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Ecology: Migratory Birds

Understanding climate change by traveling the planet with migratory birds

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Migratory Birds

Migratory birds are a bellwether for environmental change. The choices they make along their international flyways are a reflection of the way humans are impacting the natural world.

The mere presence of birds in a certain location can be an indication of the state of our ecosystems, regionally and globally. The UEF facilitates multiple research projects led by Theunis Piersma, full professor of Migratory Birds and Ecology at the University of Groningen, who has been a distinguished expert in his field for decades.

Professor Piersma oversees a globally active group of researchers specialized in ecology, marine biology and the evolution of migratory birds. With the support of our partners, the UEF currently underwrites research projects in three coastal regions that are vital to the future of migratory birds: the Dutch Wadden Sea area, the Doñana National Park in southern Spain, and the Banc d'Arguin wetlands in West Africa.


For the sustainable management of wetlands

The Doñana National Park lines the coast of southern Spain and is well-known for its biodiversity and marshlands that provide a critical safe haven to tens of thousand of migratory birds each year. Due to climate change, Doñana is also one of the few remaining stopovers that allow these birds to travel between their Northern breeding locations and wintering grounds in Africa.

The delicate balance that sustains the region’s ecosystems has been disrupted by agricultural activity, that has increasingly depleted the land of water, turning lagoons into deserts. As a result, the natural conditions that once made Doñana exceptionally hospitable to migratory birds, have been damaged by drought, chemicals and overexploitation: a fragile and unsustainable situation.

The Piersma group has launched a new research program that includes a careful analysis of the land and waters in the Doñana. The program will be managed by dr. Wouter Vansteelant, a renowned ecologist who has worked in the region for years. His approach aims to clarify what factors makes the ecosystem such an important travel hub for wetland birds in Europe.

By capturing the movement data of spoonbills, black-tailed godwits and lesser black-backed gulls, the birds’ flight routes are mapped to determine the distances they are able to cross. Collected data will visualize the ways in which these birds interact with the different elements in the ecosystem.

Findings will serve to facilitate the design of a tangible roadmap for the future land management of the region. Ultimately, the Piersma group seeks to help restore the Doñana’s natural marshlands, reverse the harmful effects of human activity and counter the impact of climate change.

Dutch Wadden

The mysterious decline of the spoonbill

While spoonbills have thrived in the Dutch Wadden Sea area, the average number of chicks per nest has shown stagnated growth, with recent figures indicating their population could be facing imminent decline.

Limited availability of prey could be an important factor, but the exact causes have yet to be identified. Building on earlier research, the Piersma Group is studying a colony of spoonbills on the island of Schiermonnikoog for a period of three years.

By using geolocation data and advanced tracking mechanisms, the birds are closely monitored to map their foraging behavior and techniques for feeding their young.

The project aims to identify the problems that affect the birds’ breeding performance, and define succinct measures to make the area better suited for the nesting success of future generations of spoonbills and other wetland birds.

Banc d'Arguin

Professor Piersma and his international research group during an expedition to the Banc d'Arguin (Mauretania) in late 2021.

The Banc d'Arguin is a protected natural area in Mauretania, characterized by sand dunes and coastal swamps. Its natural features are surprisingly similary to the Northern coastal regions found in the Dutch Wadden area.

In the early 1980s, Theunis Piersma discovered how important this region is to the tens of thousands of migratory birds that pass through the coastal areas of the Netherlands each spring.

Over the years, his research group his done extensive research on the ecology of the Banc d'Arguin, including multiple projects funded through the UEF.


prof. dr. Theunis Piersma Full professor in Global Flyway Ecology

Theunis Piersma has been a full professor at the University of Groningen since 2005, where he holds the Rudi Drent Chair in Global Flyway Ecology. An important part of his research revolves around the way migratory birds and their flyways connect different ecosystems around the world.

In addition to leading a global research group with over 20 experts in ecology and marine biology, professor Piersma is a senior research leader at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) on Texel. In 2014 he received the NWO Spinoza Awards, the most prestigious science award in the Netherlands.

dr. Hacen el-Hacen

Hacen el-Hacen is a postdoctoral fellow in ecology at the University of Groningen. He spent several years as a scientific advisor at the National Park of Banc d’Arguin in his home country Mauritania, and has coordinated numerous research projects in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.

After studying forestry at the Arab Institute for Forestry and Range in Syria, he came to Groningen in 2008 as an awardee of the Eric Bleumink Scholarship, completing an MA in Ecology and Evolution. He subsequently obtained a PhD in Ecology from the University of Groningen, for which he examined the resilience of the seagrass beds in the Banc d’Arguin.

dr. Wouter Vansteelant

Wouter Vansteelant is the postdoctoral researcher for the Piersma Group’s project in the Doñana. A biologist and ecologist by training, he previously worked as a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and spent several years studying the Doñana area and various other places in Europe.

He is also the editor of a number of academic journals in the fields of ecology and ornithology. For his PhD in Biology from the University of Amsterdam, he examined the link between weather conditions and the travel behavior of honey buzzards, a common species of migratory birds in Europe.

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