Tag Archives: seabirds

Mystery of birds’ movements at sea solved

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RSPB 7 July 2017; Photo Chris Gomersall)

  • New research reveals where British and Irish seabirds go when they’re not on land.
  • The five year project GPS-tracked over 1,300 breeding seabirds and used computer models to predict where they go to find food.
  • Results reveal the majority of ‘hotspots’, where seabirds gather to feed, are concentrated in the coastal waters of Scotland, highlighting the need for robust conservation measures in this area.
  • The new maps will be used to protect threatened species by assessing potential impacts from offshore wind farms, pollution and other human activities on seabirds.  

New research has identified the most important areas for Britain and Ireland’s seabirds at sea, with the majority of ‘hotspots’ revealed in the coastal waters of Scotland.

Experts used GPS-tracking (1) and computer models on an unprecedented scale to map where breeding seabirds go when they leave land to feed, providing a unique insight into the lives of these enigmatic birds.

The study (2), headed by the RSPB in partnership with over a dozen scientists from leading research institutes (3), used five years of tracking data to estimate the areas used by four species: kittiwakes, shags, razorbills and guillemots.

This comes as the Scottish Government considers the creation of Special Protection Areas at sea to safeguard key seabird feeding areas, as well as planning future management of marine activities in Scottish waters outside of the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy.

During the project, lightweight GPS tags were fitted to over 1,300 adult birds from 29 different colonies. The tracking data was then used to create a computer model for each species, so that all of the important areas at sea could be predicted.

The results (see study maps attached) show the extent to which birds travel to find food. The majority of seabird ‘hotspots’, where different species gather to feed, are concentrated in the coastal waters of Scotland, highlighting the need for robust conservation measures to protect these areas. Overall, the four species use at least 1.5 million square km of sea around Britain and Ireland – an area three times the size of Spain.

This is a major step forward in our understanding of seabirds and is a powerful tool to help protect birds from potentially harmful activities at sea, including helping to make better decisions about where those activities can be undertaken to limit their impacts on seabirds.

Understanding more about our seabirds is vital because they are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world. Over the last 30 years, kittiwake and shag numbers have declined by 72% and 68% respectively in Scotland. This is partly due to the impacts of climate change and fishing, and a new OSPAR report (4) underlines this trend, highlighting widespread seabird breeding failures in the North and Celtic Seas. Scotland is also home to internationally important populations of breeding seabirds so we have a global responsibility to safeguard them.

Dr Mark Bolton, RSPB Principle Conservation Scientist, said: “Our rich and diverse marine environment makes Britain and Ireland one of the greatest areas in the world for seabirds and this new research is further evidence of just how important our seas are for seabirds and their chicks during the breeding season. In order to strengthen this research and our predictions, there is an urgent need for a complete seabird census which will provide an accurate and up-to-date estimate of the size of our seabirds breeding colonies.”

Dr Ellie Owen, who led on the tracking work, said: “The sight and sound of hundreds of thousands of seabirds flocking to our shores is an amazing natural spectacle and something that we must help protect for future generations to enjoy. The methods used in this study could be applied to other seabird species, to show where they go at sea. This will be an invaluable tool in helping to protect seabirds, as it will greatly improve our ability to assess the likely impacts on breeding seabirds of offshore wind farms, oil spills and other potentially harmful activities in our increasingly industrialised seas.”

Dr Ewan Wakefield, lead author of the research, said: “Many seabirds are at the top of the marine food web. They feed on sandeels and other small fish but that prey is declining because of human pressures, including climate change. The result is that thousands of seabird chicks are dying each year because their parents can’t feed them. For the first time, this study provides us with a full map for each breeding colony of the feeding areas for some of our most important seabird species. That means we can now protect the places these birds catch the fish they need to feed their hungry chicks, securing the fate of future generations of these amazing creatures.”

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Skeptics Poke Holes in Claim That Birds Mistake Plastic for Food

Tabitha Watson 6 July 2017;Photo Joe McDonald)

Idea was that birds are drawn to smell of plastic garbage, but research may have looked at the wrong birds

Recent research suggested that marine birds such as albatrosses and petrels are attracted to the smell of dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a compound produced by phytoplankton but also by plastic debris. Matthew Savoca and his colleagues at the University of California, Davis claimed that there was evidence that certain seabirds use DMS as an olfactory cue to identify sources of food, resulting in them eating plastic waste.1 But this finding has now been challenged by another team.2

Gaia Dell’Ariccia of the University of Montpellier and her team claim that the original paper was based on questionable data, the use of which resulted in the misclassification of the DMS-responsiveness of species. According to them, the original authors included three species of bird among the DMS-responders that have been shown not to respond to DMS (Pachptila belcheri, Ardenna tenuirostris and Ardenna grisea). It was also suggested that as Savoca and his team had placed undue focus on the nesting habits of the birds – a lifestyle trait of ‘dubious relevance’ in the context of plastic consumption – there was insufficient ecological insight to definitively link DMS to plastic consumption.

Further, several flaws in the overall method were detected, including the way that the oceans were divided and how the data was pooled over 50 years. The team led by Dell’Ariccia argue that splitting the world’s oceans into nine overlapping regions was likely to ‘severely reduce statistical power’, and the pooled data would ‘obscure biologically meaningful patterns among taxa’.

The solution suggested by the original paper was an ‘increase in the antifouling properties of consumer plastics’. In other words, manufacturing plastics differently. This is entirely unpalatable to Dell’Ariccia. She and her colleagues believe that this conclusion presents a ‘substantial environmental risk’ by delivering the ‘wrong message’ to policymakers – instead of altering the composition of the plastics, the priority should be to cut plastic waste and prevent it ending up in the seas.

Study reveals albatross interactions with fishing vessels in the southern ocean

Study reveals albatross interactions with fishing vessels in the southern ocean

An international research team involving the University has tracked the foraging patterns of albatrosses in the southern ocean and found that nearly 80 percent of them follow fishing boats, giving scientists new insight into the risk fishing vessels present to seabirds.

The extent to which albatrosses and fishing vessels overlap was revealed by newly developed XGPS radar loggers which were fitted to fifty-three incubating wandering albatrosses. The loggers are able to detect vessel radar by an omnidirectional micro strip antenna integrated with the bird’s geo-positional GPS device.

The data showed that during breeding, tagged Crozet wandering albatrosses patrolled over an area of more than 10 million square kilometres and as much as 79.5 percent of the birds equipped with the loggers detected vessels, at distances up to 2500 kilometres from the colony.

About 300,000 seabirds are killed annually in longline fishing, including albatrosses which are an endangered species and one of the most threatened families of birds internationally, with 15 of the 22 species in the group threatened with extinction.

The study took place in Possession Island in the Crozet Islands, in the southern Indian Ocean, from January to March in 2015 and 2016 and the research team included the University, the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chize, France, Sextant Technology Ltd and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Henri Weimerskirch, from the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chize who was the lead author, said: “This study is incredibly important, as albatrosses are well-known ship followers and their populations have been severely impacted through accidental mortality due to their encounters with fishing vessels.”

Liverpool Ecologist, Dr Samantha Patrick, said: “We know very little about fisheries in international waters due to both logistical and political constraints. However, wide ranging seabirds spend a large proportion of their time in these areas and so understanding their behaviour throughout their range is paramount.”

Susan Waugh, from Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, added: “This high rate of encounter shows that a far higher proportion of the population are exposed to fisheries mortality risk than previously supposed. The tagged birds showed varying patterns of encounter and attendance at vessels that challenge our perception of foraging behaviour of seabirds.”

“Being able to detect the presence of vessels throughout a species’ range is essential to derive comprehensive encounter, attendance and mortality rates and detect changes in foraging behaviour triggered by the presence of vessels.”

The paper `Use of radar detectors to track attendance of albatrosses at fishing vessels’  is published in the Conservation Biology online journal.

Towards seabird-safe fisheries, global efforts and solutions

wandering_alba.jpg(Stephanie Winnard & Berry Mulligan 29 June 2017)
The RSPB and BirdLife International have produced a new publication that presents some of the remarkable efforts fisheries have made on a global scale to tackle seabird bycatch.

Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of animals in the world, with many species in decline to due being incidentally killed in fisheries.

They are caught and drowned on baited longline hooks and in nets, and are killed by collisions with trawl cables. It’s estimated over 100,000 albatross meet this grisly fate every year.

However this doesn’t have to be the case. Simple and inexpensive measures already exist that can be highly effective in preventing seabird deaths, and others are still in experimental stages but have shown great promise.

Some fisheries have already reduced deaths by over 80%, demonstrating the scale of potential success.

The RSPB and BirdLife International have produced a new publication that presents some of the remarkable efforts fisheries have made on a global scale to tackle this problem; from saving turtles in Peru to Black-browed Albatross in Namibia.

These stories demonstrate that collaboration between fishers, scientists and decision makers can lead to practical solutions that will ultimately turn the tide for many of these seabird species.

This booklet is a resource for the fishing industry to inform them of the measures they can take to avoid seabird deaths, and to inspire them to take action to improve the sustainability of global fisheries.

It would not have been possible to create this resource without the generous support of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Trash-picking seagulls excrete tons of nutrients

(SD, Duke University 21 June 2017)

At least 1.4 million seagulls feed at landfills across North America, which aside from the nuisance it might pose, is also a threat to the health of nearby waters, a new Duke University study finds.

“We estimate these gulls transport and deposit an extra 240 tons of nitrogen and 39 tons of phosphorus into nearby lakes or reservoirs in North America each year through their feces,” said lead author Scott Winton, a 2016 doctoral graduate of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The added nutrients contained in the birds’ droppings can contribute to extensive algal blooms that rob surface waters of much of the oxygen needed to sustain healthy aquatic animal life — a process known as eutrophication.

Oxygen depletion and algal toxins that result from the blooms can have far-reaching ecological and economic impacts, including fish kills, increased costs for local governments, and reduced recreational or fishing values in affected waters.

“It costs local U.S. governments an estimated $100 million a year in nutrient offset credits to address or prevent the problem and maintain nutrient levels at or below the total maximum daily load threshold for water quality,” said Mark River, a doctoral student at Duke’s Nicholas School, who conducted the research with Winton.

The scale of the problem and the cumulative cost of dealing with it may be even larger than the new study suggests, said Winton, who is now a visiting postdoctoral fellow at ETHZurich, a science and technology university in Switzerland.

“We estimated and mapped a landfill-gull population of 1.4 million based on documented sightings reported in the eBird Citizen Science database. But the actual population is probably greater than 5 million,” Winton said. “That means the amount of nutrients deposited in the lakes, and the costs of preventing or remediating the problem, could be substantially higher.”

Winton and River published their study, which is the first to look at the transport of nutrients into surface waters from seagulls at landfills, on June 15 in the journal Water Research.

They conducted the research at landfills near two major drinking water reservoirs — Jordan Lake and Falls Lake — that serve the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina. Nitrogen and phosphorus loading data from these two lakes were then scaled up to estimate total loading at water bodies near landfills across North America using a well-established model for measuring the nutrient transport of carnivorous birds.

The findings are applicable to lakes and reservoirs in other parts of the world, as well.

“The idea that gull feces can be a major water quality problem may sound comical — until you look at data from an individual lake,” Winton said. “In Jordan Lake, for instance, we found that a local flock of 49,000 ring-billed gulls deposit landfill feces containing nearly 1.2 tons of phosphorus into the lake annually.”

That amount, he said, is equivalent to roughly half of the total phosphorus load reduction target established for the New Hope Creek watershed of Jordan Lake. Offsetting this added phosphorus costs local governments about $2.2 million annually — largely through long-term programs aimed at reducing other sources of inflowing nutrients such as urban stormwater or agricultural runoff.

Reducing the size of the gull flocks may also be an option worth pursuing, Winton said. Reducing the size of open landfills, and covering trash more quickly after it is dumped, are among the ways managers can reduce the gulls’ easy access to a food supply and encourage a flock to disperse to other feeding habitats.

“There’s a decent history of local governments implementing gull management at landfills because of fears about airplane strikes or because of the nuisance factor to nearby communities,” Winton said. “It might be cost-effective to pursue some of these non-lethal mitigation methods to reduce nutrient loading, as well.”

Sandeels and seabirds: Protecting our seas in post-Brexit waters

kittiwakers.jpg(RSPB 14 June 2017; Photo: Andy Hay)

New research led by the RSPB shows that UK seabird populations could be affected by the amount of a critical fish species caught in the North Sea by an industrial fishery, highlighting the importance of continuing to work with other countries on fisheries management after leaving the European Union.

The study suggests a link between the amount of sandeels caught by fishermen and the breeding success of kittiwakes (a small species of gull, currently red-listed in the UK), with higher intensity fishing leading to lower numbers of chicks being produced.

In the North Sea, sandeels provide a vital food source for breeding seabirds but are also the target of an industrial fishery conducted mainly by Denmark. Tracking data of individual breeding kittiwakes by RSPB scientists indicates that the most productive sandeel fishing grounds, an area known as the Dogger Bank, overlap with foraging areas of kittiwakes from eastern English colonies, raising the prospect that the fishery could adversely affect the birds’ populations.

The Dogger Bank is the largest sandbank in the North Sea, straddling the waters of the UK (about 100 miles off the Yorkshire coast), Netherlands and Germany, and supporting a high density of sandeels.

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Dire Straits – is Europe protecting its seabirds?

(Gui-Xi Young 7 June 2017; Photo: Wes Davis)

A new scientific paper, spearheaded by our Head of Conservation, Iván Ramírez, has been published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Marine Policy’. This study summarises the latest country-by-country and species-specific analyses of the EU’s

marine SPA (Special Protection Areas) network and offers critical new insights into how well Europe is protecting its seabirds.

 

With oceans covering 71% of the Earth’s surface, it is small wonder that our little home in the solar system is often called the ‘Blue Planet’. Yet so much of our ocean environment remains a mystery. But indeed, isn’t that the romance of the big blue expanse that we are celebrating today, on ‘World Oceans Day’. A romance that has inspired explorers from Cook to Cousteau, storytellers from Homer to Hemmingway…and, of course, conservationists seeking to fathom the depths.

Sadly, on the flip side, the conservation of marine biodiversity is – in the words of Ivan Ramirez, Head of Conservation at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia – “a challenging enterprise”. To say the least. Many marine species are incredibly difficult to observe or track and there is an inherent lack of data and research resources in many countries, both here in Europe and globally.

The Desertas petrel…all at sea

Take the Desertas petrel, for example, a recently split species listed as Vulnerable because of its small population. Ramírez and his colleagues have been tracking this species yearly since 2007, and have now accumulated one of the largest tracking datasets of any gadfly petrel in the world (available at seabirdtracking.org)! What the tiny loggers attached to the bird’s legs revealed to them was quite amazing: from its remote breeding grounds in Bugio Island (Madeira), the Desertas petrel performs a truly Atlantic “tour” with individuals wintering in as many as five different locations, identified in Cape Verde, Brazil, Argentina and Florida. Ramírez has also found that these birds are very loyal to their winter grounds – that is, if a particular bird likes the Brazilian Coast, it will go there every single year.

But the Desertas petrel, just as many other seabirds, does not tend to concentrate at sea forming “rafts” (i.e. flocks of seabirds), nor does it chase fishing vessels like other seabird species, such as gulls or shearwaters. It is also notoriously hard to spot out on the open ocean – so how do we make sure that such a species, once it leaves its breeding grounds, gets the protection it deserves?

The conservation challenges associated with the Desertas petrel – incidentally, the very subject of Ramírez’ own PhD thesis – is an excellent case in point. And quite appropriately so, for with its dark cap and distinctive dark ‘M’-shaped pattern across its wings, it certainly fits the bill for a seabird superhero! Its study offers useful insight into why Europe’s seabirds are in such dire straits – alarmingly, they are the most threatened bird group in the world – and how we can better protect them.

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