Towards the 50th anniversary of the International Waterbird Census

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In January 2016, tens of thousands of people across the world will participate in the 50th count of the International Waterbird Census (IWC). The IWC is a long-term programme for monitoring the status of water birds in the non-breeding season. The Census was launched by the International Wetlands and Waterfowl Research Bureau (the predecessor of Wetlands International) in 1967, and since then, it is conducted annually in mid-January. It is based on a network of thousands of volunteer and professional waterbird counters and their National Coordinators.

Over the long term, the IWC count data have been used for estimating population sizes of all waterbird species, identifying changes in their numbers and distribution, and assessing the importance of individual sites for waterbirds, thus contributing significantly to international efforts to conserve waterbirds and their wetlands habitats.

In the former Soviet Union, the IWC counts were started in January 1967 under coordination of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Department of Nature Protection, Nature Reserves and Hunting of the Ministry of Agriculture. Professor Yu.A. Isakov was a scientific leader and the major driving force of these activities.

A number of research and conservation institutions, as well as amateur hunter associations took part in this work. Large-scale field studies, including aerial surveys, covered 1,400 important wintering sites in Russia and other USSR republics. The priority areas were the coasts of the Caspian, Azov, Black and Baltic Seas, river valleys, lakes and water reservoirs in the southern regions of the country.

Over 1,000 people participated in counting activities, which were conducted until the USSR break-up in the late 1980s. After a long break due to the crisis in economy and science in the early post-Soviet period, the IWC was restarted in 2003 owing to Wetlands International’s support.

The Russian programme office of Wetlands International coordinated the IWC activities in Russia and the countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, namely Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Funding to these activities was provided by the Dutch Government. The most successful midwinter counts, held in 2003, 2004 and 2005, covered 248 sites and annually reported from 2.3 to 3.1 million birds that belonged to 108 species.

In Russia, the IWC programme presently covers the southwestern part of the country. In particular, counts are regularly conducted at the Sea of Azov and Black Sea coasts, at water storage reservoirs in the Krasnodar Province and the Republic of Adygea and, by opportunity, extend to important wintering sites in the Caspian and North Caucasus regions. In the Asian part of Russia, the non-freezing portions of the Angara River are covered in some winters. Counters use the high quality binoculars and spotting scopes for their observations.

In total, 60 wetland sites have been surveyed, and 80 species of waterbirds and 7 species of wetland-dependent raptors have been reported. The total number of waterbirds wintering in Russia may exceed one million in mild winters (e.g. in 2005 and 2013). The Mallard, Tufted Duck and Common Black-headed Gull are the most numerous species. Rare and endangered species include the Dalmatian Pelican, Pygmy Cormorant, Bewick’s Swan, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Red-breasted Goose, White-headed Duck and White-tailed Eagle.

Until recently, the IWC activities were financially supported by Wetlands International and other international organizations and funds. Since 2012, however, the midwinter counts have been recognized again as a national priority, and hence coordinated and funded by the State Information-Analytical Center of Game Animals and Habitats and the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Krasnodar Province. Many nature reserves, hunting estates and local hunter associations provide solid support to this work.

The International Waterbird Census provides a reliable basis for the assessment and management of waterbird resources and the development of conservation measures for endangered species at national level. Russian data are integrated in the international Waterbird Population Estimates Database ( and are used for updating the species action plans at flyway level.

The results have been presented in numerous publications and scientific reports, and discussed at several workshops and conferences.

This article has been prepared by Dr. Alexander Solokha, Head of Ornithology Dept., State Information-Analytical Center of Game Animals and Habitats, and National IWC Coordinator for Russia since 2003.

Photo credits: A. Solokha, G. Dzhamirzoyev and V. Ananyan