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Britain’s Future Birds Part 2: Lost Birds

Dotterel

In Part 2 of our exploration of Britain’s future birds, we look at the species we could lose as breeding birds. Many of these will be as a direct result of climate change. While species from further south will soon be able to tolerate temperatures here, some preferring a cooler climate will find it too warm. Other species are already on a slippery slope due to a range of factors, such as habitat loss and reduced food availability. Some species, meanwhile, are declining due to issues faced on migration or new pathogen strains.

Saying Goodbye

In Part 1 we saw how many European species’ ranges are likely to move north and west as temperatures rise. The biggest worry with this scenario is that species with more northerly ranges will run out of room completely with nowhere cool enough to survive. Even the tops of our highest Scottish mountains could be too mild to support species such as ptarmigan and snow bunting. And it is not just about habitat types. Some of our seabird species have already faced huge declines in the UK as their food sources move further north, unable to live in our now too-warm seas.

Grey partridge and pheasant
Grey partridges may be being outcompeted for food by introduced pheasants

Climate change is not the only factor determining which species we may lose by the end of the century. The last 50 years have seen huge changes to farming practices in the UK. The removal of field margins and hedgerows, lack of winter stubble due to early sowing, increased use of pesticides and competition from introduced species such as pheasant and red-legged partridge, have combined to have a catastrophic impact on our farmland birds. Many of these are in dire straits and we risk losing them for good if nothing changes. Migration is also an increased risk for our seasonal visitors as it means they face problems in more than one location, including hunting and habitat loss elsewhere. In the last two years, a new, highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza has also had a devastating effect on some of our birds.

Waders

We saw in Part 1 that some wader species, such as black-winged stilt and Kentish plover may be able to settle permanently in the UK due to climate change. Some of our waders, though, are at the southern edge of their ranges. These birds prefer cooler, wetter, habitats such as bogs and Arctic pools. Rising temperatures could mean that these are lost in the UK and with them the waders that breed there.

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked phalaropes have only ever bred in the UK in small numbers as we are at the very southern limit of their range. The bulk of our birds breed in Shetland (in particular, the island of Fetlar) and the Outer Hebrides, with birds occasionally breeding in the far north of the Scottish mainland. As Arctic tundra pool specialists, we will almost certainly lose this wader as our temperatures rise, despite ongoing conservation efforts to increase numbers. Red-necked phalaropes display an interesting gender role-reversal in their breeding strategies. Females are larger, brighter and compete for male partners. Once the eggs are laid, the females then usually desert the males to mate again elsewhere, leaving males to incubate and then care for the young. They are also unusual amongst waders in spending the non-breeding season at sea, with some Shetland breeders heading as far as the Pacific Ocean.

Red- necked phalarope Britain's future birds
Red-necked phalaropes are at the southern edge of their range in the UK

Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper

Two related species that could also lose out are greenshank and wood sandpiper. Both are at the southern edge of their subarctic ranges in the UK, with small numbers breeding in northern Scotland each year. Wood sandpipers are particularly scarce with only around 30 pairs breeding here each year. Both breed on dry ground near northern bogs and pools, taking advantage of the abundant insect life attracted to water. As their name suggests, wood sandpipers prefer bogs in open forests. Greenshanks favour more open peatlands which are likely to become more vulnerable to wildfires as our climate warms. Climate change is likely to mean that temperatures will soon be too high for both species even without the threat of fire, though, pushing the few birds still breeding here further north.

Greenshank Britain's future birds
Most of us will only see greenshanks in the winter
Wood sandpiper
Only around 30 pairs of wood sandpipers breed in the UK each year

Dotterel

This migratory wader is another species that we could lose as a direct result of climate change. As Arctic breeders, they are only able to breed here in small numbers at higher altitudes. Most of our birds breed on Scotland’s highest mountains, including those in the Cairngorms. As our climate warms, even these hills will be too warm for them. Lower altitude plants will be able to spread uphill, outcompeting the moss species that harbour the dotterel’s preferred insect food. As hills get warmer and more accessible, there may also be increased recreational disturbance on the breeding grounds. Dotterel are notoriously tame, but too much human footfall will inevitably reduce breeding success. Like red-necked phalaropes, their gender roles are reversed when it comes to breeding.

Dotterel
Most of our dotterels breed on Scotland’s higher mountains

Mountain Specialists

Dotterels aren’t the only mountain specialists we could lose as a result of climate change. We are likely to lose two more very different species as low-altitude plants take over even our highest mountains with rising temperatures.

Ptarmigan

This cold-adapted gamebird lives only on the highest of Scotland’s mountains. Resident all year round, in harsh conditions they will sometimes migrate altitudinally from the mountain tops to lower elevations. Uniquely amongst British birds, they turn almost completely white in winter to camouflage themselves against the snow. In summer they are a mixture of greys and browns, which matches the boulder fields they live in. Biologists predict our mountains will become more vegetated as our climate warms, making them less favourable for rock-loving ptarmigans. Their winter camouflage will make them stand out and more vulnerable to predation as our mountains stay snow free for longer each year. In addition, lower altitude predators the ptarmigan don’t usually have to worry about could well find it easier to hunt at higher elevations as temperatures rise.

Ptarmigan Britain's future birds
Summer-plumaged ptarmigan are mottled grey and brown

Snow Bunting

The snow bunting is an even scarcer breeder than the ptarmigan. Only around 60-80 pairs nest on our highest mountains each year, although they may be underreported due to the remoteness of their preferred breeding habitat. As with the ptarmigan and dotterel, as the impacts of climate change increasingly affect the UK, even the highest mountains will simply be too warm for the snow bunting. Up to 15,000 birds also spend the winter around our coasts, visiting from the Continent. Whether we will still see as many of them in the future remains to be seen. Summer males are white with black wings and mantle. Females and winter birds are a mixture of white, brown and buff.

snow bunting
Snow buntings are present on Cairngorm all year

Seabirds

As an island nation, the UK is internationally important for its seabird colonies, home to kittiwakes, gannets and auks. Already threatened by chemical and plastic pollution in our waters, entanglement in fishing gear and overfishing, these birds are facing additional pressures from climate change and disease that could push them to extinction as UK breeders.

Great Skua

The great skua, or bonxie, to use its Shetland name, is a large, piratical seabird with a northern breeding range. The UK is home to over half of the world’s breeding population, making it crucial for this species’ survival. Despite its northern bias, since 1900, it has actually been spreading further south from its Northern Isles stronghold. Bonxies now breed on islands in the west of Scotland and even as far south as Inishark, Clare Island and other small islands off the west coast of Ireland. Overall, numbers had been increasing well over this period. However, this species has been particularly hard hit by two seasons of bird flu which makes it extremely vulnerable to extinction. It is estimated that some sites saw between 64 and 85% of birds die last year alone. For a species only numbering in the tens of thousands globally, another season or two of the disease could spell its doom.

Bonxie or great skua
Over 50% of the world’s great skuas breed in Scotland

Arctic Skua

Arctic skuas are thought to be the UK’s fastest declining seabird. Nesting only in the far north of Scotland and its islands, they have declined by 81% at some sites since the mid-1980s, and many fear they could vanish as a UK breeding bird. Studies are ongoing to try to explain declines. They could be due to food shortages (both fish they forage themselves and that of the birds they chase to steal from in behaviour known as kleptoparasitism) or due to the recent increases in great skua numbers. Bonxies both predate Arctic skuas and compete with them. One silver lining is that the Arctic skua doesn’t seem to have been as affected by avian influenza. This may be because the UK population is already so low, birds have more space so don’t tend to nest as colonially as elsewhere and don’t congregate in ‘clubs’ at freshwater bathing pools as bonxies do, limiting the chance of infection. They may even benefit somewhat from avian flu as it hits great skuas.

Arctic skua
Arctic skuas have pale and dark morphs

Puffin

One of the UK’s most popular birds, the diminutive puffin risks being lost as a breeding bird in the UK primarily due to food shortages. The favoured food of this colonial breeder is the sandeel. There have been a number of breeding seasons over the last two decades when sandeel numbers were extremely low, forcing puffins, as well as other seabirds such as razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes, to forage further and further from their nesting sites. Sandeels themselves feed on plankton species that are being forced further north by rising sea temperatures. The worry is that a combination of this and overfishing may reduce food availability for breeding puffins to the point where breeding regularly fails. This also applies to razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and terns. There is hope, though, that a three-month consultation by the UK government will result in a ban on industrial sandeel fishing, reducing some of the pressure on stocks.

Puffins
Puffins rely heavily on sandeels during the breeding season

Farmland Birds

Some of our farmland birds are perhaps the most vulnerable to extinction in the UK over the next century. Many species relying on the types of habitats our farmland used to provide have suffered huge and rapid declines as modern agricultural practices have homogenised landscapes and reduced food availability and nesting sites. Despite some successes, such as the increase in cirl bunting numbers over the last two decades, the outlook for some of our farmland species is grim.

Corn Bunting

Once a common bird of lowland farming areas, the corn bunting is at risk of becoming extinct in the UK due to the way farming has changed over the last half century. The population fell by 89% in the UK between 1970 and 2003. A big factor has been a reduction in food availability during the winter. As more arable farms turn to winter planting and leave less stubble, birds such as the corn bunting have lost out. Fewer field margins have the same effect. An increase in pesticide use has also impacted the invertebrate food chicks are fed during the breeding season. Earlier harvests also destroy this late nester’s breeding sites before chicks have had a chance to fledge.

Corn bunting
Corn buntings no longer breed in many areas they used to

Grey Partridge

Our only native partridge has undergone a massive population decline over the last 50 years. According to the BTO, numbers fell by 92% between 1967 and 2020, a catastrophic drop. Research suggests that one of the main causes is the huge decline in insect numbers over the same period due to increased farmland pesticide use. Insects are an important part of growing chicks’ diet, as with many other species. The loss of field margins which are important for cover is also a likely factor. There is also the possibility that they are outcompeted for what food there is by the millions of non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges released in the UK each year. So far, a number of action plans have failed to improve the situation for grey partridges.

Grey partridge
Grey partridge numbers fell by 92% between 1967 and 2020

Corncrake

The corncrake is another bird that was once widespread across farmland in the UK. Their strange, rasping ‘crex crex’ is now gone from most of its historic range, though, and it went extinct in most of England by the 1930s. Now it is only heard in the Inner and Outer Hebrides and a few isolated places on Scotland’s mainland. Small numbers also breed in Northern Ireland, as well as over the border in Ireland. And it is still declining, with only 824 males recorded at Scottish survey sites in 2022 compared to 850 the year before. The main causes of this loss are a combination of the introduction of mechanised harvesting and a change to silage production from hay. This leads to earlier cutting which destroys the nests of this relatively late breeder. Unusually for a rail species, the corncrake is also migratory. This means it also faces threats on migration and on its wintering grounds.

Corncrake
Corncrakes migrate to Africa for the winter

Turtle Dove

At one time, this migratory dove bred as far north as Lancashire and the Scottish borders. Now, however, it is restricted to the south-east and east of England. It has the ignominious title of Britain’s fastest declining bird species as numbers fell by a staggering 98% between 1970 and 2020. The speed of decline is of particular concern, and only around 2,100 pairs now breed in the UK. Losses are thought to be partly down to habitat loss on the breeding grounds. Turtle doves favour thick, tall hedgerows and scrubby areas combined with plenty of seed from mixed crops. The loss of miles of our hedgerows to create huge prairie-style fields has had a huge impact on them. Another big issue is hunting as they travel to and from their wintering grounds in Africa. While France, Portugal and Spain had a moratorium on hunting the species in 2021 and 22, many birds were still killed further east across countries including Cyprus, Malta and Greece.

Turtle dove
Turtle doves face threats both here and on migration

Absent Friends in the Year 2100

Sadly, these are just a few of the species that may be lost as UK breeding birds by the end of the century. Our changing climate could also force out upland and northern birds such as the ring ouzel, whooper swan, whimbrel and Slavonian grebe. Rising sea levels could mean we lose suitable coastal breeding sites for little terns and ringed plovers. Habitat loss and disturbance, combined with wetter summers, are increasingly likely to mean the end, for a second time, for the capercaillie.

Ring ouzel
Ring ouzels are another potential UK loss

Summer migrants, meanwhile, could be more likely to be affected by extreme weather events en route, leading to fewer arriving here to breed each year. And the ongoing crash in insect numbers means that many birds, from swifts to golden plovers, will struggle to find food in the future. For some of these species, any interventions we make now may be too little too late. We can only hope that efforts to limit carbon emissions, wildlife-friendly farming and other conservation measures prevent the loss of as many of these vulnerable birds as possible.