Living on the edge: ecology, movement and response to climate by goldeneye on the limit of their range

Climate change is at the heart of the challenges facing mankind, and the other species we share this planet with, both in the coming decades and beyond. There is a large body of literature which describes shifts in distribution and changes in the ecology of birds in response to climate change (e.g. see Pearce-Higgins & Green 2014) but less focus on how individual species at the edge of their range respond to differing environmental conditions.

The goldeneye Bucephala clangula breeds across Europe and North America. The southern edge of the species’ distribution in western Europe is in the UK with small populations in Scotland and one (known) breeding population in England established in North Northumberland from 2010 onwards (Cramp et al. 1977; Hanmer et al. unpublished). The distribution of wintering waterbirds across Europe has shifted north-eastwards including evidence for such changes by goldeneyes (Lehikoinen et al. 2013; Burton et al. 2020). Evidence shows a particular increase in published studies documenting changes in wildfowl distributions over recent decades. However, we do not understand how birds are using the wider landscape outside of the breeding season (see Figure 1 for an example of movements recorded from this population and for which data will be available to include in this PhD).

Figure 1. Map showing movements of five geolocated goldeneye from the north Northumberland breeding colony (Hanmer et al. unpublished). The black diamond shows the approximate colony location. A key question to address in this PhD is why do goldeneye make these movements and what are the consequences of these movements for protection of key habitats for the species?[Figure 1 provided in separate file as will not load into website]

Key areas/questions for this PhD:
1. How do breeding goldeneye use habitats at the southern edge of their breeding range?
2. What drives (e.g. Climate? Food availability?) the movements of goldeneye in the breeding and non-breeding season?
3. Modelling of the impacts of future climate on wildfowl movements and site use in the UK.

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Image Captions

Figure 1.


Philip and Hugh Hanmer enabled the establishment of the breeding population in NE England by erecting tawny owl style nest boxes near water sources which were subsequently colonised by goldeneye. Since 2016, a total of nine birds have been fitted with archival ‘geolocators’ working with Chris Redfern, devices which record time and light-level data, so enabling the reconstruction of latitudes and longitudes over time. Goldeneye females return to the same next boxes (or ones nearby) on a regular basis and so recapturing of geolocators has proven successful. These have revealed patterns of movement across the non-breeding seasons (Figure 1).

This PhD will involve field work, including tagging of goldeneye with more ‘geolocators’, tagging with GPS tags to investigate the detailed breeding movements, dietary studies and modelling using historical data sets from this population (currently unpublished) making use of WeBS data sets and climate models.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Begin October 2023
1. Literature review (potential for systematic review and write up into paper)
2. Purchase tagging equipment
3. Breeding season 1 (Spring/Summer 2024)
4. Analysis of previous winter data
5. First year report

Year 2

1. Winter data collection 24/25 (of tracked birds)
2. Breeding season 2 (Spring/Summer 2025)
3. Analysis of winter/breeding data
4. Second year report with plan of thesis

Year 3

1. Winter data collection 25/26 (of tracked birds)
2. Breeding season 3 (Spring/Summer 2025)
3. Analysis of winter/breeding data
4. At least one well progressed thesis chapter

Year 3.5

1. Write up remainder of thesis.

& Skills

The supervisory team have the expertise to enable training across a range of skills including: (i) tagging of ducks under licence (Hanmer and Redfern); (ii) climate modelling (Willis); (iii) access to and use of BTO data sets on goldeneyes and other wildfowl to use in modelling (Hanmer, Willis, Francksen, Whittingham); (iv) dietary work (Francksen).

Opportunity for working at Durham Uni with Willis team (who specialise in climate modelling of birds) and at BTO.

References & further reading

Burton, N.H.K., Austin, G.E., Frost, T.M. and Pearce-Higgins, J.W. (2020) Impacts of climate change on UK’s coastal and marine waterbirds. MCCIP Science Review 2020, 400–420. doi: 10.14465/2020.arc18.wbi

Lehikoinen, A., Jaatinen, K., Vahatalo, A.V., Clausen, P., Crowe, O., Deceuninck, B. et al. (2013) Rapid climate driven shifts in wintering distribution of three waterbird species. Global Change Biology, 19, 2071–2081.

Pearce-Higgins, J.W. & Green, R.E. (2014) Birds and climate change: impacts and conservation responses. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Contact for further information
Professor Mark J Whittingham FRSB,
School of Natural and Environmental Sciences,
Newcastle University,
E-mail: mark.whittingham@ncl.ac.uk
Tel: 07812570968

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