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First winter of goose data already revealing exciting insights

Callum Macgregor
Research Ecologist, British Trust for Ornithology

In late January 2021, the ECHOES project team fitted GPS-tracking collars to three Greenland White-fronted Geese (GWfG).

Each winter, very small numbers of this rare and declining subspecies choose to see out the coldest months in Wales (with larger numbers in Ireland also a focus of ECHOES project). The best-known flock, on the Dyfi Estuary, is now around 12 birds: while a second group (flock size unknown) was occasionally reported on Anglesey/Ynys Môn.

This species is notoriously secretive and highly sensitive to disturbance from humans, so to learn more about their behaviour, we turned to satellite tagging. Fitting a harmless lightweight collar around the neck of a goose, incredibly, allows us to determine their location on the Earth every 15 minutes down to roughly the nearest 20m (similar technology is also being used to track Curlews in the ECHOES project, with their tags mounted on the birds’ backs).

Intensive searching found a flock of 18 birds on Anglesey in December 2020, and the field team, led by Senior Research Ecologist Dr Rachel Taylor, were able to capture eight of the birds and fit satellite-tracking tags to three of them during January.

It’s early days within the GWfG element of the ECHOES project. Two months’ worth of data were collected before the geese departed for their summer breeding grounds in Greenland and is now in the process of being analysed. We all have our fingers crossed that when the flock returns later this autumn, our tagged birds will still be among them. If they are, we will be able to download and analyse a huge additional batch of data showing their journey from Anglesey to Greenland and back, as well as vital information about how they spend the critical first days after arriving back from migration on Anglesey. We also plan to complement this with data from birds overwintering in Ireland, to see whether the same factors affect flocks living on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Nevertheless, these three remarkable birds are already providing new insight into how Anglesey might look through a goose’s eyes. All three birds spent the vast majority of time in close proximity to each other, but very occasionally separated. This corresponds with what we already knew about the flock, which largely sticks together but occasionally splits into at least two distinct family groups. Our data, therefore, suggests that we have tagged birds in both groups (with luck, we might be able to confirm this once the birds return from migration).

The group split most of their time between two areas in central Anglesey, one of which centred on the RSPB’s Cors Ddyga reserve. As February changed into March, they became more sedentary and focussed their time on a smaller area at just one of those sites. We know that these birds are sometimes observed at other sites on Anglesey, but they were completely faithful to just these two sites during the two months after they were tagged this spring. It’s possible that they move to different sites at different times during the winter in order to capitalise on the best feeding grounds, so this is another question that might be resolved once the birds return this winter and provide us with some more data!

Matching up GPS fixes to habitat data reveals a clear day-night pattern in where the geese choose to spend their time. Almost the entire daytime is spent in pastures – prime grazing land where the geese can feed to their heart’s content. After dark, the geese returned every night to one of two large waterbodies, roosting on deep water (presumably to reduce their risk of predation). Further analysis will help us to understand these choices at much finer resolution – which fields do the geese prefer to feed in, and what are the characteristics of these fields? Why do they always roost on these two waterbodies, rather than any of the many other still waters in the area? Beyond this, we hope to understand what factors influence the birds’ choice to spend time at each site, and particularly what factors cause them to invest precious energy into switching from one site to the other – which they did on a near-daily basis during one critical week in late February.

Among the possibilities, we’ll investigate variables relating to climatic conditions – a key focus for the ECHOES project, which seeks to understand how ongoing climate change will impact GWfG and Curlews around the Irish Sea. The bizarre circumstances of conducting this work during the pandemic has also offered us a completely unique opportunity to link changes in goose behaviour to key dates – such as March 13th, when restrictions in Wales changed from “stay at home” to “stay local”. These geese are generally thought to avoid humans as much as they can, so did the increase in recreational activity around this date – especially at RSPB Cors Ddyga – influence their behaviour? Watch this space, for answers to this and more!

The map below shows how our flock of GWfG split their time between two locations in Anglesey. The three birds spent approximately 95% of their time within the areas enclosed by the two blue circles, and 50% of their time within the smaller yellow circles.

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Draw a Curlew Competition: Entries 2021

A big thank you to all children who took part in the ECHOES Draw a Curlew Competition!

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Field collection and analysis of plants

Rhodri Kemp
Research Technician, Aberystwyth University

One of the key aspects of the ECHOES project is determining which plant species the Greenland White-fronted Geese (GWfG) consume at various overwintering sites. This work is duplicated at Irish and Welsh study sites as part of the INTERREG Ireland Wales Programme.

The nutritional value of the food plants will be analysed, and this has a direct bearing on the condition of the geese when they head off on their northward migration during the spring.

Greenland White-fronted Goose.

Examining literature relating to this goose species allowed us to compile a list of plant species they have been observed to feed upon at various sites in the past. This provided an excellent starting point in terms of indicating what plant species we should sample and also what particular parts of those plants are consumed by GWfG.

DNA meta-barcoding of GWfG faecal matter will soon enable us to determine what species of plants they are feeding on. However, in this first sampling season, in the absence of such information, it was decided that we should visit known feeding areas and collect samples of plants that are likely to be consumed based on the historical food plant species list. These samples have been collected at three different periods throughout winter so we could see if there was any change in the nutritional value of those plants.

The first sampling sessions around the Dyfi Estuary were meant to take place shortly after the GWfG flock arrived in the early autumn. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this had to be delayed until December.

The second collection took place in the middle of the winter and the third collection will be carried out just after the GWfG have departed on their northward migration. For all visits, we collected material without any risk of disturbing the geese.

Collecting plant samples on Dyfi Estuary
Rhodri Kemp collecting plant samples on the Dyfi Estuary.

To date the first two sampling periods have been successfully completed, in Wales by a team composed of Peter Dennis (Project Leader), Danny Thorogood (Botanist), and myself (Research Technician) with guidance from Gareth Thomas (Project Ornithologist).

In Ireland, Gemma Beatty (Molecular Biologist) has co-ordinated duplication of this fieldwork at the North Slobs Bird Reserve, Wexford and Dominic Berridge (Reserve Warden; National Parks and Wildlife Service, Ireland) has collected faecal material and vegetation samples from what is the primary wintering site for GWfG.

In Wales, Peter combined vegetation sampling with the collection of goose faecal material from current daytime grazing areas, whilst Danny and I collected samples from locations with suitable vegetation that were not currently grazed by GWfG.

Gareth’s input was critical as he spends much of his time monitoring the GWfG flock with great precision, resulting in highly detailed information on daily movements and seasonal feeding site preferences. Also to warn the fieldwork team to withdraw should the geese take flight and head towards their location.

So far, over 106 vegetation samples have been collected from across all the case study sites of Wales and Ireland for later analysis and comparison.

Grass samples being prepared for analysis.
Fiddly work! Samples of the Greenland White-fronted Goose diet in preparation for analysis.

The samples are currently being cleaned, sorted, and dried ready for the next stage of the process – nutritional analysis and we anticipate discovery of fresh insights into the dietary requirements of the rare Greenland White-fronted Goose.

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INTERREG Ireland-Wales projects meet to discuss collaboration

Representatives from 15 INTERREG Ireland-Wales projects met on the 9th of December 2020 to introduce themselves and their projects at our inaugural Operation Matters Forum. Of the 21 people who met, most were Operation Managers. Principal Investigators, Research Managers and Communications Leads also joined the group.

Projects varied from some that had started within the year and others that were coming to Project Closure and it was acknowledged that there is a huge opportunity here to draw on the experience of others and share best practice. We heard from each of the attendees and noted both the diversity of the projects within the group as well as the overlaps and common areas of interest.

During the break-out room sessions, the future purpose of the forum was discussed as well as some logistics items; how often we should meet for example. These discussions were reported back in brief to the full group afterwards and in more detail via email to the forum organiser, Crona Hodges. Crona collated the results of this initial discussion and circulated these across the group.

Identifying areas where there could be future collaboration was noted as something that everyone was keen to explore further, as was the opportunity to come together and share ideas and experience. Identifying areas of common interests and focussing meetings on those was also noted.

Common interests could include publicity, procurement, extensions, coping with Covid-19, claims, project closure, community engagement, external evaluations and social media. Cross-promoting events and social media posts was mentioned during the open discussion and efforts have begun to ensure that everyone has the links to each of the project websites and each of the Twitter handles, so that this can happen more often going forward.

Information on NRW’s Marine Area Statements event coming up in Jan was circulated to all prior to the meeting, along with a link to the recently published Regional Investment in Wales: Framework document. The forum will meet again early in the New Year.


 

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Illustrating the ECHOES project

Laura Sorvala
Illustrator at Laura Sorvala Illustration & Graphic Recording

When ECHOES Project Manager Crona Hodges got in touch with me about ECHOES I got excited about being able to work on something that relates to climate change and nature. I guess it is part of me being Finnish – we have a deep connection with nature, and I tend to be drawn towards opportunities to draw animals and plants and how things are interconnected. I am also fond of multidisciplinary approaches and have produced illustrations for a wide range of research projects combining different academic disciplines.

As usual, my process began with a discussion exploring what might work best for the project. The aim was to create engaging visuals for the digital project launch, but also to think about a future set of images that can help visualise the work of the ECHOES project. We decided to work on presentation slides, focusing on the five key areas of the project.

Illustrations depicting some of the ECHOES activities. Clockwise from top left: Web platform tool, bird tracking, stakeholder engagement and vegetation surveys.

I chose a limited number of colours based on the ECHOES projects’ colour palette. I then sketched initial ideas that we adapted to make sure that the more abstract concepts and connections would come across in an accessible way. I also created icons and square images to optimise use across social media in future engagement efforts.

ECHOES icons.

Visual thinking is like second nature to me, but each project does bring its own challenges. For example: how to visualise the content hierarchy, tone of voice, ethnicity and gender balance, so it’s just right. My illustrations often take shape during the process of sketching and cannot be prescribed in advance. In that sense I truly appreciate clients putting their trust in me to go away and come up with ideas on how best to communicate the brief. We had several rounds of amends on some smaller details to really finetune the scientific points right. When the sketches were all good to go, I drew the final artwork in Procreate on iPad Pro – my current workhorse for both remote event work and commissions.

It was great to be part of the launch and to see the visuals being used in the presentation slides. The speakers and their messages were wonderful to draw and create a visual summary from. They were all so passionate about the possibilities of this collaborative, interdisciplinary work ahead. I am very pleased that the illustrations bring out a sense of energy and passion of people connecting with nature in different ways. I also enjoyed linking in big concepts like climate change as well as detailed scientific methods – like the DNA analysis.

All in all, I loved being part of creating visual assets for the ECHOES project and I hope to stay involved during the next couple of years.

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Web platform – Tools, design and development

Progress October 2020

Dave Dallaghan
Project & Platform Development Manager, Compass Informatics

The purpose of the ECHOES web platform is to promote climate change awareness, adaptation, risk prevention and management. Working closely with the other ECHOES Work Packages, Work Package 7 – lead by Compass Informatics – are currently developing the following on a phased basis:

  • Web platform tools to promote climate change awareness, adaptation, risk prevention and management
  • Climate change modelling for habitats, impacts and adaptations supports
  • Land Management application
  • Integration with Earth Observation Datasets and processing engines (Sentinel Satellites)
  • Visualisations of species habitats, mapping and tracking
  • Suite of Citizen Science tools and apps
  • Hosting system platform for the projects duration
  • Future development and adoption roadmap

Current developments include the below:

Earth Observation/Remote sensing:

This exciting new area is developing rapidly and is becoming a vital tool for identifying and analysing climate change impacts. Images and sensing data from European Space Agency Satellites (Called Sentinel 1 and 2) is being processed within the ECHOES web platform to produce images that show the effect of climate change related impacts.

Figure 1: ‘Raw’ image direct from European Space Agency Sentinel Satellite
Figure 2: After the Satellite Image (Figure 1) has been processed, water features are identified.

Additionally the processed image below has used infra-red light to help determine the health of vegetation. Plants reflect infra-red at different levels depending on Chlorophyll levels and this and other factors can be used to calculate how healthy the plants are, for example if they are in drought conditions.

Figure 3: Infra-red light is used to determine health of vegetation.

The image below shows how historical data has been merged with future predictions to show the effect of climate change over a period of a hundred years. A user can select Rainfall, Windspeed, Temperature and Sea Level and view historical records for these, as well as predictions of how they are likely to alter as the climate changes. These are shown for the users own area.

Figure 4: Historical data has been merged with future predictions.

Given that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change, a Weather Warning App is being developed to allow users build alerts. This will help them plan for extreme events in their areas. It will also allow them to set their own limits and combinations of variables for warnings, for example: “Tell me when a very high wind will be combined with a very high temperature.”

Figure 5: A Weather Warning App with built in alerts.

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Habitat and land cover mapping

Progress October 2020 

Walther Camaro
Post-doc Researcher, University College Cork 

When seeking to understand the relationship between wild birds and natural environments, it is essential to identify the main characteristics and dynamics of habitats in which birds meet all their necessities for survival: food, water, shelter and nesting areas. In addition, migratory birds change habitats seasonally, seeking out similar habitats that meet their needs at different times of the year.  

The ECHOES project will study the characteristics and dynamics of key habitats along the Irish Sea coastlines, where the presence of Eurasian Curlew and Greenland White-fronted Goose (GWFG) is recurrent during winter. They migrate here to find habitats that meet their needs – such as mudflats and saltmarshes.  

To understand the distribution and location of these habitats in Ireland and Wales, we will generate habitat and land cover maps through open source Earth Observation imagery. Vegetation data collected in the field surveys (by Work Package 4) will be used to support and confirm the information inferred from the Earth Observation sources. In addition, these maps will be compatible with the Species Distribution Modelling (SDM) activities from Work Package 3, developed with the aim to understand and predict the distribution of the species in the study areas.  

A good example of open source Earth Observation imagery are the Sentinel-2 images generated by the Copernicus Programme (managed by the European Commission and the European Space Agency). These images have a spatial resolution of 10 m, which allows for plenty of detail. We can see the distribution of habitats in coastal areas, where birds such as Curlews and GWFG are spending their winters.  

The images below are Sentinel-2 products in different seasons during the 2019. They show the area of Wexford Wildfowl Reserve located in Co. Wexford on the East Irish coast. These images are useful to classify different types of habitats, and to identify the changes and dynamics of the vegetation during the year.  

By zooming over the red square in each one of the images, it is possible to identify different types of habitats and how they change over the year. Some of these habitats are visited by Curlews and GWFG during the winter.  

The yellow square (image below) could be classified as a ‘forest class’, presenting a similar pattern over different periods of the year. Most of the remaining land areas could be ‘grasslands’ or ‘pastures’, but with some different dynamic over the year. For example, the grasslands inside the blue shape change during the year due to cutting practices during the summer months. The grasslands where the cutting activities are identified are classified as ‘Improved Grasslands’ and are normally used for grazing. The grasslands with little change (purple square) are classified as ‘Unimproved Grasslands’ and considered as key habitats for migratory bird species during the winter.  

The team in charge of the habitat mapping activities and the team in charge of the SDM and the field survey activities are currently discussing which key habitats that will need special attention during the habitat classification process, and how the information collected during the field surveys will support the habitat mapping activities.  

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Species Distribution Modelling

Progress October 2020

Kim Kenobi

Statistics Researcher on species distribution modelling, Aberystwyth University

The initial focus of Work Package 3 (WP3) is to consider species distribution modelling for Curlew and Greenland White-fronted Geese at the broad scale of the whole of the UK and Ireland. An important aspect of the work for WP3 in this initial period of the ECHOES project has been to establish what data sources are available in terms of bird observations for each of the two species of interest across the British Isles. 

There are a range of collections of bird observation data, including National Biodiversity Network (NBN) in the UK, to which the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is one of the key contributors, and, in Ireland, eBird

The data in different data sets come in different formats, in particular in terms of the geographical coordinate system (latitude, longitude vs. eastings and northings for example). Part of the work in gathering and assessing the range of data sets available has been to find common coordinate systems and prepare computer code to group the observations into map squares at any desired resolution. 

Since we are interested in the wintering grounds of Curlew and Greenland White-fronted geese, we have decided to split the data gathered throughout the year into three periods: November to February (‘winter’), March to June (‘spring’) and July to October (‘summer’).  With this breakdown of data by observation time, we can already begin to see patterns emerging in the data. For example, in Figure 1 below, we see how the distribution of Curlew sightings varies over these three periods of the year for the period 2000–2020 in the NBN data set. 

The distribution of Curlew by time of year in the NBN data set.
Figure 1: The distribution of Curlew by time of year in the NBN data set, 2000–20. The colours represent the heights of the probability density, with higher values corresponding to an increase in the density of sightings in that area.

What we have just started implementing in WP3 is using various maps (which we can think of as regular grids with one number per grid cell corresponding to the value of the variable in that grid cell, for example mean annual temperature) as explanatory variables in species distribution modelling. The sorts of questions this line of research will enable us to answer include the extent to which a particular variable (such as for example land cover coded as a set of distinct classes including estuary, mudflats, farmland and so on) can explain the observed variability in the patterns of distribution of curlew and Greenland White-fronted Geese. Just to give an indication of the sorts of maps we might be interested in, we include a coarse-scale map of the bioclim13 (precipitation of wettest month) variable from the Worldclim version 2.0 set of climatic variables. 

Figure 2: One of the bioclim variables.

We are only just starting on the species distribution modelling for the bird species. To offer some flavour of where we are heading, consider Figure 3, where we plot the presence/absence of curlew in winter months 2005–16 across grid squares for the British Isles (left hand plot), and the predicted probabilities of seeing Curlew based on a logistic (presence/absence) model that includes four bioclim variables (right hand plot). It is a rudimentary model at this stage, simply included to indicate how we are progressing. 

Figure 3: Presence/absence and model predictions for curlew in winter months, 200516 
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Ramblings of a Project Manager: Hosting Webinars

Crona Hodges
ECHOES Project Manager

July 23rd saw us launch ECHOES in a very different manner than had been planned months prior. We had originally hoped to hold the event at Aberystwyth University on World Curlew Day, 21st April; the venue had been booked, ideas drawn up on speakers and guests and plans were under way to design and print pull-up banners to exhibit on the day. Then, Covid-19 happened, and plans were laid aside. I had naively thought perhaps we could just postpone to the summer?

As we all witnessed what unfolded over the following weeks it soon became apparent that the safest and most likely format for our Launch Event would be a digital one. Having attended a few but never hosted a webinar this was an entirely new prospect for me – there were plenty of webinars about webinars out there on the web with platform vendors vying for our business. I had already been a GoTo customer but was so impressed with Zoom’s response to the pandemic with their online support and straightforward and flexible billing options that I opted to use them on ECHOES.

I felt I should give myself some time to familiarise myself with the platform, hosting as many meetings on Zoom as possible and nearer the time of our new Launch Event date – 23rd July – I held many practice webinars with very kind and patient folk from the Consortium! This was invaluable and so too was having someone relatively techy on the team to run ideas and options by; there are many options or ways to do everything so this was a bit of a maze at first and can be overwhelming I’m sure for people. That old saying “practice makes perfect” cannot be overstated with this – I would recommend running trial webinars a number of times with whomever you can convince to help!

We wondered what the general trends were around ‘advertising’ our webinar and when the best time to do this was. At the time, everyone’s diaries were being filled with webinars and many companies were running online events so we just kept an eye on what we thought the trends were with respect to first inviting people and then sending reminders nearer the time. Rather than send out invites 4-6 weeks in advance we opted for 2-3 weeks prior to the event. There are options too around sending post-event communications and as a team we were on the look-out for what these included and when they were sent.

One of many tweets to advertise the event.

We found that registrations increased substantially in the days leading up to the event so I would say not to be despondent if numbers appear low in the week or two before. People seemed to be very last minute with their diarising. We had 60 registrations but a few of those dropped off during the event (this is apparently fairly common) so by the end we had 56.

With the registrations you are able to see who has registered and often what organisation they are from (by their email address). This was quite interesting as we were able to see that there were people from 16 organisations who registered (and most of whom will have attended) who are not directly related to the project via a partner or any of the organisations already on the Advisory Board. I was most encouraged by this and hope that many of those people stay in touch with the project.

I had many kind emails after the event to congratulate us but I did not send out any feedback forms and now wish that I had! I would say allow plenty of time before an event like this to get your speakers/guests logged on and allow time then to check that the tech is working for everyone and make introductions etc and make sure the speakers are clear on what order they are speaking in etc. Folk within the Consortium got in touch with me and said they felt it was very motivational and inspiring. I felt this was really important as it is so difficult to cement relationships across a Consortium of a new project when everyone only meets via zoom calls and online meetings so to run something that helps the team members themselves feel more a part of something interesting and worthwhile is invaluable.

After the event we had lots to do – we had to first transcribe the whole event, and this takes time so I would recommend people factor that in. We then got that translated and it was expensive even though we use a very competitively priced translator but there were a lot of words! The text that is given to the translators needs to be organised in such a way that it is easy for whoever is organising the subtitles to fit the text with the audio timing so that needs to be considered before being sent to the translators. It then takes time for the translators to get back to you so all of this has a knock-on effect to when you can get a subtitled version ‘out there’.

The Welsh translators were handed an Excel file with words to fit the audio timing.

We used an illustrator to capture the main points of the event and I would highly recommend this to others. Ordinarily, Laura would have been in the back of the hall illustrating away as the speakers speak but for this, she attended remotely and sketched as the meeting was live. She then only had to do some touch-ups to this and the graphics were ready quite quickly. This is a nice way to get material for social media work soon after the event! Make sure you use this opportunity to reflect diversity and inclusion amongst your stakeholders, the public and your team as this is something we picked up on a little later down the line, it was soon remedied though.

One thing I would recommend is to ensure that the panellists and speakers are fully briefed on the nature of the Ireland-Wales Programme, to avoid either a Welsh or Irish focus and subsequently an imbalance between the two. Admittedly you never know on the day what people will say and often people are last minute at getting their presentations to you. One top tip (is what all of the webinars about webinars say to do!) is to have a back-up if anything happens at the speaker’s end. One or two of my speakers sent in recordings of the talk. This was actually a nice way to do it and I have seen this approach on many big professionally run online events since – it ensures your speaker does not over run and it is less risky in terms of the speaker’s internet connection going down mid talk. I would only recommend it though if you have the speaker on the panel so that people can ask live questions after the talk – this is very engaging.

I think as with everything, hosting these kind of events will get easier over time as we do them more and more. Remember though webinars aren’t always the only way, meetings instead can also work depending on the audience and the overall intentions and goals of the event. My heartfelt thanks to my team at Geo Smart Decisions and colleagues from the ECHOES Consortium for their help and attendance at a number of trial runs! Overall the experience was exhausting, exhilarating and I think, positive.

The ECHOES project launch webinar can be viewed on YouTube.

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Plea to bird watchers: Please report ringed Curlew!

The first group of wintering curlew on the Dyfi Estuary have now been fitted with British Trust for Ornithology rings and individual recognisable engraved colour-rings as part of a new research investigation. The ECHOES project will study curlew winter distribution and vulnerability to climate change in west Wales.

This is a plea to bird watchers, and especially those interested in shore birds, to carefully record the colour and position of any colour-rings (including whenever possible the two-digit code on the larger colour-ring) on curlew spotted in inter-tidal areas of estuaries, salt marsh and adjacent farmland along the coast, and to report them to midwales.ringing@btinternet.com

Repeated sightings of these individually marked birds are vital to help us to appreciate how site faithful curlew are throughout the winter, and to identify where the birds most frequently forage, roost and rest. This will help to identify critical coastal habitats that support this species of significant conservation concern.

Colour-marked curlew. Photo: Tony Cross, Aberystwyth University, ECHOES