Monday, 27 March 2017



THE turtle dove may  become  "lost to Britain as a breeding species".

That was the sombre message from the director of the BTO, Dr Andy Clements, at the annual meeting of Lincolnshire Bird Club where he was guest speaker.

The decline of the species - by 93 per cent since 1994 - been attributed mostly  to loss of its preferred seed foraging habitats both here and in West Africa where it winters, with disease
(notably one caused by the 
trichomonosis parasite) and illegal  shooting on its migration routes in southern Europe also thought to be factors.

"It is really sad to see the demise of such a lovely bird," said Andy (pictured below). "It may be too late to save it as a native breeding species."


Although nowhere near as much so as the turtle dove, most of the traditional summer migrants to Britain are now in steady decline, with the South-east particularly hard hit.

This deteriorating situation is consistently confirmed every year both by observation and by Birdtrack software and other data-collection technology which now records not just distribution of species but also abundance.

On the plus side, the past 20 years has seen a spectacular increase almost everywhere in the population of buzzards.

Andy also made reference to bittern whose growing readiness to breed in newly-created inland reedbed sites should  help to compensate for the potential loss of traditional coastal haunts whose suitability is being increasingly threatened by saltwater incursion as a result of rising sea levels.

Of smaller species,  meadow pipit data has revealed the huge importance of the whole of Ireland to over-wintering birds.

Andy, a father-of-two, is a University of Bangor BSc graduate who subsequently did postgraduate research at Durham University, then  lectured in zoology at the University of Sussex where he also researched birdsong.

After leaving the academic world, he spent 24 years at the Nature Conservancy Council, an advisory agency to the Government, where his activities included fieldwork on upland birds, communications, liaising with European Union partners and helping to  secure National  Lottery funds for community wildlife projects.

Andy also had spells both with  the Department of the Environment and English Nature, and, in early 2006, he was one of those instrumental in setting up Natural England on whose board he still sits.

Since taking over the reins at the BTO 10 years ago, he has seen membership increase from 12,500 to about 20,000 and raised the profile of the organisation, not least in influencing Goverrnment policy.

During his presentation, at Horncastle's  Admiral Rodney Hotel, he described how most of Britain's songbird migrants are now arriving on our shores significantly earlier than in the past in order to take advantage of insects which are emerging earlier as a result of climate change.

Two notable exceptions, however, are the swift and the cuckoo where preliminary evidence suggests that they pause prior to the most perilous  part of their northward migration - over the Sahara - to fuel up  on flying insects and termites

However, they have to await these creatures' emergence which first needs to be triggered by heavy rainfall.

Andy could not emphasise enough the importance these African rains. If they do not occur, the impact can be severe for migrants - a notable example occurring in the 1970s when there was a "catastrophic collapse" in whitethroat numbers.

Much of the focus of Andy's talk fell on the cuckoo (pictured) which, as he pointed out, spends far more time in the African jungle - sometimes in the company of such exotic species as gorillas - than it does in Britain where its breeding sojourn is all to short.


Tagging adult males with satellite transmitters has come up with some fascinating information.

Individual birds tagged within 100 km of each other in East Anglia have been found to take highly divergent migration routes south - some through Italy and some through Spain.

Remarkably, they  all end their journey  with 100km miles of each other in Africa.

Why different routes should be chosen is not clear,  but the identity of the individual host species which rears them as chicks is apparently of no significance.

What routes do the female cuckoos take? As yet, the answer to this is also unknown. 

They are lighter than males - too light to allow satellite tagging which is only allowed if the weight  of the device attached is up to a maximum of three per cent of a bird's body weight.

In the past, the BTO tend to channel most of its communication activities towards Government agencies, but Andy is keen to broaden its outreach to the wider community. He is determined that the welfare of birds should be in the public eye - especially if there is a chance of co-operation between nations helping to ease political discord.

However, for this to effective, he said: "Society needs to care."

In his resolve to spread  the message about birds in the media, the organisation has had  some success in obtaining coverage both in national newspapers such as The Independent and  on social media such as Twitter.

With iconic species such as cuckoo and nightingale, the chances of stirring public response are favourable.

Much more of a challenge is posed by, say, the rapidly-declining spotted flycatcher - loved and cherished by all birders but whose unspectacular plumage and thin song is unlikely to be of wider appeal.

Does society care? If so, to what extent?

For the answers to these and other questions only time will tell.

Following his fascinating and infomative talk, Andy was warmly applauded  by members  and thanked by the chairman of the LBC, Phil Espin.

* The BTO is at:

* Lincolnshire Bird Club is at:

Turtle Dove: Photo by Yuvair via Wikimedia Commons

Cuckoo: Photo  by Chris Romeiks via Wikimedia Commons

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