Help stop the decline in British woodland birds

This year the British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Bird Survey has highlighted some worrying declines in woodland birds.

What is the BTO Breeding Bird Survey?

The British Trust for Ornithology, in partnership with RSPB and Joint Nature Conservation Committee, has been co-ordinating the Breeding Bird Survey since 1994.

Volunteers look at a ‘patch’ of nature year on year to establish which birds, mammals and habitats are present in an area. Some surveyors also record butterflies in their patch as part of the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey. By completing enough surveys across the UK, and surveying on an annual basis, population trends can be produced to give us an indication of how individual species are faring.

The survey is an excellent example of a long established citizen science project, similar to our Natures Calendar project which demonstrates effective partnerships between multiple conservation organisations.

Every year the BTO publishes reports outlining the trends in bird populations.

Birds and wildlife can reveal the health of their habitat (Photo: WTML/ Amy Lewis)
Birds and wildlife can reveal the health of their habitat (Photo: WTML/ Amy Lewis)

2016 results

Specialist bird species are often considered a good indicator of the health of their habitat.

The results from the 2016 survey highlight a number of woodland bird species are suffering substantial decline.

Wood Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher and Nightingale, have declined by 57%, 38% and 48% respectively, in the UK between 1995 and 2015.

All these species are listed on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern for the UK.

Garden Warbler has also declined by 23% in this same period but is on the green list of Birds of Conservation Concern.

In England Willow Tit, another species on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern, has also suffered a serious decline of 82% between 1995 and 2015. This population reduction has resulted in localised extinctions and contraction in range.

Each of these birds has their own habitat niche but all make use of woodland, scrubland and the variety of habiats supported by each landscape.

 

Some species, such as nuthatch (above) have increased in recent years (Photo: WTML/ M Walker)
Some species, such as nuthatch (above) have increased in recent years (Photo: WTML/ M Walker)

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Some increases

It's not all bad news as some species have increased in population since surveys began.

The Chiffchaff, a summer migrant, and the Nuthatch both increased during 1995–2015, by 109% and 90% respectively.

Another woodland species, the Tree Pipit, has also fared very well in Scotland, thought to be responding to increases in woodland cover its population has increased by 100% between 1995-2015.

The Great Spotted Woodpecker has also shown huge growth in Scotland with an increase of 413% in the same period.

Reasons for decline

The BTO suggests drivers for the long-term decline in Spotted Flycatcher, Wood Warbler and Garden Warbler are:

  • changes in land use,
  • climate in wintering areas,
  • issues along migration routes,
  • changes in breeding grounds in the UK.

Some of the changes to habitat can be caused by heavy deer grazing which reduces nesting and foraging habitat. Predation of nests, in combination with other factors, has also been suggested for some species.

 

Spotted Flycatcher have declined by 38% in the UK between 1995 and 2015 (Photo: WTML/ Amy Lewis)
Spotted Flycatcher have declined by 38% in the UK between 1995 and 2015 (Photo: WTML/ Amy Lewis)

What's being done?

Finding the exact cause, and ultimately a solution to reverse these declines, is very difficult. Technologies used for tracking, such as bird ringing and satellite tags, are helping understand the movements of birds. Knowing their movements helps untie the factors affecting them on their migration routes and wintering grounds.

Studies in the UK, looking at habitat and prey availability can also determine factors influencing bird reproductive success on their breeding grounds.

The Breeding Bird Survey is a great example of how citizen science can produce robust scientific evidence to help in species conservation.

You can also support our work through recording specie events on Natures Calendar which helps track the changes in weather and climate. This information can help to understand what is causing changes in habitats and species.