Is climate change affecting Wash waders?

As CoP26 (the 26th annual Conference of Parties signed up to the UN’s Convention on Climate Change) gets underway in Glasgow, all eyes are on the global response to climate changes and whether national governments can come together to reduce global Carbon emissions sufficiently to avert some of the frightening effects predicted of ‘Business as Usual’. With most world leaders and tens of thousands of delegates discussing everything from atmospheric physics to social justice, such gatherings can seem a world away from the tranquil vistas of The Wash. But already we are seeing the effects of climate change, and the data archives of the Group, as well as research by Wash Group members has been vital in documenting these.

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Wash wader research on Autumnwatch

Normally when people hear what time we get up to set and man our nets they look rather bemused and think of their warm beds. So it was great to welcome a crew from Autumnwatch, who joined us in during our October 2021 fieldwork to find out about our research on waders using The Wash. The crew came out with us early on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning when our target was Sanderling, one of our 11 study species, which we were able to catch.

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Using data to make a difference

Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
I’ve been born, and once is enough.

Although not involved in bird study, these lines from T. S. Eliot encapsulate our current studies of wader populations on The Wash. Bird populations are sustained by recruitment of fledged young into the adult population at an equal rate to the death of individual adults. More recruitment than deaths equals more birds. Unfortunately, the opposite is currently occurring in Eurasian Curlew, which is experiencing population decline. This could be due to not enough chicks being raised to adulthood from each nesting attempt, or alternatively, it could be due to increased death of adult birds. Knowing which factor is more important allows conservation efforts to be prioritised: do we need to protect Curlew nests to improve chick survival or do we need to enhance protection of wintering Curlew to improve adult survival? A recently published paper has explored one part of the equation – survival in Curlew – using data from The Wash, as well as other wader ringers around Britain and Ireland.

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Where in the mud?

The Wash is a special place. Fed by four rivers (the Great Ouse, Nene, Welland and Witham), it is one of Britain’s largest estuarine systems and home to a rich range of wildlife. In excess of half a million birds visit each year, either passing through on migration or spending the winter feeding on its extensive mudflats. It also supports a wide variety of human activities, from tourism to fisheries. Understanding where and how the birds use this vast larder is critical to designing effective ways of managing the estuary and its resources sustainably.

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Migration on the other side of the world

Wash Wader Ringing Group members have got involved in assisting with other ringing projects, both in the UK and further afield, since our early days. A paper just out online early in the Journal Wader Study describes the results of some work WWRG members have been involved in as part of a large, multi-national team working on the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper across its range. These extremely cute, endangered waders breed in the far east of Russia, then migrate along the East-Asian-Australasian flyway where they also stop to moult, carrying on to the wintering grounds in southern China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand – a distance of up to 8,000 km from the breeding grounds. The international team is trying to understand why Spoon-billed Sandpipers are declining and to try to halt that decline – and WWRG members are privileged to have been part of that effort.

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