Waterbirds respond to global warming.

By Paul Robinson - 26 Jan 2015 20:1:19 GMT
Waterbirds respond to global warming.

What a lovely name for a creature! The smew may not be familiar, but using its data to second-guess the likely needs of waterfowl in the whole of Europe could prove a boon to those who want to protect our wildlife from ever-present dangers and those that will be forthcoming.Smew drake image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The smew is the sort of bird you will see once and then maybe never again. 40,000 of them live in the Palaearctic region (from Fennoscandia to the Kamchatka Peninsula) on the treeline of the taiga feeding on fish and migrate into Europe for the winter. The UK is seeing less Mergellus albellus, at the extreme of their range, but they are quite common in the Netherlands and Belgium. Shooting the protected bird is not too likely except in some well-known regions, so the beauty of a remarkable duck can be appreciated.

Nonetheless, it is in Special Protected Areas (SPA) that the duck has been able to double its numbers within the EU. The British Wildlife and Wetlands Trust are of the opinion that the species is being helped to adapt to global warming by these reserves and Special Protection Areas. Newly populated areas are still short of viable populations despite 20 years of this protection but numbers such as the 200 that inhabit the whole of England in the winter are too small. The only water they find today are gravel pits and reservoirs, as drainage makes sure the population keeps dropping in one country at least.

Diego Pavon-Jordan is the lead author of 23 in a vast international study that is published in the current issue of the journal Diversity and Distributions as Climate-driven changes in winter abundance of a migratory waterbird in relation to EU protected areas. The aim here is to look at responses in species that alter their distribution, in order to make protected areas more effective. The bird has moved north-easterly with a decline in its central areas. The worry would be that the NE of its range is totally unprotected, while the decline in Central Europe is equally disturbing.

This species is obviously finding wintering areas closer to its breeding grounds in the taiga of Northern Russia, as winters become more amenable further north. That is understandable, given the 3000km (2000 mile) flyway the bird uses between Asia and Europe. The temperature in winter is forecast to increase more than summer increases in these areas and waterbirds find it simpler than any other animal to switch their direction. Many other species can be assumed to need similar protection, based on this illuminating study, although others may use agricultural land, unlike the smew.

Within the European continent, new directives in those nations that have no protected areas (for various reasons) would be desirable. The UK, France and the Czech Republic are among those, but they do have some protected areas. As birdwatchers outnumber hunters in almost all of the EU, great hopes can be expressed that the little-seen smew can now be included in these areas, and some new ones.

The trends now seem to be an increasing population overall. While Finland and Estonia saw up to 4000% increases, the UK, France and Belgium numbers have declined since the year 2000. The Smew Special Protected Areas (SSPA) need to be adjusted in Sweden and Finland, if the birds continue to use these NE areas more than before. Cold winters really influence the annual results in most countries. Other species may be suffering much more, as 16 out of 47 waterbirds were red-listed in the Baltic area in 2014. Ducks generally may be quite successful, but many other species are not. Away from the European situation, there are also concerns generally about the effects of wind turbines on migrating birds and of course the usual conservation efforts on very rare waterbirds, like the spoon-billed sandpiper here!