My blog this week is a little insight into something called WeBS. Nope, not the amazing creations that spiders build to catch their prey, but the Wetland Bird Survey.

Carrying on a tradition that began in 1947, Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) is nationally synchronised across the UK and co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The key project partners that are involved along with the RSPB are The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) for the whole of the UK.

It takes around 3000 skilled volunteers each year who have had special training and are familiar with the area they surveying. They will count and record the number of each bird species seen and the survey areas are split up into separate sections called sectors, and roughly 40,000 visits in total are carried out each year! The surveys take place on all kinds of habitats including lakes, lochs, ponds, reservoirs, gravel pits, rivers, freshwater marshes, canals, open coastline and estuaries.

The core WeBS counts take place once a month (usually on a Sunday) throughout the year to count thousands of internationally important waterfowl when numbers are usually at their highest. High and low tides can affect the counts sometimes making it harder to see birds that may be further away or hidden in gutters on estuaries because of the dramatic change tides can cause on water levels. So additional counts are done at different times and this data is then considered along with the core WeBS counts.

In a normal year around 220 different species of waterfowl are counted, these birds include ducks, geese, swans, many different waders, rails, divers, grebes, cormorants, and herons. Other species such as gulls and terns can also be added, especially if large roosts are known to the area.

Pink-footed geese, waders and hen harrier over the Dee Estuary: Paul Jubb

Male teal: Paul Jubb

Why are WeBS so important then? Every year detailed reports are published with huge amounts of information key to understanding and conserving our internationally important habitats and the waterfowl populations that live there. The aim of these surveys is to keep track of population sizes of individual species, to find out if their distribution across the UK is growing or shrinking, and this then helps people like environmental consultants assess the health of all these different habitats across the UK. It is also used in making huge decisions by governmental bodies in how the land is used and what legal protections should be placed or kept on those areas.  

At RSPB Dee Estuary, which for those of you reading may not know includes Burton Mere Wetlands reserve and the Point of Ayr in Wales, we have over 55 sectors that are surveyed. The Dee is a vast funnel-shaped estuary and is one of the top ten estuaries in the UK. For some species like shelduck the Dee is the second most important site in the UK. It supports internationally important numbers of waterfowl and waders and therefore counting these birds is so important for their conservation and the main reason why the reserve is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA). WeBS data is highly significant in tailoring the work we do and crucial in writing the reserve's management plan.

These birds described below are just a few highlights from the Dee Estuary and the North Wirral Forshore WeBS counts 2019/2020:

One of our most special species that has had an exceptional increase in recent years at the Dee are the pink-footed geese. They spend the winter with us from Iceland and during the spring migration as they pass through from further south peak counts of over 22,000 birds were recorded last year. Black-tailed godwits are another, these fantastic looking waders over-winter with us on the estuary including at Burton Mere Wetlands, with the estuary again being the second most important place in the UK for them with their peak counts around 6000. Some non-breeding black-tailed godwits stay here through the breeding season until they are fully mature, then head to their breeding sites in Iceland.

Pink-footed geese: Paul Jubb

Black-tailed godwit: Paul Jubb

With the huge amount of flooding we have had recently the duck numbers have been exceptional; Site Manager, Graham Jones counted around 7000-8000 teal this week. I was so pleased to see my first nine pintail of the year on our main scrape at Burton Mere Wetlands on Friday morning; peak WeBS counts were over 3000 last year for the area. Another one of my favourite ducks are wigeon with last year’s counts reaching over 6000 in one month.  

Pair of pintail: Paul Jubb

Male wigeon: Paul Jubb

Taking from our website, Point of Ayr.

“The reserve is an interesting mosaic of naturally formed coastal habitats, with sand and shingle beach, dunes and saltmarsh all supporting important wildlife at different times of the year. The short nature trail follows a sea wall with elevated views across the saltmarsh, ending at the hide positioned perfectly to watch thousands of birds roost over high tide in autumn and winter. The dunes and saltmarsh support various songbirds which can be enjoyed with a gentle stroll towards the beach, which is the best part of the reserve to enjoy seawatching for passing sea birds and other migrants.”

This table below shows the Peak WeBS counts over the last 5 years at Point of Ayr on the Welsh side of our reserve.

May I take this opportunity on behalf of the team at RSPB Dee Estuary to thank every single volunteer across our reserve, those who carry out work for us directly and indirectly. Your contribution is greatly appreciated and incredibly valuable to the conservation work we do here.

For further information on WeBS and how to become a counter you can visit the BTO website here: https://bit.ly/3sSTZrt

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