A great summer for Iceland’s waders?

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

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Flock of juvenile Black-tailed Godwits in Devon

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

Winter into spring

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

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

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

Breeding studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressures on Iceland’s waders

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

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

Deploying and collecting geolocators to study migration

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

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

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

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

So how good a breeding season was it?

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

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

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 GFA in Iceland

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

@grahamfappleton

 

 

 

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Flyway from Ireland to Iceland

There are over forty WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection that may appeal to birdwatchers in Ireland.

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The Ireland to Iceland air link opens in February and does not close until well into May, as swans, geese, ducks, waders, gulls and passerines head north. At the end of June it opens again, with the first failed breeders returning to Ireland. Species such as Oystercatcher and Black-tailed Godwit spend much more of the year in Ireland than they do in Iceland.

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Most Oystercatchers are being ringed with two letter engraved rings, along with two colour-rings: Photo Tómas Gunnarsson

The island of Ireland holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Grey Plovers from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada – but there is  special relationship with Iceland. It’s the next stopping off point for passage Sanderling, as they fly from Africa to Greenland, and the ultimate destination for lots of wintering birds such as Redshank and Golden Plovers.

Oystercatchers lead the way

A lot of the Oystercatchers seen around Ireland’s coastline breed in Iceland, as has been shown by the Dublin Bay Birds Project. Birds start moving north very early, as shown by the appearance of four yellow-ringed Dublin Bay birds in Tiree before the end of February this year. Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers explains how a new Icelandic project is examining the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Irish reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers – and the Dublin Bay birds are providing great additional data.

snipe-1Each autumn, Irish-breeding Snipe are joined by much larger numbers from the north and east. About a quarter of foreign-ringed snipe that have been found in the island of Ireland are of Icelandic origin, compared to just one out of 255 in England. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.

whimbrel-mig-fig1Some of the last waders to use the Ireland to Iceland flyway are Whimbrels, many of which stop off in Ireland on spring migration. Whimbrels on the move summarises a paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a new paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they sometimes need to stop off on the way north. See Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird by José Alves and colleagues.

Black tailed-Godwits

WaderTales was invented as a way of providing feedback to colour-ring readers who focused on Black-tailed Godwits. There are 10 blogs about the species, some of which may well appeal to birdwatchers who have spotted colour-ringed birds anywhere between Belfast Harbour and the Shannon Estuary.

pairs-mapWe are all aware that migration is getting earlier but how does this happen? Monitoring the annual arrival of individual colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits in Iceland may well have provided an answer. Why is spring migration getting earlier? reveals that it is new recruits into the breeding population that are setting the pace; they are reaching Iceland earlier than previous generations.

Another fascinating story that is revealed by colour-ringing is the synchronous arrival of the two members of breeding pairs of Black-tailed Godwits, even if one wintered in Ireland and the other in France. You can read more here.

Breeding Waders

WaderTales were developed in East Anglia so many of the articles about breeding waders have an English feel to them. Hopefully, some of the blogs will still appeal. Anyone trying to support breeding Lapwing populations might be interested in A helping hand for Lapwings, which also talks about Redshanks.

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There’s an Icelandic focus too and a new blog, which looks at the attitudes of farmers, will resonate with conservationists (scientists, birdwatchers and farmers) who are trying to work together to improve conditions for Irish breeding waders. As Icelandic farming expands, what are farmers prepared to do to support breeding waders, many of which are destined to spend the winter on Irish estuaries. See: Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?

Ireland – a special place for Curlews

Curlew e (2)

Curlews fly vast distances to spend the winter on the estuaries of Britain & Ireland (© Graham Catley)

Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why BirdWatch Ireland, RSPB, BTO and GWCT  are focusing on this species How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Ireland, completely?

The threat to the Curlew is real, especially when set in an international context. Two species of curlew are probably already extinct and other members of the Numeniini (curlews, godwits and Upland Sandpiper) are facing a similar set of problems to those that probably caused the demise of the Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew. Why are we losing our large waders? outlines the background to a global problem.

There’s a WaderTales blog that summarises a new paper from BTO and RSPB – Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan. Although the analyses are based on British data, the results are highly relevant to Irish Curlews.

Conservation issues

Hundreds of  birdwatchers take part in the Irish Wetland Bird Survey (Republic) and the Wetland Bird Survey (Northern Ireland). These counts identify and monitor key sites for wintering waders – and wildfowl. Whilst mud  and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. It has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders.

Further reading

b-stubble-godwitsHopefully, this summary  gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Irish waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already over 40 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look here.

And finally …

There’s a useful summary about wader migration to, from and through Ireland in Which wader, when and why?

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.

Why are we losing our large waders?

A review of the global threats to the world’s Numeniini (curlews, godwits & Upland Sandpiper) has recently been published. It does not make for good reading.

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Icelandic Whimbrel in the warm conditions of The Guinea-Bissau

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Eskimo Curlews were migrating the full length of the two American continents 150 years ago – but the species is now probably extinct. The Slender-billed Curlew, its old-world cousin, is elusive at best and extinct at worst. According to the most recent global figures (as reported to the Convention on Migratory Species 11th Conference of the Parties, details below), there are estimated to be only 10,000 remaining Bristle-thighed Curlews, 32,000 Far Eastern Curlews and 77,000 Hudsonian Godwits. Why are we losing our large waders?

b-curlewThe perilous plight of members of the curlew and godwit families has been highlighted in WaderTales before (see Is the Eurasian Curlew really near-threatened and Dutch Black-tailed Godwit numbers down by nearly 75% for instance). Now, a group of wader/shorebird experts have analysed the wider conservation concerns for this group of large, long-lived waders. In a new review in Bird Conservation International, scientists ask if there are shared threats to the Numeniini (the Upland Sandpiper, eight curlews and four godwits). Can their findings help to explain why so many of these 13 species are at risk or, in the case of the Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew, probably already extinct?

The Numeniini

categories2The Numeniini waders span the globe. In the table alongside you can see that the conservation status of the group covers the full range of possible levels, from Eskimo Curlew, the last definite report of which was in 1963, to six species that are listed as being of ‘least concern’ (IUCN criteria). Even these six species are far from safe, according to a new review undertaken by 35 authors, supported by expert opinion from a further 80 shorebird ecologists. The drivers that have led to the declines of several endangered and vulnerable species are already affecting others that are currently categorised as being of ‘least concern’. There’s more about these important caveats further down this blog.

The crisis for the Numeniini is worrying wader biologists, ornithologists and ecologists – and some governments. They are working together to share information, identify gaps in knowledge, drive forward new research and to push for conservation activities that can reduce the pressures on these species, and others that share the same habitats. A key output is a newly-published paper, led by the British Trust for Ornithology’s James Pearce-Higgins but with authors from almost 30 organisations across five continents, who collated knowledge from over 100 experts:

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There is already a great deal of concerted international action to save Numeniini species. This flyer was produced by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership

A global threats overview for Numeniini populations: synthesising expert knowledge for a group of declining migratory birds. Bird Conservation International. ISSN 0959-2709

The authors are: JAMES W. PEARCE-HIGGINS, DANIEL J. BROWN, DAVID J. T. DOUGLAS, JOSÉ A. ALVES, MARIAGRAZIA BELLIO, PIERRICK BOCHER, GRAEME M BUCHANAN, ROB P CLAY, JESSE CONKLIN, NICOLA CROCKFORD, PETER DANN, JAANUS ELTS, CHRISTIAN FRIIS, RICHARD A. FULLER, JENNIFER A. GILL, KEN GOSBELL, JAMES A. JOHNSON, ROCIO MARQUEZ-FERRANDO, JOSE A. MASERO, DAVID S. MELVILLE, SPIKE MILLINGTON, CLIVE MINTON, TAEJ MUNDKUR, ERICA NOL, HANNES PEHLAK, THEUNIS PIERSMA, FRÉDÉRIC ROBIN, DANNY I. ROGERS, DANIEL R. RUTHRAUFF, NATHAN R. SENNER, JUNID N. SHAH, ROB D. SHELDON, SERGEJ A. SOLOVIEV, PAVEL S. TOMKOVICH and YVONNE I. VERKUIL

A model for collaborative conservation research

Identifying the causes of the problems of the Numeniini is not easy. Species such as the Little Curlew breed in some of the most remote areas of the world, whilst the wintering areas of Bristle-thighed Curlews are spread across the Pacific islands. Understanding the full annual cycle requires international cooperation, willingly provided by scientists and volunteer ornithologists who share a common concern about these species.

iwsgOne of the key elements of the paper-production process was a workshop at the 2013 International Wader Study Group conference in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. This was led by Nicola Crockford, Principal Policy Officer at RSPB, James Pearce-Higgins (BTO), Daniel Brown (RSPB), David Douglas (RSPB) and Jennifer Gill (University of East Anglia). It was preceded by a questionnaire survey of experts throughout the world, conducted by Daniel Brown and funded by RSPB. This two-stage process brought together information relating to population trends, demographic parameters (e.g. nesting success and survival rates) and actual/potential conservation threats.

cop11James, Dan and David refined the summary, bringing it together as a ‘Conservation Statements for Numeniini Species’ which was presented to the 11th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Migratory Species in Quito, Ecuador in 2014 (CMS COP11). This report, authored by Daniel Brown, Nicola Crockford and Robert Sheldon and published on behalf of BirdLife International and the International Wader Study Group is available here.

In the figure below you can see a snapshot of the range of information that is available in the Conservation Statements, in this case for Black-tailed Godwit . In particular, this COP11 document provided background information for two species for which CMS Concerted and Cooperative Actions were being proposed – Far Eastern Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit. It also painted a backdrop to the CMS Programme of Work on Migratory Birds and Flyways.

cop-for-blackwit

The new BCI paper aims to highlight the crises facing the Numeniini, to outline the suite of threats to the group and to promote this collaborative form of expert-led synthesis. It contains details as to how the questionnaire and workshop sessions were organised – information that will hopefully be of use to scientists studying other groups and taxa.

Findings of the review

In order to help inform conservation management and policy responses, James Pearce- Higgins and his collaborators have reviewed the threats that members of the Numeniini face across migratory flyways. They show that most threats are increasing in intensity. This is particularly the case in non-breeding areas, where habitat loss (resulting from residential and commercial development), aquaculture, mining, transport, disturbance, problematic invasive species, pollution and climate change were regarded as having the greatest detrimental impact. Fewer threats (mining, disturbance, problematic non-native species and climate change) were identified as widely affecting breeding areas.

far-eastern-curlew

An endangered Far Eastern Curlew in Australia

Numeniini populations face the greatest number of non-breeding threats in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, especially those associated with coastal reclamation. Related threats were also identified across the Central and Atlantic Americas, and East Atlantic flyways. Threats on the breeding grounds were greatest in Central and Atlantic Americas, East Atlantic and West Asian flyways. Based on these threats, several key actions were proposed:

Three priority actions for monitoring and research:

  • To monitor breeding population trends (which for species breeding in remote areas may best be achieved through surveys at key non-breeding sites).
  • To deploy tracking technologies to identify migratory connectivity.
  • To monitor land-cover change across breeding and non-breeding areas.
eaafp

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership is a key focus for conservation action

Two priority actions focus on conservation and policy responses:

  • To identify and effectively protect key non-breeding sites across all flyways (particularly in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway).
  • To implement successful conservation interventions at a sufficient scale across human-dominated landscapes for species’ recovery to be achieved.

If implemented urgently, these measures, in combination, have the potential to alter the current population declines of many Numeniini species.

What is in the BCI paper?

As well as outlining a methodology which may well provide a template for the conservation of other groups of threatened species, the paper contains a comprehensive assessment of the global and local threats faced by the Numeniini. The discussion is the largest section – covering disturbance, development, pollution, terrestrial land-use change & predation, climate change impacts & mitigation, and hunting & harvesting. It provides an opportunity to assess the scientific evidence that supports expert opinion and usefully acknowledges some key gaps worthy of further investigation (e.g. drivers of change in the Central Asian Flyway and uncertainty over the population-level impacts of disturbance).

To summarise in a few bullet points:

  • b-davemelville

    Bar-tailed Godwits in the Yellow Sea. Another large slice of mudflat disappears as a new sea-wall is built. Read more here.

    37 populations of curlews, whimbrels, godwits and upland sandpiper are assessed.

  • Of the 13 species, seven are of conservation concern (from near-threatened to possibly extinct).
  • Most of the threats identified by the expert panel are considered to be increasing in intensity, especially in non-breeding areas.
  • A greater range of threats was reported in non-breeding areas than breeding areas.
  • Numeniini using the East Asian-Australasian Flyway face the greatest number of non-breeding range threats that were identified.
  • The greatest threat, particularly in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, appears to be the large-scale development of key passage and non-breeding sites in coastal zones.

Quite why population declines are so common and severe in the Numeniini group is not yet clear but their large body size, low breeding rate and a consequent reliance on high annual survival rates may make them particularly vulnerable to changes in land use and habitat availability across their migratory ranges. The authors hope that this publication will provide a platform for the necessary research and monitoring, to identify and address specific threats, and that continued international collaboration will help this process.

Least Concern? Not really?

The phrase ‘Least Concern’ may be misleading. Although half of the species covered in this review (6 out of 13) are still classified by IUCN/BirdLife as being of ‘Least Concern’ there are important caveats for these species within the COP11 report. Bar-tailed Godwit was classified as ‘Least Concern’ until a few months ago, when a major, sudden drop in adult survival for two populations (menzbieri & baueri) using the East-Asian Australian Flyway was reported. The current list of ‘Least Concern’ species is:

Upland Sandpiper – Declining nesting success is being recorded.

Whimbrel – Up to nine subspecies have been described, four of which are declining in number. Demographic trends are completely unknown for five subspecies.

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Little Curlew – Population is only 180,000 and numbers may be declining.

Long-billed Curlew – Numbers appear to be stable (only 160,000) but there have been previous extinctions in 7 US states and large parts of Canada. New climate change predictions suggest major threat to breeding population.

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Satellite-tracking is being used to establish migration routes and stop-over areas for several members of the Numeniini. This is a Marbled Godwit.

Marbled Godwit – Only an estimated 174,000 individuals remain. Two of the three breeding populations are made up of only 2,000 individuals each.

Hudsonian Godwit – Only an estimated 77,000 remain, with a decline in the major Canadian population, where there has been reduced nesting & fledging success.

These caveats suggest that none of the 13 species of Numeniini can be considered to be safe. The fact that the threats to the six species of ‘Least Concern’ are the same ones that have driven the other seven species further up the ‘endangered’ scale – and even to extinction – is extremely worrying.

You can read the full paper here:

A global threats overview for Numeniini populations: synthesising expert knowledge for a group of declining migratory birds. James W Pearce-Higgins et al. Bird Conservation International. ISSN 0959-2709


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

Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?

When working with Icelandic farmers to conserve internationally important wader populations, a shared understanding of beneficial practises may be more important than financial incentives.

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Species like Snipe, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits have been squeezed out of lowland areas of countries such as the UK and the Netherlands by centuries of drainage, increasingly homogeneous landscapes and the introduction of quick-growing grassland monocultures. Adults have lost nesting sites, chicks have fewer feeding opportunities and pre-fledged youngsters fall victim to farm machinery. Do the same fates await waders in Iceland or might it be possible to work with farmers to leave space for birds?

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Pools, set within semi-natural lightly-grazed fields, are important

As part of her PhD at the University of Iceland, in collaboration with the Universities of East Anglia (UK) and Aveiro (Portugal), Lilja Jóhannesdóttir asked farmers what they think about having birds on their land, what their plans are for their farms, whether they might be willing to leave some pools and focus farming activities in areas less important for birds, and if farm subsidies might encourage them to be more proactive conservationists. The sometimes surprising results of this questionnaire have been published in Ecology & Society.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

The Waders of Iceland

tableIn a recent report prepared by AEWA (Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds), in response to concerns about the effects of afforestation on Iceland’s waterbirds, Dave Pritchard & Colin Galbraith say “Iceland is second only to Russia in its importance as a breeding ground for migratory waterbirds in the AEWA region. It supports the most important breeding populations in Europe for six species of waders, and is the second most important country for three.”

Data in the table alongside have been extracted from Annex 4 of their report, which was discussed at the 12th Standing Committee of AEWA in Jan/Feb 2017. Iceland is home to c 75% of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel, over half of the area’s breeding Dunlin and perhaps half of its Golden Plover. The importance of Iceland has increased with the collapse of wader populations in other countries.

Waders on farmland

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Spring flock of Black-tailed Godwit feeding in a stubble field

Farmed landscapes in Iceland provide opportunities for waders. In the spring, newly-arrived flocks of Golden Plover spread out over hayfields, Black-tailed Godwits target the previous year’s barley stubbles and parties of feeding waders can be seen in sedge pools on farms. During the breeding season, the application of fertilisers, especially in areas where volcanic ash deposition is low, increases soil productivity and wader densities, as was shown in this blog about regional productivity. Come the autumn, hayfields attract flocks of birds fattening up for migration. Despite drainage of an estimated 55% to 75% of wetlands in Iceland in the last seventy years, the country is still a great place for waders.

The amount of intensively-farmed land in Iceland is increasing, to some extent driven by rapid recent increases in the number of tourists, who consume milk products and meat. This can be seen in the ongoing development of hayfields, to feed cattle, and barley production, for pig-feed. There is concern that these developments will impact upon wader numbers, through the reduction in the amount of semi-natural habitat, especially in the lowlands, loss of pools and reduced landscape heterogeneity. On top of these changes, warmer temperatures allow earlier cuts of silage which increases the risk of killing wader chicks that nest within these fields.

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More and more semi-natural land is being lost to grass monocultures

Lilja Jóhannesdóttir’s PhD is focused on how birds use the gradient of habitats that comprise farmland in lowland Iceland – from more intensively farmed fields through to lightly-grazed, semi-natural habitats. The paper that forms the focus of this blog looks at farmers’ attitudes to the birds that share Iceland’s farms and their plans for the future. It then attempts to reveal the willingness and capacity of landowners to engage with conservation management practises.

The questionnaire

To understand the views of Icelandic farmers toward bird conservation, given the current potential for agricultural expansion, Lilja interviewed 62 farmers across Iceland, using a structured questionnaire. Some of the key findings are:

  • Over 60% of farmers are likely or very likely to increase their area of cultivated land
  • Over 90% of farmers think it is important or very important to have rich birdlife on their estates
  • About 60% would consider modifying grazing regimes to help birds
  • More than 80% would be unlikely or highly unlikely to consider changing the timing of harvesting operations.
  • More than 80% would be happy to consider keeping pools intact
  • Information on conservation needs are more likely to change attitudes than financial incentives

The information collected in the questionnaires was analysed by region and by the age of the interviewee but no strong patterns emerged. Older farmers seem to appreciate birdlife more than their younger colleagues but are no more likely to change their behaviours to support conservation objectives. The detailed figures are reported in the paper.

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Creating new hayfield to produce cattle-food is at the expense of areas of semi-natural land

The majority of the Icelandic farmers who took part in the survey plan to expand their agricultural land in the next five years, and this is likely to be driven further by increasing demands for farming products. This implies that conversion of semi-natural land into farmland is likely to greatly increase in the near future, with potentially severe and widespread impacts on the internationally important bird populations that currently breed in these areas. Such expansion could put Iceland on a similar trajectory to many other countries that have experienced substantial biodiversity declines on the back of agricultural intensification and expansion. On the positive side, Icelandic farmers like wildlife and the results suggest that if they are better informed about the consequences of their actions they might well try to modify plans in ways that reduce negative impacts. The possibility of financial incentives to off-set potential losses did not seem to influence farmers’ views, but the authors suggest that this might be because there is no tradition for farmers to receive subsidies for conservation action.

b-horsesA clear finding of the study is that farmers are unlikely to change the timing of agricultural operations in order to help birds. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a country with a very short growing season and where periods of settled weather are rare. With relatively few consecutive dry days, opportunities to mow and turn silage or hay crops just have to be taken. The timing of farming operations, such as harvesting/mowing, can be crucial for breeding waders because they can result in the destruction of nests, chicks, and adults during the breeding season. For example, advances in timing of mowing of hayfields in the Netherlands has meant that this now coincides more frequently with wader nesting and chick rearing, causing unsuccessful breeding attempts and leading to lower recruitment. There is more about the Dutch experience in this Ibis paper.

If Icelandic farmers are unlikely to delay operations, perhaps other strategies, such as mowing fields from the centre – as used in the Outer Hebrides to reduce Corncrake losses – might be more acceptable to farmers who are so constrained by the weather? Read more about the Corncrake issue here. 

The Future

b-whimbrelAs a signatory to international agreements on the conservation of birds and wetlands (Ramsar Convention, Bern Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity and African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement), the Icelandic government is required to take action to protect the internationally important bird populations breeding in the country. Given that there is no strong tradition of using planning laws or centralised agricultural policy to influence farmers’ decisions, working with individual farmers might be the best way to deliver conservation objectives.

Farmers’ views on the importance of having rich birdlife on their land and their willingness to participate in bird conservation provide a potential platform to work with landowners to design conservation management strategies – and to do this before further substantial changes in the extent of agriculture take place in this subarctic landscape. With three-quarters of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel and about half of the Golden Plover and Dunlin dependent upon decisions made in Iceland, there is a lot at stake.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

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 GFA in Iceland

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

@grahamfappleton

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Wales: a special place for waders

From winter beaches to summer moorland and woodland, Wales provides essential habitats for waders. 

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There are thirty WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection of ten that may well appeal to birdwatchers in Wales.

Winter beaches & estuaries

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Most Oystercatchers are being ringed with two letter engraved rings, along with two colour-rings: Photo Tómas Gunnarsson

Wales holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Bar-tailed Godwits from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada. Some of the Oystercatchers seen in sites such as the Burry Inlet or the Menai Strait are from Iceland, where they can be found alongside Redshanks and Golden Plover that have also arrived from the north. They emphasise the close links between Wales and Iceland when it come to birdlife.  Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers explains how a new project is examining the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Welsh reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers.

snipe-1Interestingly, while there are similar links between Ireland and Iceland, the migratory provenance of Welsh Snipe may be very different to that of Irish ones. A quarter of foreign-ringed Snipe reported in Ireland have been found to be wearing Icelandic rings but, so far, no Reykjavik-ringed Snipe have been spotted in Wales. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.

Protecting key wintering sites is a high priority when it comes to wader conservation. A new BTO and WWT project aims to provide better information as to how species as diverse as Dunlin and Shelduck make use of the Severn Estuary. This is important work, with major relevance to discussions as to how power might be generated within the estuary. Tracking waders on the Severn urges birdwatchers to look for colour-marked birds. Initial results, shared at the recent International Wader Study Group conference, indicate that the home range of a Redshank is ten times as big as originally thought. It will be interesting to see what else this study reveals.

horse-and-flockHundreds of Welsh birdwatchers take part in the Wetland Bird Survey and the intensive work involved in periodic Low Tide Counts. These identify and monitor key sites and establish the most important feeding sites within estuaries. Whilst mud  and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. I had not realised that it has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders.

Passing through

whimbrel-mig-fig1There is exciting work going on in Wales to understand why so many Whimbrel spend time in the country in the spring. Whimbrels on the move summarises a recent paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a new paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they sometimes need to stop off on the way north. See Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird by José Alves and colleagues.

Breeding Waders

Wales provides homes to many breeding waders, from Ringed Plover on the coast, via Little Ringed Plover and Commons Sandpiper along rivers and into the moorland for Curlew and Dunlin, passing a forest with Woodcock en route. And that’s only giving a mention to half of the country’s breeding wader species.

CattleStarting on salt-marsh, Big-foot and the Redshank nest investigates appropriate cattle stocking levels for successful Redshank breeding. Although the work was undertaken in northwest England, there is no reason to believe that Welsh cattle area any less careful as to where they put their feet. There are several other blogs about Lapwings and Redshank on the WaderTales site.

We are all aware of the issues facing upland waders. The next blog was written to promote a survey in England, looking at the distribution of waders along the moorland/farmland interface, but the stories will have resonance with Welsh birdwatchers. All downhill for upland waders outlines changes to breeding numbers and distributions of waders breeding in England’s uplands.

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Curlews fly vast distances to spend the winter on the estuaries of Britain & Ireland (© Graham Catley)

Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why RSPB, BTO, GWCT and BirdWatch Ireland are focusing on this species How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Wales, completely?

Predation is acknowledged as a major issue for Curlew but is this going to be a problem for Oystercatchers too? Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops reveals a significant decline of the species in Scotland, mediated to some extent by range expansion in three dimensions. There’s a specific mention of the Burry Inlet control programme of the 1970s.

The strangest Welsh wader has to be the Woodcock – probing about in winter fields and nesting in forestry plantations. Conserving British-breeding Woodcock focuses on worrying results from the latest GWCT/BTO survey and work to reduce losses during the shooting season.

Further reading

Hopefully, this summary  gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Welsh waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already 30 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look 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.

WaderTales: a taste of Scotland

What happens when Black-tailed Godwits cannot cross the Atlantic?

Observations from Tiree by John Bowler and others gave a unique insight into what happens if northerly winds set in at migration time. Here is the blog.

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Here are four more uniquely-Scottish WaderTales blogs to read:

scottish-wadertalesEstablishing breeding requirements of Whimbrel  focuses on the different habitat needs of adults and chicks in Shetland.

Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops details significant declines in Scotland, at least partly explained by predation. An increasing number have now taken to nesting on roofs.

UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57% presents the results of an RSPB survey that was published in Bird Study.

Prickly problems for waders explains how SNH are trying to deal with introduced Hedgehogs in the Outer Hebrides, where they are a major problem for breeding waders.

And here are another six which may well appeal to Scottish birdwatchers:

  • NEWS and Oystercatchers focuses on the waders that  winter on coasts, instead of estuaries. It was written to promote the 205/16 coastal survey run by BTO.
  • A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. What are waders looking for?

There are 40 WaderTales blogs. 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.

Establishing breeding requirements of Whimbrel

Breeding Whimbrel may be associated with wet heaths but chicks need small pools and ditches too

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One of the advantages for waders (shorebirds) is that parents can lead their chicks to suitable feeding areas almost as soon as they are hatched. This means that the habitat in which parents choose to secrete their nests can be very different to the habitat in which their youngsters will later forage.

ad-for-blogAs part of a study into the potential impacts of a large wind farm proposal on Shetland, a team from Alba Ecology Ltd and Natural Research Projects Ltd collected data on the habitat associations of wader species, particularly Whimbrel, on Mainland Shetland. A paper in the BTO journal Bird Study shows that habitats used by Whimbrel chicks for feeding are significantly different to those used by adults for feeding and nesting.

Habitat characteristics of breeding Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus on Mainland Shetland, Scotland, UK by Kate Massey, Peter Cosgrove, Fergus Massey, Digger Jackson & Mark Chapman

Fourteen sites across Mainland Shetland were studied, in order to identify the three main requirements of Whimbrel – adult territorial and foraging habitats, nest site habitats and chick feeding habitats. The sites were spread across central and west Mainland Shetland, focusing on areas regularly used by breeding Whimbrel. Between them, these held between 90 and 100 pairs, out of a local total of 150 local pairs.

chick-for-blogWhilst adult Whimbrels used blanket bog, dominated by ling heather, cottongrass and other species associated with wet heath, when both nesting and feeding, the structure of habitats used by chicks was very different. These were characterized by small, wet and often linear features, with plenty of mosses and plants such as purple moor-grass and bulbous rush. The presence of these flashes, ditches and former peat-cuttings may be crucial to the successful breeding of Whimbrels.

Sad times for the Curlew family

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Based on IUCN BirdLife assessments

As outlined in the blog Is the Curlew really near-threatened? we have probably already lost 2 out of 8 of the members of the curlew family – definitely Eskimo Curlew and possibly Slender-billed Curlew. Although Whimbrels are not currently causing official concern, there is certainly a need to be watchful. This paper is therefore an important addition to the written information about the habitat requirements of the species. The conclusions reached by the authors may well be of interest to scientists tackling tricky issues relating to the conservation of European Curlew. Across Wales and Ireland, breeding populations have been decimated (literally).

 Providing the right habitat for Shetland’s Whimbrel

 For Shetland’s Whimbrel, the habitat differences between adult feeding/nesting locations and chick foraging locations were very striking and suggest that the presence of both types of habitat may be of importance. Chicks move out of the heavily grazed open heather areas, in which nests are often made, and into wetter and taller, mixed, and structurally-diverse vegetation, where it is easier to hide from predators such as gulls, corvids and skuas, and to find food. If suitable habitat for Whimbrel chick foraging is limited, then chick growth and survival may be compromised. This paper suggests that management aimed at benefiting breeding Whimbrel needs to address the habitat needs of chicks, in terms of wet features, as well as the habitat needs of adults for foraging and nesting. You can read more in the paper.

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Grazed heather areas (left) are favoured by feeding and nesting adults, while chicks prefer wet flashes (right). Photos: Peter Cosgrove

 Work on other upland wader species has shown that food availability, vegetation structure and cover from predators may at least partly explain habitat preferences of chicks. When tracking Golden Plover families in northern England, Mark Whittingham and colleagues found that chicks selected the edges of marshy habitats. They recommended that drainage ditches should be blocked, in order to provide more suitable feeding habitat. An added benefit of this sort of measure is that more water is held on moorland, which helps to reduce flooding downstream.

Lowland wet grasslands in Broads

Shallow ditches increase Lapwing productivity: Mike Page/RSPB

As Peter Cosgrove, one of the authors of the new paper has commented, “The more I read and discover about wader chicks, the more I see the importance of small, wet flushes with cover – maybe this is a general feature of many species?” As you can read in A helping hand for Lapwings, the provision of wet features, particularly foot-drains, is crucial to the successful fledging of species in a more open landscape.

A matter of scale?

Creating the right habitat mosaic for adults and chicks will depend upon the scale of the movements of family parties of the wader species that is causing conservation concerns. Tómas Gunnarsson reports that family groups of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits can cover large distances. One brood of small chicks (less than five days old) was found a week later 3 km away. Whimbrels may be able to select areas with suitable nesting and nearby chick-rearing potential or perhaps they can also move their chicks longer distances, if necessary? Research into the movements of family parties might tell us whether moving chicks for a kilometre or more could have adverse consequences, in terms of growth or survival. Presumably, adults would prefer to find the right mix of habitats within relatively close proximity, which suggests that managing grazed heath to provide a suitable mosaic of cover for nests, areas of short vegetation and wet features may be a sensible conservation prescription for Whimbrel.

Habitat characteristics of breeding Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus on Mainland Shetland, Scotland, UK by Kate Massey, Peter Cosgrove, Fergus Massey, Digger Jackson & Mark Chapman


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

 

 

 

Whimbrels on the move

You may hear the distinctive seven-note call of a Whimbrel overhead in late April or May but where is it going and where has it been?

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Many pairs of Whimbrel nest in the flood-plains of Iceland’s rivers (Tómas Gunnarsson)

In a new paper in Wader Study, Tómas Gunnarsson and Guðmundur Guðmundsson have analysed the ringing recoveries of Icelandic Whimbrel and demonstrated that many probably make non-stop flights from Iceland to western Africa.  The study also helps to explain the timing and origins of flocks of Whimbrel in different parts of the British Isles in spring and late summer.

Migration and non-breeding distribution of Icelandic Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus islandicus as revealed by ringing recoveries: Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson and Guðmundur A. Guðmundsson.  The full paper is available to subscribers to Wader Study but a summary is available here.

Whimbrels in Iceland

It is estimated that 250,000 pairs of Whimbrel  breed in in Iceland, representing 25% of the combined global population for all seven subspecies of Whimbrel and making Iceland a very important country for the species. The Icelandic breeding population is believed to be relatively stable but others, such as those in North America, are in decline.

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There are two blogs about how volcanic dust affects Whimbrel. In the long-term volcanic ash provides important fertilizers but short term effects can be seen in breeding success.

The Whimbrel is one of the commonest of Iceland’s breeding wader species, with most nests estimated to be at elevations lower than 200m and particularly along river flood-plains.

Iceland is a country in a state of constant flux, both because of geothermal activity and the subsequent physical processes associated with wind and water flow, and as a result of human interventions. Volcanic ash has been shown to affect the breeding success of Whimbrels in the short term and their distribution in the longer term. Land use is also changing rapidly, particularly as a result of afforestation and the ways that land is farmed, and work is ongoing to understand how these processes might impact upon breeding waders, including Whimbrels.

Movements of Icelandic Whimbrel

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Nesting Whimbrel hunkers down in heathland vegetation – a very different habitat to the mud and mangroves of West Africa (Tómas Gunnarsson)

Over 6000 Whimbrels have been ringed in Iceland since 1921, with 95% of these caught as chicks. 35 Icelandic-ringed Whimbrels have been recovered abroad and 4 foreign-ringed Whimbrels have been found in Iceland.  In their paper, Tómas and Guðmundur show that most of the winter records of Icelandic birds are in west Africa, between Mauritania in the north and Benin and Togo in the south, but that there are two January records in Spain, suggesting that some individuals don’t travel further south than Europe.  Spain and Portugal cannot be particularly important wintering areas for the species, however, as Whimbrel counts across Spain and Portugal don’t exceed 1000 birds, which represents a tiny part of the Icelandic population, even if they are all assumed to originate from there.

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Reproduced from Gunnarsson & Gudmundsson 2016 with permission from Wader Study

Spring and autumn Whimbrel records that link Iceland with Britain and Ireland show strikingly different distributions for the two seasons.  There are eight recoveries in the British Isles on spring passage; 1 in Ireland and 7 in western counties of the UK. There is only one autumn passage record (in the Outer Hebrides), despite the fact that autumn shooting of Curlew, which did not stop until 1981, might have been expected to have produced recoveries of similar Whimbrel. This strongly suggests that, while some whimbrel stop off on northwards migration, the southerly journey is straight to Africa. We know that this is possible, because a satellite-tagged Whimbrel was tracked making a direct flight from Iceland to Guinea-Bissau in late summer 2007.

Counts and recoveries of British birds

Some of the big WeBS counts for Whimbrel are made in the late summer, with over 1500 birds reported on the Wash (August), nearly 300 along the North Norfolk coast (August) and nearly 200 in July in each of Chichester Harbour (Hampshire) and Morecambe Bay.  Largest counts in spring are mainly in the west and all in April, with 331 on the Severn, 339 on the Ribble and 654 in the Fylde area but one east coast site (Breydon Water in Norfolk) has had a spring count of 137. Although April & May flocks might seem large, they should be viewed in context – at least 500,000 Whimbrel travel back to Iceland each year.

The only British-ringed Whimbrels to have been found in Iceland have been two satellite-tagged birds, one of which is mentioned above, but metal-ringed birds have returned to breeding grounds in Finland, Russia and Sweden. Given that this new paper suggests no links between eastern Britain and Iceland in the autumn, it is likely that the large number of birds that spend the moult period on east coast estuaries such as the Wash are mainly of continental origin. The same is probably true for late-summer gatherings, such as the ones in Chichester Harbourand Morecambe Bay.

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Tómas Gunnarsson

In order to understand more about spring flocks of Whimbrel in the UK, ringing and satellite tagging has been taking place in the Lower Derwent Valley (East Yorkshire). Birds tagged here have flown to both Iceland and Sweden which indicates that Icelandic and continental birds gather together in April and May flocks. Despite this mix of subspecies in Yorkshire, the lack of ringing recoveries of Icelandic birds in the east of the UK suggests that continental birds make up the majority of spring flocks in the east.

To summarise: if you hear a Whimbrel calling overhead in the autumn it is probably of continental origin, especially in the east. On spring passage, a seven-note call in the west may well have an Icelandic twang but in the east it could sound that little bit more Scandinavian. If only we could tell them apart.

What next?

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Tómas Gunnarsson

This analysis of metal-ringed birds sets the context for new studies to understand the migration strategies of individual Icelandic birds, using geolocators and satellite tags.

The first paper using these data appeared in Nature’s Scientific Reports. In it, José Alves and his colleagues show that four birds completed the autumn migration in one flight. On return in spring, two of these birds stopped off in Ireland and two flew straight to Iceland. With further research it should soon be possible to understand how these epic sea crossings from Iceland to Africa are affected by prevailing winds and varying weather patterns, whether individuals use the same strategies in different years and if a juvenile can make it all the way to Africa on its maiden flight. Meanwhile, you can help with the studies of migration by looking out for and reporting colour-ringed Whimbrel. Most of the ones seen in Britain & Ireland will have been marked by researchers in Iceland and they will be delighted to hear news of their birds at icelandwader@gmail.com.


 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