercatcher – Norway
  • Sanderling – Greenland
  • Turnstone – Canada

 


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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Starting moult early

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

The post-breeding moult

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

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

wing moult

Golden Plovers start their moult during or before the incubation period

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

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

Icelandic Golden Plovers

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

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

moult graphic

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

Swedish Golden Plovers

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

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

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

Spot the difference

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

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

TGG flying

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

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

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

More moult

There are more WaderTales blogs about moult: 

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

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

ugo banner


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.

 

 

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

blog karen

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 2018, that was only the 12th observation in the database. (There’s an update from Essex at the end of this story).

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.

blog ringers

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.

Blog sightings

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

blog samouco

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 to 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. BR-YGf chooses the British option. 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 subspecies 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.

On 22 April 2017, BR-YGf was in a flock of Black-tailed Godwits that took a break from their northwards migration at St John’s Pool in Caithness, on the north coast of Scotland. Here it was photographed by Karen Munro.

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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

blog moita

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!

Update

BR-YGf spent at least 12 days in Alresford Creek, on the Colne Estuary, in Essex in April 2019.


 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

 

The not-so-Grey Plover

sum plumThe Grey Plover may be grey in the winter but in its summer plumage the American name of Black-bellied Plover is far more appropriate. Each spring, adults moult into this breeding finery but what happens to first-years, are there differences between the sexes and are Grey Plovers ‘typical’ of the wader family as a whole?

This blog is inspired by the moult chapter from Shorebirds in Action, a new book by Richard Chandler, published by Whittles Publishing. The descriptor “an introduction to waders and their behaviour” gives a clue to the fact that Richard has used his excellent photographs to illustrate aspects of shorebirds’ lives, such as moult, migration, territorial behaviour and physiology. Many of the photographs in this blog have been provided by Richard.

‘Dressing for the Occasion’

Back in the ‘old days’ a group of wader ringers would huddle over the outstretched wing of a shorebird, often in the dark, by the light of a paraffin lamp, in order to try to understand the moult of individual birds. In the case of the Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, the primary feathers sometimes revealed an interesting story of previous difficulties experienced by an individual. More of this later.

Thanks to the development of digital photography and long lenses, the study of moult is no longer restricted to ringers looking at birds in the hand. Birdwatchers can all share in the detective work and learn more about how plumages of waders change with age and season, allowing us to identify males and females and to think about the stresses that individuals face.

The moult of Grey Plovers

Most waders moult their main flight feathers in the autumn and take on summer plumage in the spring. This adult Grey Plover (below) was photographed on the Wash in Norfolk in August. It is not in full summer plumage, having started its moult before migrating from the Taymyr region of Siberia. There’s lots more about wader migration here. Two of the primaries (P1 and P2) are new, with crisp white edges to the feathers. Over the course of the next few weeks, this bird will recommence moult by dropping P3, with moult then progressing outwards through the primaries and inwards through the secondaries. The main feather tracts are labelled.

structure of wing

Summer plumage feathers can be seen in the scapulars and in the coverts. In some individual Grey Plovers, and in other species, there can also be summer plumage in the tertials. In this photograph, these are hidden by the large, showy scapulars. Juvenile birds of many species are often aged by looking for buffy tips on the median coverts. The inner median coverts are protected from wear by the scapulars, so this is the best place to look for hidden evidence that a bird is a youngster. This is where to find the odd buffy fringe in a young Dunlin in its first spring, for instance, when it is  about 10 months old.

adult winterFor an adult wader, the post-breeding moult is complete. The photograph alongside shows an adult bird in full winter-plumage bird; the picture is from Norfolk (UK) but the same photograph could have been taken in South Africa, India, Australia or South America, so global is the Grey Plover’s distribution. The bird has discarded all of the breeding plumage it acquired in the spring, and the flight feathers that were a year old. All of the coverts of the wing have been moulted and have a uniform appearance, and look at the fresh-edged tertials that fold neatly over the dark (almost black) tips of the primaries.

juvenileThe next photograph shows a first-winter juvenile, newly arrived from the breeding grounds. This bird is a Black-bellied Plover in Florida. Having started life as a tiny, downy chick, it will have acquired this new set of feathers before migration. The spangling of the back is diagnostic of a juvenile Grey Plover but the golden spots can confuse a novice wader-handler, who might want to turn it into one of the golden plover family. Before winter starts, new non-breeding-type body feathers moult in, so the bird loses the spangling of the upper parts and a lot of the streaking of the under-parts.

first winterIt is not thought that one-year-old Grey Plovers breed in their first summer, with most staying on their ‘wintering’ grounds for well over a year, through to the second April or May. The photograph alongside was taken in May in Norfolk; the bird may have been sharing the beach with gorgeous summer-plumage birds that were preparing to depart for Siberia. Grey (or Black-Bellied) Plovers are nearly circumpolar breeders. They are missing from Greenland and Northern Scandinavia but breed across the northern coasts of Russia, Alaska and Canada – only three countries but a vast area of tundra.

age characteristicsThe next figure is a composite of two of the photographs, created to show the key diagnostic features of an adult and immature in winter plumage. The notches on the tertials are particularly pronounced in the young bird because the feathers were already nearly a year old at this point – it is not always this easy! When assessing the age of any wader, the tertials and coverts are key feathers to check out.

Primary exceptions

In many ways, the Grey Plover is a fairly typical medium-sized wader; adults moult their main flight feathers (wings and tail) in the autumn but juveniles have to wait until the early summer of their second year before they do the same. This first primary moult of these young birds may start as early as June and is completed in August or early September, two months ahead of breeding adults. To learn more about Grey Plover moult see this paper by Nick Branson & Clive Minton from the Wash Wader Ringing Group.

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Smaller waders, such as the alpina Dunlin that spend the winter in Britain & Ireland, typically breed when only a year old. Unlike Grey Plovers, Dunlin moult into breeding plumage in their first spring. When they return from Russia in the same summer they can still be aged if there are juvenile inner median coverts with unworn buffy fringes. Primaries in these one-year-old birds tend to be more worn than those of adults, being three months older and having been used for one more migratory journey.

In some species, such as Semipalmated Sandpiper, you can find young birds in the spring with a small number of fresh outer primaries. By moulting the outer, and most worn, of their flight feathers during the wintering period they are presumably able to increase flight efficiency for the journeys north and south. Young birds of the tundrae race of the Ringed Plover take this early primary renewal strategy even further, by undergoing a complete primary moult in their first winter, while on the wintering grounds.

Under stress        

Moult is an energetically expensive activity. When resources are low, it may not be possible to complete the moult process. In this BTO report by Phil Atkinson and colleagues, about wader mortality associated with die-offs of cockles and mussels in the Wash (UK), they showed that more Oystercatchers suspend moult in years with very low food supplies. In these ‘bad shellfish years’, it was not uncommon to find Oystercatchers with one or more unmoulted outer primaries – old feathers that would be retained until the next autumn moult.

suspendedThe same thing can happen in Grey Plovers but it is more likely that they will suspend moult in the autumn and then finish in March. In the Branson & Minton paper mentioned above, it was estimated that 30% of adults suspended moult for the harsh winter months. The paper was written in 1976 and it would be interesting to know whether the proportion of birds suspending has dropped, given that winter weather now tends to be less severe.

Suspended moult is found in Grey and Black-bellied Plovers across the world. The photograph alongside was taken in Florida on 20 December. The unmoulted outer primary is more pointed and browner than the other nine.

Gender

greplThe gender of winter-plumage Grey Plovers cannot be determined, even in the hand, but the summer plumage is pretty diagnostic. A bird with a jet-black belly, with perhaps the odd white tip to a feather, and an almost pure white band behind the black face and neck is probably a male (as here). If the bird is less well-marked – brownish-black on the front with more mottling – then you are likely to be looking at a breeding plumage female. Come the autumn, all of this finery will disappear and the Black-bellied Plover will become a Grey Plover once more.

Moult in other species

cover with outlineThis blog focuses on the moult of one species. If you want to learn more about moult in general and many other aspects of the behaviour of waders then immerse yourself in Shorebirds in Action, An Introduction to Waders and their Behaviour by Richard Chandler. Click here for link

Moult features strongly in this WaderTales blog about Black-tailed Godwits and in this blog about Lapwings.


 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

 

 

 

 

Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland

This blog first appeared as an article in Shooting Times and Country magazine. It has been amended to provide more web links.

snipe-header

A wisp of Common Snipe

There’s a big difference between the number of Common Snipe and Jack Snipe we see in the United Kingdom each winter, with an estimated 1,100,000 of the former and 110,000 of the latter, according to the authors of Population Estimates of Bird in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. They remind us that Jack Snipe are hard to find and identify and warn that the total of 110,000 is a contender for ‘least reliable’ of the hundreds that have been compiled for this mammoth stock-take.

comparisonIn theory, therefore, for every ten Common Snipe we see we ought to see one Jack Snipe. Telling them apart is mostly a matter of size (see table) and there’s a useful identification video that has been produced by the British Trust for Ornithology. Both species make good use of their striped, cryptic plumage to avoid detection but Jack Snipe take the art to the next level, hiding against or under a tussock until the last possible moment and then exploding from beneath a person’s feet. Given the closeness of approach, perhaps Jack Snipes might be more obvious and their numbers exaggerated?

Jack Snipe

jack-puddle

Jack Snipe probing in mud

In the winter months, Jack Snipe are not as closely associated with wetlands as are Common Snipe, preferring longer vegetation, such as that to be found in muddy, cow-poached rough grazing marsh, to the open edges of larger bodies of water. For the tiny Jack Snipe, a cow’s hoof-print forms an ideal pool in which to probe. One of the areas that birdwatchers go to see Jack Snipe is Glasgow. Strange though it may seem, several of the wetland areas within the city limits hold small numbers of birds, especially in autumn, when migrating Jack Snipe pass through Britain, on their way from Scandinavia to wintering areas in south-west Europe. Members of the local ringing group have focused a lot of effort on this species, catching individuals by dragging a mist-net through the rough, wet, reedy grassland and ringing birds that have jumped from the ground as the net passed over them. See blog by Gillian Dinsmore.

jack-flight

Jack Snipe are relatively long-winged

Jack Snipe are well designed for migration, with much bigger wings for the size of the body than the Snipe. Unlike Common Snipe, many of which migrate in flocks, or wisps, Jack Snipe are thought to travel mostly alone and at night. They cover long distances, with some birds from Russia crossing the Sahara and those from eastern areas of Siberia travelling to eastern Africa, India and southern coastal countries of mainland Asia. The birds that winter in the British Isles have much less far to travel than the majority of the population, therefore.

Wintering Common Snipe

Common Snipe, which are much bigger and more common than Jack Snipe, start to appear in their wintering areas as early as August. The pioneering birds are juveniles; most adults moulting at least some of their flight feathers before flying south and west in September and October. We know this because many French hunters have provided wings to scientists studying the age and sex structure of the population in that country. Moulting is an energetically expensive part of any bird’s life, so autumn feeding conditions are presumably generally good enough for moult to have been at least started, if not finished, before birds leave the breeding areas. Not every bird manages to fit in a full moult before it’s time to move south, however, with one in six adults shot in France found to be in suspended moult, having shed and moulted some primary feathers before migration, with a view to completion in the wintering grounds. A slightly smaller number have a mixed age of secondary flight feathers and about a quarter delay completion of covert moult.

snipe-1

Common Snipe

Although most of the Common Snipe we see in Britain in the wintertime have come from Scandinavia and mainland Europe, Ireland has a strong additional connection to Iceland. A quarter of foreign-ringed Common Snipe discovered in Ireland or Northern Ireland have been found to be wearing Icelandic rings, compared to 1 out of 255 in England, none in Wales and just 10% in Scotland. This and lots of other fascinating facts about migration come to light because hunters kindly send information about ringed birds to The British Trust for Ornithology, which is ‘mission control’ for ringing in both the UK and Ireland. This information is available on-line via the BTO website.

Across Europe, although there is almost certainly a decline in the number of Common Snipe, probably linked to man’s incessant drive to drain wetlands, there is no suggestion as yet that Common Snipe should be added to the list of species of conservation concern.

Snipe breeding in Britain & Ireland

British and Irish Snipe are in trouble. By the time of the first national bird surveys, some 50 years ago, we had been turning wetlands into farmland for as much as 2000 years and, since then, numbers of Common Snipe may well have fallen by a further 90% in the areas in which they are still breeding. There has been a major shrinkage of the species’ range since 1968-72. Losses are shown as downward triangles in the map from the latest Bird Atlas, published by the British Trust for Ornithology. The rate of decline across England, Wales, southern Scotland and much of Ireland in the shorter period since 1988-91 emphasises just how quickly the species is being lost. It can only be a matter of time until Common Snipe is added to the red list of species of conservation concern in the UK, in order to highlight the perilous plight of our breeding population.

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drumming-snipe

Displaying Common Snipe

A displaying Common Snipe is a magical thing – flying around with real purpose, climbing into the sky and vibrating its tail feathers in a stooping descent. Our grandparents could have heard them drumming on grazing marshes anywhere in the country and just imagine what the fens of eastern England must have been like 500 years ago. These days, most people in southern Britain will have to visit a nature reserve even to have a chance to share that same magic. I am lucky enough to go to Iceland every summer, where I can still easily see a dozen Common Snipe displaying at the same time above areas of wet grassland.  If you want anything like the same sort of experience in the UK, you’ll probably need to travel to the Outer Hebrides.


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

 

Bar-tailed Godwits: migration & survival

Putting the flags out –  to learn more about one of the most amazing species of migrating wader.

Ruth banner

When we caught 505 Bar-tailed Godwits on the Wash, on the east coast of England, on 29 August 1976 we thought that we would add hugely to our knowledge of the species’ migration but we were disappointed. In just six years, by adding leg-flags to just 248 birds, the Wash Wader Ringing Group has learnt a lot more.

Forty years ago

On 29 August 1976, in the days of stubble-burning, we had covered four cannon nets with fine, black burnt chaff to hide them almost completely. We knew that the big tide would push birds off the saltings and over the sea wall, there were decoys to pull the birds into the right 1% of a vast, flat field and the weather was good. Everything was ready. I was in a one-man, cabbage-crate hide, in line with my set of two nets. I remember seeing one Redshank look at the decoys and descend, pulling down a vast cloud of over 2000 Bar-tailed Godwits. There were some concerns about birds being too close to one of the nets on my line so we fired three nets, catching 505 bar-tailed godwits and 44 other waders.

Cathy ad and juv

Juvenile with moulting adult

A catch of 505 Bar-tailed Godwits seemed like a game-changer, including 22 that were already wearing rings. 483 new birds were bound to make a huge difference to our understanding of the species’ migration patterns and survival probabilities … surely? Up until that day, the Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) had ringed a total of 1136 Bar-tailed Godwits so we were adding over 40% to the total, using harder rings with a much longer life-expectancy than those added as early as 1959.

This was a moulting flock; an autumn drop in numbers and a previous recovery of a bird in Spain suggested that many birds would spend the winter elsewhere but where? As luck would have it, only one of the birds from August 1976 has ever been found abroad – a bird shot in France in February 1985. The only British recoveries have been a bird found dead in Yorkshire in November 1976 and seven birds found around the Wash between 1979 and 1999. As to subsequent recaptures, 38 birds have been caught again by the WWRG, five of which were retrapped for a third time. With all the best models in the world, these figures are not enough to give a reasonable estimate of survival and there is no way that a change in survival rate could be picked up.

It’s pleasing to report that one bird was still alive on 21 February 2003 – over 28 years after ringing – but even this is not the longevity record for a BTO Bar-tailed Godwit. That’s held by another WWRG bird that was ringed on 22 August 1974 and last recaptured on 4 August 2008 – nearly 34 years later. Perhaps one of the 1976 birds is still alive and waiting to be caught again?

Bar-tailed Godwit migration

Since the 1976 catch, WWRG has been a bit more fortunate in its foreign recoveries of metal-ringed Bar-tailed Godwit, with 2 recoveries in Mauritania, one in Guinea Bissau and another on a ship off Guinea, out of a total of 12 BTO-ringed birds found in Africa. A bird caught in Teesmouth on 13 October 1982 was in Western Sahara five days later, which may give an indication of the timing of post-moult movement. The map alongside shows the full set of BTO recoveries (purple) and foreign-ringed birds found in Britain & Ireland (orange). The dots show the westward post-breeding movement from Russia to the Atlantic coast of Europe and the onward migration of thousands of birds to Africa.

One of the fascinating things about migration is the way that different populations of the same species have developed radically different migration patterns since the last Ice Age, the global maximum extent of which was reached only 20,000 years ago. At the same time that the Bar-tailed Godwits we see in Western Europe are making relatively modest journeys west and south in late summer, some of those of the baueri subspecies are undertaking nine-day, non-stop flights from Alaska to New Zealand. The physiological processes and navigational techniques that birds on the Pacific flyway have mastered would amaze their European cousins. To read more about flyway evolution for Arctic waders, and Knot in particular, see a Review by Theunis Piersema (Journal of Ornithology, 2011).

Conservation Status

Bar-tailed Godwits are classified as near-threatened by BirdLife International and the IUCN. There are four recognised subspecies facing various threats, as shown in the species fact-sheet here. 

Sam winter gloves

Bar-tailed Godwits wintering on the Wash are of the lapponica subspecies

Two subspecies visit the Wash Special Protection Area (SPA); lapponica from Norway through to western Siberia and taymyrensis from central Siberia. Two subspecies, menzbieri and baueri, use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and are both undergoing extremely rapid declines, in large part due to severe habitat loss in the Yellow Sea. As a result of severe problems for waders using this flyway, the species has been uplisted to Near Threatened (BIrdLife International).

Satellite-tagging has revealed the impressive trans-oceanic migration routes of individuals between Alaska and New Zealand and shown the importance of the Yellow Sea for birds as they return north in the spring. Colour-rings and flags have shown that there has been a sudden drop in survival rates for Bar-tailed Godwits and other species using sites in China and other rapidly developing countries of South-East Asia, leading to urgent calls for conservation initiatives at an international scale. You can read more about this emerging story in these three papers.

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Learn more about the amazing migration of Bar-tailed Godwits on the New Zealand Science Learning Hub

Contrasting extreme long-distance migration patterns in bar-tailed godwit Limosa lapponica. Phil Battley et al. Journal of Avian Biology. 10.1111/j.1600-048X.2011.05473.x 

Simultaneous declines in summer survival of three shorebird species signals a flyway at risk. Theunis Piersma at al. Journal of Animal Ecology. 10.1111/1365-2664.12582

Declining adult survival of New Zealand Bar-tailed Godwits during 2005–2012 despite apparent population stability. Jesse Conklin et al. Emu. http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/MU15058

For Bar-tailed Godwits wintering in western Europe there is currently less immediate conservation concern, although there are warming conditions in their breeding grounds and over-fishing and emerging diseases of shellfish are known to be affecting estuaries on both sides of the North Sea. Things are more worrying in West Africa, where numbers have declined from 746,000 to 498,000 over a period of 30 years, according to a report by van Roomen et al. Some of these birds spend time in the Wash in the autumn on their way south.

Status of coastal waterbird populations in the East Atlantic Flyway. With special attention to flyway populations making use of the Wadden Sea. van Roomen et al.

Flying the flag

Cathy gluing

Each bird wears a two-letter flag and a white colour-ring (shown here)

Given the worsening conservation status of Bar-tailed Godwits and the gaps in our understanding of what is happening to birds that visit the Wash SPA, the WWRG decided that it would help if birds could be monitored through colour-ringing. That way, the movement and survival of individuals can be monitored using a telescope instead of relying on recapture.

The flagging of Bar-tailed Godwits on the Wash has dramatically increased the number of records of birds subsequent to ringing but the scheme is still in its early days. Flagging started in August 2010 but the first significant catch did not take place until 11 February 2012, when 56 birds was flagged. According to Phil Atkinson, who runs the WWRG database for the species, one third of the birds from this catch have been resighted alive in the four years since that catch (compared to 1% recapture rate for metal-ringed birds in the four years after the 1976 catch).

Cathy KAMost resightings have been on the Wash and those from elsewhere have tended to confirm what was known from metal ringing. A moulting bird on the Wash was seen on the Wirral (northwest England) in the same autumn, showing that birds moulting on the Wash can move elsewhere in Northwest Europe to winter. A non-moulting bird, caught at Terrington on 30 September 2011, was resighted at Ebel Khaznaya, Mauritania 50 days later. These two resightings confirmed that the Wash is an important site not only for the wintering Fenno-Scandinavian and western Siberian lapponica breeding populations but also central Siberian taymyrensis birds, that pass through in autumn to wintering areas in West Africa. The majority of overseas records have come from the Wadden Sea in spring and autumn, when birds have been on return passage to the breeding areas. There’s a 1996 summary of migratory movements of metal-ringed WWRG birds here:

The origins, moult, movements and changes in numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica on the Wash, England, Bird Study.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00063659609460996 

Aivar Estonia

UV was spotted in Estonia in August 2012

By the end of 2015, 248 Bar-tailed Godwits had been colour-ringed and 92 of them seen again, many locally on the Wash. These high resighting rates are a consequence of focused searches by WWRG members and reports from birdwatchers submitting their records to sightings@wwrg.org.uk. Over the next few years it will be possible to estimate annual survival probabilities and to monitor how these change in the medium to long term. As was shown in the Yellow Sea, spotting a dramatic drop in colour-ring return rates provides evidence that development pressures are having an impact upon migratory species. Worsening conditions in the breeding grounds or wintering areas could well be detected through a more gradual but no less serious reduction in survival rates.

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.


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

Lapwing moult

In most northern waders, post-breeding moult is a distinct phase – between autumn migration and the start of winter – but it’s different for Lapwings

Lapwing header

Primary moult is one of the key stages of a wader’s life. Knowing the length of the period in which birds are constrained by this energetic process may be really important to our understanding of the whole annual cycle of waders. In Oystercatchers, for instance, it has been shown that they cannot finish their primary moult in periods of low food abundance. One or more of the outer pairs of primaries are retained, becoming more faded and worn as the next twelve months pass and providing a signal of a previous period of stress. [See BTO report 238 by Atkinson et al.]

Lapwing in flight

The shape of a Lapwing’s wing is very different to that of most wader’s in the UK

Lapwing moult was first studied in detail in the 1970s using an innovative technique that did not require birds to be captured. By collecting primary feathers dropped by a flock of Lapwings that spent several weeks near their Buckinghamshire home, David and Barbara Snow were able to estimate the duration of moult. They did not start picking up feathers until August in 1974 but they were ready for the start of the 1975 season and captured a whole season’s worth of data that year, visiting the site every four days during a long, dry summer.

Primary wing moult

MOULT CYCLEFor flocks of waders in Britain and Ireland, autumn moult is generally squeezed in between their return from the arctic and sub-arctic breeding grounds and the start of winter, when days get shorter, the weather gets colder and much of the prey becomes less numerous and harder to access. In the late summer, adult birds start to discard the colourful feathers that they grew in spring and the main wing and tail feathers that have served them well for the best part of a year. The key period of moult is the time in which the ten primary feathers are replaced. The inner one (primary 1) on each wing is dropped first and the outer one is last. Each of the ten primary feathers is scored from 0 to 5, so an old wing has a score of 0 and a new wing has a score of 50. During the process, there is a gap in the wing, where new feathers are growing. A typical bird in mid-moult might have ten feathers scored as 5554332100 (moult score 28), with primary four nearly fully grown and primary eight newly discarded. Unsurprisingly, flight capacity is impeded. It’s not a great time to migrate – unless you happen to be a Lapwing.

David & Barbara Snow

Primaries

The primary feathers of a Lapwing are unusually distinctive

David & Barbara Snow were each respected ornithologists in their own right and David was the author of the BTO’s Guide to Moult in Birds and senior scientist in the bird section of what is now the Natural History Museum. Wherever they lived or worked – from Trinidad to Tring – they observed the birds around them, so when a flock of Lapwings gathered to moult near their home they decided to collect the feathers that they dropped. They discovered that it is possible to use the individual patterns of white spots and the lengths of primary feathers in order to assign primary number to discarded Lapwing feathers, and that this could be done with certainty for primaries 1, 2, 7 and 10 (with 1 being the innermost). Reference to a small sample of BTO moult cards allowed David & Barbara to assign moult scores of 1, 4, 29 and 41 to the points at which these four distinct feathers had been dropped and collected. The synchrony of moult in the two wings was evident: “Several times we found pairs of feathers lying exactly where they had been dropped, separated by a body width”.

Much of what the Snows discovered from recording in detail the feathers shed by their local flock of 70 and 120 moulting Lapwing in 1974 and 1975 is still relevant. They suggest that the collection of dropped feathers might be a useful adjunct to the study of moult in situations where birds roost in the same place on a daily basis, as might be the case for flocks of gulls or individual raptors.

David and Barbara also collected secondary feathers and tail feathers. As there is a difference between the outer tail feathers of adult and first-year birds they were able to show that early moulters included a higher proportion of first-year birds. The paper is well worth a read. David W. Snow & Barbara Snow (1976) Post-breeding Moult of the Lapwing, Bird Study, 23:2, 117-120

As far as I can ascertain, nobody has tried to use this technique again. I feel partially responsible, having written a follow-up paper with Clive Minton that pointed out some flaws in the methodology. These related to a lack of linearity in the progression of primary moult, as measured using the normal score of 0 to 50 based on 0-5 for the ten individual feathers, and the time taken to complete moult once the last primary has been dropped. Using data from Lapwing caught in cannon-net catches in the English Midlands, Clive Minton and I found that Lapwing moult starts very early, with median commencement and completion dates of about 7 June and 29 September – an estimated duration of 114 days and much longer than that suggested in the figure produced by the Snows. G. F. Appleton & C. D. T. Minton (1978) The primary moult of the Lapwing, Bird Study, 25:4, 253-256.

Lapwings are strange

Moulting Curlew

An August high-tide roost. Perhaps Curlew feathers could be collected at low tide?

Most waders that we see in the UK have distinct moult and migration phases to the post-breeding portion of their annual cycle.  After having successfully raised a brood of youngsters or attempted so to do, Turnstones, Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot etc. leave their nesting areas in the high Arctic and fly thousands of kilometres, arriving on our shores in July and August. Although some populations, such as most Dunlin of the schinzii race, only pause to fatten up and then move on to moult further south in northern Africa, many waders that use the UK during autumn undergo a full moult. One can imagine circumstances in which a small flock of inland-moulting Curlew that use the same roost site on a daily basis might be studied in the same way as the Snows studied their Buckinghamshire Lapwings, as long as the lengths and patterns on individual feathers allow the primary number of some of the individual primaries to be assigned with a degree of certainty.

ringing_logo_1.jpg

Lapwings were the first birds to be ringed in Britain & Ireland (in 1909). They appear in the logo of the BTO Ringing Scheme

Unlike most of their wader cousins, many Lapwings migrate while moulting their primary feathers. Arctic species have to make long-hop migrations and are restricted in their choice of feeding areas by the distribution of estuaries but Lapwings make short movements and can break their journeys as often as they like. The North Sea is the biggest barrier they face when making journeys from far east in Russia but a crossing from the Netherlands to Norfolk is less than 150 km. Lapwings arriving on the east coast of England have been seen to have gaps in their primaries, despite the fact that these feathers deliver most of the lift and propulsion.

Moult strategy is not the only strange thing about Lapwings; they have also been shown to exhibit abmigration, as described by Chris Mead in a paper with Jim Flegg and Chris Cox in 1968. Although most British-bred Lapwings return to their natal areas to breed, as shown by Pat Thompson et al in 1994, a small number of birds breed a long way from where they were hatched, including Russia, Norway and Sweden. The birds that go on to breed in continental Europe are assumed to join flocks which happen to be travelling east in spring. Given that British-hatched birds as old as 12 years of age have been found breeding in Russia, it is assumed that, having once travelled to a new breeding area, Lapwings will repeat the journey each year. Genetic mixing at large geographic scales would potentially explain a lack of morphological variation across the large range of the species.

Collect some feathers

Moult is currently only studied when birds have been caught but perhaps it might be possible to use digital photography to establish the primary moult duration of colour-ringed individuals or to use the Snows’ technique of collecting feathers from a moulting flock of birds over a period of a few weeks.  On an annual basis there may even be opportunities to monitor change?  A reduced rate of moult, as measured through the collection of discarded primaries, could provide a way to assess inter-annual variation in stress. I wonder if moult periods have increased for birds on the East-Asia Australia Flyway, where they are experiencing reductions in feeding opportunities on their southward migration via the Yellow Sea? Wouldn’t it be interesting if a technique first described by the Snows forty years ago could be used by a new generation of wader biologists when investigating the latest issues of conservation concern?


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