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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Winter territories of Green Sandpipers

Winter is a very different prospect for a Green Sandpiper that spends the non-breeding season in England, rather than Spain, Portugal or countries in northern Africa. Are British winterers living life ‘on the edge’ and how do they cope? One way is to defend resources within clearly-defined territories.

Life in Hertfordshire

blog2 preenKen Smith, Mike Reed and Barry Trevis have been studying a colour-ringed population of Green Sandpipers in Hertfordshire (an English county just north of London) since 1983. The focal point of their activities is Lemsford Spring, a Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust nature reserve. The site is  a set of disused watercress beds that provide plenty of freshwater shrimp (Gammarus pulex) in shallow lagoons fed by freshwater springs. Over the years they have been able to use their colour-ringed birds to study return rates from year to year, behaviour and local habitat use. Using radio-tags they have looked at nocturnal activity patterns and more recently they have been using GPS geolocators to find where their birds go to breed.

blog2 movementsThe highest numbers of Green Sandpipers in southern England occur in late summer, when many passage birds pass through the country, but a few birds stay for the whole winter. The Lemsford studies show that colour-ringed birds have a high return rate from one winter to the next. These birds are actually in the general area of Lemsford for most of the year, only leaving to breed for two or three months. Upon return, in late summer, they use other local sites such as gravel pits, only switching to the watercress beds in the autumn.

Individuals birds visit a suite of sites; by tracking birds wearing radio tags, the team were able to establish that even birds that fed at Lemsford Springs (below) during the daytime would roost communally at the local gravel pits overnight.

blog2 springs

Effects of cold weather

The research team found that the patterns of behaviour of the Hertfordshire Green Sandpipers varied with local weather conditions. During extremely cold weather in January and February the birds switched to roosting overnight at the watercress beds, where they could also feed. In these conditions, with the water frozen at gravel pits, roost sites were accessible to predators. Automated monitoring of tag locations showed that birds were active for around 80% of each daytime period at all times of year. Nocturnal activity varied from around 16% in autumn to over 40% in cold conditions in midwinter. This suggests that a low level of night time activity is normal in Green Sandpipers and that higher levels, found during extremely cold winter conditions, are the result of birds attempting to increase their daily food intake.

Annual survival

The return-rate of colour-ringed birds can be used as a surrogate for survival rates, bearing in mind that any bird that changes its wintering area will reduce the apparent survival rate, although still alive. (See WaderTales blog on measuring survival rates based on review paper in IBIS)

blog2 gravelOnce established in the Hertfordshire area, individual Green Sandpipers were likely to turn up in subsequent  winters, with little difference in return-rates between young birds, ringed in their first winter, and adults. There was considerable variation from year to year, with the return rates varying from 68.7 to 100%; the lowest being between 1986/87 and 1987/88, when another local winter site (Cole Green) became unsuitable. Birds using that site presumably went elsewhere or died. The average apparent annual survival rate was 83.5% (or 84.7% if account is taken of the disappearance of Cole Green). In the only other similar study, in northern Germany, the mean return rate was only 56%, with few birds returning in the year after a severe winter. In the Hertfordshire study, there is a correlation between the overall return rate of colour ringed birds from one winter to the next and the number of nights with air frost in the first winter (r = -0.86, n = 7, P < 0.05). These results suggest that birds suffer increased mortality in severe winters.

Territoriality

One of the interesting things that became apparent, once individuals could be identified using colour-rings, was that some of the Hertfordshire Green Sandpiper were highly territorial, with similar patterns of behaviour each year.

blog2 fight 2

When Green Sandpipers appear in late summer they are usually found in small flocks, which include the colour-ringed full-grown adults and young birds of the year. At some point in the autumn, possibly triggered by low temperature or shortening day-length, the behaviour suddenly changes, with some of the birds establishing defended territories on the lagoons, from which they chase all interlopers. This initial burst of territoriality has been captured in the excellent images above and below this paragraph. Once the territories are established they are maintained by subtle calling displays, with only occasional full-on disputes.

blog2 fight 1

During periods of very cold weather, additional birds arrived from other local sites and, for a short period in January 1984, the number of birds present on the reserve more than doubled (to a total of 16). The newly-arrived birds attempted to establish their own territories and devoted up to half of their time to boundary disputes, far in excess of that of the residents. When the weather conditions improved the additional birds left the reserve.

Territorial disputes

During the autumn and early winter of 1985, the research team attempted to investigate territoriality through activity watches of birds present on the lagoon at Lemsford. Every minute, each bird was scored as feeding, resting or disputing. Most watches were over at least one hour and all were completed during the period October to December. On the graph, the solid line and points are the counts of the numbers of birds, and the open symbols are the percentage of time that birds spent in dispute.

blog2 aggression graph

From early October, which corresponds to the end of the autumn moult, between 6 and 11 birds were present at Lemsford, feeding together as a group with little or no interaction. Around mid-October, the number of disputes started to increase. It varied in intensity from day to day but, over a few weeks, the numbers of birds present fell to four or five. These birds took ownership of exclusive territories that were largely maintained for the whole of the winter. Ken Smith was able to find all of the missing Green Sandpipers within 15 km of Lemsford. Some of these individuals would occasionally pop back to Lemsford, get involved in a fight and leave again. In extreme weather interlopers can spend the whole day trying to feed on the lagoons and being chased off.

Tom SpellerFrom observations at Lemsford, it appears that, once territories have been established, local birds are well aware of their boundaries and neighbours. Should a bird stray into a neighbouring bird’s patch, a low-key call is sufficient warning to avoid a disagreement. Ken reports that the big disputes, with chasing and out-and-out aggression, only occur when the territories are being established or when a new bird tries to feed in an established territory. During extremely cold weather, in the 1980s, there would be lots of extra birds attempting to feed in the spring-fed watercress beds, by trying to squeeze into perceived gaps between territories. Such cold conditions are very rare nowadays.

A changing climate

Over the three decades of the project, there has been a tendency for cold winter temperatures to become less frequent across Britain & Ireland. During this time, the distribution of Green Sandpipers has expanded northwards, as you can see in the figure below.

blog2 3 maps

The left-hand and central maps show the winter distributions of Green Sandpiper in the periods of the two winter atlases of 1981-84 and 2007-11, respectively. The surveys underpinning these maps were organised by the British Trust for Ornithology with BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. The expansion of the range represents a 56% increase in occupied 10-km squares, with an obvious extension into Scotland and across northern England, where winter temperatures are colder. Data collected for Bird Atlas 2007-11 included measures of effort, enabling relative abundance to be quantified. In the right-hand map, darker squares represent areas with higher numbers of Green Sandpipers. The Lemsford site is marked with a star.

As, mentioned earlier, there is an indication that annual return rates to Lemsford (and in the German study) relate to the conditions birds experience in the winter period prior to departure for their breeding grounds. In Scotland and Northern England, where freezing conditions occur more frequently, it might be expected that survival rates will be lower than in southern England. For winter populations to establish themselves in new (colder) sites, young birds will need to spend their first winters in these areas and then return in subsequent years. Local population can potentially grow unless or until knocked back by a cold winter.

Where to in spring?

blog2 previous.jpgIn recent years, the research team have deployed harness-mounted geolocators to ascertain the movements of a small number of individuals during the course of a full annual cycle. Another WaderTales blog discusses migration and the effects of harnesses on the behaviour of individuals. See Green Sandpipers & Geolocators.

Summary and papers

This thirty-year study is an excellent example of what can be discovered through long-term observations of a small population of waders. You can read more about the Hertfordshire Green Sandpiper research in these papers (links in bold):

  • K W Smith, J M Reed & B E Trevis (1984) Studies of green sandpipers wintering in southern England. Wader Study Group Bull, 42.
  • K W Smith (1986) Green Sandpiper. In The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland, pp 222-223, Poyser, Carlton.
  • K W Smith, J M Reed & B E Trevis (1992) Habitat use and site fidelity of green sandpipers Tringa ochropus wintering in southern England. Bird Study, 39, 155-164.
  • Smith, K W, Reed, J M & Trevis, B E (1999) Nocturnal and diurnal activity patterns and roosting sites of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus wintering in southern England. Ringing & Migration, 19, 315-322.
  • Smith K W (2002) Green sandpiper in The Migration Atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland. Wernham C V, Toms M P, Marchant J H, Clark J A, Siriwardena G M & Baillie S R. (eds). T & A D Poyser, London.
  • Smith, K.W., Trevis, B.E. & Reed, M. (2018). The effects of leg-loop harnesses and geolocators on the diurnal activity patterns of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus in winter. Ringing & Migration 32: 104-109.

 


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.

 

Measuring shorebird survival

BlogRPOver the last fifty years, a range of methods have been used to estimate the annual survival rates of waders/shorebirds. These estimates are based on many hours of patient catching and colour-ring reading, making each one too valuable to discard. How can estimates generated in different ways be combined and what can these estimates tell us about the way in which survival rates vary between species and in different parts of the world?

Survival rates are important

As revealed in this previous WaderTales blog, Waders are Long-lived Birds, larger species survive for 30 years or more and even smaller species, such as Ringed Plover (right), manage 20 years. With relatively low annual breeding productivity, maintaining a high survival probability of typically between 70% and 90% per annum is essential for population stability. If the annual survival figure for adults drops, as discussed in this blog, Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea, this can have rapid and serious consequences for population levels.

BlogYellowSea

Different survival measurements

Cups, ounces and grams; Celsius, Fahrenheit and gas mark; if we all used the same measurements and systems when cooking, life would be much simpler. It turns out the same is true when measuring annual survival rates for waders/shorebirds.

Measures of annual survival rates can be hard to obtain because large-scale, long-term tracking of individuals is not easy and the resulting data contain many inherent biases. There are many different ways to estimate survival rates.

BlogKnotReturn rates: the proportion of marked individuals that are recaptured/resighted in subsequent years. Any bird that changes its location before the next resighting period will reduce the estimate of annual survival for the study population, even though it may still be alive.

Mark-recapture models: a range of different methods are available that allow the researcher to account for the effort that goes into looking for marked birds. Effectively this apportions the probability of missing a marked bird and the bird not being alive.

Dead recovery models: survival rate is inferred from the number of dead, ringed birds that are recovered. At its simplest, this does not take account of the number of birds ringed.

Complex modelling: used to separate apparent survival estimates into ‘true’ survival and site-fidelity, using live encounters and resighting/recovery rates. This helps to take account of the probability of birds leaving monitored sites.

Tracking studies: Survival estimates from radio-telemetry tracking studies are only available for a very limited number of shorebird species and for short periods. These measures were not included in this study.

BlogTTWash

Wouldn’t it be great if someone pulled together all of the available estimates of survival, produced by different methods? That’s what Verónica Méndez has done, with José Alves (University of Aveiro, Portugal), Jennifer Gill (University of East Anglia, UK) & Tómas Gunnarsson (University of Iceland) in Patterns and processes in shorebird survival rates: a global review, published in IBIS. (Click on the title to link to the paper).

In the paper, the authors  have reviewed published estimates of annual adult survival rates in shorebird species across the globe, and construct models to explore the phylogenetic, geographic, seasonal and sex-based variation in survival rates. The supplementary material includes an appendix detailing all of the available published estimates.

Key findings

Using models of 295 survival estimates from 56 species, Verónica and her colleagues showed that:

  • BlogGraphAs expected, survival rates for larger-bodied species are higher than for smaller species.
  • Survival rates calculated from return rates of marked individuals are significantly lower than estimates from mark-recapture models.
  • Annual survival tends to be slightly higher when estimated in wintering populations, but the difference from breeding season estimates was not significant.
  • As has been shown in many individual studies, female shorebirds often have lower survival rates than males, although this difference can be exaggerated if survival estimates are based on return rates and females are less site-faithful.
  • Survival rates vary across flyways, largely as a consequence of differences in the groups of shorebirds that have been studied and the analytical methods used.
  • BlogSpotSandPublished estimates from the Americas and from smaller shorebirds (Actitis, Calidris and Charadrius spp) tend to be underestimated.
  • By incorporating the analytical method used to generate each estimate within the models, the authors show that it is possible to ‘correct’ survival estimates, according to method used and genus, for a total of 52 species of 15 genera.

What about Slender-billed Curlew?

I asked Verónica whether it might be possible to estimate the annual survival rate for an adult Slender-billed Curlew. If there is a relict population somewhere then that’s a figure that’s going to be important to scientists who are trying to find them. Verónica said that these methods won’t provide a species-specific estimate but, given that the survival rate for the Numenius family is 0.71 ± 0.045 (standard error), the predicted survival should be somewhere within the range 0.62 to 0.79. If Slender-billed Curlews are no longer breeding successfully then half of any remaining adults will be disappearing every couple of years. That’s a sobering thought.

BlogBarwits

Conservation Imperative

BlogTTDelawareA large number of the world’s shorebird populations are in decline and reduced annual survival rates seem to be a cause for concern in some parts of the world. Although it is impressive that the research team were able to find 295 survival estimates for this paper, I reckon that the data exist to calculate a whole lot more. Each of these extra results might not produce a novel paper but it would be great to see them published somewhere, as brief notes in the journal Wader Study for instance. That way, they will be available as bench-marks, next time researchers are worried about what appears to be a lowered level of annual survival. Meanwhile, here’s hoping that colour-ring readers will continue to provide sightings of birds for decades to come – there’s no substitute for long-term data-sets.

IBIS imageThis is an IBIS Open Access Review

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

Verónica Mendez has written a blog about the methods used in her paper for the BOU blog series.


 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