State of Birds in Wales 2011

The State of Birds in Wales report published yesterday charts the fortunes of Welsh birdlife, and the successes of, and challenges for, conservation action.

The curlew has seen a 49% decline since 1994

For more than a decade, conservationists have been sounding alarm bells over declining numbers of many birds of farmed habitats in Wales. So the increase, from an all time low, in the Wild Bird Indicator – part of the Welsh Government’s way of measuring the health of the environment – has been cautiously welcomed.

The picture that makes up the Wild Bird Indicator is complex though, and changes between two individual years do not necessarily reflect the underlying trend. Some birds such as linnet, blackcap and tree pipit have increased significantly on the previous year, which has contributed to the upswing in the Wild Bird Indicator.

However, the picture is not positive for other species. Those that have declined most since 1994, such as curlew (49%), swift (50%) and starling (63%) showed much smaller increases on the previous year, and there is a long way to go to return these birds to their historic levels.

Richard Hearn, Head of Species Monitoring at WWT explained how waterbirds are faring: “The status of waterbirds in Wales is a story of winners and losers. Some species, such as pochard and curlew, show Wales’s waterbirds are by no means secure; curlew has declined significantly in the breeding and wintering periods, both in Wales and elsewhere, and these widespread declines mean this species is now recognized as globally near-threatened.

“Declines of other species also need to be assessed within a flyway context, and new information from the Baltic Sea shows that red-breasted merganser numbers are also of concern there as well as in Wales.

“Other species are thankfully doing well; pintail and black-tailed godwit for example have increased notably, showing that wetland habitats in Wales being used by these species remain healthy.”

The other partners which contribute to the report also commented.

Ian Johnstone, RSPB Cymru Senior Conservation Scientist says: “We have seen up turns in the wild bird indicator in previous years, but these have not been sustained and have been followed by further decline. Whilst good news, we need more years of monitoring before we can tell whether some of Wales’s declining species have now started a sustained recovery.”

David Noble, Principal Ecologist for Monitoring at the BTO, said “The wild bird indicator does indicate a recent upturn in numbers but we know that bird populations respond to many different factors and can bounce back from short-term crashes. It is essential that the tremendous monitoring efforts of Wales’s volunteer birdwatchers are complemented by further investigation of the causes of change in bird communities, especially the continuing declines in farmland specialists such as starling, curlew and yellowhammer.”

Dr Siân Whitehead, Terrestrial & Freshwater Ornithologist for the Countryside Council for Wales said: “From this report, the urgency of conservation action for some breeding species such as golden plover and twite is clear. It is crucial that land managers and conservationists work together for their benefit before we lose them forever.”

Ian Spence, Secretary of the Welsh Ornithological Society said: “The strength of evidence for the alarming declines of some of our native species would not be possible without the massive contribution made by volunteer bird surveyors. Both they, and the organizations that present the results of their efforts in reports like this, need all the support they can to safeguard Wales’ birds.”

The State of Birds in Wales is compiled annually to provide a snapshot of bird populations in Wales.  A tremendous effort by volunteers, county bird recorders and representatives from a range of organisations helps to shape the report.

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Rare bird rescue hits new milestone

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.

Efforts to save one of the world’s rarest and most unusual birds have today (Monday 19 December) taken another step forward.

Spoon-billed sandpipers, brought to the UK from Far East Russia, have been moved out of quarantine into purpose built quarters at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Gloucestershire.

The 13 birds will form the basis of a breeding population providing a safety net against extinction should the wild population continue its dramatic decline. It is intended that their descendents will be released into the wild.

There are thought to be fewer than 100 pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers left in the wild. Hunting and the destruction of stopover sites on the birds’ migration route have caused numbers to plunge by 90% in a decade. The breeding programme at WWT could save the species from extinction.

Nigel Jarrett, Head of Conservation Breeding at WWT, said: “These birds would normally range from the frozen Arctic to tropical coastal wetlands in South-East Asia and despite being held in unnatural surroundings they have done very well.

“The new site at WWT’s headquarters at Slimbridge is purpose-built and a little larger than the quarantine area. It is crucial we keep it warm because at this stage in the birds’ lives they’d normally be in the tropics.

“In some ways we’re going into the unknown now but every day that passes is a success. The priority is to keep the birds alive and healthy so that eventually they can breed.”

To bring the birds to Britain, Nigel Jarrett and WWT colleague Martin McGill spent weeks with biologists from Birds Russia searching for nests on the remote tundra in Chukotka, Far East Russia.

Their long and arduous expedition was backed by the RSPB and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force which was established by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership in December 2010.

Eggs found by the experts were hatched in special facilities on site and the young chicks transported to Moscow.

After a period in Moscow Zoo, the birds were flown to Heathrow then transferred inside cushioned and insulated boxes to quarantine buildings at Slimbridge.

They will receive 24-hour care inside the new area where CCTV cameras are enabling WWT staff to watch the birds constantly. Footage from the cameras is also being broadcast to public screens at WWT.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is an iconic bird for anyone interested in wildlife. Progress in attempts to save the bird is being followed by thousands of people worldwide.

The RSPB’s Andre Farrar said: “It’s clear that success, ultimately, must be judged in boosting the wild population. If the descendents of these birds make the return to the wild then we will know we have succeeded. But for now, we should celebrate a very significant milestone.”

Nigel Clark from the BTO, an expert on wading birds who also helped with the spoon-billed sandpipers’ transfer from Russia, said: “It was wonderful to see the birds for the first time. To release them into an environment that was completely new and watch them start to explore and feed, was one of those moments that convinces me that the project to save the spoon-billed sandpiper is really worthwhile. It is testament to the dedication of many people that these birds are now so strong and healthy.”

Ends

For more information contact the WWT press office on 01453 891176 or email prteam@wwt.org.uk

www.wwt.org.uk

Footage of the Chukotka expedition is here http://youtu.be/6a2c9jVCeZw and is available for editing here https://rcpt.yousendit.com/1314627106/131f45215d35f3353341bf43b5651df0

CCTV footage of the spoon-billed sandpipers in new quarters at WWT is here https://rcpt.yousendit.com/1316558888/a120afb1416ef9908684b245c16fc28a

Expedition and spoon-billed sandpiper images at https://www.dropbox.com/gallery/6496450/1/SBS?h=3c0ee9

Notes to Editors:

  • Unlike any other bird, spoon-billed sandpipers are born with a spoon-shaped bill which they use to search for food in inter-tidal mud. The bill is flattened at the tip to the size and shape of a penny. Other wading birds develop specialised bills as they mature.
  • The spoon-billed sandpiper is the size of a sparrow,
  • The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is one of nine major migratory waterbird migration routes around the globe. It extends from within the Arctic Circle in Russia and Alaska, south through East and South-East Asia, to Australia and New Zealand, encompassing 22 countries. Migratory waterbirds share this flyway with 45% of the world’s human population. It is home to more than 50 million migratory waterbirds, including shorebirds, ducks, geese, swans and cranes, from over 250 different populations, including 28 globally threatened species.
  • The Saemangeum wetland on South Korea’s Yellow Sea coast was thought to be the most important migration stop-off for spoon-billed sandpipers and around 30 other bird species. In 2006, the site was largely destroyed by the construction of a 20-mile wall to dam and reclaim the land.
  • BirdLife International, through Birds Russia, is the lead organisation for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership’s Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force. Christoph Zöckler of ArcCona Consulting coordinates the task force on behalf of Birds Russia. Moscow Zoo and the Convention on Migratory Species are also closely involved in efforts to save the spoon-billed sandpiper.
  • The UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper Support Group, chaired by Nigel Clark of the BTO, was established in 2010 to co-ordinate the work of individuals and organisations in the UK working to save the species.
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Rare bird rescue hits new milestone

Efforts to save one of the world’s rarest and most unusual birds have today (Monday 19 December) taken another step forward.

Spoon-billed sandpipers, brought to the UK from Far East Russia, have been moved out of quarantine into purpose built quarters at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Gloucestershire.

The 13 birds will form the basis of a breeding population providing a safety net against extinction should the wild population continue its dramatic decline. It is intended that their descendents will be released into the wild.

There are thought to be fewer than 100 pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers left in the wild. Hunting and the destruction of stopover sites on the birds’ migration route have caused numbers to plunge by 90% in a decade. The breeding programme at WWT could save the species from extinction.

Nigel Jarrett, Head of Conservation Breeding at WWT, said: “These birds would normally range from the frozen Arctic to tropical coastal wetlands in South-East Asia and despite being held in unnatural surroundings they have done very well.

“The new site at WWT’s headquarters at Slimbridge is purpose-built and a little larger than the quarantine area. It is crucial we keep it warm because at this stage in the birds’ lives they’d normally be in the tropics.

“In some ways we’re going into the unknown now but every day that passes is a success. The priority is to keep the birds alive and healthy so that eventually they can breed.”

To bring the birds to Britain, Nigel Jarrett and WWT colleague Martin McGill spent weeks with biologists from Birds Russia searching for nests on the remote tundra in Chukotka, Far East Russia.

Their long and arduous expedition was backed by the RSPB and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force which was established by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership in December 2010.

Eggs found by the experts were hatched in special facilities on site and the young chicks transported to Moscow.

After a period in Moscow Zoo, the birds were flown to Heathrow then transferred inside cushioned and insulated boxes to quarantine buildings at Slimbridge.

They will receive 24-hour care inside the new area where CCTV cameras are enabling WWT staff to watch the birds constantly. Footage from the cameras is also being broadcast to public screens at WWT.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is an iconic bird for anyone interested in wildlife. Progress in attempts to save the bird is being followed by thousands of people worldwide.

The RSPB’s Andre Farrar said: “It’s clear that success, ultimately, must be judged in boosting the wild population. If the descendents of these birds make the return to the wild then we will know we have succeeded. But for now, we should celebrate a very significant milestone.”

Nigel Clark from the BTO, an expert on wading birds who also helped with the spoon-billed sandpipers’ transfer from Russia, said: “It was wonderful to see the birds for the first time. To release them into an environment that was completely new and watch them start to explore and feed, was one of those moments that convinces me that the project to save the spoon-billed sandpiper is really worthwhile. It is testament to the dedication of many people that these birds are now so strong and healthy.”

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An invitation to see one of the world’s rarest birds at Slimbridge

Spoon-billed Sandpiper appeal logoSpoon-billed SandpiperPlease join us and our Vice-President Kate Humble for a very special event on Monday 19 December, which will include the first chance to glimpse the spoon-billed sandpipers in the UK.

Kate will unveil a live CCTV link up with the specially-constructed Slimbridge aviary, which is now the focus of the spoon-billed sandpiper breeding programme.

Readers of this blog will be aware that CCTV has been crucial in keeping a watchful eye on the birds brought to the UK. Now it will give visitors to Slimbridge a chance to see them for themselves.

Kate will also host an audience with Nigel Jarrett and Martin McGill, talking about the expedition to Russia and the continuing challenges of trying to secure a future for the spoon-billed sandpiper.

Kate and Martin will also be signing copies of their book Watching Waterbirds – a perfect Christmas gift for budding conservationists!

Places for this event are extrememly limited so register early to secure a place. Places are by donation only and the usual admission charges apply.

To book your place and find out more about the event click here.

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Plan for water lacks bottle

The Government’s water White Paper, Water for Life, is published today. The measures outlined could reduce water use and better safeguard wetlands and this can only be welcomed. But action is delayed, and concerns about urban flooding and over-abstraction are fudged.

The paper does, however, suggest that more will be done to reduce diffuse pollution – damage to fresh and coastal water from farmland chemicals washed from fields, toxic spills from industry and polluting run-off from towns and cities.

And it at least acknowledges the benefits of drainage systems that use small reedbeds and other highly effective wetland features to better manage and clean water.

WWT owns and manages many such drainage systems and is pleased to see a focus on them in the White Paper. We would urge a much wider uptake of such systems because of all the benefits they provide to society.

The Government doesn’t go far enough, though, to encourage developers or business to incorporate these cost-effective sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) into building plans.

“Standards for their installation have still not been published while the concept of retrofitting around existing urban areas is all but ignored,” Carrie Hume, WWT’s Head of Conservation Policy says.

This form of drainage can significantly reduce urban flooding. “Unless we harness the power of nature to help prevent flooding we are in for a seriously tough time with major flooding events like those of 2007 in Gloucestershire, which cost £3.4 billion, highly likely to happen again.”

The White Paper has been anticipated for some months and was expected to tackle the excessive amounts of water being taken from rivers and other wetlands.

This over-abstraction is already damaging wildlife habitats by reducing water levels. It can also impair drinking water supplies.

Over-abstraction occurs partly because so much water is wasted domestically and commercially so more must be taken from wetlands and underground aquifers. The installation of water meters does lead to reduced water consumption but the White Paper offers little in the way of incentives for further meter installation.

WWT is urging ministers to further recognise the serious problems that over-abstraction can cause and act faster to tackle it. “The lack of clarity about how the existing damaging licences will be tackled means that wildlife suffering from low water levels today faces an uncertain future,” Carrie Hume says.

“If we fail to tackle over-abstraction from rivers and elsewhere, it’ll be crisis management for our children because we didn’t have the bottle to tackle the problem when we had the chance.”

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Plan for water has no bottle

The Government’s Water White Paper, Water for Life, is published today. The measures outlined could reduce water use and better safeguard wetlands but action is delayed and concerns about urban flooding and over-abstraction are fudged.

Carrie Hume, Head of Conservation Policy at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust said: “Wetland drainage systems that soak up floodwater in towns and cities are easy to create, often inexpensive and highly effective.

“But standards for their installation have still not been published while the concept of retrofitting around existing urban areas is all but ignored.

“And the Government has offered disappointingly little to encourage reduced water use. Water meters do cut consumption and stronger inducements promoting their installation could have been very effective.

 “Unless we harness the power of nature to help prevent flooding we are in for a seriously tough time with major flooding events like those of 2007 in Gloucestershire, which cost £3.4 billion, readily happening again.

“And unless we seriously tackle over-abstraction from rivers and elsewhere, it’ll be crisis management for our children because we didn’t have the bottle to tackle the problem when we had the chance.”

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The winter heat of the WWT Photography Competition is rolled out as December arrives

'Here's looking at You' taken by Dave Cook

The heat is on as winter approaches, not only in our cosy living rooms, but for the next stage of the WWT Photography competition as the winter heat opens on 1 December.

Following on from the success of the autumn heat, which received an influx of over 2,500 online entries and a staggering 12,800 votes in the People’s Choice category, the next season has much to live up to.

WWT is calling on all nature lovers and photographers to submit their most prized pictures before 29 February 2012 when the winter heat will close.

Autumn heat winners representing each of WWT’s nine wetland centres will be chosen from each of the main categories – Wetland Wildlife, Wetland Landscapes, Wildlife & People and Junior Photographer of the Year (under 18s) over the next couple of weeks.

Votes for the autumn heat People’s Choice category, where members of the public can go online and choose their favourite entry each season, are still being accepted until 1 January 2012, when a winner will be chosen.

All the regional winners for each of the four seasonal heats will go through to the national finals to be held in Autumn 2012.

'Drake Mandarin Duck' taken by Andrew Berry

Whilst photographs entered into all the other categories must have been taken at one of WWT’s nine wetland wildlife centres across the UK, the World Wetlands category invites entries taken of wetlands large or small, good or bad, from all over the world.

These can range from rivers in Rwanda, lakes in Lagos to creeks in Colorado, or even one of the most extreme wetlands in the world, Antarctica.

A shortlist will be chosen from this category for each seasonal heat to go on to the national finals

Finally, to be in with the chance of winning the grand prize of the trip to Antarctica, entrants must submit at least three or more photographs in at least two or more seasonal heats.

If this criteria is met, the entrant’s ‘portfolio’ will be automatically entered into the Portfolio Photographer of the Year category.

At the national finals, each portfolio photographer’s three best photographs (as shortlisted by the judges) will be considered with the winner receiving the Portfolio Photographer of the Year Award and the grand prize of a 12-day fully inclusive trip to Antarctica, courtesy of Exodus in partnership with Quark Expeditions.

The competition is being held in association with Canon, in celebration of the Scott Antarctic Expedition Centenary, and offers an amazing £50,000 worth of fantastic prizes for the national winners, including a grand prize for the Portfolio Photographer category of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica courtesy of Exodus in partnership with Quark Expeditions.

Visit www.wwt.org.uk/photo for full details.

'Barnacle Geese' taken by Tom Langlands

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Beware ducks swimming up a hill of water

Water droplets can appear to bounce off a bird's back. WWT/James Lees

Photographing wetlands is exciting, challenging and always unpredictable, according to WWT’s James Lees.

Birds arrive in their thousands in winter, their vivid colours stunning, their antics stopping the show.

Spring and summer captivate with courtship and new life. Autumn is tints and shades, and glowering weather fronts routinely akin to a Constable canvas.

Writing in The Guardian, James highlights the bonus to photographers of wetlands’ constantly changing conditions. He explains how best to take photos in rain and sun, and when and how to zoom in on particular species.

Ducks bathing, taking off and skidding back into the water can make the most memorable shots, James says. Where to stand, how to frame your image and even which way your avian subject should face are all part of the Slimbridge Conservation Warden’s lively wetlands commentary.

His favourite photo has rippling foreground and hunting action behind, against a tiered backdrop of land and sky. Do check your background though, James warns: “A wonky horizon is a disaster: you’ll have a whole load of ducks swimming up a hill of water”.

James’s article is part The Guardian’s Green Shoots nature series which presents amateur photographers with a new challenge each month. It coincides with the launch of the winter round of WWT’s photo competition. Seasonal entries close on 29 February 2012. The competition runs until 31 August 2012 with the top prize a trip to Antarctica.

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Darwin Scholarship Programme

The UK Field Studies Council are launching the next round of their Darwin Scholars programme, which offers professional conservationists under the age of 35 the chance to spend two weeks in the UK learning basic techniques of biodiversity monitoring and identification, how to communicate biodiversity to a range of audiences, how to develop education materials and more.

The course aims to create ‘better naturalists’ using a range of different kinds of activities, such as training workshops, lectures, meetings with leading UK ecological organisations such as the Natural History Museum and excursions to areas that inspired Darwin.

More details can be found on the UK Field Studies Council website and the deadline for applications is 6 January, 2012.

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Four wrongs don’t make a fiscal right

The Severn Estuary, protected by European law. WWT/James Lees

Chancellor George Osborne is wrong to so readily dismiss long-standing laws protecting sites and species.

He suggested in Tuesday’s Autumn Statement that the EU’s Birds and Habitats directives are hampering economic recovery. They might be “placing ridiculous costs on British business,” Osborne claimed.

The Chancellor’s statements reveal his misunderstanding of the benefits we accrue from nature and the safeguards EU laws provide. This is true in four ways:

First, protected sites and species contribute to individual, family and company wealth:

  • houses next to wetlands can be worth 20% more because of their attractive location;
  • wetlands clean sewage and other waste from urban areas, reducing water treatment bills for households and businesses;
  • ponds and lakes in urban areas soak up rainwater, reducing drainage costs and flooding;
  • even the self-employed can win: photographers earn a living selling pictures of wildlife;
  • habitat restoration by water companies, often on protected sites, ensures water is clean when it runs into reservoirs and rivers so requiring little treatment. 

 

Second, EU protection of sites and species increases local wealth:

  • wetlands and other protected areas are popular visitor sites. WWT’s UK wetlands, many of which are protected by EU laws, attract one million visitors annually. Preventing development on them significantly boosts local economies;
  • birdwatchers and goose shooters in Scotland spend around £5.4m annually in outlets close to the sites they visit;
  • wetlands create productive farmland by providing a constant supply of nutrients. Where wetlands are protected, they guarantee soil quality. In 2008 this land was worth £15bn

 

Third, environmental measures increase national wealth:

  • climate change is causing more severe weather. Floodplains, hillsides and gardens absorb considerable volumes of water but drained and developed they are worthless. Flooding in Tewkesbury and neighbouring areas in 2007 cost the UK £3.2bn;
  • soil and plants absorb carbon too, so helping compensate for climate-changing emissions.

 

Fourth, they also increase psychological wealth:

  • access to green space improves mental and physical well-being. Nature reduces stress and reduces the need for painkillers. It improves concentration and self-discipline in children. For these reasons, development around the Thames incorporated many natural spaces, including small wetlands.

 

A look back at recent history will show the Chancellor that sympathetic development has been possible on protected sites or near areas used by rare wildlife:

Plans for the London Array windfarm were altered in 2005 after 7,000 red-throated divers were found on the proposed site off the Kent and Essex coasts. Developers altered the scheme to prevent disturbance. Turbines are now operating.  

Bathside Bay port in Essex, proposed on a site protected by EU law, won the go-ahead because compensatory habitat of equal value to wildlife was created elsewhere.

More recently, approval was granted for part of the Steart peninsula in Somerset to be turned into one of England’s largest man-made wetlands, partly to replace protected land lost by the extension of Bristol Port, should that go ahead. 

The laws Osborne damns do not prevent development. Instead they recognise and value our natural assets, and set parameters within which new infrastructure can go ahead.

Without these two pieces of legislation, both made UK law by Conservative governments, some popular and well-known sites might no longer exist.

The Severn Estuary is one and could still be sacrificed to a costly 10-mile barrage. No photograph could replicate its memory. Watch this space.

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