Saturday, 18 September 2010

Changing waterfowl require greater understanding

The latest review of waterbird populations in the UK makes interesting reading. At first glance it suggests contrasting fortunes for many of the species with which we share these islands. The review, jointly published by the BTO, RSPB and JNCC, stems from the efforts of some 3,000 volunteer counters. These volunteers participate in the synchronised monthly counts that take place across our many inland and coastal waterbodies.

While some species reached new ‘highs’ in terms of their population levels, others reached all-time lows. An examination of the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ reveals that many of the ‘winners’ are introduced species whose naturalised populations continue to expand. These include Egyptian Goose, Mandarin Duck and Barnacle Goose. However, in with these are genuine colonists like Little Egret, a species expanding north on the back of global climate change.

The numbers of some species reflect breeding conditions elsewhere, the UK being a wintering ground with little or no breeding population of its own. A poor breeding season elsewhere may see fewer birds available to make the journey to our shores. The recent downtown in wintering numbers of Bewick’s Swans was once thought to be linked to a contraction eastwards in the wider European wintering range. However, recent research has revealed a decline in the overall population rather than just a shift in distribution. In contrast, our population of wintering Whooper Swans has continued to increase, with most of our visiting Whoopers arriving from Icelandic breeding grounds. The nature of the survey also enables the volunteer counters to gather information on breeding success for some species. In the case of the Whooper Swan, cygnets accounted for 16.8% of the birds present, slightly up on the previous winter.

The estuaries around Britain & Ireland are important wintering sites for many wading birds and these are also surveyed by the volunteers. Again fortunes appear mixed, with some notable increases seen in Avocet (a real conservation success story), Grey Plover and Sanderling. Balanced against this is the apparent news that Ringed Plover and Dunlin have both hit all time lows. Britain has eight sites of international importance for Ringed Plover but, while the decline might seem worrying, news of increasing numbers at sites elsewhere in Europe (notably The Netherlands) suggests that what we are actually seeing is an eastward shift in the core wintering range, perhaps linked to a run of mild winters.

Taken as a whole, this report highlights the need to monitor the changing fortunes of these birds at a much wider spatial scale, since a decline here may not mean that the population is falling, merely that it is now wintering elsewhere. Fortunately, our knowledge of waterbirds is increasing, placing our understanding into a wider context.

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