South east’s migratory birds wintering in Africa face steep declines – effects seen in Bexley

The following media release by the RSPB and partner organisations, comments on the State of the UK’s Birds report as it applies to the decline of migratory birds in south-east England. This is just the latest publication (following on from others such as the ‘State of Nature’ in 2013, and ‘Living planet’ in 2014)  showing that not just biodiversity (numbers of species) but bio-abundance (numbers of individuals) are in serious decline. The latter, of course, leads to the former, and – one could say- extinction begins at home. So there is much we should be doing here in Bexley (and not doing – especially in terms of the Council planning ever more habitat loss) . To highlight the local contribution to this state of affairs, we are working on a list of species that have disappeared from the Borough in the last hundred years or so, or that now only pass through and no longer breed here. Unfortunately it is all too easy for the powers that be to complacently imagine – given the relative amount of ‘greenspace’ in Bexley – that there isn’t a problem here and that it’s Brazil, China or somewhere else that is to blame for species losses, or to hide behind some alleged ‘economic necessity’, when the economy depends on nature and not the other way around.

The Spotted Flycatcher, Cuckoo and Turtle Dove are two of the species mentioned in the RSPB commentary that are now rarely seen in Bexley and do not breed here anymore, the former having perhaps last bred in the Borough in 2012. The last Nightingale was heard in Bexley back in 2010. The non-migratory Lesser Spotted Woodpecker has gone the same way.  With migrants there is obviously an impact of habitat loss elsewhere in the world, but we should still get our own house in order. With Swifts we can put up nest-boxes to make up for changes in building design and maintenance that prevent them accessing nesting holes – contact “Jonathan Rooks” <> to help with a nest-box scheme in Bexley.

The State of the UK’s Birds report is published by a partnership of eight organisations: RSPB; British Trust for Ornithology; Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust; Natural Resources Wales; Natural England; Northern Ireland Environment Agency; Scottish Natural Heritage; and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

South east’s migratory birds wintering in Africa face steep declines

Bird numbers continue to fall in the south east but the migratory species who fly south for winter are also dropping sharply, a new report by the RSPB and partners has revealed.

Two species which used to have a stronghold in the south east, turtle doves and swifts, are particularly affected, says the State of the UK’s Birds report published today.

“Turtle doves, whose numbers have fallen by 88 per cent since 1995, are also affected by conditions in Africa where they roost for winter, on migration, as well as facing challenges in the UK,” said RSPB Conservation Advisor Hayley New.

“The decline in the availability of seeds, which turtle doves have traditionally fed upon, means that they can struggle to find food after flying hundreds of miles to their breeding grounds. This further jeopardises the survival of a bird which is already one the fastest-declining species in the UK,” Hayley added.

Species wintering furthest south such as swifts, also show a substantial decline since the early 1980s. Between 1995 and 2012 their numbers dropped by 38 per cent in the UK nationally and declined by nearly 50 per cent in the south east.

“Migration is part of the swifts’ life cycle and conditions on the way, or once they arrive in Africa, will make a difference to the birds’ chances of survival, “ said RSPB Conservation Projects officer Richard Black. “Swifts travel huge distances and are hard to track, but it is obvious from the decline in their numbers that they are facing difficult conditions and it is having an impact.”

The latest annual State of the UK’s Birds report includes a migratory birds section, including trends for 29 migrant species which nest in the UK in summer and spend the winter around the Mediterranean, or in Africa south of the Sahara Desert.  For the first time the recent population trends for these migratory species have been combined into an indicator revealing some marked differences between species that winter in different areas.

Species, such as whinchat, nightingale, tree pipit and spotted flycatcher, which winter in the humid zone of Africa – stretching across the continent from southern Senegal to Nigeria and beyond – show the most dramatic declines: the indicator for this group of species has dropped by just over 70 per cent since the late 1980s. This contrasts with species, such as sand martin, whitethroat and sedge warbler, wintering in the arid zone (just below the Sahara desert). These species have fluctuated considerably since 1970, but show a less than 20 per cent decline overall.

As well as the turtle doves’ dramatic decline, other species have also been affected: wood warbler, 66 per cent; pied flycatcher, 53 per cent; spotted flycatcher, 49 per cent; cuckoo, 49 per cent; nightingale, 43 per cent; and yellow wagtail, 43 per cent.

Future editions of the State of the UK’s Birds report will contain a regular update to the migratory birds’ indicator. Researchers need to understand more about what’s driving these declines. Evidence is being gathered from a variety of sources including tracking studies and on-the-ground surveys.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “West Africa is the winter home for many species bird species that breed in the UK. But many of these birds that cross continents are in rapid decline. Their nomadic lifestyle, requiring sites and resources spread over vast distances across the globe makes identifying and understanding the causes of decline extremely complex. The problems may be in the UK or in West Africa, or indeed on migration in between the two.”

David Noble, Principal Ecologist at BTO said: “We can accurately monitor the patterns of decline in these once-familiar summer breeders thanks to several decades of careful observations by an army of volunteer birdwatchers. More recently, tracking devices have shed light on migratory routes and key wintering areas. To take appropriate action, further study is needed to determine the pressures faced in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as breeding here in the UK.”

Colette Hall, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) Species Monitoring Officer said: “The length of many bird migrations – often thousands of miles – makes it very difficult to pinpoint where and what is causing populations to fall. So the more information we can get all along the migration routes – on land use changes, new infrastructure etc – the better we can target protection measures. It’s important that we help build up the capacity of local bird organisations and volunteers across the world to provide vital information through their own long-term monitoring.”

Alan Law, Director of Biodiversity delivery at Natural England said: “It is self-evident that effective conservation of a migratory species requires appropriate measures to be in place at each step of the migratory cycle.  For some species, there is growing evidence of pressure on breeding success here in England. Our focus therefore is to ensure that well-managed habitats are available in this country so that migratory species can breed here successfully; this work involves close collaboration with land managers both on designated conservation sites and across the wider farmed countryside”.

David Stroud, Senior Ornithologist with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, said: “Migratory birds depend on conservation actions in all the countries they move through in the course of their annual cycle.  The UK is working with these countries to help improve the condition of their critical habitats through its participation in multi-lateral environmental agreements such as the Biodiversity Convention and the Ramsar Convention on wetlands.”

The State of the UK’s Birds report also covers the UK’s Overseas Territories. The latest evidence reveals mixed fortunes for two important albatross populations in the UK’s Overseas Territories. Seventy per cent of the world’s black-browed albatrosses nest in the Falkland Islands. A population increase here has allowed researchers to downgrade the extinction threat of this species from Endangered to Near Threatened. Sadly, the fortunes of the grey-headed albatross have deteriorated as declines have been reported in nesting colonies on South Georgia, which hosts half the world’s population.

The State of the UK’s Birds report is published by a partnership of eight organisations: RSPB; British Trust for Ornithology; Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust;  Natural Resources Wales; Natural England; Northern Ireland Environment Agency; Scottish Natural Heritage; and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.


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