By Will Bevan
When thinking about animals which use the marine environment, birds might not be the first to come to mind. However, the UK is responsible for globally important numbers of birds which use our shores and seas in some way. As part of UK Youth for Nature’s oceans campaign, I’ll be journeying from our coastlines, into territorial waters, and finally beyond to the high seas, to show how birds rely on these environments as well as the threats they face.
For this first post, I’ll be looking into the species which live along our shores. With over 31,000 kilometres of coastline, there is plenty of habitat available for our coastal birds, and they are alive with activity all year round.
The coastlines of the UK are the perfect home for seabirds, where they jostle for space amongst our rugged cliffs and islands every spring and summer. These seabird cities are some of our most spectacular natural wonders, with places like the Farne Islands, Skomer Island, or the Isle of May being hugely popular wildlife attractions. It’s not hard to see why, as we are graced with a great variety of seabird species, some of which breed here in internationally important numbers. For example, the UK hosts 90% of the world’s population of Manx shearwater, a secretive seabird which returns to its underground burrows at night and migrates to South America and back each year. A few of the other species which breed here include the clownish Atlantic puffin, prehistoric looking European shags which sport iridescent plumage and snazzy head crests in the breeding season, dapper black and white razorbills, European storm-petrels which dance across the waves in stormy weather, and the bruisers of the skies, the great skuas. Seabirds in the UK are largely protected at their colonies, with many of our most important sites being free from human disturbance and free of invasive predators which can decimate their populations. However, this does not mean they are not threatened, with many of our seabird species in decline as a result of climate change and overfishing in our waters, issues I will delve into deeper next time.
In recent decades some of our seabird species, such as the herring gull and the kittiwake, have increasingly begun to nest in our cities, swapping the rocky cliffs for concrete ones. These are in fact two species which are declining alarmingly, both being Red listed in the UK as species of the highest conservation priority. Gulls receive a lot of bad press, which is often just scaremongering to grab attention, and we need to learn to be able to live amongst them.
Whilst many of us are aware of our seabird cities and the birds which breed there, there are a number of bird species which nest on our beaches, where they regularly come into close contact with humans. Species such as ringed plovers, oystercatchers, and little terns make small scrapes in sand or gravel, where they lay their eggs. These can often be very hard to see, and so it is important to take great care when walking on the beach. Beach nesting birds are also very vulnerable to disturbance, using precious energy trying to fend of threats. Dogs off their leads are one of the major sources of disturbance, so by placing dogs on leads where birds are nesting, you can do a great deal to give these birds a helping hand.
There are a number of sites around the UK where beach nesting birds receive 24hr protection during the breeding season in order to ensure them the best chance of success, with dedicated wardens educating the public to decrease disturbance and to ward off predators such as foxes, badgers or domestic cats. Some threats are harder to deal with however, with climate change leading to rising sea levels and increased stormy weather, threatening to wash these beach colonies away.
The seabird cities and other coastal breeding sites go quiet at the end of the summer, with many birds heading out to sea or migrating to other shores to wait out the winter. Our coastlines now become important for a different reason, with hundreds of thousands of birds using our shores during these months as stopping off points on their migrations, using our coastal salt marshes and intertidal landscapes of sand and mud as feeding stations to refuel before continuing on their journeys. Many of them decide to stay for the whole winter, with birds from the Arctic and Scandinavia joining our resident birds which migrate to the coast from their inland breeding sites. One of our most important wintering sites, the Wash estuary in East Anglia, hosts up to 400,000 of these birds in the winter, and is internationally important for species such as curlew, redshank, knot and dunlin. Human development is threatening some of these crucial coastal areas, which can also provide natural defences for flooding caused by climate change.
As you may now be aware, the extensive UK coastline is home to a huge number of bird species which use our shores in many different ways. Next time I’ll be looking at how the fate of many of these birds is tied directly to the health of our territorial waters, where they are facing numerous threats.