Science - October 28, 2004

Book/ A scientific view of shorebirds for the layman

The book 'Shorebirds' has come out just in time. It’s a perfect companion for a trip to the Wadden Islands in the north of Netherlands, because now is the period that the migratory birds described in the book return to the islands on their way south. They are attracted by the tidal landscape, with its changing pattern of tides, sandbanks that are regularly covered with water, and the abundance of shellfish, worms, shrimps and other food supplies.

'Shorebirds' is an abbreviated an annotated English edition of the previously published Dutch edition. The authors, who include Alterra researcher Bruno Ens, are celebrated bird researchers in the Netherlands, and the Dutch edition has already become a classic in bird ecology. All the shorebirds are portrayed in short but readable articles, with their Dutch, German and Danish names. The book covers the whole range of shorebirds and their habitats, from the oystercatcher (scholekster) that flies between West Africa and northern Norway, the curlew (wulp) from South Africa to far in Russia, the avocet (kluut) who divides its time between the south of Africa and the Baltic, and the spoonbill (lepelaar), which is not found further north than the Wadden Sea.

In the section on the food chain for shorebirds, it becomes clear that all the birds have their favourite dish. The oystercatcher for instance does not live on oysters but on earthworms, crane fly larvae, caterpillars and adult insects. The avocet sweeps its bill through the top layer of the silt to scoop up worms and other soil animals. The curlew lives on soil invertebrates and berries inland, and crabs, worms and large bivalves in the tidal areas. And the spoonbill wades through knee-high water using a scything movement with a half-open bill to search for shrimps and small fish.

The extensive section on the reproduction of the shorebirds provides us with a good insight into the bird life found on the shores of the islands in the north of the Netherlands. At times the book seems to be a little too detailed in its descriptions, with graphs on the energy expenditure of parent birds, changes in body mass of the migrating birds, and so on. However, this information makes it clear that the authors did not want to create just a popular book on the life of shorebirds, but to present a scientific vision on the position of those birds in the ecosystems they cover in their migration. And with good reason: in spite of the 'convention circus', in which the birds are constantly at the centre of nature conservation debates, numbers are still dropping. Scientific books like this are needed to gather expertise and communicate it to a wider audience. / MW

Jan van de Kam, Bruno Ens, Theunis Piersma & Leo Zwarts, Shorebirds - An illustrated behavioural ecology, KNNV Publishers, ISBN 9050111920, 49,95 euro.