Waterbird survey celebrates platinum anniversary

May 2018

The BTO/RSPB/JNCC Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), one of the longest running citizen science surveys in the world, is celebrating its 70th anniversary. As World Migratory Bird Day nears on Saturday 12th May, the latest WeBS report, Waterbirds in the UK 2016/17, has been released, reporting on 110 waterbird populations. The UK is of international importance for millions of migratory waterbirds which spend the winter here or pass through on their way to their breeding grounds in the north and east.
Beginning as the National Wildfowl Counts in the winter of 1947/48, in response to apparent declines in the numbers of ducks and geese, seventy years later the scheme has expanded to include all wintering waterbirds, counted every month by 3,000 volunteers around the UK.

Habitat creation or climate change has helped species such as Little Egret, Avocet and Bittern increase. Introduced species, Canada Goose, Mandarin Duck and Egyptian Goose, are also all becoming more common with increases over the last 10 years of 12%, 43% and 128% respectively.

However, many species of wader that feed in the UK’s estuaries in winter are declining. Ringed Plover are wintering in just half the numbers that used to spend the winter here 25 years ago. Wintering Curlew are down by 21%; this is a species for which other surveys have detected worrying breeding declines. There is more of a mixed picture for duck species that use inland waterbodies - over the past quarter century Teal have increased by 40% and Shoveler by 80%, but Mallard has decreased by 38% and Pochard by 69%.

Understanding the status of waterbird species is vital to help guide conservation action. Waterbird counts from WeBS have long been the cornerstone of UK policy and protection for wetland birds, from informing wetland management and wildfowling consents, to identifying important areas for designation as protected sites.

The most important protected sites for birds in the UK are part of the Special Protection Area (SPA) network, and many SPA sites have been designated on the basis of the large numbers of waterbirds recorded there through WeBS surveys. A recent review found that over a third of the UK’s non-breeding waterbirds use the UK SPA network, particularly species that flock together in winter at high densities. As well as WeBS counts being used to inform site designation, the ongoing counts are invaluable for monitoring how species are faring on these sites, and so how successful the protected site network is. 

Waterbird distributions are already adapting to climate change. Looking to the future, waterbird counts will be critical for assessing impacts of changes in climate, habitat and conservation measures. This will only be possible due to the dedication of the 3,000 volunteer counters who go out in all weathers to check up on the birds using UK wetlands, carrying on a 70 year old tradition.

Anna Robinson, Monitoring Ecologist at JNCC, said “National counts of wildfowl stretch all the way back to 1947. Without thousands of volunteers collecting data for the past seventy years, the scientific evidence wouldn’t have been there to rigorously define which wetlands should be protected or which species need conservation measures


BTO WeBS Report 2016-2017

JNCC Official Statistics