August, 2016

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
  • What we’ve learnt from Titan the satellite tagged Turtle dove

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

    Titan is the first UK-breeding Turtle dove to be tracked on his complete migratory journey to and from Africa, he is also the first Turtle dove in the world who has been tracked over two consecutive years, giving us a unique opportunity to compare and contrast his behaviour over two successive migratory cycles

    No news from Titan since April 2016

    Unfortunately, we have not received a transmission from Titan’s satellite tag since 22nd April, when he was still on his wintering grounds in Mali. This could be because the tag’s battery has failed. The tag’s performance had been worrying us throughout the winter, with very low battery voltages; after all, it was nearly two years old, the tag’s predicted lifespan An alternative explanation for not hearing from Titan is that he  may have perished  prior to beginning his northward migration back to the UK. We may never know for sure; however, colleagues have been out to look for him on his breeding grounds in Suffolk this summer, and have seen a number of turtle doves, there was no sign of Titan.

    Photo of Titan, the satellite tagged Turtle dove just about to be released.

    Titan appears to be a creature of habit always leaving UK on the same day

    Titan appears to be partially a creature of habit. he appears to have left his breeding grounds in Suffolk around the same time (ca. 19 September) in both years (2014 and 2015). The timing of his arrival in Spain a few days later, and at his first stopover locations south of the Sahara at the end of the first week of October were also very similar. However, his timings of arrival in his first and second wintering sites differed between years.

    Titan is site faithful to his breeding and wintering grounds

    Many species of birds are faithful to their breeding territories, and Titan was no different, occupying the same breeding grounds – an area of heathland, ca.1 km from the garden in which he was caught, - in both 2014 and 2015. But even this information, whether Turtle doves were site faithful, was uncertain before the advent of tracking technology.

    Site faithfulness to particular African wintering grounds has also increasingly been shown for long-distance migrants, but it was unknown whether this was the case for Turtle doves. Now Titan has shown that it is the case! When he first arrived in Mali in October 2015, he was less than 4 km from where he had been at the same time the previous year. This is not really that surprising as it makes sense for birds to return to places where they successfully survived the year before.

    Titan changed stop-over locations in response to environmental conditions

    However, at other times, Titan showed more flexibility in the places he chose to frequent. Although he passed through Spain on both occasions, his autumn stopover sites were separated by ca.100 km.

    Interestingly, his choices of stopover site just south of the Sahara in successive years were separated by an even greater distance, 300+ km; in October 2015, Titan didn’t enter Senegal at all, remaining north of that country’s main, and namesake, river in southern Mauretania.

    The different choices that Titan made may have been due to the variation in environmental conditions that he encountered when he arrived in the Sahel. Our colleagues in Senegal have told us that the rainy season in 2015 (lasting from around June to September each year) was a particularly wet one, which could well have resulted in there being more plentiful food and water further north than in 2014 (which, incidentally, was a particularly dry year!). Similar factors may have played a role in Titan’s decision to not travel not quite as far to his second wintering area.

    Photo of Turtle dove roost site along the Senegal River, October 2015.

    Unfavorable weather conditions in the Sahara made Titan arrive late in the UK

    Getting back to the breeding grounds early enough to successfully find a mate is a strong driving force behind migrant birds’ rapid return to Europe from Africa each spring. So it was with some concern that we had to wait until 22nd June for Titan to finally make his return to Suffolk. By this time, there had already been Turtle doves on territory for up to two months, so it is not surprising that, with all this competition, it is unlikely that he attracted a female and successfully bred. It wasn’t for lack of trying, as he sat every morning, purring from his favourite songpost, one of the taller pine trees within his territory. On one occasion, our Film Unit captured him on camera, perched on an overhead wire displaying to a female; sadly, she didn’t seem that impressed.

    The interesting thing is that the probable cause of Titan’s not finding a mate in Suffolk was unfavourable weather conditions in the Sahara two months earlier. So-called carry-over effects, whereby the impacts of conditions at one stage of the migratory cycle literally carry over to affect an organism at a later stage, have become a popular research topic in recent years.

    For Titan it may have been down to sandstorms on the edge of the desert. Having travelled north 500 km, crossing the border into Mauretania, on the southern edge of the Sahara, he appears to have been forced back on himself, returning 300 km back to Mali.

    It was the work of Dutch researchers tracking Honey Buzzards, who found that their birds were taking circuitous routes in the Sahara, which first suggested that sandstorms may be a problem. The peak of this phenomenon is in late April / early May, exactly when Titan had started his journey north, so although we will never be 100% sure, it certainly is plausible that this is what held him up for so long.

    Photo of Titan on his favourite songpost where he used to spend each morning purring in order to try to attract a mate

    Titan targets wooded river channels for water and roosting

    Although satellite tags do not have the same accuracy as those based on GPS, zooming in to Titan’s locations gives us a good idea of the kind of habitats he used throughout his journey. Perhaps not surprisingly, three characteristics were repeated time and again: a safe place to roost, a source of water and plenty of foraging habitat.

    In Africa, this has usually meant targeting river channels, where the added moisture in the soil allows greater tree growth, water is readily available, not only to drink, but often to provide irrigation to surrounding fields, thus also providing ample food.

    An insight into what Titan may have been up to was afforded us when a team of researchers from RSPB travelled to Senegal to work with staff from a local organisation, Nature Communauté Dévelopment (NCD), to study what Turtle doves get up to when they are on their wintering grounds.

    Using a combination of radio and GPS tags, the team were able to follow birds on their daily routine. Highlighting the importance of water, birds’ first task in the morning after leaving the roost was to find water, often entailing a 6 km flight to the nearest source. From here, birds would home in on certain food – either cultivated, such as fields of sorghum and peanuts, or natural scrubby grasslands. This fits nicely with the data we received from Titan, his locations centred on wooded river channels, with daily movements of 2 km or more into surrounding fields.

    Photo of Turtle doves in arable fallow with grass. 

    Titan’s legacy allows us to satellite tag more birds

    In addition to all of the things we have learnt from following Titan’s journey, his final legacy has been to enable us to carry on this important work.
    Along with rigorous testing of the safety of the tagging method on captive Turtle doves at Pensthorpe Natural Park in Norfolk, successfully following Titan over 21 months helped in being granted permission to tag more birds in 2016.

    After spending nearly two months baiting sites with seed to attract birds, using a combination of walk-in traps and whoosh nets, from 2nd to 22nd June our team successfully caught and tagged more birds.
    We look forward to finding out what the journeys of these new birds can add to what Titan taught us in the months ahead........

    Photo of Turtle doves coming down to our baited cage just prior to catching and tagging our first bird of the summer

    Find out more

    Follow Titan’s migration journey by taking a look at his story map

    To follow our new satellite tagged Turtle doves visit


  • Living in the Gola forests - Pygmy hippos and people

    Guest blog by Dr. Annika Hillers, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    Between 2010 and 2014 the research teams in the Gola Forests in Sierra Leone and Liberia conducted various pygmy hippopotamus surveys. Results showed that pygmy hippos are associated with larger rivers close to, but rarely within large intact forest areas, and mainly outside of protected areas. Therefore, robust networks of protected forests and community-based conservation activities are needed for the survival of pygmy hippos.

    This recent research was published in the journal Oryx and is titled A mix of community-based conservation and protected forests is needed for the survival of the Endangered pygmy hippopotamus Choeropsis liberiensis.

    The elusive pygmy hippo

    Pygmy hippos are endangered and occur in only four countries in West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea). They are found in forested areas, which now are very much fragmented and continue to be under immense human pressure linked to agriculture, logging and mining. There is no reliable estimate for the remaining pygmy hippo population in the wild, but it is believed to range from 2,000 to 3,000 individuals.

    Pygmy hippos are very elusive and solitary animals. Knowledge about their distribution and ecology is scarce, and they are threatened through habitat destruction and hunting for bushmeat.

    The Greater Gola Landscape in Sierra Leone and Liberia is one of the last remaining natural habitats for pygmy hippos and therefore very important for their survival.

    Photo of pygmy hippo recorded on camera trap in the Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone

    Gola pygmy hippo research and community outreach

    For the past six years, various research and outreach activities in the Gola Forests focused on pygmy hippos.

    Research included community questionnaires, surveys along rivers and streams, camera trapping and transect walks. In a separate project we also tried to capture and radio collar pygmy hippos.

    Awareness raising events were for example meetings and road shows with local communities and activities with school children. We also produced education materials, such as posters, bumper stickers, species fact sheets and T-Shirts.

    Research and outreach activities were funded through Basel Zoo, Switzerland, and the European Commission.

    More pygmy hippos live outside of protected areas

    During field surveys, pygmy hippo signs such as dung, footprints, feeding sites and direct sightings (e.g. camera trap pictures) were recorded at 509 locations, most of which (80.4%) were located outside of protected areas. Recorded signs were also used to model the potential pygmy hippo distribution in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

    Pygmy hippo locations were mainly associated with larger rivers, and were close to, but rarely within large, intact forest areas.

    Pygmy hippos need people’s help to survive

    In the greater Gola landscape, pygmy hippos mainly occur along larger rivers in the community forest area. They therefore need strong support from communities in order to avoid land-use and human-wildlife conflicts, further habitat destruction and poaching. Community-based conservation activities are the way forward to guarantee the survival of pygmy hippos in this region.

    Actively involving the local community on conservation

    The recommendation from our research findings was already put into practice. The Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) piloted a “Community Youth Conservation Volunteer programme”, which targets unemployed youth in forest edge communities and actively involves them in the conservation of threatened species. Two groups of volunteers were trained at the Gola Rainforest Conservation Centre in January and March 2016. One group focuses on pygmy hippos (funded again by Basel Zoo), the other group focuses on the white-necked Picathartes, another species that depends strongly on habitats in community forests areas.

    The first group of pygmy hippo Conservation Volunteers trained at the Gola Rainforest Conservation Centre in March 2016

    Twelve Conservation Volunteers (including three women) were selected from six communities and form three teams. Every month, they conduct pygmy hippo surveys around their communities and engage school children at their local schools in various education activities around pygmy hippos. The volunteers will also be engaged in other community outreach activities of the Gola Rainforest National Park. At the end of the first year of the programme, the volunteer teams will present their activities and findings. The best Conservation Volunteers will be selected and will act as mentors for the next group of volunteers, which will come from different communities.

    We hope this programme will help to raise more awareness and support for pygmy hippos among local communities. We also administer questionnaires at various stages of the project in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme.

    More information about the Gola forests

    The RSPB is proud that we have worked in partnership with the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone and the Government of Sierra Leone for 25 years to protect and restore this amazing forest. Gola harbours 60 globally threatened species such as the enigmatic pygmy hippo and beautiful Diana monkey, and directly benefits approximately 24,000 people living in 122 forest edge communities: people who are the poorest of the poor. Find out more about our Gola appeal here.

    You can Follow us on twitter @Golarainforest and visit the RSPB web page The Gola Rainforest: Sierra Leone's first Rainforest National Park

    More information about the Gola Forests and the Gola Reducing Emissions for Deforestation and Degradation project (as a way of tackling climate change, to provide long term financing for the park and directly benefit forest edge communities) visit

  • State of common birds in Europe

    Guest blog by Dr Richard Gregory, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and Project Manager of the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS)

    A new report reveals the population change of 169 common birds in Europe over the last 34 years (1980 to 2014) and for the last decade (2005 to 2014).

    The report published by the PECBMS, brings together data from 28 countries and from a range of organisations including the RSPB. The report reveals the steep decline of long-distance migrants and many farmland birds, but the increase of some woodland species in Europe.

    Long-distance migrant birds facing steep declines

    Long-distance migrant birds including Turtle dove (down 79%), Willow warbler (down 35%), Wood warbler (down 33%) and Cuckoo (down 22%) are all facing steep declines - with the Turtle dove population trend plummeting to a new low (1980 to 2014). 

    Photo of Turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, perched in tree by Andy Hay (

    Graph showing the population change (1980 to 2014) of European Turtle dove showing a -79% long-term trend from the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (

    Graph showing the grouped species trends of all common birds in Europe (167 species), showing a -16% decline (1980-2014), and long-distance migrant birds (55 species) showing a -28% decline from the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (

    Farmland birds, such as Skylark and Starling are also facing steep declines, numbers falling by 55% over recent decades in both cases (1980 to 2014).

    Our breeding wading birds too are not faring well across Europe, Curlew numbers down 43%, Lapwing down 58%, and Redshank worryingly down by 61% (1980 to 2014). The trends of these birds give particular cause for conservation concern.

    Woodland birds showing moderate increase

    Woodland birds show greater population stability as a group across Europe – Greater spotted woodpecker numbers are up 76% and Black woodpecker numbers up 95%!  And yet not all forest birds are doing well, the Nightingale, another migrant bird is a case in point, down by 65% across Europe.

    Europe species declines mirrored in UK

    The declines revealed in this report mirror the species declines in the UK - and these data feed into the new European figures.  For example, the recent Breeding Bird Survey revealed that the Turtle dove declined by- 93% in the UK from 1995 to 2014. For more information take a look at the State for the UKs birds 2015 and the 2015 Breeding Bird Survey

    Some European species increasing strongly

    Despite the declines the numbers of white stork, crane, hoopoe and Sardinian warbler are all increasing strongly in Europe and we might expect see them here more often.  In contrast, numbers of Ortolan bunting, Rustic bunting and Serin, are all way down and they may become much scarcer as vagrants.

    Photo showing Common crane on pastureland, during autumn migration period in Germany by Nick Upton (

    Data for 169 common European birds is open access

    For the first time the trend data used in the report is available for free download from the PECBMS website. To download the data visit the PECBMS website - European species indices and European & EU species indicators.

    The report is used to inform conservation efforts

    The report is used to help direct conservation effort and priorities at national EU and European levels, and the data has been used in a number of peer-reviewed papers, including important recent research published in the journal Conservation Letters last week, Tracking Progress Towards EU Biodiversity Strategy Targets: EU Policy Effects in Preserving its Common Farmland Birds.

    For more information about PECBMS visit

    Special thanks

    Many thanks go to the dedicated volunteers who have contributed to the dataset used in this report and the many national partners, organisations and Individuals who make the PECBMS possible.  The PECBMS is funded by the European Commission and RSPB.