The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt in every corner of the world, and 2020 seems set to be a year that few of us will forget in a hurry. At the time of writing, in the midst of the widely anticipated second wave of the virus, the future again looks uncertain. For the last issue of BB in 2020, we asked some of the key members of the BB team to describe the impact of Covid-19 on those areas relating to ornithology and birding in Britain in which they are closely involved professionally. In addition, we invited BirdLife’s Stu Butchart to give us an international perspective.

Covid-19 and nature reserves

Adam Rowlands, Chair of BB 2000 and the RSPB’s Suffolk Area Manager

The Covid-19 pandemic provided the biggest change in public behaviour on the UK’s nature reserves since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001. The timing was similar, with the crisis emerging during the early spring period, but this time the impacts were even greater. Initially, there was a sense that the countryside would ‘remain open’ as a safe destination that the public could use for exercise and wellbeing. During early March, the RSPB and the National Trust put out messages to reassure the public that open spaces managed by those organisations would remain accessible. And, with the closure of most visitor centres in mid March, access to many sites that usually charge an entry fee became free. However, with fine weather forecast for the weekend of 21st–22nd March, there was a sense that the numbers of visitors could become unmanageable; that duly became a reality at many sites, with numbers in excess of those during busy bank holiday weekends. As government restrictions increased and lockdown was imposed, it became necessary to close many sites with car parks and facilities. 

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Dawn Balmer

430. ‘Reserve closed’ – an all-too-familiar situation in Britain during the main lockdown in spring 2020; Lakenheath Fen RSPB, Suffolk, May 2020.

Conservation organisations reviewed their activities and, anxious not to be seen as irresponsible, made strategic decisions about which essential tasks should be permitted. Monitoring, management and patrolling duties were suspended at many sites. The vast majority of the public followed lockdown guidelines, but some unregulated access to nature reserves caused problems, with infrastructure damaged and the potential for disturbance to wildlife. Equally, the massive reduction in activity by staff and the public led to some instances of birds nesting in unusual locations. Those fortunate enough to live in close proximity to nature reserves were able to use them as part of their permitted daily exercise routine, but this left them unsure about whether to share their observations (and potentially encourage unnecessary visits). The behaviour of observers and of the bird news information services came under scrutiny as never before. 

In May, as restrictions were eased, conservation organisations remained concerned about how the undertaking of non-essential activities by staff would be perceived, so there was a general absence of ‘boots on the ground’. Whether or not it was linked to government announcements encouraging the public to have barbeques, there was an increase in fires in nature reserves, including some particularly devastating incidents. With pubs still closed, there was a rise in antisocial behaviour, particularly on reserves that were accessible from large population centres, and disturbance to wildlife, such as beach-nesting birds, became more of an issue. 

As the summer progressed, reserve staff gradually returned to work, having to adapt their operational procedures to manage Covid restrictions, and facilities began to reopen. Owing to the restrictions and concerns regarding transmission of the virus in confined spaces, hides on nature reserves were among the last of those facilities to open. Those that have reopened often have restrictions in place to allow social distancing, with users encouraged to keep 2 m from each other and wear face coverings. It remains to be seen how long these constraints will continue to affect the staff and volunteers who run the nation’s nature reserves and the visitors who enjoy them. 

One positive aspect of Covid has been an increase in new visitors to reserves, as a result of an increased appreciation of nature during lockdown and a reticence to travel far on holiday (among other factors). This has offered an opportunity to inspire a wider audience in the wonders of our natural heritage – but has also brought further challenges in terms of some unwanted behaviour. 

Overall, and while there have been some minor gains and losses, it is not considered at this stage that there has been a significant impact on the key wildlife groups that these reserves support. Given the current (and likely future) challenging economic circumstances, the financial situation of some organisations may have an impact on their ability to manage sites effectively. The continued financial support of members and the Government’s approach to the much-touted ‘green recovery’ and future land-management funding are likely to prove critical.  

Covid-19 and survey work

Dawn Balmer, BB Editorial Panel Secretary and Head of Surveys at BTO

Almost all BTO survey work has been affected by Covid-19 but the extent of the impact has varied. Volunteers for the BTO Heronries Census and the RSPB/RBBP/WOS Willow Tit Poecile montanus survey started fieldwork in mid February and achieved quite good coverage before restrictions were imposed, though monitoring of Little Egrets Egretta garzetta (which are later nesters than Grey Herons Ardea cinerea) will have been affected. Unfortunately, the BTO/RSPB/NE Breeding Waders of Wet Meadows, a one-year project, was cancelled as visits in April would have been vital; we hope that the funding can be secured for 2021. 

The greatest impact was on the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey and Waterways Breeding Bird Survey, for which volunteers usually make their ‘early’ visit between April and mid May. With the country in lockdown, the advice from BTO was not to undertake any fieldwork that involved travelling away from home. As restrictions eased, fieldworkers were able to get out and make their ‘late’ visits up to the end of June; data submitted so far suggests that visits were made to about 50% of BBS squares, with the majority of volunteers making late visits only. There were also big differences between countries, with proportionally fewer BBS visits of any kind in Wales and Scotland owing to the longer period of lockdown. Analytical work is under way to see how survey data from this biased and incomplete year can be incorporated into the long-term dataset and what outputs can be achieved in 2020. 

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Roger Riddington

431. Common Redshank Tringa totanus, Shetland, June 2016; the ‘Breeding Waders of Wet Meadows’ survey was a casualty of the spring 2020 lockdown.

The activities of bird ringers and nest recorders were initially similarly restricted, and they were permitted to collect data only from the property in which they reside. A new ringing initiative, Garden Constant Effort Site, was set up and we expect to receive data from 87 sites in gardens, though the impact on the long-term Constant Effort Sites (CES) scheme is unknown at this stage.

The focus of the BTO/RSPB/JNCC/WWT Wetland Bird Survey is the core counts from September to March, though year-round counting is encouraged. Core counts were undertaken in March in many areas but dropped well below normal in April, May and June while restrictions were in place. With the winter core counts now under way, we are closely following government guidance and considering the impact on counts over the coming winter. 

Fieldwork in July and August for the national Honey-buzzard Pernis apivorus survey was largely unaffected, and there will be exciting results to share soon; moreover, fieldwork will continue in 2021. There were also some opportunities to broaden our reach – BTO invited birdwatchers to join Garden BirdWatch for free and undertake weekly counts from their garden, and just over 9,000 new participants signed up! We also saw an increase in the number of records coming in through BirdTrack although, as expected, there was a bias towards recording from gardens, and fewer visits recorded from reserves and the wider countryside.

Covid-19 and rare breeding birds

Mark Holling, Vice-chair of BB 2000, Chair of the BB Editorial Panel and, until recently, the RBBP Secretary

The timing of lockdown could hardly have been worse for the annual process of searching for and recording Britain’s rare breeding birds, as well as for their conservation. March is the time when territories of resident and early breeders, such as Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis and both White-tailed Haliaeetus albicilla and Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos, can be most easily identified, while the months of April and May are the peak breeding season for almost all other species, apart from late-arriving migrants such as Marsh Warbler Acrocephalus palustris and Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio. Travel was severely restricted during this time and remained so until early July in Scotland, so the number and quality of records of RBBP species are likely to be severely reduced for 2020. Later in the season, efforts to fill the gaps, and measurements of productivity (at least for successful pairs), may well have been made by some dedicated observers, mitigating to some extent the effects of the earlier lockdown. But the full impact will not be known until the 2020 returns from county recorders are submitted.

Restrictions upon the general public during lockdown meant that areas away from population centres will have had less disturbance than usual, which may have benefited a few species. The flip side is that the lack of observers in remote areas may have made it easier for those intent on breaking the law, killing birds of prey or destroying their nests. The other negative is that lockdown placed restrictions upon conservationists (both professionals and volunteers) working on nature reserves (see above), and in species protection and recovery projects in the wider countryside. This will have meant reduced monitoring of nesting sites, but more importantly hampered key aspects of management (such as maintaining correct water levels) and hindered protection measures (such as fencing areas with nesting waders to deter ground predators). Without wardening, disturbance on sensitive heathland and coastal sites may have been considerably greater than normal. Once lockdown was fully lifted, there were many more people out in the countryside than is normal because of the continued restrictions on foreign travel, but by then the breeding season was over for most rare breeding birds. 

Covid-19, birding and rarities

Chas Holt, BBRC Secretary and BB Editorial Panel member

Rarities play an important part in the birding scene and are thus an important component of the content of BB – which, through the auspices of BBRC, has been the vehicle for assessment and documentation for over 60 years. The buzz of finding your own rarity is undeniable; the memories associated with encountering a special bird live long and provide enthralling fodder for birding chat and social interaction among your peers for many years. Alas, opportunities to make new rarity memories, as well as the chance to reminisce about them in the field or in the pub, have been taken away to varying degrees in 2020 owing to the Covid-19 restrictions. 

To less obsessive audiences, the rare-bird scene can sometimes appear an unfathomable mix of twitchers dashing manically around the country and rather inward-looking esoterism. With that in mind, during the core national lockdown period in spring 2020, it was refreshing to see a widespread appreciation of local birding and an enthusiasm for watching the sky, gardens, green spaces and other habitats close to home. Indeed, the very definition of what ‘rarity’ means – and the satisfaction derived from it – seemed to change for many at this time. Whether that is maintained remains to be seen, but hopefully it will make birders appreciate their unexpected finds even more in the future. For those lucky enough to live on the coast or near a productive inland patch, finding a rarity or scarce migrant in spring 2020 will probably have tasted all the sweeter. For the majority of landlocked and city-bound birders, you could feel the collective joy from gardens around Britain at the sight and sounds of returning migrants – the hope provided by the first Common Swifts Apus apus, Common Cuckoos Cuculus canorus and Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica – a powerful reminder to us all of why we really go out and enjoy the birds around us. 

Spring 2020 is unlikely to go down as a vintage year in terms of number, variety, and overall quality of rarities and scarce migrants in Britain. For most, chances to find good birds through regular visits to favoured birding haunts, spending a holiday on an island, or helping at a bird observatory were taken away entirely during the spring. Thankfully, the autumn has helped to make up for what we, as a collective birding community, missed out on earlier in the year. There have been exciting arrivals of migrants and some stupendous rarities found, many of which could be enjoyed by others in a socially distanced manner when situations have been well managed – and Britain’s first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher Empidonax flaviventris, on Tiree (Argyll) in September, provided a notable example of such an event.

The impact of Covid-19 on international bird conservation

Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist, BirdLife International

Covid-19 is having widespread, diverse and interconnected impacts on bird conservation internationally, and these are mostly negative. Lockdown and falling incomes mean that many protected areas have had to scale back enforcement activities. For example, in Africa, one survey found that 84% of protected areas expect over half of their staff to be made redundant or put on reduced wages. In Brazil, at least one-third of the Environmental Agency field staff are considered to be particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 owing to age or medical conditions, so they are not being sent on enforcement operations. As a consequence of weaker protection, direct threats to birds and their habitats are increasing. For example, in March 2020 deforestation across 18 countries in Asia, Africa and South America was 150% higher than the average in March 2017–19. In Tunisia, a tenfold increase in illegal logging has been reported since the crisis began. As governments attempt to mitigate economic impacts, the environment is being sidelined or even undermined by weakening environmental regulations: the US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, told companies they would not need to meet environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak, while Indonesia has ceased its certification scheme for legal timber. Widespread reports suggest that illegal killing of birds has increased, from raptor persecution in Europe, to illegal hunting in Malta and poaching of Giant Ibis Pseudibis gigantea in Cambodia.

Bird conservation field programmes have suffered widespread disruption owing to travel restrictions. For example, the New Zealand Government halted invasive-predator trap checks on public land. In Cape Verde, evacuation of personnel undertaking cat eradication on the island of Santa Luzia threatens the success of the reintroduction of Raso Lark Alauda razae. On Gough Island in the South Atlantic, an RSPB-led project to eradicate introduced mice was similarly interrupted, with impacts on the threatened native seabirds the mice prey upon. In the USA, government field programmes for the California Condor Gymnogyps californianus were suspended. Monitoring schemes and surveys have been similarly disrupted, from Floreana Mockingbird Mimus trifasciatus monitoring in the Galapagos Islands to Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus surveys in Ireland.

Travel restrictions have devastated the global ecotourism industry. As tourist numbers plummet, individuals dependent on the ecotourism economy are being forced to turn to alternative livelihoods, often with greater environmental impacts. Economic impacts also mean that raising funding for bird conservation from individuals, governments, foundations and the private sector is becoming harder, with some donors shifting their priorities or delaying further grants.

More generally, as politicians focus on efforts to deal with Covid-19, and travel restrictions prevent in-person inter-governmental meetings, efforts to negotiate and agree a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework have been substantially delayed, as has the UN Climate Change Conference. These impacts will have knock-on consequences for bird conservation for years to come.

There are some positives though. In some protected areas, declining visitor numbers caused by travel restrictions and park closures have reduced stresses on sensitive species. Covid-19 has raised awareness of the risks associated with the consumption of wildlife, with some Asian live wildlife markets closed down and increased pressure to regulate others better. More generally, there is now greater awareness of links between environmental degradation and the risk of pandemics. Reduced travel at least temporarily cut greenhouse gas emissions and other sorts of pollution, and there is likely to be a long-term reduction in commuting and international business travel, courtesy of homeworking and remote meetings. Finally, particularly in wealthier economies, many people have rediscovered or newly found the joys of observing birds and engaging with nature, as lockdown has limited travel and other sources of entertainment, thereby growing the constituency of bird conservation supporters.

Other impacts have included:

  • In Ecuador, travel restrictions meant that half of all park rangers had difficulty simply getting to work. 
  • In Peru, there was an increase in artisanal gold miners entering and degrading the Tambopata reserve, owing to the lack of staff and tourists.
  • In the Seychelles, the reproductive success of White Terns Gygis alba and White-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon lepturus was lower than in previous years – perhaps related to an increase in predators, which have not been deterred by tourists.
  • In the Galapagos, the National Park reports a 60% loss of revenue because of the lack of access fees due to the halt in tourism.
  • Worldwide, shipping has declined and reduced impacts on marine systems might be expected.
Volume: 
Issue 12
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