Waterbird survey celebrates platinum anniversary

10 May 2018 | No. 2018-15

The BTO/RSPB/JNCC Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), one of the longest running citizen science surveys in the world, is celebrating its 70th anniversary. As World Migratory Bird Day nears on Saturday 12th May, the latest WeBS report, Waterbirds in the UK 2016/17, has been released, reporting on 110 waterbird populations. The UK is of international importance for millions of migratory waterbirds which spend the winter here or pass through on their way to their breeding grounds in the north and east.

Beginning as the National Wildfowl Counts in the winter of 1947/48, in response to apparent declines in the numbers of ducks and geese, seventy years later the scheme has expanded to include all wintering waterbirds, counted every month by 3,000 volunteers around the UK.

Habitat creation or climate change has helped species such as Little Egret, Avocet and Bittern increase. Introduced species, Canada Goose, Mandarin Duck and Egyptian Goose, are also all becoming more common with increases over the last 10 years of 12%, 43% and 128% respectively.

However, many species of wader that feed in the UK’s estuaries in winter are declining. Ringed Plover are wintering in just half the numbers that used to spend the winter here 25 years ago. Wintering Curlew are down by 21%; this is a species for which other surveys have detected worrying breeding declines. There is more of a mixed picture for duck species that use inland waterbodies - over the past quarter century Teal have increased by 40% and Shoveler by 80%, but Mallard has decreased by 38% and Pochard by 69%.

Understanding the status of waterbird species is vital to help guide conservation action. Waterbird counts from WeBS have long been the cornerstone of UK policy and protection for wetland birds, from informing wetland management and wildfowling consents, to identifying important areas for designation as protected sites.

The most important protected sites for birds in the UK are part of the Special Protection Area (SPA) network, and many SPA sites have been designated on the basis of the large numbers of waterbirds recorded there through WeBS surveys. A recent review found that over a third of the UK’s non-breeding waterbirds use the UK SPA network, particularly species that flock together in winter at high densities. As well as WeBS counts being used to inform site designation, the ongoing counts are invaluable for monitoring how species are faring on these sites, and so how successful the protected site network is. 

Waterbird distributions are already adapting to climate change. Looking to the future, waterbird counts will be critical for assessing impacts of changes in climate, habitat and conservation measures. This will only be possible due to the dedication of the 3,000 volunteer counters who go out in all weathers to check up on the birds using UK wetlands, carrying on a 70 year old tradition.

Teresa Frost, WeBS National Organiser at BTO, said, “Findings showed that during the winter of 2016-17 counts of migratory ducks and waders were slightly higher than we would have expected from recent trends. We think this was related to cold weather on the continent encouraging some birds to move to the UK, where the weather was very mild. Even though climate change means some species are typically wintering further north-east in Europe than they used to, it shows the importance of our wetlands as a refuge in severe weather conditions.”

Simon Wotton, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB, said, “Our wetlands are absolutely vital for millions of waterbirds every year providing them with a much needed home to get through the winter months. The designation and protection of these wetland areas around the UK is a key reason behind their survival, and allows us to monitor their numbers so we’re best placed to put in conservation measures to help protect their long-term future.”

Anna Robinson, Monitoring Ecologist at JNCC, said “National counts of wildfowl stretch all the way back to 1947. Without thousands of volunteers collecting data for the past seventy years, the scientific evidence wouldn’t have been there to rigorously define which wetlands should be protected or which species need conservation measures.”

Richard Hearn, Head of Monitoring at WWT, said, “The UK’s long-term dataset on duck numbers is an amazing resource with which to track the different fortunes of individual species. The continued decline of Pochard is the greatest current concern and a conservation response is becoming increasingly important. Recent research has suggested that females are being impacted more than males, as there is now a greater percentage of males in the European population, but the ultimate causes remain unknown. Targeted research and changes to management practices for this huntable species are now needed. ”

Contact Details
Teresa Frost
(Wetland Bird Survey Organiser, BTO)

Office: 01842 750050
(Mon-Thurs 9am to 5.30pm) (Fri 9am to 5pm)
Email: teresa.frost [at] bto.org
Paul Stancliffe
(Media Manager, BTO)

Office: 01842 750050
(Mon-Thurs 9am to 5.30pm) (Fri 9am to 5pm)
Mobile: 07585 440910 - anytime
Email: press [at] bto.org

Images are available for use alongside this News Release. Please contact images [at] bto.org quoting reference May 2018-15
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Notes for Editors

1. To read the full report, please visit www.bto.org/wituk

2. WeBS  - The Wetland Bird Survey is the monitoring scheme for non-breeding waterbirds in the UK, which aims to provide the principal data for the conservation of their populations and wetland habitats. Counts of UK wildfowl have been made every winter since 1947 with other waterbird species added over time. Counts are made monthly by volunteers.

3. WeBS is a partnership jointly funded by BTO, RSPB and JNCC, in association with WWT with fieldwork conducted by volunteers.

4. World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) - An annual awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need for the protection of migratory birds and their habitats. The campaign is organized by two international wildlife treaties administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) - together with Environment for the Americas (EFTA).

5. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research organisation. Up to 60,000 birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys. They collect information that forms the basis of 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 project work. The BTO's investigations are funded by government, industry and conservation organisations.

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