Donal Hickey: Huge fall in water bird numbers

Donal Hickey: Huge fall in water bird numbers

It's one of the great movements of nature. The arrival in Ireland of hundreds of thousands of birds from colder northern climes for the winter.

However, it’s not like it used to be. People out and about in coastal areas these days have been seeing at first hand a steep drop in the number of wetland birds, ducks, geese and waders, which winter here.

Lorcan Farrelly, from north Co Dublin, who lives a stone’s throw from the Swords estuary, tells us he has noticed a great decline in these birds in the last two decades. When he arrived there in 1982, the place was awash with birds such as pochard, great crested grebe, golden eye and cormorants.

“Sadly, just a handful arrive these days,” he emails.

Lorcan’s observations are borne out by the Irish Wetland Bird Survey, which has found numbers of wintering water birds in Ireland have fallen by 15%, and much more for certain species, in recent years.

The Shannon Estuary had around 50,000 birds in 2000 and the falloff there is in line with national trends.

Ireland’s location in the east Atlantic and closeness to major water bird breeding areas in the Arctic, boosted by our mild climate, make it an important area for these birds.

Traditionally, they have wintered here in huge numbers, with more than 850,000 estimated to have been here in 2013.

In five years, however, we lost 140,000 water birds, including 100,000 waders. We have gone from having 15 sites of international importance (population of more than 20,000 birds) to five sites.

In 22 years, there’s been a loss of 500,000 water birds, a 40% decline since 1994/95.

Hunting, illegal killing, agriculture and forestry, fisheries by-catch, urbanisation, and poor water quality are all taking a toll.

Because of climate change, birds from the cold north-east no longer need to travel south as far as Ireland to find suitable wintering grounds, the survey notes.

Furthermore, it states that while existing onshore windfarms have been considered a low-level pressure to Irish water birds to date, the expected largescale introduction of new renewable energy projects must be located sensitively so as to avoid any further damage.

Populations of diving ducks such as goldeneye are down over 50% in the last two decades.

Each winter, Ireland hosts over 50% of the population of Greenland white-fronted geese, but our wintering population has declined by almost 21% between 1993 and 2018. Sometimes known as ‘the goose of Ireland’, this bird can be found in bogs, wet lowlands, and farms.

On a positive note, whooper swans, which migrate from breeding grounds in Iceland, have increased by 39% from 1991 to 2015, with black-tailed godwits up by 77%.

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