Through work and play, I have managed to visit about 25 of the RSPB's 210 reserves over the past year or so.  And, with our AGM coming up in a couple of weeks, it seems timely to report on how they have fared this year.  My instinct was this has been a good year: whereever I went, wildlife seemed to be flourishing and the spring and summer weather had been kind.  But as our head of reserves ecology, Jo Gilbert, said to me the other day, the weather might have been good but you need the right management in place for good things to happen.

And good things have been happening.   Here Malcolm Ausden from Jo's team offers some highlights...

Stilts & the Spanish Connection

Following recent breeding in the UK by Little Bitterns, Great White Egrets and Spoonbills, 2014 was a spectacular year in the UK for another wetland species - Black-winged Stilt. Two large influxes of stilts occurred in Britain this spring, with the majority of birds turning up on shallow, fresh or brackish lagoons (these are a rare habitat in the UK) on RSPB reserves. Larger numbers of stilts usually occur in Northwest Europe when their main breeding areas in Spain are dry in spring.  Single pairs of stilts then settled to nest at Cliffe Pools RSPB Reserve in Kent, and at Medmerry RSPB Reserve in West Sussex, with a third pair dropping an egg (which appears to have been quickly predated) at Fen Drayton Lakes RSPB Reserve in Cambridgeshire. The pairs at Cliffe and Medmerry received 24-hour protection, and both hatched chicks, with the Medmerry pair going on to fledge three young. This is only the third time that Black-winged Stilts are known to have fledged young in this country, the last time being 27 years ago. An additional pair of stilts also bred successfully at another site in the UK this year. At Medmerry, the stilts nested on an area designed to prevent flooding of land and property upstream.

Cliffe Pools, Rolf Williams

We have been taking into account the requirements of bird species that have the potential to establish (or re-establish) regular breeding populations in Britain, in our design of new wetland habitat on RSPB Reserves. For example, at our exciting coastal wetland re-creation project at Wallasea Island Wild Coast in Essex, we are aiming to provide suitable conditions for breeding Spoonbills.  [I shall say more about Wallasea after my visit in early November].

Inexperienced youngsters

Another potential wetland colonist in the UK is Glossy Ibis.  At Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire, the inexperienced male of a pair of young ibises built a late nest, although unfortunately his companion was unimpressed with it. This is the first Glossy Ibis nest ever recorded in Britain. The nest was built in an area that we have created as part of the Environment Agency’s Regional Habitat Creation Programme, to help offset projected future losses of coastal grazing marsh as a result of climate change.

Frampton Marsh, Ben Hall

Breeding waders

Lowland wet grassland waders have had a good breeding season in general (high numbers and good productivity), undoubtedly due to hard work by our reserve staff, but also probably helped in part by it being a good vole year.  In the Netherlands, productivity of lowland wet grassland waders tends to be higher in years with good numbers of voles, presumably because predators focus their efforts on eating these instead of birds’ eggs and chicks.  At Otmoor in Oxfordshire, there were 96 pairs of Lapwings (the previous highest since we acquired the site was 82), 61 pairs of Redshank (previous highest of 54), and 14 pairs of Snipe (previous highest of 13). Numbers of breeding waders were also well up at Rainham Marshes in Essex, with Lapwings up from 27 pairs in 2013 to 38 in 2014, and Redshank increasing from 18 to 31 pairs over the same time period. These are also the highest breeding numbers of both species since we acquired the site.  

Otmoor, Andy Hay

Importantly, Lapwings had a productive breeding season on RSPB reserves as a whole, with an average of 1.2 young fledged per pair at sites where we have installed anti-predator fencing. Lapwings are thought to need to fledged and average of between 0.6-0.8 young per pair to maintain a stable breeding population.

The effects of landscape-scale re-wetting of degraded peatlands as Dove Stone in the Peak District during the last few years, are also becoming apparent.  In addition to providing carbon and water quality benefits, it has resulted in increases in breeding Dunlin (39 pairs this year compared to 15 in 2010), Golden Plover (92 pairs this year compared to 77 in 2010) and Curlew (42 pairs this year compared to 36 in 2010).

Other news

Bitterns had another fabulous year across RSPB reserves, witha total of 71 boomers on RSPB reserves. A highlight was a further increase in numbers of boomers at Ham Wall in Somerset up from an amazing 15 in 2013 to an even more amazing 20 this year (there were only 11 boomers in the whole of the UK in 1997!). Bearded Tits were also confirmed as breeding at Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire for the first time.

Corncrake numbers also recovered following a widespread decline between 2012 and 2013. At the Nene Washes (where Corncrakes are being re-introduced), there was an estimated 22 calling male Corncrakes (with 17 on the RSPB reserveitself). Twenty-one of the birds at the Nene Washes have been caught and, of these, an impressive twelve were wild-bred birds. The remaining nine were zoo-bred birds released in 2013.  This is very encouraging, given the recent run of bad years, particularly following late spring flooding there in 2012.  There were just 6 calling males at the Nene Washes in 2012, and seven in 2013.

Nene Washes, Andy Hay

Black Grouse also had a good year on RSPB reserves, with an impressive 55 lekking males at Geltsdale in Cumbria (up from 27 in 2013). Numbers of Red-necked Phalaropes also increased for a third year running on RSPB reserves, mainly due to a further increase on RSPB-managed mires on Fetlar, Shetland to 20 males in 2014. We also now have a better idea of where our phalaropes winter, thanks to the amazing results from a geolocator fitted to one of them (see here).

At Coquet Island in Northumberland (which I watch very closely whenever I am staying at my family's hut), there was an increase in number of breeding Roseate Terns from 78 pairs in 2013 to 93 pairs this year. Coquet Island supports virtually the entire UK breeding population of Roseate Terns. Little Terns also had a better breeding season on reserves in 2014, with total numbers up slightly. At Langtone Harbour in Hampshire, 36 pairs fledged 28 young following raising of their nesting islands using shingle over the last couple of winters, to reduce the risk of the nests of these and other seabirds being flooded outduring storms.  Little Terns are likely to become increasingly vulnerable to the combined effects of rising sea levels, increased coastal erosion, and pressure from human disturbance and generalist predators.

While we need to wait for the State of UK Birds report to get a fuller picture of this year's breeding season, it is heartening that our reserves have performed well.  And we have our magnificent reserves teams and their army of volunteers to thank for that.

Assuming that you managed to pop into at least one RSPB reserve in 2014, what was your personal highlight?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • I don't get to RSPB reserves as often as I would like but there are some good results in this article.    I am sure that RSPB involvement in the Cotswold Water Park would add to Otmoor and Ham Wall achievements (that was a hint Martin).

    The Corncrake introduction success is one that interests me, is there an opportunity to expand that across further suitable habitat across the UK.

  • Great news Martin. The timely good weather this year will have a lot to do with these successes but you are quite right to point out that they are just as much due to the good management of the RSPB reserves,congratulations to all involved.

    I would guess that this successful breeding year extends to small passerines as well.

    With a number of red back shrikes passing through recently (there has been a juvenile at Otmoor in the last fortnight) I wonder if that means they might have bred in the UK, I hope so. I also hope nightingales did well because I gather the portents for Lodge Hill are not looking good.(Disgraceful if that is so.)

    Lastly, congratulations to "Bob" for passing the 100,000 votes, Great effort by all concerned but only 40 votes, at least so far, from MPs I think reflects extreemly poorly on them when there are about 600 MPs in total.