Thousands of seaducks go missing

Widespread declines in birds that spend most of their lives at sea are alarming conservationists.

Long-tailed duck, Wolfgang Wander

Seven species of seaduck that overwinter in the Baltic – a key wintering site – have dropped in number by up to 65% in 15 years, without any clear explanation.

Declines have also been found around British coasts, with long-tailed duck, velvet scoter and red-breasted merganser among those hardest hit. In North America the trend continues with several seaduck populations significantly down, among them black scoters, white-winged scoters and surf scoters.

“These birds just seem to have gone missing,” said Richard Hearn, Head of Species Monitoring at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and Chair of the IUCN-SSC/Wetlands International Duck Specialist Group.

“The scale of the declines in Europe is very surprising and largely unexpected. Most of these species remain relatively numerous but if their numbers continue to fall at these rates, some of these species could soon be in serious trouble.”

A report published today, Waterbird Populations and Pressures in the Baltic Sea, shows that the number of waterbirds wintering in the Baltic fell overall by 40%, from 7.44 million to 4.41 million. The declines were revealed by two censuses, staged from 1992-3 and 2007-9.

Concerns have been reinforced by monitoring elsewhere showing much smaller numbers of seaducks in important British sites such as the Moray Firth and Clyde Estuary, and in the Netherlands.

Red-breasted merganser, Hugh Venables

Seaducks and other birds migrate in autumn to escape deteriorating conditions at their high Arctic breeding grounds. Some head for the Baltic while others continue west. But if winters are mild they may not fly so far, swelling numbers in continental Europe but reducing populations in the UK.

Until recently, conservationists had largely attributed falling UK numbers to this ‘short-stopping’ but now they fear the situation for some species is more serious.

Several causes could be to blame. “It could be oil pollution, reduced food in the Baltic Sea, or something happening in the birds’ Arctic breeding grounds,” Richard Hearn said.

Climate change could be disrupting the natural balance between predators and prey, scientists fear. If there are fewer lemmings for example, arctic foxes, skuas and snowy owls are forced to seek other sources of food.

“Birds also die in fishing nets but it’s unlikely that the nets would kill so many. Shipping, development and over-fishing are all increasing, however, which could be significant. It may be that a few factors are acting together to cause these massive declines.”

Richard Hearn is urging European seaduck experts to meet in the spring to draw up an action plan to tackle the problem.

He hopes that measures will win backing from EU policy makers, particularly since the global red list status of some seaduck species may soon be raised by the IUCN.

More details here

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WWT Photography Competition autumn heat closes and winter heat begins!

The autumn heat of the 2010/11 WWT Photography Competition closed on 30 November, making way for the start of the winter heat.

Almost 2,500 pictures were entered across five categories, which included Wetland Wildlife, World Wetlands and Young Photographer of the Year. And 12,800 votes were cast by the public to determine the People’s Choice category winner.

The judging will now begin and our selected regional winners will be handed a fabulous wildlife photography workshop held at their local WWT centre, courtesy of Wild Arena.

They’ll also go through to the competition final, taking place once the final summer seasonal heat ends in 2012, and be in with a chance of winning top prizes including a seven day activity holiday for two to Sooma National Park in Estonia, a five night eco-tourism break for two people to New York State and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica.

Below is a selection of the entries we’ve had for the autumn heat of the competition. You can view these and all of the rest on the website.

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Studies point to rapid changes in the waterbird world, but what does it mean for conservation?

Two studies hitting the news this week have highlighted big changes for waterbirds. On Monday, a Finnish study measured how much later wildfowl in Northern Europe are setting off on their autumn migrations. Yesterday, the State of the UK’s Birds reports dramatic changes in wintering waterbird numbers visiting our wetlands.

Both findings reflect the very rapid changes that are happing to the world around us though, as always when you dig a little deeper, things are more complex than they initially seem.

Short-stopping

Milder winters in recent decades have undoubtedly caused, at least in part, some significant changes to migration patterns. Some species now migrate later, or travel less far so they can overwinter closer to their breeding areas: a phenomenon known as ‘short-stopping’.

But it’d be a mistake to assume that in every case. If there are fewer waterbirds in the UK, they’re not necessarily all safely wintering in continental Europe.

An international count of Bewick’s swans in 2005 confirmed that the steep drop we’d seen in numbers was not balanced out by an increase in numbers elsewhere in Europe. They really are suffering a decline, not simply short-stopping.

More recently, coordinated counts from the Baltic Sea have strongly indicated that the declines seen in the UK of long-tailed duck and velvet scoter are happening across the flyway; it appears many seaducks are in serious trouble.

However, for seaducks and some other species, internationally coordinated surveys are not yet in place. Without the big picture, the challenge is working out what to do about the declines reported in the State of the UK’s Birds.

We need to look at the whole population to see how much is down to conservation problems and how much is because they’ve adapted to the change in climate and are wintering elsewhere.

Understanding this is crucial for us to determine what to do next. The key to unlocking these secrets is working with our counterparts throughout their flyways to develop a more comprehensive survey effort, e.g. through the International Waterbird Census – something that WWT is a keen supporter of.

Protected areas

Although, overall, numbers of wintering waterbirds have been in shallow decline since the late 1990s, some species have actually been on the increase. To the untrained eye, whooper swans are indistinguishable from Bewick’s swans, but their fortunes have been quite different. Whooper swans have reached record numbers, including at their main wintering site: the Ouse washes in Norfolk.

In this case, all the monitoring done by our reserve wardens and teams of volunteers across the country really pays off. We know which species we need to focus our conservation efforts on.

But again, it’s not so simple. Whooper swan numbers may be increasing, but as they do they’ll have to spread out more so they’re not competing with each other for food and roosting space. So nature reserves, and sympathetic management of the wider countryside, are just as important as they are for species in decline.

Over the years WWT’s reserve managers have carefully tweaked the reserves to accommodate these changes that we’ve been observing. For instance, the number of European white-fronted geese arriving at WWT Slimbridge each winter has changed from around 6,000 to about 500 in the last 30 years.

However, over the same period species such as lapwing, golden plover and little egret have increased greatly in numbers. For the white-fronted geese that still come the goose pasture of Slimbridge still provides vital grazing for them, particularly with the threat of more frequent winter cold snaps. But at the same time the reserve managers have managed to keep the water levels higher in areas, which has really helped the lapwing and golden plover.

The challenge is to continue provide what is needed for all these species during this period of rapid change.

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Swan-up and duck down, dramatic changes revealed in the UK’s waterbirds

Press release on behalf of the following partnership: British Trust for Ornithology; Joint Nature Conservation Committee; Natural England; Northern Ireland Environment Agency; RSPB; Scottish Natural Heritage;
and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Signs of dramatic changes for some wetland birds, including the mallard, are reported today as some species reach their highest and lowest recorded population levels in the UK in winter.

Millions of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds escaping the Arctic winter in northern Europe, Siberia, Greenland and Canada, head for our shores, making the UK one of the most important European countries for wintering waterbirds.

The latest population figures on wetland birds – and a host of other species are – contained in the State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report – published by a coalition of conservation organisations. The report provides a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the results of bird surveys and monitoring schemes and projects from across the UK from as recently as 2010.

Overall, numbers of wintering waterbirds have been in shallow decline since the late 1990s, but the underlying story is more complex.

One of the greatest losses recorded in the report has been the mallard – Britain’s most familiar duck – which has hit a new low with the lowest recorded numbers wintering at their most important UK strongholds. The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report shows that winter mallard numbers have declined by 38 per cent since 1982 and by 22 per cent since 1998. However, the shoveler, a close relative of the mallard, has increased by 27 per cent since 1998.

The whooper swan, which breeds in Iceland, has reached its highest levels (increasing by 122 per cent in the last 10 years) while the Bewick’s swan, which breeds in Siberia, has declined by 44 per cent over the same period.

The reasons for the changes are complex and not yet fully understood. Results from waterbird monitoring schemes in other parts of Europe have shown that some changes is likely to be explained by some birds not migrating as far because of milder conditions elsewhere: a phenomenon known as ‘short-stopping’.  But for other species, such as the Bewick’s swan, international cooperation has proven that numbers are declining across northern Europe.

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s conservation director. Commenting on the importance of wetland birds in the UK, he said: “The UK has some of the best sites in the world for wetland birds and the sight and sounds of tens of thousands of birds wheeling around these wetlands ranks among the best natural history experiences that our islands have to offer.

“Although the numbers of birds visiting these sites may fluctuate, they are vital and must continue to be protected. But the spectre of development, for example from ports and airports, continue to haunt some of our most important sites.”

Other species which have declined since 1998 are: pochard (-46 per cent); dunlin (-39 per cent); bar-tailed godwit (-29 per cent); and ringed plover (-26 per cent).
In contrast, the report also shows that some wintering wetland birds have increased in the UK since 1998, including: avocet (+95 per cent); black-tailed godwit (+53 per cent); and pink-footed goose (+27 per cent). The avocet and pink-footed goose have both reached their highest population levels since records began.

Neil Calbrade, WeBS Research Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “This shows the value of continued monitoring of wetland sites through long-running schemes such as the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS).

“For more than 60 years, WeBS counters have carried out monthly surveys of over one and a half million birds annually which allows us to build up a picture of the fortunes of these waterbirds and how they may be affected by climate change, habitat loss and development.”

Richard Hearn is Head of Species Monitoring with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. He said: “We are seeing increasingly rapid changes in wintering waterbird numbers in the UK. Some species such as goldeneye, are most likely moving elsewhere, but others such as long-tailed duck and velvet scoter, are thought to be declining everywhere and require urgent conservation action.

“An icon of the UK migration season, Bewick’s swans also need continued focus to ensure conservation actions are implemented. And with so many of these migratory birds reliant on our wetlands, the loss of 45 per cent of wetland habitat in the UK in the last 75 years is a major concern.”

Phil Grice, Natural England’s senior ornithologist and one of the report’s authors added; “The production of robust evidence on the numbers and movements of birds, is vital in ensuring their long term survival in a changing world.  This report supports important conservation efforts which protect significant waterbird populations and their habitats throughout the year and provides an ongoing health check on the status and trends of key species.”

David Stroud, Senior Ornithologist, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, added: “Forty years ago, governments agreed the Ramsar Convention on wetlands as an international treaty to stem the loss of the wetlands so critical to waterbirds and other wildlife.  Many of the most important of the UK’s wetlands have since been designated as Ramsar Sites, but the report highlights some of the critically important sites in our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies that remain unprotected.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs – RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies – the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (JNCC).

ends

For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact:
RSPB: Grahame Madge, press officer, on 01767 681577.
Out of hours, please telephone: 07702 196902 (mobile)
BTO: Paul Stancliffe, press officer. Office: 01842 750050 (9am-5.30pm) Mobile: 07585 440910 (anytime) Email: press@bto.org
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust: Mark Simpson, press officer on: 01453 891138 or 07825 890590
Joint Nature Conservation Committee: Joint Nature Conservation Committee: JNCC Press Office: 01733 866839. Email: communications@jncc.gov.uk
Natural England: Emma Lusby, press officer, Tel: 0300 060 4231 or 07900 608073
emma.lusby@naturalengland.org.uk
Broadcast-quality radio interviews:
To arrange an ISDN broadcast-quality radio interview please speak to one of the contacts above.
Photographs:
To access a selection of images of relevant to this press release, please click on the hyperlink:

https://www.rspb-images.com/respages/storysetsignon.aspx?key=2adb4375-d608-4f1d-892c-2bcfcbcc537c

And then enter the following user name and password, when prompted.
User Name: GM_SUKB 2011
Password: RSPB

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Dramatic changes revealed in UK waterbird numbers

Shoveler - Tom Hines

Shoveler - Tom Hines

Signs of dramatic changes for some wetland birds are reported today as some species reach their highest and lowest recorded population levels in the UK in winter.

Millions of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds escaping the Arctic winter in northern Europe, Siberia, Greenland and Canada, head for our shores, making the UK one of the most important European countries for wintering waterbirds.

The latest population figures on wetland birds – and a host of other species are – contained in the State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report – published by a coalition of conservation organisations. The report provides a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the results of bird surveys and monitoring schemes and projects from across the UK from as recently as 2010.

Overall, numbers of wintering waterbirds have been in shallow decline since the late 1990s, but the underlying story is more complex.

One of the greatest losses recorded in the report has been the mallard – Britain’s most familiar duck – which has hit a new low with the lowest recorded numbers wintering at their most important UK strongholds. The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report shows that winter mallard numbers have declined by 38 per cent since 1982 and by 22 per cent since 1998. However, the shoveler, a close relative of the mallard, has increased by 27 per cent since 1998.

The whooper swan, which breeds in Iceland, has reached its highest levels (increasing by 122 per cent in the last 10 years) while the Bewick’s swan, which breeds in Siberia, has declined by 44 per cent over the same period.

The reasons for the changes are complex and not yet fully understood. Results from waterbird monitoring schemes in other parts of Europe have shown that some changes is likely to be explained by some birds not migrating as far because of milder conditions elsewhere: a phenomenon known as ‘short-stopping’.  But for other species, such as the Bewick’s swan, international cooperation has proven that numbers are declining across northern Europe.

Other species which have declined since 1998 are: pochard (-46 per cent); dunlin (-39 per cent); bar-tailed godwit (-29 per cent); and ringed plover (-26 per cent).
In contrast, the report also shows that some wintering wetland birds have increased in the UK since 1998, including: avocet (+95 per cent); black-tailed godwit (+53 per cent); and pink-footed goose (+27 per cent). The avocet and pink-footed goose have both reached their highest population levels since records began.

Richard Hearn WWT’s Head of Species Monitoring said: “We are seeing increasingly rapid changes in wintering waterbird numbers in the UK. Some species such as goldeneye, are most likely moving elsewhere, but others such as long-tailed duck and velvet scoter, are thought to be declining everywhere and require urgent conservation action.

“An icon of the UK migration season, Bewick’s swans also need continued focus to ensure conservation actions are implemented. And with so many of these migratory birds reliant on our wetlands, the loss of 45 per cent of wetland habitat in the UK in the last 75 years is a major concern.”

Read the full press release here.

The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs – RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies – the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (JNCC).

 

Signs of dramatic changes for some wetland birds, including the mallard, are reported today as some species reach their highest and lowest recorded population levels in the UK in winter.

Millions of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds escaping the Arctic winter in northern Europe, Siberia, Greenland and Canada, head for our shores, making the UK one of the most important European countries for wintering waterbirds.

However, there are signs of dramatic changes for some wetland birds with a few reaching their highest and lowest population levels in the UK in winter.

The latest population figures on wetland birds – and a host of other species are – contained in the State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report – published by a coalition of conservation organisations. The report provides a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the results of bird surveys and monitoring schemes and projects from across the UK from as recently as 2010.

Overall, numbers of wintering waterbirds have been in shallow decline since the late 1990s, but the underlying story is more complex.

One of the greatest losses recorded in the report has been the mallard – Britain’s most familiar duck – which has hit a new low with the lowest recorded numbers wintering at their most important UK strongholds. The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report shows that winter mallard numbers have declined by 38 per cent since 1982 and by 22 per cent since 1998. However, the shoveler, a close relative of the mallard, has increased by 27 per cent since 1998.

The whooper swan, which breeds in Iceland, has reached its highest levels (increasing by 122 per cent in the last 10 years) while the Bewick’s swan, which breeds in Siberia, has declined by 44 per cent over the same period.

The reasons for the changes are complex and not yet fully understood. Results from waterbird monitoring schemes in other parts of Europe have shown that some changes is likely to be explained by some birds not migrating as far because of milder conditions elsewhere: a phenomenon known as ‘short-stopping’.  But for other species, such as the Bewick’s swan, international cooperation has proven that numbers are declining across northern Europe.

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s conservation director. Commenting on the importance of wetland birds in the UK, he said: “The UK has some of the best sites in the world for wetland birds and the sight and sounds of tens of thousands of birds wheeling around these wetlands ranks among the best natural history experiences that our islands have to offer.

“Although the numbers of birds visiting these sites may fluctuate, they are vital and must continue to be protected. But the spectre of development, for example from ports and airports, continue to haunt some of our most important sites.”

Other species which have declined since 1998 are: pochard (-46 per cent); dunlin (-39 per cent); bar-tailed godwit (-29 per cent); and ringed plover (-26 per cent).

In contrast, the report also shows that some wintering wetland birds have increased in the UK since 1998, including: avocet (+95 per cent); black-tailed godwit (+53 per cent); and pink-footed goose (+27 per cent). The avocet and pink-footed goose have both reached their highest population levels since records began.

Neil Calbrade, WeBS Research Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “This shows the value of continued monitoring of wetland sites through long-running schemes such as the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS).

“For more than 60 years, WeBS counters have carried out monthly surveys of over one and a half million birds annually which allows us to build up a picture of the fortunes of these waterbirds and how they may be affected by climate change, habitat loss and development.”

Richard Hearn is Head of Species Monitoring with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. He said: “We are seeing increasingly rapid changes in wintering waterbird numbers in the UK. Some species such as goldeneye, are most likely moving elsewhere, but others such as long-tailed duck and velvet scoter, are thought to be declining everywhere and require urgent conservation action.

“An icon of the UK migration season, Bewick’s swans also need continued focus to ensure conservation actions are implemented. And with so many of these migratory birds reliant on our wetlands, the loss of 45 per cent of wetland habitat in the UK in the last 75 years is a major concern.”

Phil Grice, Natural England’s senior ornithologist and one of the report’s authors added; “The production of robust evidence on the numbers and movements of birds, is vital in ensuring their long term survival in a changing world.  This report supports important conservation efforts which protect significant waterbird populations and their habitats throughout the year and provides an ongoing health check on the status and trends of key species.”

David Stroud, Senior Ornithologist, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, added: “Forty years ago, governments agreed the Ramsar Convention on wetlands as an international treaty to stem the loss of the wetlands so critical to waterbirds and other wildlife.  Many of the most important of the UK’s wetlands have since been designated as Ramsar Sites, but the report highlights some of the critically important sites in our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies that remain unprotected.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs – RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies – the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (JNCC).

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Three heroes, a book and a legacy: Sir David Attenborough acclaims Scott and WWT

Sir David Attenborough at the London Wetland Centre (Nick Cottrell)

“Make no mistake, Captain Scott was a hero and his party were great human beings,” Sir David Attenborough told a captivated audience at the London Wetland Centre yesterday.

Scott left a legacy of “courage, amazing superhuman courage,” Sir David added, recalling his own discomfort on stepping into the empty Antarctic hut from which Scott’s party launched their successful attempt on the South Pole.

“It was mostly a smell of tar, rope and antiquity. There was an anorak hanging on a hook and a bench with the test tubes and Bunsen burners with which Edward Wilson [the expedition’s scientist] did his experiments.

“Suddenly I felt I couldn’t stay any longer,” Sir David added. “I felt the personalities of these huge extraordinary characters who opened up the Antarctic. I had to get out of the hut. It was an experience I will never forget.”

Sir David’s recollection was among highlights he recounted to mark the publication of Edward Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks, a collection of the naturalist’s sketches and paintings.

Dr Wilson was a member of both Scott’s expeditions and the book incorporates a selection of artwork from the two journeys.

The scientist’s body and his drawings and watercolours were found alongside Scott’s corpse after the exhausted and demoralised party ran out of supplies on their return from the South Pole. They had been beaten to the frozen landmark just months earlier by Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

Dr Wilson sketched penguins, albatrosses, skuas and fish. He depicted stunning landscapes, spectacular skies and outlines of unimaginable shores.

Much of his work was in pencil and unfinished. Beside each was a colour code for completion later.

Chris (L) and David Wilson flank Sir David Attenborough (Nick Cottrell)

The book has been compiled by Dr Wilson’s great nephews Chris and David Wilson, themselves professional naturalists. “A lot of the drawings were of species never seen before,” David Wilson said. “But perhaps most important were the topographical drawings, some 70 yards long, of newly discovered coastlines.

The impact of the expedition’s work was still being felt today, David Wilson added. “Penguin skins they collected were later used to prove the existence of DDT which led to it being banned in the US and later across the world.”

Also found beside the bodies was Scott’s famous last letter to his wife which included the immortal words about their two-year-old son Peter: “Make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games”.

That she did and 65 years ago in 1946, Peter founded the Severn Wildfowl Trust, later to become WWT. “Peter aroused the world in a way that was before his time,” Sir David Attenborough said. “He became a universal figure. He made everyone realise that the natural world is in danger from ourselves and we have a responsibility to do something about that.”

Sir David Attenborough

WWT Chief Executive Martin Spray stressed the inspiration Captain Scott drew from Dr Wilson and the legacy for WWT of Captain’s Scott’s words for his son. “That simple message, in my view, changed the world,” he said. “Peter Scott was a man of extraordinary achievements.”

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What’s the trick to counting flocks of birds?

Wilfowl at WWT's Slimbridge reserve (James Lees)

Volunteers will spend this Sunday spotting and recording the thousands of waterbirds that migrate to the UK in winter.

Staff and visitors at all nine WWT wetland reserves will be taking part in the annual Wetland Bird Survey to count the numbers of different species, identify the sites they use and any changes in their populations.

Journalists interested in featuring this important survey (and discovering the knack to accurately counting large flocks) can visit one of our reserves to meet the experts. Birds they may see include Bewick’s and whooper swans, pink-footed geese, teal, lapwing and curlew.

Many of the birds being counted will have flown thousands of miles from breeding sites in the Russian and Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Iceland. WWT reserves offer protection and food, give the birds chance to recover from their long flights and prepare themselves for their return migration in spring.

Britain’s long coastlines and protected inland sites make it a critically important region for birds in winter.

The information gathered from the survey will help direct conservation effort to species most in need.

Visit http://www.wwt.org.uk/ for details of WWT’s nine centres.

Ends

For more information contact prteam@wwt.org.uk / 01453 891162

Notes to editors

 

  • Follow WWT’s Migration Watch Blog – the latest migration news from each of WWT’s nine centres.

 

  • WWT saves wetlands worldwide – a critical habitat which is disappearing at an alarming rate. We act to identify and save severely threatened wildlife, such as the Madagascar pochard, which has been given a more secure future thanks to our decades of experience in conservation breeding.

 

  • Our researchers have been monitoring wildlife in the UK for more than 60 years, observing changes and finding solutions.

 

  • We put people at the heart of all our work, because conservation needs support to succeed.

 

  • And we share what we learn with experts around the world and with our 200,000+ members, the 60,000 school children who come on an educational visit to our nine wetland visitor centres in the UK, and the million people who visit us each year to enjoy a wetland experience.

 

  • We manage over 2,000 hectares of wetlands across the UK which between them support over 200,000 waterbirds and other wildlife.

 

  • WWT members enjoy free access to all nine visitor centres and are kept up to date with developments through an award-winning quarterly magazine, Waterlife.
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Sir Peter Scott and Sir David Attenborough: the ultimate communicators of the natural world

Today, a team from the BBC Natural History Unit have been filming Sir David Attenborough at Slimbridge. WWT Chief Executive Martin Spray welcomed Sir David to the studio overlooking the Bewick’s swans on the Rushy Pen, famous as the set for Sir Peter Scott’s Look programmes.

Martin Spray writes:

Sir David Attenborough and Martin Spray, in the window of Sir Peter Scott's studio at Slimbridge

Sir David Attenborough and Martin Spray, in the window of Sir Peter Scott's studio at Slimbridge

The 16th November 2011 will forever be a momentous memory in my life. Two heroes came together in a way I never envisaged.

To many including me, Sir Peter Scott and Sir David Attenborough are the ultimate communicators of the natural world. Peter Scott’s programmes were the earliest recollection I have of nature on television and radio.

On my last day at university, with friends discussing their aspirations for the future, I recall saying that the job I wanted had already been taken, by David Attenborough. Both men have been an enormous inspiration to so many people in their own distinct ways.

Never as a child, fascinated by nature, could I have ever imagined that I would one day meet either of them and yet I have had the privilege of meeting both. Neither would I have ever thought that I would one day be at the helm of WWT, having visited Slimbridge as a child with my parents as so many have over the years.

So to sit in Peter’s iconic studio room at Slimbridge with Sir David is an occasion and experience which I will never forget.

 

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Truly iconic

Peregrine falcon at Slimbridge (James Lees)

Iconic is a description that should be hard earned. Overused it loses significance but applying the word in the right place can raise the profile of an ailing species.

The tiger, polar bear and spoon-billed sandpiper are three species worthy of the term. The first two qualify because of their majesty and vulnerability. The bird is unique and has such a tenuous future that it could hardly be anything but iconic.

Equally deserving is the peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest-moving animal. Persecution, egg collecting and the effects of the pesticide DDT brought the species to its knees in the 1960s.

Prohibition of the chemical and increased vigilance around breeding sites has since helped UK numbers climb to 1,400 pairs although researchers last week suggested that persecution continues on north England grouse moors.

At WWT’s Slimbridge HQ the birds are thriving, however. One female has been particularly active over the Severn Estuary – a smörgåsbord for a hungry falcon. On Friday she was featured on BBC Autumnwatch.

Slimbridge warden James Lees has a camera trained on one of the bird’s favourite perches and has gathered some fantastic images.

In accompanying film clips he recounts her cunning as she waits for gulls to roost before mounting her evening raid. “I saw her stooping through the middle of them sending thousands of birds peeling around almost like a kind of vortex,” he says.

“It was an absolutely incredible sight.”

James adds: “Slimbridge is one of the top sites for peregrines in the whole country. You can pretty much guarantee a sighting if you come.”

The chances of seeing this truly iconic bird at Slimbridge (or other WWT centres including Martin Mere in Lancashire, Caerlaverock, Dumfriesshire and Arundel in West Sussex) can only increase as temperatures drop and waterbirds flock in.

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From Russia with love: rare bird entrusted to British conservationists arrives in the UK

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.

Over the weekend, conservationists escorted 13 spoon-billed sandpipers, one of the most endangered species on the planet, into Heathrow and onto their new home at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. This is the final stage of an epic journey for the birds, which have been brought from their Russian Far-Eastern breeding grounds, via quarantine in Moscow Zoo, and now to the UK.

Spoon-billed sandpipers checked on arrival at City of London Corporation's Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow Airport

Spoon-billed sandpipers checked on arrival at City of London Corporation's Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow Airport

The arrival of these birds marks the start of a conservation-breeding programme intended to help prevent the extinction of the spoon-billed sandpiper, a shorebird whose unique appearance and extreme rarity have given it near-mythical status among birdwatchers all over the world.

Throughout 2011 conservationists from Birds Russia have been working with WWT and the RSPB on an emergency rescue mission for the species. This culminated in an expedition to the remote Russian Far East to take eggs from some of the nests and hatch them in captivity. The birds have now been brought to the UK where the climate is suitable for their year-round care and expertise and facilities exist to start a breeding programme.

WWT’s Head of Conservation Breeding, Nigel Jarrett, who hatched the birds on the Russian tundra, was with them as they flew to the UK. He said:

“Taking one of the world’s rarest birds across 11 time zones by boat, plane and now by road has been the most nerve-wracking job I’ve ever done. The hopes of the conservation movement worldwide have been riding on this mission and it is an incredibly difficult thing to do successfully. But we couldn’t sit back and do nothing while there was a chance to prevent the loss of this unique species.

“The spoon-billed sandpiper is but a hair’s-breadth from extinction and the birds will receive 24 hour care in Slimbridge. Now we and the many other organisations working on this species must gather support for action to tackle the hunting and habitat loss that has left these birds in such peril.”

WWT has world-class expertise in the management and breeding of endangered waterbirds, but no one had hatched or kept spoon-billed sandpipers in captivity before. Rearing 13 healthy young birds from eggs taken from the arctic tundra is a massive achievement, but many challenges remain. Quarantine and long flights are stressful experiences for any animal. These birds have round-the-clock care, but the next few days will be some of the most anxious for Nigel and his team.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is threatened by loss of essential intertidal feeding sites along its 8000km migration route from Russia to its wintering grounds in South and South-east Asia, and also by trapping on its non-breeding grounds. Although these issues are being tackled, the conservation breeding programme has been started because the population is now so low. At fewer than 100 pairs left, and declining  by a quarter each year in recent times, there may be too little time to reduce hunting and habitat loss before the species disappears completely.

On arrival in Slimbridge the birds will be quarantined for another 30 days. From there they will be moved to purpose-built aviaries which will be the focus of the conservation breeding programme. This first year of the project, which has involved shipping equipment to the Russian Far East and building extensive aviaries, has been costly and has had to be organised at break-neck speed. A further expedition is needed next year to get enough birds to establish a viable breeding population and funds are urgently being sought.

The conservation-breeding programme is just part of an international campaign to save the spoon-billed sandpiper that will benefit many endangered species that use the same migratory Flyway. The enigmatic bird has become a rallying point for those concerned by some of the threats to wildlife in the region.

Dr Tim Stowe, the RSPB’s Director of International Operations, said “Flying 16,000km every year, raising a family in one of the remotest places on earth and threatened by hunting and the destruction of their winter homes, spoon-billed sandpipers lead a perilous existence.  Captive breeding is not something conservation organisations enter into lightly, but in this case it’s the best chance – possibly the only chance – the birds have.

“Unfortunately this problem isn’t a cheap and easy fix; it will take a take a long time and requires a lot of money, so raising enough funds to save the spoon-billed sandpiper is vital. This is an ambitious and dramatic project and there’s still a long way to go, but if we’re able to save this iconic little bird, it’ll all be worth it in the end.”

Dr Evgeny Syroechovskiy of Birds Russia, said: “I wish all the best to these special Russian birds. It’s hard to believe the problem is so bad that it has come to this, but we have been left with no choice if we want to save the spoon-billed sandpiper.

“The ultimate goal is to release the offspring of this captive population back to the wild. In the meantime, we must tackle habitat destruction and subsistence hunting, and give this enigmatic little bird a new beginning.”

The most immediate threat to the birds – unsustainable levels of subsistence trapping on their wintering grounds in Myanmar – is being addressed by conservationists working with local communities to find other livelihoods.

In response to the loss of inter-tidal mudflats along the coasts of East Asia, the international conservation movement is pressuring governments to conserve the most important wildlife sites, and acknowledge their great natural value to human society. As their value as fisheries, shell-fisheries and for coastal protection is appreciated, it is hoped that their reclamation for development will become less attractive.

Once the birds have left quarantine and been released into their new home at Slimbridge, WWT hopes to stream video of the birds to the visitor centre once they are settled, so visitors can see the species that has become something of a Holy Grail for bird-lovers worldwide.

Ends

For more information:

prteam@wwt.org.uk 01453 891138/144/205 07825 890590

High-res video and images available

www.wwt.org.uk

www.rspb.org.uk

Notes to Editors:

In the wild, only about a half of a spoon-billed sandpiper (0.6 on average) fledges a year for every breeding pair. Of this small number, very few young birds make it back to Russia to breed – in fact five times as many would need to make it back just to keep the population stable. This means that taking eggs for conservation breeding has a negligible effect on the population, as a small proportion of eggs result in fledged birds, and a high proportion of birds that fledge do not currently survive.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, the RSPB and Moscow Zoo, working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.

The project is funded by WWT and RSPB, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, Heritage Expeditions, the Australasian Wader Study Group of Birds Australia, the BBC Wildlife Fund, the Mileage Company and many generous individuals.

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