November, 2015

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Understanding bird monitoring results - what's the difference between trends, red lists and indicators?

    Guest blog by Dr Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, Centre for Conservation Science.

    It’s frequently stated – that birds in the UK are amongst the best monitored wildlife groups in the world. I have to admit, I’ve never seem firm proof that this is the case, but I reckon it can’t be far wrong.

    Bird monitoring is undertaken by thousands of volunteers

    As a nation of nature-lovers, as evidenced by the millions who are members of conservation organisations such as the RSPB, many of us are capable of identifying the birds that we see around us. The British Trust for Ornithology estimated that some 40 thousand birdwatchers contributed records to their recent Bird Atlas 2007-11, and several thousand take part in schemes such as the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey and Wetland Bird Survey every year.

    Why is bird monitoring important?

    As a consequence of the efforts of these thousands of dedicated and expert volunteers, and the organisations - such as the BTO, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and ourselves at the RSPB, along with vital support from UK and national governments -  that help to steer their activities by designing, running and reporting on bird monitoring schemes, we know a lot about the fortunes of our birds. For each regularly-occurring species (of which we have about 250) we know where they occur, know how many there are (at least roughly) and, perhaps more importantly, we know how their numbers have changed over time, in some cases going back over many decades. It’s true, there are gaps in what we know – in particular, our knowledge is poorer for those species with distributions, habitat preferences and behaviours that mean they elude birdwatchers and our monitoring programmes – Ptarmigan on remote Scottish mountains, for example. 

    This information forms a cornerstone to the work that the RSPB and other conservation organisations do, and underpins Government policy to protect biodiversity.

    Monitoring, as our continued counting and reporting on the state of birds enables us to measure our success, and adjust our course accordingly.

    What do the graphs, trends and classifications mean?

    One problem is that the volume of information on how our birds are doing, which comes in different shapes and sizes, can be confusing. All those classifications, and lots and lots of graphs – what does it all mean?

    Our annual The state of the UK’s birds (SUKB) report [published today 10 November 2015] does a good job of bringing everything together in one place, and should be the first place to go if you want the latest, agreed-upon information on any of the UK’s species. It pulls together results from all the UK’s bird monitoring for a high-level summary, and points the interested reader to where they can find further detail.

    In a nutshell, our monitoring produces a number of measures – such as bird numbers, trends, ranges – which we synthesize into a number of ‘products’ for easier digestion. Below I give a short guide to some of these.

    Population estimates. Every few years we try to provide an updated estimate of numbers for all of the UK’s bird species. The latest version, published by the Avian population estimates Panel, was published in 2013 and can be found here.

    Ranges – where birds are found, and how this has changed over time, is essential information for directing where we do our conservation. We are very fortunate to be able to use the recent Bird Atlas 2007-11, which used over 19 million bird records to map the whereabouts of Britain and Ireland’s birds in both the breeding season and winter.

    Trends – perhaps the most important piece of information we have – is a species increasing or decreasing? By repeating counts every year or at standard intervals we are able to calculate trends for most of our regularly-occurring species – the tables in this year’s SUKB give trends for an amazing 107 common breeding birds, 65 scarce and rare breeding birds, 17 seabirds, and 48 wintering waterbirds. Without trends our conservation would be guided by guesswork.

    Red lists – these attempt to bring together all relevant information for each specie to make a simple, easy-to-understand assessment of status. For birds, there are two types.

    Firstly, the IUCN Red List - assessments of extinction risk, overseen by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Basically, they ask ‘how likely is a species to go extinct?’, using a standardised process and the best available data. Any species thought to be at risk is classified as threatened, using the three classes of ‘Vulnerable’, ‘Endangered’, and ‘Critically Endangered’. These assessments are often associated with Global conservation’s most high profile species, such as the Tiger and Giant Panda (both classified as Endangered) and until recently Global extinction has seemed a remote possibility for any of the UK’s birds. However, the most recent update of the Global Red List for birds, on 29th October, saw four of our breeding species being added to the Global list, with Puffin, Turtle Dove, Slavonian Grebe and Pochard all now regarded as Vulnerable to extinction.

    Secondly, our UK assessment, Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC). This is a more rounded process, considering more than simply the risk of extinction. Many of our greatest conservation concerns – the Skylarks that have been lost in their millions, Cuckoos that have fallen silent over much of southern UK, Yellow Wagtails that have disappeared from our wet meadows – are unlikely to go extinct in the near future, but this doesn’t mean we are any less concerned for them or less determined to bring their populations back to former glories. BoCC assesses a wide variety of factors such as trend, rarity,  helped by the wealth of monitoring data we have, to place species on Red (high concern), Amber (moderate concern) and green (low concern) lists. You can find details on the current Birds of Conservation Concern assessment (‘BoCC 3’) lists here. BoCC 3 was published in 2009, with 52 species on the Red list. However, we have been hard at work on BoCC 4, and will be publishing this in early December – I’ll come back and blog about it then.

    One other thing we do with this data is to produce Wild Bird Indicators, working with partners including the UK Government as these are used as official Government statistics, reported annual by Defra, most recently in October 2015. These indicators are less about tracking the fortunes of individual species, more about pooling their data to look at the broader patterns across groups of birds, and by inference biodiversity more widely, and indeed the wider environment. For example, the Farmland Bird Indicator takes trends from 19 species of bird dependent on farmland across the UK and combines their trends to produce an average trend for farmland birds. The severe drop in this line through the 1970s and 1980s indicates the decline in farmland birds – and farmland wildlife more generally, as a similar pattern is shown by indicators for other wildlife too – driven by changes in farming practices. This indicator is now at less than 50% of its 1970 starting point, meaning that farmland birds have declined by over half.

  • Titan our satellite-tagged Turtle Dove reaches his wintering grounds

    Guest blog by Dr John Mallord, Senior Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    On the night of either the 29th or 30th October, Titan, our celebrated satellite-tagged Turtle Dove, flew 240km south-east of southern Mauretania and made his first landfall in Mali since he left there on his return to the UK in the spring. This is significant because, based on his behaviour last year, we believe this constitutes his first genuine wintering area – rather than another stopover site, used on a more short-term basis during migration – and we expect him to be here for quite a while. Last year, he stayed in this area for about two months.

    Evidence that turtle dove are site faithful - Titan in same wintering ground as 2014

    And that is the other significant thing about this latest movement – Titan is now less than 5km from an area he frequented at the same time last year, and is perhaps the first direct evidence that Turtle Doves, like many other Afro-Palaearctic migrants, are faithful from year to year to particular sites on their wintering grounds. It also mirrors Titan’s behaviour this summer, returning to exactly the same territory as he occupied the year before.

    Having spent just three months in the UK (read the last Titan blog Following Titan our satellite-tagged turtle dove in Suffolk), Titan left Suffolk on 19th September – remarkably, exactly the same date as he did in 2014. After short stays in Spain and Morocco, he crossed the Sahara on the night of the 8th/9th October. Up until the end of last week, he had spent three weeks in southern Mauretania, close to the Senegal River and the border with Senegal.

    Photo of Titan the Turtle Dove by John Mallord.

    What are conditions out there like for Titan?

    We would have liked to have visited the area where Titan currently resides but, unfortunately, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against travel to most countries within this area of the Sahel. The exception is Senegal, where we currently have a team of researchers, led by Chris Orsman and Mark Whiffin of the RSPB, alongside two counterparts from the local conservation organisation Nature Communauté Développment (NCD), investigating the wintering ecology of Turtle Doves.

    Looking out for Titan in Senegal

    We were hoping that, like last year, Titan would spend some time in Senegal so the team could try to find him. Alas, possibly because it has been a particularly wet rainy season, and therefore there is more food around, Titan (along with other Turtle Doves), has been able to stay further north than last year. However, Chris and the team have been able to find lots of other Turtle Doves, just the other side of the Senegal-Mauretania border along the Senegal River, at one point only 30km from Titan’s location.

    As the following photograph of a Turtle Dove roost shows, it is indeed very wet out there (it is believed this site is being used by a Turtle Dove which was satellite-tagged by French colleagues in the summer). One would also think that this roost site is quite safe from predators, especially those travelling by land due to all the surface water! 

    Photo of wet Turtle Dove roost site

    Turtle Doves choosing to feed in grassy areas not on crops
    During the day, birds leave the roost and fly to areas favoured for foraging. There are published accounts suggesting that the seeds of various crops, such as rice, sorghum and millet, are important to wintering Turtle Doves; however, when Chris was out in Senegal in February all the harvesting had been done, and he found that birds were feeding in short-cropped grassland. However, crops are still in the ground at the moment, but birds are still mainly choosing to feed in grassy areas (see photograph below). It will be interesting to discover whether this behaviour changes as the winter progresses.

     Photo of Turtle Doves feeding on a grassy area

    Chris and the team will be in Senegal for the whole winter, and will soon be establishing a base near a roost site within some protected Acacia woodland, where they will be able to study the birds’ behaviour in more detail. I look forward to reporting back what they learn....

    Follow Titan's progress on @RSPBScience #titan #turtledove and visit our Titan webpage with updates on his location.

    Find out more about our work on turtles doves through Operation Turtle Dove.