Research reveals climate change is driving endangered Irish and Welsh birds to new habitats
The curlew, Europe’s largest wading bird with its distinctive long curved bill, is commonly found feeding on tidal mudflats, saltmarshes and nearby farmland in winter. It was added to the Red list on the UK Conservation Status Report in 2015.
07 September 2023
Endangered birds native to Wales and Ireland are being pushed into riskier habitats as a result of climate change according to new research.
The curlew, Europe’s largest wading bird with its distinctive long curved bill, is commonly found feeding on tidal mudflats, saltmarshes and nearby farmland in winter.
Research published this week reveals that the changing climate is driving the birds to winter in areas with more industrial sites and sports and agriculture fields, making them much more vulnerable.
With numbers in rapid decline, curlews were added to the Red list on the UK Conservation Status Report in 2015, the highest conservation priority and in need of urgent help.
This latest study raises increasing concerns that the move away from their natural habitats could lead to their extinction in Wales and Ireland.
The findings are based on a study of the curlew’s long-term habitat use in the UK and Ireland by researchers at Aberystwyth University, University College Cork (UCC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Geo Smart using data collected by thousands of volunteers over two decades.
Dr Kim Kenobi, from the Department of Mathematics at Aberystwyth University, is the lead author of the article which is published in the journal Ecological Informatics.
Dr Kenobi said: “We used a relatively novel approach to compare the habitat and weather at locations used by wintering Curlew over nearly two decades. By reducing very complex landscapes using these state-of-the-art methods, we have identified the key habitats that wintering curlew are using, and importantly when they are using these, which will ultimately support conservation efforts for this vulnerable species”.
The work is the first regional scale analysis of the curlew’s wintering distribution and has revealed several unexpected habitats used by the curlew, with the birds’ geographic range constrained by landscape and weather.
“It's critical that we understand how declining birds like curlew use the landscapes they need to survive” said Dr Callum Macgregor, researcher at the British Trust for Ornithology. “The winter months are a pinch point in a curlew's life cycle so identifying and protecting the habitats this threatened species uses is crucial for its conservation, particularly in light of threats from development and climate change. We are grateful to the volunteers who collect long-term national datasets like those used in this study. Their help is key to unlocking the knowledge we need to protect our most endangered wildlife.”
The research reveals that extreme weather events, such as frost events restricted the geographic areas the birds could use and resulted in curlew using different habitats throughout the winter.
These findings could provide insight in mitigating the negative impacts of climate change and habitat loss on one of the most vulnerable bird species.
“February was a particularly interesting month, as curlew appeared to use a much wider range of habitats. These movements increase their risk of mortality as it takes them away from their natural habitat, which further impacts population decline as there are less birds returning home to breed each spring” said Dr Paul Holloway, researcher at University College Cork. “Identifying this consistent pattern over the last 20 years, we can predict where birds are likely to be, and importantly when they are going to be there, which helps us promote their safety and wellbeing on their final leg of migration.”
The paper Lasso penalisation identifies consistent trends over time in landscape and climate factors influencing the wintering distribution of the Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) is available online.
This research is part of the ECHOES (Effects of Climate Change on Birds around the Irish Sea), a major study into the effects of climate change on the habitats on the Curlew and Greenland White-fronted Goose in Wales and Ireland.
Launched in 2020, ECHOES is funded through the INTERREG Ireland-Wales Programme 2014-2020 and part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.