New report shows declines in forest birds in Wales

New data shows a long-term decline in forest bird species across the UK. Some specialized forest species have declined dramatically, including the willow tit, which has seen the second largest decline of any common British bird.

Five of the 10 most common and most widespread species with the greatest decline in Wales are farmland birds.

The distribution and numbers of birds in Wales are changing dramatically, with many species experiencing worrying declines, according to a new report.

The State of the British Birds 2020 (SUKB) – the central point of contact for the latest results from bird surveys and surveillance studies – underlines the persistently bad fate of forest birds.

Willow Tit, Copyright Glyn Sellors, from the Surfbirds Galleries

The UK Forest Birds Indicator has shown a long-term decline of 27% since the early 1970s, down from 7% in the last five years. Willow tit populations have declined so much across the UK that they are currently experiencing the second largest decline of any UK bird common. To improve the understanding of where willow tits live, volunteers are carrying out a nationwide survey in collaboration with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the Welsh Ornithological Society.

The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) shows that chaffinch and golden comb are among the top ten species in Wales that are experiencing the greatest decline among species monitored by the survey. The magnitude of the decline in populations of species associated with Wales oak forests, such as the pied piper and wood warbler, is so great that they have become too rare to be monitored by the Wales BBS.

The report also highlights concerns for a few other species. The number of choughs in Wales, which make up three quarters of the UK total, has also declined, which means we shouldn’t take the species for granted. Funded by Natural Resources Wales, the RSPB and Chough experts, conservation officers analyzed 25 years of nest monitoring and color ring studies records conducted in North and Mid Wales, as well as thousands of farmer, walker and bird watchers. The study shows that choughs are in trouble: the number of chicks in known nesting sites decreased by 25% between 1994 and 2019, and the number of chough-occupied inland nesting sites decreased by 72%.

The number of curlews nesting in Wales has also fallen worryingly. At the current rate of decline, work by BTO Cymru suggests that curlews in Wales may be extinct within the next 13 years unless significant action is taken. Their rapid national decline has resulted in species being a top priority for bird conservation in Wales. The decline appears to be linked to a combination of habitat loss, poor habitat management and predation. This has resulted in a nearly 70% decrease in the number since 1995, and coverage has decreased by 50%.

Julian Hughes, RSPB Cymru Head of Species said:

“This report gives us even more evidence that nature in Wales and Britain is in crisis. The continued declines in forest and farmland birds, including iconic species such as curlew and chough, are alarming. A decline in habitat quality is a major challenge for birds and other wildlife. The fact that Wales could lose its curlew population in less than 20 years calls for drastic changes in landscape management. The research behind the decline in choughs is also a real problem given the importance of the Welsh countryside to these birds.

“The continued success of Red Kites shows that hard work and dedication from volunteers and land managers can produce positive results. We need similar efforts from decision makers and farmers to reverse the huge decline in farmland species in Wales. “

Patrick Lindley, Senior Natural Resource Ornithologist in Wales said:

“In response to the natural disaster, the US state bird report provides a snapshot of the ‘health’ of our birds in Wales and the UK. The problems that British birds face, whether they breed or not, are problems that entire ecosystems face. It is important that we restore resilient ecological networks across Wales as the “beating heart” of conservation.

“There is optimism for some species. The recent success in rearing bitterns, swamp harrows and cranes in Wales shows what can be achieved through restoring ecosystems on a reasonable scale. Other species are doing badly. The curlew is now considered the top priority for bird conservation in Wales and the UK. Modeled scenarios predict that curlew in Wales could be critically endangered in the next decade. The clock is ticking now.

“While the future looks bleak for some birds, it is increasingly recognized that our natural environments are important not only for the biodiversity in those environments, but also for the multiple benefits that nature brings to humans. The challenge for all of us is to convey these broader benefits to society. “

The report also highlights the continued decline in farmland birds across the UK. Five of the ten most common and widespread species that are experiencing the greatest decline in Wales are farmland birds, including starlings and spiers, which are much less common than in the past. These two species rely on invertebrates found in enclosed pastures to feed their chicks, and the falling numbers may reflect changes in grassland management.

The report has better news for some species. In Wales, house sparrows increased by 92% from 1995 to 2018. The house sparrow is still the third most common breeding bird across the UK, but millions of pairs have disappeared since the late 1960s. The report also mentions that the red kite population in Wales has more than doubled in the past 10 years, having successfully recovered from a tiny population of a few pairs in the 1930s.

Katharine Bowgen, BTO Cymru Research Ecologist, says:

“Given the ongoing decline of the curlew, recent research in Wales sheds particular light on the behavior of these cryptic breeders by tracking field research and predicting their population evolution based on more extensive surveys. The combination of these approaches really helps us understand how they interact with the landscape and is used for broader conservation efforts for the species. Thank you also to all the volunteers in Wales who have contributed overall to this report. “


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