Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Christmas Island saved from mining devastation

Following a tireless campaign by BirdLife Australia, which gained support from around the world, the Australian Government has decided to reject an application for phosphate mining on Christmas Island, a crucial wildlife haven in the Indian Ocean.
In June the Federal Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg, decided to reject an application for the expansion of phosphate mining on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. BirdLife Australia has been campaigning hard to prevent the mining operation from destroying even more of the island's pristine rainforests, and our many supporters have played a crucial role.
Over 56,000 people from across Australia and the world rallied to save the island and its unique birds by adding their signatures to BirdLife Australia's petition, calling on the government to stop the mining from encroaching further into Christmas Island's tropical rainforests.

The Australian Government's decision ensures the protection of the Critically Endangered Christmas Frigatebird (Chris Surman/BirdLife).
The petition was delivered to the Minister earlier this year and the government finally listened. The great number of signatures showed that people really cared, and they played a crucial role in convincing Mr Frydenberg to reach his decision, a rare ministerial edict in favour of the environment. He rejected the application for expanded mining "because it is likely to have significant and unacceptable impacts on matters protected under national environment law."
Christmas Island's pristine rainforests support the world's last remaining breeding colony of Abbott's Booby, an Endangered species, and it's also where the world's rarest frigatebird, the Critically Endangered Christmas Frigatebird, breeds.
It's such a significant place that Christmas Island has been designated as one of Australia's Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), but ongoing threats to the island's biodiversity have led to it also being declared as one of Australia's 10 'KBAs in Danger'.
It seems a 'no-brainer' to save Christmas Island's rainforest, and yet its survival — and that of its unique wildlife — hinged solely on the discretion of one man, and that was far from certain. That it was only ministerial discretion which stopped the mining highlights how nature hangs precariously in the balance under Australia's current environment laws.
In the meantime, Christmas Island's wildlife is still facing a number of threats to its ongoing survival, and BirdLife Australia must now keep working to eliminate them. With your help, the organisation can work towards Christmas Island being removed altogether from the list of KBAs in Danger.

DEFRA publishes new butterfly statistics

DEFRA has published its latest UK and England butterfly indicators, showing that numbers have dropped dramatically nationwide since 1976.
The data form part of a suite of governmental biodiversity indicators and describe grouped measures for habitat specialist and wider countryside butterfly species across the UK from 1976-2017 and wider countryside species in woodland and farmland habitats in England from 1990-2017.
Though better than the previous year, 2017 was relatively poor for butterflies, attributable to periods of poor weather during the spring and summer and preceding winter months.
In the UK, since 1976, the habitat specialists butterflies index has fallen by 77 per cent, while wider countryside abundance is down by 46 per cent.

Wood White is among the habitat specialists to have declined the most across Britain since 1976 (Bob Eade).
Within the overall downward trend, different species showed contrasting fortunes. Habitat specialists suffering the greatest declines since 1976 include Heath Fritillary, Wood White, Lulworth Skipper and Pearl-bordered Fritillary. However, Silver-spotted Skipper, Dark Green Fritillary, Large Heath, Adonis Blue and Silver-washed Fritillary all showed significant increases over the long term. Wider countryside species experiencing the worst downturns since 1976 include White-letter Hairstreak, Wall and Small Tortoiseshell. In contrast, species such as Comma, Marbled White, Speckled Wood and Ringlet increased in number over the time period.
In England, since 1990, the farmland butterfly index has dropped by more than a quarter, while the woodland index is down by 58 per cent. Both measures have shown some recovery since a low point in 2012. The most severely declining woodland species are Small Copper, Wall and White-letter Hairstreak, while farmland species in most rapid decline are Small Tortoiseshell, Wall and White-letter Hairstreak. Ringlet has increased in both habitats since 1990.

Silver-spotted Skipper is one of the few butterflies to show a significant increase over the long term (Bob Eade).
The indicators are compiled by Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology from butterfly count data collected by volunteer recorders contributing to the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.
Butterflies are regarded as valuable environmental indicators due to their rapid and sensitive responses to subtle habitat or climatic changes and as representatives for the diversity and responses of other wildlife. As such, these results indicate that the UK's countryside is in a poor state for wildlife and that urgent action is required. Butterfly Conservation is working with partners to address butterfly declines through a wide-ranging programme of conservation action.

Breeding birds benefit from mink removal in Outer Hebrides

A complex and challenging 17-year project to eradicate American Mink from the Outer Hebrides has proved a success, says Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
At 1,895 square miles – an area twice the size of Fife – the remoteness and scale of the Outer Hebrides location meant significant challenges for the project to overcome. Hundreds of islands contribute to a coastline of approximately 1,500 miles – 15 per cent of Scotland's total. Over 7,500 freshwater lochs – around 24 per cent of Scotland's total – helped invasive mink grow to dense populations rarely reached in their native North America.
The introduction of mink in Scotland has been directly connected to the fur farming industry established in the 1950s. In the Outer Hebrides fur farms on the Isle of Lewis went out of business in the 1960s and feral populations quickly became established. Small-scale control operations carried out by sporting estates and an attempt by SNH to prevent the mink population spreading south had limited effect. By 1999, breeding populations of mink were established on North Uist and Benbecula. To date, 2,198 mink have been caught, with only two non-breeding females and associated males caught in Lewis and Harris in the last 18 months. However, mink are still being seen on the Uists with some regularity, meaning there is more work still to be done.

Self-sustaining populations of American Mink pose a great threat to native wildlife, including birds (Peter Trimming / commons.wikimedia.org).
Local reports suggest that the isles' breeding birds are already beginnning to recover. Murray Macleod, an operator with tourist boat provider SeaTrek, commented: "Boat operators are already starting to see the results of the mink project. We have changed our tourist routes this year, because in places where there used to be no bird populations to view, [we are] now seeing colonies of terns with chicks. It's been an incredible boost to local tourism – and of course you can't top the delight on visitors' faces when they see our native birds thriving."
Scottish Natural Heritage Area Manager for Argyll and the Outer Hebrides, David Maclennan, commented: "Invasive species are one of the greatest threats to the beauty and variety of our nature. But the Hebridean Mink Project shows that we can take on invasive species – and win. It is fantastic to start welcoming back our native species. A range of factors are likely to be at play, but local people are telling us that a mink-free Outer Hebrides is having a hugely positive effect on wildlife and the economy."

Sensitive, ground-nesting species, such as Red-throated Diver and various terns and waders, are all set to prosper in the Outer Hebrides (John Dickenson).
Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham, said: "The successful removal of non-native mink from the Hebrides is a significant achievement, and is the result of the sustained commitment and effort of all the staff involved. I am delighted that we are already seeing positive results, bringing the return of the seabirds and wading birds which the islands are world-famous for. This will provide a real boost for nature tourism in the Hebrides."
Mike Cantlay, Chair of Scottish Natural Heritage, added: "We are delighted that all the hard work has been successful for the nature of the Hebrides. Mink – an invasive non-native species – prey on ground-nesting birds and fish. With major funding from the EU Life programme, at the project's height a team of just 12 core Scottish Natural Heritage staff worked as teams of trappers to remove mink and help bring back native birds to one of the remotest, wildest landscapes anywhere in Scotland."

Greenland shorebirds suffer a disastrous breeding season

Jeroen Reneerkens of the University of Groningen first studied breeding Sanderlings in 2003, and has continued to do so annually since 2007. He works from the Danish Zackenberg Research Station (74°28'N 20°34'W) in north-east Greenland, which was established in 1996 and is the research base for various experts monitoring the biotic and abiotic environment of the region. Here, Jeroen reports on a remarkable and shocking 2018 field season.
I study how rising temperatures may affect the reproductive success of Sanderlings at Zackenberg, north-east Greenland. Due to a disproportionate degree of warming in the Arctic, shorebirds that migrate to the Arctic to breed are strongly suspected to be negatively affected by ongoing climate change. Niels Martin Schmidt and his team have indeed established that the summer temperatures in Zackenberg have steadily increased during recent decades.

One of the Sanderlings that is part of the long-term study on the species' reproduction in Greenland (Jeroen Reneerkens).
The expected consequence of warmer Arctic summers is a mismatch in timing between arthropods (insects and spiders) and their shorebird predators. The emergence of the former in the pitfall traps in Zackenberg has advanced in the last two decades, but I have found that Sanderlings in the area do not adjust the timing of their incubation in response.
To further study the ecological interactions between Sanderlings and their prey (and the predators of Sanderling eggs such as Arctic Foxes), I visited Zackenberg for the 13th time this summer. It turned out to be an exceptional season …

Snow, so much snow!

Sanderlings and other Arctic shorebirds start laying eggs when the snow melts, which usually happens in the first weeks after their arrival in late May or early June. Shorebirds are 'income breeders', which means that females produce their eggs from locally acquired food. Their food appears only when the tundra soil becomes snow free.
Snow melts more quickly with higher summer temperatures, but it's not that straightforward as climate models also predict that the amount of winter precipitation (that is, snowfall) will increase. If that is true, more snow may counteract the effects of warming summers on the timing of arthropod emergence.

The study area in north-east Greenland. In mid-June 2018 the tundra surface was almost completely covered in snow (Jeroen Reneerkens).
Before I headed north to follow the Sanderlings, my Danish colleagues, who had been in Zackenberg since early June, had already reported that there was a lot of snow on the tundra and warned me that I should prepare myself for a late breeding season. Satellite images from mid-June 2018 show that the tundra surface was close to 100 per cent covered in snow, not only in Zackenberg but also across the entire North-East Greenland National Park. After a delay of two days due to fog in Zackenberg, in which the small chartered planes cannot land, I arrived on 14 June.
Most Sanderlings are on their nests by the last two weeks of June, while some late breeders, or birds whose first clutches fell victim to predators, can be found singing or foraging in pairs while the females gather insects to produce eggs. This year, however, the snow was so extensive that the majority of the shorebirds in the valley had flocked together in a snow-free area around the field station. Very lean birds were walking between the wooden buildings in the research station and could be approached up to a few metres, probably because they were not willing to expend their energy and the much-needed time to forage on escaping human researchers.

The vicinity of the Zackenberg research station was the only snow-free area in the wide surroundings (Jeroen Reneerkens).

Catching shorebirds at the research station

It was clear that no shorebirds were going to nest within the next few weeks, if at all this summer. This exceptional situation gave me the opportunity to document the effects of large amounts of snow on the behaviour and condition of the birds.
Usually, food leftovers from the station's kitchen are discarded via a hose into the nearby Zackenberg river, so that its smell does not attract Polar Bears. However, the river only started flowing on 20 June – 16 days later than the 1998-2017 average; a new record. The researchers were forced to get rid of the ground-up food on the tundra close to the station. Luckily, it did not attract Polar Bears, but instead a flock of several tens of shorebirds, mainly Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones and Red Knots.

Ruddy Turnstones, together with singles of Red Knot and Sanderling, foraging at the end of the sewage hose, close to a strategically placed trap (Jeroen Reneerkens).
This gave me and my Danish colleague Jannik Hansen, of Aarhus University, the opportunity to catch birds and assess their body condition. We managed to catch 31 Sanderlings, 23 Ruddy Turnstones and 12 Red Knots. Several birds were recaptured up to three times within the following few days.

Jannik Hansen ringing a Red Knot caught in the snow-free area around the Zackenberg research station (Jeroen Reneerkens).;
All individuals were in poor condition, with the Sanderlings weighing on average 44 grams (range: 33.6-54.6 grams). To compare, Sanderlings wintering in The Netherlands weigh between 50 and 55 grams and incubating Sanderlings weigh on average 57 grams. Furthermore, these incubating females will have already produced a four-egg clutch weighing around 48 grams before they start incubation!

We continued to catch and ring shorebirds from the terrace during the social Saturday evenings at the station (Jeroen Reneerkens).
The locally colour-ringed birds were resighted daily near the sewage outlet and between the station buildings, near snow edges. I woke up and went to bed with sightings of colour-ringed birds just a few metres from my bedroom window each day. The food waste close to the station was probably a unique opportunity for the shorebirds, as there is only one village and a handful of stations in the whole of north-east Greenland. The body masses of recaptured Sanderlings showed that many could maintain or even increase their body mass – but not all of them.
I found two dead Sanderlings near the station which seemed to have starved. One of them weighed 34 grams at first capture and only 32.6 grams when recaptured a few days later. It was found, without its head, weighing 26 grams. The other Sanderling, unringed but intact, weighed 31.8 grams, indicating that many of the birds were in very poor condition indeed.

This Sanderling, found starved and decapitated, weighed just 26 grams. Its mass upon capture a few days earlier was 34 grams (Jeroen Reneerkens).
I was delighted to recapture a female Sanderling which had I ringed at Zackenberg as a seven-day-old chick on 14 July 2012, meaning it was now almost six years old. Luckily, with a weight of 54 grams, it was among the few birds in good condition.
The waste near the station also served as a feeding tray for the local Gyr Falcons. Jannik and I observed one of these large, white falcons hunting shorebirds almost daily, often flying only a few metres over our heads. Although we did not witness a successful attack, prey remains and plucked feathers in the vicinity of the station indicated that either the Gyr Falcon, or possibly Arctic Foxes, were preying on the starving shorebirds.

A non-breeding year?

During the two-week period that I was in Zackenberg, I did not hear a single singing Sanderling and only a few times did I hear a singing Red Knot or Dunlin. I observed just two Sanderling pairs, which latterly seemed to have broken up, or at least could not be found again, in the following days. Also, a few flocks of 20-30 Red Knots and Sanderlings were observed heading south at fairly high altitude, suggesting that birds had given up on reproduction this year and were in sufficient condition to migrate southwards again. This appears to have been confirmed by the unusually large numbers of Red Knots and Sanderlings in the UK, Netherlands, Germany and Denmark in late June and early July.
Furthermore, we observed surprisingly few locally colour-ringed Sanderlings. Because the species is very faithful to its breeding territories, and given that the snow conditions were similar in the whole range of north-east Greenland, I think that the majority of birds never actually arrived in Zackenberg and instead stayed in more southerly regions with better feeding opportunities.
In recent years, Sanderling hatch dates in Zackenberg have ranged between 27 June and 30 July (average 12 July). With four days required to lay the clutch of four eggs and an incubation period of 22 days, this implies that Sanderlings usually start laying around 16 June and, at the very latest, 4 July. Given that on 27 June all of the Sanderling habitat in the Zackenberg valley was still covered by at least a metre of snow, and a more recent report from the Karupelv valley (a more southerly location in north-east Greenland) stating that the tundra is still more than 95 per cent snow-covered in early July, it is very unlikely that Sanderlings, and other shorebirds, will breed this year in Zackenberg, or across the entirety of North-East Greenland National Park.

On 27 June 2018, the Zackenberg valley was still completely covered with snow up to a metre deep. The vicinity of the research station visible in the middle of the photo was the only area free of snow (Jeroen Reneerkens).

Request to report juvenile Sanderlings

What are the consequences of a non-breeding season for the Sanderling population? This will depend on the scale at which the snow cover has affected Sanderling reproduction. The species' breeding area extends beyond north-east Greenland, and it is possible that Sanderling reproduction will be good outside the area affected by snow this year.
I am asking for your help to document the effect of snow conditions on Sanderling reproduction by counting the number of juveniles you see within flocks at your local beaches this autumn. The best way to do this is to repeatedly observe and score the percentage of juvenile birds in the same area between August and November, following a standardised protocol. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Breeding Hen Harriers return to Peak District

One of Britain's most threatened birds, Hen Harrier, has bred on the National Trust's High Peak Moors in the Peak District National Park for the first time in four years.
The four chicks are said to be in a healthy condition after hatching just a few days ago on land managed by the conservation charity.
Hen Harrier is one of the most charismatic sights of the British uplands in summer and is famed for the adult's mesmerising and dramatic 'sky dance', which male birds perform as they display to impress the females in spring.
Jon Stewart, the National Trust's General Manager for the Peak District, commented: "We're delighted to learn of this nest.
"Hen Harrier has been one of the most illegally persecuted birds of prey in Britain for many years and we have set out on a mission to work with others to create the conditions for the harrier and other birds of prey to thrive once again in the uplands.
"We hope this will be a positive model for improving the fate of our birds of prey and providing the healthy natural environment that so many people care about and want to see."
In 2013 the trust published its High Peak Moors Vision, which put at its heart restoring wildlife, including birds of prey, and involving people in the care of the moors. The conservation charity leases much of its High Peak moorland for grouse shooting and all shooting tenants have signed up to actively supporting the project. In addition to the Hen Harrier success, initial signs are promising this year for other species such as Peregrine Falcon, Merlin and Short-eared Owl.
Mr Stewart continued: "It is critical the birds are now given the space and security to rear their young without the threat of disturbance or worse."
"The trust will be working with its partners and tenants to give the birds the best chance of success. We are also working with the RSPB's EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project to fit satellite tags to the chicks. so that we can monitor their movements and learn more to inform the conservation of this very special bird.
"There is a great sense from everyone closely involved that we want this to work not just for these birds now, but as a symbol for the whole future direction of our uplands. Uplands that are richer in wildlife and beauty, widely enjoyed and providing huge public benefits."