Aug 19

An amazing annual migration from Africa to Europe is undertaken by millions of birds each year and, as many birdwatchers agree, it is one of nature’s greatest events. However, the magnificent migratory patterns of many birds are under threat.

According to the 2010 UK Breeding Bird Survey, of the 10 birds which have declined most since 1995, 8 are summer migrants to the UK. These kinds of losses are not restricted to the UK, with similar declines in migratory birds seen across Europe.

Photo of turtle dove pair

Turtle doves have declined by nearly 75% in the UK since 1995

Surveys between 1995 and 2010 have shown that the UK has lost more than 74% of its turtle dove population, and nearly half of its cuckoos. Populations of other species have more than halved over the same period, including the nightingale, the wood warbler, the whinchat, the yellow wagtail and the pied flycatcher.

Tracking our migratory birds

Scientists in the UK have been studying migratory birds to find out where some of the most familiar migrant species go as they travel between their breeding and wintering grounds in Europe and Africa. For example, a team from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has tracked the migration routes of five British cuckoos, using tiny satellite-tracking tags. After catching the birds in June and fitting them with the trackers, the birds were released, and all five have now reached Africa.

The team from BTO want to find out what habitats the cuckoos rely on during their migration, and where they stop off to feed along the way.

Dr Chris Hewson, who is leading the BTO’s cuckoo-tracking team, says, “Migratory birds don’t just have a breeding area and a wintering area, they also have staging posts where they spend different amounts of time. Because Britain and Europe as a whole is getting warmer, they need to get back earlier and earlier to their breeding grounds. If we don’t know exactly where they are, we won’t know where the bottlenecks are that might be preventing the cuckoos from getting back to Britain.”

Photo of a cuckoo

Cuckoo populations have declined by nearly half since 1995. Scientists from the BTO are currently tracking 5 British cuckoos on their annual migration

‘Greatest crisis of modern conservation’

The scale of the decline in the migratory birds of the UK and Europe is utterly devastating, and has been dubbed one of the ‘greatest crises in modern conservation’.

For some species, including the nightingale and the turtle dove, the situation is becoming even more desperate. In the UK, numbers of these species plummeted a further 27% and 21% respectively between 2009 and 2010 alone.

The urgent need to protect these remarkable migratory species has prompted British birdwatchers to respond to the crisis.

British Birdwatching Fair 2011

At the British Birdwatching Fair, which is held at Rutland Water this weekend (19th-21st August), the organisers are hoping to raise in excess of £250,000. Part of these funds will be used to raise awareness of the plight of migrant birds and the need for action across the whole of their migration corridor, from Europe through the Mediterranean and into Africa.

Birdfair funding will also support conservation actions on the ground in three West African countries – Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Ghana – where many of the UK’s migratory birds spend the winter

Martin Davis, co-founder of the Birdfair, highlights that, “Birds do not recognise international boundaries and all the countries along their migration routes have a shared responsibility to look after these remarkable species.

Photo of the nightingale

The nightingale population in the UK underwent an exceptionally rapid decline between 2009 and 2010

Global troubles

Migratory birds are not just in trouble in the UK. The Birdfair has therefore agreed to fund conservation projects focusing on migratory species for the next three years, and the Birdfair will become the first global sponsor of BirdLife International’s Flyways Programme. In 2012, the Birdfair will fund conservation work along the Eastern Asian flyway, and in 2013, the focus will shift to the Americas.

“The world is changing rapidly and pressures such as habitat destruction, illegal hunting and climate change are believed to be having a major impact on populations of these birds, but it will be a race against time to tackle these declines” says Martin Davis.

Read the full BBC article about tracking British cuckoos

Read the full BirdLife article about saving British summer migrants

Find out more about the British Birdwatching Fair 2011

Find out more about the British Trust for Ornithology

Read the Breeding Bird Survey 2010

Find out more about BirdLife International’s Flyways Programme

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author