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Alarming disappearances among our familiar countryside birds

Snipe (c) James LeesThe latest State of the UK’s Birds report, published today, reveals many of our most familiar countryside birds are undergoing sweeping changes with some experiencing ‘plummeting population declines’, compared with the 1990s.

It is now known that in some parts of the UK these birds have disappeared completely.

A section of the report looks at the UK’s 107 most widespread and common breeding birds. Of these species, 16 have declined by more than one third since 1995, including the willow tit, starling, cuckoo, lapwing, whinchat and wood warbler.

Many of these species are reliant on habitats in the so-called ‘wider countryside’ rather than being maintained on special sites, such as nature reserves.

Colette Hall is a species monitoring officer with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. She said:

“There’s worrying evidence here that the breeding ranges of many of our waders are drastically shrinking. We’re losing much-loved species like snipe or lapwing completely from southern parts of England now.

“A main cause seems to be loss of habitat due to wetlands being drained for farming or development. We need to protect and restore these habitats in order for species like these – and all wetland wildlife – to survive and prosper.”

Cuckoo chick fed by adult reed warbler (c) Paul StevensDr Mark Eaton is an RSPB conservation scientist. He said:

“I think many of us have been shocked by how poorly some of our most familiar species are faring. Many of the birds we’re referring to aren’t rare and don’t occur in remote locations. To the contrary, they are ones you used to see while walking the dog or enjoying a family picnic.

“But over two decades many of these species have ebbed away from huge swathes of our countryside. In contrast some species, such as the red kite, have become conservation success stories as this species has returned to our countryside.”

The list of familiar countryside birds which are declining includes:

  • Willow tit, a woodland bird which has declined by 82 per cent since 1995 and its range has halved over the last two decades;
  • Turtle dove, a farmland bird with a 95 per cent decline in numbers since 1995 and a 51 per cent decline in range over the last 40 years;
  • Cuckoo, whose numbers have halved since 1995. The latest bird atlas reveals that although its range has contracted by just eight per cent over the last 40 years, though there are marked declines in abundance in the south and east of Britain;
  • Whinchat, a bird of open countryside which has declined in number by 60 per cent since 1995, and in range by 48 per cent over the last 40 years;
  • Flock of starlings flying above Slimbridge at sunset (c) James LeesStarling, a bird of urban areas and farmland whose population has decreased by 53 per cent since 1995. The atlas reveals that its range has contracted by five per cent over the last 40 years with a steep decline in abundance in Britain, and an increase in Northern Ireland;
  • Wood warbler, a summer-visiting woodland bird, which has endured a 69 per cent decline since 1995, and a range contraction of 34 per cent since the 1970s;
  • Yellow wagtail, a bird of farmland and wetland which has experienced a 45 per cent decline in numbers since 1995. The atlas reveals that the yellow wagtail’s range has contracted by 32 per cent;
  • Lapwing, a bird of farmland and wetland which has endured a 41 per cent population decline since 1995. The atlas reveals that their range has contracted by 18 per cent over the last 40 years, with the greatest losses in western Britain and Northern Ireland;
  • Snipe, a wetland bird whose breeding range has shrunk by 31 per cent over the last 40 years;
  • Grey partridge, a farmland bird whose population has declined by 53 per cent since 1995 and whose range has contracted by 40 per cent over the last 40 years;
  • Corn bunting, a farmland bird whose population has declined by 34 per cent since 1995. The atlas shows that the corn bunting’s distribution has contracted by 56 per cent over the last 40 years; and the species is now extinct in Ireland.

Phil Grice is a senior environmental specialist in ornithology at Natural England. He said:

“Whilst we have made great progress with reversing the declines in many of our rarer bird species, thanks to site management and species recovery work, improving the fortunes of our ‘wider countryside’ birds requires us to think beyond good management of our special sites, like SSSIs.

“Through Environmental Stewardship and initiatives like Nature Improvement Areas, we are working in close partnership with farmers and other land managers to make a difference for biodiversity across whole landscapes, allowing people to experience England’s characteristic wildlife close to where they live.”

lapwing (c) JSLeesHowever, the report is not all bad news. Following its reintroduction into England and Scotland and its ongoing recovery in Wales the red kite has increased in number by 676 per cent since 1995. Among songbirds, the goldfinch and the blackcap have also increased their populations since 1995 by 109 per cent and 133 per cent, respectively.

Dawn Balmer, of the British Trust for Ornithology, is the lead author on the recently-published Bird Atlas. She said:

“The latest findings from fieldwork carried out by an army of volunteers for the atlas, provides a unique opportunity to assess changes in range for all UK species over winter and the during the breeding season.

“One of the most striking changes is for avocet which has expanded its range in the UK more than 17-fold over the last 40 years. Better monitoring of non-native species has also revealed the extent of their spread, such as a 50 per cent increase for Canada goose since 1988–91.”

The State of the UK’s Birds report also looks at how birds are faring in the UK’s Overseas Territories. Although across these territories globally there are 32 species of bird facing extinction, the report delivers good news for some species, including the Ascension frigatebird and Murphy’s petrel, as a result of concerted conservation action.

David Stroud of JNCC said:

“The UK’s Overseas Territories contain more species of bird facing extinction than the whole of mainland Europe. Twenty-one of these species occur nowhere else in the world, so the UK has sole and total responsibility for them.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2013 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs – the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation bodies – Natural England (NE), Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

Wetlands already full of spring heat as weather warms up

Spring is the season of New Life but, before then, each animal must find a mate.

In this wintry weather, animals of all sorts are flirting as if their life, or their legacy, depended on it.

Common cranes displaying (c) AlamyCranes dance with each other, like teenagers at a school disco. Shelducks do a supercharged strut atop high obstacles. Flamingos march in unison and fashion nests from mud with their beaks. Songbirds sing, while the luckiest are already building nests. Heron and jackdaw nest colonies are visible in the leafless trees. Buds burst and snowdrops, primroses and daffodils bloom.

Martin McGill, Senior Reserve Warden at WWT Slimbridge said:

“Spring hasn’t quite sprung, but our wildlife is out there, strutting its stuff already. Everyone wants to get the edge in the race to breed and this means there are some beautiful displays of animal behaviour to see at WWT Wetland Centres.

Lapwings courtship flight (c) Paul Stephens WWT

“My personal favourite for this time of the year is seeing the lapwings’ acrobatic courtship display, in which they tumble and roll through the air over the wetlands. They do it throughout the day so come down and see if you can spot it for yourself or just immerse in the stunning sights and sounds as our wetlands awake”

Some of the top things to spot at WWT Wetland Centres include:

  • Flamingos performing group courtship dances: marching, wing-saluting and head-flagging. Flamingos also blush a much deeper pink when they are thinking about breeding and they can enhance this by applying ‘make-up’ to their feathers from their preen gland.
  • Cranes bob, bow, pirouette and pause in their dance and, in courtship, they march and call in unison with their life partners.
  • Frogspawn is visible in ponds
  • Lapwings performing their acrobatic courtship flights, tumbling and rolling through the air
  • Pairs of great crested grebes performing their elaborate courtship ritual on water
  • Songbirds sing long and loud to compete with each other for breeding territory and the attention of females
  • Male mallards displaying and posing on the water to any unaccompanied females – a few mallards have paired and hatched young already during the winter.
  • Colonies of grey herons and jackdaws building their nest villages – much easier to see before the trees are covered in leaves.
  • Male shelduck doing their supercharged courtship: throwing back their heads, puffing out their chests and calling from the roofs of hides and other elevated points.
  • Black and white oystercatchers noisily calling as they settle disputes and chase females, having returned from spending the winter at the coast.
  • Marsh harrier and buzzard pairs flying high and calling loudly
  • Kingfishers setting up their bank hole nests

Ready, set, go for the wetland Olympics

Hares boxing by Simon Stirrup

Hares boxing by Simon Stirrup

Whilst the UK’s sporting elite prepare for the Olympics; nature’s athletes compete for much higher stakes.

The reserve at WWT Welney is now brimming with courtship displays and competitions for territories, so everything is at stake!  From boxing hares to tumbling lapwing, every effort is put into catching the eye of the ladies and successfully raising young.  Visitors can witness these spectacles and many more as the season progresses.

Lapwing displaying by Chris Knights

Lapwing displaying by Chris Knights

Spring is one of the most dramatic seasons of the year at WWT Welney with everyone looking their best and in prime condition to display their unique talents.  Lapwings are the wetland counterparts of the likes of Olympic hopeful, Beth Tweddle, displaying great skill with their aerial acrobatics.  Whilst on the ground female hares box with the overeager males to let them know they need to wait a little longer.

These first signs of spring will shortly be followed by birds of endurance such as the Arctic terns and black-tailed godwits passing through or the common terns and swallows that stay for the summer.  These are the marathon runners of the bird world, some using wetlands in the UK as re-fuelling stations whilst for others WWT Welney is the finish line as they stay for the summer.

Then there are the synchronized swimmers such as the great crested newt whose elaborated courtship dance is solely done beneath the surface of the water.  Visitors can explore underwater habitats from Easter onwards at the pond-dipping stations.

Emma Brand, Events & Marketing Officer for WWT Welney comments “Spring is a fascinating and exciting time to visit wetland reserves and to learn more about the vital role habitats like these play in our lives as well as those of the birds and animals living there”.

“There is always something to see at this time of year as thousands of birds like black-tailed godwits pass through on migration, whilst breeding animals such as hares, lapwing, water voles and avocets take centre stage as the courtship rituals begin”.

WWT Welney is one of the best places to get close to the drama and excitement of wetland wildlife with panoramic views across the Fens from the visitor centre’s cafe.  Whilst over on the reserve six purpose built hides allow views over the Ouse washes wetlands and the recently created dragonfly ponds give visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the sounds of the washes at ground level.

For up-to-date information about the spring spectacular follow WWT Welney on:
Twitter – @WWTWelney
Facebook – WWT Welney

Migration on pause as winds switch direction


After a busy window of migration things have slowed right down here at Slimbridge.   The winds have changed to a westerly direction so few birds are arriving.

In the last week numbers have grown of lapwing (4,000) and golden plover (1200).

There was also a good passage of fieldfare over the site last week. 

Bewick’s swan numbers have remained about 90 for the last few days, so a lot more are still to arrive.

Two bitterns have arrived on the site and are viewable from the South Finger hides.  They are likely to stick around now.

Valuable volunteers

Hello All

Half term is coming to a close and I’ve finally found time to sit down and write my diary. It’s been a great week and the ‘Ecoteers’ activities will continue until Sunday. Staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly to keep families entertained, with activities including dragonfly making, sunflower seed planting and a session called ‘Poo-ology’! I have to admit to being a little suspicious of the latter activity but the children love it and they go away having learnt about the diets of different birds and some basic identification skills.

Over the coming weeks I thought I’d start to tell you a bit more about the team here at Arundel and my first ‘victim’ is Peter Ashley. Peter has been volunteering at Arundel since 2003, he is an incredibly loyal supporter and spends three mornings a week at the centre. Two mornings a week, Peter volunteers in the office logging customer comment cards, processing vouchers and recording the number of visitors who have participated in the activites we have on site such as the boats.

Peter does a lot of work for Paul, our Grounds Manager, too. He updates the Sussex Ornithological Society (SOS) website with our sightings and passes on other species observations for Paul to forward to the Sussex Biodiversity Records, held by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Recently he has also started going through diaries dating back to 1977 (the year after the centre opened) creating electronic records of the sightings over the years. These are incredibly useful records to have as Paul can then see how the diversity of the grounds has changed over the years.

We now use Ordnance Survey points to record the exact location of sightings, in particular exciting plants such as the Marsh Orchid or Small Teasel. Having this information also allows us to track changes in the phenology of the centre i.e. the dates when species are first spotted each year. Even with all this survey data, it’s great to see that new species are still being found from time to time. Last year, a Club-tailed Dragonfly was recorded for the first time on site, much to Paul’s delight!

Peter in the Ramsar hide

Lapwing by Peter Ashley

In 2004, Peter started as a ‘Guide in a Hide’ and he has continued to do so every Sunday morning since then. Peter’s hide of preference tends to be the Ramsar hide which offers great views across the new wet grassland as well as the scrape area in front of the Sand martin hide. He heads out at around 11am armed with spotting scope, binoculars and a couple of ID books. Having Peter there is a real bonus for our visitors who may be new to birding and not have their own optics. It’s easy for some to walk into a hide, have a brief look out and think that there is nothing there. Peter can then point out that actually there may be beautiful Teal dabbling around the edges, Snipe lurking in the reeds and Oystercatchers and Lapwing nesting on the islands. In having this experience, these visitors may then be inclined to look a little harder out of the other hide windows and get so much more out of their visit.

We’re delighted to have a ‘Guide in a hide’ on site every morning and afternoon at the weekends. We’ve been building up our team of guides with other equally knowledgeable and helpful volunteers so do look out for them on your next visit. Even if you are an experienced birder they can give you any tip offs about what’s around that day and it’s always nice to share stories about recent sightings.

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer get in touch, you don’t need to be an expert, just enthusiastic and keen to help!

Have a lovely weekend.