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House sparrows remain the most-spotted birds in Northern Ireland’s gardens and green spaces, according to the latest results from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch.
Now in its 41st year, the Big Garden Birdwatch is a chance for people of all ages to count the number of birds that visit their garden - helping the RSPB build up a picture of how they are doing. This year, almost half a million people across the UK - including just under 14,000 people in Northern Ireland - took part counting nearly eight million birds.
The top five in Northern Ireland consisted of house sparrows, starlings, goldfinches (up one place), chaffinches (down one place) and blue tits. Robins and magpies both hopped up a spot this year, into seventh and eighth spots, respectively.
There were some differences across the counties in Northern Ireland. While Down and Tyrone both had the same top two (house sparrows followed by starlings), starlings were the most-spotted birds in counties Antrim, Armagh and Derry-Londonderry – ahead of house sparrows – while Fermanagh’s number one bird was the chaffinch, just as it was in 2019.
The Birdwatch, held over the last weekend in January, showed that smaller birds including long-tailed tits, wrens and coal tits were seen in greater numbers in gardens than in 2019 thanks to the milder winter. Across the UK as a whole, house sparrows remained at number one.
Over its four decades, the Big Garden Birdwatch has highlighted the winners and losers in the garden bird world. It was first to alert the RSPB to the decline in song thrush numbers. This species was a firm fixture in the top 10 in 1979. By 2009, its numbers were less than half those recorded in 1979, it came in at 20th in the rankings this year, seen in just 9% of gardens.
Data collected by volunteers as part of the Wetland Bird Survey, and published in a report today, play a crucial role in the designation of protected wetland sites in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and underline their importance in helping to conserve our waterbirds.
Many of the UK’s wetlands are given protected status as a result of the number of ducks, geese, swans and waders that use these sites during the winter. Once a month, a network of volunteers go out to wetlands across the length and breadth of the country to count the waterbirds present as part of the long-running Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). Data have been collected for over 70 years, providing vital information on which sites are the most important for waterbirds, leading to their designation as protected sites. WeBS counts also capture notable changes in the numbers of waterbirds present, flagging-up issues that may require further investigation.
Today's WeBS report sets out evidence that more than a third of the waterbird species that use our most important and protected wetlands have declined by 25% or more. Some of these declines are because of large-scale changes in global waterbird distributions due to climate change; others may be due to local problems at individual sites.
Several declining ducks and waders, such as Scaup, Goldeneye and Purple Sandpiper, are becoming increasingly reliant on protected sites. One species, the Pochard, Red-listed under both the UK Birds of Conservation Concern and IUCN Global Red List, clearly demonstrates the immense value of these protected areas. Whilst overall winter numbers in the UK are half what they used to be, numbers at protected sites have declined at a comparatively slower rate. In Northern Ireland, virtually no Pochard now occur outside these protected areas.
The latest figures highlight the importance of long-term monitoring, not only for keeping an eye on our wintering waterbirds but also on the sites that they use. It is this long-term monitoring that helps to future-proof our protected area network for waterbirds as the climate continues to change.
To view the full report, please visit: www.bto.org/webs-annual-report
New research led by the University and published in Global Change Biology assesses the human and climate-related impacts on plankton
The UK’s plankton population – microscopic algae and animals which support the entire marine food web – has undergone sweeping changes in the past six decades, according to new research published in Global Change Biology.
Involving leading marine scientists from across the UK, led by the University of Plymouth, the research for the first time combines the findings of UK offshore surveys such as the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) and UK inshore long-term time-series.
It then maps those observations against recorded changes in sea surface temperature, to demonstrate the effect of our changing climate on these highly sensitive marine communities.
The study’s authors say their findings provide further evidence that increasing direct human pressures on the marine environment – coupled with climate-driven changes – are perturbing marine ecosystems globally.
They also say it is crucial to helping understand broader changes across UK waters, since any shifts in plankton communities have the potential for negative consequences for the marine ecosystem and the services it provides.
Since plankton are the very base of the marine food web, changes in the plankton are likely to result in changes to commercial fish stocks, sea birds, and even the ocean’s ability to provide the oxygen we breathe.
The Short-necked oil beetle (Meloe brevicollis), one of the UK’s rarest oil beetle species, has been rediscovered in Wales. This very rare species was previously believed to be extinct in Wales, having not been seen since 1944, until its rediscovery in Pembrokeshire by Annie Haycock. Pembrokeshire now supports the only known modern record of this species in Wales. Outside of Wales, the Short-necked oil beetle is currently known only from the island of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and single locations on the Salisbury Plain and in south Devon. An unconfirmed record from Dorset also exists.
Formerly more widespread, the Short-necked oil beetle experienced a severe decline during the twentieth century and went completely unrecorded in the UK from 1948 until its rediscovery in south Devon in April 2006. Like other oil beetle species, it is dependent upon solitary bees to complete its life-cycle.
Oil beetles are nest parasites of solitary bees and have extraordinary life-cycles. Oil beetles dig burrows in the ground, in to which they lay hundreds of eggs. Once hatched, the active, louse-like larvae, known as triungulins, climb up onto flowers and lie in wait for a suitable host bee. When a bee visits the flower to collect pollen or nectar, the triungulins attach themselves to hairs on the bee’s back using hooks on their feet. Once in a suitable bee’s nest, the beetle larva disembarks. The beetle larva then feeds on the bee’s store of pollen and nectar and develops in the burrow until it is ready to emerge as an adult oil beetle. Such highly specialised life-cycles make oil beetles particularly vulnerable to environmental change.
The thought of weeds thriving in a farm’s arable crops is usually cause for concern, but it might be one way to help invertebrates to recover according to a new study by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). They found that as the number of arable weeds increased, so did the number and diversity of invertebrates. This means more food for farmland birds and may mean more food for pollinators and more natural control of crop pests (biological control).
Researchers were keen to unlock the best way to improve insect number, so they reviewed 18 years of research into winter wheat, the most widespread global crop, to investigate the link between weeds in crops and invertebrate numbers on farmland. With popular agri-environment options focusing heavily on the edges of the farm, such as hedgerows, woodland and headlands, the results suggest that the answer might lie closer to the crops.
By focusing on winter wheat, the study recognises farmers’ primarily role – providing food to a growing global population with good crop yields – whilst balancing increasing pressure to support and preserve biodiversity on their land.
The study showed that all groups of invertebrates increased as arable weeds increased. The relationship was stronger for invertebrates that eat plants, compared to those that are predatory, but both groups increased with weed cover. Increased weed cover also caused an upturn in chick food availability.
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