Concern for Scotland’s seabirds as avian influenza continues to take hold
Yet again, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has wreaked havoc across breeding bird populations in Britain, with seabirds in Scotland of particular concern as thousands of dead or dying birds have been reported (www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/avian-influenza-scotland).
Shetland appears to be the most heavily affected area, but there have been increasing numbers of reports from other parts of the country, involving many different species. In the winter of 2021/22, HPAI was responsible for the loss of more than one-third of the Svalbard Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis population. It is hoped that the goose population can bounce back, but seabirds, many of which are already struggling, are likely to be harder hit as slower breeding rates could mean long-term population declines.
So far, there have been reports of considerable deaths of Great Skuas Stercorarius skua on Fair Isle, Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. Scotland is home to 60% of the world’s breeding population of Great Skuas, so losses here could be devastating for the species as a whole.
There have also been many reports of sick and dead Northern Gannets Morus bassanus at colonies, most notably at Noss, Shetland, but also Troupe Head, North-east Scotland, and Bass Rock, Fife; 46% of the world’s breed populations of Gannets nest in Scotland.
In addition, high mortality rates in Sandwich Terns Thalasseus sandvicensis and Arctic Terns Sterna paradisaea, and elevated numbers of dead Common Guillemots Uria aalge have been reported.
$31 million investment in eight landscape restoration projects
In June, the Endangered Landscapes Programme (www.endangeredlandscapes.org) announced investment in eight new mega landscape- and seascape-scale projects, with the help of many BirdLife partners across the globe. Partners in countries such as Britain, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine will be involved in projects over the next five years, working to help restore large areas of habitat, especially Eurasian steppes and forests.
One project aims to restore ecological networks in southeast Bulgaria, one of Europe’s biodiversity hotspots, hosting 81 IUCN Red List species. A stronghold for species such as Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca and an important migratory stopover for Greater Spotted Eagle Clanga clanga and Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus, the area has faced threats from grassland conversion for agriculture and commercial forestry in recent decades. The project will address habitat fragmentation and restore water sources, grassland, and natural deciduous and riverine forests. It will also aid the creation of an 810,000-ha network of viable ecosystem, which will be resilient to climate change and rich in biodiversity.
Closer to home, a project in northern Cumbria aims to reconnect local communities with the environment, to promote better use of the outdoors to support both livelihoods and wildlife. Monoculture has impacted the area badly, leaving rivers polluted and fells denuded, but the project aims to reverse this by working towards securing a more diverse, climate-resilient landscape that will be better placed to sustain livelihoods and vibrant communities in the longer term.
Elsewhere, another project aims to help save the Black Sea steppe, one of the largest remaining steppe-sea complexes in Europe. Severe degradation from conversion to arable land, widespread planting of pine Pinus trees and loss of natural grazers has put species such as the endemic Sandy Blind Mole-rat Spalax arenarius at risk. This project aims to restore the connectivity, ecological functioning and species richness of the landscape, while strengthening legal protections and awareness of ecological and economic value of steppes. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, this project has had to be put on hold for the time being.
Record-breaking Cuckoo, PJ, dies
In 2016, the BTO attached a satellite tag to a Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, nicknamed ‘PJ’. After six years of being tracked, he has died on his breeding grounds in Suffolk (www.bto.org/about-bto/press-releases/farewell-pj-super-cuckoo).
PJ broke the record for the number of migrations completed by a tagged Cuckoo, covering close to 100,000 km in the process. At around seven years old, he also reached close to the maximum known age for the species.
Cuckoos have declined by 71% in England and 38% in Britain overall since 1995. The data collected by the trackers on PJ and the other Cuckoos in the study has helped to provide data that suggests possible reasons for the population changes. For example, it was found that Cuckoos in Britain migrate along one of two flyways: a western route through Iberia and an eastern route through Italy/the Balkans. PJ was found to have used both routes during his migrations, showing a flexibility that may have allowed him to avoid adverse weather conditions and therefore survive such a long time.
Eight more Cuckoos are set to be tagged by the BTO in 2022, two of them close to where PJ was tagged back in 2016. Chris Hewson, lead scientist on the project, said: ‘It’s always a shame to lose one of our tagged Cuckoos. Like all of our tagged Cuckoos, PJ has provided vital data in our quest to understand the species’ migrations and population decline, but because of his longevity PJ has left a particularly special mark amongst his followers and admirers.’
Record number of Dartford Warblers on RSPB reserves
A report from the RSPB (https://bit.ly/3NtVXrv) shows that a record number of breeding Dartford Warblers Curruca undata was recorded on its reserves in 2021. This lowland-heath species crashed to a handful of breeding pairs in Dorset during the 1960s and was at risk of being lost as a breeding species in the UK. Heathland is one of the UK’s most threatened habitats and, alarmingly, 80% of UK heathland has been lost since the 1800s owing to land-use change. However, thanks to continued conservation efforts to create and restore Dartford Warbler habitat and a series of milder winters, it appears that the species is faring well.
Heathland restoration at Minsmere helped the number of Dartford Warblers to rise to 37 pairs in 2021, compared with 23 pairs in 2019. This management work obviously had a positive impact on other species such as European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus and Woodlark Lullula arborea.
Mel Kemp, of this flagship reserve, said: ‘Increased responsibility for the Dartford Warbler population means we need to continue to restore, manage and protect the heathland we have left here in the UK to best ensure the future of not just this species, but many others too.’
Leach’s Storm-petrel numbers in decline
Survey results from the largest Leach’s Storm-petrel Hydrobates leucorhoa colonies in the northeast Atlantic have found the species to be in rapid decline.
Worryingly, these finds mirror observations from elsewhere within the species’ range. For example, huge population declines have occurred on Newfoundland, Canada, which is home to the largest colonies of the species. Over 29 years, the biggest colony there declined by 42%, equivalent to losing a staggering million pairs.
The island of Elliðaey, in Iceland’s Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, was surveyed in 2018, while St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, was surveyed in the summer of 2019. The last surveys on St Kilda were in 1999 and 2000.
The results of the recent surveys, which were published in Seabird, paint a worrying picture. Elliðaey’s population, considered to be the largest in the eastern Atlantic in 1991, was estimated to stand at around 5,400 pairs, having declined by 29% in 26 years. The decrease in the St Kilda population was even more severe, with a 68% drop in numbers in just 20 years, to 8,900 pairs.
St Kilda had previously held 94% of Britain and Ireland’s breeding Leach’s Storm-petrels and the decline led to the species being classified as Critically Endangered in the UK in the recent Birds of Conservation Concern report (Brit. Birds 114: 723–747).
Reasons for the rapid declines are not known, but it is suspected that multiple factors may be at play. Work by the RSPB to track the movements of the species at sea began on St Kilda in 2021 and is continuing in 2022. Hopefully, this will provide enough data to inform conservation efforts and marine management decisions that could impact the species.
Norfolk Coastal Biodiversity Audit recommends conversion from grazing marsh to saltmarsh
Some areas of grazing marsh on the north Norfolk coast at risk of sea-defence failure should be actively converted to saltmarsh, according to a new report (https://bit.ly/3u8H2wd).
The Biodiversity Audit of the Norfolk Coast recommends this and several other measures to aid in landscape recovery and habitat creation. The groundbreaking audit, which has just been released by the University of East Anglia (UEA), reveals the full scope of this unique region’s biodiversity in greater depth than ever before.
The UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences joined forces with the Norfolk Coast Partnership and the North Norfolk Coastal Group for the audit. More than 60 farmers, conservation experts and others were involved in the study.
Paul Dolman, part of the UEA team, said: ‘This work has been groundbreaking, not just because it is the first time anyone has fully quantified the important wildlife of this amazing landscape and identified what it needs. Crucially, by working with land managers throughout the study we were able to develop a plan of how to expand and enhance nature along the coast.’
Invasive Asian songbird could threaten native bird populations
According to a recent paper published in Ibis (https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.13090), there are early signs that the Red-billed Leiothrix Leiothrix lutea may be establishing populations in gardens and woodland in southern areas of Britain. Sixteen records of the invasive southeast Asian species have been logged between 2019 and 2022, with sightings from Wiltshire and Somerset, as well as from south Wales, Lancashire & North Merseyside and Kent. It is likely, however, that many more sightings have gone unreported as the majority of records so far have come from images posted through social media.
The Red-billed Leiothrix has already established populations in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, with numbers doubling in the past two decades. The species nests communally so it can breed in high densities, becoming extremely populous in small areas.
Richard Broughton, from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, warned: ‘This could be the next Ring-necked Parakeet [Psittacula krameri].’ He explained that: ‘All of a sudden, these populations of birds can explode to become very common. In some woods in parts of the continent they are the most common woodland bird after about 20 years. They become dominant over everything.’
Milder winters as a result of climate change and the increase in people feeding birds in their gardens are likely to have helped them make it through the winter. Broughton said: ‘It’s a beautiful bird, and it has a beautiful song, but we won’t know what effect it’s going to have before it’s too late. Non-native species are never a good thing, sometimes they’re neutral, but they’re never positive.’ He said it could be virtually impossible to remove them, but encouraged people to report possible sightings to the BTO’s BirdTrack to help researchers detect and publicise the whereabouts of this new species.
Mexico to host 4th International Bird Observatory Conference
The 4th International Bird Observatory Conference (IBOC) will be held in Veracruz, Mexico, from 17th to 21st October 2022 (https://iboc2022.org).
The first IBOC was hosted by Falsterbo Bird Observatory in Sweden in August of 2014, followed by the second in October of 2017 at Cape May Bird Observatory, USA, and the third at the Eilat International Bird Research Centre, Israel, in 2019.
Since 1991, Pronatura Veracruz, Mexico’s BirdLife partner, has been running the Veracruz ‘River of Raptors’ project, a long-term monitoring effort of migratory bird populations in one of the most important migratory bottlenecks in Central America.
Centenary Celebration of Richard Richardson’s birth
The event to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Richard Richardson, the well-known Norfolk field ornithologist and bird artist, was held at the Simon Aspinall Centre at Cley, Norfolk, on 4th May (Brit. Birds 115: 127).
Over 50 of his watercolours were on display, as well as a presentation about his life and legacy. But perhaps the most poignant part of the exhibition was a digitised recording of two tapes that he made about the birds of Cley, each song being introduced by Richard himself.
Along with sponsorships and donations, a raffle and auction were held, which raised almost £2,500. After deducting costs, the profit of £1,560 was divided equally between the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the Norfolk Ornithologists’ Association.
Democratic decisions in Jackdaws
New research published in the journal Current Biology (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.04.032) has revealed that Jackdaws Coloeus monedula use a democratic process to decide when to leave their roosts en masse.
The study was undertaken over two winters at roost sites in Cornwall. Using audio recorders to monitor noise levels, researchers found that birds call out when they are ready to leave and, when the noise reaches a critical level, it signals that the roost is ready to depart. Prof. Alex Thornton, from the University of Exeter, said: ‘When a bird calls, it is casting a vote or signalling it wants to leave.’ The collective decision to depart relies on both noise volume and crescendo or how rapidly the noise levels increase. Once a consensus is reached, the roost of thousands launches from the tree within an average of five seconds.
British Birds seeks new Directors
Following the departure of Nina O’Hanlon and Richard Porter from the Board of BB 2000 Ltd, we are seeking at least two new Directors to join us. The Board has been reviewing representation and would welcome interest from candidates under the age of 25. We are keen to receive the views of a younger, more diverse audience and to ensure that these views are reflected on the Board and in the way that BB is managed and run.
We are also beginning to plan for the retirement of the current Chair, Adam Rowlands, who is coming to the end of his term. The Board is looking to recruit someone into the role of Vice-chair, to provide support during the succession period.
Board Directors at BB 2000 Ltd undertake an entirely voluntary role and oversee the running of the company, reporting to the Trustees of the British Birds Charitable Trust. The Board meets four times a year. If you are interested in joining the Board, or wish to nominate someone who you believe would make a good candidate, please contact Adam Rowlands ([email protected]) for more details.