Insights from 2023 East Atlantic Flyway counts highlight global efforts for the protection of migratory birds

Each year, in spring and autumn, large flocks of migrating waterbirds visit the Wadden Sea – a hallmark of its UNESCO World Heritage designation. These iconic species, however, are threatened by habitat changes and other pressures along their extensive journeys between breeding and non-breeding sites in Europe and Africa. To understand the dynamics of their populations and the pressures they face, a comprehensive count of migratory waterbirds takes place every three years in January along the East Atlantic Flyway (EAF). The Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative, in partnership with Wetlands International, Birdlife International, and others, has released a report summarising the national efforts of 36 countries in the January 2023 total counts. An in-depth analysis of the data and trends in migratory bird populations along the flyway is scheduled for publication in early 2025.

In 2023, the fourth simultaneous waterbird count along the EAF engaged over 13,000 observers from 36 countries, showcasing the substantial human resources required for a global assessment of waterbird populations of this flyway. The counts documented a remarkable 233 waterbird species, tallying over 20 million individuals, with nearly 70% belonging to 67 dominant species in EAF coastal sites. “Yet, the current total number underestimates the true number of individual waterbirds present in the EAF as not all suitable habitats were surveyed” cautions Marc van Roomen, senior researcher at the Dutch Centre for Ornithology (SOVON) and lead organiser of the flyway counts for the Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative. “The data, do not allow comparing current counted numbers with previous totals and drawing conclusions on overall trends yet.” A comprehensive analysis will be conducted in 2024 to calculate trends in numbers of EAF waterbird populations taking into account differences in count coverage between surveys. In the meantime, the EAF census national reports provide an overview of the countries involved in the counts and a snapshot of the immense efforts undertaken by participating countries.

This collaborative work underscores the trilateral commitment to safeguard millions of migratory waterbirds that rely on the Wadden Sea for breeding, staging, or wintering. It forms a part of the cooperation between the Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative (WSFI), Wetlands International, and BirdLife International, supported by national government institutions, parks, reserves, NGOs, and research organizations from 36 flyway countries, aimed at enhancing the monitoring of waterbirds and wetlands along the East Atlantic Flyway.