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Shifting nonbreeding distributions of migratory fauna in relation to climatic change


Graham E. Austin, e-mail:


The distributions of eight out of nine common species of waders (Charadrii) overwintering on UK estuaries have changed in association with recent climate change. These birds represent a high proportion of various populations from breeding grounds as far apart as Greenland to the west to high-arctic Russia to the east. During warmer winters, smaller proportions of seven species wintered in south-west Britain. The distributions of the smaller species show the greatest temperature dependence. The opposite was found for the largest species and no relationship was found for a particularly site-faithful species.

In north-west Europe, the winter isotherms have a broadly north to south alignment, with the east being colder than the west. The average minimum winter temperatures across the UK having increased by about 1.5°C since the mid-1980s, the temperatures on the east coast during recent winters have been similar to those of the west coast during the mid-1980s. On average, estuaries on the east and south coasts of Britain have muddier sediments than those on the west coast and thus support a higher biomass of the invertebrate prey of waders. We suggest that, with global climatic change, the advantage gained by waders wintering in the milder west to avoid cold weather-induced mortality is diminished. Consequently, more choose to winter in the east and thus benefit from better foraging opportunities. The implications of these results are considered in terms of a site-based approach to wildlife protection used in Europe and elsewhere.