Wading birds declining in the UK (Photos)

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The magical wildlife spectacle of hundreds of thousands of wading birds converging on British estuaries could be under threat as research shows big declines in some of the most familiar species. Results from the Wetland Bird Survey reveals that ringed plovers, oystercatchers, redshank and dunlin are among the eight most abundant species overwintering on UK estuaries to suffer significant and consistent population drops over 10 years.

(Charadrius hiaticula) on a pebble beach. Isle of Barra, Scotland, July . Photograph: Fergus Gill/Alamy

Conservationists believe several factors are responsible, including climate change forcing the birds to areas outside the UK, and say collaborative international research is imperative. Examinations of the traditional sites, the largest of which include the Wash, Morecambe Bay and Thames Estuary, are also required to determine if there are site-specific issues.

Ringed plovers have suffered a decline of 39% in 10 years in over-wintering birds and those breeding in the UK. Redshank have fallen by 26% and Dunlin by 23%.

Curlew have fallen by 17% and oystercatchers by 15% in the 10 years to June 2012. Knot have dropped by 7% and the by 10%. Grey plover are down by 21%, according to the data collected by thousands of volunteers.

Chas Holt of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who coordinated the survey, said: “I think we should be quite alarmed because the declines for many of these species are pretty consistent. Species like the ringed plover, redshank and dunlin, their decline has been consistent for 10 to 20 years now. And there is no obvious change happening, so in 10 years time we could be well down on numbers.

“It is hard to get a handle on exactly what is going on. When you see declines like this, it could be one of two or three main reasons.

“The overall population of the species as a whole could be in decline. These birds are breeding in the Arctic then wintering much further south in a flyway that runs right from north-west Europe down into Africa. So they are wintering over a large area. So, is the whole population in decline? Are they producing more young but is the survival rate lower? Or are they just slightly shifting distribution?”

Such consistent declines, he said, “mean we certainly have to take stock and understand what is going on”. Research by Wetland International has shown winter populations of some of the species have recently shifted away from the UK to Dutch and German coasts, possibly in response to milder winters. Another possibility is fewer young waders being successfully reared in the Arctic, which is experiencing rapid warming.

Waders produce spectacular shows during the peak period from November to January. The Wash, the largest in terms of overall numbers, holds a minimum of 350,000 birds at a time, not just waders but also ducks including widgeon and , and geese such as the dark-bellied brent goose. It has been estimated that around 2m birds throughout each year use the Wash, where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire, attracted by its vast sandbanks and salt marshes.

Richard Hearn, head of species monitoring at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), said: “The declines in waders and other wintering waterbirds in the UK over the past decade or more, as revealed by the Wetland Bird Survey, are indicative of wider concerns about the state of our environment. “They demonstrate the unprecedented period of change that these waterbirds are undergoing, and highlight the need for a step change in monitoring and relevant conservation action if we are to avert continued biodiversity loss.”

The Wetland Bird Survey, a partnership between the BTO, the government’s advisory joint nature conservation committee and the RSPB, in association with WWT, monitors birds at more than 2,000 wetland sites from estuaries to ponds across the UK.

Ringed Plover, Chesil Beach, Dorset. Photograph: Theo Moye/Alamy
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) adult, non-breeding plumage, feeding on mudflats, Snettisham RSPB Reserve, The Wash, Norfolk. Photograph: FLPA/Alamy
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) two adults, winter plumage, in flight, landing on occupied post, Blythburgh, Suffolk, England – Photograph: FLPA/Alamy
Calling Redshank , Leysdown beach Isle of Sheppey Kent UK. Winter high tide. Photograph: Mark Bretherton/Alamy
Redshanks (Tringa totanus) roosting with reflections in water, The Wash, Norfolk, England, UK – Photograph: Gary Smith/Alamy
Dunlin () adult trying to pull a worm out of the wet sand, September, Shetland Islands, UK. Photograph: Andrew Parkinson/Alamy
Dunlin, Calidris alpina, group on beach, Cumbria, 2nd March 2014 – Photograph: Mike Lane/Alamy
CURLEW Portrait of an adult on a grassy mound. July. Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK. Photograph: Andrew Parkinson/Alamy
Curlew about to take off from Little Eye Dee Estuary – Photograph: Pat Bennett/Alamy
Eurasian Haematopus ostralegus adult day-old chick sitting at nest in ploughed breckland Norfolk England – Photograph: FLPA/Alamy
Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) flock, in flight, feeding on mudflats, Snettisham RSPB Reserve, The Wash, Norfolk – Photograph: FLPA/Alamy
Bar-tailed Godwit – Photograph: Hugh Harrop/Alamy
Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) flock, in flight, Norfolk, England – Photograph: FLPA/Rex Features
Knot An adult foraging among seaweed on a secluded Scottish beach Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK – Photograph: Andrew Parkinson/Alamy
Tens of thousands of move as one as they fly to a high tide roost, Norfolk, UK. these flocks of knot form when the knot are driven off their estuary feeding grounds by the rising tide. Present in the UK from August to May the knot is a small wading bird, feeding mainly on shellfish and worms. Photograph: Andrew Parkinson/Corbis

This article was written by for The Guardian.

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Robert Piller
Robert Piller

We actually believe the figures they give to be woefully inaccurate in any case. Curlews numbers have fallen to the point where there are none left at all in most parts of the country and yet here they are below claiming a mere 17% decline.

‘Curlew have fallen by 17% and oystercatchers by 15% in the 10 years to June 2012. Knot have dropped by 7% and the bar-tailed godwit by 10%. Grey plover are down by 21%, according to the data collected by thousands of volunteers.’

Susan Frudd

Wonderful photos. The wash is an important area for waders, I am fortunate to live very near the wash in Lincolnshire and have spent many great days watching the birds. I have to say over the years I have noted bird numbers falling especially oyster catchers ,common terns, greenshanks and whimbrel to name a few……. worrying.