Winter conditions for Whimbrel

Up until relatively recently, it was hard to study the same population of migratory waders in both its breeding area and its wintering grounds. Ringed birds established links between different countries but to follow a group of individuals through a complete annual cycle was nearly impossible. Geolocators, and more recently satellite tracking, are starting to enable scientists to piece together whole stories.

Camilo Carneiro and colleagues from the University of Aveiro in Portugal (Dep. Biology & CESAM) and the University of Iceland (South Iceland Research Centre) have been tracking Whimbrel travelling between Iceland and Africa for nearly ten years, using geolocators. In the latest paper to come out of this research they investigated carry-over effects; do conditions experienced in wintering locations affect breeding success?

How might carry-over effects work?

The conditions experienced during one stage of a migrant’s annual cycle may affect their performance in subsequent stages. Perhaps the resources available at a wintering site might affect the timing of spring departure and whether an individual has to stop off to refuel? In turn, such individual differences may be apparent in individuals’ arrival dates in the breeding area, and the condition they are in might affect laying date, clutch size, egg weight, etc?

Icelandic Whimbrel spend the wintering season anywhere between south-west Europe and the tropical coastal areas of West African countries such as Benin and Togo. Despite this huge non-breeding range, individuals are highly philopatric, travelling between the same breeding area and the same restricted wintering site on an annual basis, perhaps for twenty or more years. A Whimbrel flying to the Bijagós Archipelago of Guinea-Bissau covers nearly 6000 km, in the autumn, whereas a bird that only travels to the Tejo (Tagus) Estuary of Portugal flies not much more than half as far (see map). The ‘winter’ conditions they experience are completely different; short temperate days in Portugal or tropical heat in the mangroves in Guinea Bissau.

Camilo and colleagues were able to study Whimbrel in different wintering locations, in order to understand the conditions that are experienced by breeding birds from these areas. They measured annual return rates for birds that had flown different distances and experienced different conditions in the non-breeding season. Do Tejo birds, spending the non-breeding season in the coldest part of the wintering range, have a lower apparent chance of survival? Do those that make it through a Portuguese winter return to Iceland earlier and thereby increase their chance of breeding successfully?

Life on the wintering grounds

Camilo Carneiro has studied wintering Whimbrel in three sites – the Tejo Estuary (Portugal), the Banc d’Arguin (Mauritania) and the Bijagós Archipelago (Guinea-Bissau). Birds in the three sites experience very different conditions between the start of September and the end of March, as discussed in the paper and illustrated in the table below.

Hundreds of observations of individual Whimbrel and flocks provided information on feeding rates, diet and foraging time. Comparable food items were collected from the mud/sand substrates and the energetic values were calculated in the laboratory. Together, these data enabled a calculation of energetic intake. The Net Energetic Intake Rate varied markedly. The figure for the Bijagós is 3.9 times that of the Tejo and 1.4 times that of the Banc d’Arguin.

Crabs provide a large part of a Whimbrel’s winter diet

Birds have a basic running cost – the Basal Metabolic Rate – which is related to the size of the individual and ambient conditions it experiences. Those wintering in areas where they experience periods of colder and windier weather lose more heat and hence need more energy. The BMR was calculated as 2.17, 2.29 and 2.51 Watts for individuals wintering in the Bijagós, Banc d’Arguin and Tejo, respectively, showing that there are higher ‘running costs’ in northern sites. Whimbrels in the Bijagós never incurred energetic costs above BMR, whereas those in the Banc d’Arguin and Tejo had additional energetic costs on 20.6% and 9.7% of the winter days, respectively.

The daily energetic balance differed hugely. Whimbrels in the Bijagós experiencing an average energetic surplus of about 700 kJ/day, followed by 420 kJ/day in Banc d’Arguin and just 11 kJ/day in the Tejo. It should be noted that these figures are based only on day-time feeding.

A colour-ringed bird hiding in a Bijagós flock

Returning to Iceland

The research team has shown that Whimbrel can either fly directly to Iceland or stop off and refuel. It is thought that between 80% and 90% of journeys include a stop-over, typically in Ireland or western Britain. Direct flight takes four or five days. (see summary of previous papers and blogs below).

Whimbrels arrive back in Iceland between the end of April and late May, quickly taking up territories unless there is snow cover. Regular visits to the main study area in the Southern Lowlands helped to ascertain which colour-ringed birds had returned when. Nests are found, and eggs are measured and ‘floated’, to estimate the laying date.

During incubation, attempts were made to catch marked individuals that were carrying leg-mounted geolocators. Adults trapped on the nest are measured, unringed birds are marked and three to five feathers are removed from the breast. These feathers will have been grown in the bird’s wintering area and carry an isotopic signature from that region.

Using stable isotope analyses of the breast feathers, ground-truthed by birds tracked using geolocators, Camilo managed to assign the winter location to 180 Whimbrels. 159 had flown from the tropical region (which includes Bijagós), while 20 had spent the winter in the arid region (which includes Banc d’Arguin) and one in the temperate region (Tejo). When linking the wintering region to breeding phenology and investment, the research team found that:  

  • There were no differences in the size of the birds returning from the tropical and arid regions.
  • There was no difference between the probabilities of a bird successfully returning from the tropical and arid regions.
  • The timing of nesting and the volume of the eggs that were laid by females was not different for birds from the tropical and arid regions.

Where to spend winter?

Only one marked bird definitely wintered in temperate southwest Europe, which is not surprising given that there are not large flocks of Whimbrel in the estuaries of this area. This bird was excluded from the analyses but we know that it will have travelled much less far than birds wintering in Africa and experienced winter conditions in which it could barely meet its daily energy requirements.

Individuals wintering in the arid region, including birds in the Banc d’Arguin, travelled a lot further than birds wintering in southwest Europe. These birds had an expected surplus of 420 kJ per day on an average day but strong winds meant that there were 20% of winter days in which conditions were sub-optimal.

Trying to find Whimbrel in a sandstorm in Banc d’Arguin

Individuals wintering in the Tropical group, including birds in the Bijagós, travelled 900 km further than the Arid group but found more predictable weather conditions, achieving an estimated spare energy capacity of 700 kJ per day, without days with energetic costs above BMR. The authors point out that this energy surplus will likely be needed during long periods of moult and to fuel spring migration.

The authors conclude that any costs associated with having to fly further to reach the tropical region are compensated for by benign conditions. This does not mean that an individual bird makes a choice between Tejo, Banc d’Arguin and Bijagós. Happenstance may determine where a juvenile ends up in its first winter and philopatry means that, if alive, it continues to spend subsequent winters in the same area. Presumably the risks incurred by flying further (to Bijagós) balance out the risks incurred by wintering in a less predictable environment.

Life in and amongst the mangroves of the Bijagós

Very few Whimbrel spend the winter on the Tejo, in Portugal, and calculations in the paper suggest that there is a high risk of not being able to find enough food. This would probably translate into high mortality and explain low numbers.

Carry-over Effects

Although no carry-over effects were found, the authors discuss ways in which they may show up in other traits. There is an interesting discussion as to how carry-over effects might link experiences in the wintering grounds to breeding output in the next breeding season. Amongst other things, the authors suggest that differences among individuals using different wintering sites may only become evident if assessed over several years. We know that conditions are less benign in Banc d’Arguin, for instance. Perhaps there are years when conditions are bad enough for long enough to influence survival or body condition in spring. In such a year, there could be impacts on the ability to migrate, an increased likelihood of dying during migration or delayed breeding. It is possible that longer-term studies will pick up differences in return rates and/or breeding success for birds wintering in different areas? We shall see.

Paper

Linking range-wide energetic trade-offs to breeding performance in a long-distance migrant Camilo Carneiro, Tómas G. Gunnarsson, Verónica Méndez, Amadeu M.V.M. Soares & José A. Alves

Previous research on Icelandic Whimbrel

This Whimbrel, photographed in Bijagós is wearing colour-rings that were fitted in Iceland

Whimbrels on the move summarised the movements of Icelandic birds, based on reports of ringed and colour-ringed individuals. In the paper upon which the blog was based (Gunnarsson & Guðmundsson) there was a strong suggestion that birds only stop off in Britain & Ireland on the way north. Geolocator-based research by Alves et al showed that at least some birds were flying straight from Iceland to West Africa and that these sea-crossings could be very rapid.

Migrations to and from Africa were investigated further in a paper by Camilo Carneiro et al that was summarised in Iceland to Africa, non-stop. More recently, papers by the same team have shown that the most consistent point of the annual migration story is departure from Africa and discussed the links between weather and phenology. These two papers have appeared as the WaderTales blogs – Whimbrel: time to leave and A Rhapsody of Whimbrel.

Further reading

The following WaderTales blogs all consider how migratory behaviour might affect breeding season success, although without the direct measurements for individuals that have been carried out in the Whimbrel study.

Overtaking on migration shows that potential costs of migrating further can be overcome by undertaking early spring migration to staging sites that are closer to breeding areas.

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

Gap years for sandpipers is based upon a Peruvian Semipalmated Sandpiper paper that investigates the survival advantage of not migrating north to breed in a particular year.


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

A Rhapsody of Whimbrel

Around the globe, the seven-note whistle of the Whimbrel is a spring theme tune for shorebird migration. Where are flocks going to, as they gain height and head north in March, April and May, and why have birds chosen that particular moment to depart?

In a paper in Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution, Camilo Carneiro, Tómas Gunnarsson and José Alves analyse individual migration tracks of birds flying from West Africa to Iceland, including journeys made in successive springs by birds that have been part of the same study for several years. Can these birds help to explain how Whimbrel use time and weather cues in their travel ‘planning’ and might their plans change during the course of their lives?

Look up to the skies and see

Almost all of the Whimbrel that nest in Iceland migrate to West Africa after the breeding season, with just a tiny number wintering in Europe.

Life has just begun

The Whimbrel’s story starts in Southern Iceland. It would be great to tag chicks when they hatch, in order to learn what happens to juveniles in their first autumn, as they head south without parental guidance. For the moment, however, Camilo Carneiro, José Alves and Tómas Gunnarsson are focusing on parent birds which they have been catching on their nests since 2012.

The research summarised in the paper at the heart of this blog uses data from 66 retrieved geolocators that have been carried by a total of 39 individuals.  Light data, temperature readings, conductivity and the timing of contacts with water all help to determine the start and end points of individual flights.

Any way the wind blows?

As the authors write in the summary of the paper, “Weather conditions are important during migration, particularly wind and temperature, and can play a crucial role in the timing of events during the annual cycle of migratory birds.” Camilo and his colleagues have investigated how wind conditions, temperature and spring departure date may drive individuals to pursue either a ‘stop-over’ or ‘direct flight’ strategy in the spring. They suggest that one or two of the following scenarios might be envisaged:

Competition on the breeding grounds can be quite vigorous
  • Whimbrels may make migratory decisions prior to departure, given local weather conditions. If migratory behaviour is defined prior to departure then that would suggest that departure time from West Africa may not be associated with the wind conditions that can assist individuals on the first stage of their journeys.
  • Whimbrels may adjust migratory behaviour during flight, depending on conditions experienced en route. As birds fly north, from 37°N (level with the Mediterranean) to 50°N (SW tip of England), they can make decisions to stop off, rather than continue straight to Iceland. Potentially, they could assess the amount of support they have been receiving from favourable winds and assess the positive effect on fuel reserves. Temperature could also act a cue to weather conditions in Iceland.

Little high, little low

Wader biologists and birdwatchers will have seen flocks of waders preparing for departure from breeding, stop-over and wintering locations.  Birds become restless and groups of birds start to circle and rise into the sky.  The first, departing flock may be joined by others, taking off in small groups to catch up with birds that seem to have a plan. At the same time, birds can also be seen dropping out of the flock to wait for another day.

Once formed, a migratory flock will be made up of individuals that may be heading for points that are hundreds or (for some species) even thousands of kilometres apart but will fly together for this next leg of the journey.

Tómas Gunnarsson has seen Whimbrel circling and gaining height at departure from the south coast of Iceland in autumn, suggesting that they may assess wind conditions at different altitudes before making a final decision and setting their course south. It seems plausible that the same sort of thing might happen during spring migration from West Africa. At some stage, with a large number of tracked birds, perhaps it will be possible to study if waders sample wind speed and direction prior to departure and whether decisions made at this point affect the amount of support they receive from wind conditions when on migration. There’s a great paper about how wind affects the migration of much larger Honey Buzzards by Wouter Vansteelant.

Once in the air, birds in a migrating flock can be impeded by headwinds, assisted by tailwinds and pushed laterally by crosswinds. As has been shown when tracking trans-Pacific journeys of Bar-tailed Godwits, storms and pressure systems can provide a sling-shot effect to accelerate progress, cause birds to temporarily abort their journeys or even back-track a thousand kilometres, in order to refuel for another migration attempt.

Nothing really matters

Camilo and his colleagues compared 9 direct flights with 48 that included stops in Portugal, France, Ireland and north-west Britain. Birds that departed later tended to undertake direct flights. Interestingly, they found little evidence that conditions were linked to an individual’s migration option:

  • For individuals undertaking either direct flights or stopovers, the wind conditions at departure did not differ from winds during the previous seven days, suggesting little or no selection for wind conditions to initiate the flight.
  • Individuals on direct flights encountered similar winds as they passed through the region 37°N to 50°N (Mediterranean to SW tip of England) as those on stop-over journeys.

Too late, my time has come?

For late-departing birds that fly straight to Iceland, there is the potential to catch up with (and even overtake) birds that left earlier and subsequently stopped in countries such as Ireland. In such circumstances, one could imagine that birds still in West Africa in late spring may ‘opt’ for a direct flight. However, the wind patterns over a period of seven days prior to departure were no different to the ones at the start of a non-stop flight. There did not seem to be any weather-related reason for these birds delaying departure as long as they did.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is blog-camillo.jpg
Camilo Carneiro is also investigating the breeding success associated with different arrival times and migration patterns

For birds that do stop-off en route in Britain and Ireland, which are relatively close to the breeding sites in Iceland, there are potential benefits, as discussed in more detail in the paper:

  • Individuals might be able to assess (remotely) the weather conditions at their breeding sites if there are links between weather patterns in Iceland and those in Ireland and western Britain. If this is the case, then they can adjust the start of the final Atlantic crossing so as to arrive in Iceland when conditions are likely to be favourable.
  • Whimbrels can feed up in Britain & Ireland, potentially arriving in Iceland in better condition than birds that have flown directly from West Africa.

Carry on, carry on

The fascinating thing about being able to track individuals is that we are starting to understand the conditions that may lead to the migration patterns we see at the population level. In other WaderTales blogs, some of the key processes and patterns have already been discussed:

Given this body of knowledge, suggesting little flexibility once an individual’s phenology is fixed, one might expect that an individual Whimbrel, travelling from West Africa to Iceland, would adopt the same migration pattern in subsequent years. Tagged Whimbrels, for which there were repeat migration tracks, mostly ‘did the same’ but not always.

Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter

The key finding of Camilo Carneiro and his colleagues is that weather conditions are not the main driver of different spring migratory timings in Icelandic whimbrels. As suggested in Whimbrel: time to leave (and the paper Why are Whimbrel not advancing their arrival dates into Iceland?) departure from West Africa is the most firmly scheduled point in a Whimbrel’s annual cycle. However, three birds provide an opportunity to build a modified hypothesis.

In the course of this study of Icelandic Whimbrel, thirteen birds have provided multiple years of data and there have been three cases in which birds have switched migratory behaviour, seemingly contradicting the ‘birds always do the same thing’ theory. In each case, individuals changed from ‘direct-flight’ to ‘stop-over’ and, having changed, they then repeated the ‘stop-over’ option. The fact that all three individuals made the same change hints towards individual refinement of behaviour. Since there appears to be no clear advantage to direct migration, perhaps individuals are moving to a two-stage migration when they discover that this is a possibility?

Is this just fantasy?

This is where the paper stops but it will be fascinating if the research can continue:

  • Are changes always going to be in the same direction – from ‘direct-flight’ to ‘stop-over’?
  • Most juveniles are thought to fly directly to West Africa. By tracking young birds, caught in Iceland prior to departure, perhaps it will be possible to work out the proportion of first journeys that are direct?
  • Young birds that fly south across the Atlantic will not have learnt that there is any land between Iceland and West Africa. Do they retrace their journeys when they fly north again, eighteen months later?
  • What proportion of these birds that start on the ‘direct-flight’ strategy later switch to ‘stop-over’?
  • If some juveniles stop off in western Europe, on their first journeys south, perhaps these birds also stop off on their first journeys north? That might mean that they never used the ‘direct-flight’ option.
  • And how do flocks work? Will it ever be possible to deploy enough trackers to see whether ‘direct-flight’ individuals learn that there’s an alternative option by travelling in flocks with birds that use the ‘stop-over’ strategy.

It’s all fascinating stuff about the Queen of waders!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is blog-take-off.jpg

Anyone can see

The paper featured in this blog is: Linking weather and phenology to stopover dynamics of a long-distance migrant by Camilo Carneiro, Tómas G. Gunnarsson & José A. Alves, published in Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution.


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

Where to nest?

pic whimbrelThere is nothing more obvious than an Oystercatcher sitting on his or her nest, but a brooding Snipe can be invisible until almost trodden upon. Which strategy works better: nesting in plain view but laying cryptically camouflaged eggs or hiding yourself and your nest in a clump of grass? Which species is most likely to hatch a successful brood of chicks and in what circumstances? In a 2020 paper in IBIS, Becky Laidlaw and colleagues analysed nest site characteristics and nest locations of 469 wader nests in Iceland in order to provide some answers

The perils of ground-nesting

pic hatching whimbrel

Hatching Whimbrel eggs, with the tell-tale shell fragments that signal a nesting attempt has been successful

Almost all waders are ground-nesters, which makes them highly vulnerable to a wide range of nest predators. To reduce the risks of predation, different strategies have evolved. In some species, nests are placed out in the open, and the camouflage is provided only by mottled egg colouration that resembles the background. In other species, nests are secreted in vegetation, meaning eggs and incubating adults are concealed from predators.

In both groups of species, the risk of nests being predated might vary, depending on the surrounding habitat. For open-nesting species, for example, clutches that are laid in large patches of similar habitat may be harder for predators to locate. The same could apply to closed-nest species that hide their nests; Snipe nests may be tricky to find in extensive areas of long grass but perhaps more at risk if there are only a few suitable clumps of long grass that predators need to check out.

pic hidden Redshank

Iceland: a wader factory

tableAs discussed in previous WaderTales blogs, particularly Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation? Iceland is hugely important as a European ‘wader factory’. As farmland elsewhere has become less suitable for species such as Redshank and Snipe, the global importance of the country has increased (see table alongside for most recent figures from an AEWA report)  With this in mind, it is important to understand the factors that underpin the population dynamics of Iceland’s breeding waders.

Working in South Iceland, Becky Laidlaw and her co-authors tried to find as many nests as possible during the summers of 2015 and 2016. This area is largely a mosaic of open habitats, although there are more patches of forestry than there were twenty years ago. Most of the Southern Lowlands area is farmed, on a gradient between intensive and semi-natural, and this is reflected in the distribution of breeding waders (see Farming for waders in Iceland).

pic rope

Dragging a light rope across the vegetation to flush nesting birds

For this project, nests were located by surveys from vehicles and on foot, through observation of incubating adults, systematic searching, incidental flushing of incubating adults and rope-dragging (dragging a 25 m rope, held between two fieldworkers, lightly across vegetation) to flush incubating adults.

The analysis in the resulting paper in IBIS focuses on 469 nests of three open-nesting species (Oystercatcher, Golden Plover and Whimbrel) and three species that hide their nests in tall vegetation (Redshank, Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit). The team recorded the habitat and vegetation structure around each nest (at the nest, within a 5 m x 5 m square and in a wider 50 m x 50 m square) and worked out which nests hatched successfully and which were predated. The date and time of predation were determined, where possible, with nest-cameras providing extra information for some nests. Cameras captured nest-predation events involving Arctic foxes, Arctic Skuas, Ravens and sheep.

Interestingly, 2015 and 2016 were very different wader breeding seasons. The graphic below shows the mean temperatures for the months from April through to July (encompassing the wader breeding season at this latitude) were much cooler in 2015 than in 2016, representing average monthly difference of between 1.5°C and 2.5°C. At high latitudes these figures translate into very different rates of vegetation growth.

pic pretty graph

First, find your nest

When nests were first located, their positions were marked and referenced using GPS. Eggs were floated in water to provide an estimate of laying date and thereby predict hatching date. As the chick develops within an egg, the density of the egg falls. A newly laid egg will lie on the bottom of the flotation vessel. Over the next few days the ‘blunt end’ rises until the egg is still touching the bottom but vertical. Eggs in the late-development stage float ‘point-end-down’, with the latest eggs floating at an angle to the vertical (method described by Liebezeit et al.).

pic skua-ed goldie eggs

This Golden Plover nest was probably predated by an Arctic Skua

Nests were considered successful if one or more eggs hatched, and predated nests were defined as those that were empty in advance of the predicted hatch date or those without any eggshell fragments in the nest (a sign of successful hatching). To determine the time and date of nest failures, iButton dataloggers were placed in a randomly selected subsample of nests. These loggers recorded a temperature trace every ten minutes. A sharp and permanent decline in nest temperature below incubation temperature indicates nest predation. In both study years, motion-triggered cameras were deployed on a sample of open-nesting species to determine the predator species active on these nests.

When each nest was first located, the percentage of eggs visible from directly above the nest was estimated and the habitat surrounding each nest was assessed in the field at three spatial scales: the nest cup, the 5 m x 5 m and the 50 m x 50 m area surrounding each nest. Details are in the paper.

Which nests survive through to hatching?

Over the breeding seasons of 2015 and 2016, the outcomes of 469 wader nests were assessed. 259 hatched successfully (55%), 192 were predated (41%), 13 were abandoned, 7 were trampled and 2 were mown. A nest-loss rate of 40% is fairly typical for ground-nesting waders, when compared to studies in different countries and habitats.

pic fox attack

Daily nest predation rates did not vary significantly in relation to the habitat heterogeneity or the extent to which the dominant habitat covered the area surrounding the nest, at either 5 m x 5 m or 50 m x 50 m scales. Most clutches were laid in habitats that were the same or similar to the surrounding areas. Where there were differences, the dissimilarity between the habitat at the nest cup and in the surrounding area did not influence daily nest predation rates for open- or closed-nest species. Although nest predation is high, at about 40%, incidence of predation events appears to be unpredictable – or even random.

pic snipe nest

In cold spring conditions, Icelandic Snipe are not able to hide their nests

Daily nest predation rates were significantly higher for closed nests (Redshank, Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit nests) in which a greater percentage of the clutch was visible. This suggests that the onset and rate of vegetation growth could potentially constrain the availability of suitable nesting locations for these species, and hence influence nest success, particularly among early season nests. This has been studied in Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits by José Alves and colleagues and is described in From local warming to range expansion.

For closed-nest species, the visibility of nests was significantly greater during the early part of the 2015 breeding season, when compared to 2016, due to slower grass growth in cooler conditions.  The higher predation rate of more visible nests of closed-nesting species was apparent even though nests were predated up to three weeks after egg visibility was measured. These findings suggest that early nesting attempts by concealed-nest species are unlikely to be successful in years when vegetation growth is delayed or slow. There can be major benefits of hatching early, with recruitment into breeding populations typically being lower for later-hatched chicks, so vegetation growth rates are likely to be really important to species that conceal their nests (Redshank, Snipe & Black-tailed Godwit in this study). However, given the ongoing trend for warmer springs at subarctic latitudes, the conditions in which early nests can only be poorly concealed are likely to be reducing in frequency.

In summary

pic goldie nest in habitat

Golden Plover nest set within a homogeneous habitat matrix

Perhaps surprisingly, nest predation rates were similar for open-nest and concealed-nest species and did not vary with vegetation structure in the surrounding landscape. However, nest-concealing species were about 10% more likely to have nests predated when the nests were poorly concealed, and the frequency of poorly concealed nests was higher at the start of the breeding season in colder conditions.

The paper at the heart of this blog is:

Vegetation structure influences predation rates of early nests in subarctic breeding waders. Rebecca A. Laidlaw, Tómas G. Gunnarsson, Verónica Méndez, Camilo Carneiro, Böðvar Þórisson, Adam Wentworth, Jennifer A. Gill and José A. Alves. IBIS. doi:10.1111/ibi.12827

pic sheep


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

 

 

Nine red-listed UK waders

blog rpTHIS BLOG HAS BEEN UPDATED

Birds of Conservation Concern 5 (published on 1 Dec 2021) saw the promotion of Dunlin and Purple Sandpiper to the Red List.

Please click here to switch to: Eleven waders on the UK Red List

If you ask British birdwatchers to name the nine 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 is written to coincide with the publication of Red67, an amazing collaboration of artists and essayists that highlights and celebrates the 67 species on the current UK red list, nine of which are waders.

*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 Golden Oriole – 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.

blog bookIn 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 is the brainchild of Kit Jewitt, a.k.a. @YOLOBirder on Twitter. It’s a book featuring the 67 Red-listed birds, each illustrated by a different artist alongside a personal story from a diverse collection of writers. Proceeds will support 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, 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

blog l“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

blog rp graph“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

blog dot“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

blog whim“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

blog cu“… 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

blog blackw“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

blog ruff“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

blog rnp“… 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

blog wk“… 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.

In conclusion

blog bookThe 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 seeks to raise awareness of the UK’s most at-risk bird species, nine of which are 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.


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.

 

 

Fennoscandian wader factory

 

blog tem st

Nesting Temminck’s Stint – the smallest of the 22 wader species for which trends are reported

At the end of the summer, vast numbers of waders leave Norway, Sweden and Finland, heading southwest, south and south-east for the winter. In a 2019 paper by Lindström et al, we learn what is happening to these populations of Fennoscandian breeding species, as diverse as Temminck’s Stint and Curlew. The news for the period 2006 through to 2018 is basically pretty good – most populations have been stable and there are even some that have increased – but there are worrying signs for Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope and Whimbrel.

Breeding waders of Fennoscandia

blog mapAs a volunteer taking part in the Breeding Bird Survey (BTO/JNCC/RSPB) in the UK, I feel that I do my bit to monitor what is happening to local bird population – providing counts that build into national trends. The work involved in delivering indices for breeding waders across the area of Fennoscandia shown in the map is in a different league. Here, counters visit habitats as diverse as forests, wetlands, mires and tundra, within the boreal and arctic areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Some survey sites are so remote that access requires the use of helicopters.

Fennoscandia provides important breeding areas for a large set of wader species, and models suggest that these habitats may be particularly vulnerable to climate change, especially increasing summer temperatures. The 2006-18 analysis in Wader Study, the journal of the International Wader Study Group, presents population trends for 22 wader species. The trends are based on 1,505 unique routes (6–8 km long), distributed over an area that’s about four times that of the United Kingdom. 

blog surveyor

The surveys took place across the whole of Norway and Finland, and in the northern two thirds of Sweden, between 58°N and 71°N, which largely coincides with the boreal, montane and arctic regions of Fennoscandia. The systematic distribution of these routes ensures that the main habitats in these countries are sampled in proportion to the area they cover. The paper describes the methodologies used in the three countries and the way that data were combined, especially factors used to translate sightings of individuals into ‘pair-equivalents’.

Overview of results

blog mountainLooking at the results from across Norway, Sweden & Finland:

  • In terms of pure numbers, Golden Plover was the most commonly encountered wader species, followed by Wood Sandpiper, Snipe, Greenshank and Green Sandpiper.
  • The five most widespread species, seen on the highest number of routes, were Snipe, Green Sandpiper, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper.
  • Wader species richness and the total number of wader pairs were both higher with increasing latitude; the median number of wader pairs per 10 km increased from just below 3 at latitudes 58–60°N, to just above 26 at latitudes 69–71°N.
  • Using a multi-species indicator, the research team found no general change in wader numbers over the period 2006-18.
  • The trends were significantly negative for three species: Red-necked Phalarope (-7.9% per year), Broad-billed Sandpiper (-5.4% per year) and Whimbrel (-1.3% per year).
  • The trends were significantly positive for three species: Oystercatcher (+4.9% per year), Dunlin (+4.2% per year) and Wood Sandpiper (+0.8% per year).
  • There was no significant trend for another 16 species for which encounters were deemed to be frequent enough for analysis.
  • Population trends of long-distance migrants tended to be more negative than those of medium-distance migrants. This is discussed in detail in the paper.

blog wood sp habitat

Focusing on some key species

The Lindström et al paper is a tremendously rich source of information and references. Here are some species-specific highlights.

Oystercatcher. In the context of a species that is declining across NW Europe, the fact that there is a significant increase in Oystercatchers across Fennoscandia may be surprising. However, the authors note that there was a jump in numbers between 2006 and 2007 with little change since then.

blog l graphLapwing. The trends within the three Fennoscandian countries are very different. In Norway, there has been a dramatic decline (-15.2% per year during 2006–2018) and the Lapwing is now nearly extinct in many areas. The trend in Sweden is also significantly negative (-5.8% per year). In Finland, however, where the species is more widespread and numerous, there has been a strong increase (+5.9% per year) during the same period. See figure alongside.

Golden Plover. No significant change overall. There are some country-specific differences in trends, with a moderate decline in Norway being countered by a moderate increase in Sweden. 

Snipe. The overall trend of this species for each country indicates an initial decline followed by an increase. A similar pattern has been noted in the UK’s Breeding Bird Survey over the same period. 

blog whimbrel

Nesting Whimbrel

Woodcock. The trend for 2006–2018 is basically stable and similar in all three countries.

Curlew. There is no significant trend, overall, but populations in Norway and Sweden have declined at the same time that numbers in Finland have increased.

Whimbrel. Fennoscandian trend indicates a decline of 1.3 % per year. Whimbrel is doing poorly in Norway and Sweden but better in Finland. 

Wood Sandpiper. This widespread species has increased slowly (0.8% per year), a trend that is largely driven by Norwegian and Swedish populations.

blog wood sp

Wood Sandpiper was the second most commonly encountered wader

Redshank. The fact that no change was discernible, suggests that boreal and arctic populations are faring much better than the breeding populations further south in Europe. For example, see Redshank – warden of the marsh.

blog RK

Redshank – more obvious than most breeding waders encountered!

Spotted Redshank. The estimated annual decline for Spotted Redshank is 2.8% per year but the species is too thinly spread for this to provide significant evidence of a decline. This rate is very similar to the recent drop in the Wetland Bird Survey index in the UK. See Fewer Spotted Redshanks.

Broad-billed Sandpiper. This species has the second most negative trend among the 22 species analysed (-5.6% per year). The bulk of information comes from Finland where the trend is even more negative (-7.5% per year). Birds head southeast in the autumn to countries bordering the Indian Ocean – areas for which winter trend data are not available. The species is still considered to be of ‘least concern’ but perhaps this designation may need to be revisited?

Dunlin. Breeding birds in the survey area are largely of the alpina race. The overall trend is significantly positive (+4.1% per year), which is in sharp contrast to the strong declines of the schinzii subspecies that breeds around the Baltic Sea, western Finland and further south and west in Europe.

blog rnpRuff. There were major declines in the period immediately prior to this review (Lindström et al. 2015) but changes reported here are lower (-2.3% per year) and the decline is not statistically significant.

Red-necked Phalarope. The authors write, “This species has the most negative trend of all the 22 species [-7.9% per year], with most data coming from Sweden. We do not know the cause of this decline but, given that this species shares its south-eastern migration route with Broad-billed Sandpiper, whose population exhibits the second largest decline, the relevant problems might largely apply somewhere along the migration routes”.

Link to Britain & Ireland

As shown in Which wader when and why? there are strong migratory connections between Fennoscandia and the British Isles. Some waders, such as Green, Common and Wood Sandpipers, pass through on their way south in the autumn, whilst many more fly here for the winter, to take advantage of the warmer maritime climate.

Three wader species with particularly strong links between Fennoscandia and Britain & Ireland are still shot and eaten in these islands. Each autumn, large numbers of Woodcock, Golden Plover and Snipe cross the North Sea. It is difficult to ascertain figures for the number that are shot but there is agreement that the vast majority are winter visitors, as opposed to native birds. The results presented in the paper suggest that there have been no discernible changes in the Fennoscandian populations of these three game species in the period 2006-18. Two earlier WaderTales blogs focus on Woodcock and Snipe in Britain & Ireland:

blog goldie

There has been no significant change in Golden Plover numbers across Fennoscandia

Two WaderTales blogs about wintering waders in Great Britain and the island of Ireland were published in 2019, based on reviews in British Birds and Irish Birds. These were Do population estimates matter? and Ireland’s wintering waders. The six big losers, in terms of wintering numbers in these islands, were Knot, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Knot arrive from Greenland and Canada, with Grey Plover flying from Russia, but it is interesting to think about this Fennoscandian breeding analysis in the context of winter losses of the other four species.

  • Wintering numbers of Oystercatchers have dropped recently in Britain and in Ireland. The population is made up of migrants from Iceland (more about this here), very large numbers from Norway, birds that stay within the British Isles and smaller numbers from other European and Scandinavian countries. Given there is no discernible decline in Fennoscandia, it seems likely that much of the decline can be attributed to a major fall in Scottish breeding numbers (more about this here).
  • Most Redshank wintering in Britain & Ireland are of local or Icelandic origin. Fennoscandian numbers seem to be stable; if there were any changes, these would probably not be apparent in wintering numbers within the British Isles.
  • The Eurasian Curlew has been classified as ‘near-threatened’ and the species is known to be declining in many areas (see this blog about serious problems in Ireland). Ringing shows a particularly strong link between Finland, where breeding numbers seem to be increasing, and Britain & Ireland. The decline in British and Irish winter numbers is probably being driven by lower breeding numbers within the British Isles and in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Poland.
  • There is a theory that new generations of alpina Dunlin may be more likely to winter within Europe’s mainland estuaries, instead of continuing their westward migration across the North Sea. This might explain the apparent anomaly between the 4.1% per annum rise in Fennoscandian numbers and recent winter declines of 3% in Britain and over 20% in Ireland.

Going forwards

blog helicopter

Some of the survey areas were in particularly remote areas

Many of the study squares that were covered during these surveys are a long way from the main centres of human population in Norway, Sweden and Finland. The governments of the three countries are to be congratulated for supporting this important monitoring, which relied on the commitment of hundreds of volunteers. It is to be hoped that these surveys will continue and that further species-focused work will be able to explain some of the differences across Fennoscandia, particularly between eastern and western areas. The rapid declines in numbers of two species that migrate southeast each autumn (Broad-billed Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope) highlights the need for better information about what is happening on the flyway linking Fennoscandia with the Arabian Sea and coastal countries of the Indian Ocean.

Paper

Population trends of waders on their boreal and arctic breeding grounds in northern Europe: Åke Lindström, Martin Green, Magne Husby, John Atle Kålås, Aleksi Lehikoinen & Martin Stjernman. Wader Study 26(3)

Click on the title of paper to access it on the International Wader Study Group website. Paper is only available to members of IWSG. If you have read the whole of this blog you’ll probably want to join!

blog barwit

Nesting Bar-tailed Godwit in smart summer plumage


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.

 

 

Whimbrel: time to leave

blog WW-WLGeolocators* have provided fantastic information about the movements of migratory birds – making links between countries, revealing previously unknown stop-over sites and indicating just how quickly birds traverse our planet. A small number of Icelandic Whimbrel have carried geolocators for up to six annual cycles, providing Camilo Carneiro with an opportunity to investigate the annual consistency of egg-laying, autumn departure, arrival in West Africa, departure in the spring, stopover in Western Europe and arrival back in Iceland.

* Geolocators are tiny devices that record the daily positions of birds, by measuring the timing of dawn and dusk. An individual typically carries a geolocator for a year and then needs to be re-caught for the data to be downloaded.

Planning a trip

When booking a train journey on-line, the first question I am asked is whether I want to stipulate departure time or arrival time.  In early spring, with breeding on their minds, you might think that Whimbrel will focus on the time they need to be in Iceland, rather than the time they leave West Africa? If that’s the case then it might be best to take early spring opportunities if they arise, to catch express winds that will make the journey as rapid as possible and to get to Iceland early. Is that the case?

blog mangroves and beach

The Whimbrel is one of several wader species that breed in Iceland. Each autumn, Redshank, Snipe, Golden Plover, Oystercatcher and Black-tailed Godwit fly south to Europe, especially Ireland and the United Kingdom, but many Ringed Plover, most Dunlin and most Whimbrel travel as far as Africa. The main wintering sites for Whimbrel are in West Africa, south of the Sahara, in countries such as Guinea-Bissau. Here they can be seen feeding on crabs on the mangrove-fringed muddy shoreline (above). It’s a very different environment to the inland floodplains of Iceland (below).

blog river plain

In a paper by Tómas Gunnarsson & Gunnar Tómasson in 2011, we learnt that Whimbrel arrival times in Iceland did not change much between 1988 and 2009 (just 0.16 days earlier per year), while timing of arrival was advancing much more in species that travel less far to winter grounds, as you can see in this diagram.

wader arrival Tand G

Changes in first spring arrival dates of six species of waders in southern Iceland from 1988 to 2009 (reproduced from Gunnarsson & Tómasson 2011).

The arrival date for Black-tailed Godwit was advancing fastest (0.81 days per year). In more recent research, it has been shown that the rapidly advancing trend for Black-tailed Godwits is being driven by new recruits to the population – individual adults are not changing their schedules. Why is spring migration getting earlier? summarises a paper by Gill et al in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Whimbrel trend has been recalculated, with a longer run of years, and the new change of 0.03 days earlier per year is not significantly different from zero. Given that Whimbrel are breeding alongside other species that are arriving in Iceland much earlier than thirty years ago, what are the constraints to the timing of their migrations?

Migration timings for Whimbrel

Camilo Carneiro, José Alves and Tómas Gunnarsson from the Universities of Aveiro (Portugal) and Iceland have been studying a population of Whimbrel in Southern Iceland. Birds are caught on the nest in one year and then re-caught in the subsequent year – or two years later if a bird evades capture in the intervening summer. The following results summarise weeks and weeks of patient fieldwork and brush over the hours of frustration caused by wary birds that have been caught before!

blog catching

Over the course of the whole study, 86 Whimbrel were fitted with geolocators, 62 of which were retrieved. Repeatability could be calculated for 16 birds, with between 2 and 7 years of data collected from each individual. The results are summarised in these few bullet points. Please see the paper for confidence intervals and more details about differences between the sexes.

  • Blog tagIndividual timings of autumn departure from Iceland varied between years. The repeatability index is 0.28, with a suggestion of a gender difference (females 0.40, males 0.02). Males tend to look after chicks for a longer period than females so their departure dates may be more strongly influenced by the success of each year’s breeding attempt.
  • Autumn arrival time in West Africa was closely linked to departure time because, on all but one occasion, southward migration was achieved through a single direct flight. See Iceland to Africa non-stop.
  • Spring departure time from West Africa was highly consistent, with a repeatability index of 0.76 and no discernible difference in repeatability between males and females.
  • blog long green grassSpring arrivals in Iceland. Some Whimbrel that managed to complete spring migration in a single flight in some years stopped off in other years. These breaks, perhaps to wait for more helpful wind conditions and/or to refuel, resulted in variability in annual arrival dates for individuals. The repeatability for the two sexes combined was 0.23.
  • Laying date was the least consistent stage of the annual cycle, with a repeatability index of 0.11 and no significant difference between males and females.

In an individual Whimbrel’s annual cycle, there appears to be one fixed point – departure from wintering ground in West Africa. With no discernible seasonality of resource availability on the wintering grounds and little change in day length in these areas, departure dates are probably being determined by an ‘internal clock’. Two major unknowns will then determine what happens in the next twelve months. Will wind and weather conditions be conducive to a one-leg flight to Iceland and how successful will a bird be in any particular breeding season? Unforeseen events, such as having to wait for a delayed partner, losing a first clutch, and the time needed to guard chicks will all affect the timing of autumn migration.

Understanding individuals

blog tag through grassThe study of wader migration has advanced hugely.

  • Fifty years ago, the main measure of migration phenology was the appearance of the first individuals of a species.
  • Colour-ring sightings are ideal for providing repeat arrival dates over the lifetimes of individuals, as exemplified by the Gill et al paper on Black-tailed Godwits, which suggest that individual timing is highly repeatable.
  • Geolocators have provided more detailed information about the precise arrival and departure timings of individuals, which is so important if we wish to conserve threatened, migratory species that visit areas in which data collection was previously virtually impossible.
  • Now, by tracking individual birds for several years, it is possible to look at the variability in annual patterns, and what can cause this variability.

Over the next decade or so, as devices get smaller and remote downloads become easier (eg using GSM tags), it should become possible to understand the conditions that lead to fast, slow and aborted migratory journeys in a whole range of species. Exciting times!

Paper

Why are Whimbrels not advancing their arrival dates into Iceland? Exploring seasonal and sex-specific variation in consistency of individual timing during the annual cycle. Camilo Carneiro, Tómas G Gunnarsson & José A Alves. Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution.

There is more about the information that is obtained from geolocators, how they work and the affects that they have on the individual birds that wear them in these two blogs:

blog roost flock


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

 

 

 

January to June 2019

blog CU postOne or two WaderTales blogs are published each month. The series is UK-based with a global reach. Suggestions of newly-published research on waders that might be of interest to birdwatchers who appreciate waders/shorebirds are welcomed. I am particularly keen to give feedback to colour-ring readers; they provide a huge amount of information that lies at the heart of these stories.

Click on a link in bold to read an individual blog.

You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new blog 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.

Designing wader landscapes

blog whimbrelMuch has been written about the negative impacts of agriculture on breeding birds – but farming can be good for some species. In Iceland, where high-input agriculture is relatively recent, breeding waders are commonly found in nutrient-rich environments that are associated with increased production. How can high breeding densities of waders be maintained, as farming continues to expand and intensification increases?

In her paper in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment Lilja Jóhannesdóttir investigates the distribution of breeding waders across landscapes with varying amounts of highly-cultivated fields and semi-natural areas. She discovers that, in some circumstances and at an appropriate level, adding cultivated land within a broader mosaic of habitats may benefit breeding waders. Is this a model system that provides clues as to how to design landscapes that can support sustainable breeding wader populations in other parts of the world?

The waders of Iceland

table

Breeding populations of waders in Iceland (AEWA report)

Iceland is a hot-spot for breeding waders, holding half or more of Europe’s Dunlin, Golden Plover and Whimbrel, in a country that is a bit smaller then England. The paper at the heart of this blog is written by Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, who worked with colleagues from the University of Iceland, the Agricultural University of Iceland, the University of East Anglia (UK) and the University of Aveiro (Portugal). They investigated how different ways of increasing agricultural productivity might impact upon these species, and others such as Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Snipe.

Much of Iceland’s upland interior is not suitable as farmland but there is still plenty of room for agricultural expansion. Only 7% of the area between sea level and an elevation of 200 m is currently under cultivation but it is estimated that it would be possible to increase this to 63% – an eight-fold extensification. Icelandic lowlands currently comprise a fine-scale mosaic of open semi-natural habitats and cultivated fields (primarily for silage production to feed animals), making most of the landscape much more heterogeneous than in countries with a longer history of commercial farming.

blog hay and semi-naturalTwo previous WaderTales blogs have already shown that:

Given that farm production is predicted to increase, that farmers like breeding waders and that some intensively-managed fields can be attractive to waders, is it possible to design farmed landscapes that will work for birds and farmers?

Increasing inputs and reducing heterogeneity

blog nice wetlandGlobally, the expansion and intensification of agriculture has altered landscapes and the associated homogenisation has greatly influenced bird abundance and reduced biodiversity. Populations of numerous species, particularly specialist species, have declined, as agriculture has expanded, while generalist species have often thrived in agricultural habitats.

There is no shortage of examples in which highly intensively managed farmland is shown to be bad for breeding waders. In the monoculture hay-meadows of the Netherlands, Black-tailed Godwit productivity is really low, for instance. These fields have been drained, fertilised and re-sown, in order to create easily-managed carpets of single-species grass that can be cut several times a year. There is more about this in this paper by Roos Kentie.

blog hay fieldAlthough there are some areas of Iceland in which farming is quite intensive, there are many others where farmers have a lighter touch. For instance, nutrient-poor dwarf birch marshes may occasionally be grazed by sheep in the summer but these areas have never received applications of artificial fertiliser. At this end of the intensification continuum, increasing agricultural operations may have benefits for breeding waders. When a patch of rough grazing is ploughed and turned into a hay meadow, the addition of fertilisers can potentially increase soil fertility and create an attractive place for waders to feed. A hay meadow within a local area that is dominated by dwarf birch marsh could effectively increase the heterogeneity (& nutrient-richness via spill-over) of the local area, albeit in an artificial way. In the UK, Golden Plovers breeding on moorland are known to travel up to 7 km to feed on fertilised hayfields with high earthworm densities. This paper by James Pearce-Higgins & Derek Yalden in IBIS provides a nice example of how low intensity agriculture can provide resources for waders in the wider landscape.

Researching waders and landscapes

blog dbmLilja’s work in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland focused upon understanding how agriculture influences breeding wader densities and how these relationships might influence future change. At its heart were counts of adult waders encountered along 200 transects (totalling over 100 kilometres) within semi-natural habitats, visited at several stages during the breeding seasons of 2011 and 2012.

As well as counting birds, Lilja categorised habitats within 500, 1000, 1500 and 2500 metres of the transects, which she called buffer area in the paper. Interestingly, and usefully for later analyses, the distribution of different habitat types is pretty uniform across these scales, in this part of Iceland, with little substantial difference according to elevation. In the diagram below, the 200 transects (a) have been split between those below 50 m above sea level (b) and those higher than 50 m (c).

buffers

Landscape-scale effects

To fulfill the various demands of parents and their offspring, waders need diverse resources on or near their territory. An adult can feed a kilometre or more away from its nest, between incubation bouts, and chicks are mobile from an early age. Tagging has shown that young Black-tailed Godwits can move up to 3 km in the first five days of life, just to give one example. In this open landscape, breeding success is likely to be a function of habitat availability at a broad scale. This is explored in a WaderTales blog about nesting Whimbrel.

blog redshankUsing data collected from these 200 lowland transects, Lilja was able to establish relationships between breeding wader densities and the amount of cultivated land and wetland in the surrounding landscape. These two habitat types were considered because future agricultural expansion is likely to take place on drained wetlands that have high conservation value. In her analyses she assessed the extent to which the amount of cultivated land in the surrounding landscape affects wader densities on semi-natural land, and then considered the potential effects of future agricultural expansion on wader populations. There was substantial variation in the density of all of the six most common wader species recorded on the transects, ranging from 0 to 284 birds/km2.

Lilja found that wader densities in semi-natural habitats were consistently greater when the surrounding landscapes had more wetland, at scales ranging from 500 m to 2500 m, indicating the importance of wetland availability in the local neighbourhood. However, the effects of cultivated land in the surrounding landscape varied with fertility and landscape structure, which was largely defined by altitude.

  • In fertile, low-lying coastal areas (from sea-level to 100 m altitude), wader numbers declined with increasing amounts of cultivated land (and the lowest densities occurred in areas dominated by cultivation). This suggests that further conversion of semi-natural habitats into farmland is likely to severely impact waders in low-lying areas.
  • In less fertile habitats at higher altitudes (between 100 m and 200 m), the lowest densities occurred in areas without cultivated land. This suggests that additional resources provided by cultivated land may have a more positive affect in the less-fertile, higher altitude areas.

blog blackwitThe relationships between the areas of wetland and agriculture in the surrounding landscape and the density of waders vary between species, as you can read in some detail in the paper. A few highlights are:

  • With increasing area of cultivated land, densities of Golden Plover, Dunlin and Whimbrel declined significantly at lower altitudes but increased at higher altitudes. These are the three species that would appear to respond most positively to the addition of pockets of cultivated land within a semi-natural matrix of less fertile land, that tends to be found at higher elevations.
  • Higher amounts of wetland were associated with increased densities of Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit, but lower densities of Redshank. Golden Plover numbers were unaffected by amount of wetland in the surrounding landscape.
  • Whimbrel densities increased with wetland area, at higher altitudes. Wet patches have been shown to be very important to Whimbrel chicks, as you can read in this WaderTales blog about research in Shetland.
  • At lower altitudes, Snipe densities increased with the amount of wetland area in the local vicinity. This relationship was less pronounced at higher altitudes, which tend to be less effectively drained and hence generally wetter.

dunlin graphic

What now?

Changes in Icelandic landscapes are to be expected in the coming years, as most farmers intend to increase their areas of cultivated land. This expansion will inevitably have impacts upon the internationally important breeding wader populations of Iceland but the level of such impact will depend on where the expansion will occur. This paper shows that increases in the area of cultivated land at lower altitudes in Southern Iceland are more likely to result in declines in wader density than in less fertile areas, which are usually found at slightly higher altitudes (still under 200 m above sea level). An important next step will be to identify the landscape structures and scales of management that can continue to support high densities of breeding waders.

blog coastal wetlandGiven the international importance of Iceland as a home for breeding waders it would be nice to think that this paper can be used to develop national land management policies that can prevent the unintended loss of species such as Golden Plover and Snipe, which landowners value and wish to preserve. At the farm and community level, the paper highlights the key importance of maintaining the complex and heterogeneous landscapes of lowland Iceland, retaining as many as possible of the remaining wetland patches and pockets of semi-natural land within even the most intensive of farming areas.

The paper may well be of interest to conservationists who are struggling to reverse wader declines in other parts of the world. In Southern Iceland, where 7% of the land is being farmed relatively intensively within a fine scale mosaic of both wet and dry semi-natural habitats, it is possible to support hundreds of waders per square km across the wider countryside. Can this situation be replicated across large tracts of land in other countries?

Take home message and paper

blog heterogeneousThis paper provides a useful reminder that the links between land use changes and biodiversity implications can be highly context-dependent. Further agricultural conversion of wetlands and rough grazing areas in the fertile low-lying areas of Iceland is likely to be detrimental for breeding waders, but such effects may be less apparent in less fertile, higher altitude areas. Here, the conversion of some land from rough-grazing to hay meadows may provide feeding opportunities off-territory for Dunlin, Golden Plover and Whimbrel. The scale at which the addition of cultivated areas is beneficial to breeding waders has yet to be determined.

This paper is published as:

Interacting effects of agriculture and landscape on breeding wader populations. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, Sigmundur H. Brink, Ólafur Arnalds, Verónica Méndez and Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2018.11.024

blog end banner


GFA in Iceland

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

Iceland to Africa, non-stop

blog tagRinging had already suggested that Whimbrel might fly non-stop from Iceland to western Africa (see “Whimbrels on the move”). By using geolocators, Camilo Carneiro and his colleagues from the Universities of Iceland and Aveiro (Portugal) have now shown that this is the norm – and reveal just how quickly they get there.  In the paper reporting on this work, they contrast this rapid autumn movement with what happens on the return journey in spring.

Migratory journeys

European Whimbrel are made up of two distinct populations which mix in the wintering grounds. Three-quarters of the estimated total of 400,000 pairs breed in Iceland, with the rest breeding from Scandinavia through to Russia. In the autumn, most of the Icelandic birds fly straight to Africa. In the late summer and early autumn, the vast majority of birds seen in the UK and other European countries on the East-Atlantic Flyway are of continental (rather than Icelandic) origin. Most will continue their migrations to Africa.

Camilo Carneiro’s paper focuses on the Icelandic population. Although the breeding locations of the birds in the study all fell within a circle of radius 5 km, the wintering area represents about 1500 km of the coastal strip of western Africa and its off-shore islands. This includes Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, The Gambia, Mauritania and Morocco, with the highest density of the locations in Guinea-Conakry and Guinea-Bissau. On spring migration, although some manage a similar non-stop flight, most birds stopped off on their way back to Iceland. The largest number paused in Ireland, with others visiting western Britain, northwest France and Portugal. Marked birds flew an average of 6079 km in autumn and 6450 km in spring.

blog graphic

A sense of urgency

Most studies show that birds migrate faster in spring than in autumn, something that may be associated with a need to get to breeding sites as quickly as possible. Potentially, this enables them to take advantage of the short window in which to find a partner, lay and hatch eggs, look after chicks and fatten up for the return journey. Why is autumn migration quicker for Whimbrel that breed in Iceland and spend the winter in countries such as Guinea-Bissau?

blog tag postCamilo Carneiro and his colleagues have been studying the migrations of individual Whimbrels using geolocators. These small devices, attached to leg-rings, record the times of dawn and dusk for twelve months. When (or if!) an individual can be caught again in the subsequent breeding season, the geolocator can be removed and the data down-loaded, revealing a year’s worth of movements. One of the fascinating things about this study is that there are 56 migrations from 19 individuals; meaning that there are several birds for which repeat information has been collected. There’s a WaderTales blog about geolocators here (Are there costs to wearing a geolocator?)

The tags used on these Whimbrels did not just measure light levels, they also recorded temperature and whether the tag was wet or dry. These extra data helped to establish more precisely the periods in which birds were on migration, as air temperature is lower at higher altitudes and tags can only record wetness if birds are standing in water. Please see the paper and supporting materials for details of the methodology. Given that birds cannot fly without fuel, account is taken of the time taken to fatten up for migration, when estimating the whole migratory period.

blog banner africa

Wintering Whimbrel in Guinea-Bissau

Results

The paper by Camilo Carneiro in the Journal of Avian Biology provides details about the wintering and staging location of Icelandic Whimbrel but the main focus is on speed of migration. This was calculated as the ground distance travelled divided by migration duration, where this period includes fuelling time.

  • blog flightAll birds flew directly from Iceland to the wintering sites (30 autumn migrations from 19 individuals), a journey of four or five days.
  • Males departed earlier than females in spring and made a stopover in 83% of the cases (15 out of 18 individuals), while females stopped on 75% occasions (6 out of 8).
  • Migration duration (fuelling plus flight times combined) was significantly different between seasons, being 59.2 ± 6 days in autumn and 65.5 ± 6.2 days in spring, with no apparent differences between sexes.
  • Migration speed and ground speed were higher in autumn than in spring (migration speed: 102.6 ± 2.2 kmd-1 in autumn and 98.6 ± 5.3 kmd-1 in spring; ground speed: 16.50 ± 5.99 ms-1 in autumn and 13.07 ± 5.82 ms-1 in spring), with no differences between sexes.

blog tag in grass

Catching an individual Whimbrel, in order to remove its geolocator, becomes harder every year. A range of methods is used to catch birds on their nests.

With only a small sample, the following reported results were not statistically significant:

  • On average, males departed later than females on autumn migration. This makes sense, as males stay with their chicks longer than females.
  • In spring, males arrived into Iceland on average 2 days before females.

Explaining the patterns

The discussion section of the paper provides a fascinating review of some of the theories relating to migration physiology – it’s well worth a read. This is just a quick summary.

Autumn migration seems relatively straightforward; every tracked Whimbrel took a direct flight from Iceland to Africa. For Whimbrel migrating to Iceland from western Africa in spring, however, there seems to be a relatively small chance of being able to fly all the way in one hop (5 out of 26 northward flights were direct). The authors suggest that:

  • blog mangrove

    Whimbrel roosting in the top of mangroves at high tide

    When leaving Iceland at the end of the summer, Whimbrel are heading towards predictable resources which will be similar from week to week. Timing of departure is not critical and birds may be able to wait for helpful weather patterns.

  • On the journey south, wind conditions are generally more favourable than on the journey north, reducing the duration of direct flight.
  • Some birds may have sufficient resources for the northward flight, if weather conditions are helpful, but choose to stop off in western Europe (particularly Ireland) if the fuel gauge suggests that they might not be able to complete the crossing.
  • It is possible that the relatively recent addition of West African Bloody Cockles to the Whimbrel’s diet, in the Banc d’Arguin, may have improved the species’ capacity to fatten up quickly, increasing the possibility of a one-flight trip north.
  • Staging areas in western Europe, particularly Ireland, may provide relatively predictable resources that can be used to top-up reserves for the final 1500 km crossing of the Atlantic in spring. By using a stop-over, it may be possible to take on extra reserves that can be used in the early part of the breeding season.
  • There may be a stronger link between weather patterns in western Europe and Iceland than between western Africa and Iceland. Whimbrel that stop off in Ireland, or other countries on the Atlantic seaboard, may then depart in weather systems that are also associated with warmers spring conditions in Iceland.

blog no ringThere are many questions still to be answered but one thing is certain; as it says in the title of the paper, when the migration of the Icelandic Whimbrel is studied in detail, it is clear that there is faster migration in autumn than in spring. Here’s a link to the paper:

Faster migration in autumn than in spring: seasonal migration patterns and non‐breeding distribution of Icelandic Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus islandicus Camilo Carneiro, Tómas G. Gunnarsson & José A. Alves Journal of Avian Biology 10.1111/jav.01938

More about migration

Migrating birds make ‘decisions’ on timing and staging each year that can affect their personal survival and the chance of successfully raising young. Are these ‘strategies’ just the consequences of the circumstances that arise in a particular season? As scientists gather longer runs of tracking data on individuals, and can relate these to wind and weather patterns, it may be possible to gain a better understanding of the drivers of migratory patterns.

The team behind this paper (Camilo Carneiro, Tómas Gunnarsson & José Alves) have produced a number of complementary papers on wader migration, some of which have been covered in previous blogs:

WaderTales: Overtaking on Migration.  Alves, J. A., Gunnarsson, T. G., Potts, P. M., Gélinaud, G., Sutherland, W. J. and Gill, J. A. 2012. Overtaking on migration: does longer distance migration always incur a penalty? – Oikos 121: 464–470.

IBIS/BOU: Risking it all in a direct flight.  Alves, J. A., Dias, M. P., Méndez, V., Katrínardóttir, B. and Gunnarsson, T. G. 2016. Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird. – Sci. Rep. 6: 38154.

Gunnarsson, T. G. and Tómasson, G. 2011. Flexibility in spring arrival of migratory birds at northern latitudes under rapid temperature changes. – Bird Study 58: 1–12.

WaderTales: Whimbrels on the move.  Gunnarsson, T. G. and Guðmundsson, G. A. 2016. Migration and non-breeding distribution of Icelandic Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus islandicus as revealed by ringing recoveries. – Wader Study 123: 44–48.

WaderTales: Black-tailed Godwit pairs – the importance of synchrony.  Gunnarsson, T. G., Gill, J. A., Sigurbjornsson, T. and Sutherland, W. J. 2004. Arrival synchrony in migratory birds. – Nature 413: 646.

blog Iceland banner

The southern lowlands of Iceland (breeding grounds of Whimbrel) seen from Þríhyrningur

 


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.

 

 

 

Farming for waders in Iceland

Across the world, agriculture is one of the primary threats to biodiversity, as we tear up natural environments to create more space to feed an ever-growing and increasingly meat-hungry human population. Agricultural land can, however, also provide key resources for many species whose behaviours align with the rhythms of the farming year.

blog cows

In Iceland, farming areas support large and important populations of several wader species, including 75% of Europe’s Whimbrel and over half of Europe’s Dunlin. As the country welcomes more tourists and expands the range of crops grown for food and fuel, what might be the implications for iconic species such as Whimbrel, Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit?

This paper by Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, of the University of Iceland, and colleagues there and at the universities of Aveiro (Portugal) and East Anglia (UK), investigates the use of farmland by waders living in a semi-natural landscape.

Paper details: Use of agricultural land by breeding waders in low intensity farming landscapes Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill, & Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson Animal Conservation. doi:10.1111/acv.12390

A dynamic landscape

blog snipe postIn Iceland, volcanic activity poses serious short-term threats to agriculture, especially in areas close to the mid-Atlantic ridge, which runs through the island from south-west to north-east. Threats from volcanoes include ash-fall, lava, flooding of glacial rivers and earthquakes but, on the plus side, nutritional inputs from volcanoes have beneficial effects on soil fertility in these central areas. Over time, and with the assistance of wind and water, many of these nutrients collect in the lowlands of the country – the areas that now form the main agricultural areas, especially in the warmer south.

The distribution of breeding waders varies across lowland Iceland. A survey carried out between 2001 and 2003 showed that wader densities were greater in areas of the country that had been subject to higher rates of volcanic ash deposition with, for instance, three times as many waders in the south as in the west. See How volcanic eruptions help waders. As was shown in the paper at the heart of that blog, the nutrient signal associated with ash-fall breaks down in farmland. Here, perhaps as a consequence of the application of natural and artificial fertilisers over decades or even centuries, there is no association between ash-fall and wader density. Across the whole country, irrespective of the proximity of volcanoes, nutrient-rich agricultural land attracts waders – but which wader species and across which farmland habitats?

Waders and agriculture

In a previous paper, Lilja Jóhannesdóttir showed that over 90% of Icelandic farmers think it is important or very important to have rich birdlife on their estates, but that farmers also expect to increase the area of farmed land in the coming years. There’s more about this in the WaderTales blog: Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation? It is important to understand the ways that waders currently use farmland, in the hope that nesting waders can continue to be accommodated within the future farming landscape of Iceland.

blog oyc bare

Perhaps Oystercatchers think that the fields have been ploughed especially for them?

Agriculture in Iceland is still relatively low in intensity and extent, and internationally important populations of several breeding bird species are abundant in farmed regions. Only about 2% of land is cultivated (about 7% of lowland areas), of which about 85% is hayfields (grass fields managed to produce crops of grass for storage as winter feed) and 15% consists of arable fields (mostly barley). This is similar to areas such as Norway, northern Canada and northern and western areas of the British Isles but contrasts sharply with the US and many countries in the EU which, on average, have 20% or more of their land under cultivation.

In these high-latitude landscapes, agricultural land can potentially provide resources that help to support wader species. To address these issues, Lilja conducted surveys of bird abundance on 64 farms in northern, western and southern areas of Iceland that vary in underlying soil productivity, and quantified:

  • Levels of breeding bird use of farmed land managed at three differing intensities, ranging from cultivated fields to semi-natural land
  • Changes in patterns of bird use of farmed land throughout the breeding season.

Farm survey

In Iceland, there are still large patches of natural or semi-natural habitats; they surround the hay-fields and arable fields that are at the heart of many farms. This arrangement creates gradients of agricultural intensity from the farm into the surrounding natural land, tapering from intensive management to moderate and light management.

BLOG gradient

The three intensity levels within Icelandic farmland can be roughly described as follows:

  • Intensive: Hayfields (85%) and arable fields (15%) fields. Most hayfields are mown twice per year and ploughed and reseeded every few years.
  • Moderate: Old hayfields that are rarely or never mown but are used for grazing, or fertilized grasslands used for livestock grazing.
  • Light: Semi-natural or natural areas under low intensity grazing, usually by sheep or horses, or with no agricultural influence, ranging from sparsely vegetated habitats to habitats with abundant vegetation (where grasses and bushes dominate the vegetation) and with a broad wetness gradient.

Fields corresponding to these three categories were surveyed on the 64 farms, firstly during the egg-laying and incubation period and then later, to coincided with chick rearing.

blog 3 habitats

Gradient of management from intensive (left) to wet semi-natural (right)

Where were the waders?

blog RK on postLarge numbers of waders were encountered in all transects in all parts of Iceland, with Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank contributing most records. There were also important numbers of Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Snipe and Whimbrel. Overall, wader densities on farms did not vary significantly between regions or between early and late visits but there were some subtle differences:

  • Wader density varied significantly along the management gradient, with lower densities tending to occur in more intensively managed areas, particularly in the early (nest-laying and incubation) season.
  • Intensively managed fields in the west (where underlying soil productivity is lower) had higher densities of waders than in the north and south of the country.
  • There were seasonal declines in wader density on all three management types in the south, but seasonal increases on intensive and moderate management in the west and in fields under moderate management in the north.
  • There were some differences between species in these patterns (more details in paper).

blog redshank westOne of the interesting differences in the west was the redistribution of Redshank as the season progressed. There were three times as many pairs of Redshank in cultivated land during the chick-rearing period than during incubation, suggesting that adults may be moving broods into cultivated land. Resources for chicks may well be relatively more abundant or accessible in these areas, given the relatively low levels of nutrients in areas that are a long way from the active volcano belt. There’s also a suggestion that drainage ditches around cultivated fields in the west may provide important resources for Snipe.

What about the future?

blog distributions

Wader densities during the early (red) and later (blue) part of the breeding season (Modified from the paper in Journal of Animal Conservation)

Although the density of birds in Iceland’s agricultural landscapes tends to be higher in lightly managed than intensively managed agricultural land, densities in the areas under the most intense agricultural management are still high, suggesting that agricultural habitats provide important resources within these landscapes (see figure alongside). These density estimates (between 100 and 200 waders/km2) are typically much higher than those recorded in other countries in which these species breed.

Farmers in Iceland expect to expand their cultivated land in the coming years in response to increasing demand for agricultural production (Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?), and evidence from other countries throughout the world has shown how rapidly biodiversity can be lost in response to agricultural expansion and intensification. Protecting these landscapes from further development is crucial to the species that they support.

The authors suggest ways in which farming practises might change wader distributions in Iceland. Here are a few of the interesting points that they make:

  • When wader-rich semi-natural land is replaced by arable farming and intensively-managed hayfields, this is likely to reduce overall wader densities.
  • Losing wet features, which provide insect food for waders, may well have impacts for chick growth. Here’s a WaderTales blog that discusses the importance of wet features to Lapwings in the UK.
  • In other countries, early grass mowing is a direct threat to nests and chicks. Clutch and brood losses are already being observed in Iceland and, with warmer springs encouraging earlier grass growth, this could become more of a problem.
  • The conversion of less-intensively managed areas into farmland is likely to have most effect on Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel, which tend to occur in their highest densities in the least intensively managed lowland areas.

blog walk WhimbrelIt is estimated that between 4 and 5 million waders leave Iceland each autumn, for Europe, Africa and the South Pacific (Red-necked Phalarope). Iceland’s farmland supports many of these birds and this study highlights the need to protect them from the agricultural developments that have led to widespread wader losses throughout most of the world.

You can read the paper here

Use of agricultural land by breeding waders in low-intensity farming landscapes Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill, & Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson. Animal Conservation. doi:10.1111/acv.12390

blog oycs & chick

 


 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