RSPB Support for BBRC

Published on 08 September 2011

We are delighted to announce that the RSPB has agreed to support the work of the BBRC. Throughout Europe, many BirdLife partner organisations provide support for the work of their national rarities committee, but that has not been the case in Britain – until now. Although many birders may not immediately associate the RSPB with rarities, the links between RSPB reserves and rare species are clear and long-standing. An analysis of rarities on RSPB reserves carried out by Mark Gurney, one of the Society’s ecologists, partly in order to mark the BBRC’s 50th anniversary in 2009, found that at least 107 of the 250+ species currently on the BBRC list had been found on RSPB reserves. The Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea found on Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire, in October 1996, remains the only accepted record of this American bunting for Britain but seven other species have been recorded on an RSPB reserve on their first appearance in Britain – although three of these (Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum, Audouin’s Gull Larus audouinii and Trumpeter Finch Bucanetes githagineus) were first found nearby and subsequently moved to the RSPB reserves (at Old Hall Marshes, Essex, in 1981; Dungeness, Kent, in 2003; and Minsmere, Suffolk, in 1971, respectively). The remaining ‘firsts’ from reserves also involve some monster rarities: Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis (Blacktoft Sands, Yorkshire, in 1986), Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica (Blacktoft again, in 1981), Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes (Dyfi Estuary, Ceredigion/Meirionnydd, in 1981) and Siberian Blue Robin Luscinia cyane (Minsmere again, in 2000). One of the most celebrated rarities from RSPB reserves almost belongs to the ‘firsts’ category. Around 4,000 people travelled to see the Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis at South Stack, Anglesey, in 2003. Subsequently, a bird seen at Spurn, Yorkshire, in 1984, was retrospectively accepted as the first for Britain, but the Anglesey occurrence represents the approach that the RSPB strives to encourage on all their reserves nowadays – providing the opportunity for as many birdwatchers as possible to enjoy a rarity wherever feasible, while ensuring that the conservation priorities of the site involved are not compromised.

Minsmere is the reserve with the longest list of species currently on the BBRC list: 48 since the RSPB became involved with the site. Dungeness is second, with 42 species, and for both of these coastal reserves the heritage of more than 60 years of careful habitat management and creation is clear. Nonetheless, the number of vagrants on RSPB reserves has increased in line with the cumulative acreage of the Society’s reserves, and there was an average of 36 per year during 1998–2007. Wetland species in general – but waders in particular (as suggested by the list of firsts) – are particularly well represented when it comes to rarities on RSPB reserves. According to Mark Gurney’s statistics, 110 rare waders turned up on RSPB reserves during 1998–2007, almost a fifth of the total for the whole of Britain. During that same ten-year period, 50% or more of the British records of Little Crake Porzana parva, Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca and Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus were seen on RSPB reserves, and more than a fifth of the records of Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis, Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia and Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus. Tens of thousands of people were thought to have seen one of the most enduringly popular rarities of recent times – the Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus that for almost 12 years made the RSPB reserve at Titchwell, in northwest Norfolk, its home. The totals are impressive, but can they tell us something about the value of RSPB reserves? The more popular RSPB wetland reserves are under almost constant surveillance by birders and this undoubtedly contributes to the high proportion of sightings of wetland species. But shallow pools with accessible, food-rich margins, and muddy scrapes are not common in our countryside, and a consistently high diversity of wader species is an index of the importance of nature reserves in conserving (and creating) this scarce habitat. This is even more true of reedbeds. RSPB reserves contain about 18% of Britain’s reedbeds, so it is not surprising that they have turned up such a high proportion of the Great Reed Warblers and Penduline Tits.

RSPB sponsorship will contribute to that already provided by Zeiss, whose support for BBRC is approaching its 30th anniversary and remains essential for the core function of the Committee. As well as contributing to overall running costs, our intention is to use the additional resources to begin the process of digitising our archive material. We very much hope that this new relationship will blossom and develop into the future.