WaderTales blogs in 2021

The global reach of WaderTales

There were 17 new WaderTales blogs in 2021. Although many have a UK focus, the map below shows the international reach of the series. The next few paragraphs summarise some of the exciting new stories that were covered during the year, using technologies as diverse as aerial surveys, satellite tracking and genetics. Many of the papers could not have been written without huge input from shorebird counters and colour-ring readers.

Amazing migration

Many WaderTales blogs focus on migration, with more and more stories appearing as geolocators and satellite tags allow researchers to follow the whole migratory cycle. Three 2021 blogs illustrate how much there is still to learn.

Flying high with Great Snipe reveals that these amazing migrants, travelling from Sweden to the Congo basin, can achieve heights that would allow them to almost clear Everest (despite there being no need to fly this high). The paper upon which the blog is based focuses on differing altitudes of daytime and nocturnal flights. Why does a Great Snipe fly twice as high during daylight hours?

Winter conditions for Whimbrel asks whether conditions experienced in Africa affect breeding performance in Iceland. Now that researchers can study individual birds in the breeding season and wintering areas, it is becoming possible to look more closely at carry-over effects. At the end of the blog, there’s what is hopefully a helpful summary of all of the research relating to Icelandic Whimbrel.

The flock now departing reveals fascinating details about Curlew migration, with descriptions of four occasions when two tagged birds ended up in the same migratory flock. With more birds being satellite-tagged, it was only going to be a matter of time until researchers picked up cases of birds travelling together. So much food for thought in the paper at the heart of this blog!

Conservation and new technologies

There are huge conservation concerns with regard to many of the world’s waders. The next four blogs all illustrate how technological advances can help us to understand issues that are threatening shorebirds. Three were published in 2021 and the fourth includes a couple of updates to a blog from 2020.

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Grassland management for Stone-curlew explains how GPS tags are revealing the preferred feeding habitats for Stone-curlews that breed in Breckland (eastern England). The creation of cultivated plots within extensive areas of grassland can provide Stone-curlews with good nesting habitat but do birds feed in these areas too? A small-scale study provided answers and showed that nesting birds are prepared to fly a long way to find food – especially to forage in pig fields.

Remote monitoring of wader habitats. Radar can be used to assess the suitability of large areas of grassland for breeding waders. The focus of the paper is upon the performance of an agri-environment scheme in Estonia, where EU funding is being directed towards breeding wader species, particularly Dunlin, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank. The results are of broader relevance to conservation biologists who are seeking to monitor vegetation growth and the encroachment of shrubs and trees, especially associated with a warming climate, afforestation and farmland abandonment.

Following Sociable Lapwings reveals the migration routes used by this globally-threatened species. This is vital information for conservationists who are concerned about excessive hunting of adults. Now that they know the key hotspots that are important during spring and autumn migration, as well as the areas in which birds spend the winter, it is hoped that illegal and unsustainable hunting might be reduced. Current average annual survival levels of adults are way too low. Satellite studies have revealed a previously-unknown (though suspected) third migration route.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper: track and trace was published in 2020 but has been extended to include summaries of 2021 papers, with improved population estimates (not good news) and information as to how local tracking information may be used to assess changes in habitat quality.

A focus on subspecies

Conservation priorities often relate to geographically-referenced populations or subspecies, rather than whole species. For instance, islandica Black-tailed Godwits numbers are increasing but limosa, the heartland of which is the Netherlands, is a subspecies causing huge concern. Three WaderTales blogs from 2021 focus on subspecies.

New Bar-tailed Godwit Subspecies explains why taymyrensis should be considered as two separate populations or subspecies, one of which travels from western Siberia to the Arabian Gulf. The two proposed subspecies have different migration routes and operate on different annual calendars. The newly-named yamalensis subspecies is subject to very different conservation challenges, especially in areas around the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea.

Subspecies, connectivity and conservation in shorebirds concerns the Red Knot that spend the non-breeding series in Chile, and asks whether the concept of a subspecies may distract from local conservation priorities.

Dunlin: tales from the Baltic focuses upon declines of a disappearing population of schinzii Dunlin but set in a global context. The focal paper examines long-term effects of carrying a geolocator but the potential negative effects of tracking need to be viewed in the context of a population that has dropped by 80% in 40 years. Colour-ring studies show that annual apparent survival rates of Baltic birds dropped from 0.817 to 0.650 between 1990 and 2006, equivalent to a doubling of the chance of dying in any given year.

Birds on beaches

Three of the blogs in 2021 relate to waders/shorebirds that are found on beaches

In amongst the tidewrack promotes new research into the way that roosting and resting waders make best use of microhabitats created by fresh and older beds of seaweed. The main species using this South Australian study site are Red-necked Stint and Double-banded Plover but Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling contributed data too. There’s a neat experimental set-up involving plastic golf balls!

Waders on the coast reports on the waders that winter around the open coasts of the United Kingdom, emphasising the importance of these unprotected habitats and detailing changes in numbers over 18 years. It is estimated that there are 250,000 waders on the UK’s coast but numbers of most species are lower than they were.

On the beach: breeding shorebirds and visiting tourists discusses how much space is being taken away from breeding Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers, in Norfolk and Suffolk (UK). One of the neat features of the research at the heart of this blog is a series of aerial counts of tourists.

Oystercatchers

Two Oystercatcher papers are featured in 2021 WaderTales blogs, relating to two species with very different migratory behaviour. African Oystercatchers on Robben Island are resident, spending the time there either breeding or moulting. Most of Iceland’s Eurasian Oystercatchers migrate south for the winter, as discussed in the 2020 blog Which Icelandic Oystercatchers cross the Atlantic?

Who eats African Oystercatcher eggs? There is a complex interplay of potential predators on South Africa’s Robben Island. African Oystercatchers nesting near the Kelp Gull colony do much better than pairs that nest around the rest of the island. The gulls help to dissuade patrolling Mole Snakes, which are now the most significant predators of birds’ eggs.

Oystercatcher migration: the Dad Effect reveals that Icelandic chicks adopt the same migratory behaviour as their father (not their mother). Youngsters that cross the Atlantic migrate much later than their fathers but something about the way they are brought up must affect the ‘decision’ as to whether to migrate or not.

Conservation in the UK

Returning home, there are three blogs about the UK’s red-listed waders

England’s Black-tailed Godwits diagnoses the reasons for the recent decline in breeding numbers, following a period of rapid increase that ended in 2006. The positive message in this blog is that, if the breeding conditions are right, it is possible for the number of breeding pairs to nearly double in ten years.

More Curlew chicks needed has at its core a paper about survival rates of breeding and wintering Curlew. Even in a period of historically low annual adult mortality, UK breeding numbers have continued to fall. Based on annual survival rates of adults and current productivity, it would appear that British Curlews need to successfully fledge an extra 10,000 chicks every year – just to stop the decline in numbers.

Eleven waders on UK Red List is an update of Nine red-listed UK waders. Dunlin and Purple Sandpiper were added to the red list of Birds of Conservation Concern in 2021. The blog explains how each species has earned its place on the list.

Blogs from previous years

WaderTales blogs in 2020

WaderTales blogs in 2019

WaderTales blogs in 2018

WaderTales blogs in 2017

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.The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published. There’s a full list of blogs here.

Eleven waders on UK Red List

If you ask British birdwatchers to name the eleven wader species that are causing the most conservation concern in the UK, they would probably not include the Ringed Plover. Curlew may well be top of the list, even though we still have 58,500 breeding pairs in the UK*, but would people remember to include Ruff?

This blog was originally written to coincide with the publication of Red67, an amazing collaboration by artists and essayists that highlighted and celebrated the 67 species on the UK red list, nine of which were waders. Following the publication of the fifth edition of Birds of Conservation Concern on 1 Dec 2021, this blog has been revised, to include Dunlin and Purple Sandpiper. The UK Red List now contains 70 species.

*Avian Population Estimates Panel report (APEP4) published in British Birds

What’s a Red List?

The UK Red List is made up of a strange mixture of common and rare species. Nobody will be surprised to see fast-disappearing Cuckoo, Turtle Dove and Willow Tit, but why are 5.3 million pairs of House Sparrow in the same company? The list is very important because it helps to set the agenda for conservation action, the way that money for research is distributed and focuses attention during planning decisions. The main criteria for inclusion are population size – hence the inclusion of species that are just hanging on in the UK, such as Red-backed Shrike – and the speed of decline of common species. Data collected by volunteers, working under the auspices of the British Trust for Ornithology, measured a population decline for House Sparrow of 70% between 1977 and 2017, which is worrying enough to earn this third most numerous breeding species in the UK a place in Red67.

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In his foreword to Red67, Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist for RSPB, explains how listing works. The Birds of Conservation Concern (BOCC) system, through which the Red List and Amber List are determined, uses a strict set of quantitative criteria to examine the status of all of the UK’s ‘regularly’ occurring species (scarce migrants and vagrants aren’t considered), and uses a simple traffic light system to classify them. There are ‘Red’ criteria with thresholds for rates of decline in numbers and range, historical decline and international threat (if a species is considered globally threatened it is automatically Red-listed in the UK), together with a range of other considerations such as rarity, international importance of UK populations, and how localised a species is. If a species meets any of the Red List criteria it goes onto the Red List.

The Red67 book – words meet art

Red67 was the brainchild of Kit Jewitt, a.k.a. @YOLOBirder on Twitter. It’s a book featuring the 67 Red-listed birds of Birds of Conservation Concern 4, each illustrated by a different artist alongside a personal story from a diverse collection of writers. Proceeds supported Red-listed species conservation projects run by BTO and RSPB. Kit describes Red67 as 67 love letters to our most vulnerable species, each beautifully illustrated by some of the best wildlife artists around, showcasing a range of styles as varied as the birds in these pages. My hope is that the book will bring the Red List to a wider audience whilst raising funds for the charities working to help the birds most at need.

This blog is about the nine waders in the book and the two additions to the list (Dunlin and Purple Sandpiper), but there are 58 other fascinating species accounts and wonderful artworks. Each species account starts with a quote from the story in the book and is accompanied by a low-resolution version of the artwork (Ringed Plover is illustrated above).

Lapwing

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“It’s the crest that does it for me – that flicked nib stroke, the artist’s afterthought” – Lev Parikian

The Lapwing used to nest across the whole of the United Kingdom and was a common bird in almost every village. It’s still the most numerous breeding wader in the UK, with 97,500 pairs (APEP4), beating Oystercatcher by just 2,000 pairs. Numbers dropped by 54% between 1967 and 2017, according to BirdTrends 2019, published by BTO & JNCC. Huge losses had already occurred over the previous two centuries, as land was drained and vast numbers of eggs were collected for the table. The Lapwing is now a bird associated with lowland wet grasslands and the uplands, rather than general farmland.

Red-listing has been important for Lapwing, increasing the profile of the species and encouraging the development of specific agri-environment schemes targeted at species recovery. These include ‘Lapwing plots’ in arable fields and funding to raise the summer water tables in lowland grassland. Several WaderTales blogs describe efforts to try to increase the number of breeding waders in wet grassland, especially Toolkit for Wader Conservation. The loss of waders, and Lapwings in particular, from general farmland is exemplified in 25 years of wader declines.

Ringed Plover

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“They gather at high tide like shoppers waiting for a bus: all facing the same direction, and all staring into the distance” – Stephen Moss

One of the criteria that the BOCC panel takes into account, when constructing the Red List, is the responsibility the UK has for a species or subspecies in the breeding season, during winter or both. The Ringed Plovers we see in the UK in the winter are almost exclusively of the hiaticula subspecies; birds that breed in southern Scandinavia, around the Baltic, in western Europe and in the UK. There are only estimated to be 73,000 individuals in this subspecies, so the 42,500 that winter in the UK constitutes a large percentage of the Ringed Plovers that breed in many of these countries.

The Wetland Bird Survey graph alongside shows a decline of over 50% between 1989 and 2014. At the start of the period, Ringed Plover numbers were at an all-time high but this is still a dramatic and consistent drop. Numbers have stabilised and may even have increased slightly but Ringed Plovers need some good breeding years. Disturbance is an issue for breeding Ringed Plovers, which share their beaches with visitors and dogs, and could also potentially be a problem in the winter (see Disturbed Turnstones).

Dotterel

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“I want you in the mountains. Summer breeze. At home. Doing your thing. So don’t go disappearing on us, okay?” – Fyfe Dangerfield

The Dotterel is a much clearer candidate for Red67 – there’s a small population in a restricted area and numbers have fallen. The detailed reasons for decline may still need to be nailed down but candidate causes such as declining insect food supplies and the increasing numbers of generalist predators are probably all linked to a changing climate – squeezing Dotterel into a smaller area of the mountain plateaux of Scotland.

There’s a blog about the decline in Dotterel numbers called UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57%, based upon a paper that uses data up until 2011. At this point, the population was estimated at between 280 and 645 pairs. There has been no suggestion of improvement since that blog was written. Interestingly, Dotterel may have a way out of their predicament, as we know that marked individuals move between Scotland and Norway in the same breeding season. See also Scotland’s Dotterel: still hanging on.

Whimbrel

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“How often do Whimbrels pass overhead nowadays? Unseen and unheard, their calls mean nothing to most of us” – Patrick Barkham

Most British and Irish birdwatchers think of Whimbrel as spring migrants, enjoying seeing flocks of Icelandic birds when they pause on their way north from West Africa (see Iceland to Africa non-stop). There is a small, vulnerable population nesting almost exclusively on Shetland. The latest estimate is 310 pairs (2009), down from an estimate of 530 pairs, published in 1997. Many pairs have been lost from Unst and Fetlar and this blog about habitat requirements might give clues as to why: Establishing breeding requirements of Whimbrel.

The curlew family is in trouble across the Globe, potentially because these big birds need so much space (see Why are we losing our large waders?)

Curlew

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“… achingly vulnerable in a world that is battling to hold onto loveliness” – Mary Colwell

What more can be said about Curlew, ‘promoted’ to the red list in 2015 and designated as ‘near threatened’ globally. Most significant is the story from Ireland, where 94% of breeding birds have disappeared in just 30 years. These blogs provide more information about the decline and review some of the reasons.

There are more Curlew-focused blogs in the WaderTales catalogue.

Black-tailed Godwit

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“A glimpse of terracotta is obscured by ripples of grass, dipping gently in the breeze” – Hannah Ward

Winter Black-tailed Godwit numbers are booming but these are islandica – birds that have benefited from warmer spring and summer conditions in Iceland, as you can read here in: From local warming to range expansion. Their limosa cousins are in trouble in their Dutch heartlands (with declines of 75%) and there have been similar pressures on the tiny remaining breeding populations in the Ouse and Nene Washes. Here, a head-starting project is boosting the number of chicks; so much so that released birds now make up a quarter of this fragile population. Red-listing has shone a spotlight on this threatened subspecies, attracting the funding needed for intensive conservation action.

Ruff

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“They look a bit inelegant – a small head for a decently sized bird, a halting gait, and that oddly vacant face” – Andy Clements

There are two ways for a species to be removed from the Red List – extirpation (extinction in the UK) and improvement. Temminck’s Stint came off the list in 2015, having not been proven to breed since 1993, and Dunlin was moved to Amber at the same time. Ruff are closer to extirpation than they are to the Amber list. There is a spring passage, mostly of birds migrating from Africa to Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, and some males in glorious breeding attire will display in leks.

250 years ago, Ruff were breeding between Northumberland and Essex, before our ancestors learnt how to drain wetlands and define a hard border between the North Sea and farmland. Hat-makers, taxidermists and egg-collectors added to the species’ woes and, by 1900, breeding had ceased. The 1960s saw a recolonisation and breeding Ruff are still hanging on. There are lekking males causing excitement in sites as disparate as Lancashire, Cambridgeshire and Orkney, and there are occasional nesting attempts. Habitat developments designed to help other wader species may support Ruff but the situation in The Netherlands does not suggest much of a future. Here, a once-common breeding species has declined to an estimated population of 15 to 30 pairs (Meadow birds in The Netherlands).

Red-necked Phalarope

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“… snatching flies from the water in fast, jerky movements, droplets dripping from its slender beak” – Rob Yarham

Red-necked Phalaropes that breed in Shetland and a few other parts of northern Scotland appear to be an overflow from the Icelandic population; birds which migrate southwest to North America and on to the Pacific coastal waters of South America. This BOU blog describes the first track revealed using a geolocator.

The Red-necked Phalarope was never a common breeder and came under pressure from egg-collectors in the 19th Century. Numbers are thought to have recovered to reach about 100 pairs in Britain & Ireland by 1920. Numbers then fell to about 20 pairs by 1990, so the latest estimate of 64 pairs (The Rare Breeding Birds Panel) reflects conservation success. Given the restricted breeding range and historical declines, it is unlikely that the next review will change the conservation status from Red to Amber, despite the recovery of numbers.

Woodcock

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“… taking the earth’s temperature with the precision of a slow, sewing-machine needle” – Nicola Chester

The presence of Woodcock on the Red List causes heated debate; how can this still be a game species? Red-listing is indisputable; the latest survey by BTO & GWCT showed that there was a decline in roding males from 78,000 in 2003 to 55,000 in 2013, with the species being lost from yet more areas of the UK. Each autumn, the number of Woodcock in the UK rises massively, with an influx of up to 1.4 million birds. Annual numbers depend upon seasonal productivity and conditions on the other side of the North Sea. A recent report on breeding wader numbers in Norway, Sweden and Finland, shows that breeding populations of Woodcock in this area are not declining (Fennoscandian wader factory).

The UK’s breeding Woodcock population is under severe threat from things such as increased deer browsing and drier ground conditions but winter numbers appear to be stable. The difference in conservation status between breeding and wintering populations is reflected in the fact that Woodcock is on both the Red List and the Quarry List, for now. There is a WaderTales blog (Conserving British-breeding Woodcock) that discusses ways to minimizes hunting effects on British birds. These guidelines from GWCT emphasise the importance of reducing current pressures on British birds.

Dunlin (added to Red List 2021)

There are good reasons for the addition of Dunlin to the UK Red List; breeding numbers of the schinzii race have declined significantly and the number of wintering alpina Dunlin in the UK dropped 10,000 between two periods that were only eight years apart.

The fall in breeding numbers is probably the bigger problem, as indicated by range reductions in successive breeding atlas periods (1968-72, 1988-91 and 2008-11). It’s hard to monitor what is happening to numbers on a year-by-year basis because the breeding distribution is too patchy and thin to be picked up via the Breeding Bird Survey. Alarm bells are being raised in Ireland, where numbers have dropped to between 20 and 50 pairs (Status of Rare Breeding Birds across the island of Ireland, 2013-2018), and in the Baltic, where numbers have fallen by 80% since the 1980s. There’s a WaderTales blog about Finnish Dunlin.

The winter decline in the UK may or not be an issue, although it has to be considered as part of large-scale moderate losses across the whole of western Europe. There is a theory that, over the years, as winter conditions on the continental side of the North Sea have become less harsh, new generations of juvenile alpina have settled in countries such as the Netherlands, instead of continuing their southwesterly migrations from northern Russia. Once a wintering site has been chosen, individuals are site faithful, so one ends up with newer generations on the continent and ageing adults in the UK and Ireland. WeBS counts for Dunlin are half what they were 25 years ago.

Purple Sandpiper (added to Red List 2021)

The rocky coasts of the UK are home to Purple Sandpipers from the Arctic, with a suggestion that North Sea coasts, south of Aberdeen, mainly play host to birds from Spitsbergen and northern Scandinavia, with Greenlandic and Canadian birds more likely to be found further north and on the Atlantic coast. Coastal numbers declined by 19% between 1997/98 and 2015/16, according to the Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey, and WeBS counts suggest numbers have at least halved over a period of 25 years. The Highland Ringing Group has shown that the number of young Purple Sandpipers has been declining on the Moray Firth, suggesting either a period of relatively poor breeding success for birds migrating from the northwest or short-stopping by new generations of youngsters, as discussed for Dunlin. Perhaps they are wintering in Iceland these days?

In conclusion

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The Red List creates some strange bedfellows. In the book, Turtle Dove follows Herring Gull; a bird with links to love and romance and another with at best the charm of a roguish pirate. But the List works; it creates an evidence-base that help those who devise agricultural subsidy systems, advise on planning applications, license bird control and prioritise conservation initiatives.

Red67 sought to raise awareness of the UK’s most at-risk bird species, nine of which were waders, and to raise money for BTO and RSPB scientists to carry out important research. It’s a lovely book that captures the thoughts and images of a generation of writers and artists. You can learn more about the project, order the book and buy some Red Sixty Seven products by clicking here.

Perhaps a second edition, called Red Seventy, might be produced, to reflect the changing fortunes of the UK’s birds? Worryingly, the first Red List, produced in 1990, only had 36 species on it.


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.

WaderTales blogs in 2020

Around the world in sixteen blogs

2020 was a strange year, as covid swept around the world and more and more of us faced travel bans. Throughout it all, waders/shorebirds continued to fly thousands of kilometres in spring and autumn.

Five out of sixteen of the year’s WaderTales blogs focused on international migration studies, using a mixture of colour-rings, geolocators and satellite tags. It was particularly interesting to think more about ‘teenage’ waders – the period between fledging and first breeding. It may be a couple of years or more before shorebirds return to their breeding grounds; what do we know about what happens during this period? Are vulnerable and threatened species and the sites that they rely on receiving enough conservation support during these important, teenage years?

  • Teenage waders is ostensibly about Hudsonian Godwits that spend the non-breeding season in Chile and breed in Alaska. Juan Navedo & Jorge Ruiz noticed that a small number of satellite-tagged birds headed for Argentina instead of Alaska in April. This led to the discovery of flocks of young Hudsonian Godwits (and adults that choose not to breed in a particular year) in the pampa wetlands – areas that are under threat from industrial-scale farming.
  • Spoon-billed Sandpipers: track & trace follows tagged Spoon-billed Sandpipers, as they travel from their breeding sites in Russia, through China and beyond. This is an amazing story; thirteen birds carrying back-mounted transmitters have revealed information that will enable the targeting of conservation measures to support a global population that is estimated to be just 660 birds.
  • Gap year for sandpipers is based upon a Peruvian Semipalmated Sandpiper paper that investigates the survival advantage of not migrating north to breed in any particular year. It reveals that taking a gap year may be a sensible strategy in some circumstances.
  • Which Icelandic Oystercatchers cross the Atlantic? Around 30% of Oystercatchers remain in Iceland for the winter, with the rest of the population flying south across the Atlantic in autumn. Having made an initial ‘decision’ to be a resident or a migrant, an individual sticks to this strategy but what determines whether a particular Oystercatcher becomes a migrant?
  • A Rhapsody of Whimbrel asks whether Whimbrel use time and weather cues in their travel ‘planning’ and whether their plans change during the course of their lives. By looking at weather patterns encountered by tagged birds, flying between western Africa and Iceland, Camilo Carneiro shows that old birds may be able to learn new tricks.

A Scottish trio

2020 seems to be the year of the Scottish WaderTales blog, with three spring/summer stories about research led by RSPB Scotland staff.

  • Migration of Scottish Greenshank summarises a study of a small number of breeding birds, using a mixture of colour-ring sightings and geolocator records. Unlike their cousins, that breed in eastern Russia and migrate to Australia or even New Zealand, Greenshank nesting in northern Scotland are short -distance migrants, mostly staying within Britain & Ireland for the whole of their lives
  • Trees, predators and breeding waders is all about how the presence of woodland affects the distribution of mammalian predators, even after the trees have gone. Species such as Curlew and Dunlin are benefiting from the removal of forestry plantations from the peat blogs of Forsinard, in north-east Scotland. We discover that it takes a long time for habitat restoration to deliver conservation benefits because of residual levels of predator pressure.
  • Scotland’s Dotterel: still hanging on discusses how climate changes are affecting the distribution and numbers of Scottish Dotterel. High up on the Cairngorm plateau, scientists have been studying the links between Dotterel numbers and climate change. The distribution of nests seems to reflect local weather conditions but declining numbers may be more of an African problem.

Nesting waders

  • Where to nest? Almost all waders/shorebirds nest on the ground which means that nests are vulnerable to predation. Two main strategies have evolved to minimise egg losses, cryptic egg colouration in open settings and hiding nests in vegetation. A study in Iceland investigates which strategy appears to be more successful and in what circumstances. Do Iceland’s open-nesters (Oystercatcher, Golden Plover & Whimbrel) fare as well as nest-hiders (Redshank, Snipe & Black-tailed Godwit)?
  • Curlews and foxes in East Anglia raises some interesting conservation issues. Might it be possible to attract breeding Curlew to patches that can be protected from potential predators? Habitat improvement measures that have been designed to help Stone Curlews are popular with Curlews too. Could shallow soil disturbance be used to support Curlew conservation?

Black-tailed Godwits

WaderTales started out as a way to provide feedback to the volunteers who report colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits. Most of the twenty blogs about the species refer to islandica but the two in 2020 focus on limosa. The first blog is a follow-up to the 2019 story about a plan to build a new airport within the Tagus Estuary. This threatens to undo much of the good work of Project Godwit – trying to rebuild the English breeding population in the Fens. To raise money for this project, Jen and Mark Smart cycled 1000 km across England, vising many of the sites where head-started Project Godwit chicks have been seen. It was a great opportunity to provide updates on the migration stories of these special birds.

  • Black-tailed Godwits are on their way home reveals the importance of the Tagus Estuary (Portugal) to England’s breeding limosa Black-tailed Godwits.
  • Cycling for waders is about the head-starting initiative to rebuild the English breeding population of Black-tailed Godwit – and a sponsored cycle ride to support Project Godwit & International Wader Study Group.

Behaviour

Two of this year’s blogs are about bird behaviour, other than migration.

  • Disturbed Turnstones focuses upon a paper about the changing distribution of Turnstone in northeast England. As numbers have declined, birds have withdrawn from beaches with more people and dogs. Off-shore roosts seem to have become increasingly important.
  • Flagging up potential problems discusses safety issues associated with using flags and flag-mounted geolocators when studying waders. At the heart of the blog is a study of Common Sandpiper survival and migration but there is additional information about ways to minimise problems that may occur when using leg-flags.

Book reviews

Occasionally, the publication of a new book about waders/shorebirds is used as a hook upon which to hang a WaderTales blog. Two new books, Red Sixty Seven and Flight Lines, were treated in this way in 2020.

  • Nine red-listed UK waders discusses why nine species of wader find themselves on the UK red list of species of conservation concern). The book, which covers all of the 67 species on the UK Red List, is raising money to help fund scientific research by BTO and RSPB.
  • Plovers from the north is a blog about the global migration patterns of Grey Plovers (Black-bellied Plovers). There is an Australian focus but this was a good opportunity to summarise recent research from around the world.

Previous summaries

WaderTales blogs in 2019

WaderTales blogs in 2018

WaderTales blogs in 2017

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.The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published. There’s a full list of blogs here.

WaderTales wins BTO Award

I am using this brief WaderTales blog to say ‘thank you’ to the BTO for kindly presenting me with the 2020 Dilys Breese Medal, in recognition of the role that WaderTales plays in the dissemination of BTO science relating to waders. Some of these blogs are listed below.

Receiving the Dilys Breese Medal is very special. It’s an honour to follow previous recipients such as Chris Packham and Michael McCarthy but it’s more personal than that.

Before I worked for BTO I was a Council member of the Trust for several years, at a time when Dilys Breese was also a Trustee. Later, during my time as a member of BTO staff, Dilys continued to be an active Council and working group member, culminating in her role as Hon. Secretary (1998-2001).

In 2007, Dilys died and we learnt that the BTO was to receive a significant legacy which was subsequently used to reinvigorate nest recording.  Paul Reddish, who was acting as Executor, and I wanted to make sure that Dilys would be remembered beyond the end of her gift. With this aim in mind, BTO created the Dilys Breese Medal, awarding the first six medals in 2009 and one a year thereafter.

Dilys Breese

Few people who are reading this will have known Dilys Breese but they will recognise her through her TV productions, especially her work for the BBC Natural History Unit. She created the Living World and Wildlife series for the BBC, before leaving the Corporation in 1991 and setting up Kestrel Productions. Her 1987 Meerkats United programme, with David Attenborough, is probably her most famous programme but there were many more highlights over a distinguished radio and TV career.

Dilys became a BTO member in 1973, bringing many BBC and Kestrel films to annual conferences, working with Chris Mead and others to increase the profile of the Trust and playing an active role in the charity’s governance. Dilys Breese fervently believed that nature and science should be shared with as many people as possible and I am happy to play my part in doing just that.

WaderTales and the BTO

WaderTales blogs that are about BTO-led research and surveys have included:

BTO staff are involved in a study of breeding Curlew in Breckland
  • Why are we losing our large waders? The BTO’s Director of Science, James Pearce-Higgins, is lead author of a review of the problems facing all of the curlews and godwits of the world
  • Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan. Sam Franks is lead author of a joint BTO/RSPB review that helped to establish the key gaps in our knowledge of problems faced by Curlew, setting the direction for Curlew conservation science and interventions.
  • Do population estimates matter? This blog summarises the ‘waders’ section of the population estimates paper in British Birds, based on data from the Wetland Bird Survey.
  • 25 years of wader declines is a nice example of long-term survey work by Mike Bell, a BTO volunteer and Regional Representative, written up with John Calladine of BTO Scotland.

The Dilys Breese medal

The Dilys Brees Medal was designed by Norfolk artist Robert Gillmor. It features a Robin, the subject of a book that Dilys was working on at the time of her death, set against the outline of an old fashioned TV screen. This will be a lovely memento of fifteen years of working with Dilys to promote the work of the BTO. I am grateful to Mary Colwell (author of Curlew Moon) who kindly nominated me for the award.

Graham Appleton

Click HERE to see more blogs from the first five years of WaderTales

The First Five Years

This article celebrates five years of WaderTales. It highlights some of the most well-read tales and picks out a few cross-cutting themes. It has not been possible to include links to all of the 98 WaderTales blogs but you can see them all by clicking HERE.

There are six sections:

  • The most popular stories
  • It all started in Iceland
  • Migration
  • A focus on individuals
  • Thoughts about moult (molt)
  • Conservation issues

The most popular stories

Five blogs on WaderTales have been downloaded 3500 or more times, with the most popular one registering over 10,000 reads. The top five are:

It all started in Iceland

The first WaderTales blog, How volcanic eruptions help waders, was published on 28 September 2015. It explains how the distribution of breeding waders in Iceland is linked to the amount of historical volcanic activity, with ash acting as fertilizer in the central parts of the country. Several other Icelandic studies focus on the ways in which species such as Redshank have taken advantage of opportunities that are provided by farmers’ fields and a warming climate. Designing wader landscapes investigates whether Iceland’s high breeding densities can be maintained, as farming expands and intensification increases.

Migration

Unsurprisingly, migration is a recurring theme in WaderTales. Some of my favourite migration stories are:

  • Which Icelandic Oystercatchers cross the Atlantic? Great teamwork by scientists and colour-ring readers has helped to work out which of Iceland’s Oystercatchers leave Iceland. 70% of birds migrate to Ireland, the UK and western coasts of mainland Europe but 30% ‘tough it out’ in Iceland.
  • Plovers from the north is about Grey or Black-bellied Plovers, a much under-studied wader that travels from the tundra to countries as far south as Australia, Chile and South Africa.
  • Well-travelled Ringed Plovers is an amazing migration story, linking Egypt and Somalia to Chukotka, in the northeast corner of Russia. Here, Ringed Plovers from Africa meet Knot from Australia and Buff-breasted Sandpipers from Brazil.
  • Iceland to Africa, non-stop is about a paper that changed our understanding of the migration of Whimbrel, when geolocators revealed that birds head straight across the Atlantic, on their journeys south. Other Whimbrel blogs talk about the timing of migration and the weather cues associated with decisions made by individuals.
  • Overtaking on migration reveals that Black-tailed Godwits that spend the winter in Portugal, at the southern edge of the species’ wintering range, still get back to Iceland earlier than birds that only have to travel half as far.
  • Teenage waders introducess a previously unknown site in Argentina that is used by non-breeding Hudsonian Godwits in the austral winter. When adults fly north from Chile to Alaska, young birds head inland to the Pampa wetlands. What other habitats do slow-maturing and threatened wader species depend upon?

A focus on individuals

The use of colour-rings, geolocators and satellite tracking has helped to turn the spotlight on individual birds, such as the Greenshank alongside, instead of the patterns we see across populations.

Why is spring migration getting earlier? This early blog focuses on spring arrival dates of Black-tailed Godwits in Iceland. Although the migration season is advancing, individual birds are not changing their annual timetables. Pioneering, new recruits are on earlier schedules than previous generations.

Travel advice for Sanderling introduces the concept of ‘happenstance’ to WaderTales. Colour-ring sightings have shown that Sanderlings from the same breeding areas of Greenland can end up in non-breeding locations that can be anywhere between Scotland and South Africa. Some birds settle in equatorial countries, where the apparent annual survival is lower, from which fewer young birds return to Greenland to breed in their first breeding season, and where it is less likely that an individual will be able to end up on an early breeding schedule. Interestingly, survival rates appear similar in Scotland and Namibia, despite the huge difference in the distance from Greenland. The ‘dice are rolled’ and an individual can end up in a good or poor site, to which it will return every year.

Generational change. In a changing world, with more chaotic weather patterns and rapidly altering habitats, migratory birds are faced with opportunities and challenges. Long-term monitoring of Black-tailed Godwits has shown that migration patterns are forged by new generations, the behaviours of which are moulded by the conditions they encounter in early life.

Thoughts about moult

The main moult of northern hemisphere waders typically happens in the late summer, when the breeding season has finished and once birds have left the breeding grounds. There is then another moult before the start of the next breeding season, as birds change into summer finery (and can change the way they smell). These two moult periods may take up as much as a third of a shorebird’s year but do not get very much attention in scientific studies.

Conservation issues

A lot of the papers that are described above are based upon research that focuses upon species that are of conservation concern. This final selection of blogs highlights a few cross-cutting conservation themes.

Acknowledgements

The purpose of the blog series has not changed since I wrote this introduction on 24 September 2015, but the range of species and the geographic scope have both increased over the years.

WaderTales blogs are used to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles will be based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience. The choice of topics will reflect personal interests, so there will be plenty about Black-tailed Godwits and the international team of scientists who study their behaviours and life-histories. I hope that these blogs will be of particular interest to the hundreds of people who contribute their sightings of colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits to the ever-expanding database of movements.

There are 98 blogs in the WaderTales catalogue but WordPress tells me that there have actually been 109 posts. The extra eleven represent summaries at the end of each year and occasional syntheses of articles that cover a particular topic, such as migration blogs on wadertales and Wetland Bird Survey: working for waders.

It is humbling to discover that 118,000 people have visited WaderTales in the first five years, however briefly some of them may have stopped by.

I am grateful to all of the authors who have worked with me to make sure that WaderTales blogs properly represent the findings of their research, to the photographers who generously permit free use of their images and to my wife, Professor Jennifer Gill, who encourages and inspires me. It is no surprise that Black-tailed Godwits appear in more blogs than any other species!

There seems to be no shortage of new shorebird research to write about. If you have ideas of topics I should cover or you have an upcoming paper that might turn into an interesting WaderTales blog, please get in touch. A blog works best if I can work up a story in time to share it with the lead author and publish it alongside a paper. Here’s to the next five years!

Graham Appleton

Here’s a link to the full WaderTales catalogue

WaderTales blogs in 2019

Nineteen new WaderTales blogs were published during 2019. Click on a link in bold to read an individual blog.

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Ringed Plovers often have time to nest again if the first clutch is lost

Over 25,000 people, representing 130 countries, visited the WaderTales website during 2019.

  • The most widely-read blog was Ireland’s Curlew Crisis, reflecting the international concern for the species and the culew family as a whole.
  • It is great that the next most popular blog is Managing water for waders, as this is such a positive story about how farmers, conservation organisations and statutory agencies can work together to deliver better habitat for breeding waders and an improved water supply for farmers.
  • In third place is Sixty years of Wash waders which describes six decades of scientific outputs of the Wash Wader Ringing Group. The WWRG’s founder, Clive Minton, died in tragic circumstances just a couple of months later and there are some lovely tributes here, on the International Wader Study Group website.

Migration

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The distinctive white under-wing of a Steppe Whimbrel

The migration blogs cover a wide range of species:

  • Generational Change uses colour-ring sightings to explore how Black-tailed Godwit populations have changed in distribution and migratory timing.
  • Whimbrel: time to leave summarises a paper about the consistencies and variability of annual migration patterns of individual Whimbrel.
  • Red Knot pay the price for being fussy eaters discusses the reliance of Delaware Bay birds on the unpredictable annual supply of horseshoe crab eggs. Why are Ruddy Turnstones better able to cope in a changing world?
  • Not-so-Common Sandpipers mixes information about migration with a review of Common & Spotted Sandpipers by Phil Holland.
  • Travel advice for Sanderling summarises research to understand the pros & cons of spending the non-breeding season in widely different locations. Birds in equatorial Africa do far less well than those in England and Namibia.
  • In search of Steppe Whimbrel summarises a paper about two very special individual Whimbrel. Will this knowledge help to rescue a subspecies?

Breeding waders

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Redshanks need long grass in which to hide their nests

There is bad news for Curlew and Redshank, some interesting information about the effects of ticks on chicks and an important stock-take of Fennoscandia’s breeding waders.

  • Redshank – the ‘warden of the marsh’ focuses on Redshank that breed on saltmarshes and the agricultural subsidies that help to fund their conservation.
  • From local warming to range expansion explores the role of climate warming in fuelling the century-long range expansion of Iceland’s Black-tailed Godwit population.
  • Ireland’s Curlew Crisis focuses on the nationwide breeding survey between 2015 and 2017, which revealed a 96% decline in the number of pairs in the previous 30 years.
  • Chicks and Ticks reviews a study of the effects of ticks on the survival probability of Golden Plover chicks.
  • Fennoscandian wader factory summarises analyses of breeding wader numbers in Finland, Sweden and Norway over the period 2006 to 2018.
  • Managing water for waders celebrates work to reduce flooding, store fresh water for farmers and create habitat for breeding waders.
  • Time to nest again? asks how much of the advantage of being an early migrant could be associated with having an option to nest again, if the first attempt fails.

Winter waders 

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Winter numbers of Oystercatcher and Knot have declined in Britain and Ireland

The Green Sandpiper blog reveals unpublished information about territoriality. The other two blogs in this section summarise population estimates of waders in Great Britain and Ireland, based on new papers in British Birds and Irish Birds.

  • Winter territories of Green Sandpipers includes unpublished information from southern England, where survival is affected by the severity of winters.
  • Do population estimates matter? is inspired by the waders section of Population estimates of wintering waterbirds in Great Britain, based on data from the Wetland Bird Survey and the Non-estuarine Waterbirds Survey.
  • Ireland’s wintering waders complements the above blog, providing information from I-WeBS and WeBS for the island of Ireland and set in a European context.

The others!

wash grepl

Adding colour rings and individual flags to Grey Plover

One of the aims of these blogs is to engage people in projects that are in need of volunteers or other forms of public engagement – hence the Northern Ireland blog. The other two articles celebrate sixty years of The Wash Wader Ringing Group and share concerns about a new airport for Lisbon, to be built right next to the Tagus/Tejo Estuary.

  • The Waders of Northern Ireland was written as a promotional tool for a 2019 breeding survey but covers wintering and passage species too.
  • Sixty years of Wash waders celebrates the longest-running wader-ringing project in the UK  (and the world?), by summarising six decades of migration research.
  • Tagus estuary: for birds or planes? What could go wrong if an international airport is built right next to an estuary that is important to Black-tailed Godwits?

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Vast flocks of Black-tailed Godwit gather in the Tagus Estuary in February

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.The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published. Full list of blogs here.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@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.

Migration blogs on WaderTales

wwrg GKHere’s a selection of over forty WaderTales blogs that celebrate the wonder of shorebird migration. The focus is mainly on the East Atlantic Flyway, because that’s where I learnt about waders, but there’s a blog about the shocking drop in the numbers of waders that use the Yellow Sea migration route, an amazing story about a shorebird that links Egypt with the far east of Arctic Russia, some thoughts about teenage waders, focused on Hudsonian Godwits in Chile, and much more. 

Multi-species blogs

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Oystercatcher

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Sociable Lapwing

  • Following Sociable Lapwing describes how geolocators have revealed two distinct migration routes and identified key stopover sites. This is vital information for conservationists, keen to learn more about unsustainable hunting practices that are threatening the viability of this endangered species.

Ringed Plover

  • RP geolocatorWell-travelled Ringed Plovers from Chukotka in north-east Russia spend the winter in Somalia, Egypt, the Red Sea & the Persian Gulf. In Chukotka these Ringed Plovers breed alongside Buff-breasted Sandpipers heading for South America, Knot that will migrate to Australia and Spoon-billed Sandpipers that may migrate to Bangladesh. It’s a small world!

Grey Plover

  • Plovers from the north is a blog about the global migration patterns of Grey Plovers (Black-bellied Plovers), with an Australian focus.

Dotterel

  • Scotland’s Dotterel: still hanging on. The fate of Dotterel that breed on the plateaux in Scotland’s highest mountains may be more closely linked to changes taking place in North Africa than to warming conditions in their nesting areas.

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Curlew

  • The flock now departing reveals fascinating details about Curlew migration with descriptions of four occasions when two tagged birds ended up in the same migratory flock.

Whimbrel

  • Whimbrels on the move summarises a paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel, using ringing and colour-ringing data.
  • Iceland to Africa, non-stop discusses the speed of migration of Icelandic Whimbrel in spring and autumn.
  • Whimbrel: time to leave summarises a paper about the consistencies and variability of annual migration patterns of individual Whimbrel.
  • A Rhapsody of Whimbrel asks whether Whimbrel use time and weather cues in their travel ‘planning’ and might their plans change during the course of their lives?
  • Winter conditions for Whimbrel looks for links between the conditions that individual Whimbrel experience in Africa and the subsequent breeding success in the Iceland.
  • Whimbrels arrive in Iceland starts with observations of flocks of tired Whimbrel arriving on the south coast of Iceland, after five days in the air.
  • In search of Steppe Whimbrel summarises a migration paper about two very special individual Whimbrel. Will this knowledge help to rescue a subspecies?

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Bar-tailed Godwit

DSCN1827Black-tailed Godwit

The individual movements and breeding season behaviour of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits have been studied for twenty years. They have been supported by thousands of birdwatchers who report colour-ringed birds.

Hudsonian Godwit

  • Teenage waders is ostensibly about Hudsonian Godwits but raises general questions about the conservation of young shorebirds.
  • Navigating a vast ocean follows Hudsonian Godwits, as they fly north across the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. How do they compensate for wind-drift?

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Knot

Sanderling

  • Travel advice for Sanderling summarises research to understand the pros & cons of spending the non-breeding season in widely different locations.

blog 6 run for it

Dunlin

Semipalmated Sandpiper

  • Gap years for sandpipers discusses the pros and cons of breeding every year. It is a long way from Peru to Alaskan and Canadian breeding grounds. There appears to be a trade off between migrating north in spring, to try to rear youngsters, and taking a gap-year. Staying in Peru increases the probability of survival, thereby securing more breeding attempts in future years.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper

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  • Spoon-billed Sandpipers: Track & Trace is another detective story. Spoon-billed Sandpipers are in big trouble, with an estimated population of just 660 birds, including youngsters. By satellite-tracking a small number of birds, an international research team has been able to identify new stop-over and wintering sites. This information will help to target efforts to protect habitats within key estuaries and to reduce hunting pressure.

Great Snipe

  • Flying high with Great Snipe discusses the differing altitudes of daytime and nocturnal flights, set within broader research into migrations between Sweden and the Congo Basin.

Snipe & Jack Snipe

Common & Spotted Sandpiper

  • Not-so-Common Sandpipers mixes information about migration with a review of Common & Spotted Sandpipers by Phil Holland.

blog2 movementsGreen Sandpiper

  • Green Sandpipers and Geolocators summarises a Ringing & Migration paper about changing behaviour patterns in Green Sandpipers that wore geolocators to study their migratory journeys. See map alongside.

Spotted Redshank

  • Fewer Spotted Redshanks reviews migration patterns and changes in abundance of the species, in a British & Irish context.

Greenshank

  • Migration of Scottish Greenshank may seem tame when compared to the massive journeys made by birds that winter in Australia. Blog based on neat small-scale study.

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Here’s a link to the full list of WaderTales blogs. https://wadertales.wordpress.com/about/

The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published.

blog flock


GFA in IcelandGraham (@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.

In search of Steppe Whimbrel

blog in flightIt’s unsurprising if you have not heard of a Steppe Whimbrel; the subspecies was declared extinct in 1994. In this context, a new paper in Wader Study, based on detailed studies of two birds that were found in Mozambique in 2016, adds immensely to our knowledge.

Bleak times for the Numeniini

The curlew family is facing huge pressures across the globe. Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew are either extinct or close to extinction, with no confirmed sightings for 56 and 18 years, respectively. We are definitely losing species but are we losing diversity within individual species too – as suggested by the rarity of the Steppe Whimbrel and the fragmenting distribution of the Hudsonian Godwit? There is a lot of information about the current status of different populations and subspecies of the Numeniini  family in Why are we losing our large waders? a WaderTales blog about curlews, godwits and the Upland Sandpiper based on a review paper by James Pierce-Higgins and colleagues.

As a species, the Whimbrel is categorised as ‘of least concern’ but the ‘once extinct’ Steppe Whimbrel would be considered as ‘critically endangered’ if it were to be a species, rather than a subspecies.

Whimbrel are circumpolar in distribution and it is generally accepted that there are four subspecies:

  • phaeopus breed from Iceland through Scandinavia and into western Siberia; they spend the non-breeding season largely in western and southern Africa.
  • variegatus breed across the rest of north-eastern Russia and migrate to southeast Asia and Australia.
  • hudsonicus breed across northern Canada and Alaska and migrate to Latin America.
  • alboaxillaris are thought only to breed in the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, at the centre of the European land-mass, and to winter only in southeast Africa.

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First find (and identify) a Steppe Whimbrel

The fact that Steppe Whimbrel was considered to be extinct just 25 years ago gives a clue as to how hard it is to find one. Details about recent records are summarised in a new paper in Wader Study by Gary Allport and colleagues, that forms the basis of this WaderTales blog. Three breeding sites have been identified, holding a maximum of 19 breeding pairs, in total, and a maximum autumn count of 11 birds has been recorded on passage, on the shores of the Caspian Sea in 2010. The two birds that Gary found in Maputo, Mozambique in February 2016 are the first wintering records in Africa (or anywhere else) since 1965.

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The photographs above show that the two birds found at Maputo by Gary Allport of BirdLife International are different in several respects to the phaeopus with which they associated:blog on ground

  • Steppe Whimbrel are bigger
  • There are cleaner/paler in overall appearance
  • The rump is paler
  • They have white axillaries

For more information see Allport, G. & C. Cohen. 2016. Finding Steppe Whimbrel: discovery and identification in southern Africa. AfricanBirdlife 4: 48–54. If you come across what you think is a Steppe Whimbrel, possibly in eastern Africa during the non-breeding season, check for white under-wings and take as many pictures as possible!

blog in handAt the time of the discovery of the two Steppe Whimbrels, BirdLife had already got a strategy in place to deal with the unexpected appearance of a Slender-billed Curlew – ever hopeful that this species is not extinct. If seen in the non-breeding season, a bird was to be caught and satellite-tagged, in order to try to find its breeding area. The same procedures seemed appropriate for the Maputo Steppe Whimbrels and one bird was duly caught and tagged. That’s probably another story – anticipation – tension – concern for the bird’s safety – relief when it accepted its tag and behaved normally – and elation when data started coming in.

Local movements

blog photographerThe Maputo area, in which the two Steppe Whimbrel were found, comprises about 6 km of tidal muddy sand banks and flats. The area is heavily used by people, with zoned sections for various uses including traditional worship and tourism. The two Steppe Whimbrel were found by chance in February 2016, at the high tide roost on the upper beach. One was bigger than the other, suggesting a female and male. No other alboaxillaris were found in a larger population of 650 Whimbrel photo-identified in Maputo Bay. This paper talks about the discovery: Allport, G. 2017. Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris at Maputo, Mozambique, in February–March 2016, with a review of the status of the taxon. Bulletin African Bird Club 24: 27–37.

The local movements of the two Steppe Whimbrel in Maputo Bay, Mozambique, were studied opportunistically from February to March 2016. Both birds were found to be part of a local sub-population of ca. 30 Whimbrel which held individual feeding territories on sandy shorelines. There are important details about behaviour and habitat-use in the Wader Study paper. The male was seen more frequently and predictably.  Knowledge of his movements made it possible to catch him, by dazzle-netting at night, on 6 March. Metal and colour-rings were added, together with a PTT satellite tag. A DNA sample proved that he was indeed a male.

The male was noticeably plump when caught, suggesting that he was already preparing for northward migration. Data gathered from the tag during the period before departure added valuable extra information about key feeding areas north of the main study area, where mangroves make it hard to observe birds.

Time to fly north

blog mapThe female Steppe Whimbrel was last seen in the Maputo area on 28 February 2016, and it is suggested that she may have left the areas on or shortly after this date. The last sighting of the male was on 24 March 2016 and, using information from his PTT satellite tag, the Mozambique team know that he started to migrate the next day. Although nearly a month after the possible departure of the female, this is still one month earlier than the onset of migration for the phaeopus subspecies. This is not unexpected; phaeopus birds are heading for higher latitudes than alboaxillaris, which breed in the heart of the Eurasian continent, in the steppes of Asia.

Upon leaving Mozambique, the tagged male headed over Tanzania before the scheduled transmission phase ended. At the start of the next recording period, the bird had travelled to the northern end of the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia. He then turned in a more easterly route to the Somali coast. During the tag’s next ‘off phase’ he crossed the Gulf of Aden where he was picked up moving up and down the coast before settling on some salt-pans in the area of Little Aden.

The tagged bird made a 4,659-km journey in six days to Aden, Yemen and his migration route was consistent with the direction of travel for the known breeding areas of alboaxillaris. The track data are the first firm evidence of a long-suspected African transcontinental migration route for southeastern Afro-Palaearctic coastal waders.

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The tag was attached to the back of the Steppe Whimbrel. Feathers have been parted to show the  tag. After two months, the tag dropped off.

The tagged Steppe Whimbrel stayed in the Little Aden coastal area of Yemen until 10 May, when the pattern of fixes changed to a stationary location in the northwest side of the bay. This suggested that the tag had fallen off the bird, possibly floated across the bay on the prevailing southeast wind and then settled on the shoreline. Confirmation of the loss of the tag came on 14 August, when Gary Allport came across the same Steppe Whimbrel, wearing colour rings, back in Maputo. That must have been a great moment.

Key take-home messages

tweet 4If you are on the African shores of the Indian Ocean, in Africa’s Great Rift Valley or perhaps the coasts of western India or the Middle East, please check out any Whimbrel you see. Steppe Whimbrels live up to their names – look out for the white (albo) underwing (axillaris). Perhaps you will find the next Steppe Whimbrel and it will be in a location where capture is again possible. Maybe your bird will carry the next PTT transmitter for long enough to tell conservationists where to look for what must be a tiny population of breeding Steppe Whimbrel. Peter Ryan of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology (University of Cape Town), has recently secured funding from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Fund to tag Steppe Whimbrel. He and Gary are on the look-out for any birds that might be suitable for further study. 

blog in hand underwingOne of the great things about this tracking study is that it acts as a trial-run, should anyone find a Slender-billed Curlew or (even more unlikely) an Eskimo Curlew. We know that BirdLife scientists and their colleagues have the skills needed safely  to catch a rare, large wader and to maximise the amount of information that can be gathered about its migratory movements. Fingers crossed that it’s not too late to find out what is happening to other Steppe Whimbrel, or possibly even Slender-billed Curlew. Sadly, I think that we have to admit that the Eskimo Curlew is now almost certainly extinct.

Paper

Click on the paper details below to link to the Wader Study website. Full text is only available to members of the International Wader Study Group.

Allport, G.A., P.W. Atkinson, M. Carvalho, N.A. Clark & R.E. Green. Local site use and first northbound migration track of non-breeding Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris (Lowe 1921). Wader Study 125(3). doi:10.18194/ws.00126

 

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

 

 

WaderTales blogs in 2018

RP no geolocatorThe amazing migrations of Ringed Plover, concerns about Spotted Redshank and lessons from Little Tern conservation …

just three of the highlights from WaderTales in 2018.

Seventeen new WaderTales blogs were published during the year, bringing the total so far to 65. There are three articles about Black-tailed Godwits (total now 16), two more focusing upon Icelandic research (total 8) and lots of new single-species and conservation-related tales to catch up on. The most widely-read blog is a review of global survival rates in waders and the least popular (so far) is one that looks at site fidelity in breeding Black-tailed Godwits.

morgan 2018Black-tailed Godwits

There are several WaderTales blogs about the expanding population of islandica  Black-tailed Godwits and the fast-disappearing limosa birds. This year, it was a pleasure to report on the success of ‘head-starting’ as a means of boosting the British breeding limosa population.

  • Just one Black-tailed Godwit tells one godwit’s life story for the three years after ringing, using observations by birdwatchers in four countries.
  • Site-fidelity in Black-tailed Godwits looks at how the head-starting programme to support the East Anglian population of limosa might be affected by philopatry.
  • Head-starting Success reports on the joint RSPB/WWT project to increase the Black-tailed Godwit breeding population in the Nene, Ouse & Welney fens.

blog whimbrelIceland-based research

The range of wader research in Iceland has expanded over the years and these blogs give a taster of the the breadth of the work.

blog stalkingSingle-species studies

This section is a bit of a miscellany. Each blog is focused on a particular species and is usually based on a scientific paper that highlights a broader issue of conservation importance.

  • Well-travelled Ringed Plovers from Chukotka in north-east Russia spend the winter in Somalia, Egypt, the Red Sea & the Persian Gulf.
  • Green Sandpipers and Geolocators summarises a Ringing & Migration paper about changing behaviour patterns in Green Sandpipers that wore geolocators.
  • Fewer Spotted Redshanks reviews migration patterns and changes in abundance of the species, in a British & Irish context.
  • Starting moult early focuses on the timing of moult in Golden Plover populations. It turns out that it’s tough to find a three-month period in which to moult.
  • Iceland to Africa, non-stop discusses the speed of migration of Icelandic Whimbrel in spring and autumn.

malpasIssues in wader/shorebird conservation and science

Waders across the globe are subject to huge pressures, with several species close to extinction. In some areas we are seeing reduced annual survival – which is a serious issue in species which were thought of as long-lived birds – and many populations are finding it hard to raise sufficient youngsters to sustain numbers.

  • Waders are long-lived birds! Some thoughts on the longevity records for BTO-ringed wader species and the value of monitoring survival.
  • Measuring shorebird survival is a global review that explores the geographic, seasonal and sex-based variation in survival rates across wader families.
  • Curlew Moon has at its heart a review of Mary Colwell’s book of the same name but also summarises some of the issues being faced by Curlew in Ireland and the UK.
  • Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew in France provides background to the debate about a hunting ban or moratorium in France.
  • Tool-kit for wader conservation provides an overview of the tools that are available to conservationists and site-managers working on wet grasslands.
  • Deterring birds of prey summarises a paper about Diversionary Feeding; one way to keep protected predators away from wader chicks.
  • Leg-flags and nest success investigates whether nesting success of small waders (shorebirds) is affected by wearing leg-flags.

Want to read more? To see a full list of the WaderTales blogs that have been published since 2015 CLICK HERE.

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

WaderTales blogs in 2017

19 WaderTales blogs were published in 2017, celebrating waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on newly published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience. Click on a link in bold to read an individual blog. 

Wader/Shorebird science and conservationringed-plover

Black-tailed GodwitsDSCN1827

b-dunlinIceland-based research

Blog adultBreeding Lapwings

Upland CurlewsRC single bird muddy edge

There are nearly 30 other WaderTales blogs. Here’s the full list. The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@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.