Navigating a vast ocean

The journeys that shorebirds make, as they cross the oceans of the globe, are truly remarkable. Individual birds demonstrate amazing endurance and navigational expertise while in the air for days at a time. Satellite transmitters are providing opportunities to understand how shorebirds refine their flight plans in responses to the wind patterns they encounter. In a paper in Movement Ecology by Jenny Linscott and colleagues, we join the northward flight of Hudsonian Godwits across 7,000 km of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Coping with wind

Conditions encountered en route can dramatically impact the energy that migratory species spend on movement. To complete their journeys across barriers such as oceans, migratory birds need to manage energetic costs by adapting to the wind conditions they encounter. It’s a dynamic environment; no two years are the same and there is often little relationship between local conditions upon departure and what lies ahead, as for instance discussed in the WaderTales blog Rhapsody of Whimbrel.

Migrating Hudsonian Godwits are heading for Alaska

If an individual bird has full knowledge of its location at all times and a fixed destination point in mind, then perhaps it can adjust its airspeed and direction of flight so that it can completely compensate for any lateral drift that is caused by the wind systems en route. Alternatively, it might accept the drift that it experiences or only partly compensate, perhaps gambling that there may be systems ahead that might cause drift in the other direction. It may even over-compensate for the wind patterns it experiences at a particular time, which may be a good idea if there is more of the same weather to come. The authors of the Hudsonian Godwit study explain how these different approaches may integrate to create a movement strategy and summarise what has been found in other studies. Interestingly, it has been suggested that complete compensation (continually adjusting the flight-plan) might not be possible for trans-oceanic flights because there are no landmarks to use as reference points.

Hudsonian Godwits spend the austral summer in coastal Chile and Argentina and migrate northwards in spring, through the midcontinental United States, to breed in subarctic Alaska and Canada. For birds taking off from Chiloé Island in Chile, the first part of the journey takes them across the open Pacific Ocean, the relatively narrow landmass of Central America and the Gulf of Mexico. Godwits making this flight have few or no opportunities to stop, and they traverse several global wind regimes that differ in directionality and strength along the way. The authors predicted that birds would experience drift during their journeys, especially over the featureless open ocean, and increase compensation as they approach North America. Given the vast distances and time spent in flight, it might be expected that the winds experienced during flight should influence the points where individuals cross the coast into North American airspace.

Flock of Hudsonian Godwits on Chiloé Island in Chile – a long way from Alaska

Tracking transoceanic journeys

During the springs of 2019, 2020 and 2021, Jenny Linscott used satellite tracking devices to follow Hudsonian Godwits, as they migrated northward across more than 7,000 km between Chiloé Island, Chile and the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Prior to migratory departure, two types of solar-powered satellite transmitters were deployed on a total of 54 adults. Technical details are provided in the paper, alongside information as to how the data were filtered and interpreted. This paper focuses on the journey across the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, as birds head towards a relatively narrow refuelling area in North America (the eastern parts of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota).

For any two points along each bird’s route, between Chiloe and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it was possible to calculate distance travelled, ground speed, turning angle, and heading. Having removed low-quality data, the team were left with 29 tracks and 689 locations with which to work. They linked each location with the range of possible wind conditions that godwits were likely to be experiencing at the time, depending upon flight height. They then “calculated the total magnitude and mathematical direction of the wind flow for each location at each altitude using vector trigonometry”. Previous studies have shown that migrating waders change altitude in order to find better wind conditions, allowing the team to assign the most likely wind conditions to each godwit location. Please see the paper for details of the modelling and assumption-testing processes.

Results

A total of 24 complete and 5 partial northward journeys were collected from birds migrating north, including repeat tracks from two individuals, which were followed for three years. The sample size was reduced by device failure/malfunctions, presumably some mortality, and by eight birds that oversummered in Argentina (see Teenage Waders and Gap year for sandpipers for information about oversummering shorebirds).  The 25 birds in the study comprised 14 males and 11 females.

  • Godwits for which there were complete tracks undertook continuous flights lasting about six days, covering an average of 8,361 km, before making their first stops.
  • Godwit ground speeds were best predicted by a strategy in which individuals flew at the altitude offering the most wind support in the preferred direction of movement, but were restricted to altitudes at or below 3000 m. It seems likely that the godwits were mostly flying between 100 m and 750 m above sea level.
  • Tracked godwits travelled along paths which showed a close match to a Great Circle line from Chiloé to the North American target area.
  • When flight behaviours were analysed, full compensation was the most frequent behaviour, accounting for 41.1% of all observed flight segments. Fewer segments were associated with partial compensation (23.5%), tail winds (8.1%), full drifting (9.4%), or overcompensation (16.0%).
  • The prevalence of full compensation remained constant across wind conditions. For example, full compensation was the dominant behaviour under crosswinds to the east (32.0%) and west (45.3%). Full compensation was also prevalent across regions, comprising the largest proportion of behaviours exhibited over the Pacific Ocean (45.1%), while crossing Central America (23.9%), and in the Gulf of Mexico (31.4%).
  • There was considerable variation in migration patterns over the Gulf of Mexico and it is suggested that some birds may have been running out of fuel and heading for the nearest land.
  • One individual tracked repeatedly over three years completed its crossing of the Gulf of Mexico in central Texas every year. The other bird tracked for three years had no specific point at which it crossed the coast but always ended up in the same spring staging area.

Jenny Linscott and colleagues found little support for their prediction that godwits would tolerate more drift early in their flight and gradually begin to increase compensation as they approached North America. Instead, both fully supported flight (benefiting from tail winds) and full compensation were common soon after leaving Chiloé. Compensation did not increase with distance travelled, was not constrained during flight over open ocean, and did not influence where an individual ultimately crossed over the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of this flight. Instead, the team found a strong preference for full compensation throughout godwit flight paths. Birds ‘knew’ where they were along their route and could judge how to adjust their headings so as to compensate for the drift they were experiencing at any given time. The paper’s Discussion includes more detailed consideration as to how compensation appeared to operate in different parts of the journey and in different wind conditions.

How do shorebirds, flying over the vastness of an ocean ‘know’ where they are, with no island landmarks? Are individuals within migrating flocks picking up on changes in temperature or humidity, that mark passage through broad wind regimes, can they navigate with reference to sun position and stars, are there magnetic cues, or can they interpret surface swell patterns? Perhaps it’s a mixture of several of these skills? It’s pretty amazing!

Learning more

Jenny Linscott and her colleagues found that fully compensating for wind displacement appears to be a critical strategy for Hudsonian Godwits making a long-distance, transoceanic flight. While godwits often followed wind flow in the early stages of this journey, they nonetheless engaged in full compensation more frequently than any other behaviour during the entirety of the flight, across a vast and apparently featureless ocean. These continuous adjustments help to make sure that birds can fly extremely long distances without running out of energy. The team wonder how well future generations will cope with changing wind systems over warmer seas.

The full paper can be found here:

Compensation for wind drift prevails for a shorebird on a long-distance, transoceanic flight. Jennifer A. Linscott, Juan G. Navedo, Sarah J. Clements, Jason P. Loghry, Jorge Ruiz, Bart M. Ballard, Mitch D. Weegman, and Nathan R. Senner. Movement Ecologyhttps://doi.org/10.1186/s40462-022-00310-z

The Hudsonian Godwits studied here are flying 7,000 km north across the Pacific, but this pales into insignificance when compared to Bar-tailed Godwits that commute between Alaska and New Zealand. The Pacific was once considered a barrier to migration but it is increasingly seen as a conveyor belt. There is an excellent review article by Theunis Piersma and colleagues in Ornithology, the title of which explains its content:

The Pacific as the world’s greatest theater of bird migration: Extreme flights spark questions about physiological capabilities, behavior, and the evolution of migratory pathways. Theunis Piersma, Robert E Gill, Jr, Daniel R Ruthrauff, Christopher G Guglielmo, Jesse R Conklin and Colleen M Handel. Ornithology,  https://doi.org/10.1093/ornithology/ukab086


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.

When Oystercatchers can’t find food

In a rapidly changing world, wintering waders face unprecedented challenges. How much flexibility is there for individuals to cope with issues such as over-fishing of shellfish stocks, habitat removal, pollution, and the effects of rapid climate warming on their food supplies?

Colour-ring records show that many wintering waders tend to be site-faithful, feeding in the same estuaries and even the same small patches year after year. This makes sense if food supplies are reliable and predictable but what happens when there is massive change in food abundance? In a 2021 paper in MEPS, Katharine Bowgen and co-authors describe the impacts of a cockle die-off in the Burry Inlet (part of the Severn Estuary in Wales) on the local population of Eurasian Oystercatchers. Their findings illustrate how important it is to protect networks of sites, rather than individual inlets or estuaries.

Assessing the options

When food supplies are low – or crash suddenly – what can birds such as Oystercatchers do? There are three likely options in these circumstances:

  1. Wait and hope
  2. Move elsewhere and never return
  3. Move elsewhere until conditions improve
When food availability is low, some Oystercatchers may not complete wing moult

If ‘wait and hope’ is the main option then, following an event that reduces food availability or abundance, there should be little evidence of birds dispersing, measures of annual survival might be depressed for a period and, once conditions improve in the area, young birds might be likely to fill the spaces available. This should lead to higher proportions of sub-adults in the period immediately after such a hiatus and a steady increase in numbers.

Movements to other sites, whether temporary or permanent ought to be detectable from mid-winter counts and through reports of ringed birds. The pattern after a permanent shift in birds would be similar to that following mortality; again, young birds might be expected to take advantage of food resources as they recover In reality, of course, individual birds that use a site may opt for any one of the three options, creating a mixed picture.

Oystercatcher numbers

Over recent decades, numbers of Eurasian Oystercatchers have declined. In 2015 the species was reclassified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN’s Red List (Birdlife International) and “Vulnerable” within Europe. It is also Amber listed on the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern list, due to its European status, the concentration of its wintering population in protected sites and the international importance of UK breeding and wintering populations.

Colour-ring sightings can improve survival estimates

The changes in Burry Inlet Oystercatcher numbers should be viewed within a pattern of national declines. Since the 1990s, winter numbers on UK estuaries have dropped by a third, back to levels seen in the 1970s. Patterns around Great Britain vary (see below); Welsh numbers on estuaries, as assessed by WeBS, have held up well but there has been a 25-year period of decline in England and there was a sudden fall in Scottish numbers at the start of this century.

The Burry Inlet

The intertidal mudflats of the Burry Inlet in south Wales are of international importance for non-breeding waterbirds of various species, including the Eurasian Oystercatcher. This SPA (Special Protection Area) is part of The Carmarthen Bay and Estuaries SAC (Special Area of Conservation). Burry Inlet received significant conservation attention back in the 1970s, when the UK government gave permission for 10,000 Oystercatchers to be shot, to protect cockle stocks. This decision was taken despite the objections of conservationists in the UK and Norway, the latter being the summer home of many of these birds. The fact that cockle numbers continued to fall after the cull was an embarrassment, suggesting that Oystercatcher predation was not the only factor at play. Fast forward another 25 years, to the start of the period considered in this paper …

The cockle population in the Burry Inlet SPA declined from 1997 to 2004, before an abrupt ‘crash’ in stocks between 2004 and 2010 which was linked to increased mortality in older cockles, which are particularly important to commercial shellfishers. There are suggestions that losses were associated with warmer summers and sewage releases in periods of wet weather. While there has been some recovery since that period, stocks of larger cockles are still very low.

As cockles are a major prey species for Oystercatchers, the loss of larger individuals may place significant pressure on their populations, as has also been seen in the Dutch Wadden Sea and in The Wash SPA in the UK. Studies in the latter area, by BTO scientists and using data from the Wash Wader Research Group, linked declines in Oystercatcher survival and numbers to years of low cockle numbers (Atkinson et al. 2003 and Atkinson et al. 2005).

When trying to understand Oystercatcher responses to cockle changes in the Burry Inlet and the wider Carmarthen Bay SAC, Katharine Bowgen and colleagues had two main data-sets available to them. The Wetland Bird Survey, and the Birds of Estuaries Enquiry that preceded it, have provided fifty years of data on winter numbers for the Burry Inlet and other local and regional sites. The relative importance of different areas within Carmarthen Bay and the Burry Inlet were established using Low Tide Counts (see below).

Ringing operations also contributed data on the movements of marked birds, individual body masses that could be used to assess the condition of trapped birds, retrap information from which survival rates can be estimated, and opportunities to assess how many juveniles and immatures there are within samples of caught birds. November estimates of cockle biomass were available for the period from 1993 to 2008 (NRW/CEFAS).

What happened to Burry Inlet Oystercatchers?

Here are some of the key findings. Please see the paper for methods and full results. The study was funded by CCW (now NRW).

Extracting Oystercatchers from the cannon-net, having made a successful catch
  • Adult Oystercatchers were found to be in better body condition than immatures and juveniles. Non-breeders may spend three or more years in sites such as the Burry Inlet before first returning to breeding areas.
  • There was considerable variation in annual body condition indices. Two features stood out. Condition was lower in 2005, the winter following the crash in cockle stocks, and improved in the following year. A similar bounce-back could be seen after a particularly cold winter (2010).
  • From recapture data, apparent survival post-2000 was positively correlated with total cockle biomass. Apparent adult survival dropped from an average of 99.3% (range 98.3-99.9%) to 78.5% (range 68.5-84.3%) during the years following the crash in cockle stocks (2004), before rising back to 99.5% (range 99.0-99.9%).
  • In a previous BTO report to CCW (Niall Burton, Lucy Wright et al, 2010) the survival impacts of the Burry cockle crash appeared higher. This effect was diluted with the addition of eight extra years of data presented in this paper. Shorter snapshots of data do not fully capture changes in survival rates for long-lived wader species.
  • Cannon-netting Oystercatchers is not easy! The lack of consistent annual catching success and biases associated with, for instance, just catching the edge of a flock (where juveniles tend to be concentrated), are probably reflected in the fact that no recruitment patterns could be established.
  • WeBS Core Count data showed a significant long-term decrease in the population of Oystercatchers wintering in the Burry Inlet and a long-term increase in the population in Carmarthen Bay. During the period 1997 to 2017 there was a correlation of the two sets of figures – as Burry numbers declined, Carmarthen went up and vice versa (see figure below). Counts of Oystercatcher in the Burry Inlet were weakly associated with cockle biomass in the estuary. Carmarthen Bay counts were more strongly linked to Burry Inlet cockle biomass, increasing as cockle supplies dropped in the Inlet.

Take-home messages

In the study by Katharine Bowgen and colleagues, an apparently underexploited area within the Carmarthen Bay SAC became a vital resource when food supplies collapsed in the Oystercatchers’ preferred feeding area.

Understanding how birds can (and may need to) respond to changing food resources is important, given ongoing pressures from shell-fishers and the fact that the distribution of invertebrate prey stocks may be affected by climate change. The ongoing cockle decline in the Burry Inlet is of concern to both the fishermen, reliant on the stocks, and to conservation managers monitoring bird populations. This study suggests that Oystercatchers may be able to adapt during periods of stress but only if alternative foraging areas are available in the local vicinity.

The analysis of long-term datasets allows more accurate understanding of incidents such as the cockle crash investigated here and improves our abilities to manage their effects on longer-lived species such as waders. Only through long-term monitoring is it possible to fully understand the consequences of major changes in species’ resources and how individuals might adapt to cope with their impacts.

Population level effects

The following three WaderTales blogs contain information about how wintering conditions in particular study areas can affect wader populations.

Sanderling migration

In A place to roost, there is a section about the consequences for local Redshank when Cardiff Bay was permanently flooded, with links to three important papers. Birds that moved elsewhere had difficulty in maintaining their body condition in the winter following removal of their feeding habitat and continued to exhibit lowered survival rates in subsequent years.

In Travel advice for Sanderling,there is clear evidence that poor wintering conditions affect survival rates, the probability of breeding in the first summer and the timing of spring arrival in Greenland. All of these three factors can have population-level effects for the species.

In Gap year for sandpipers, we learn that Semipalmated Sandpipers may not breed every year, depending upon the condition they are in when it is time to migrate.

These three stories are all relevant to the Burry situation. Oystercatchers that were in poor condition at the end of a winter, either because they stayed in the Inlet and had fewer resources or because they moved to new sites, may not have had the resources to migrate to their breeding areas in some years or could have migrated later, either of which may reduce the number of potential breeding attempts within a season (see Time to nest again?).

Conservation implications

Although the analyses presented here were undertaken in order to understand what happened in the Burry Inlet, a site designated in part because of the high Oystercatcher counts, the authors emphasise just how important networks of sites are to wider shorebird conservation issues, especially if there is a rapid change in the quality of a core area. It is not sufficient just to protect the very best sites.

This paper could not have been written without the work of volunteer counters and ringers

With coastal wader populations exhibiting long-term declines globally, understanding how they respond to changes in their prey is important, especially given the potential for warming seas to affect invertebrate populations. In this context, the Burry Inlet study demonstrates the value of long-term WeBS counts and the efforts of local ringers. The contribution of volunteers is warmly acknowledged at the end of the paper.

Resilient protected area network enables species adaptation that mitigates the impact of a crash in food supply. Bowgen, K.M., Wright, L.J., Calbrade, N.A., Coker, D., Dodd, S.G., Hainsworth, I., Howells, R.J., Hughes, D.S., Jenks, P., Murphy, M.D., Sanderson, W.G., Taylor, R.C. and Burton, N.H.K. MEPS. DOI:https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13922


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.

Who eats African Oystercatcher eggs?

As ornithologists, focused as we are upon birds, we perhaps find it hard to fully acknowledge birds’ eggs as key ‘consumables’ in the food web – a ready source of protein for everything from snakes to deer.

Nest cameras have shown that clutches of ground-nesting waders are taken opportunistically, by grazing sheep for instance, but there are also some species – or individuals – that are specialist egg hunters. See Prickly problems for breeding waders (hedgehogs) and Curlews and foxes in East Anglia (sheep).

In their paper in Wader Study, Itxaso Quintana, Rio Button & Les Underhill describe a single-year study of the predation of African Oystercatcher nests on Robben Island, best known for the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for eighteen years, and for its important seabird colonies. Introductions and eradications on Robben Island have created a far-from-natural food-web that is ever-changing. The situation that Itxaso, Rio and Les found in the 2019/20 breeding season included Kelp Gulls ‘protecting’ African Oystercatcher nests from the attentions of Mole Snakes – something that makes little sense unless set in a historical context, as the authors do in their paper.

What a mess!

Homo sapiens has interfered spectacularly on Robben Island, in the same way as in so many other places, with exploitation of seals, the introduction of an array of large mammal species from the mainland during the apartheid era, and the introduction of rabbits, fallow deer and cats. By 2019/20, the rabbits and almost all of the deer had been removed, encouraging the regeneration of ground cover, and over 90% of the cats had been culled. The remaining threats for African Oystercatcher nests were expected to come mostly from Kelp Gulls, native Mole Snakes and the small number of remaining cats.

Checking out an Oystercatcher’s nest on the shoreline

The 550 African Oystercatchers on Robben Island account for 8% of the species’ population, making this a very important breeding site. This total comprises both nesting pairs and non-breeding birds. African Oystercatchers do not migrate, relying on local shellfish supplies year-round. In 2000, the species was classified as ‘near threatened’ but, thanks to the spread of the invasive Mediterranean Mussel along the South African coast, numbers have recovered. Native shellfish might be in trouble but at least the African Oystercatcher can now be considered to be of ‘least concern’!

The 2019-20 breeding season

Robben island has a coastline which is less than 10 km in length, enabling the authors to monitor 158 nesting attempts of what is thought to have been 133 pairs of African Oystercatchers. A further 300 non-breeding oystercatchers were also present. There were three main study sections, corresponding to the north end of the island (63 nests), the south end of the island (64 nests) and the east side (29 nests). The nest success rates of nests in the north and south were very different, with rates in the east being intermediate.

Below the gull colony in the north of the island, 45 out of 63 African Oystercatcher nests were successful (71%) with one failure associated with Mole Snakes.

Away from the gull colony, in the south of the island, only 14 out of 64 African Oystercatcher nests were successful (22%) with 17 failures associated with Mole Snakes and the reason for most failures unknown.

Breeding Kelp Gulls are spreading across the northern part of Robben Island

There was far more evidence of Mole Snake activity in the south of the island, as can be seen in the map, with individual snakes seemingly ‘patrolling the shoreline just above the spring high tide level, where African Oystercatchers lay their eggs’. In the north, where African Oystercatchers nest on the shoreline immediately below the Kelp Gull colony, snakes were much less conspicuous. You can read more about this in the paper.

Two decades of research

The long-term study of African Oystercatchers on Robben Island started in 2001. Since then, the population has increased fourfold and the number of nests has almost doubled. There have been many changes over this period, as you can read in the paper, but the most significant one for African Oystercatchers is the arrival of Mediterranean Mussels, first noticed in South African waters in 1979 and already colonising the shoreline of Robben Island by 2003. These invasive mussels provide more food than native shellfish and the authors suggest that this has fed through into higher oystercatcher nesting densities.

The beak of an African Penguin is enough to deter Mole Snakes

Over the two decades, there has been a massive change in the populations of potential predators. In the early part of the research period, Mole Snakes were considered relatively unimportant, in terms of predation pressure on African Oystercatchers. Introduced cats, however, then became a major problem, with numbers growing between 2001 and 2005, to such an extent that at least 83% of African Oystercatcher nests were predated in the 2004/05 breeding season. Culls in 2005 and 2006, followed by continued controls, have lowered cat numbers to fewer than ten individuals.

There were no Kelp Gulls breeding on Robben Island until 2000/01, when the first five nests were found. More and more birds now make the short commute to Cape Town, to scavenge, and 2829 gull nests were recorded in 2019/20. Like other large Larus gulls, Kelp Gulls have a reputation as egg thieves. However, on Robben Island, where there are few people disturbing nesting African Oystercatchers, and forcing them to leave their nests, the gulls seem to cause few problems. Instead of being a threat, Kelp Gulls attack Mole Snakes, thereby protecting the eggs of the African Oystercatchers.

For Kelp Gulls, it’s only a short commute to Cape Town, where they scavenge for food

Four other species have benefited from reduced cat numbers. As hoped, numbers of Hartlaub’s Gulls and Swift Terns have both increased, while Mole Snakes have experienced higher survival because the eggs of these two species are available in the austral autumn and winter. African Penguins have benefited too, as a consequence of reduced cat predation, and their sharp beaks can deal with Mole Snakes.

What next?

Hatched Oystercatcher chick and another one on the way

The current situation seems to suit all of the species considered here. Removing introduced herbivores has provided more suitable habitat for snakes, and nesting numbers of key seabirds and African Oystercatchers have all increased since most cats were culled.

Robben Island is not a natural ecological system, however. Major perturbations have happened over decades, with introductions, extirpations, culls and the arrival of invasive species. For the moment. the authors see no reason for Kelp Gulls and/or Mole Snakes to be controlled, in order to support African Oystercatcher numbers or protect important seabird populations.

Cold searching the area above the tide-line to locate nests of African Oystercatchers (Mole Snakes do the same)

One thing that seems almost certain is that the situation will change again: the local Mediterranean Mussel population could collapse, for example due to disease; a pollution incident in the busy sea lanes into the port of Cape Town could suddenly impact birds and/or their food supplies; the grinding effects of climate change, particularly the risk of increased storminess, could slowly upset the equilibrium; diseases such as avian influenza, currently affecting Cape Cormorants, could spread further; or the cat population could explode again. Robben Island looks like a fascinating place in which to study complicated predator-prey interactions; here’s hoping that long-term monitoring will continue.

Paper

The full paper is available in Wader Study, the journal of the International Wader Study Group.

African Oystercatchers on Robben Island, South Africa: The 2019/2020 breeding season in its two decadal context.
Itxaso Quintana, Rio Button & Les G. Underhill. Wader Study.


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.

More Curlew chicks needed

There are three ways to increase the number of Eurasian Curlew in the UK; boost chick production across the breeding range, find ways to ensure more chicks recruit to the breeding population and/or maximise the lifespan of breeding birds. In a paper in Biological Conservation, Aonghais Cook and colleagues show that, while continued protection of wintering sites is really important, there appears to be little scope for conservation action that can further increase annual survival rates. The focus for conservationists has to be on increasing chick productivity and recruitment.

Curlew in Britain and Ireland

The once-common breeding Curlew is becoming harder to find in many areas. We know that productivity is generally low but could reduced annual survival rates also be contributing to the speed of disappearance? Here’s a quick summary of the story so far.

  • The Eurasian Curlew is designated as ‘near threatened’, as discussed in this WaderTales blog.
  • A 2017 paper by Sam Franks and BTO/RSPB colleagues described the main factors associated with the species’ decline in Great Britain. This work is summarised in a WaderTales blog called Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.
  • Estimated breeding population declines since 1995 are 69% in Wales, 59% in Scotland and 31% in England (Breeding Bird Survey). This is not as bad as in Ireland, where 96% were lost between the 1980s and 2015-2017. See Ireland’s Curlew Crisis.
  • Huge numbers of Curlew cross the North Sea at the end of the summer, particularly from Finland. Recent population estimates show that British wintering numbers dropped by 14% in just eight years, with an Irish decline of 13% in five years. See two reviews of wader population estimates, based upon waterbirds papers in British Birds and Irish Birds.

Survival of adult Curlews

As discussed in Measuring shorebird survival, a change in adult survival rates can have a huge effect on shorebird populations. If a species’ annual survival rate drops from 90% to 80% then numbers can half in just six years. We have seen these sorts of dramatic declines in populations of waders that travel between Russia/Alaska and Australia. There’s more about this in Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea.

There are several factors that could be affecting survival rates of British-wintering Curlew:

  • Warmer winters might be expected to lead to increased survival rates.
  • The shooting ban, introduced in 1982 in response to declining Curlew numbers, was specifically designed to increase survival rates.
  • As local wintering populations have dropped, competition for resources could have dropped, potentially leading to increased survival rates.

In their paper about survival rates of Curlew in North Wales, published in Bird Study in 2013, Rachel Taylor and Steve Dodd detected an increase in apparent survival from 86.9% to 90.5% that coincided with the cessation of hunting. They also found that mechanical cockle harvesting in the mid-1990s occurred at the same time as a reduction in apparent survival rate of Curlew from 95% to 81%, indicating the potential for management changes to have huge, unintended consequences for wintering Curlew.

Amassing the data

The research team analysed recoveries of Curlew marked as chicks and adults in the breeding and winter periods, in order to estimate annual survival and the proportion of birds available to recruit into the breeding population.

Thanks to the efforts of skilled, volunteer ringers, two large data-sets were available, collected during the period 1970 to 2018:

  • A total of 1293 adult birds, 144 juveniles and 14,277 chicks were ringed in their breeding grounds across Great Britain.
  • During the winter period, 4403 Curlew were caught and ringed in five key sites – the Severn Estuary, the Tees Estuary, the Wash, Traeth Lavan and the Moray Firth (see map). Supplementary colour-ring sightings were available for the Wash, Tees and Severn.

Full details of how data were used and how models were developed are provided in the paper.

How well do Curlew survive?

Analysis of breeding season data for the period 1970 to 2018 indicates that the average annual survival was 89.8% (confidence interval 0.871–0.920) for adults and 32.6% (0.278–0.378) for first-years. The period of steepest population decline, between 1983 to 1991, coincided with lower survival in both age classes. Encouragingly, since 1996, survival has increased to 92.2% (0.886–0.948) for adults and 39.0% (0.304–0.484) for first-years.

The British and Irish wintering population of Curlew is drawn from a vast area, with birds arriving from as far as Russia and lots of birds from Finland. In a recent breeding wader report covering the Fennoscandia region, no overall change in Curlew numbers was detected, with declines in Norway and Sweden balanced by increases in Finland (see Fennoscandian Wader Factory). From 1970 to 2018, survival rates of UK wintering Curlew averaged 88.4% (0.875–0.893), consistent with survival rates of the British breeding population (above).

Survival varied over time and between the five study sites but has been generally greater than 90% in recent years. Increases in survival were recorded on the Severn Estuary and The Wash.

Curlew struggle in winters with large number of frost-days and survival rates drop significantly, both in that winter and over the subsequent year

Survival was lower in winters with a greater number of days of air frost, an effect exacerbated in successive cold winters. Cold weather may have contributed to low survival in the 1980s, a pattern also evident in the analysis of breeding season data.

Resources may limit numbers. The study suggests that, for four out of five sites, survival was lower in years in which the number of Curlew on a site was higher.

Nationally, the research team found no strong evidence that the hunting ban had increased survival rates. However, there appeared to be local effects on The Severn Estuary and on the Wash. It is unfortunate that national bag data are not available to indicate whether Curlew hunting was particularly prevalent in these two estuaries in the period prior to 1982.

What does this all mean for Curlew conservation?

Birdwatchers are helping to monitor annual survival rates by reporting sightings of colour-marked birds

Since 1996, the mean annual adult survival rate of the British Curlew breeding population has been about 92%. Despite this high number, the Breeding Bird Survey tell us that there has been an observed decline in breeding numbers of 3% per year. Demographic modelling suggests that four breeding pairs must be producing an average of only one chick per year between them. This low figure may come as no surprise to Curlew fans.

To achieve sustainability, the authors conclude that the current figure of 0.25 chicks per pair needs to rise to 0.43 chicks per pair. There are estimated to be 58,000 pairs of Curlew in Great Britain (paper in British Birds). Currently they might be producing about 14,500 chicks each year, on average, and they need to produce nearly 25,000 chicks. British Curlew need to fledge 10,000 more youngsters – every year – just to arrest the decline in numbers.

Personal reflections

Currently, annual survival rates of adults are consistently high but a couple of cold winters, changes to shellfish policy, tidal barrage developments, inappropriately-sited wind turbines and unrestricted disturbance could all have serious negative effects. It is important that we continue to protect the UK’s estuaries and the grassland feeding and roost sites that fall outside their boundaries.

Many Curlew spend significant amounts of time on farmland and recreational land that is not protected in the same way as estuarine habitats

There are a couple of gaps in our knowledge about Curlew demography. When do Curlews first breed and what are survival rates during the ‘teenage’ pre-breeding years? A working hypothesis would be that most breed at age two, with possibly some earlier and probably some later. More colour-ringing of chicks will hopefully provide better data on recruitment age and teenage survival rates. This issue was discussed in Teenage waders. In the meantime, perhaps more thought needs to be applied to avoiding disturbance of non-breeding flocks during the summer holiday season?

It is going to be important to understand how quickly juveniles recruit to breeding populations

It almost goes without saying – Curlews need to produce more chicks. Local conservation initiatives, whether by tenant farmers or dukes with vast estates, will help but raising 10,000 more chicks per year will likely require changes in land management policies. Can agri-environment initiatives be refined to deliver more Curlew? How do we integrate tree-planting and upland conservation priorities? Where should wind turbines be sited? And so much more!

Paper

In their summary of their paper, Aonghais Cook et al concluded that “In addition to increasing productivity, effective conservation strategies will need to maintain high levels of survival, which requires an improved understanding of population connectivity and demographic variation throughout the annual cycle.”

The full paper can be read here:

Temperature and density influence survival in a rapidly declining migratory shorebird.

Aonghais Cook, Niall Burton, Stephen Dodd, Simon Foster, Robert Pell, Robin Ward, Lucy Wright & Robert Robinson. Biological Conservation


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.

Why is spring migration getting earlier?

In Iceland, young trend-setting Black-tailed Godwits are changing the timing of spring migration

Flocks of up to 5000 Black-tailed Godwits gather in Alftafjordur in spring: Tómas Gunnarsson

Flocks of up to 5000 Black-tailed Godwits arrive in Alftafjordur (East Iceland) in spring: Tómas Gunnarsson

In recent years, earlier arrival of spring migrants has been widely reported in birds as diverse as swallows and waders but it’s not a universal trend; species such as British Cuckoos and Icelandic Whimbrels have not changed their arrival dates.  Interestingly, many of the species that have not advanced timing tend to be those that are declining.  By thinking about the mechanisms that enable some species to take advantage of earlier spring warming it might be possible to explain how timings and population changes may be linked.

Are individual Black-tailed Godwits arriving earlier each spring? (Photo: Nigel Clark)

Are individual Black-tailed Godwits arriving earlier each spring? (Photo: Nigel Clark)

The simplest way for spring migration to advance would be for individual birds to change their arrival dates, arriving earlier now (either because they have departed earlier or migrated faster) than they did in previous years.  These changes could be facilitated by changes to weather conditions before, during or after migration.  In general, the arrival of short-distance migrant species has advanced more than long-distance species, which has led to suggestions that individual birds are able to assess conditions on their breeding grounds from afar, and to ‘fine-tune’ arrival accordingly. This could explain why long-distance migrants seem less well able to change their schedules than species which have less far to travel.

Figure 1: Changes in first spring arrival dates of six species of waders in southern Iceland from 1988 to 2009 (reproduced from Gunnarsson & Tómasson 2011)

Figure 1: Changes in first spring arrival dates of six species of waders in southern Iceland from 1988 to 2009 (reproduced from Gunnarsson & Tómasson 2011)

This pattern of advances in arrival dates, and greater advances in short-distance migrants is seen in birds arriving into Iceland each spring (Gunnarsson & Tómasson).   By monitoring the first dates of a range of migratory breeding species to the area around Laugarás, an inland village in southern Iceland, over the period 1988 to 2009, Tómas Gunnarson and Gunnar Tómasson showed that species which spend the winter further south than France showed no change in arrival, whilst those from further north in Europe were returning earlier.  The southern group included the only wader in the Gunnarsson & Tómasson study which uses this migration strategy, Whimbrel (see diagram).

GL-YX on a windy day in western Iceland. He has been seen in eleven years. Despite the vagaries of spring weather, his arrival dates have only been spread over nine days (standard deviation 3.5 days) and have not advanced over the period 2003-2015

GL-YX on a windy day in western Iceland. He has been seen in eleven years. Despite the vagaries of spring weather, his arrival dates have only been spread over nine days (standard deviation 3.5 days) and have not advanced over the period 2003-2015

One of the species that has advanced spring arrival (by about two weeks in the last two decades) is the Black-tailed godwit.  Since 2000, we have been recording arrival dates of individually colour-ringed godwits into coastal Iceland – giving us the opportunity to assess whether individuals have indeed brought forward their time of arrival.  By making regular visits to the same sites we have discovered that the dates when we first come across individuals are remarkably consistent.  Although the arrival of the whole population is spread over a five or six week period, the window in which a specific Black-tailed Godwit appears is generally predictable, whether he or she is a bird that we tend to first see in mid-April or mid-May.  There are annual differences, of course, which appear to be linked to periods of adverse weather during the period of the sea-crossing (Gunnarsson et al 2006), from departure points in The Netherlands, The UK Ireland, France and Portugal, but there is no significant trend.

Dates of spring arrival into Iceland of 54 individually marked black-tailed godwits recorded on arrival in between 4 and 8 years, from 1999 to 2012 (reproduced from Gill et al. 2014). Whether an individual arrives early (left-hand birds) or late (right), the sighting dates for each bird are highly consistent.

Dates of spring arrival into Iceland of 54 individually marked black-tailed godwits recorded on arrival in between 4 and 8 years, from 1999 to 2012 (reproduced from Gill et al. 2014). Whether an individual arrives early (left-hand birds) or late (right), the sighting dates for each bird are highly consistent.

timing pop v indivAlthough the arrival date for the population has been advancing at ~0.8 days per year (Gunnarsson & Tómasson 2011), there has been no trend in individual arrival dates (not significantly different to zero days per year); Gill et al. 2014.

Most of the godwit chicks were ringed by groups of volunteers led by Pete Potts and Ruth Croger (Photo: Tómas Gunnarsson)

Most of the Black-tailed Godwit chicks were ringed by groups of volunteers led by Pete Potts and Ruth Croger (Photo: Tómas Gunnarsson)

If individuals are consistent in arrival but the population is advancing, the advance must presumably result from new birds recruiting into the population being earlier-arrivers than recruits from previous years?  Fortunately, there is a second long-running set of data that’s available to answer this question, in a large part because of the efforts of Pete Potts and Ruth Croger of Farlington Ringing Group.  In the period 1999 to 2014, they organised teams of volunteers to ring Black-tailed Godwit chicks in Iceland, with the support of the Icelandic Natural History Museum.  Significant contributions to the total of over 350 colour-ringed chicks were also made by Tómas Gunnarsson and José Alves, while researching the breeding ecology of Black-tailed Godwits for the Universities of East Anglia and Iceland.

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

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

Wader chick mortality is quite high and there are further losses in the eighteen-month period between autumn departure from Iceland and the first return trip, eighteen months later, so it was wonderful to have a sufficiently big cohort of marked recruits to look at patterns and trends.  For this study, arrival dates for 46 individuals of known hatch year were available for analysis.  As can be seen from the graph, arrival dates of new recruits have been getting earlier, with birds hatched in the last decade arrive around two weeks earlier than individuals hatched in the 1990s.

There are several reasons why recent recruits may be arriving earlier than in previous years, but the most likely is that this is a knock-on effect of advances in godwit laying dates that have occurred in recent decades.  Icelandic godwits nest earlier in warmer springs, and the frequency of warmer springs has increased.  Early fledging may benefit new recruits, by increasing the time available for them to migrate south, locate a good winter site and be in condition to return early when they recruit into the breeding population (Alves et al. 2013 http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/12-0737.1  http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/12-0737.1). As their arrival date will be consistent thereafter, the overall timing of arrival of the population will advance.

Will this young Black-tailed Godwit contribute to our understanding of the timing of migration? (Photo: Tómas Gunnarsson)

Will this young Black-tailed Godwit contribute to our understanding of the changing timing of migration? (Photo: Tómas Gunnarsson)

Many other studies of different species in which individuals are tracked during migration are showing similar levels of consistency in individual timing of migration.  What then is causing the variation among species in rates of advance?  Long-distance migrants typically arrive later on the breeding grounds and breed quite soon after arrival, while short-distance migrants can have quite large time gaps between arrival and laying, depending on conditions for breeding. Short-distance migrants therefore have more capacity to advance laying dates (because they are on the breeding grounds waiting for suitable conditions), while long-distance migrants, such as Whimbrels in Iceland, arrive later and so cannot breed earlier even in a warmer year. Advances in spring arrival dates may therefore result from advances in laying dates and associated benefits of early fledging for recruits, and lack of advance in long-distance migrants may be a consequence of arriving late and hence being unable to take advantage of early, warm spring conditions.

In the Icelandic subspecies of Black-tailed Godwit, which is expanding in both number and distribution, it is clear that young recruits to the breeding population are driving the advance in timing of migration.  We only know this because of the long-term programme of chick ringing by volunteers and because we have been able to record the timing of individual birds’ migratory activities over a large number of years.  Funding for this work has been provided by the volunteers themselves, NERC , Icelandic Research Council  and EU TMR.

This blog is based upon research presented in the following open access paper:

Gill, J.A., Alves, J.A., Sutherland, W.J., Appleton, G.F., Potts, P.M. & Gunnarsson, T.G. 2013 Why is timing of bird migration advancing when individuals are not? Proceedings of the Royal Society B. , 281, 20132161 

This work has been taken further in two papers that have been covered in later blogs about warming temperatures and generational change.

Please send reports of colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits to Jenny Gill (j.gill@uea.ac.uk). She will reply with full details of any birds ringed on the Wash or forward your e-mail to colleagues running other schemes.


 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

Is the Curlew really ‘near-threatened’?

If a Curlew can live for over 32 years and there are flocks of 1000 in Norfolk, how can they be described as near-threatened? 

Dark times lie ahead for Curlew? (© Graham Catley)

Dark times lie ahead for Curlew? (© Graham Catley)

Dec 2021 BT Curlew changedThirty years ago there were eight members of the world-wide curlew family but now we may well be down to six.  The planet has lost one species, the Eskimo Curlew, with no verified sightings since the 1980s, and probably the Slender-billed Curlew as well.  Of the others, Far Eastern Curlew and Bristle-thighed Curlew are deemed to be endangered and vulnerable**, respectively, and our own Curlews are classed as near-threatened, which is the next level of concern. This may seem strange, especially when flocks of 1000 can be seen on the Norfolk coast.  However, evidence suggests that we should take heed of what is happening to other members of the curlew family, as we consider the future of this evocative species with its wonderful bubbling curl-ew calls.

** Bristle-thighed Curlew has now been changed to ‘near-threatened’. Graphic alongside has been changed.

Our Curlew – more properly called the Eurasian Curlew – was until relatively recently a locally popular game species in Britain, especially in September and October, when birds are reputed to be particularly flavoursome.  A male Curlew is equivalent in weight to a Wigeon (or two Teal) and the bigger female may well be as heavy as a Mallard, so it is not surprising that they were worth targeting.  They came off the British quarry list in 1981.

Map showing movements of ringed curlews. Purple dots indicate where British/Irish ringed birds have been recovered and orange dots show ringing sites of birds found here and wearing foreign rings. Maps of movements can be found on the BTO website at http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/ringing/publications/online-ringing-reports

Purple dots indicate where British/Irish ringed Curlews have been recovered and orange dots show ringing sites of birds found here and wearing foreign rings. Maps of movements can be found at http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/ringing/publications/online-ringing-reports

The Curlews that we see on the Norfolk coast in autumn and winter are drawn from a wide breeding area; some are of British origin but many are from Scandinavia, Finland and Russia.  The Wash Wader Ringing Group recently received a report of a bird that was ringed in Norfolk in September 2000 and recovered in Izhma in Russia in May 2014.  At 3300 km (2000 miles) this is nearly as far away as the furthest east dot on the map of Curlew recoveries, shown here and published on the website of the British Trust for Ornithology.  The bird was an adult when ringed so must have been at least 15 years old when shot.  This seems like a good age for a Curlew but is less than half of the British longevity record, set by a chick ringed in Lancashire in 1978 and found dead on the Wirral in 2011.

Curlew mortality is higher in severe winters (© Graham Catley)

Curlew mortality is higher in severe winters (© Graham Catley)

Curlew numbers on the Wash, which sits between the counties of Norfolk and Lincolnshire, increased dramatically when shooting ceased in 1981, although milder winters could have also have been influential.  In the five years immediately before the ban, the average maximum, winter Wetland Bird Survey count on the Wash was 3281, rising to 9642 in the period 2006/07 to 2010/11.  There were similar increases on the North Norfolk coast and a bit further south at Breydon Water.  The broader, national picture is one of increase between 1981 and 2001, although generally at a lower level to that seen in Norfolk, followed by a steady, shallow decline.  If numbers are higher than they once were does this mean that we should be less concerned about Curlews – and what is the justification of the species’ near-threatened designation?

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

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

Conserving migratory species is difficult because individuals rely on different resources in different countries at different stages of the year.  For Curlews, there is evidence that breeding season problems are at the heart of large decreases in numbers in Russia, through the Baltic and into The Netherlands – the countries from which much of the wintering population on the east coast is drawn.  According to the European Commission’s species management plan, drivers of decline include wide-scale intensification of grassland management for milk production, land-abandonment and increased predation in some areas.  Autumn, winter and spring hunting is thought to have had a lesser but contributory effect to the long-term losses, with hunters across the European Community shooting between 3% and 4% of the population each year.  In the last twenty years, within the EC, hunting of Curlew has been confined to Ireland, Northern Ireland and France.  Much of this shooting pressure was and in France, where coastal hunting of Curlew was reinstated after a five year moratorium but has since been suspended again. Read blog about this here.

curlew webpageFocusing on Britain and Ireland, we have seen major losses in our breeding populations.  In Ireland, the Curlew population is estimated to have dropped from 5000 to 200 pairs in the twenty years between 1991 and 2011 (with further declines since – see Ireland’s Curlew Crisis blog below). There has been an 80% decline in Wales and other losses elsewhere.  There’s more about these distributional changes in a 2012 article written for the BTO website.

Curlew productivity in several areas appears to be very low and it is possible that the adults we are seeing are part of an ageing population.  As has been shown in seabirds, counts of adults can give a false sense of security, as it is easy not to notice that there is little recruitment of new, breeding adults into the population, with obvious long-term consequences.

Graph shows the changing Curlew population in Great Britain (Wetland Bird Survey)

Graph shows the changing Curlew population in Great Britain (Wetland Bird Survey)

The decline in the number of breeding Curlew in Great Britain is clearly reflected in monthly, winter counts undertaken by volunteers on west coast estuaries.  On the Dee, for instance, the average peak-winter count dropped from 6109 in the early 1970s to 4348 in the five years after the shooting ban, rose to 5081 in the late 1990s but then slipped back to 3802.

In Ireland and Northern Ireland, a total ban on shooting Curlew was announced in 2012, brought in once it was clear that the estimated November harvest of between 6% and 8% was unsustainable and set against a background of the collapse of the local breeding populations.  The same local reasoning lies behind continuing protection in Wales, western England and in much of Scotland, especially at a time when financial support to land-managers is being used to try to bolster British breeding numbers.  In eastern England, Curlew conservation has a more international flavour, as we provide a safe haven for birds from as far away as Russia.

With relatively few continental birds, the Wetland Bird Survey trend reflects more local declines

With relatively few continental birds in Northern Ireland, the Wetland Bird Survey trends probably reflect local declines

Britain & Ireland, between them, provide winter homes for half of the Europe-wide population of Curlews (about 210,000 out of 420,000), with the Netherlands holding 140,000 birds.  There are also significant flocks in Germany and about 20,000 in France.  These may seem like reasonable numbers but, given that fewer chicks are being raised, the number of adults is declining, two close relatives have been driven to extinction and other curlew species are in trouble, the label of near-threatened seems highly appropriate.

We should be proud of our wintering Curlews in Great Britain, where numbers have stabilised, albeit at a level that is 20% lower than at the turn of the century, but there is no room for complacency in Northern Ireland, where the decline continues.

Update: Curlew was added to the red list of the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern on 3 December 2015

Other WaderTales blogs about Curlew

  • Why are we losing our large waders? takes a look at a review of the common threats faced by the 13 Numeniini species (godwits, curlews and Upland Sandpiper).
  • Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan focuses on the primary drivers of the species’ breeding decline in Great Britain.
  • Sheep numbers and Welsh Curlew looks at habitat associations within a large site  in the Welsh uplands; getting the grazing regime right seems to be very important.
  • Curlew Moon has at its heart a review of Mary Colwell’s book of the same name but also summarises some of the issues being faced by Curlew in Ireland and the UK.
  • Ireland’s Curlew Crisis focuses on the nationwide breeding survey between 2015 and 2017, which revealed a 96% decline in the number of pairs in just 30 years.
  • Curlews and foxes in East Anglia suggest that ‘curlew plots’ may be helpful in the fight to conserve the species.
  • More Curlew chicks needed has at its core a paper about survival rates of breeding and wintering Curlew. Even in a period of historically low annual adult mortality, breeding numbers have continued to fall.
  • The flock now departing reveals fascinating details about Curlew migration with descriptions of four occasions when two tagged birds ended up in the same migratory flock.

On autumn high tides, flocks of Curlew roost on east coast stubble fields (© Graham Catley)

On an autumn high tide, a flock of Curlew roosts on an east coast stubble field (© Graham Catley)


 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

UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57%

Research from RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, with University of Aberdeen (School of Biological Sceinces), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Natural Research Ltd

Male Dotterel brooding chicks: Alistair Baxter

Male Dotterel brooding chicks: Alistair Baxter

I have only once climbed a mountain to count Dotterel, with Phil Whitfield decades ago, but that is enough to appreciate how many hundreds of hours of hard work lie behind the statement, “The number of Dotterel breeding in the UK declined by over half between 1987/88 and 2011”. This is the headline in a paper published in the November 2015 issue of the BTO journal, Bird Study:

Changes in the abundance and distribution of a montane specialist bird, the Dotterel Charadrius morinellus, in the UK over 25 years. Daniel B Hayhow, Steven R Ewing, Alistair Baxter, Andy Douse, Andrew Stanbury, D Philip Whitfield & Mark A Eaton Bird Study 62:4, 443-456

As Des Thompson and Phil Whitfield wrote at the conclusion of their account for the 1988-91 Breeding Atlas, “The Arctic affinities of the British Dotterel, its beauty, its rarity and its likely sensitivity to habitat and climate change secure its place as one of our most fascinating breeding birds”.  Well-documented stories of females laying clutches in Scotland, to be brooded by their male partners, and then flying on to Norway to lay second clutches add an air of mystery too.

The 2011 Dotterel Survey was carried out under the Statutory Conservation Agencies/RSPB Annual Breeding Bird Survey (SCARABBS) programme and was funded by the RSPB and SNH (Alistair Baxter)

The 2011 Dotterel Survey was carried out under the Statutory Conservation Agencies/RSPB Annual Breeding Bird Survey (SCARABBS) programme and was funded by the RSPB and SNH (Photo: Alistair Baxter)

The population estimate of 423 breeding male Dotterel in 2011 represents a decline of 43% since 1999, when the comparable total was 747 pairs, and of 57% since 1987/1988 (981 pairs).  All regions except the West Highlands had lower numbers in 2011 than in 1999, with the core area of the East Highlands (the Grampians east of the A9) experiencing a significant decrease of 32% since 1999 and 56% since 1987.  This massif has become increasingly important, with 60% of the pairs in what amounts to 30% of the potential breeding habitat for Scottish Dotterel.

No Dotterel were recorded outwith Scotland during the systematic national survey but Bird Atlas 2007-11 fieldwork did add a record from Northern England.  In the absence of annual monitoring, a national survey can only provide a snapshot for a species.  However, information gathered during the four summers of the Bird Atlas project and as part of an ongoing detailed study suggests that the results for 2011 are representative of the current UK Dotterel population – and that the declines are therefore very much real.

Population changes across the range

Large-scale surveys of Dotterel are difficult, due to the remoteness of many of their breeding sites, and monitoring elsewhere across their European breeding range tends to be based on visits to particular sites or using transects.  Given the plasticity shown by the females – including an ability to nest in two countries in one year – changes in apparent numbers could potentially reflect the fact that birds breed further north in some springs than in others.  The best series of data come from Swedish Lapland, where Svensson & Anderson reported no changes in the population over the period 1972 to 2011.

In, Finland, Pulliainen & Saari observed that most females left their study area after egg-laying and hypothesised that this was in order to secure more mates further north. Lucker et al. have found evidence for higher rates of shared incubation by females at the more northern extent of the species’ breeding range than those breeding further south, providing some evidence to support this hypothesis.  Saari had previously estimated the Finnish population to be 90% less than in the early 1900s and suggested that hunting in early 20th century and overgrazing by reindeer may have been to blame.   Since the 1960s, the tree line has advanced and large areas of the mountain heath are now covered by scattered Scots Pines, making the habitat largely unsuitable for Dotterel.  Similar processes, associated with warmer conditions, could have major, negative impacts the number of Dotterel breeding in Scotland.

Is the SPA network working for Dotterel in Scotland?

Racomotrium heath is an important and increasingly rare habitat (Alistair Baxter)

Racomotrium heath is an important and increasingly rare habitat (Alistair Baxter)

The designation of Special Protected Areas (SPA), based on the results of the 1987/88 survey has been a key tool in the efforts to conserve Dotterels in Scotland.  This network of montane sites has helped to provide a focus for research funding and planning considerations.  Encouragingly, SPAs have supported between 50% and 60% of the population since designation.

The decline in numbers of Dotterel within and outwith the SPA network is of concern, but in terms of site occupancy, sites in SPA/SSSIs were more likely to be occupied than those outside the protected area network.  Protected area designation has been shown to be good for a group of northern species at the trailing edge of their distribution in the UK, although this effect decreased at higher latitudes and altitudes (Gillingham et al. 2015).

Explaining the declines

The well-referenced, discussion section of the paper looks at the potential reasons for the changes to Dotterel populations and assesses the available evidence.

Habitat change in the high mountains: Racomitrium moss heath has been shown to provide important foraging opportunities for Dotterel of all ages; this is a habitat that has been in a long-term decline over the last half century.   Studies have outlined how overgrazing and levels of atmospheric nitrogen interact, resulting in changes to the composition and extent of montane heaths.

A frequent prey of both adult and juvenile Dotterel is Tipulid (cranefly) larvae which require dense mats of moss vegetation.  Changes in composition and extent of Racomitrium heath could result in reduced prey availability, potentially affecting settlement decisions and breeding success for Dotterel.

Raven abundance has increased across much of the Dotterel's range (Map from Bird Atlas 2007–11, which is a joint project between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club)

Raven abundance has increased across much of the Dotterel’s range (Map from Bird Atlas 2007–11, which is a joint project between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club)

Predation in the breeding season: Predation of Dotterel eggs by Ravens can cause localised declines, and lower return rates have been reported for adult male Dotterel after clutch loss by predation. The period of decline in Dotterel is coincident with an increase in range and abundance, of Ravens in Scotland.  Although previous work has found no significant negative associations between Raven numbers and upland wader populations, this interaction may well warrant further investigation.

Disturbance: There is little strong evidence for widespread effects of increased visitor numbers, despite negative impacts of such activities on heath condition.

Pressures in wintering areas: Pesticide use and hunting on the wintering grounds, North Africa and Spain, have been suggested as possible factors in the decline.

More attractive conditions further north: Upland species, such as Dotterel, are cold-adapted and may well find northerly areas more conducive to breeding.  Without a flyway approach to Dotterel monitoring it is not possible to distinguish between a northerly shift in the breeding area of Dotterel and population-scale declines.

What next?

The 2011 Dotterel survey clearly shows the decline in numbers of Dotterel breeding in the UK and contraction to core sites in the East and Central Highlands.  Further, detailed work is required to understand the mechanisms driving the observed population trends, which may well involve studies in wintering areas and migration hot-spots, as well as a mixture of ecological research and ongoing monitoring in the mountains of Scotland.

The 2011 Dotterel survey has provided a spring-board for detailed research by Alistair Baxter, which is being written up as part of his PhD at the University of Aberdeen.  By repeating studies carried out during the 1980s by SNH, he hopes to see whether changes in habitat availability, habitat quality and invertebrate abundance can help to explain the decline in numbers in the last thirty or so years.

Ptarmigan is another montane species that will be targeted by

Ptarmigan is a key montane species that is being targeted by “What’s Up?” (Alistair Baxter)

Given how much effort has to go into any survey of upland species and the relative infrequency of national surveys, it is great that two recent initiatives are making the most of the calories burned to climb our highest peaks.  Many volunteers involved in the annual Breeding Bird Survey of upland squares now add an adjacent square to the original, randomly-selected plots, in order to increase the sample size in these sparsely populated but special bird areas.  Another valuable contribution is being made by mountain-lovers who know their birds and who are now contributing to the BTO Scotland led “What’s Up?” project.  This focuses on species that are sensitive to climate change and disturbance, such as Ptarmigan, Snow Bunting and Dotterel.

In an era of ever tightening budgets, it is unclear when it might be possible to organise another national survey for Dotterel.  Let’s hope that, until then, “What’s Up?” can help to alert us to distribution changes and that annual surveys of key sites might provide indications of national population changes. 

Dotterel was moved onto the red list of species of conservation concern on 3 December 2015.


 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

Conserving British-breeding Woodcock

To help to take the pressure off declining and now red-listed British-breeding Woodcock, many estates are already delaying the start of the Woodcock shooting season.  How might this make a difference?

This is a modified version of an article published in Shooting Times on 30 Sep 2015. There are updates at the end, reflecting changing advice provided by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Photo: Richard Chandler

Photo: Richard Chandler

Each autumn, the British population of Woodcocks is swamped by the arrival of up to a million birds, returning from northern Europe and Scandinavia. The exact timing of their migration is very much influenced by weather, with birds crossing the North Sea as early as October or as late as December.  The numbers each year are thought to vary markedly, reflecting peaks and troughs in the size of the European breeding population, annual chick production, the amount of frost and snow on the other side of the North Sea and the timing of periods of cold weather.

A quick look at the bag index for Woodcock, produced by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), shows annual variation in the numbers shot each winter but no downwards trend.  Hunting appears to be sustainable (but see note at the bottom giving advice from GWCT about shooting in winter of 2017/18).  Unfortunately, there is a problem; British-breeding Woodcock are in serious decline and there is no way to differentiate between a local bird and one from continental Europe.  As the GWCT Woodcock tracking project has shown, birds share the same woodland habitats during winter months.  Mara and Jack, for instance, two birds caught in March 2014 on Islay, have very different annual stories to tell, with Mara breeding locally and Jack migrating to Russia.

A shrinking distribution

Bird Atlas 2007-11, published by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), confirmed that our Woodcock are in trouble.  Between 1968-72 and 1988-91, the number of 10×10 km atlas squares where Woodcock were present fell from 1439 to 917, representing a decline of 36%.  By 2008-11, the number was down to 632, a further drop of 31%.  In the 1968-72 Atlas, Woodcocks were generally widespread, with birds absent only from parts of southwest England and Wales and easy to find from the North Midlands through to northern Scotland, other than in the highest mountains.  Fragmentation that was becoming apparent in 1988-91 was glaringly obvious in 2008-11, especially in the south and west.  In Ireland the situation, if anything, looked worse.

Bird Atlas 2007-11, published by the BTO, in association with the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and BirdWatch Ireland, shows that breeding Woodcock are disappearing from southern and western Britain, as well as from Ireland. Downwards pointing black arrows show losses, with bigger symbols indicating recent changes.

Bird Atlas 2007-11, published by the BTO, in association with the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and BirdWatch Ireland, shows that breeding Woodcock are disappearing from southern and western Britain, as well as from Ireland. Downwards pointing black arrows show losses.

Early results being contributed to the Bird Atlas 2007-11 project confirmed that there was an urgent need for a special Woodcock survey, to try to assess numbers as well as distribution, and this was organised for the summer of 2013.  The GWCT and the BTO wanted to replicate the survey they had organised in 2003, which suggested that the breeding population across Scotland, Wales and England included just over 78,000 territorial males.

Andrew Hoodless of GWCT has shown that the number of Woodcocks observed during a standard evening watch period provides a good index of local abundance.  The national survey called for the deployment of hundreds of birdwatchers, who were asked to visit chosen sites, many of which had been visited ten years previously.  Standing at dusk and listening to the distinctive roding calls of male Woodcocks, as they patrol the boundaries of their territories, provides magical moments for lucky birdwatchers.  However, the chance of success in many parts of the country was far lower in 2013 than it had been in 2003.  A paper, with a full regional analysis was published in 2015, revealing an estimated fall in numbers of 30%, to just over 55,000 roding males.  As suggested by the Atlas distribution maps, percentage losses were higher in Wales and England than in Scotland.

Current status and recent trend of the Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola as a breeding bird in Britain, by Christopher J Heward, Andrew N Hoodless, Greg J Conway, Simon Gillings & Robert J Fuller, in Bird Study Nov 2015

The main aim of the 2013 Woodcock survey was to assess the population, rather than to understand the causes of decline, but it is interesting to note that there were smaller losses in the largest areas of woodland.  More detailed studies have suggested that larger woods may offer a greater diversity of habitats and damper micro-climates in which to feed.  Booming deer populations are having major effects on a lot of woodlands; by browsing the vegetation they can open up the understorey, thereby removing nesting habitat and drying out soils.  There are probably several factors driving down the breeding population and it has been suggested that recreational disturbance and over-winter hunting of resident birds could each be playing a part in declines.

Changes to the hunting season?

BirdTrack is coordinated by the BTO, in partnership with RSPB, BirdWatch Ireland, the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and the Welsh Ornithological Society. These lists provide fascinating information about the timing of migration, annual breeding patterns and species’ abundance. See www.birdtrack.net to learn more.

BirdTrack is coordinated by the BTO, in partnership with RSPB, BirdWatch Ireland, the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and the Welsh Ornithological Society. These lists provide fascinating information about the timing of migration, annual breeding patterns and species’ abundance. See www.birdtrack.net to learn more.

Although the main pressures may well occur during the summer months, one way to help British breeding Woodcock may be to change the start of the shooting season.  The season currently opens on 1 September in Scotland and 1 October across the rest of the UK.

Looking at BirdTrack data, collected from species lists sent in by thousands of birdwatchers across Britain & Ireland, it is clear that there are virtually no continental Woodcock in these islands during September and few until at least the second half of October.  In the graph alongside, the red line shows average rates of occurrence on birdwatchers’ lists.  The blue line for 2014 indicated a pulse of arrivals in early October, largely as observed by birdwatchers on the east coast.  These birds will have moved inland and disappeared into woodland and farmland.  The main arrival in this particular year appears to have been in late October with later spikes in the graph suggesting further bursts of east coast activity in November and December.

The 2013 Woodcock survey was funded by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Shooting Times Woodcock Club and a charitable trust. Photo: Richard Chandler

The 2013 Woodcock survey was funded by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Shooting Times Woodcock Club and a charitable trust. Photo: Richard Chandler

The BirdTrack pattern will come as little surprise to gamekeepers and shoot-owners, many of whom already restrict Woodcock shooting to the winter months, in order to minimise losses of local, resident birds.  GWCT scientists have been encouraging restraint in the autumn months for some while.  Now, having analysed the results of the GWCT/BTO 2013 Woodcock survey, and shown a further decline of nearly a third in just ten years, they are researching the potential impact of shooting on resident birds. This will include an assessment of whether a formal change to the timing of the hunting season for Woodcock is required, in order to add an extra level of protection to resident birds.

Update: 28 July 2017

New GWCT  guidance: ‘generally we recommend not shooting woodcock before 1 December’ and not at all if ‘numbers have been low in the area’. More information is available at https://www.gwct.org.uk/media/696047/Pocket-woodcock-guide.pdf

Update: 11 December 2017

Migrant Woodcock appear to have had a poor breeding season and GWCT is advising restraint:

Dr Hoodless has issued the following statement: “GWCT and the Woodcock Network are advising shooters across the UK to rethink their woodcock shooting for this season and reduce their bags. This echoes moves being taken by organisations in several other European countries. A further update will be issued in early January, once more information is available.”

“Although similar events will have happened many times in the past, this is the first time that monitoring of woodcock age ratios by ringers, and improved communication across Europe, has been able to offer shooters an early warning system. Populations normally rebound after such events, but most shooters understand the importance of preserving breeding stocks when there are signs of adverse natural events and are prepared to minimize shooting pressure in order to aid population recovery.”

Read more here

Update: 16 March 2018

Woodcocks are severely affected by cold weather. Research by GWCT suggest that Woodcock start to suffer when the ground has been frozen for relatively short periods of time. They propose restraint after four days of freezing conditions, with birds being given a recovery period of seven days once a thaw commences. There’s more in this blog here and the paper can be found here.

Update: September 2020

There is no suggestion that the numbers of Woodcock breeding in Finland, Sweden and Norway are changing. This blog summarises survey data for breeding waders during the period 2006 to 2018.


 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

A helping hand for Lapwings

This article has been slightly adapted from one written for the Autumn 2015 edition of The Harrier, published by the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group

Lapwing in flight: Richard Chandler

Lapwing in flight: Richard Chandler

The space-invader cries of displaying Lapwings are welcome signs of spring across much of Britain’s countryside and losses of this iconic species, especially in lowland England, have been well chronicled.  Conservation organisations, and the RSPB in particular, are successfully supporting breeding numbers on nature reserves but how can their interventions be replicated on working farms, without flooding fields and installing fox-proof electric fences?

On the look-out: Grahame Madge/RSPB impages

On the look-out: Grahame Madge/RSPB impages

Dr Jen Smart of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and Professor Jenny  Gill of the University of East Anglia have been studying breeding waders on  RSPB Reserves in the Norfolk Broads for over ten years, but more recently they have extended their wader research into commercially managed grasslands across Norfolk and Suffolk, using funding from Defra.  At the February 2015 ‘Foxycology’ conference, Dr Smart explained how the RSPB is trying to manage the conflict between the conservation of ground-nesting birds and foxes.  The RSPB does not rule out shooting as a protection measure – there’s active fox control in the study site – but prefers to adopt non-lethal solutions to the predation problem.  One answer may be to provide foxes with ‘convenience food’, in the form of mice and voles.  If it’s easier to find mice and voles than wader nests and chicks then perhaps that’s what foxes will do?

Predation is a natural process but rates can be severely skewed by the way that the countryside is managed, especially when the balance of predator and prey is disturbed.  Many predators are opportunists, with species such as foxes, crows, gulls and raptors switching their activities to take advantage of local food availability.  Seasonal abundance of food resources can affect both survival and productivity.  An inexperienced young fox must have a better chance of surviving the winter if he is presented with a generous supply of released pheasants, whilst a vixen, trying to raise a litter of cubs, will find easy pickings in a gull colony.  In the same way, a nature reserve that is full of nesting waders will often attract foxes during the breeding season.

By creating shallow ditches, which add water and insects to grassland habitats, Lapwing productivity is increased: Mike Page/RSPB

By creating shallow ditches, which add water and insects to grassland habitats, Lapwing productivity is increased: Mike Page/RSPB

The RSPB has become very good at increasing populations of wading birds breeding on their lowland nature reserves but staff are frequently frustrated by the low numbers of young birds that survive through to fledging in some years.  Adding water to the landscape, in the form of pools and ditches, attracts high densities of breeding waders, as these wet features provide insect-rich places to which adults can take their chicks.  The RSPB/UEA research team has found that Lapwing nests are far more successful when birds nest at high densities, presumably because they work together to look out for and drive off potential predators, and they also found that Redshanks benefit from the activities of the more numerous and defensive Lapwings.  Practical actions, such as clearing woodland that abuts wetland or removing single trees in which crows sit to spot the next meal, have been shown to reduce avian predation in the daytime, to such an extent, in fact, that three-quarters of nest-losses are now taking place at night.

Lapwing chick: Richard Chandler

A young and vulnerable Lapwing chick: Richard Chandler

Using cameras, the team has shown that 70% of the culprits filmed taking eggs are foxes, with badgers coming a distant second, at 12%.  Wader chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, and RSPB research has shown that chick predation is then largely from foxes at night and raptors in the daytime, but with stoats, weasels and opportunistic birds, such as grey herons, taking smaller numbers.  Overall, by far the biggest threat to productivity is the fox.

One fox (and badger) deterrent that is available on nature reserves is to use well-maintained mains-supplied electric fences to surround fields in which waders nest.  Trials by the RSPB have shown that Lapwing fledging success is significantly improved in fenced areas, increasing from just over 0.2 chicks per pair to 0.8 chicks.  The target level for a sustainable population is 0.6 young per pair so the lower figure is well below par and 0.8 should be providing a surplus of birds that can go on to nest elsewhere.  Fences are not perfect, however; they do not exclude predators such as stoats and weasels, and the increased success of nests means high densities of chicks can be an irresistible resource for opportunistic and adaptable aerial predators trying to feed their own young.  Fencing is also only really effective on a relatively small scale so does not provide the solution to what is a landscape-scale problem.  RSPB research has shown that there is a lot of variability in predation rates, which provides opportunities to try to understand the complex interactions between foxes, mustelids (stoats and weasels), small mammals and waders.

In open grassland, Lapwings can keep an eye out for approaching predators: Richard Chandler

In open grassland, Lapwings can keep an eye out for approaching predators: Richard Chandler

Much of the patchiness of productivity within a site is linked to the amount of grass in fields and along field edges.  Grazing is a key management tool in wet grasslands, with cattle creating the short and varied sward structure that is attractive to a range of breeding waders.  By using ink tracking tunnels, within which mammals leave their footprints, and looking for field-signs of activity, Dr Becky Laidlaw has been able to show that this short grass is of little use to mice and voles.  She discovered that they prefer verge areas, outside the fields, where the grass is at least 20 cm tall and where there is ground-level vegetation cover of more than 80%.  Using data on wader nest success collected over 10 years, she was also able to show that Lapwings nesting in fields close to this small mammal habitat had lower rates of predation. Adding in tall grass strips and patches within a farmland landscape could potentially increase the populations of small mammals, thereby distracting foxes and mustelids, and reducing predation pressure.  Avian predators of wader chicks might appreciate this intervention too!  This work is published as:

The influence of landscape features on nest predation rates of grassland-breeding waders by Rebecca A Laidlaw, Jennifer Smart, Mark A Smart & Jennifer A Gill in Ibis 157:4 Oct 2015

Over the last two years, the RSPB/UEA team has worked with landowners of commercial grasslands across East Anglia, who between them are responsible for a large percentage of remaining breeding wader populations. Building on the work on reserves, the aim was to understand whether habitat suitability and predation processes differ between reserve and wider countryside waders.  To accomplish this, they assessed the extent to which grassland management options within agri-environment schemes support small mammal populations, as well as measuring field wetness, Lapwing densities and nest predation rates.  They also assessed the importance of different nest predators for waders nesting in the wider countryside and within nature reserves.

A weasel leaves its mark: Becky Laidlaw

A weasel leaves its mark: Becky Laidlaw

Becky and her team found similar distributions of small mammals in the wider countryside as had already been found on nature reserves.  Within both, there were higher densities of small mammals within grassland habitats outside of fields, while presence within fields did not vary significantly among fields managed under different grassland agri-environment options.  Encouragingly, densities of Lapwing nesting in fields managed in accordance with the breeding wader option were significantly higher than in fields with no interventions. Lapwings nesting in areas with many other Lapwings and nests that were closer to patches of small mammal habitat were less likely to be predated, but the rate of Lapwing nest predation did not differ between the wider countryside and reserves.  It should be possible, therefore, to create Lapwing hot-spots outside of nature reserves, thereby expanding the reproductive potential of East Anglia.  Unsurprisingly, given the previous findings about the causes of nest-losses on nature reserves, wider-countryside sites where foxes were present experienced both higher overall nest predation and nocturnal nest predation.

Redshank also benefit for management designed to support Lapwings and probably appreciate the shared look-out duties Photo: Richard Chandler

Redshank also benefit for management designed to support Lapwings and probably appreciate the shared look-out duties Photo: Richard Chandler

The main findings of this study are that wader nest predation rates and spatial patterns of nest predation on lowland wet grasslands are remarkably similar inside and outside reserves. This should help to directly inform the design and development of lowland wet grassland landscapes, making them capable of attracting and supporting sustainable populations of breeding waders within the constraints of commercial grasslands.  Jen Smart is optimistic; “If we can provide wet fields that look attractive to Lapwings in spring and patches of tall vegetation that hold high numbers of small mammals it ought to be possible to improve nesting success and productivity”.  She and her colleagues are now looking at how a range of different agri-environment options might be used to create such landscapes.  The next phase of the project will be to try out the most promising options, in order to see the scale at which these patches of tall vegetation for small mammals need to be provided if they are to deliver the desired result – more breeding waders.

Update 

The are several other WaderTales blogs that may be of interest to people who like Lapwings:

For a full list of WaderTales blogs visit https://wadertales.wordpress.com/about/

 


 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


Why do some Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings?

The birdwatchers at Cley provide daily observations of the colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits that turn up on the site, revealing some fascinating stories and contributing massively to migration research.

This blog was originally written for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s magazine, Tern.

Flock of Black-tailed Godwits at Cley: Pat Wileman

Flock of Black-tailed Godwits at Cley: Pat Wileman

No two visits to Cley are the same; the birds change with the seasons and even from day to day.  If there are 200 Black-tailed Godwits in front of Daukes hide on Tuesday and only 100 on Thursday does that mean that half have moved on – or did all of the earlier birds leave, to be replaced by a new selection?  The fact that several individuals wear colour-rings enables regular godwit observers, such as David and Pat Wileman and Mark Golley, to help provide some answers.

The highest Cley counts of Black-tailed Godwits now occur in the autumn, when birds can be found feeding or roosting on the scrapes and lagoons, pulling worms from the wet meadows or picking up grain from nearby stubble feeds.  Many colour-ringed birds have only been seen once but others become old favourites, like ‘orange/green – orange/green-flag’.  Until 2015 he spent the late summer weeks at Cley moulting out of his red summer plumage (see series of three pictures below).  As autumn turned to winter, he flew onwards to the Tagus Estuary in Portugal, where he was first ringed in 2007 by José Alves, one of a team investigating migration at the Universities of East Anglia, Iceland and Aveiro (Portugal).

Three pictures of the same bird, moulting out of its breeding plumage. Photographs by Chris Cook, Pat Wileman & Richard Chandler

Three pictures of the same bird, moulting out of its breeding finery and into winter plumage. Photographs by Chris Cook, Pat Wileman & Richard Chandler

Another well-watched bird is ‘lime – yellow/black//white’.  She was first caught on the Wash in September 2002 and has spent every March/April at Cley or Stiffkey. She has been seen in Ireland in mid-winter and nests in northern Iceland.  This bird was already an adult when ringed 12 years ago so her exact age is unknown.  The current record for Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits is 25 years but colour-ringing is likely to show that they can live even longer.

The ring on the lower part of the right leg used to be white! This distinctive staining is an extra complication for observers at Cley. Photo: Chris Cook

The ring on the lower part of the right leg used to be white. This distinctive staining is an extra complication for colour-ring observers at Cley. Photo: Chris Cook

Cley is just one observation point across the whole of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit’s range.  Jenny Gill, who leads the godwit research at UEA, is working with colleagues in Iceland, Portugal, France, Spain, Ireland and across the UK to understand migration patterns and their consequences for survival and breeding success.  Every reported set of colour-rings is important, even if the same bird was seen in the same spot yesterday.  It may not be there tomorrow, in which case today’s record has helped to pinpoint the departure date.  Visitors at Cley can send their sightings to David at cbcrecords@talktalk.com , write them in the hide log book or contact Jenny at j.gill@uea.ac.uk

Whilst the vast majority of Cley Black-tailed Godwits are of the Icelandic race, a few birds from the small population of birds that breed in the Ouse and Nene Washes also pass through in the autumn. Later they will join thousands of birds from continental Europe, wintering in Iberia and west Africa.  The Icelandic colour-ringed birds are providing fascinating insights into the migratory movements of that subspecies, the numbers of which have risen at the same time as the numbers of the continental subspecies have declined.  Icelandic birds winter all around western Europe; Cley birds have been seen in France, Portugal, Spain and Ireland, as well as around much of the UK.

Colour-ring sightings have helped to reveal a huge amount about Black-tailed Godwits.  Amongst many other findings:

Rates of population increase were greater on estuaries with low initial numbers, and Black-tailed Godwits on these sites had lower prey-intake rates, lower survival rates and arrived later in Iceland than those on sites with stable populations. The Buffer effect and large-scale population regulation in migratory birds. JA Gill, K Norris, TG Gunnarsson, PW Atkinson & WJ Sutherland. Nature 412, 436-438 (26 July 2001).

We know that birds from the same pair have nothing to do with each other outside the breeding season, even wintering in different countries, but that they need to arrive on territory within a day or two of each other if there is not to be a divorce.  Pair Bonds: Arrival synchrony in migratory shorebirds. TG Gunnarsson, JA Gill, T Sigurbjörnsson & WJ Sutherland.  Nature 431, 646 (7 October 2004). There’s a WaderTales blog about this paper.

We have learnt that spring migration is getting earlier, driven by new recruits getting back to Iceland earlier than older birds.  Why is timing of migration advancing when individuals are not? , , , , ,

Want to know more?

This blog tells more stories about individual Black-tailed Godwits and the birdwatchers who study them: Godwits and Godwiteers.

There are many more WaderTales blogs about Black-tailed Godwits. Click here to see what is available. 

Cley is a great place to see godwits at really close quarters, as are a number of other nature reserves around the country.  Reports of colour-ringed birds provide an important element of ongoing migration research.  Please contact Jenny Gill at j.gill@uea.ac.uk and you will receive a life-history of your bird, either from Jenny or from one of her collaborators.


 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