Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Just one male Great Indian Bustard left in Gujarat

Reports that only a single male Great Indian Bustard survives in Gujarat's Kutch district have been confirmed by experts, leaving it on the brink of extinction in the state.
During the last census in 2016, the forest department had counted 25 birds in Gujarat, mostly in and around the Great Indian Bustard sanctuary in Kutch and at that point of time, four males had been recorded. But since then, three have disappeared and environmentalists believe they most likely died in a collision with the power lines. With just one male left, the situation of the species has become even more precarious as the birds are notoriously shy and breed once every two years. The single remaining male is a sub-adult, not yet of breeding age.

Great Indian Bustard is now on the verge of extinction in Gujarat, while populations continue decline across its core range in Rajasthan (Prajwalkm /
Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist and bustard expert at the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) told Down To Earth: "Breeding in the area has stopped because there are no mature males left. We could bring this sub-adult into captivity but that is not possible right now, as the captive breeding programme for the bustard – to be conducted jointly by the Rajasthan government, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the WII – has not yet started. Hence, proper captive facilities are not available right now.
"Formalities will be completed this month and things will start moving, but it will be a year until proper captive breeding facilities are built. Until then, we can only hope that this bird grows up and does not fall prey to power lines.”
Rajasthan, to the north of Gujarat, now holds the key to the survival of Great Indian Bustard. Though it still has around 100 bustards, it has been losing an average of 18 birds to power lines every year. The problem of the power lines for birds has become increasingly prominent as development continues and grasslands become increasingly fragmented. Plans are afoot to shift the wires underground in critical areas, while bird diverters can be installed to make the lines more conspicuous and give the bustards time change their flight path. However, conservationists fear that such measures have come into play too late.

Dalmatian Pelican added to Category A of French list

The French Bird Commission (Commission de l’Avifaune Française; CAF) has voted unanimously to add Dalmatian Pelican to Category A of the French bird List.
The addition is based on an adult observed in Jura department (eastern France, south-east of Dijon) on 2 May 2010 and then at Lac du Bourget, Savoy, on 4 May. This particular bird had previously been observed in several European countries having first been seen in Hungary in February, the month in which most adults arrive back at breeding colonies in the species' home range.
An adult Dalmatian Pelican seen in Alsace in 2016, which had previously been seen in several European countries (including Poland) and later arrived in Cornwall, England, on 7 May, lingering in south-west England until mid-November of that year, is still pending acceptance, although evidence points strongly in the favour of this also being a wild bird. Further records of immatures have all been assigned to Category E, either because it was established that they were definitely escapees, either because observations corresponded to known individuals being at large or because they showed similar movement patterns to known escapees and there was no good evidence in favour of a wild origin.

Evidence points strongly in favour of the Dalmatian Pelican, seen in south-west England from May-November 2016, being of wild origin (Richard Stonier).
CAF has also elevated Lesser Flamingo to Category A of the French list, on the basis of the recent increase in the number of individuals observed in both France and Spain. This increase can only be reasonably explained if the majority of birds present in France since 2000 are of wild origin. However, individuals will continue to be monitored on a case-by-case basis.
Black Swan has been added to Category C of the French list. The species is now breeding in the north and east of France and treating the French population as self sustaining is consistent with the current categorisation in Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany, where it is also placed on Category C of each respective national list. The first successful breeding took place in Charentes in 1988. Since then, the population has gradually increased and its range expanded, with 2018 estimates suggesting around 240 individuals are present in the country, including 26-35 breeding pairs (and further non-breeding pairs).

Black Swan is now considered a part of the wild avifauna of several European countries and it is surely only a matter of time before a similar position is adopted in Britain (Elizabeth Dack).

Golden plover photo ID guide

There can be few more attractive sights than the 'golden plovers' in summer plumage. With their black faces and bellies and gold-spangled upperparts, they are an arresting sight. However, as well as being objects of beauty, they also present some identification problems, and further difficulties arise with the more plainly marked juveniles. This article discusses the identification of all three species: European, American and Pacific Golden Plovers.

European Golden Plovers (Texel, The Netherlands, 19 September 2008). A large flock of European Golden Plovers is always a wonderful sight. The summer-plumaged birds here catch the eye but the repeated pattern of gold-spangled upperparts is always a delight as well. The tight flocking and constant alertness are typical of the species (Will Leurs /

European Golden Plover

This species breeds from Iceland in the west to Siberia in the east and winters in western and southern Europe and North Africa. It is a scarce upland breeder in Britain, but is much more familiar as a winter visitor to fields and wetlands, typically in large flocks which can number up to several thousand individuals. In the air these flocks often adopt a distinctive laterally elongated or 'rugby ball-shaped' appearance.
Structure is an important identification feature of this trio of plovers, with European being the most distinctive of the three. This species is typically very fat and dumpy, a little short at the rear-end, a little short legged, rather short necked and quite short billed. In flight, although a powerful flyer on long, pointed wings, the body still appears quite fat.
In summer plumage this is a striking species: the upperparts are spangled with pale gold, separated by a white line from the black face and foreneck. The flanks and undertail coverts are also white. In southern breeders, the black areas are paler and duller and there is also sexual variation, the males being more black below than the females. Juveniles and winter adults are very similar. Both lack the black underparts and are spangled light gold colour all over, appearing relatively uniform at range. This rather featureless impression is reinforced by a plain face with an isolated dark eye.
At all ages, the underwing coverts and axillaries are bright white, easily seen in flight and often displayed prominently on landing.
The call is the characteristic mournful, piping piooooo.

American Golden Plover

With a breeding range extending across Alaska and northernmost Canada and a winter range in Argentina and Uruguay, this is one of the world's great wader migrants. Its long autumn passage takes it out over the western Atlantic so it is, unsurprisingly, a regular rarity in Britain. The majority of records involve juveniles in September and October, but most years also see a few records of summer-plumage adults, typically in July and August.
American Golden Plover forms a species pair with Pacific Golden Plover, resembling the latter much more than its European relative. Indeed until recently both were treated together as 'Lesser Golden Plover'. Today, however, their distinctive structural, vocal and plumage features are better understood.
American Golden Plover is, compared to European, a smaller, more slender-bodied species, with longer legs, neck and wings and proportionally a slightly longer and stouter bill. The strutural differences can be hard to evaluate on a 'fluffed up' bird, but when alert this is a strikingly slim, elegant species which should stand out among European Golden Plovers on this feature alone.
These structural features are, however, shared with Pacific Golden Plover so, to eliminate that species, it is necessary to focus on the rear of the bird. In American Golden, the tertials are quite short, falling short of the tail-tip, while the primary projection beyond both is quite long, with at least four primary tips visible.
Adult male American Golden Plovers in summer plumage are even more dramatically marked than European birds. The upperparts are spangled very bright gold. The face and the whole of the underparts (including the flanks and undertail coverts) are solidly black and the white lateral line is broad, bulging at the breast-sides and almost meeting across the centre. Note, however, that females, first-summer birds and birds in body moult will all show a paler and more disrupted pattern.
Juveniles are a characteristic grey colour, indeed they are as likely to be mistaken for a Grey Plover as a European Golden. The mantle is a little darker and there are some subtle gold hues in the wing coverts. The face pattern is well-marked with a prominent supercilium, dark crown and ear covert and loral patches, the effect almost resembling a phalarope.
At all ages the underwing coverts and axillaries of American Golden Plover are a uniform mid-grey. The call is very different from European Golden, too, a disyllabic chew-ee, generally with the stress on the first syllable.

Pacific Golden Plover

This species breeds across northern Siberia to western Alaska. It is also a spectacular migrant, wintering in south and south-east Asia, Australasia and the Pacific islands. It is a regular rarity in Britain, though rarer than its American cousin. Records typically involve summer-plumaged adults in July and August, with juveniles surprisingly rare here.
Structurally, this species closely resembles American Golden Plover and is best distinguished by looking at the rear-end. The tertials in Pacific Golden Plover are long, the same length as the tail-tip. As a result, the primary projection beyond both is quite short, with only two or three primary tips visible.
Summer Pacific Golden Plovers closely resemble Americans, but the breast-side patches are a little less broad and they typically show a white flank line (with a little black barring) separating the black underparts and gold upperparts. The undertail coverts often show some white. Note, however, that the flank line can be hidden under the closed wing (and beware moulting Americans which can occasionally appear to show such a line).
Juveniles are quite different from Americans, lacking the latter's distinctive grey hues. Instead they are bright golden and therefore closely resemble European Golden Plover. They are best distinguished from this species by size and structure, but the face pattern is also a little stronger.
At all ages the underwing coverts and axillaries of Pacific Golden Plover are the same mid-grey as American, while the call is a disyllabic chew-it, resembling that of Spotted Redshank.

Adult European Golden Plover (Ouessant, France, 16 May 2004). This classic portrait of a summer European Golden Plover shows off perfectly its rather compact, portly structure with a relatively short, fine bill and short neck, rear-end and legs, particularly the exposed tibia. Such extensively black underparts are typical of more northern breeders (Aurélien Audevard).

Adult American Golden Plover (De Putten, The Netherlands, 5 June 2013). This bird also shows a rather slender body and rear-end and, although it is wading in water, its exposed tibia are quite long. It is therefore either a Pacific Golden or an American Golden Plover and its identity as the latter can be confirmed by its broad white neck-side patches and solidly black flanks. The short tertials can be seen clearly, as can the relatively long projection of the primaries beyond the tail-tip (Chris Galvin).


Adult Pacific Golden Plover (Hyères, France, 22 July 2016). This golden plover has a rather prominent bill. Its body also looks slender, with a long rear-end and the legs – again especially the exposed tibia – are long, too. These are all classic features of the two smaller species. This bird can be identified as a Pacific Golden Plover by its relatively narrow white breast-side patches and the presence of a white flank line barred with black. The primary/tertials/tail-tip ratios are, however, difficult to interpret in this photograph (Aurélien Audevard).


Adult European Golden Plover (Eccles-on-Sea, Norfolk, 27 December 2010). In terms of plumage (brightly spangled with gold), this non-breeding bird must be either a European Golden or a Pacific Golden Plover; non-breeding American Golden Plovers are much greyer. Structure is the most important feature and this bird's portly, neckless shape with short, fine bill and short legs (with almost no exposed tibia) indicate that it is a European Golden Plover (Neil Bowman).


Adult or first-summer American Golden Plover (Texas, USA, 15 April 2008). This non-breeding, probably first-summer, bird has similar lanky proportions with a prominent bill, long rear-end and long legs. It is therefore one of the two rarer golden plover species. Its overall grey appearance is immediately suggestive of American Golden Plover, a diagnosis confirmed by the relatively short tertials and long primary projection (David Kjaer).


Adult Pacific Golden Plover (Kauai, Hawaii, 29 August 2016). This bird's lanky proportions, prominent bill and long legs indicate one of the two 'lesser' golden plovers. Its identity as a Pacific can be confirmed by the golden hues in its upperparts and by the crucial structural relationships at the rear-end. Note the relatively long tertials, almost reaching the tail-tip, and the relatively short primary projection beyond (Jonathan Lethbridge /


Juvenile European Golden Plover (St Mary's, Scilly, 5 October 2005). This bird looks superficially rather slender with a long neck. Could it be one of the two smaller golden plovers? However, it is stretching up, exaggerating its neck length, the exposed tibia are noticeably short and the bill is quite short and fine, too. It is in fact a juvenile European Golden Plover (Steve Young /


Juvenile American Golden Plover (St Mary's, Scilly, 8 October 2010). The long rear-end and legs and prominent bill of this bird are all indicative of American Golden or Pacific Golden Plover, but what really catches the eye here are the overall grey hues. On a juvenile bird, these colours are characteristic of American Golden. Our identification can be confirmed by reference to the short tertials and the long primary projection. Note also the prominent supercilium (Richard Stonier).


Juvenile Pacific Golden Plover (Al Batinah, Oman, 14 November 2008). This juvenile Pacific Golden Plover resembles a European Golden Plover in plumage – both are brightly spangled gold. Structural features offer the best clues and this bird's prominent bill and long legs, with exposed tibia, are key indicators of Pacific Golden. Note also the long tertials almost reaching the tail-tip and the relatively short primary projection (Daniele Occhiato /


European Golden Plover (Terschelling, The Netherlands, 2 October 2007). The dumpy, neckless shape and short, fine bill are enough to identify this bird as a European Golden Plover. However, the key feature is the underwing: white axillaries and underwing coverts in European Golden, dusky in Pacific and American. These feather tracts on this bird are unequivocally white, confirming its identity as a European Golden (Arie Ouwerkerk /


American Golden Plover (St Mary's, Scilly, 8 October 2010). This bird is also slim and delicate with a prominent bill and is therefore a Pacific Golden or American Golden. Unfortunately the underwings are in shadow, therefore masking the dusky axillaries and underwing coverts. As for its specific identity, the striking grey hues are sufficient to identify this individual as an American Golden (Richard Stonier).


Pacific Golden Plovers (Kaziranga NP, India, 20 February 2009). Although the underwings of the right-hand bird are in shadow, its companion clearly shows a dusky wash across the axillaries and underwing coverts. These birds are therefore either Pacific Golden or American Golden Plovers, a diagnosis supported by their slim, compact structure. They can be identified as Pacific Goldens by the prominent gold spangling around the head and upper breast (Marc Guyt /


Grey Plover (Titchwell RSPB, Norfolk, 27 September 2013). This bird is similarly strikingly grey. It must therefore be an American Golden Plover mustn't it? Although grey hues are an important feature of American Golden, it is important to confirm that your target bird is a small golden plover. Grey Plover is the classic trap here and this bird, although superficially resembling American Golden in plumage, is typically large, bulky and stocky, with none of the finesse of the small golden plovers (Tony Clarke).

Grey Plover (Viareggio, Italy, 15 October 2013). This flying Grey Plover reveals its key features – solid black axillaries and a white rump – firmly eliminating any thoughts of American Golden.

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 /
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.