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Many migratory waterbird populations are in decline and loss of natural wetlands is one of the main causes. However, some species may respond positively to artificial wetland recreation. In Extremadura (south-west Europe), several large reservoirs were created for irrigation since the 1960s and some comparatively small reservoirs were built from the late 1990s onwards close to rice fields. Here we analyse the abundance of wintering dabbling ducks (Anas spp.) in Extremadura before (1991–1994) and after (2007–2010) the creation of these new reservoirs in order to address the current importance of the area for this guild within the East Atlantic Flyway (EAF). A mean of 25,277 dabbling ducks wintered in the study area during 1991–1994, increasing to 46,163 individuals during 2007–2010. After controlling for environmental variables, Northern Pintail Anas acuta, Common Teal A. crecca and Northern Shoveler A. clypeata experienced significant increases in the area between both periods, and only Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope suffered a significant decrease. Mallard A. platyrhynchos and Gadwall A. strepera populations did not show any significant trend. The large older reservoirs experienced overall population decreases between the two periods, with four new reservoirs holding more than 35,000 wintering dabbling ducks. Our results reflect an overall improvement in habitat conditions, driven by the creation of reservoirs near to rice fields that could have resulted in a partial redistribution of wintering dabbling ducks in the EAF. The area emerges as one of the most important wintering sites for dabbling ducks in southern Europe, regularly exceeding two of the Ramsar Convention criteria for the conservation of several populations. The protection of these new reservoirs by legal mechanisms would guarantee the existence of a large functional wetland area, which could also mitigate the loss of natural wetlands for populations using the EAF.
Rice fields provide functional wetlands for declining shorebirds and other waterbirds around the world, but fundamental aspects of their stopover ecology in rice fields remain unknown. We estimated the length of stay of Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa migrating through rice fields, and showed the international importance of Extremadura’s rice fields (south-west Spain) for this Near Threatened shorebird species. Overall, large numbers of Black-tailed Godwits en route to their breeding grounds had long lengths of stay in the rice fields (34.7 ± 1.7, 14.4 ± 2.0 and 8.3 ± 1.2 days in godwits radio-tagged in late January, early February, and late February, respectively). The long lengths of stay of godwits in rice fields, together with some aspects of their feeding ecology, suggest that rice fields are suitable staging habitats, and therefore they could play an important role as buffer habitats against the loss or degradation of natural wetlands. Extremadura’s rice fields supported at least 14% of the declining Western European population of Black-tailed Godwit, and its increasing number in south-west Spain probably reflects a population shift towards the northern part of the winter range. We strongly suggest the inclusion of Extremadura’s rice fields as a Special Protection Area for birds under the European Union Directive on the conservation of wild birds.
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