2023 Awards Winner’s Spotlight: Postgraduate Student Project

Murray Borthwick

Edinburgh Napier University

Land-use correlates of the spatiotemporal distribution of four wading bird species in southeast Scotland from 1988-2013

This award was sponsored by:

The aims of this study were to investigate the tetrad-scale land-use correlates (crop area, number of cattle, area of broadleaf woodland, coniferous woodland, arable and horticulture, heather, bog and montane, improved grassland and unimproved grassland habitats) of;

(1) the probability of the presence of a target wader species in a tetrad;

(2) the probability of a target wader species being lost or gained in a tetrad between atlas periods.

Empirical modelling was used to find the most representative explanation of the direction and extent of relationships of the land-use correlates and the probability of
a species occurring within a given set of land-use characteristics. Modelling would allow practitioners to make predictions of the effects of future land-use changes on the target species, with model- comparison used to evaluate the accuracy of candidate models and identify the variables most accurately predicting wader distribution.

This study was the first to utilise the extensive datasets of the Scottish Ornithological Club bird atlases of southeast Scotland. Using a long-term citizen-science-built dataset allowed this study to investigate correlates of distribution in multiple wader species across an extensive spatiotemporal range, while producing results which agreed with the extensive literature and made sense ecologically. Conclusions could be drawn from the evidence presented in identifying the land-use variables which influence the occurrence of the target wader species, allowing for inferences to be made on the suitability of habitats and the impacts on population trends which could arise as a result of land-use change. Further work in terms of more thorough analysis of discrete land management strategies would allow for more solid conclusions to be drawn and could be used to inform policy and development in the future. This study shows that if global populations of wading birds (and wider bird groups) are to be effectively supported and efforts made to slow or reverse population declines, an understanding of the underlying relationships of land-use and distribution will provide a key component in the direction of conservation strategies.

The judges commented that this was a very well written piece of work, especially given the complexities behind the data extraction/compilation, and it showed an excellent appreciation of the limitations of the data being worked with. The statistical approach was clear and logical with an explanation of the reasoning underpinning the decisions made in the analysis. The focus of the project is on an area of strong relevance to environmental management and conservation. There is a clear and  obvious application to the work in relation to predicting changes in the success of wading birds in agricultural landscapes and the role of different factors in determining the patterns of distribution and change, but it also helpfully identifies other areas where further work would illuminate our understanding further.

We will be posting further information on each of the 2023 Awards Winners over on our blog.