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by Deborah Buehler originally published in Wader Study 128(1) Some birds love their fashion. Even waders – known for more practical, muted colours and ‘outfits’ that camouflage – have species amongst them that love to show off their plumage. [caption id="attachment_14994" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Ruff male showing off his flamboyant plumage. (photo: Yvonne Verkuil)[/caption] Ruffs Calidris pugnax have famously extravagant plumage. They’re even named for the typical male’s feathery neck ruffle resembling the exaggerated ruffs fashionable from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. In this issue of Wader Study, Verkuil, Jukema and colleagues report on what might seem like an accessory to Ruffs’ already flamboyant fashion – some Ruff individuals have a more understated collar, a rusty-brown ring around the neck or nape.1 As with many things in science, the rusty neck rings (hereafter collars) were first discovered through close observation. Humans have been catching waders in Friesland, the Northern Netherlands, for a long time. For centuries, this activity centred around hunting birds for food. The trappers, known as wilsterflappers, used wind-driven nets, decoys and perfect timing to capture flocks of birds in midair. In the late 1970s, when commercial hunting was prohibited, some of them turned their unique skills to science. Joop Jukema, a retired potato farmer, and one of the study’s co-authors, has been trapping waders with scientists since the early 1980s. He and his fellow wilsterflappers (see the study’s Acknowledgements section) are classic citizen scientists. They are not scientifically trained, but they collect information for scientific study and their deep understanding of the birds was instrumental in discovering the rusty collars. Once the rusty collars had been discovered, Verkuil, Jukema and colleagues set out to gather more information about them. They scored the presence or absence of the collars through field work conducted over many years and sites: Most of the birds, over 2,000 males and females, were captured and scored when migrating through the northern Netherlands between 1996 and 2019. In 1996 a single female was checked at the Willem Barents field station at Medusa Bay in Russia during breeding. In 2017, the researchers captured and checked 49 females in Finland during the breeding season. In 2018, they checked skins in the Moscow Zoological Museum from 73 females caught in Russia during breeding between 1903 and 2004. Reliably seeing the collars was no small feat. In fact, the existence of the rusty neck collar was often scored as ‘unknown’, especially in two of the three male types: the independent and satellite males. Ruffs have one of the weirdest sexual systems in the world with three distinct types of male: territorial, ‘independent’ males with predominantly dark ornamental ruffs; non-territorial ‘satellite’ males, with predominantly white ruffs; and rare female-mimicking males (called faeders), with no ruffs and oversized testicles. These faeders were also first discovered in the northern Netherlands. Joop Jukema noticed that he was catching large ‘females’ (note that the testicles are inside the body in birds) and he started to doubt that they were what they seemed. 2 The discovery and subsequent introduction of faeders to the scientific community triggered intense study into the sex lives of Ruffs. We now know that the female-mimicking faeders exist because a large chunk of chromosome 11 (~ 100 genes) flipped upside-down about 3.8 million years ago. More recently, about 500,000 years ago, part of the upside-down chunk flipped back forming the satellite male type. 3 So why were the rusty collars so hard to see in the independent and satellite males? Because in spring they ‘change their outfits’. All birds moult (shed old feathers to make way for new growth) and some species, including Ruffs, have complex annual moult cycles. 4 Independent and satellite males migrating through the Netherlands in spring shed all their neck feathers to make way for their ornamental ruffs and the feathers that would have had the rusty neck collar are simply gone. [caption id="attachment_14995" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Series of three photos (all different individuals) that show how male Ruffs lose the neck collar through a dramatic moult: on 7 April with rusty brown collar, on 14 April in full moult, and on 29 April with a partly grown ornamental ruff (photos: Jan Wijmenga).[/caption] This is why the existence of the rusty neck collar was so often scored as ‘unknown’ in males as spring progressed. It is also why the researchers decided to exclude males entirely from their analysis during the breeding period. During breeding, they scored only females (and very rare faeders) where the collar was clearly present or not. In females and faeders some feathers are replaced in spring, but the moult is less drastic and so it was still possible to detect the rusty neck collars. The researchers also wanted to determine the origin of the colour in the rusty collars. They hypothesized two alternatives: Perhaps the collars were due to genetic plumage polymorphism (ancient differences in feather colouration). Some closely related plover species have similar collars, suggesting that this may have been the recurrence of an ancestral trait (atavism). On the other hand, maybe the collars were not a fixed trait at all, but rather an acquired trait. The feathers could simply be stained. Rusty stained feathers can occur when birds feed in water or mud that contains high levels of iron oxide. To test this, the authors collected a total of nine feather samples from the rusty-brown neck collars from birds migrating through the Netherlands in 2011 and 2019. To test if the feathers contained iron oxide, they performed a simple experiment. They took photos of the feathers, then soaked them for 24 hours in 5% hydrochloric acid (HCl), then photographed them again. The idea was that if the colour washed off and the wash then tested positive for iron oxide, the researchers could safely state that the colour was due to recently acquired staining rather than ancestral genetics. Verkuil, Jukema and colleagues found that the rusty-brown neck collar occurred fairly commonly in Ruffs migrating through The Netherlands in spring. They detected collars in 14% of females, 20% of independent males and 40% of satellite males. The neck collars appeared rarer in faeders at 3.5%, but faeders themselves make up only 1% of the staging Ruff population studied and so the sample size was low (only 28 scored across all years). Overall, of the 2,098 Ruffs scored in The Netherlands between March and May 2006–2019, 395 birds (18.8%) had a neck collar. In the spring, males seem to have collars more often than females, and satellite males more often than all other sexes. However, it is easier to detect a rusty coloured ring on a background of white in satellite males, thus, this difference might be due to detection bias. In contrast to spring in the Netherlands, the collars were uncommon during the breeding season elsewhere. Although the single female checked from Medusa Bay in Russia in 1996 had a brown neck ring, no rusty-brown neck collars were observed among any of the 49 females from the breeding population in Finland in 2017. Similarly, no rusty collars were found in the 73 females checked from the collection in the Moscow Zoological Museum. One clear outcome of the study was the likely cause of the neck collars. Through their experiment, the researchers determined that the rusty colour washed off in 5% hydrochloric acid. Furthermore, all collar feathers tested positive for iron. Therefore, the likely cause of the neck collar is recently acquired staining by iron oxide and not ancestral genetic polymorphism. Exactly where and how the feathers ended up stained, remains a mystery. Ruffs feed along the receding water line, where they often submerge their heads in water with a film of iron-rich bacteria. Iron containing surface water occurs in the floodplains in West Africa where a large proportion of Ruffs spend the winter, at stopover sites in southern Spain, and in many grassland areas in northern Europe. This study was not able to detect whether the staining was related to a particular wintering or staging area. The study also wasn’t set up to answer the question of whether the collars mean anything for Ruff fashion. Iron oxide staining has been used by bird species for cosmetic colouration, 5 but we don’t yet know if this staining plays a role in sexual selection for Ruffs. Much more remains to be discovered and the authors also published this study as a call to field researchers to pay attention to this newly described plumage characteristic. Hopefully, this heightened awareness will contribute to more knowledge about the phenomenon in the future. That’s the beauty of science. Each study gives us new information while raising more questions. Though Ruffs might love to show off their plumage and their rusty collars might be akin to ‘fast fashion’, at its core, this study highlights something slower and longer lasting. It highlights the power of sustained observation, year after year, and the labour (often unpaid) of the scientists and citizen scientists who have broadened our understanding of waders and their perils. 6 [caption id="attachment_15000" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Joop Jukema trapping birds for science in Friesland in 2006. (photo: Yvonne Verkuil)[/caption]  
  1. Verkuil, Y., J. Jukema, P. S. Tomkovich, N. Rönkä, J. C. E. W Hooijmeijer & T.Piersma. 2021. Striking rusty-brown neck collars in Ruffs: plumage polymorphism or staining? Wader Study 128(1): 36-43.
 
  1. L. E. Ogden. 2014. In the world of ruffs, a male bird that's sneaky … and well endowed. Earthtouch News Network. Blog post accessed 9 March 2021 at https://www.earthtouchnews.com/natural-world/animal-behaviour/in-the-world-of-ruffs-a-male-bird-thats-sneaky-and-well-endowed/
 
  1. Küpper, C., M. Stocks, J.E. Risse, N. dos Remedios, L.L. Farrell, S.B. McRae, T.C. Morgan, N. Karlionova, P. Pinchuk, Y.I. Verkuil, A.S. Kitaysky, J.C. Wingfield, T. Piersma, K. Zeng, J. Slate, M. Blaxter, D.B. Lank & T. Burke. 2016. A supergene determines highly divergent male reproductive morphs in the Ruff. Nature Genetics 48: 79–83.
 
  1. Pyle, P. 2019. Sunset Sanderlings: Digital photography leads to novel insights about the presupplemental molt of the Sanderling. Birding Magazine August 2019: 30–40.
 
  1. Delhey, K., A. Peters & B. Kempenaers. 2007. Cosmetic coloration in birds: occurrence, function, and evolution. American Naturalist 169: S145–S158.
 
  1. Piersma, T. 2018. Behind the Paper: The Natural History of Our Changing Planet. Nature Portfolio Ecology & Evolution Community. Blog post accessed 9 March 2021 at https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/39860-the-natural-history-of-our-changing-planet?channel_id=521-behind-the-paper
 
Spotlight: Citizen Science and Rusty Collars in Ruffs

by Deborah Buehler originally published in Wader Study 128(1) Some birds love their fashion. Even waders – known for more practical, muted colours and ‘outfits’ that camouflage – have species amongst them that love to show off their plumage. Ruffs Calidris pugnax have famously extravagant plumage. They’re even named for the typical male’s feathery neck ruffle resembling the exaggerated ruffs fashionable from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. In this issue of Wader

An environmental catastrophe looms over Europe’s largest wetland wilderness

Polesia is Europe’s Amazon. This stunning floodplain region straddles the borders of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, and spans 186,000 km2 –  roughly twice the size of Portugal. It is one of Europe’s most biodiverse and culturally rich areas. The survival of many globally endangered species depends on it – including European bison, grey wolves and Eurasian lynx as well as thousands of migratory birds. It is an extremely important site for migrating waders. [caption id="attachment_14920" align="aligncenter" width="330"] This stunning region, which straddles the borders of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, is the continent’s greatest intact floodplain region. Despite ongoing threats from climate change, hunting, logging, and mining, huge areas of Polesia remain pristine. ©https://wildpolesia.org.[/caption] The Polesia – Wilderness without borders’ project, supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme, brings together organisations and research institutions from four countries to preserve Polesia as one of the last wilderness areas in Europe.   But this hidden gem is under threat: Governments of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine plan to build a waterway cutting through Polesia’s heart. The so-called E40 waterway would connect the Black Sea and the Baltic and at 2,000 km in length would be 25 times longer than the Panama Canal. To construct this huge infrastructure project, dredging, damming, straightening and deepening would be needed along some of Europe’s last major undamaged rivers, including the Pripyat and Vistula. This could have disastrous impacts on local communities, the global carbon balance and world class nature - 60 internationally protected biodiversity sites on the proposed E40 route would be directly impacted. Considering climate change and water shortages this project makes even less sense. The E40 waterway would be extremely expensive (over $12 billion) and the economic case for it is weak. Despite this, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine appear to be progressing individual elements of the waterway.   Save Polesia’ is an international partnership of six civil society organisations with the aim to stop the E40 waterway plans. Save Polesia believes that before the waterway is progressed further, proper assessment of the whole E40 corridor is urgently needed. This should consider cumulative and transboundary environmental impacts and enable full public participation. Instead of the waterway, Save Polesia encourages national governments to boost local and regional economies by investing in existing rail infrastructure and using the huge potential for nature-based tourism in Polesia. Save Polesia has launched a petition to save Europe’s largest wetland wilderness from the E40 waterway. Please raise your voice to save Polesia and sign our petition: http://chng.it/qjdQRGYs   For more information about the ‘Polesia – Wilderness without borders’ project see https://wildpolesia.org/ For more information about the ‘Save Polesia’ campaign see https://savepolesia.org/ [caption id="attachment_14921" align="aligncenter" width="330"] Black-tailed Godwits breed at the River Pripyat Floodplains. Turov area, Polesie, Belarus. © Daniel Rosengren[/caption] Featured image: An aerial photo of the River Pripyat and its surrounding wetlands and oxbow lakes. This is an extremely important site for migrating birds (mainly waders) who stop here to feed on the abundance of food before continuing their migration. Turov area, Belarus. © Daniel Rosengren
Europe’s largest wetland wilderness under threat from E40 inland waterway | Save Polesia

An environmental catastrophe looms over Europe’s largest wetland wilderness Polesia is Europe’s Amazon. This stunning floodplain region straddles the borders of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, and spans 186,000 km2 –  roughly twice the size of Portugal. It is one of Europe’s most biodiverse and culturally rich areas. The survival of many globally endangered species depends on it – including European bison, grey wolves and Eurasian lynx as well as thousands of migratory birds. It

After years of dedication and service to the IWSG, Triin Kaasiku & Elwyn Sharps left two exiting volunteers positions of conference co-ordinator and publicity officer in the IWSG. Interested in helping us to run the IWSG? Take a close look below at the IWSG chair communication sent to members this week for details about these positions and how to apply, we need you!:  
Dear Member, We hope this email finds you well and looking forward to the rest of 2021 when we are all hoping life can return to some semblance of normality. The International Wader Study Group is run by a group of dedicated volunteers without whom we could not provide you with connections to the global wader community through publishing Wader Study, our annual conferences and the grants that help fund wader projects. Each volunteer takes the lead on a different aspect of the group’s activities. Being part of this international group is a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded people and make life-long friends, to learn how an international organisation works, to use existing skills to help the group but also to gain new and highly transferable skills. We are always keen to hear from people who might want to offer their time or expertise to the group. Right now, we have two exciting opportunities to become our next Conference Co-ordinator or our Publicity Officer. We are looking for two enthusiastic “waderologists” who enjoy communicating, are organised and would like to become part of the team running the IWSG. These roles need about a day each month but in the run up to, and during conferences, more time will be needed because of the essential role you will play in ensuring the smooth delivery of these events. The past year has taught us that the tools available online, to communicate and to run conferences in new, interesting and inclusive ways, are rapidly developing so this is an interesting time to be joining our team and you would be fully supported by the IWSG family to help you succeed. Please can I ask, even if these roles are not for you, if you know someone who would be suitable please do pass on this information and encourage them to get in touch. Conference Co-ordinator This role is critical to ensure we run a conference each year. Local teams within the country which is hosting our conference do the ‘on-the-ground’ organisation, put together the programme and abstracts and run the conference. As conference co-ordinator, your role is to find teams who want to host an IWSG conference, support them in planning and running the conference, organise the financial support for delegates from low-income countries and promote the conference to members including via social media. You would become an elected member of the ExCo of IWSG and work closely with the Chair, Membership Secretary, Treasurer, General Secretary and Publicity Officer. It would be great if you had some previous experience of attending an IWSG conference or organising a big meeting or conference. But this is not essential as you will be able to shadow Triin Kaasiku, the current co-ordinator, in the run up to the 2021 conference and we also have a detailed conference organising manual. Publicity Officer This role is all about maintaining and raising the profile of IWSG to the global shorebird community using our Twitter and Facebook social media accounts and other online platforms. One area which we are hoping to continue to develop is the use of Twitter conferences to complement our annual (usually in-person) conference.  You will work closely with the ExCo of IWSG but especially the Publishing and Media Editor for Wader Study and the Conference Co-ordinator. We are ideally looking for someone who already has some experience of science communication through social and online media. How to apply? These opportunities are open to everyone. It’s simple, just drop me an email at chair@waderstudygroup.org by Monday 12 April. Tell me which role you are applying for and briefly outline why you are interested and what you can bring to the role. I really look forward to hearing from you. Best wishes Jen Smart IWSG Chair
  Featured image: Common Redshank Tringa totanus, April 2017, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, USA. ©Christoph Müller.
The IWSG is now looking for a Conference Co-ordinator & a Publicity Officer | IWSG

After years of dedication and service to the IWSG, Triin Kaasiku & Elwyn Sharps left two exiting volunteers positions of conference co-ordinator and publicity officer in the IWSG. Interested in helping us to run the IWSG? Take a close look below at the IWSG chair communication sent to members this week for details about these positions and how to apply, we need you!:   Dear Member, We hope this email finds you well and looking forward to the rest of 2021 when we are all hoping life can

Vojtěch Kubelka, Fanni Takács, Karola Szemán, William Jones, Zsófia Tóth & Tamás Székely OVERVIEW To understand mating system evolution of shorebirds, our team is running a 5-year project based at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. To overview the progress with the project, we organised a virtual conference “Sex roles and breeding ecology of shorebirds” during 8–9 January 2021 that had 125 registered participants, 39 pre-recorded talks from 29 presenters from 18 countries, and three targeted webinars. Following the proved online Zoom format of the virtual International Wader Study Conference, the whole event was smooth and very successful, enabling us to meet at least virtually and stimulating future cooperation among shorebird enthusiasts. The conference programme and book of abstracts are available at https://elvonalshorebirds.com/news/.   ÉLVONAL SHOREBIRD SCIENCESex role evolution: testing the impacts of ecology, demography and genes“, in short ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science (www.elvonalshorebrids.com) is an international project using shorebirds as a model. The project is run from the University of Debrecen, Hungary and funded by the Hungarian government stream called “ÉLVONAL”. The main objective of the project is to understand mating system evolution using shorebirds as model organisms and execute behavioural, genomic and demographic investigations. The ÉLVONAL project has 30 interconnected research teams across the world and cooperates with several organizations including the International Wader Study Group, BirdLife International or Wader Quest. The ÉLVONAL project represents friendly, open and inclusive community of scientists, conservationists and students, not only pursuing together ambitious scientific objectives, but also simultaneously supporting and raising a new generation of researchers, especially in developing countries, and implementing conservation measures protecting shorebirds and their habitats. ÉLVONAL also works as an effective platform, enhancing cooperation and stimulating research activities beyond the frontiers of our current knowledge. We are open to new collaborators to join us from anywhere in the world, at any career stage and no matter whether they are in academia or in conservation bodies or NGO’s. This may include, for example scientists, conservationists, Postdoctoral researchers, PhD students, MSc students, interns and volunteers. If you are interested, please get in touch with us.   EFFECTIVE ONLINE CONFERENCE The 4th ÉLVONAL conference held during 8–9 January 2021 was organised using an online Zoom platform, with the main aim of overview the 2020 ÉLVONAL data collection across the globe. Apart from presentations on investigations into sex-roles and associated traits (courtship, incubation and chick care), some presenters provided interesting insights into various associated fields, including spatial ecology, demography and geographical variation in life-history strategies of shorebirds. Many talks also discussed suitable conservation approaches with recommendations for future protective measures. In addition to study sites overview and collected data, we had one webinar each on behavioural observations, nest fate determination and breeding shorebirds trapping techniques. In the first webinar, the invited presentations focused on recording behaviour of courting and brood rearing shorebirds. It was concluded that these observations are not only important for understanding mating system evolution, but also by observing in detail individual behaviour, we can begin have a better understanding of the study species and how individuals interact with conspecifics and potential predators. Importantly, behavioural observations can provide useful cues for conservation actions. The second webinar focused on nest fate determination, which is a key issue for any studies into breeding success and the evaluation and implementation of conservation measures. Despite individual sites variation in various approaches effectiveness, learning a few practical and widely applicable tips may improve the quality of nest fate determination a lot. The long discussion after the webinar was spent mostly on various techniques how to improve our knowledge of nest predators, using various clues as well as suitable gadgets. In the third webinar, various trapping techniques of breeding shorebirds were covered. The main output is that a researcher should not stick to one trapping technique, but should explore various methods and explore emerging technologies, to optimise the needs of the researchers without compromising the breeding performance of the study species and populations. Altogether, it was very pleasant experience to organize an online conference, meeting friends and discuss interesting ideas online and it was definitely the best way how to progress efficiently with our current partners in an era of global travel disruption. We would like to express our great thanks to all attendees for coming along and contributing to the success of the IV. ÉLVONAL conference. For our future meetings, we hope to combine the important benefits of a face-to-face meeting format with the expediency of an online component – enabling researchers to easily join us from locations far away from Europe without the need of travel. We hope to host the next ÉLVONAL summer meeting in August 2021 and the next annual ÉLVONAL conference in January 2022. We look forward meeting you there.   FEEDBACK FROM CONFERENCE PARTICIPANTS
 “The ÉLVONAL conference provided a remarkable overview of a collaborative research network working on waders worldwide. It was fascinating to learn about the ecology of desert-breeding lapwings, endemic island populations of coursers, social systems of pheasant-tailed jacanas, and other unique systems. Ongoing collection of behavioral and demographic data with standardized protocols will provide an interesting basis for future comparative analyses!” Dr. Brett Sandercock Senior Research Scientist, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Norway
 
“Unfortunately, other commitments have prevented my participation in earlier ÉLVONAL events – despite their great relevance to my research in the earlier parts of my career, and my maintained interest. I was delighted to receive an invitation from Vojtěch Kubelka to join the online meeting starting later that day, and managed to do so between other commitments. Although I was not able to be in touch throughout, I was extremely impressed by the wide spread of enthusiastic, committed and knowledgeable personnel who have been brought into the team – and their youth, looking a little like the early days of the Wader Study Group, 50 years ago. Now, of course, much stronger techniques are available as well – so all looks good for the future!” Dr. Mike Pienkowski Chairman of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, United Kingdom
 
“The conference was well organized, with experienced speakers on focus topic, it gave me some good suggestions and interesting ideas. This was my third time joining ÉLVONAL conference, and its results were each time more and more interesting.” Dr. Zitan Song Post-doc, State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol, Sun Yat-sen University, China
 
Meeting with the multi-national ELVONAL team is always a pleasure as each team brings their own unique perspectives and expertise in both fieldwork techniques and scientific research so I always learn something new to apply to my own work. The collaborative spirit and welcoming environment makes it easy to participate and have meaningful interactions across all levels of career stages. Allison Pierce PhD Student, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Colorado Denver, USA
 
“I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the research that is being conducted worldwide on shorebird species, especially the diversity in studies and species being covered, and learning about lake species as my species, the Hooded plover, is a beach nesting bird. I am excited to attend more conferences in the future and look forward to seeing what the future holds for ELVONAL research.” Lucy Doran Wildlife and conservation biology honours student, Deakin University, Australia
 
“ELVONAL's virtual meeting 2021 was very good for me because I don't have much experience monitoring the reproductive biology of the shorebirds. The presentations of experts with many years of work, jointly with the experiences, achievements, limitations, and solutions of other colleagues throughout the world in different environments and realities gave me useful tips to use in my study site.” Virginia Sanz Researcher Ecology Center, Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, Venezuela
 
“At this conference, the researchers presented not only their interesting results and shorebird species, but there were many talks about the practical way of shorebird fieldwork. They showed the issues and challenges of field study or gave practical advice. I think this way of the conference was really useful.” Boglárka Bukor PhD student, University of Pannonia, Hungary
 
“The ÉLVONAL conference was an incredible opportunity for me, as a recent baccalaureate, to meet shorebird scientists from around the world and learn about the research they are conducting. The conference being virtual granted me the opportunity to attend this event that I otherwise may not have been able to. I am grateful to have been able to attend this year’s event and am excited for future meetings.” Hannah Landwerlen Bachelor student, Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University, USA
[caption id="attachment_14817" align="aligncenter" width="753"] Participants of the IV. ÉLVONAL conference, who were online at the “group picture” moment during one of the conference breaks.[/caption]  

Featured image: Resting flock of Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) and Red Knots (Calidris canutus) during their spring migration in North Norway. © Vojtěch Kubelka

 
Report of the Fourth ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science Conference – virtual event 8–9 January 2021

Vojtěch Kubelka, Fanni Takács, Karola Szemán, William Jones, Zsófia Tóth & Tamás Székely OVERVIEW To understand mating system evolution of shorebirds, our team is running a 5-year project based at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. To overview the progress with the project, we organised a virtual conference “Sex roles and breeding ecology of shorebirds” during 8–9 January 2021 that had 125 registered participants, 39 pre-recorded talks from 29 presenters from 18 countries, and

Can machines replace humans?

Article authored by Deborah Buehler It’s a thought-provoking question. Especially at moment when machines – and algorithms more broadly – are increasingly impacting our lives1. However, one might understandably say that further clarification is needed. What type of machines? What task is to be done? In this issue of Wader Study, Roberto Valle and Francesco Scarton highlight the nuanced way this question could be answered2. Of course, they don’t ask whether machines can replace humans, exactly. They just want a safe and accurate way to count nesting shorebirds and they wonder if machines might help. In this case, the machines are unmanned aerial systems, also known as ‘drones’, a name that may be an onomatopoeia for the mosquito-like noise they make. Drone technology can be useful as well as annoying. Many fields of study have used drones from military intelligence, to civil engineering, to archaeology, to mining; and wildlife biology is no exception3. If you had to count something, in inhospitable territory, wouldn’t you send in the drones? Valle and Scarton needed to count breeding pairs of their study species, Black-winged Stilts Himantopus himantopus and Pied Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta. These birds make nests in difficult-to-reach saltmarshes in the Lagoon of Venice, a 55,000 ha coastal wetland in northeastern Italy. The lagoon is the largest in the Mediterranean Sea and the area is full of soft mud and tidal channels, both of which are easier to fly a drone over than to walk on. [caption id="attachment_14742" align="alignnone" width="960"] Saltmarshes in the Lagoon of Venice in northeastern Italy (photo: Roberto Valle)[/caption] However, before sending in the drones, Valle and Scarton needed to know that the technology could accurately and safely count the birds. Therefore, they compared the safety and effectiveness of drone-conducted counts with traditional ground-based counts. The researchers conducted fieldwork from mid-April to mid-June during the 2017 and 2018 breeding seasons. Surveys were restricted to days with windspeeds less than 10 km/h and no clouds because, although human researchers often work in wind and rain, drones require better weather. Drone and ground surveys took place at 52 colonies over the two years, always either in the morning from 8 am to 10 am or in the afternoon from 4 pm to 6 pm to avoid extreme temperatures. The safety of the birds was top priority, especially since drones are a newer technology. Therefore, the researchers launched drones from sites more than 150 m from the study colony and then flew at a height of 70m until they were directly above the centre of the colony. This ensured that the drone wouldn’t disturb the birds before the survey had started. Much like humans, birds don’t like it when things plummet vertically towards them. For this reason, the researchers used the “lawn mower” pattern, systematically flying back and forth, to lower the drones when it was time to begin the survey. Once the drone was lowered to about 30m, the pilot could see the nests, but couldn’t be certain whether there was a bird present at the nest. Thus, the researchers lowered the drone a further 10 to 20 m.  At this height, they flew above the nests at a speed of 15 to 30 km per hour, causing any birds to flush (fly away) from their nests. Disturbing the birds was necessary to record reactions to the drone. These reactions were coded in the field or later from videos as follows: birds sitting on or flushing from a nest were considered a breeding pair, birds strongly reacting to the drone by chasing it were considered probable breeders, even if far from a nest, and the researchers counted one pair for every two birds behaving this way. During each drone flight, a researcher observed the colony from approximately 150 m to check whether nests or young were in danger of predation after the adults were flushed from the nests. Thirty minutes later the researchers approached the colony on foot for the ground survey. During a ground survey, two researchers walked abreast about 10 m apart systematically searching for nests. Every nest with eggs or chicks was recorded as ‘confirmed breeding’. Ground surveys were always done after drone surveys even though the researchers admit that this is a limitation in terms of the comparison of methods. A completely fair comparison would have randomized the order of the surveys. However, in this study, randomization was intentionally traded for the ability to use the ground survey as a safety check on the preceding drone survey. The researchers found no evidence that drone surveys cause undue disturbance to birds. Birds were not scared permanently from their nests, nor were the nests exposed to predators. In fact, the drones caused less disturbance to the birds than humans on the ground. Drone surveys also took less researcher time, even accounting for post-processing work in the lab after drone surveys. Drones were therefore safe and efficient, but were they accurate? Unfortunately, no. Valle and Scarton found that fewer breeding pairs were identified during drone flights than ground counts. This undercounting was substantial, with 18.1% of Black-winged Stilt pairs and 20.5% of Pied Avocet pairs missed during the drone surveys. Furthermore, drone surveys had less sensitivity (true breeding pairs identified as positive), specificity (true non-breeders identified as negative), and accuracy (correctly identified birds divided by the total birds seen). This study shows that there are pros and cons to using drones when surveying nesting shorebirds. Drones did not detect as many nests as ground surveys and falsely identified some nests; however, the drone surveys caused less disturbance to the birds. These results raise the question of whether accuracy could be improved with improved drone technology or whether drones could be useful under some, if not all, circumstances? Valle and Scarton admit that a limitation of their study was the type of drone used. It was a simple model with a standard camera. A larger drone with a higher quality camera might have provided better images and allowed the researchers to distinguish incubating birds from a higher altitude without flushing them from nests. This might improve accuracy while further decreasing disturbance to the birds, but this remains to be tested. The researchers also found that the size and composition of the breeding colony mattered. In large, mixed colonies, birds flushed when the drone was still quite far away in response to alarm calls from only a few species. For example, the presence of Eurasian Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus made this worse because they are very aggressive towards drones. This contributed to undercounting because it was more difficult to identify breeding pairs when the adults were no longer at their nests. Furthermore, if nesting birds were flushed out of sight of the drone pilot, they weren’t counted. The opposite was also a problem, if the same bird repeatedly chased the drone, within the line of sight, it could be double counted. [caption id="attachment_14744" align="aligncenter" width="960"] Eurasian Oystercatcher reacting to drone. (photo: Roberto Valle)[/caption] Knowing that large, multi-species colonies contributed to errors in the drone surveys, the authors asked whether drones might be most useful for smaller colonies of mainly silts and avocets. This was indeed the case. The authors found that both the sensitivity and specificity of the drone surveys were increased in small colonies and that in these circumstances there was nearly perfect agreement between the drone and ground survey methods. So, can machines replace humans? It's a question best answered with context taken into account. In this study, the machines are drones and the task is counting breeding shorebirds. The authors recommend the use of drones only in small colonies without species, like Eurasian Oystercatchers, that react more strongly to drones. In these circumstances, drones provide high accuracy, low disturbance, and shorter time to complete a survey. In other circumstances, the authors do not recommend the use of drones. More broadly, context becomes even more important when asking whether, when and how machines might replace humans. Our world is full of technologies that were unimaginable less than a generation ago. Yet we use these technologies daily and they affect all aspects of our lives4. Machines can do many things better than humans, but there remain many things that humans can do better than machines. We can be empathetic, we can question our own biases, we can use our humanity to fight against rules that shouldn’t be automated5. This study reminds us that striking a balance where context is taken into account may be the best way to synthesize the strengths of both our machines and our own human minds.  
  1. Demetis, D. 2019. Algorithms have already taken over human decision making. Posted in The Conversation 8 Mar 2019 at https://theconversation.com/algorithms-have-already-taken-over-human-decision-making-111436.
  2. Valle, R.G. & F. Scarton. 2020. Feasibility of counting breeding Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts using drones. Wader Study 127(3): 257–265.
  3. Hodgson, J.C., R. Mott, S.M. Baylis, T.T. Pham, S. Wotherspoon, A.D. Kilpatrick, R.R. Segaran, I. Reid, A. Terauds & L.P. Koh. 2018. Drones count wildlife more accurately and precisely than humans. Methods in Ecology & Evolution 9: 1–8.
  4. Deibert, R. 2020. Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. House of Anansi Press, Toronto, Canada
  5. Kantayya, S. (Director). 2020. Coded Bias [Documentary film]. Trailer available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZl55PsfZJQ
Spotlight: Drone vs. human surveys of breeding shorebirds

Can machines replace humans? Article authored by Deborah Buehler It’s a thought-provoking question. Especially at moment when machines – and algorithms more broadly – are increasingly impacting our lives1. However, one might understandably say that further clarification is needed. What type of machines? What task is to be done? In this issue of Wader Study, Roberto Valle and Francesco Scarton highlight the nuanced way this question could be answered2. Of course, they don’t ask whether

The IWSG Small Project Grants Committee have decided to extend the deadline for application to 31st December 2020. With this grant we aim to support shorebird studies that otherwise will not go ahead. This could be all sorts of projects related to waders (shorebirds): ecological and/or conservation research, pilot studies looking at biological aspects of a single or a few species, or counts of staging birds at unexplored sites. Or something completely different! Application is open for IWSG members who have a project idea that could be undertaken if supported with a small amount of money (currently 1000 Euros per project). About the grant: https://www.waderstudygroup.org/projects/small-grants/ The application form: https://www.waderstudygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/IWSG-grant-application_28112018_form-Word.doc   The IWSG Small Grant Committee Yahkat Barshep, Vojtěch Kubelka and Jannik Hansen
Extended deadline for IWSG Small Project Grant applications

The IWSG Small Project Grants Committee have decided to extend the deadline for application to 31st December 2020. With this grant we aim to support shorebird studies that otherwise will not go ahead. This could be all sorts of projects related to waders (shorebirds): ecological and/or conservation research, pilot studies looking at biological aspects of a single or a few species, or counts of staging birds at unexplored sites. Or something completely different! Application is open for IWSG

ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science is happy to announce the IV. ÉLVONAL conference “Sex roles and breeding ecology of shorebirds during 8–9 January 2021, which will be held as an online meeting. Find attached the conference leaflet as well as the advert to the current PhD position within ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science project: IV.ELVONAL Conference Flyer ELVONAL PhD Sex roles and breeding ecology The conference will focus on current achievements and future plans of ÉLVONAL teams across the globe and will be enriched with invited speakers and targeted webinars at nest fate determination, trapping techniques and behavioural observations of shorebirds. Any researcher, conservationist or student interested in breeding ecology of shorebirds can use this opportunity to join us from anywhere and discuss recent advances in the field. The conference participation is free of charge and registration is open until 20 December 2020. You can register here: https://forms.gle/wXJR2PAY3w8QWsbr6 We are looking forward to meeting you online! Vojtěch Kubelka (on the behalf of the organizing team) Featured image: Flying Banded Stilts (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus) in Australia. © Vojtěch Kubelka
IV. ÉLVONAL Conference | Virtual event and PhD position advert

ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science is happy to announce the IV. ÉLVONAL conference “Sex roles and breeding ecology of shorebirds” during 8–9 January 2021, which will be held as an online meeting. Find attached the conference leaflet as well as the advert to the current PhD position within ÉLVONAL Shorebird Science project: IV.ELVONAL Conference Flyer ELVONAL PhD Sex roles and breeding ecology The conference will focus on current achievements and future plans of ÉLVONAL teams across the globe

https://shop.curlewaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/cropped-cropped-cropped-curlewaction1-250x139_51fa4b278b91f89f5eaaf5b78307a33b-1.pngCurlew Action is working to support effective conservation of Eurasian Curlew across Britain and Ireland by providing practical help, raising awareness, increasing natural history education and develop cooperation with farmers and land managers to reverse its decline and ensure its survival. This year, Curlew Action offers you to support their actions with Christmas Cards beautiffuly illustrated by the artists Jessica Holm and Mark Gibbs: [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="385"]https://shop.curlewaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/17A3BEFF-349F-4B64-847A-4D73CEC1DD0F.jpeg Artist Jessica Holm's Christmas card called ‘Winter Curlews’ exclusively available at: https://shop.curlewaction.org/.[/caption] The cards will be in stock by 14th November, and are available for pre-order now. Support Curlew Action for Christmas at: https://www.curlewaction.org/shop/.   Featured image: ©Dr. Georg Wietschorke - Pixabay.
Curlew Christmas Cards | Curlew Action

Curlew Action is working to support effective conservation of Eurasian Curlew across Britain and Ireland by providing practical help, raising awareness, increasing natural history education and develop cooperation with farmers and land managers to reverse its decline and ensure its survival. This year, Curlew Action offers you to support their actions with Christmas Cards beautiffuly illustrated by the artists Jessica Holm and Mark Gibbs: The cards will be in stock by 14th November, and are

During the Annual General Meeting of the 2020 IWSG conference (10-11th October), members unanimously vote to support objection to Tagus Estuary airport development. Please find the statement of the IWSG signed by our chair, Jennifer Smart, on our AGM Minutes & Reports web page or directly there:   Read the Graham Appleton blog entitled "Tagus estuary: for birds or planes?" that emphasise the vital role of the Tagus estuary for shorebirds on WaderTales https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2019/12/23/tagus-estuary-for-birds-or-planes/.   Featured image: Tagus Estuary Nature Reserve. (c) Paulo Valdivieso - Wiki Commons.  
Impact of the proposed airport on the Tagus Estuary, Portugal | Declaration of the IWSG, October 2020

During the Annual General Meeting of the 2020 IWSG conference (10-11th October), members unanimously vote to support objection to Tagus Estuary airport development. Please find the statement of the IWSG signed by our chair, Jennifer Smart, on our AGM Minutes & Reports web page or directly there:  

Following counts of Golden Plovers in Europe in 2003, 2008 and 2014, we are aiming at having coordinated counts of the species on 10-11th or 17-18th October 2020. In some countries, there are already coordinated waterfowl counts during one of these weekends. Each country will pick one of the two weekends. The counts focus on Golden Plovers, but we would like to ask all participants to use this opportunity to include Lapwing and Curlew in the counts. The status of both species in Europe is of high interest, not least in terms of conservation. Countries participating are: Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom. Due to the late start of this project, some countries won’t be able to coordinate counts in the way they would like, but will ask their membership and/or other volunteers to report Golden Plovers, Lapwings and Curlews on the specific weekend and report it through the specific country’s reporting systems/databases. We would like you all to register the counts within separate sites with the coordinates, and preferably a note of which sort of habitat this site is. Other European countries not currently on this list are very welcome to join. We have been contacting people in other countries and have either not heard from those contacts or they have come back to say that unfortunately, they could not help this time around. After 7th October is a deadline, we have set for countries to join our efforts. If you would like to join the efforts and your country is on the list please e-mail GoldenPlover2020@mail.com for a contact to your country coordinator. The number from previous counts:
Country Major population group Total 2003 Total 2008 Total 2014
Belgium Continental [2000] 3229 n.c.
Bulgaria Continental n.c. 3 n.c.
Czechia Continental n.c. 94 1239
Denmark Continental 380000 270774 291204
Estonia Continental n.c. 887 118
Finland Continental n.c. 1210 n.c.
Germany Continental 220000 193231 *
Hungary Continental n.c. 138 *
Latvia Continental n.c. 0 2938
Lithuania Continental n.c. 22244 n.c.
Netherlands Continental 180000 167160 153297
Poland Continental 22000 52630 69222
Sweden Continental 115000 139557 135120
Iceland Atlantic n.c. 7662 n.c.
Republic of Ireland Atlantic 24000 56841 35760
United Kingdom Atlantic 143000 152847 180592
* Data collected, but currently unavailable; n.c. = no counts   IWSG Golden Plover Project <GoldenPlover2020@mail.com>   Featured image: European Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, Vlieland - Vallei van Malgum, the Netherlands. ©Wouter van der Ham, 12-10-2016 on waarneming.nl
European Golden Plover Survey 2020

Following counts of Golden Plovers in Europe in 2003, 2008 and 2014, we are aiming at having coordinated counts of the species on 10-11th or 17-18th October 2020. In some countries, there are already coordinated waterfowl counts during one of these weekends. Each country will pick one of the two weekends. The counts focus on Golden Plovers, but we would like to ask all participants to use this opportunity to include Lapwing and Curlew in the counts. The status of both species in Europe is of