Ecology: Migratory Birds
Understanding climate change by traveling the planet with migratory birds
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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.
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.
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