Climate change and coastal waterbird populations – past declines and future impacts


*Corresponding author. Email:


Considerable attention has been given to the impact of climate change on avian populations over the last decade. In this paper we examine two issues with respect to coastal bird populations in the UK: (1) is there any evidence that current populations are declining due to climate change, and (2) how might we predict the response of populations in the future? We review the cause of population decline in two species associated with saltmarsh habitats. The abundance of Common Redshank Tringa totanus breeding on saltmarsh declined by about 23% between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, but the decline appears to have been caused by an increase in grazing pressure. The number of Twite Carduelis flavirostris wintering on the coast of East Anglia has declined dramatically over recent decades; there is evidence linking this decline with habitat loss but a causal role for climate change is unclear. These examples illustrate that climate change could be having population-level impacts now, but also show that it is dangerous to become too narrowly focused on single issues affecting coastal birds. Making predictions about how populations might respond to future climate change depends on an adequate understanding of important ecological processes at an appropriate spatial scale. We illustrate this with recent work conducted on the Icelandic population of Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa islandica that shows large-scale regulatory processes. Most predictive models to date have focused on local populations (single estuary or a group of neighbouring estuaries). We discuss the role such models might play in risk assessment, and the need for them to be linked to larger-scale ecological processes. We argue that future work needs to focus on spatial scale issues and on linking physical models of coastal environments with important ecological processes.