Interpreting changing wader counts

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

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

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

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

The counters

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

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

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

Understanding change

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

DN and BTG graphs

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

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

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

 

Blog Avocets

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

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

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

Designating sites

Blog Blackwit

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

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

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

Keep counting!

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

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

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

Paper

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

Blog RINGOS


 GFA in Iceland

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

@grahamfappleton

 

 

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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?

juvvy blackwits

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.

timing hatching

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?

sunset


 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

 

 

 

NEWS and Oystercatchers

It’s amazing what you can find when walking along a beach with a pair of binoculars

Curlew in snow

Curlews waiting for the tide to drop: Graham Catley

Thousands of British and Irish birdwatchers visit estuaries but there’s a lot of coastal habitat that gets little attention.  That’s where you’ll find 87% of the UK’s Purple Sandpipers, over half of the Turnstones and nearly half of the Ringed Plover – or those were the figures nine years ago.  It’s time to update these estimates, which is where NEWS-III came in. That’s the catchy name for the third Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey, which operated in the UK and Ireland over the period 1 Dec 2015 to 29 Feb 2016.

CR OYC (1280x772)

We’ll be looking out for colour-ringed Oystercatchers: Tómas Gunnarsson

We covered 6 beach sections as our contribution to NEWS-II over the Christmas period 2006/07: three horrible stretches right next to the main A78 along the Clyde coast and three lovely beaches on the island of Cumbrae. We found 57 waders on the first set, while dodging the traffic, and 184 on a very relaxed day trip from Largs by ferry. There were comparable numbers of Curlew, Turnstone and Redshank but more Oystercatchers on the wider, island beaches.  That’s where we also found our only Ringed Plover, as well as 11 Purple Sandpipers and 3 Lapwing.

cumbrae comparisonThis year, we found far fewer waders than nine years ago. The table alongside provides a comparison for the three sections that we covered on Cumbrae for NEWS II and NEWS III. We failed to find any Purple Sandpipers in any of the 17 sections of the Clyde coast that we covered but were surprised to see a total of 5 Greenshanks. There seemed to be far fewer seabirds too. This is just a tiny snap-shot that may not be representative of the picture across the whole of the coastline of Britain & Ireland. Let’s hope that, despite the stormy weather, there was sufficient coverage for robust anlayses to be carried out by BTO staff.

RP WeBSWe know that wader number on estuaries are changing.  For instance, in the last few years, numbers of Ringed Plover in the UK have been falling (see figure).  The declining line indicates a significant drop but it won’t be quite such a concern if this year’s NEWS-III surveyors find that there are now more Ringed Plovers on open coasts.  That may seem like an optimistic suggestion, unless you look at changes between NEWS (1997/98) and NEWS-II (2006/07).  During this period, at the same time that WeBS counts of estuaries were falling, there was actually a 25% increase in Ringed Plover numbers on open coast.  Perhaps this redistribution from estuaries to open coasts has continued?

NEWS tableTwenty-one species of wader were recorded during NEWS-II, with Oystercatcher being the most numerous with an estimated total of 64,064 for the whole non-estuarine coastline of the UK. The full report is available on the BTO website .  With support from hundreds of volunteer birdwatchers it was possible to make population estimates for the 12 most numerous species, including the non-estuarine specialists, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone.  These four species accounted for estimates of 15,230, 6,295, 11,306 and 30,122 individuals respectively.  The table alongside shows the intertidal-zone totals and the percentage of the total UK population that each estimate comprises, based on Population estimates of birds in Great Britain & the United Kingdom by Musgrove et al which was published in British Birds.

Five of the species that were in the top 12 for NEWS-II have been categorised as near-threatened by IUCN/BirdLife.  Oystercatcher is the most numerous of the five, with over 64,000 in intertidal areas of the open coast, representing nearly 20% of the national wintering population.  There are relatively small numbers of Bar-tailed Godwit, Lapwing and Knot but 26,744 Curlew is equivalent to 17.8% of the UK total.   There’s a WaderTales blog about the near-threatened designation of Curlew.

Turnstone Belsey

59% of the UK’s Turnstone ar found on the open shore: Derek Belsey/BTO

Unfortunately for the scientists who organised NEWS-III there is a huge disparity between the distribution of birdwatchers and the number of coastal stretches that would ideally be surveyed, so let’s hope a good number of English birdwatchers decided to spend a few days in Scotland over the survey period.  Three-quarters of the open coast in the UK is in Scotland (all those crinkly bits, sea-lochs and islands) with Northern Ireland, England and Wales respectively having approximately 2.3%, 16.0% and 6.6%.  Taking account of the spread of the available sites, there’s a relatively uniform UK-wide distribution of most species, although  Sanderling has a southerly bias to its distribution and Purple Sandpiper a strong northern bias.

NEWS-III was not just about waders; volunteers were asked to record other waterbirds too. Our counts for NEWS-II covered Cormorant and Shag, Mute Swan, Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Wigeon, Mallard, Guillemot and Grey Heron.

oyc table

Data from BTO ringing report

Whilst I was delighted to use WaderTales to promote NEWS-III, there was an ulterior motive. We wanted counters to look out for Oystercatchers wearing colour rings. Icelandic Oystercatchers can be encountered almost anywhere but the ones in England are very much outnumbered by those from Norway, the other main source of wintering birds. The table alongside gives an idea of the north-westerly distribution of birds with an Icelandic origin.

oycmap.pngColour-ringed Icelandic Oystercatchers are part of a new project to look at how climate change might be affecting migration patterns. There’s a blog about the project here. The map alongside shows where colour-ringed birds from the study areas in Iceland have already been found, with most in Scotland and Ireland.  Birds will either be wearing 3 colour-rings and a green or white flag or two colour-rings and an engraved darvik.

NEWS only happens every few years so this was a great opportunity to contribute to our understanding of the conservation status of some important species, several of which are now near-threatened. I am looking forward to the results with interest, and a little 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