Turbulent times for Ireland's birds

01 Nov 2013 | No. 2013-53

One of the most ambitious volunteer projects ever undertaken, to map all of Britain and Ireland’s birds in both winter and the breeding season, is realised with the publication of the Bird Atlas 2007–11, and the results are surprising.

Over 40,000 volunteers spent four years scouring the countryside in search of birds, submitting their records to the British Trust for Ornithology and BirdWatch Ireland, to integrate local information on bird numbers into coherent national pictures of the state of Britain and Ireland’s bird populations, and finding some startling results along the way.

Over the last forty years the Irish breeding areas for twenty-one (18%) of Ireland’s bird species have expanded beyond their previously known range, whilst for 54 (47%) of them the range has shrunk, and for forty-one (35%) it has remained relatively unchanged. But what is rather surprising is that for nearly all of them there has been a shift in where they live. Every species has a story to tell.

For those species that spend the winter months in Ireland, the changes have been very different. Some sixty percent of species were found in more areas than three decades ago. Improved coverage of remote areas explains some but not all of these gains, but the 16% of species now found in fewer areas are of real concern.

So, what are the surprises? Formerly breeding around the coast, the Corn Bunting is now extinct in Ireland, perhaps acting as a warning of things to come in Britain where the species has more than halved in range in forty years.

The age-old statement that “there are no woodpeckers in Ireland” has had to be rewritten now that the Great Spotted Woodpecker has begun to colonise Ireland. Already the Atlas shows them to be widely distributed along the eastern seaboard from Antrim to Wexford and birds have also been found as far west as Kerry and Fermanagh.

During the winter months Ireland’s network of wetlands is important for Pochard but this chestnut and grey diving duck has seen a 49% reduction in its Irish wintering range over the last forty years.

Dawn Balmer, Atlas coordinator, commented. "It was a massive achievement to get good coverage for the Atlas across the whole of Ireland and we thank the volunteers for their efforts. As well as range expansions and range contractions across Ireland, there has been an increase in abundance recorded for species such as Great Tit, Bullfinch, Swallow and Cuckoo. Reasons for these increases in abundance are unclear, and form the starting point of our research."

Simon Gillings, Senior Research Ecologist comments:  "Conservation scientists have been desperate for a new atlas. Its comprehensive coverage of all areas and all species gives us the depth of information we need to learn from our recent conservation successes, and in understanding the changes we see, plan for the challenges of tomorrow."

Andy Clements, Director of the BTO, said “This is one of the biggest citizen science projects ever undertaken and its importance for Britain’s birds is significant.”

Shane Wolsey, BTO Northern Ireland Officer said, "In Northern Ireland many dedicated volunteers endured both beautiful and dreadful weather to gather the data that underpins this Atlas. Their efforts have resulted in really interesting local stories – for example the increase in House Martins in NI compared to a decrease in south and east England, and a similar picture for Willow Warbler, House Sparrow and Tree Sparrow. The Atlas also shows dramatic declines in our breeding waders – a major cause for concern. We now need to find out what is driving these changes so that we can better support birds that are in trouble.”

Notes for Editors

1. The Atlas contains over 1,300 maps that describe patterns of distribution, abundance and change for nearly 300 species in one hardback volume. For more information http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/birdatlas

2.  Bird Atlas 2007-11 is a partnership between British Trust for Ornithology, Scottish Ornithologists' Club and Birdwatch Ireland.  The Atlas is published by BTO on behalf of the Atlas partnership.

3. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Bangor (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. The BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations. www.bto.org

Contact information

Dawn Balmer
(Atlas Coordinator)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07743 994497
Email: dawn.balmer [at] bto.org

Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Media Manager)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07585 440910 (anytime)
Email: press [at] bto.org

Dr Simon Gillings
(BTO Senior Research Ecologist)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Email: simon.gillings [at] bto.org

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