Latest figures from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) show the lowest numbers in some of our breeding wading birds since the survey started in the early 1990s along with declines in a number of our farmland and woodland species.
Waders breed on wet grassland in the south east, where they nest on the ground and rely on earthworms and other invertebrates for food.
During monitoring in the spring of 2011 volunteer birdwatchers recorded particularly low numbers of lapwing, oystercatcher, snipe and curlew. Lapwings in particular have shown a greater decline in the South East than in any other English region.
Previous declines have been blamed on habitat loss, land drainage and potential increases in predation pressure.
However the sharp declines between 2010 and 2011, 19 per cent for oystercatcher, 18 per cent for lapwing, 40 per cent for snipe and 13 per cent for curlew, may have been due to unfavourable weather conditions during the year which exacerbated the long-term declines.
Kate Risely, BBS organiser at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “It is very worrying to see sharp declines in numbers of breeding waders such as lapwing and snipe, typical birds of open country.
“The long-term decline in breeding curlew has contributed to the species now being listed as globally near-threatened. Breeding Bird Survey results are crucial in understanding the causes behind bird declines, and we owe this information to dedicated volunteer birdwatchers across the country”.
Samantha Stokes, of the RSPB in the south east, said: “The spring of 2012 has seen the wettest April-to-June period on record, and it’s likely that populations of these ground-nesting waders would have also been hit hard this year. Flooding at several key sites has seen hundreds of wader nests washed out.”
The BBS produces annual population trends for over one hundred of our widespread breeding bird species.
While many birds are thriving, some species have declined by more than 50 per cent since the start of the survey in 1994, including the turtle dove, which has declined by 84% in the south east.
Other species which have more than halved in the south east are:
Grey Partridge -68%
Willow Warbler -67%
Spotted Flycatcher -66%
Corn bunting -62%
Mistle Thrush -52%
This list emphasises declines in farmland and woodland birds, and of migrants; all but four of the birds in this list (grey partridge, corn bunting, starling and mistle thrush) migrate to Africa for the winter.
Dr Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, said: “These results highlight the alarming declines in our summer migrants, which make the long journey from Africa to brighten up our springs, but in ever decreasing numbers. These species may face difficulties on their African wintering areas, their European breeding grounds, and along the routes back and forth between the two; more research is urgently required to pinpoint the problems.”
The decline in skylark numbers has accelerated in recent years, with a significant seven per cent decline between 2010 and 2011 of this familiar farmland bird, compounding the national 20 per cent decline, and 28 percent decline in the south east since the start of the survey in 1994. Skylarks had already suffered substantial declines in the 1970s, leading to this species’ red-listing as a bird of conservation concern.
Other trends which have been identified through the surveys in the south east include: red kites and whitethroats have shown greater increases than in any other English region. While coal tit, chiffchaff, nuthatch, robin, dunnock and goldfinch all showed a smaller increase than in other regions, and it is the only region in which the lesser whitethroat has declined.
As well as the lapwing, house martin, willow warbler, wren, greenfinch, linnet, bullfinch and reed bunting have also declined more in the south east than other English regions.
Deborah Procter, Senior Monitoring Ecologist at JNCC, said: “Understanding what causes annual fluctuations in the population numbers of UK breeding birds gives us an invaluable insight into what drives the observed long term trends. Bringing together the fantastic work done by the many committed BBS volunteers with targeted research gives us a clearer picture of where conservation effort is needed.”