July, 2017

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
  • Travelling, tracking and teaching

    Guest blog by Georgia Longmoor, Project Puffin Intern, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science 

    As a team we have done a huge amount of travelling this summer. We spent a month in Shetland to carry out our census, Sophie, Fritha and Rob then travelled straight to the Shiant Isles to tag and monitor puffins, until finally we all travelled back to Shetland together to continue our GPS tracking work!

    Communicating our science
    Now that we’re all back in our respective homes identifying fish from puffin colonies across the UK, I want to tell you a bit about how we engaged Shetland school students in our work with our name the puffin competition (using some puffin-y costumes and props!).

    I think that science communication is one of the most important parts of research – we need to communicate what we’re doing and why it’s important, otherwise our hard work might not have impact in the real world.
    Involving the younger generation now could inspire them to do amazing things for nature in the future too – they could even become future conservation scientists!

    Photo: Puffin photo submitted for Puffarazzi by Edward Bartlett, 11 years old. Picture taken at Skomer

    Team Puffin goes to school
    During our most recent visit to Shetland, we tagged puffins with GPS trackers and monitored their behaviour to find out where they were travelling to find fish for their chicks.
    We wanted to get local school students involved in our work in some way, and with the help of Sandra, the deputy headmistress at Baltasound School in Unst, we asked them to name some of the puffins we’re tracking around the Islands. During their last week of school every teacher asked their class to think of puffin names. In the meantime, we were busy transforming Sophie into ‘Sophie the Puffin’...

    “I saw a puffin underwater when I was swimming in the sea!”
    Sophie the puffin flew around the classroom as we demonstrated how we can count puffin numbers with binoculars, track where they’re travelling to find fish with a ‘GPS tag’ backpack, and take photos of them carrying fish to their chicks with a camera, using a puffling puppet and a silvery fish!
    It was great to see so much enthusiasm and I want to thank the staff at Baltasound School. The children told us so many puffin stories and asked so many great questions, from “how fast can a puffin fly?” to “why are puffins declining?”.

    We had a difficult choice between many potential puffin names and when we finally announced the winners of our competition, they were very happy to shake Sophie the Puffin’s wing!

    Photos: Left (from the left)Georgia, Sophie the puffin and Sian at Baltasound School, Unst. Right: Sophie the puffin demonstrating her GPS tag backpack. Photos by Georgia Longmoor and Sian Haddon

    Name that puffin!
    The winning names of our name a puffin competition at Baltasound School were:
    • Tammie, by Lottie Thomson
    • Barnacles, by Lizzie Ramsay
    • Dorris, by Kaitlyn Carnell
    • Hufflepuff, by Natalie Jamieson
    • George, by Freya Mouat
    • Bob, by Connor Brown

    Why is our tracking research important?
    We’re working on analyzing the data from our GPS tracking work at the moment and we’ll be publishing tracking maps on our website in August – so you will soon be able to follow Hufflepuff, Barnacles and the others as they fly around Shetland finding fish for their growing pufflings.
    Our tracking research will help us find out where puffins in Shetland and the Shiant Isles are going to find fish, and we’re going to combine this information with our census data where we’ve counted puffin numbers in different colonies, and the photographs of puffins carrying fish that you’ve been sending us. This will help us find out where puffins are declining, and whether their inability to find the right fish could be the problem.

    Photo: Puffin photo submitted for Puffarazzi by Ian McFarlane at the Isle of May

    Next steps for Project Puffin: Puffarazzi analysis begins!
    Following in the footsteps of the enthusiastic children at Baltasound School, we are overwhelmed and excited by your response to our call for Puffarazzi! We have collected over 1000 photos so far, and our team have been busily identifying the fish in your puffins’ beaks.
    Soon you’ll be able to find out which fish your puffin was carrying to its pufflings - look out for emails and keep an eye on the blogs our website in the next few weeks for information about our results.
    Your photos are really helping us to find out more about the diet of puffins all over the UK and pinpoint where the problem areas are, so hopefully we can make steps to save this iconic species from extinction. Thank you for all of your support with our project!

    Project Puffin, supported by HLF Scotland, combines the latest technology with citizen science to tackle three of the biggest challenges hampering conservation efforts for these charismatic birds.

    To find out more about our tracking, tagging and monitoring work, puffarazzi and more, visit www.rspb.org.uk/projectpuffin. If you’re on Twitter follow us on @RSPBScience and #ProjectPuffinUK.

  • National capercaillie survey 2015-16

    Blog by Nick Wilkinson, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    The capercaillie is a spectacular large woodland grouse of old world boreal and temperate forests. It is famous for its communal displays at ‘leks’ in spring, where males gather to attract a mate. Across much of its fragmented European range, however, populations are declining. In the UK, the capercaillie is found only in Scotland, where the population of this ‘red-listed’ species has decreased substantially in both numbers and range since the mid-1970s.

    By the time of the first national survey, in 1992-94, the population had fallen to just 2200 birds (95% Confidence Limits: 1500-3200) and then to 1073 birds (95% CL: 549-2041) when re-surveyed in 1998-99. Research showed that poor breeding success (due to wet weather at hatch-time in June, predation, and habitat) and the elevated mortality of adult birds, owing to collisions with deer fences, contributed to the decline. The parlous population status of capercaillie at the end of the 20th century prompted an ongoing programme of research and conservation action by public bodies, conservation NGOs and private landowners.

    Picture: Capercaillie male in roost tree, Caledonian pine forest, Scotland, by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)


    The importance of monitoring

    Regular monitoring of the population status of capercaillie in Scotland is an essential part of assessing the impact of this conservation action and helps to inform the targeting of further work. The population is assessed every six years by RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) as part of a rolling survey programme for a range of bird species of conservation concern requiring periodic national population surveys (e.g. hen harrier). The latest national survey (the fifth) was undertaken during winter 2015-16. Unlike most national single species surveys, capercaillie are surveyed in winter when the birds feed in the tree canopy and are more readily flushed and detected by observers. This timing also avoids disturbance during the breeding season. As highlighted by Simon’s blog  on the hen harrier survey, such surveys require considerable preparation and planning to set up once funding is confirmed. This includes collating the most-up-to-date data to define the species’ known range (and thus area for survey), assessing modifications to the survey sampling design (in order to improve the precision of the population size estimate whilst maintaining comparability with previous surveys), selecting the random sample of sites for survey, identifying and contacting landowners, and recruiting and training a team of fieldworkers to undertake the survey.

    Fortunately for me, the Capercaillie Project Officer (a post funded jointly by RSPB, SNH and Forestry Commission Scotland) was able to take on the substantial task of identifying and contacting the many landowners to arrange survey access.

    Photo: Male and female capercaillie artwork, by Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

    In Scotland, capercaillie are found primarily in Scots pine woodlands (both remnants of the old Caledonian forest, and mature plantations) with an under-storey of bilberry. As with all previous national capercaillie surveys, the survey itself involved walking a sample of 2-km long triangular line transects selected randomly in woodland throughout the species’ known range to record all capercaillie seen. In addition to the required ornithological knowledge and experience of surveyors, this calls for good navigation skills (aided by hand-held Global Positioning System units) and physical fitness, particularly in the dense forests typical of plantations, where weaving a route between the trees can be a struggle in itself, let alone the joy of finding your transect route crossing areas of clear-felled and/or wind-thrown trees.

    Although capercaillie are large birds (c. 74 cm long from bill to tail, with a wingspan of over a metre; males weigh approx 4 kg, twice that of the much smaller, well-camouflaged, females), they can be surprisingly difficult to see until they have been flushed, and then it is often just a fleeting glimpse. Occasionally, however, you can be rewarded with magnificent views of this rare and elusive bird flying through open woodland that seem to go on for ages, but probably last all of 5-10 seconds. On seeing capercaillie, in addition to recording the number and sex, we also collect data on the distance of birds from the transect line. Using the method of distance sampling, this information allows us to account for the fact that some birds may remain undetected in the surveyed area (because the probability of detecting a bird decreases as its distance from the observer increases). Distance sampling uses data on the distances of detected birds from the transect line to estimate the density of birds (number per unit area) and, by extrapolation to the known range, total population size.

    Photo: Capercaillie male displaying, at Abernethy, by Dave Braddock (rspb-images.com)

    The 2015-16 survey 

    Thanks to relatively benign winter conditions (unlike the remarkably snowy winter encountered by the previous survey in 2009-10), the team of six surveyors covered nearly 750 transects (~ 1500 km) between November 2015 and March 2016. Most birds were recorded in the core of the range around the Spey valley with sadly few found in the peripheral areas of the range. Analysis of the survey results indicate that the provisional total capercaillie population estimate is 1114 individuals (95% Confidence Limits: 805-1505). This is a slight decline (-13%) since the previous survey in 2009-10 when the population was estimated to be 1285 individuals (95% CL: 822-1882), although this change was not statistically significant. Other data support the suggestion of relative population stability. Over the longer term of national surveys (dating back to the early 1990s), the population appears to have fluctuated between 1000 and 2000 birds, but is now very much at the low end of this range. As in previous surveys, the area around Strathspey held the bulk of the population (83%) and capercaillie are now very scarce in Easter Ross, Moray, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.
    Conservation measures to reduce mortality from fence collisions are relatively simple (marking fences to make them more visible, reducing their height or, ideally, complete removal) and have largely been put in place.

    By contrast, measures to improve breeding success have proved much more difficult, with multiple factors involved, including weather, climate, habitat and predators, and this remains the key factor underlying the lack of population recovery. Breeding success is adversely affected by weather (high rainfall in June when the chicks hatch) and predation, and is only (relatively) high when both June rainfall and numbers of predators are low. Furthermore, wetter Junes have become more frequent and appear to be part of a long-term trend, while the small size and fragmented nature of forests within much of their Scottish range provides easier access to predators such as crows and foxes and likely exacerbates the effects of predation (‘edge effects’). Additionally, there is increasing evidence that human disturbance (use of vehicle tracks and footpaths) causes capercaillie to avoid using large areas of otherwise suitable woodland, reducing the area of habitat available to the birds and, potentially, limiting population expansion. Whilst the concerted conservation action of the last two decades appears to have made a second extinction of capercaillie in Scotland less likely, these latest results highlight that the population remains at a critically low level.

  • Red-Amber-Green Lists of Birds in Wales are revised

    Blog by Dr Ian Johnstone, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science based at the RSPB Cymru North Wales Office

    With the recent launch of the revised Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) lists for Wales, this is the perfect opportunity to talk about what the lists mean for nature in Wales. Why we produce the lists is crucial, as changes in the lists at this third revision ensure the species of greatest conservation concern in Wales - and their habitats - are then highlighted to key Welsh Government environmental decision makers.

    As Welsh Government (WG) has increasingly taken the lead in shaping policy on the environment, conservation organisations have responded by delivering nature conservation advocacy at a devolved level. BoCC has recently been revised for the UK (seen here). However, there is much regional variation in the health of bird populations between the UK Countries. Therefore, as part of RSPB Cymru and partners informing Wales-level environmental and nature conservation policy, we have also revised the lists specifically for Wales.

    Photo: Curlew, by Andy Hay (RSPB images)

    How does BoCC work?
    Over 400 bird species have occurred naturally in Wales. However, because many are only recorded occasionally, we use rules to categorise them into those that have established populations, used to occur but are now extinct, or currently occur only as scarce migrants and vagrants. On applying these we get a list of 213 established species that include a mixture of residents and migrants. Some migrants only occur during breeding while others only occur in winter or on passage.

    For each of these we collated the available data to compare with a set of seven main criteria - the same as those used in the UK assessment. These were: global importance; historic decline; recent population decline; European importance; rarity; localisation and international importance. In addition, and to reflect the ‘nested’ position of Wales within the larger UK, we used an additional eighth criterion to reflect the importance of populations in Wales to those in the wider UK.

    Species are placed on the Red-list if they meet one or more of the following rules: are globally important, have declined historically, show recent severe decline, and have failed to recover from historic decline. Species are placed on the Amber-list if they meet one or more of these rules: are important in Europe, show recent moderate decline, show some recovery from historical decline, or occur in internationally important numbers, have a highly localised distribution or are important to the wider UK. Any species not qualifying under any of these rules is placed on the Green-list.

    Making the most of data
    As in the wider UK, we are lucky in that there are numerous long-running schemes active in Wales, many relying on citizen scientists getting out and bird watching. However, they vary in the kinds of birds they monitor and the rigour of their coverage. Nevertheless, they can all generate some level of information to inform our eight criteria.

    Despite these schemes, there are still a few species for which we lack some Wales-level data. In such ‘data deficient’ cases we used data for the UK where they matched expert opinion of the situation in Wales. If this was not the case or data were otherwise lacking, we did not make an assessment against some criteria, and thus were conservative in our approach.

    Photo: Puffy, by Chiara Ceci (RSPB images)

    Winners and losers on the new Welsh lists
    Fifty five species were placed on the Red list (an increase of nine). Eighty nine were placed on the Amber list (a fall of 10). The remaining 69 were placed on Green list (an increase of one). Most changes were between Red and Amber lists (10 upward, three downward), but two species, Black-legged Kittiwake and Whinchat, moved from Green to Red. Movements could be accounted for primarily by real changes in populations, although changes to criteria did account for a small number as they did in the UK assessment.

    More breeding birds of coastal, farmland and upland habitats were Red and Amber listed than for other habitat groups. Furthermore, there were more additions to the Red list among coastal and upland breeding birds than among birds of other habitats. Wintering and passage migrants represent a fourth group of birds over-represented on Red and Amber lists.

    This reassessment highlights that coastal breeding birds is a new group to watch, in addition to the already important farmland and upland bird groups. The new lists were published in the summer 2016 edition of the Welsh Ornithological Society journal Birds in Wales, and a summary is available from RSPB Cymru here.