The state of the UK’s birds 2013

Yellow wagtail. Photo by Romano da CostaFrom The Guardian

State of UK birds 2013 coverSome of the UK’s most familiar countryside birds have plummeted in numbers since the 1990s, and some species have disappeared from parts of the country altogether, according to the most recent authoritative annual report.

The turtle dove has declined by 95%, the yellow wagtail, which inhabits farm and wetland, has declined by 45% over the same period.

The State of the UK’s Birds report, from the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and several UK government nature bodies, shows that of the UK’s 107 most widespread and common breeding birds, 16 species have declined by more than a third since 1995, including the willow tit, starling, cuckoo, lapwing and wood warbler.

Many of these species do not require highly managed landscapes such as nature reserves or protected areas, but are once common birds that live in the “wider countryside”, in farmland, open country, commons, woodlands or local country parks.

Dr Mark Eaton, RSPB conservation scientist, said many contributors to the report were shocked at how poorly familiar species were 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 swaths of our countryside.”

The report has been running since 1999 and brings together the most recently published research, which is used to update population trends. This year’s report draws heavily on the findings of the BTO’s Bird Atlas 2007-11, which was published in 2013, a massive volunteer-led project that mapped changes in the patterns of distribution and abundance of 296 breeding and wintering bird species in Britain and Ireland.Turtle dove. Photo by Romano da Costa

By including the BTO findings, the report has for the first time in 20 years enabled conservationists to look at bird populations in terms of population trends and range. “The shocking thing when you put both sets of figures together is the decline in number and range,” said an RSPB spokesman. The list of familiar countryside birds that are declining includes:

• The turtle dove, a farmland bird with a 95% decline in numbers since 1995 and a 51% decline in range over the past 40 years

• The cuckoo, whose numbers have halved since 1995. The latest bird atlas reveals that although its range has contracted by just 8% over the past 40 years, there are marked declines in abundance in the south and east of Britain

Whinchat. Photo by Mick Dryden• The whinchat, a bird of open countryside whose numbers have fallen by 60% since 1995, and in range by 48% over the past 40 years

• The starling, which lives in urban areas and farmland and whose population has decreased by 53% since 1995. The atlas reveals that its range has contracted by 5% over the past 40 years with a steep decline in abundance in Britain, and an increase in Northern Ireland

• The wood warbler, a summer-visiting woodland bird, which has dropped in number by 69% since 1995, and a range contraction of 34% since the 1970s

• The yellow wagtail, a bird of farmland and wetland that has experienced a 45% decline in numbers since 1995 and a 32% contraction in range

Lapwing. Photo by Mick Dryden• The lapwing, a farm and wetland inhabitant whose numbers have dropped by 41% since 1995. The atlas reveals that the lapwing’s range has contracted by 18% over the past 40 years, with the greatest losses in western Britain and Northern Ireland

• The snipe, a wetland bird whose breeding range has shrunk by 31% over the past 40 years

• The corn bunting, a farmland bird whose population has declined by 34% since 1995. The atlas shows that its distribution has contracted by 56% over the past 40 years; and the species is now extinct in Ireland.

Colette Hall, species monitoring officer with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, 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 is thought to be the loss of habitat due to wetlands being drained for farming or development, she said. “We need to protect and restore these habitats in order for species like these – and all wetland wildlife – to survive and prosper.”

The report also highlights some species that have seen significant population recoveries. Following its reintroduction into England and Scotland and its continuing recovery in Wales, red kite numbers have increased by 676% since 1995. Songbirds such as the goldfinch and blackcap have also increased their populations since 1995, by 109% and 133% respectively.

Phil Grice, Natural England’s senior ornithology specialist, said: “While we’ve made 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.”

The 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 shows that concerted conservation action has delivered benefits for species including the Ascension frigatebird and Murphy’s petrel.

David Stroud, of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, 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.”

Download the report for free here

Common snipe. Photo by Mick Dryden

PuffinCam is back!

Puffin at Burhou. Photo by Paul MarshallFrom Alderney Wildlife Trust 

AWT logoAfter a succession of bad news stories for Channel Islands wildlife, the Alderney Wildlife Trust is delighted to be able to announce that the LIVE – PuffinCams are now back up and running from the Island of Burhou. These two cameras are the centre piece to the ‘LIVE – teaching through nature’ and have been brought back into action in readiness for the return of the Channel Islands’ largest puffin colony after the winter storms and wrecks.

LIVE is linking over 60+ schools across the UK and Channel Islands in 2014 and its creators at the Alderney Wildlife Trust are hoping to interest more Channel Island schools to take part thanks to the support of Guernsey Education Department and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (one of the project’s Jersey partners).

LIVE utilises over 300 teaching and learning resources and live camera feeds from the seabird colonies and other wildlife sites, including Birds On The Edge. LIVE provides a core 12 week cross-curricular project – using nature to help engage and teach children in Key Stage 1 & 2. LIVE provides resources for literacy, numeracy, ICT, science and art. It covers topics within the school’s curriculum including: life cycles, food chains, habitats, adaptation and more. Further details can be found here.

Burhou aerial. Alderney Wildlife TrustActivities over those weeks include:

  • Daily blogs by the Wildlife Trust and Durrell ecologists about Channel Island Wildlife.
  • Weekly videoconferences in which pupils could ask questions directly to the LIVE education team about what they were seeing in the puffin and other wildlife behaviour.
  • Access to a secure school area of the website which provided resources aimed at providing a new angle on teaching literacy, numeracy, science, IT, geography and art; whilst also covering curriculum topics such as habitats, life cycles and island living.
  • Activity Days where participating schools could take part in activity sessions with support from Wildlife Trust and Durrell staff and teachers
  • ‘The Travelling Puffin’, where an Alderney (cuddly) Puffin took a trip around participating schools so students could meet first hand a life size Puffin. Schools then put up a blog and pictures about their visitor, for other schools to see and discuss.
  • Activity Boxes, these interactive aid boxes will be available for schools to access on a loan basis and will contain materials which support the programme and come directly from the Alderney and he Island of Burhou.

RSPB President and BBC OneShow presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff said of the project – ‘LIVE is a truly remarkable way to inspire and connect children to nature…’

Jersey Great Garden Bird Watch – results in

Blackbird. Photo by Mick DrydenJersey Great Garden Bird Watch 8th & 9th February 2014

By Mike Stentiford

This year’s garden bird watch (reported here) was held in February and the results have all been counted. Public response this time was slightly lower than in previous years – a little under 200 householders participated this year. Unfortunately the count coincided with some of the highest winds recorded during an already very windy start to the year.

Nevertheless, the results continue to give a reasonable snapshot of the wherewithal of the Island’s garden birds.

With thanks to Action for Wildlife’s co-ordinator Sheila Mallet, the top twenty species of the 13th Jersey Garden Bird Watch were:

Wood pigeon. Photo by Mick Dryden1 – House sparrow  1,109
2 – Chaffinch           503
3 – Starling              435
4 – Blue tit               383
5 – Great tit             342
6 – Magpie              282
7 – Collared dove    273
7 – Blackbird           273
9 – Goldfinch          263
10 – Wood pigeon  224

Greenfinch in winter. Photo by Mick Dryden11 to 20 were robin (213), herring gull (159), long-tailed tit (150), dunnock (149), carrion crow (139),  greenfinch (127), pheasant (77), song thrush (51), wren (49) and blackcap (29).

Analysis of these annual counts shows some important trends that give us a good picture of what is happening to our environment. While, alarmingly, greenfinch continues to show no signs of recovery it is pleasing to report that house sparrow may be doing better than it was only a few years ago. While populations of some of our other garden birds remain fairly stable only wood pigeon is actually showing signs of increasing.

Greenfinch. GBS 2002-2014

House sparrow. GBS 2002-2014Wood pigeon. GBS 2002-2014

May we add a very big ‘thank you’ to everyone who kindly took part – assisting with this annual survey is both important and hugely appreciated.

Chough report: February 2014

Choughs searching for insects hidden by keeper. Photo by Liz CorryBy Liz Corry

News update from Sorel

There is not a great deal to report from Sorel from the past month. Most of the time both birds and manager have been anchored down trying to make it through the force 10 winds and onslaught of rain or sleet. The choughs have fared better than the manager, taking the opportunity to practice sideways gliding through hatches, airing their flight feathers, and getting stuck into the mud searching for insects. Confinement to the aviary does limit their options for shelter, but all birds have so far seemed pretty happy.

Sorel choughs on a windy day. Video by Liz Corry

The only evidence contrary to this was picked up by the aviary security camera. Two of the choughs had a falling out recently which caused a lot of excitement amongst the other birds. Luckily it ended quickly with no injuries sustained, but maybe a bruised ego.

Black’s bill, evidence of their natural soil probing behaviour. Photo by Liz CorryBehavioural training and weighing of the birds has been difficult because of the weather. On the days when the electronic scales have been able to make an appearance the readout has shown discrepancies. This is probably due to the wind getting under the top pan balance and the movement throwing off the scales. The birds have been sluggish in their response to the whistle training. Without knowing body weights it is difficult to know whether the lack of motivation is due to the weather or full stomachs.

Breeding pairs at Durrell

At the start of February the choughs at Durrell were moved from the flocking aviary to their breeding aviaries. The catch-up process took two days. The flocking aviary has a very large flight space! In order to catch birds they first need to enter a smaller enclosure at the back of the aviary beforehand so nets can be used.

Only two of the three pairs needed to be moved out. To complicate mKeeper spying on choughs anxiously waiting to trap them in the catch up cage. Photo by Liz Corryatters the pair staying in the flocking aviary, Arthur and Issy, treated the back area as their territory. They would not let the other birds feed from the dishes put there to lure the birds in. On the second day Arthur and Issy were caught up and kept in pet carriers in a darkened room. This allowed the other birds to get to the food.

The first in were Gwinny and Mauve. Slightly cautious of seeing what had just happened to the other pair Mauve spent a lot of time standing guard in the doorway, but eventually his hunger took over. Tristan and his partner were less caring and went in within a few minutes after Gwinny and Mauve were caught.

All the choughs were in good condition. The young female had new leg rings fitted as she had lost her old ones. She was moved into Shep’s Field 2 (SF2) along with Tristan. Gwinny and Mauve went next door in SF3. The nest cameras were already rolling and showed both pairs taking a keen interest in their new surroundings.

With the necessary birds removed, work could then begin on setting up the flocking aviary as a temporary breeding aviary. A nest box, donated by Paradise Park, has been fitted with a camera and connected to a monitor in the keeper porcGianna. Photo by Liz Corryh. This will provide a continuous live feed to monitor progress of nest-building and hopefully egg-laying.

Gianna will remain in the aviary with Arthur and Issy unless she proves to be too much of a disturbance. She continues to knock on the inner door when she hears a keeper unlocking the external door. This creates quite a racket which might not be appreciated by a brooding female.

Chough incubation equipment. Photo by Liz CorryArtificial breeding

New incubation and breeding equipment arrived this month. Staff are hoping to artificially incubate eggs and hand-rear chicks to be released alongside parent-reared chicks. Hand-reared individuals will respond well to the behavioural training required for the soft-release process. Parent-reared fledglings observing the hand-reared birds should pick up on the training quicker whilst at the same time share their natural life skills learned from their parents.Tristan inspecting the new nest box…and camera. Photo by Liz Corry

One of Durrell’s education officers, Sarah Nugent, has kindly painted more dummy eggs. Keepers will use these if they need to rescue eggs but not the entire clutch. The real egg is swapped for a dummy egg, so that the female believes her clutch is unharmed and continues to incubate.

Nest building

Gwinny’s ceremonial placement of the first nest twig. Photo by Liz CorryOnce the birds had settled into their new surroundings keepers added nesting material. Chough nests are built in three stages; foundations (twigs), structural support (heather thatch), and interior comforts (wool/horse hair). So far progress has been slow with the odd twig taken up to the nest, then removed when the female decides it is not to her liking. In the wild, choughs normally start nesting in March. The lack of commitment our captive birds are currently showing is not too concerning.

Public Outreach

This year’s Durrell pantomime paid homage to Birds On Durrell Panto PosterThe Edge featuring Sleeping Beauty and the red billed choughs. With a matinee and evening performance at the Jersey Arts Centre, crowds were entertained and educated about why Jersey has lost some of its most charismatic bird species, the need for grazing sheep, and why we all should boo loudly whenever we see an evil egg-snatcher lurking nearby.

The choughs and Birds On The Edge also get a look-in at a very special art exhibition being held at the wildlife park. Lizi Hill, a Durrell Volunteer Brighter Futures and Help a Jersey Child art exhibition at Durrell featuring work. Photo by Liz Corryand art student, helped bring together Durrell, Brighter Futures, and Help a Jersey Child for a wildlife inspired charity art project. Thirty six families visited Durrell to spend time with the animals, learn about conservation, and get their creative juices flowing. Back in the studio children, parents, and staff set to work on their masterpieces using all sorts of medium from pencil sketches to textile collages. Art work is available for sale and can still be viewed in Durrell’s Princess Royal Pavilion.

At the start of the month a short film was released about Birds On The Edge and the trial release of the choughs. This was filmed and produced by Annette Lowe who has kindly volunteered her time to the project over the past two years. With fifty hours of raw footage Annette had her work cut out trying to condense the story into just thirteen minutes. The film can be seen here as well as on Annette’s YouTube channel. Hopefully the public will gain a better understanding of what is involved in this sort of work and increase their support for the project.

How to test a chough. In a laboratory that is

Lab manager Ann Thomasson scrutinising chough sample. Photo by Liz CorryBy Liz Corry

The chough project monthly reports have often included references to laboratory tests that the Sorel birds have undergone. With so much effort involved behind the scenes it seems appropriate to explain further just what goes on.

Testing for bacteria. Photo by Liz CorryTwice a year at Durrell all the animals undergo basic parasitology screenings. Unlike most wildlife parks and zoos, Durrell is fortunate enough to have its own onsite laboratory managed by Ann Thomasson. Not only does this save on shipping and diagnostic costs, but generally guarantees results within a matter of hours.

What does a basic parasitology screen involve? Poo. Lots and lots of poo! Or to be a bit more scientific, faecal samples collected by the keepers. Ann and her team then get to play detective searching for bacteria and parasites which might be harboured in the animals undetected. If any harmful parasite is discovered, the Veterinary Team can then treat if required.

The lab is also used for diagnostic testing when an animal is ill. Since they can’t sit down in the Vet’s office and confide in them when feeling a bit under the weather, their keepers have to look out for tell-tale signs. Depressed behaviour, maybe fluffed up, abnormal faecal samples….

Choughs at the Sorel aviary. Photo by Liz CorryRecently the choughs in the aviary at Sorel were observed ‘sneezing’. Yes birds do sneeze. Most of the time they are trying to clear their nasal passages. In captivity the likely causes are food, dust or dry sand. Occasionally it can be something worse.

Choughs are susceptible to a blood sucking nematode called Syngamus trachea or more commonly known as gapeworm. The adult nematodes usually are found in the trachea (windpipe) and if present in large number can cause considerable irritation to the lining of the trachea and, in extreme cases, will block the airways.

Gapeword egg. Photo by Liz CorryFemale nematodes produce eggs which hatch into larvae and become a favourable food source of many invertebrates, such as earthworms. The larvae can persist in the invertebrates for months or even years. Birds eating the infected invertebrates in turn become infected and shed the nematode eggs in their faeces.

Faecal samples were collected from the choughs at Sorel over a three-day period. There are two ways to check for parasites: direct preparation and the flotation method. With the direct preparation a small amount of faeces is mixed into a hypertonic sodium chloride (NaCl) solution and a cover-slip placed on top. The slide is then examined under a microscope.  A flotation examination is similar but involves a different chemical and a sieve!

Flotation technique. Photo by Liz CorryWith Ann’s expert eye she was quickly able to identify gapeworm eggs as well as a few other things. A positive ID does not always mean doom and gloom. Like humans, choughs can tolerate a certain level of  parasites. The presence of a low number of parasites may actually help the birds to develop a natural immune response, in the same way that a vaccine helps to develop immunity against certain diseases. Having a natural immunity against different bacteria and parasites will increase their chances of survival once that they are released. We will continue to monitor levels and any clinical signs in the birds such as weight loss. Since taking the faecal samples the choughs have not been seen sneezing.

Only fit and healthy choughs will be released into the wild and treatment may be required if their levels of parasites become problematic for the birds. Thanks to Durrell’s Veterinary Department we can ensure the best health screening and support possible.