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Britain’s Future Birds Part 1: New Arrivals

Black-winged stilt

We’ve written before about a few of the birds colonising the UK due to climate change. Great white egrets, bee-eaters and black-winged stilts, for example, have all bred here in varying numbers in the last decade as temperatures rise. Before them came little egrets, once truly rare birds but now ones we see across much of England and Wales. The recent increase in wetland creation here has also played a part in enabling these inroads. Another factor is overspill of increasing populations on the Continent. But what can we expect our bird populations to look like in 50 or 100 years? Which recent colonists will be permanent members of our avifauna and Britain’s future birds?

Moving North

You might think that new, exotic birds colonising the UK are a good thing. However, as well as the fact they are a symptom of the climate crisis and the resultant temperature rises here, they can also mask problems for these species elsewhere. Just because birds are now able to breed further north doesn’t mean they are also still breeding in their original range as well. For example, glossy ibis doesn’t yet breed here but may soon. Increasing numbers have been wintering in the UK as a result of exceptionally dry winters in Spain. This means we may end up in a situation where its range is roughly the same size in the future but shifts north as birds no longer breed in the drought-ridden south.

Glossy ibis
Glossy ibis are increasingly seen in the UK

In 2008, a landmark study laid out a series of predictions for Europe’s breeding species based on climate change. A Climactic Atlas of European Breeding Birds used temperature projections to predict that 75% of European bird species’ ranges will decline by the end of this century. Many species’ ranges will also move north and east. In the UK, climate scientists predict we are likely to get drier summers with more heatwave events. We are also likely to see wetter, milder winters with less days of frost. We could also see more extreme weather events such as storms and floods, and an increase in wind speeds. So what does that mean for our avifauna?

Herons and Similar Species

Many of us are now used to seeing one or other of the three egrets that have colonised our wetlands: little, great and cattle egret. There are a few more members of this family, though, that many birders anticipate settling here alongside them. As an interesting aside, research shows that those wetland birds that have already colonised were partly able to do so by using protected areas as ‘landing pads’. This shows how important designated sites are for both new and old species to the UK.

Purple Heron

Purple herons are beautiful but secretive birds that have been expanding their range north on the Continent since the 1940s. The first confirmed breeding in the UK was at Dungeness in 2010 and vagrant birds are recorded every year here. Proving breeding is extremely difficult, however, due to that secretive nature. Its habitat requirements are much more specialised than other heron species, needing dense reedbeds to breed. But with warmer winters and continued wetland restoration in the UK, it seems extremely likely that this species will be a regular breeder before too long.

Purple heron
Purple herons are very secretive

Little Bittern

These small herons are another extremely secretive wetland dweller. Whether or not this tiny bird will establish itself here is not quite as easy to predict, partly because it is so difficult to monitor. There have been unconfirmed breeding records from as far back as the 19th century. Birds nested in Yorkshire in 1984 and then on the Somerset Levels for eight consecutive years from 2009. On the Continent, the western European population is in decline due to habitat loss so it may be that there will never be enough birds to disperse and colonise the UK.

Glossy Ibis

As we mentioned earlier, glossy ibis haven’t bred here yet. They have attempted to breed on at least two occasions, though, in 2014 and 2016, and they are increasingly seen in small flocks in winter. Extreme drought conditions in Spain over the winter of 2021/2 led some to believe that birds escaping it to the UK would stay to breed. If Spain becomes too dry for the species, our warmer, wetter winters could well enable it to get a permanent foothold. Less secretive than the purple heron, it should be fairly easy to prove breeding here, too.

Glossy ibis
Glossy ibis haven’t bred here yet but seem likely to soon

Waders

The two most likely waders to colonise the UK have bred here before, one historically and one in recent years. Climate change could mean both establish, or re-establish, themselves as regular breeders.

Black-winged Stilt

This elegant wader has already bred in the UK and looks likely to continue to do so. Following an isolated event in 1987, there have been multiple successful breeding attempts over the last nine years. Birds even bred as far north as Yorkshire last year. As with glossy ibis, drought conditions in Spain could be pushing this wader north. Wetland restoration and the fact they are reasonably versatile, able to breed on inland pools and marshes as well as coastal lagoons, will also aid any colonisation attempts.

Black-winged stilt Britain's future birds
Black-winged stilts have bred here as far north as Yorkshire

Kentish Plover

Kentish plovers, as their name suggests, actually had a toehold on the UK’s east coast, the former western extent of its range, until 1979. A few pairs bred each year across, Kent, Sussex, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. As coastal breeders, conservationists think that increased beach disturbance and coastal development became too much for them. Less vagrants turn up on migration than they used to. But with birds breeding on French, Dutch and Danish coasts, they could, though, return as our climate warms.

Kentish plover
Kentish plovers bred in the UK until 1979 and may yet return

Raptors

We might be less inclined to think of raptors colonising the UK without the help of the sort of reintroduction schemes that have brought white-tailed eagles back. However, a couple of species are spreading north and/or west in mainland Europe. Some birders think warming temperatures here will help them reach us too.

Black Kite

Black kites are similar to their red kite relatives but are much more migratory. They have a large range, breeding across Europe, Asia, sub-Sharan Africa and even Australia. More of a dark brown than black, they are increasingly being seen in the UK as spring overshoots. About 25 birds are seen here each year, some even as far north as Shetland. Unlike many raptors, their numbers are actually growing in Europe, which also makes it likely birds may start prospecting for breeding territory in the UK. None have been recorded doing so as yet, but it may only be a matter of time.

Black kite Britain's future birds
Black kites can be seen as far north as Shetland, like this bird

Black-winged Kite

Black-winged kite, meanwhile, might not be on many people’s radars as a potential colonist. But it is another species expanding its range north. It first reached Portugal from Africa in 1944 and quickly established itself on the Iberian Peninsula. Since 1990, it has been breeding in ever-increasing numbers in France, reaching Brittany in 2016. Remarkably, although it is an irruptive species whose success rises and falls in line with small rodent numbers, it has never been reported in the UK. But a growing European population, coupled with the fact it can produce more than one brood a year and breed at virtually any time of year increases the chances of birds finding their way here.

Passerines

New passerine, or songbird, colonists are most likely to be warblers. This is partly because they are almost all migratory to some extent. Chiffchaffs and blackcaps are already wintering here in greater numbers due to increased temperatures and food availability. And our existing Cetti’s warbler population is extending its range north since first breeding here in 1973. Any vagrant species that arrive by mistake in autumn, may be more likely to survive to spring, find a mate and breed.

Zitting Citicola

The zitting cisticola, or fantailed warbler, is a small, brown, streaky wetland bird. It breeds across southern Europe, including western France. Unlike many warblers, it is actually fairly sedentary across much of its range but in 2009, a pair bred in Guernsey. There had previously been a few unconfirmed reports of breeding in the Channel Islands. With similar habitat requirements to the Cetti’s warbler, albeit a preference for slightly higher temperatures, there is a chance it may make it to the UK mainland and colonise the south coast.

Western Bonelli’s Warbler

This olive green warbler breeds in upland woodland as far north as northern France, migrating to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. The BTO has already picked it out as a potential colonist, predicting a spread to Yorkshire by 2080 under a medium emissions climate change situation. Interestingly, in 2003 a male Western Bonelli’s successfully bred with a female wood warbler in Germany. There had been reports of similar pairs in the past but none proven until that point. The two species’ ranges don’t usually overlap. As we have breeding wood warblers in the UK, maybe we will see mixed pairs of this nature here in the future, too?

Wood warbler
Wood warblers, like this one, have been proved to breed with vagrant Western Bonelli’s warblers in Germany

Melodious Warbler

Melodious warbler is another good candidate for colonisation as temperatures rise. Similar in its habitat requirements to garden warblers and blackcaps, a few dozen turn up on migration each year. It’s current range includes most of France, Spain and Italy.

Britain’s Birds in the Year 2100

These are just a few of the birds that could well be regularly breeding in the UK by the end of the century. Others mooted as potential colonisers include short-toed eagle, little bustard, great reed warbler and woodchat shrike. Night herons and bee-eaters have already bred here and may also do so more regularly. Red-backed shrikes and wrynecks, former regular breeders, may recolonise.

Bee eater Britain's future birds
Will bee eaters breed here with more regularity in the future?

Although many of these will colonise due to climate change, ultimately, of course, it is not just as simple as warming temperatures. Yes, it may be warm enough to support certain species that couldn’t survive here before, but this won’t help them colonise if there is not enough suitable habitat or food. How well we have protected these by 2100 will also have a big role to play in who stays and who doesn’t.

Look out for Part 2 of our Britain’s Future Birds post to find out which species we may well have lost by the end of the century.