The Schelde estuary is an important wintering area and stop-over place for waders and waterfowl using the East Atlantic fly-way. The port of Antwerp is situated in the Lower Zeeschelde, the transition area between the brackish- and freshwater tidal part. Three intertidal areas in this zone (Groot Buitenschoor, Galgenschoor and Schor Ouden Doel) are protected under several international and national legislations. In this study long-term datasets (1982–1998) on water birds in these intertidal areas were analysed and attempts were made to assess the impact of two container terminals, constructed during the covered period. Overall abundance of water birds in the study area did not show any significant trends. Looking at individual areas, maxima and winter means on the Galgenschoor and Groot Buitenschoor were very variable but the peak seasons levelled out with time. On the Schor Ouden Doel, where hunting was banned, maximal numbers increased by a factor of four between 1985 and 1990, mainly due to an increase in Greylag Goose numbers. The trophic composition of the bird populations showed major shifts. Initially, species compositions in winter differed considerably between the three areas, but they became more similar during the study period. The results suggest that the area became more important as wintering and resting place for herbivores such as Greylag Goose and Wigeon while its function as feeding ground and stop-over site for migrating benthivorous birds became relatively less important, especially on the right bank. The water bird populations in the study area varied greatly with the geographic and regional trends for the different species and were influenced by winter severity but no direct proof of impacts from the container terminals could be established. Nearly every season the international 1 level was exceeded by one or more species, but the species of international importance changed with time. National and international protection measures are valuable but insufficient tools for the conservation of these estuarine habitats. A more comprehensive conservation strategy is proposed.
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