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Ups and downs for UK's waterbirds

Last modified: 17 November 2008

Avocet feeding in water

The concentrations of millions of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds, which spend the winter in the UK, are among our greatest wildlife spectacles.  But a report giving the most recent assessment, and charting their numbers and status, reveals that some dramatic changes are taking place with our birdlife in winter.  Some species are increasing, while others are decreasing alarmingly.

The report – Waterbirds in the UK 2006/2007 – reveals that 143 sites across the UK are of international importance for 43 species of waterbird, either during the winter or during migration periods.

The key findings from this year’s report of the Wetland Bird Survey include:

  • The numbers of Bewick’s swans were just half that recorded last year, to the lowest for 30 years
  • The numbers of European and Greenland white-fronted geese continued to suffer further long-term declines
  • The number of dunlins, one of the UK’s most abundant waders, was the lowest since 1970
  • The numbers of wigeons, teals and shovelers - types of duck - all fell, with wigeon suffering a decline of one fifth
  • The number of redshanks – a type of wader – declined for the third year running, reaching its lowest level for 20 years
  • The UK’s two species of godwits – types of wading bird – showed differing trends. The graph for black-tailed godwit – a bird of global conservation concern – reached its highest level, although the closely-related bar-tailed godwit, reached its lowest level to date, after a five-year decline
  • Avocets have continued to increase, reaching record numbers.

Milder winters

The report identifies climate change – specifically milder winters – as underlying many of the observed changes, as birds shorten their migratory flyways and spend the winter in other countries closer to their breeding grounds.  This is almost certainly the reason for declines of Bewick swans and European white-fronted geese.

Dr Debbie Pain, director of conservation at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, said: 'WWT reserves offer safe roosts and a plentiful food source to some 200,000 waterbirds every winter. At this time of the year, the UK’s estuaries, marshes and wetlands throng with the arrival of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds, making the UK one of the most important countries in the world for some of these birds.

'Although climate change and development threaten these wonderful sites, the RSPB will continue to do everything in its power to protect them'

'However, we are becoming increasingly concerned about the declining numbers of some populations. While some are simply taking advantage of milder winters by staying on the continent, others like the Greenland white-fronted goose, are in real and rapid decline. Conservation action is needed urgently to reverse these declines.'

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s conservation director, said: 'This report shows that our estuaries and wetlands are wonderful places for wildlife and they deserve to remain so.  But, many of theses sites are threatened by major development projects, such as a Thames estuary airport.

'Interestingly, it was another airport proposal – at Maplin Sands, in the 1960s - which spawned regular counting of the birds on important sites. These sites, almost like airports, are vital staging posts for international travelers. Although climate change and development threaten these wonderful sites, the RSPB will continue to do everything in its power to protect them.'

'We are blessed with years of information, chronicling the ups and downs of these international travelers. This information must present a wake-up call to protect these sites, rather than provide a record of how important they once were.'

Dr Andy Musgrove, head of the Wetland Bird Survey at the British Trust for Ornithology, BTO said: 'An army of thousands of volunteer birdwatchers has collected counts of wetland birds for over 60 years from around the country. These counts have proved invaluable time after time, whether investigating the potential impacts of industrial developments, assessing the likely effects of climate change or looking into the influence of introduced species on our native wildlife.'

'Here in the UK we are extremely fortunate to have such a dedicated team of skilled volunteers who are willing to give up their time to provide this vital information. It is thanks to them, and the high quality data they provide, that decisions affecting our internationally important populations of waterbirds can be based on sound scientific evidence.'

David Stroud, JNCC’s Senior Ornithologist, said: 'Maintaining the Wetland Bird Survey is essential to obtain good data on the trends of UK’s waterbirds.  Information on the status of these birds informs us about pressures not only at local sites here in the UK, but also about changing conditions on distant breeding grounds in the arctic – currently threatened by climate change.'

Global population declines

Research is needed to determine whether declines are due to birds short-stopping (that is, birds wintering closer to their breeding grounds, and hence occurring in the UK in smaller numbers) or whether they are ‘real’ global population declines.

This year’s report reveals that five sites in the UK are internationally-important for 12 species of bird, or more, these are: the Ribble (16 species); The Wash (16 species); the Humber (12 species); Morecambe Bay (12 species) and the Thames (12 species).

In particular, The Wash is the most important site in the UK for six species: dark-bellied brent goose; grey plover; lapwing; knot; black-tailed godwit; and bar-tailed godwit. The Thames estuary complex is the most important site in the UK for ringed plover, and Morecambe Bay is the most important UK site for curlew, oystercatcher and lesser black-backed gull.

The report is published by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO); Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT); Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB); and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

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