Thursday, 2 July 2009

Where are our summer migrants?

Where are our summer migrants? That's a question that we've heard on numerous occasions in recent times as every year the numbers of birds returning to the UK to breed seems to reduce. Several species that were once very common are now hard to find. Here in Staffordshire, Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, Turtle Dove, Yellow Wagtail, Ring Ouzel and Cuckoo are just some of the species that have suffered serious declines.

European Turtle Dove

So what's happened to them? Well, there's probably no one simple answer to that question but we're pleased to see that the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has launched a project to try and find out, species by species, just what is going wrong. Details of this and the Out of Africa Appeal for funds to finance it can be found on their website and this is surely a cause that everyone with any interest in birds should be willing to support.

The BTO is already well-placed to monitor bird populations through its Nest Record Scheme, Constant Effort ringing, the Breeding Bird Survey, BirdTrack and other studies. But these are concerned only with the UK and many of the problems faced by migrant birds are, of course, in their wintering areas and on their migration routes. The BTO plans now to get involved, jointly with RSPB and other organisations across Europe to support conservation in West Africa and to carry out survey work in countries such as Ghana where so many migrant birds spend the winter.

Pied Flycatcher

Climate change and shifting weather patterns and habitat loss both in the UK and Africa are no doubt major issues affecting most species; for some, hunting and trapping in southern Europe will be having an effect. However, it does seem to us that the catastrophic decline in insect food is the most obvious factor that presents a problem to all birds. It was five years ago that the RSPB organised its Big Bug Count to see how many insects crashed to their doom on vehicle number plates but there was no previous data with which to make a comparison. Maybe there are plans for a repeat survey. In the meantime, surely anyone who has been involved for any length of time in the study of insects, in moth trapping, for instance, will tell you that numbers of insects have declined dramatically, even over the past 20 years. Maybe the question we should be asking is: Where are our flies, butterflies, grasshoppers and moths?

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