Review of the year 2015

23 Dec 2015


BTO members and volunteers are the beating heart of our organisation and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you, however big or small your contribution over the past year. As a charity, membership subscriptions, donations and legacies make a really important contribution to our finances, ensuring that we can continue to monitor and research wild birds, providing an unbiased voice on issues affecting their future. Volunteers contributed a massive 1.5 million hours to our work, equivalent to us expanding our staff team from approximately one hundred people to one thousand for a whole year! We are inspired to continue our work by the incredible enthusiasm, dedication and commitment of supporters like you, so on behalf of all of the staff here at BTO, thank you!

The end of the road for Cuckoo Chris

Satellite-tagged Cuckoo

Cuckoo Chris. Photograph by BTO

Our Cuckoo-tracking project has attracted incredible public support from the very beginning, with thousands of people supporting the project financially by sponsoring one or more of the birds. The biggest star of all has undoubtedly been Cuckoo Chris, tagged in Norfolk in 2011 and named after SpringWatch presenter and BTO President Chris Packham. Every year since, the SpringWatch team has updated the nation on the fate of Chris the Cuckoo. We’d all become rather attached to Chris, so we were gutted when he reached the end of his journey in the desert of Chad this summer. This single bird made a remarkable contribution to our knowledge of Cuckoo migration and introduced a whole new generation of bird lovers to the wonders of ornithology.

Feeding birds in gardens causes Blackcaps to evolve new migration route

Since the 1950s, Blackcaps breeding in southern Germany and Austria have increasingly migrated towards Britain for the winter rather than southern Spain. Earlier this year we published a new study using data from our Garden BirdWatch survey which revealed that bird food provided in British gardens has helped Blackcaps to rapidly evolve this successful new migration route. The result has been a rapid increase in the number of Blackcaps wintering in Britain over the past 60 years, making the species a regular visitor to garden feeding stations across the country. This is the first time that garden bird feeding has been shown to affect large-scale bird distributions and provides new evidence of the role that humans can play in shaping evolutionary changes in wild bird populations.

Practical advice on Nightingale conservation

The Nightingale arrives in Britain from its wintering quarters in West Africa in April and stays for barely three months. The British breeding range has contracted by 43% in the last 40 years and numbers are thought to have reduced by more than 90% since the 1960s (Holt et al. 2012).  Interestingly, the species has shown a large shift in habitat use. Understanding the finer points of habitat requirements is essential for successful conservation and in the case of the Nightingale, these requirements are very specific and suitable conditions change over time. This year, BTO identified critical elements of habitat for the Nightingale and summarised how land managers can create and maintain these features to benefit Nightingales. This information is now freely-available in our first ever Conservation Advice Note.

Green Woodpecker. Photograph by Martin Le May

Weasel riding a Green Woodpecker. Photo by Martin Le-May

Bird almost breaks the internet

It’s not often that a bird story captures the attention of the world’s media but, in 2015 that’s just what happened when Martin Le-May was in the right place at the right time to photograph a Weasel hitching a ride on the back of a Green Woodpecker. The result sent social media into a frenzy rivalled only by the ‘the dress’. Another bird-related incident which captured the imagination of the twitteratti was the video posted by Martin Grimm of migration in action as recorded on board a research ship in the Baltic Sea. His YouTube video received over 60,000 views in just a matter of days.   

Seabirds and wind turbines – what is the risk?

Accurately estimating birds’ risk of collision with offshore wind turbines is a key part of the decision-making process for proposed renewable developments. However, the evidence base for quantifying the number of birds likely to avoid colliding with turbines is limited. Recent BTO-led work helping to fill this gap, found that Gannets tend to avoid wind farms completely, while gulls showed no clear attraction or avoidance. Once inside wind farms however, 99% of all birds were estimated to take action to avoid the turbines themselves. While knowledge gaps remain, this review represented a significant step forward in our understanding of seabird avoidance behaviour and has been welcomed by a range of stakeholders.  


Tracking technology reveals Nightjar habitat requirements

Nightjar. Photograph by Allan Drewitt

Nightjars at a nest. Photograph by Allan Drewitt

Nightjar populations have increased in recent years, but some declines have been noted at sites supporting nationally important breeding populations. These declines have been attributed to the lack of available breeding habitat, but other factors may also be important, including disturbance through recreational activities and suboptimal habitat management. It’s difficult to observe nocturnal Nightjar activity, especially as birds may rapidly move substantial distances. This year we published a new study which used VHF radio tracking devices to overcome this issue, following 31 individuals in Thetford Forest, East Anglia. The results provided clear indications of the habitat requirements of breeding Nightjars, evidence that can be used by land managers to conserve vulnerable populations. Recent advances in available tracking technology has allowed us to refine this work with higher resolution GPS tags which will yield even better information about habitat use by Nightjars.

Unraveling the impacts of climate change        

With climate change bringing ever more unexpected weather to our shores, our research into the effects of these changes on birds has never been more important. Evidence for the impact of climate change on species’ populations and ecological communities has been presented in an increasing number of scientific publications. This year, BTO research used data from the Breeding Bird Survey to show that many of our birds have expanded their geographic range as a short-term response to climate change. We also showed that that bird distributions are changing on many fronts rather than simply expanding northwards and that climate change has a consistent impact on a wide range of species from Alder trees to Zebras across the globe.  

Gulls allowed?

No British summer is complete these days without a media frenzy about gulls stealing food from holiday makers or attacking people in their gardens. In 2015 the hysteria reached a new high with public demand for control measures ranging from egg oiling to widespread culling prompting the Prime Minister to call for a “big conversation” about gulls. It is easy to lose sight of the science amid these headlines, so as an evidence-based organisation, we felt it was important to provide some scientific context to the stories, especially since the Herring Gull is on the current UK Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, while the Lesser Black-backed Gull (and several other gull species) is Amber Listed. Our review article summarised the issues and highlighted the importance of a better understanding of gull populations before any decisions about if, how, when and where, to control gulls are taken.

Remarkable autumn gold rush!

Goldcrest. Photograph by Graham Catley

Goldcrest. Photograph by Graham Catley.

One of the highlights of the year for many birdwatchers on the east coast this autumn was the incredible influx of Goldrcrests. In just three days in October, 150 were ringed at Landguard Bird Observatory and 485 were ringed at Spurn Bird Observatory. This would have been a small fraction of the number of birds actually moving through, as the 1,000+ estimate at Gibraltar Bird Observatory on one day testified. Renowned journalist Mike McCarthy summarised the experience of a Goldcrest ‘fall’ beautifully following a visit to the coast with our media manager Paul Stancliffe. Our ringing unit provided some fabulous insight into the origins of some of these birds on the demog blog a few days later.

Hope for preventing a Curlew catastrophe

The Curlew is one of our most rapidly declining breeding bird species showing a 46% decline between 1995 and 2013. This information has secured a place for Curlew on the recently published Birds of Conservation Concern ‘Red List’ of highest priority species. The UK holds 28 % of the European population and in response to these declines, and those seen elsewhere in Europe, the species has recently been listed as near-threatened globally, one of the few British species on this list. There is an urgent need to identify the causes of these declines as a first step to introducing potential conservation interventions. Our autumn appeal this year aims to raise enough funding to carry out a ground-breaking programme of research which will analyse existing datasets to investigate patterns of extinction and colonisation and utilise revolutionary new technology to track wintering Curlew. The sooner we can start on this research, the sooner we can understand the conservation actions needed to help Curlew recover. If you’d like to ensure that future generations will be able to hear the call of the Curlew, please consider supporting our research by making a donation to our Curlew appeal.

Grey Heron. Photograph by Simon Gillings

Grey Heron. Photograph by Simon Gillings

Our oldest survey goes online

Our Heronries Census counted its first Grey Heron nest way back in 1928; 400,000 nests later it has gone digital thanks to a generous legacy from Maxwell Hoggett, a proud BTO member. The Heronries Census began in 1928 and has been in operation ever since. It collects annual counts of ‘apparently occupied nests’ in UK heronries and uses the data to monitor the population sizes of Grey Herons and Little Egrets. For the last 88 years, the Census has provided an annual estimate of the total UK breeding population of Grey Herons: this is the longest series of such data for any bird species in the world! We hope in due course to expand the survey to cover more species that habitually nest in colonies, such as Rooks and inland nesting Cormorants. Online data input is now available for all of our major surveys and work is well underway to deliver a new online system for ringers and nest recorders. 

BTO volunteers monitor the state of the UK’s birds

Data collected by BTO volunteers continue to make a vital contribution to bird conservation in the UK. This contribution is beautifully demonstrated by the “State of the UK’s Birds” report, produced annually by RSPB, WWT, BTO and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies. More than 2500 Breeding Bird Survey volunteers collected the data which provided annual population trends for more than 100 breeding species in the report. The BBS results highlighted six species with severe declines since just 1995: Turtle Dove, Willow Tit, Wood Warbler, Grey Partridge, Pied Flycatcher and Whinchat. Volunteers carrying out monthly surveys for the Wetland Bird Survey at more than 2,200 wetland sites provided the information to report on wintering population trends in 46 species or races of waterbirds including ducks, geese, swans, waders, grebes, rails and cormorants. The wintering waterbird indicator has been declining over the last decade, particularly among species such as Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper.  If you volunteer for the NEWS III survey you can help provide a clearer picture of the numbers and distribution of these and other species which frequent the non-estuarine coastline.

Ringed birds and nestlings

We had some fantastic bird ringing and nest recording stories on the ‘Demog Blog’ in 2015. By far and away the most popular was the story from February about a Gannet that had eaten a Fulmar. In second place was the post from January about the early start to the 2015 nest recording season. The surge in Siskins proved to be September's most-read story, whilst in February, a garden full of Waxwings had the blogosphere jumping. Last, but by no means least in the Demog Blog Top 5 of 2015, was the ever popular mid-season owl and raptor update

New Bird Guides published

House Martin. Photograph by John W Walton

House Martin. Photograph by John W Walton

This year we teamed up with the publisher Collins to produce two new guides aimed at helping birdwatchers identify common and rare birds in the UK and Ireland. Co-written by our Media Manager and birdwatcher extraordinaire Paul Stancliffe, the guides have been a big hit with beginners and experts alike. The guide to common birds includes the latest bird distribution maps and unique calendar wheels to give readers the most up-to-date information about when and where they are likely to encounter each species. The guide to rare birds covers all the rare and scarce birds that have occurred in Britain and Ireland five times or more, as of February 2015. ‘The Rarest of the Rare’ section lists all the species that have occurred fewer than five times; taken in combination, this means that every species of wild bird that has ever occurred in Britain or Ireland is mentioned!

Keeping the House Martin out of the Red

Despite being one of our closest avian neighbours, frequently breeding right under the eaves of our homes, the House Martin remains an international bird of mystery. We still know very little about its wintering grounds or how and when it arrives there and we lack a clear understanding of why the UK breeding populations is in steep decline.  In order to understand why the decline is happening, we launched a House Martin survey, phase one of which was completed this year, thanks to the efforts of our brilliant volunteers. Phase two of the survey will see volunteers monitoring any House Martin nests they find, wherever they are, providing more opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to get involved. This survey was made possible thanks to the generous support of members and volunteers who contributed to our House Martin Appeal. The results from this survey will provide scientific evidence to inform policy and planning decisions that could help to safeguard this species for the future. Join the mailing list to stay informed about the 2016 House Martin nest study.

We are always looking for more volunteers to contribute to our surveys and schemes, visit our volunteer pages to find out how you can participate. For a full review of the scientific research we have published this year, visit our latest research pages. If you’d like to support us and the work that we do, please join us as a member, or you might like to consider donating to one of our appeals.

Thank you!