The distribution of some ‘common’ British birds seems to be shrinking to reserves, SSSIs or where a landowner makes specific efforts to create the right habitat, writes Kate Green.

This is the dominant trend emerging from the BTO‘s Bird Atlas 2007-11, published last month, and backed up by the recent 14th annual State of the UK’s Birds report by the RSPB, BTO and WWT. No longer is the whinchat or the willow tit a familiar sight in the wider countryside; yellow wagtails have almost disappeared from Wales and the corn bunting is extinct in Ireland.

Adaptability seems to be key. The snipe is declining, yet another wetland bird, the avocet, which colonised the East Anglian coast when it was flooded in the Second World War, has expanded its range more than 17-fold over 40 years. ‘Waders generally are doing really badly, but the avocet breeds mainly on reserves where it may be protected from predators,’ explains Dawn Balmer, lead author on the Bird Atlas. ‘They are skinny little birds and our milder winters help them.

Oyster catchers are also adapting-we’re even finding them nesting on roofs-and the little ring plover is doing well. They’re susceptible to flooding but they like managed land.’ She adds: ‘There has been a lot of habitat creation in the last 10 years, and this is helping to stabilise the range of some birds, like the skylark, but many environmental farming schemes are not, as yet, making a difference to actual numbers.’

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