Rise and fall of wintering wetland birds
Dramatic changes in wetland bird numbers have been reported in the newly published State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report. The report contains the latest population figures on a range of species, and in some cases makes for sobering reading.
Millions of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds, which breed in much colder climes, head for our shores for the winter, making the UK one of the most important European countries for wintering waterbirds. Overall, numbers of these wintering birds have been in shallow decline since the late 1990s, but the underlying story is more complex.
Bringing together results from a range of bird surveys, monitoring schemes and projects – including the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) – from as recently as 2010, the report has revealed that several of our most well-known birds are in freefall. Mallard, probably our most familiar duck, has hit a new low, with winter numbers falling by 22 per cent since 1998. This figure is even worse in Scotland, where numbers have declined by 32 per cent over the same time period.
Bewick’s Swan, which breeds in Siberia, has fallen by 44 per cent. Other species which have declined since 1998 are Pochard (down by 46 per cent), Dunlin (down 39 per cent), Bar-tailed Godwit (down 29 per cent) and Ringed Plover (down 26 per cent).
The reasons for the changes are complex and not yet fully understood. Results from waterbird monitoring schemes in other parts of Europe have shown that some declines are likely to be explained by birds not migrating as far because of milder conditions elsewhere; a phenomenon known as ‘short stopping’. But for other species, such as Bewick’s Swan, international co-operation has shown that numbers are declining across northern Europe.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “The UK has some of the best sites in the world for wetland birds and the sight and sounds of tens of thousands of birds wheeling around these wetlands ranks among the best natural history experiences that our islands have to offer.
“Although the numbers of birds visiting these sites may fluctuate, they are vital and must continue to be protected. But the spectre of development, for example from ports and airports, continue to haunt some of our most important sites.”
In Scotland, numbers of Greenland White-fronted Goose – a potential split – have fallen by 40 per cent since 1998.
Stuart Housden, RSPB Scotland Director, said: “Scotland has some of the most ornithologically important wetland sites in the UK, home to vital populations of waders and waterbirds, and valuable feeding ground for millions of migrating birds. The future of Greenland White-fronted Goose is of particular concern, as Scotland hosts a significant proportion of the world population on Islay, Caithness and the wetlands in the south-west.”
It’s not all bad news, however, with some species experiencing increases in their numbers. Avocet, a conservation success, is up by 95 per cent. Other species on the up include Black-tailed Godwit (up by 53 per cent), Whooper Swan (up 122 per cent), Shoveler (up 27 per cent) and Pink-footed Goose (up 27 per cent). Avocet and Pink-footed Goose have both reached their highest population levels since records began.
Susan Davies, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Director of Policy and Advice, said: “This assessment of where the UK’s bird populations are at present is important for working out what action needs to be taken both at home and internationally. Scotland has some world-class wetland sites and our bird populations are a vital indicator of the health of our environment. We ignore significant changes at our peril.”
Phil Grice, Natural England’s senior ornithologist and one of the report’s authors added: “The production of robust evidence on the numbers and movements of birds is vital in ensuring their long-term survival in a changing world. This report supports important conservation efforts which protect significant waterbird populations and their habitats throughout the year and provides an ongoing health check on the status and trends of key species.”
The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs – the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies: the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England, Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), SNH and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).
Source: Birdwatch News