If Beatrix Potter had lived near the coast I am sure Ringed Plover would have featured in her animated tales. A small, dumpy, short-legged wading bird with dapper markings, they would easily fold into her pocket-sized children’s books. With their rock pool gazing vanity they would have fitted well amongst the neighbours she parodied in her work. Perhaps then things would be different. As it is Ringed Plovers barely even feature, even amongst birders tales. By the end of January anyone living near the coast will have it on their list as numbers are swelled by 30,000 northern birds mainly from Canada, Greenland, Iceland in the west and to a lesser extent Scandinavia. After that, apart from the odd ‘bird-racer’, it receives little attention. Even the tundrae race generates less interest than Greenland Wheatears with whom they share their summer home.
The lack of attention in the summer has seen the population drop both considerably and invisibly from 8,540 pairs (1984) to 5,438 pairs (2007) (BTO, 2007). 25% nest on the machair of the Western Isles, where nests of shorebirds are predated by the introduced Hedgehog. It is the marked increase in nest failures, at the egg stage. that has earned Ringed Plover a place on the concern list where it has recently gone from amber to red.
The RSPB draws attention to their plight ‘Red Alert: helping Ringed Plover’. They say, ‘Sadly, they were recently added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern due to declines in their wintering numbers. The reasons [for the decline] are currently unknown. Breeding birds are also in decline.’
In a cheery summary the RSPB assures us that, ‘[The RSPB are] currently pulling together all our information on ringed plover declines so that we can best plan our next steps to conserve this engaging bird. We’ll keep you updated on our next steps.
Fairly innocuous -bird X in decline, we are doing our best, they are safe on our reserves, send us some money and we will do more good work. At face value it ends there.
Unsurprisingly, Ringed Plovers aren’t species X, they are complicated. Their issues will not be resolved by flag waving and money and there is enough literature to describe the problems:
1) Climate change –fewer birds arrive due to milder winters so we need to assess the decline in a European context; summer storms impact the beaches on which they nest; Britain is at the limit of their breeding range and warmer summers will mean the southern nests will be less productive.
2) Disturbance –most of the potential nesting habitat lies outside of nature reserves and Ringed Plover parents are sensitive to humans, particularly humans with dogs. The two May Bank Holidays right in the middle of the nesting season are when there is a big influx of people and dogs to beaches.
3) Low breeding productivity –nest failure rate at the egg stage has been steadily increasing since 1970s.
The reality does not fit with these RSPB public facing statements as these do not address the issues above:
• all of the key estuaries for Ringed Plovers are protected under national and international legislation
• RSPB teams work hard to ensure that coastal habitat is not lost or degraded.
• In particular, we seek to prevent disturbance of high tide roosts.
The reality is much less reassuring. Climate change aside, the future for Ringed Plovers will feature increasing amounts of disturbance even in the protected areas. The control of dogs off leads is not influenced by the RSPB’s good wishes.
The few studies that have investigated the effects of human disturbance on breeding densities of ground-nesting bird species, indicate that breeding density is substantially reduced by recreational disturbances. Such reduced breeding density, or lack of breeding success within otherwise potentially suitable habitat, may be the main consequence of human disturbance.
A small number of mostly observational studies suggest that responses to a walker with a dog tended to be stronger than a person approaching without one; displacement of incubating or brooding birds led to increased predation risk from opportunistic predators, especially larger gulls and corvids.
Human disturbance influences territory choice, territories were established where disturbance is relatively low. In a second study human disturbance, largely attributable to holiday makers, was especially concentrated around car parks (points of beach access) over two weekends in May (extended weekend holiday periods), and during July and August (school holidays) at the end of the plover breeding season. Disturbance came mostly from walkers (with or without dogs), sun-bathers and occasional picnickers, anglers and bait-diggers.
Highly disturbed sections of beach were avoided by most nesting pairs (with the exception of those with no prior experience of breeding on the site) despite presence of otherwise suitable habitat. Where nesting occurred, density of territories and nests was less along more disturbed sections. Of all nests found, 8.5% were lost due to people, mostly though accidental trampling of the well camouflaged eggs, with a higher proportion of losses occurring closer to footpaths.
Disturbance did not affect incubation length, proportion of nests that hatched, or chicks fledged, although only low disturbance areas were considered. Chick foraging time was reduced in areas with more people but this had no effect on growth or survival to fledging. A model was constructed that predicted that if human activity was restricted (e.g. through fencing of sections of beach with nests) then the ringed plover breeding population size would increase by about 8%, whilst if people were absent altogether the population would increase by around 85%.
10 Ringed Plover nests on the north Norfolk coast over three days (the May Bank Holiday period) on a beach which traditionally experiences high numbers of tourists. When a person approached to within 100 m most plovers reacted by leaving the nest. For long periods there were constantly people within 100 m of all 10 nests.
Earlier on Lindesfarne unintentional disturbance by visitors and their dogs was considered more serious than direct loss (e.g. through trampling) as incubating birds normally ran from nests when approached, giving opportunities for carrion crows and other avian predators, watching for plover movement, to locate and predate the eggs. It was noted that increased movement to and from nests by ringed plovers due to disturbance, left tracks on sandy substrate leading to the nest scrape, and also possibly scent trails that mammalian predators (e.g. Fox ) might exploit.
So for more than 30 years we have known of the problems that face Ringed Plovers. The RSPB do not need to wait for new data. If we want to save the Ringed Plover as a breeding bird in England we know what we have to do. Restrict people on beaches where Ringed Plovers could nest. County Durham has about 40 miles of coast about 11 miles of which would be suitable for Ringed Plover to nest.
I don’t see any organisation coming forward to take on this challenge any time soon. Bye-bye Ringed Plover.