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Fetler whimbrel is oldest on record

ALMOST a quarter of a century after it was first ringed on the Shetland island of Fetlar, a whimbrel has been found breeding less than one kilometre away.

The bird is now believed to be the oldest known surviving ringed whimbrel in the world, more than doubling the typical eleven year lifespan and surpassing the previous longevity record of 16 years, held by a whimbrel ringed as a chick in Shetland in 1979, but unfortunately shot in France in 1995.

It was identified earlier this summer by the unique colour ring combination on its legs, which was fitted in 1986 when the bird was a nesting adult, during a detailed study on the ecology of the whimbrel by Durham University.

It is thanks to these colour rings that RSPB researcher Allan Perkins was able to not only age this whimbrel but also learn that it was still returning to the same breeding location many years later.

Dr Murray Grant, principal conservation scientist with RSPB Scotland, said: “I first came across this bird 24 years ago during my PhD research on whimbrel in Shetland. It was probably at least two or three years old then, as that’s when these birds normally start breeding, so it is a great surprise to learn that it is still revisiting Fetlar after so long.

“However, my pleasure at learning of this record-breaking whimbrel is tempered by the fact that we’ve only found it because of our research into their population decline on Shetland.

“When I first encountered this bird there were some 80 pairs of whimbrel breeding on Fetlar, now there are probably fewer than 25. Sadly, it seems that this level of decline is typical of the rest of Shetland, which holds a vast majority of the UK population.”

Shetland holds 90 per cent of the UK whimbrel population of just 250 pairs, a figure that has halved over the last 20 years

In response to this alarming decline RSPB Scotland has initiated new research on the species.

Dr Grant continued: “Whimbrels are fascinating wading birds, migrating from their African wintering grounds each spring to breed in the most northern parts of Scotland, and other sub-arctic lands such as Iceland and Finland.

“Unfortunately, just like their larger, more familiar cousin – the curlew – their numbers in the UK are falling rapidly.

“The reasons for these very rapid decreases aren’t clear but we hope that our study of the species, which has started this year, will help us understand the difficulties they face.”