AWSG Satellite Tracking Project 2019 – UPDATE #1

Guest blog from the Australian Wader Studies Group (AWSG), edition March 2019

This is the fifth year the AWSG’s North-west Australia Waders and Terns Expedition team has fitted satellite transmitters on migratory waders. Five 5g transmitters were fitted on Little Curlew with the hope for more success to compare to the previous studies in 2013 and 2015; and five 2g transmitters were, for the first time in history, deployed on Oriental Pratincole.

Meanwhile, the two satellite transmitters which were deployed on Whimbrels during the 2017 NWA Expedition are still transmitting. We are, therefore, anticipating to send out combined updates on all 3 species in the coming migratory and breeding season.

CHAPTER 1: Oriental Pratincole – History in the making

(report prepared by Grace Maglio)

Prior to 2004, it was thought that the population of Oriental Pratincole in the East Asian Australasian Flyway was around 75,000 birds. In February 2004 during the annual NWA expedition, participants observed an unprecedented, extraordinary number of this species along Eighty Mile Beach and the surrounding plains.

A formal count was organised, and through ground and aerial based counts, it was estimated that 2.88 million Oriental Pratincole inhabited the area that year. This was probably due to the plague proportions of grasshoppers occurring at the time and unfavourable weather conditions in other parts of northern Australia.

Photo2_by Bob Brinkman
Oriental Pratincoles on the plains near Broome, NW Australia. In 2004 and 2010 record numbers of 4 million and >0.5 million resp. were reported by Sitters et al. (2004) and Piersma & Hassell (2010). Photo: Bob Brinkman

Catching and banding has been regularly undertaken on Eighty Mile Beach and Roebuck Bay since 1981. Oriental Pratincole have been banded in the hope that some insight into their movements both in Australia and during their migrations and breeding may be revealed.

Yet despite over 620 Oriental Pratincoles being marked in Australia over the years, there has only been one recorded resighting made by Chien-Hua CHEN from the Taiwan Wader Study Group, of a marked bird (plain yellow flag) breeding in Taiwan. The ecology and movements of this species are therefore still largely unknown.

As a result of this knowledge gap, we have prioritised studying the movements of Oriental Pratincole using Solar 2-gram Platform Terminal Transmitters (PTTs) produced by Microwave Telemetry Inc. On the 8th February, we caught 14 Oriental Pratincole with a cannon net, on Eighty Mile Beach, 42 kilometres south of Anna Plains Station, (GPS coordinates Lat.-19.482245° Long.121.190040°), and five PTTs were fitted.

Photo1_by Pat Macwhirter
On the five Oriental Pratincoles that was fitted with a PTT transmitter in February 2019, Anna Plains, NW Australia. The solar panel is nicely visible. All five birds were released at the catch location. Photo: Pat Macwhirter

The Oriental Pratincoles were also banded, with a metal ID band and a yellow engraved flag (ELF), morphometrics taken and the PTTs were fitted to the birds using a leg loop harness. The identification details and weights are shown in the table below. Unexpected and exciting results quickly emerged.

PTT ID Metal ID ELF Weight (grams)
83590 052 81470 SEA 108
83591 052 81473 SUN 107
83593 052 81476 SEP 110
83595 052 81478 SHE 119
83596 052 81480 SEC 109

First reports of the five Oriental Pratincoles fitted with a PTT in February 2019

1. “Exploring the outback”: movements of SEP – 8/2 to 1/3/1
Oriental Pratincole SEP: 11/2 Roebuck Plains
12/2 south of the Gibb River Rd, 36km south west of Lennard River Gorge
17/2 50km south of Fitzroy crossing
18/2 30km south of Purnululu National Park (approximately 800km from the release location)
20/2 returning west, 70km south west of Tunnel Creek National park (north of the Great Northern Highway)
23/2 25km north of Noonkanbah Airport
28/2 26km north of Camballin Airport. Map: AWSG
2. “Over state border”: movements of  SUN – 8/2 to 1/3/19

At the time of this report, SUN was located 1200 km from the release site and has flown approximately 2100 km in total. The route taken is given with approximate distances.

Oriental Pratincole SUN: 12/2 37km south west of Camballin Airport
19/2 40km south of Lake Argyle
20/2 10km east of Newcastle Waters, Northern Territory (off the Stuart Highway)
23/2 located 60km south west of Pine Creek, Northern Territory
28/2 60km north west Legune Airport. Map: AWSG
3. “Our world traveller”: movements of SHE 8/2 to 1/3/19

Between 8 and 16 February, this bird remained on the Plains within 25km of the release site. Around the 16th February SHE had left the mainland heading north over the sea from Eighty Mile Beach.

In the early hours of 18th February signals were picked up from Sulawesi (about 1900km from the release site), 3.5km north of Singkalong Province of South Sulawesi. Later the same day SHE was detected 21km south of Laut Island in the Riau Archipeligo, a further 1500km north west of its location earlier the same day.

On the 20th February and about 850km further north SHE was located 36km east of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On the 22nd February SHE made a short hop to 20km north west of the town of Krakor, in the Pursat Province, SHE was still at this location on the 1 March.

SHE is now enjoying a lakeside view at the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, on the floodplains of the Tonle Sap Lake. This is over 4000km from the release site. It will be interesting to see if she subsequently remains in this area to breed or moves on elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Oriental Pratincole SHE on 23 – 27 February 2019 on the floodplains of Tonle Sap Lake (Cambodia, SE Asia). This is over 4000 km from the release site in Broome, Australia. Map: AWSG
4. “Anna Plains and beyond”: movements of SEC 8/2 – 1/3/19 (with a quick flight over Roebuck Plains on its way to Indonesia)

From the 8 to 23 February, SEC has remained within the boundaries of Anna Plains Station. The location data shows the distances travelled: first 20 km south, then 30 km north and on one occasion SEC ventured 40 km NE (east of the Great Northern Highway). However, in the early hours of 26 Feb SEC seems to have left Anna Plains, flew via Roebuck Plains and continued north over the Indian Ocean to Indonesia.

From the signals received, SEC has made its way north west, over Bali, and has landed in SW Indonesia, 5 km north of Air Hitam Village. More recent signals, but of low accuracy suggests it may have resumed its northward movement towards Borneo.

5. “Going nowhere”: movements of SEA 8/2/19

The transmitter on this bird ceased to transmit after the release on 8th February.

The only movement received for Oriental Pratincole SEA at Anna Plains, NW Australia, February 2019. Map: AWSG


CHAPTER 2: Little Curlew – Adding to our knowledge

(report prepared by Inka Veltheim)

 14/2/19 – 1/3/19

Little Curlew occur widely on grasslands across northern Australia, with their numbers and locations varying markedly from year to year, dependent on weather and feeding conditions. In February 2019 few were present in the Broome/Roebuck Plains area, probably because January had been a relatively dry month.

When we arrived in the Anna Plains area on the 3rd February few Little Curlew were present there or on the adjacent Eight Mile Beach. However, over the two-week period until we left on 16th February numbers of Little Curlew steadily built up with ten to fifteen thousand being eventually gathered together in the Plains/Beach area 20km south of Anna Plains Station (and probably many more elsewhere).

Photo3_by Pat Macwhirter
One of the five Little Curlew fitted with 5-gram Microwave Telemetry satellite transmitters on 14 February 2019, Anna Plains, NW Australia. Photo: Pat Macwhirter

Fourteen Little Curlew were cannon netted as they roosted on the beach on the incoming tide on 14th February. Five were fitted with 5-gram Microwave Telemetry satellite transmitters. Since then all five Little Curlews have remained in the same general area of Anna Plains Station and 80 Mile Beach, some 20km south of the Anna Plains Station Homestead. All individuals are mostly feeding within the floodplain habitat, with occasional movements into the intertidal area. Variation in distances moved ranges between 18–30 km along the length of the beach and 12–15 km along the width of the beach between the edge of the floodplain and the intertidal area.

Tracks of Little Curlew – LL, LU, LS, LY, transmitted between 28 February and 3 March 2019. Map: AWSG

Little Curlew LK has not transmitted since 21st February and it appears we may have lost this transmitter or bird. Prior to transmissions ceasing, the movements were restricted to within 2 km for the length and 8 km for the width of the floodplain and intertidal area. The remaining four (LL, LU, LS, LY) last transmitted between 28th February and 3rd March.


CHAPTER 3: Whimbrel – Still alive and transmitting!

(report by AWSG)

The two Whimbrel fitted with satellite transmitters in February 2017, LA at Eighty Mile Beach and KU at Roebuck Bay, Broome are both still transmitting. KU successfully migrated to the northern hemisphere breeding grounds in both 2017 and 2018. It is hoped that the transmitter will last sufficiently long to give us a third year of data on this bird. The second bird (LA) was in its second-year of life when fitted with transmitter in February 2017 and did not migrate back to the breeding ground in 2017 but subsequently migrated in 2018 without successfully breeding.

Whimbrel LA and KU fitted with satellite transmitters in February 2017 at Eighty Mile Beach and Roebuck Bay, Broome are still transmitting.  LA is famous for smartly dodging the  2018 cyclone. Map: AWSG

In February 2018, LA was the bird that famously dodged the ‘Anna Plains cyclone’ by moving 145 km south for a few days while the cyclone passed. It is to be hoped that the transmitter will last long enough to plot its track second time to the northern hemisphere this year.



The AWSG would like to thank Kate Gorringe-Smith and the Overwintering Project for their generous donation to cover some of the purchase cost of the satellite transmitters.

We are again enormously grateful to the Stoate Family of Anna Plains Station for hosting the Expedition.

AWSG acknowledges the Karajarri and Nyangumarta people for permission to catch birds to be marked for this project on the shores of 80 Mile Beach, traditional lands of the Karajarri and Nyangumarta people.

This project would not have been possible without the fieldwork efforts of the AWSG NWA2019 Expedition members

Considerable thanks are due to the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions not only for providing two vehicles and trailers but also for finically assisting the participation of four Expedition members from the East Asian – Australasian Flyway.

The godwits are back in The Netherlands! With the earliest sighting ever of RUG colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits in Fryslân

Report by Jan Kramer, Leeuwarden, 26 February 2019

On 23 February 2019 three bird watchers independently recorded in Wommels, Fryslân the earliest spring sighting ever in Fryslân of colour-marked Black-tailed Godwits of the University of Groningen program. The godwits were part of a flock of 300 birds foraging and bathing in a small wetland called Skrok, which is managed by Natuurmonumenten.

Jan Kramer1
Part of the flock of 300 Black-tailed Godwits, with one bird marked by the University of Groningen program, at Skrok (Wommels, Fryslân), Saturday 23 February 2019, around 16:30. Photo: Jan Kramer

In the flock the three birders saw at least seven colour-ringed godwits – these were marked in Fryslân as part of the long-term demographic project of the University of Groningen. One of them, visible at the far right of the above photo, is called “R4RYYY”. He is ringed on 5 May 2014 on the farmland of Murk, the Frisian godfather of nature-inclusive farming, which is near Wommels indeed. In the years that followed, R4RYYY invariably arrived with the first groups of returning godwits at Wommels. From 2015 to 2018 he always was seen between 3 and 13 March (see table), but this year he is seen very early!

Year First spring sighting of R4RYYY in Fryslân
2015 13 March
2016 12 March
2017 3 March
2018 12 March
2019 23 February

Another bird in the group, the adult male B1LRLL, was ringed near the town of Idzegea on 6 May 2017 and has now been spotted at Wommels for the first time. This bird was seen in a wetland area in Senegal last November!

These observations of 23 February are the earliest spring observations ever in Fryslân of our godwits. So far the earliest season observation of godwits in Fryslân ever was on February 24, 2008 at Oosterlittens. To be clear, outside Fryslân in some stopover areas, for example in the Landje van Geijsel, our birds are regularly observed early in the season but those birds are not yet in their breeding areas.

Jan Kramer2
Just before sundown, these godwits arrived on 23 February 2019 landing just in front of the bird-watching hide at Skrok. They immediately started foraging. Photo: Jan Kramer

The next day, on 24 February 2019, there is another arrival, this time of the very famous godwit ‘Amalia’. Amalia carries a solar-powered satellite transmitter since February 2013. Just as in other years he arrived in the area called Skrins, which is near Skrok, close to the town of Oosterlittens and also managed by Natuurmonumenten. Skrins is not so far from his permanent breeding area. And yes, Amalia is a guy. He is named after the town in Spain where he was issued his transmitters. From 2013 to 2018 he always arrived in Fryslân between 8 and 27 March (see table), but this year he is much earlier! Also for Amalia this is his earliest arrival ever in Fryslân.

Year Spring arrival of Amalia in Fryslân
2013 18 March
2014 17 March
2015 08 March
2016 11 March
2017 14 March
2018 27 March
2019 24 February

For the current position of the positions of the satellite-tagged Black-tailed godwits, see:

 Is this normal?

Although these are indeed very early arrival and observation dates, interestingly enough a 5-week difference in spring arrival is quite normal for individual Dutch godwits. The RUG godwit research group just published a paper about the timing of migration in Frontier in Ecology and Evolution. The paper shows that the variation in migratory timing among individuals godwits is larger than currently observed in any other migratory bird species. Especially the repeatability of spring arrival is very low. More here: (

So Godwit Amalia and R4RYYY are not special in that respect…

R4RYYY 2019 feb 25 Skrokbij Wommels foto a Jan Kramer
On 25 February Jan Kramer took this photo of R4RYYY: “If you attribute some human behaviors to this bird, you could assume that he is enthusiastically flapping his wings because he is happy to be back in Fryslân”


Jan Kramer thanks the RUG team for the data on the life histories of the resighted birds.



Finding young spoonbills – with dataloggers

Blog by Petra de Goeij, January–February 2019

What Eurasian Spoonbills do and learn in the first years after they are born determines what routines they will have as adults. To see how they establish their habits, we give young spoonbills a GPS-tag before they leave the colony on Schiermonnikoog in The Netherlands.

The GPS-tag regularly sends SMS messages, so we generally know where the birds are, but the detailed information on location and movements that is stored in the tag can only be downloaded if a bird is close to one of our mobile antenna stations.

Since some of these young birds may never come back to the antenna stations in The Netherlands we follow them. When we know that the youngsters are “reliably” present at a wintering location we travel to this location, to download the detailed history of their wanderings and daily activities.

This trip Petra de Goeij and Arne van Eerden from the University of Groningen are targeting as much as five tagged spoonbills in Portugal and Spain. This blog gives an impression of the work. (Photos: P. de Goeij)

PdG Portugal-20190128-WA0021
Petra de Goeij and Arne van Eerden from the University of Groningen are in Portugal and Spain to find tagged young Eurasian Spoonbills. Here Arne is scanning flocks. Petra’s equipment to download the data is ready to go.
28-29 January 2019: Merida, Spain

Our first target is a young spoonbill near Merida, Spain, that was colour-banded and GPS-tagged on Schiermonnikoog in 2016. He is an almost three year old bird now, but has not been back in the colony. We notice that he has started to grow a small crest, so hopefully he will come to the Netherlands this spring.

PdG Portugal-20190128-WA0018
The first target is this young spoonbill in the middle of the flock. Near Merida, Spain

When we finally connect to the tag of spoonbill for which we traveled all the way, we see his tag has so much data that the download will take over 9 hours! Let’s see how far we get.

PdG Portugal-20190128-WA0019
The first data download of our Merida spoonbill!

While we are trying to download the data of our Merida bird, people with yellow vests appear. It turns out that a huge team of around 50 people works here every day to try to get rid of an exotic water plant. And unfortunately the last two days of our stay they are working in the favorite area of our spoonbill. Eventually, the spoonbill disappears from the reservoir. Although we do not get all data, we manage to download 5 MB from the tag. That means that we have a large chunk of its data, and we have created more space in the tag’s memory to store new data!

PdG Portugal-20190128-WA0020
This is not exactly what you think: they are targeting exotic aquatic plants that are overgrowing the reservoir

30-31 January 2019: Montijo, Tagus estuary, Portugal

After our partly successful “data grab” in Merida, Spain, we move to the Tagus estuary near Lisbon. Here we are so fortunate to get guidance from our colleague Josh Nightingale, who helps us to find our next young spoonbill near the town of Montijo. He, the spoonbill, has been sending his SMS messages from a pond behind a sewage farm. Josh speaks Portuguese and convinces a farmer that we are okay too.

Soon enough we are downloading data from this second young Spoonbill! We manage to download all his data, and looking at the data it is clear he has spent most of his time in ponds near the salt marshes of the estuary.

PdG Portugal-20190204-WA0002
A day in the rain with Josh Nightingale at the Tagus estuary (Montijo), in an area behind a sewage farm and pig farms. A special smell, but we are downloading data and of course are happy, for the moment. It cannot always be romantic…

1-2 February 2019: Evoa rice fields near Lisbon, Portugal

 Today, at the Evoa rice fields near Lisbon, the spoonbill team meets with the godwit team (Jacob de Vries and Bob Loos from Global Flyway Network). We jointly observe 450 Eurasian Spoonbills and 20,000 Black-tailed Godwits in one pond: Bob and Jacob are scanning godwit flocks for birds with rings at one side of the pond, and we are “reading” the rings of our spoonbills at the other side.

And again, we were looking for a young spoonbill with a GPS transmitter. But today no luck. About 200 spoonbills flew away when a photographer approaches them. Maybe the tagged bird was in that flock? As always, the equipment is ready-to-go to download data from the Spoonbill’s GPS tags. We wait for the spoonbills to come back…..



This research is conducted by Tamar Lok (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research), Petra de Goeij (University of Groningen), and Theunis Piersma (RUG, NIOZ, Global Flyway Network).


Waders of the Bijagos – Securing the ecological integrity of the Bijagos archipelago as a key site for waders along the East Atlantic Flyway

The Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau is the focus of attention of a large scale ecological research project (2018-2022). The project is funded by the MAVA foundation and is a collaboration between Guinean, Portuguese and Dutch research institutions:

  • Guinea-Bissau: Palmeirinha, Tiniguena and ODZH – Organização para a Defesa e o Desenvolvimento das Zonas Humidas
  • Portugal : Universidade de Aveiro, Departamento de Biologia-CESAM and Universidade de Lisboa, Faculdade de Ciências-CESAM
  • The Netherlands: University of Groningen and NIOZ – Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

This blog keeps a photo story of the project, made by Theunis Piersma – starting January 2019.

Field work

The first week of field work in 2019, at Urok. The NIOZ/RUG team with El-Hacen teaching the next generation of biologists and, and Jannes Heusinkveld, specialist of field data collection with drones, testing equipment.



The progress workshop of the steering committee of the Mava Foundation project ‘Waders of Bijagos’, was held on 27-28 January 2019, in Casa do Ambiente/IBAP in Bubaque, Bijagos, Guinea-Bissau.

Here an impression of the workshop, with on the right: Mohammed Henriques, joint PhD student of Universidade de Lisboa (Tidal Wings) and the University of Groningen, with Aissa Regalla de Barros (Instituto da Biodiversidade e das Áreas Protegidas – IBAP) and Toze.


Aissa Regalla de Barros (IBAP) introducing the project t-shirt, with Bar-tailed Godwit with NIOZ colour-rings!

José Alves, and Ana Coelho, joint PhD student of Universidade de Aveiro and the University of Groningen summarizing the work of Universidade de Aveiro.


Afonso Rocha, from Universidade de Aveiro, presenting lots of resightings, esp. of Bar-tailed Godwits, that were colour-ringed in N Europe, including The Netherlands!


Teresa Catry of Universidade de Lisboa, one of the researchers behind Tidal Wings.


El-Hacen Mohamed El-Hacen presenting SIBES Bijagos for the second phase of the MAVA Project. The design of de SIBES Bijagos grid is based on the SIBES Wadden Sea project.

Guido Leurs, the shark specialist in the project.


Laura Govers, University of Groningen, summing up the conservation relevance of the project.


The team is taking off for a night of catching:


Here we were dropped off from motocar. Legwork from here on:


Reaching the camp at the edge of the mangrove, and then some mangrove work, to reach the area where we want to set the nets:

Net setting in the mangrove (with Anna Coelho in the middle). Afonso Rocha setting up the decoys. From here it’s waiting for darkness and for a catch:

Processing the catch (!) in the middle of the night:

Datatagging a Grey Plover by Teresa Catry and Jorge Gutiérrez


And the aftermath, with Afonso Rocha:


Spectacular sighting!

An important part of the work is collecting data of birds with colour-rings, either ringed during this expedition or elsewhere in the Flyway.

The first weekend of February 2019 Jorge Gutiérrez resighted a male Red Knot with a yellow flag and four colour rings. After some text messaging back-and-forth with Job ten Horn and Jan van Gils from the Royal NIOZ , it turned out that he was captured and ringed at its breeding ground in Taymir, Russia, last summer on 17 July 2018. At that time he was guiding his chicks over the tundra. Obviously when Jorge saw him he had a breeding plumage score of 1 (and not 5 as in this photo).

This guy connects Russia with Guinea Bissau! Or more precisely the Bijagos Archipelago with Taymir. Here he is in full in breeding plumage in Taymir. Photo: Jan van Gils and his NIOZ team.




Project title: Waders of the Bijagos – Securing the ecological integrity of the Bijagos archipelago as a key site for waders along the East Atlantic Flyway

Students: Mohammed Faza Henriques Baldé, Ana Coelho, Guido Leurs

Postdocs: El-Hacen Mohamed El-Hacen, Julia Karagicheva, Jorge Gutiérrez, Afonso Rocha

Team leaders: José Alves, Teresa Catry, Laura Govers, José Pedro Granadeiro, Han Olff, Theunis Piersma, Aissa Regalla de Barros (Instituto da Biodiversidade e das Áreas Protegidas – IBAP)


“Searching skriezen and more”…

Report of Black-tailed Godwits expedition in Senegal by Jan Kramer and Rennie Kramer-van den Akker. In Dutch

Jan Kramer and Rennie Kramer-van den Akker traveled through Senegal from 27 November to 7 December 2018 to search for Black-tailed Godwits that are colour-marked (near their home) in The Netherlands by teams of the University of Groningen. Jan and Rennie are part of a large community of volunteer observers who contribute to the data collection of the godwit demographic project.

This blog highlight their expedition report, which is written in Dutch. The full report in Dutch can be downloaded here: “Skriezen (Grutto’s) zoeken en meer.…” door Jan Kramer en Rennie Kramer-van den Akker.


Jan and Rennie traveled with their guide Idrissa Ndiaye and driver Saliou Diop. From Dakar they first went to the Senegal Delta near Palmarin where they spend two days to find godwits. Other promising areas for godwits included in the trip were situated between Joal Fadiouth and Palmarin, such as Fatick, Diofor, Mammangueth, Samba Dia and a wetland near Mbissel. Next they visited National Park Djoudj,  the Station Biologique near the Tocc Tocc Reserve, Lac de Guiers and surrounding rice fields. After that they went to the Guembeul Reserve and the wetlands between highway N2 and  the Senegal river. Finally, returning to Dakar they made a stopover at small urban nature reserve Technopole. How long will this nature reserve survive the ever-growing city ?

The first day they already saw 25 colour-marked godwits, 20 birds from the RUG project and five from other projects. During the trip they checked 100s of godwits for rings and collected detailed data for a grand total of 60 individually colour-marked Black-tailed Godwits. The life histories of 44 RUG colour-marked godwits were collected.

Some impressions of the hotspots and the field work of Jan and Rennie, and their guide Idrissa (all photos by Jan en Rennie Kramer). In the report you can find more information about the observations and the locations they visited.


January 2019, Leeuwarden, Fryslân.


Frisian version of the people’s walk for wildlife: “Stoarmrin voor Biodiversiteit”


This weekend Marcia de Graaff, Bastiaan Blaauw and their team from the Dutch-Frisian citizen movement Kening fan ‘e Greide (King of the Meadow), organised a march called “Stoarmrin voor Biodiversiteit” – Storming for Biodiversity.

The Stoarmrin was to be a marsh through the Dutch-Frisian landscape, which ecosystem values are at stake, as is true for many landscapes in Europe. The idea is very similar to the People’s Walk for Wildlife held in London this year. A positive message of concern, with people marching dressed as their favorite flower or animal;  in our collective consciousness similar ideas were born. Chris Packham was so kind to sent an inspirational video:

Vastleggen in volledig scherm 30-10-2018 151708.bmp

And the Storming for Biodiversity did happen! On Sunday 28 October – in weather that was a lot more lovely than was anticipated with the stormy title. On a chilly but sunny Sunday a few 100 people, and one royal godwit on his carriage, embarked on a 9 km walk around the Frisian town of Burgwerd.



The participants were an eclectic mix of adults, children, artists, scientists dressed colorfully as animals, or simply in boots and a pink skirt – which symbolized hope for a better future for plants, insects and birds.


The march did not make it to Guardian (see below), but was covered on the front page of the regional Leeuwarder Courant. We hope this will be the start of a series of Walks for Wildlife next year. In The Netherlands we are dreaming up a large march eventually gathering at the seat of government in The Hague, so the royal godwit can deliver our own people’s Manifesto for Wildlife.


Other Walks for Wildlife in Europe

The London People’s Walk for Wildlife took place on Saturday 22 September initiated by Billy Bragg and Chris Packham. The Guardian reported how that day thousands peacefully marched in London to demand the government invests in wildlife-friendly policies and swiftly reverses the decline of British ecosystems. Read more here:

In Turin, Italy on 24 September 2018 the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto was held: a march promoting Slow Food and biodiversity:





New paper in Nature Communications: Fuelling conditions at staging sites can mitigate Arctic warming effects in a migratory bird

Exciting news! This week (15 October) we published a paper on our decades-long Bar-tailed Godwit research in the East Atlantic Flyway – these are the godwits migrating from West Africa to the Siberian Arctic.

During the last decades Bar-tailed Godwits experienced changes in the tundra phenology. We detected a chain of effects suggesting that conditions in the temperate zone (that is, the Wadden Sea) determine the ability of Bar-tailed Godwits to cope with the climate-related changes in the Arctic.

The paper in Nature Communications can be accessed here. This paper is the product of the collaboration between Russian, USA and Dutch scientists, the migration watchers of, and two Dutch groups of volunteer bird catchers – VRS Castricum and the Frisian Wilsterflappers. The paper is based on multiple long-term research programs, of which the benthic survey work by the Royal NIOZ in the Wadden Sea needs special mention.

Theunis Piersma was invited to write a blog accompanying the paper on the website of Nature Research Ecology & Evolution.

In this blog called, The natural history of our changing planet, Theunis describes the background of this long-term study, and he looks forward: “I hope that our paper helps establish political will to continue such observations. We should realize that, despite its key value, we cannot just rely on the thousands of hours of unpaid labour by keen amateur bird scientists.”

DpifN0-XgAERYtJ.jpg large
A Bar-tailed Godwit in the Wadden Sea looking for food. Photo: Jan van de Kam

For publicity about our paper check here.


Global Flyway Network Bohai Bay – Annual Report for 2018

Again in 2018, during the spring migration season the GFN team worked in Bohai Bay, China, to study Red Knots and Great Knots on northward migration. This year the team consisted of Chris Hassell, Adrian Boyle and Matt Slaymaker. The senior researcher in the project Theunis Piersma visited for about one week.

It is a long report but it does have lots of great images to keep you reading!  Here is the PDF: GFN Bohai Report 2018 web PDF

There are some undoubted positive things happening around the environment in China and on the Luannan Coast currently, and we encourages you to read those sections towards the end of the report, if nothing else.

Vastleggen in volledig scherm 24-9-2018 171629.bmp


Black-tailed Godwits signal drought resistant meadows in the hot summer of 2018

Ruth Howison, Jos Hooijmeijer and Theunis Piersma report:

The Netherlands is home to over 85% of the northwest European breeding population of the continental subspecies of Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa limosa (Fig. 1). Black-tailed Godwits are an iconic meadow bird and the national bird species of The Netherlands. The Dutch population originated in the wet grassland meadows created by many generations of Dutch dairy farmers (Beintema 1986). However, due to intensification of agricultural practices (Kentie et al. 2015, Howison et al. 2018), the population has declined by over 75% since the first population size estimates in the 1960s (Kentie et al. 2016)

Howison Fig1
Figure 1. A Black-tailed Godwit, individually marked with colour-rings, issuing alarm calls to nearby chicks from an elevated position. (Photo: R.A. Howison).

For the past 15 years, the RUG team ‘Skries’ (most years consisting of ca. 10 paid field technicians and ca. 10 students and international volunteers) has carefully monitored godwit population events (establishment, nest locations, egg and chick production and postbreeding movements) within what is now a 11,400 ha study area in southwest Friesland (municipality Súdwest Fryslân). In addition, the locations of a small number of black-tailed godwits population have been tracked with solar PTT satellite transmitters (Microwave Telemetry, Columbia, MD).

In 2018, Europe experienced one of the hottest summers on record. Extreme temperature anomalys bring with them extreme weather as heat waves, droughts, and floods, which negatively impact agricultural as well as natural systems. For southwest Friesland, air temperatures in early March dipped below average, freezing most of the countryside (Fig. 2). However, soon May and June followed with maximum daily temperatures exceeding the upper limits of the long term average calculated over the past 28 years.

Howison Fig2
Figure 2. Daily temperatures (oC) from 1 January until 24 August 2018 plotted against the long-term average ±SD (from 1990 to 2018), obtained from Stavoren, The Netherlands.

Using vegetation indices measured at 16-day intervals by satellite imagery (see Howison et al. 2018 for methods) at the level of fields, we tracked the response of the grassland habitat in the province of Friesland. We compared the situation on 10 May 2018 (Fig. 3a), the moment when grass biomass is high, i.e. just before the widescale mowing, with the situation on 14 August 2018 (Fig. 3b), i.e. when the negative impacts of the drought on the vegetation were most evident. Based on this comparison, we mapped (Fig. 3c) where the impact of drought was light or even absent, i.e. where plant growth increased (Green), where drought had a negative impact, i.e. the vegetation index had decreased (Red), and where vegetation showed little change (Yellow).

Howison Fig3
Figure 3. Tracking habitat change with vegetation indices (MODIS EVI) between (a) 10 May 2018, (b) 14 August 2018, (c) Log change ratio between the two dates, where Red indicates a decrease in greenness, Yellow indicates little or no change, and Green indicates an increase, (d) The spatial distribution of Black-tailed Godwits, overlaying the log change ratio, during the postbreeding period 2018 (after 15 June 2018).

We then compared two measures of godwit distribution with this quantitative assessment of the impact of drought on the grassy vegetation. (1) By weekly counts of all godwits in all 3014 fields in our study area, we measured the godwit distribution during territory establishment, egg-laying and early incubation (26 March to 22 April 2018). (2) On the basis of the locations of individually colour-marked birds and godwits tagged with satellite transmitters, we quantified the distribution of postbreeding godwits fuelling up for southward migration from 15 June to 15 August (Fig. 3d).

During territory establishment and early nesting, when their movements are necessarily constrained, the godwits in southwest Friesland occurred on meadows which suffered slightly, yet significantly, less from drought than unused grasslands (Fig. 4). However, during the postbreeding period, the godwits concentrated at meadows where little change in plant growth had occurred during the drought (Fig. 3d & Fig. 4). We note also that southwest Friesland suffered more from the drought than Friesland as a whole (comparison of the two right bar in Fig. 4).

Howison Fig4
Figure 4. The effect of the summer drought measured as a loss in greenness (y-axis) was less in fields in southwest (ZW) Friesland used by godwits in the establishment and early nesting period (first column) than in southwest Friesland as a whole (third column). This effect was quite a bit stronger in the distribution of postbreeding godwits (second column). Note also that the effects of drought were more severe in southwest Friesland (third column) than in Friesland as a whole (fourth column). If the capital letters above the bars are different, the categories are statistically significantly different from each other.

The preference of Black-tailed Godwits for fields in southwest Friesland that, later in summer, suffered the least from the drought of 2018, suggests that the godwits are indicating fields with healthy ‘working’ soils, where capillary processes allow the groundwater to reach the plants even when water tables are low. Godwits indicate drought-resilient grasslands.


Beintema, A. J. (1986) Man-made Polders in The Netherlands: A traditional habitat for shorebirds. Colonial Waterbirds 9, 196-202.

Howison, R. A., Piersma, T., Kentie, R., Hooijmeijer, J. C. E. W. & Olff, H. (2018) Quantifying landscape-level land-use intensity patterns through radar-based remote sensing. Journal of Applied Ecology 55, 1276-1287.

Kentie, R., Both, C., Hooijmeijer, J. C. E. W. & Piersma, T. (2015) Management of modern agricultural landscapes increases nest predation rates in Black‐tailed Godwits Limosa limosa. Ibis 157, 614-625.

Kentie, R., Senner, N. R., Hooijmeijer, J. C. E. W., Márquez-Ferrando, R., Masero, J. A., Verhoeven, M. A. & Piersma, T. (2016) Estimating the size of the Dutch breeding population of Continental Black-tailed Godwits from 2007 – 2015 using resighting data from spring staging sites. Ardea 104, 213-225.




An update on the progress of the exceptionally snow-rich breeding season in northeast Greenland

On 20 July 2018, Jeroen Reneerkens reported:

I recently wrote about the excessive amount of snow in northeast Greenland and how shorebirds are struggling to reproduce, and some risk-takers to survive, this year.  My blog received a lot of attention: it was also posted on the popular birding webpage Birdguides, Scientific American wrote an article about it and I was invited to the studio of ‘Vroege Vogels’ for a live interview on Dutch national radio.

Now that it is mid-July, which is when usually the majority of Sanderling and other shorebirds in northeast Greenland hatch, I thought that it would be appropriate to write an update of the situation, as well as answer some questions I was asked.

Was this a record late snow melt? How unusual is the situation?

The time of onset and the progress of the snow melt was not abnormal. It was the amount of snow that had fallen in late spring (April and May), when temperatures along the northeast coast of Greenland are still below 0 °C, which was unusually large. Such a large amount of snow just takes a very long time to melt, even though the temperatures in June were normal (on average ca. 5 °C) and it was sunny. Since the establishment in 1996 of the research station Zackenberg, in northeast Greenland (74°28’N 20°34’W), such amounts of snow have never been documented before.

Snow cover Zackenberg in three years
Large annual variation in snow cover in the Zackenberg valley. Photos taken from the same position on 10 June in 2010, 2013 and 2018 (source: Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring)

What is the current situation?

My colleagues from Aarhus university, who are still in Zackenberg, reported that the amount of snow in early July was still excessive (80% of surface snow covered on 10 July). Also, a third dead, apparently starved, Sanderling was found. A few more Sanderlings that were ringed in Zackenberg in previous years showed up, but the number of observed individuals observed is still much lower compared with previous years.

Also, these birds do not seem to prepare for breeding, but forage in small flocks apparently to get into condition to prepare for migrating southwards. On 8 July, Jannik Hansen reported: “There are hardly any Red Knots left in the area. Also many Sanderlings have left, and flocks of 10-20 Dunlins are flying around now.” Jannik estimated that only ca. 15% of the area usually used by Sanderlings to incubate is free of snow (in average years, many clutches would hatch around this date), and possibly 2-3 % of the area used by Dunlins.

Snow in Zackenberg summer 2018
Extensive snowpack in Zackenberg, northeast Greenland in summer 2018. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Still, Jannik found a Sanderling female incubating a clutch of four eggs on a snow-free patch of ca. 7 by 15 meters. By briefly floating the eggs in water, he could estimate that it was incubated for approximately 3 days, which would indicate a hatch date of 28 July. Only 5% of 707 Sanderling families that I monitored between 2003 -2017 hatched on 28 July or later, so this is very late. In most cases in earlier years such late clutches will represent replacement clutches of pairs whose first clutch fell victim to egg predators. It remains to be seen whether the single clutch found in Zackenberg survives until hatch. We have shown before that early in the summer, when the area of tundra covered by snow is still large , clutches run a larger risk to get eaten by egg predators, probably because the snow-free area in which predators search for prey is smaller.

Northeast Greenland is very large and remote, so there is not a lot of local information. Luckily, we also collaborate with Johannes Lang and Benoît Sittler and their team who work at Karup Elv, on Traill island (72°29’N 23°59’W) ca. 240 km south of Zackenberg. As in Zackenberg, the tundra surface was ca. 95 per cent covered in snow, in late June on Traill island, but on 12 July it was estimated to be only 50 per cent. So snow in the southern part of the NE Greenland national park seems have melted faster than farther northwards.

Johannes initially also reported that the tundra was very silent with very few birds around, but on 12 July they had already found three Sanderling clutches, which are predicted to hatch around 26 July. Johannes reports that he suspects that the clutches were laid in an area that was still snow covered at the end of June. Three Sanderling nests are very few compared to other years when more than 10 nests would have been found by this date at Traill island. Johannes and Benoît still observe Sanderling pairs which they expect to give up reproduction soon. The researchers did not find more than these three Sanderling clutches this year. Their discoveries however indicate that some Sanderling pairs managed to produce a very late clutch despite the excessive snow and its slow melt.

Sanderling Zackenberg 16 June 2017_in_landscape
A Sanderling on the tundra with less snow, Zackenberg 16 June 2017. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Were conditions similar this year across the entire Arctic?

The Arctic tundra used by breeding shorebirds is very large and snowfall is often a regional weather phenomenon. The entire east coast of Greenland has experienced a lot of snowfall during late spring which took a long time to melt away. We do not know in detail what the conditions were in other parts of the Sanderling breeding range (Pearry land in north Greenland, Ellesmere island in Canada), which use the East Atlantic flyway.

The conditions on the tundra near Barrow, Alaska, where Global Flyway Network collaborator Bart Kempenaers and his team studies Red Phalaropes, Semipalmated sandpipers and Pectoral Sandpipers was also exceptionally late due to a large amount of snow. Much fewer shorebirds were around, but those that waited for the snow to melt eventually bred ca. 1 month later than average.

In the Russian Far East, from Sakhalin to Chukotka, the spring was also cold and late (Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, personal communication), and so was the spring in parts of the Canadian Arctic (Paul Smith in an interview with Scientific American).

In contrast to the situation in Greenland and Alaska, on the Taimyr peninsula in Siberian Russia Global Flyway Network researchers Jan van Gils, Thomas Lameris and Mikhail Zhemchuzhnikov experience a very warm summer with on some days temperatures as high as 22 °C! So snow has melted fast there and the first Red Knot chicks hatched on 8 July. More details in their blog.

familie Kanoet
Red Knot adult and chick. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Will there be no reproductive success at all for shorebirds breeding in east Greenland?

Next to the already mentioned four Sanderling nests that were found (one in Zackenberg and three on Traill island), a clutch of a Common Ringed Plover was found in Zackenberg on the same snow free patch of tundra of 7 by 15 meter on which the single Sanderling nest was discovered. The Ringed Plover nest was however already discovered and eaten by an Arctic fox –as indicated by the foot prints in the snow next to the nest location- the day after discovery. Also one of the three Sanderling clutches on Traill island fell victim to an egg predator already. I expect that few shorebirds will manage to successfully hatch and fledge chicks this year in Northeast Greenland.

Kanoet juveniel strand
Few juvenile Red Knots should be expected to appear along NW European wetlands in 2018. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Is a delayed breeding season a problem?

First of all, it should be noted that it seems that the majority of shorebirds did not even attempt to breed, but instead did not arrive in their usual breeding territories but probably stayed further southwards. The few birds that risked to fly to Zackenberg had difficulties to survive the period with lack of invertebrate food, as indicated by the three casualties and the (very) low body masses of birds we caught at the end of June. The few shorebirds that managed to lay a clutch, did so with a serious delay. Because the emergence of insects depends on the timing of snow melt, both birds and their prey are similarly delayed: so what is the problem with a delayed start of breeding for shorebirds?

I expect that the arthropods will appear late and very synchronously, causing a short but very high abundance of insects. In such cases, chicks will have a very short period only to profit from this burst of insect abundance. We have shown that in years with short-lasting peaks of arthropod abundance, Sanderling chick growth was relatively poor.

What is the effect on the shorebird populations?

I suspect low reproductive success of Greenland breeding shorebirds this year, and possibly also a lower survival. I would like to document this, but I can only do so with the help of many observers. You can count the number of adult and juvenile Sanderlings at your beaches until mid November. Please download the manual here, which is also available in French, German and Spanish.

That the extensive snow cover has impacts on the Greenlandic shorebirds can already be observed. Several observers have reported unusually large numbers of Red Knots and Sanderlings in early July, which suggests that indeed many shorebirds that would usually breed in east Greenland have returned early. Jim Wilson reported on 4 July: “Knots in summer plumage have been turning up in UK in the last week and that is too early – even for returning females.” And Klaus Günther, working in the German Wadden Sea reported that “among some 5.000-6.000 Knots the % of adult birds was 25% two days ago [on 2 July] on Sylt!  Normally you will see only 1-3 % adults in summer among the grey juveniles.

It is difficult to say whether (and how) a population will deal with a year with very low reproductive success. The future will tell. I hope that I may count on your continued support with useful observations of colour-ringed Sanderlings and from counts of adults and juveniles in late summer and early autumn.

Juveniele drieteenstrandloper
Juvenile Sanderling. You can help monitor this year’s reproductive success by counting adult and juvenile Sanderlings in flocks at your local beaches. How to do that? You can here download a manual in English, French, German or Spanish. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Is this phenomenon the result of climate change and may we expect this to happen more often?

It is impossible to say whether the exceptional amount of snow this year is the result of a changing climate. However, warmer average global temperature will cause a higher rate of evaporation, more water vapour in the atmosphere will result in more precipitation in Arctic regions. If this precipitation in the Arctic falls in winter or late spring, it will often be in the form of snow. Climate models, predict that global precipitation will increase but that changes in precipitation will not be evenly distributed. Some locations will get more snow.

Information used in this blog was received from Martin Bulla, Jan van Gils, Klaus Günther, Jannik Hansen, Bart Kempenaers, Thomas Lameris, Johannes Lang, Benoît Sittler, Evgeny Syroechkovskiy and Jim Wilson