November, 2017

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Pictures that shouldn't be missed!

     Photo descriptions by Kate Lawrence.


    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland


    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland


    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland  - Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross incubating



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland  - Hidden in the phyllica is an incubating Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross


    We refer to these guys as Mollies, as they belong to the group of smaller albatrosses known as Mollymawks, and because it’s less of a mouthful than Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. The first Molly egg was laid during takeover in September and the first egg hatched on November 26.



    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - Jaimie preparing to ring a Tristan Albatross


    Ringing birds in our study colonies is important for the continued monitoring of breeding, survival and other demographic trends. A number of species on Gough Island are routinely ringed prior to fledging, including the Tristan Albatross.




    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland  - Juvenile Gough Island Bunting helping to unpack



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - Bunting provides helpful advice to Fabrice and Em on packing tote bins



    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - Critically endangered Gough Bunting


    The Gough Bunting is one of the species threatened by mice on Gough Island. With fewer than 500 pairs believed to remain, the upcoming mouse eradication is critical for the survival of this species.




    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - an incubating Southern Giant Petrel



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland  - New hatched Southern Giant Petrel




    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - Kate ringing a Southern Giant Petrel



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - Male & females allopreening



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland -

    ‘View of Saddle Island from Low Hump’


    Southern Giant Petrels look a bit like dinosaurs but the Gough Island birds are surprisingly relaxed compared to the SGPs we have worked with elsewhere. Our study colony near Low Hump is about 3.5 hours walk from base and on a clear day has great views of Saddle Island.




    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - Kerguelen Petrel at Gonydale camp

    Gonydale is our main camping base for multi-day field work trips. On our first night there this Kerguelen Petrel literally flew into our weather service colleague. We took the opportunity to measure its tarsus to inform what size ring we needed to attach geolocators to this species.




    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - up close with a Rockhopper





    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - Rockhopper preening


    Northern Rockhopper Penguins are the only penguin species to breed on Gough Island. The chicks have now hatched – baby penguin photos to come after we go and count them!



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland -Fabrice ascending rope after Sagina check



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - SubAntartic fur seal juveniles at Admirals Beach



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland - View of Admirals Beach


    Continuing the eradication of Sagina procumbens is an important part of our work here, including checking the edges of the known range.

    Admiral’s beach, to the north of the known extent of Sagina is only accessible by abseiling. Fortunately we have not found any Sagina during our checks here. The area is also home to Sub-antarctic Fur Seals and Northern Rockhopper Penguins.





    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland -Great Skua at Gonydale



    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland -Kate conversing with a Skua


    The Great Skuas are charismatic creatures: curious, bold and aggressively protective of their nests. We have seen a number of chicks around the place now – photos to come!



    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - Thousands of years of prions exiting a cave created these grooves in the rock


    Outside Prion Cave, where we monitor Macgillivray’s Prions, these grooves in the rock have been formed from countless prions scrambling to gain height before taking to the air. There are similar grooves on rocks inside the cave, and elsewhere around the island.



    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - A Moorhen and chick outside our lab



    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - Moorhen feeding its chick


    Moorhens and their chicks are often well hidden in the dense vegetation. We were lucky to observe this one with its chick just outside our lab recently.




    The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa.

    The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.

    If you would like to support our efforts to save the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross and Gough bunting, please contact John Kelly, or you can donate using our online form

  • What are puffins around our coasts feeding their chicks?

    Blog by Dr Ellie Owen, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    Every year I always look forward to the summer approaching because that’s when I get to go out and do my fieldwork, spending some time in the company of the incredible seabirds that I study. But this summer was a bit different, it wasn’t just about the fieldwork and some more GPS tagging, we also had a citizen science project to run.

    We set out to solve the mystery behind why puffin numbers have drastically declined and we recruited an army of passionate people to help us in this mission. The HLF funded Project Puffin wanted to learn more about what puffins were feeding their young as it is thought their food supply has been negatively impacted by warming seas and shifting ocean currents.

    An army of Puffarazzi

    So this summer we asked people to get involved and help us with this research by sending us photos of puffins with food in their bills from around the UK. By enlisting the help of the public, our army of ‘Puffarazzi’, we received 1402 photos of puffins feeding their pufflings.

    From May to August, 602 people joined the Puffarazzi and soon we had photos of puffins carrying food to their chicks flooding in from almost 40 colonies around our coastline. This included well visited colonies such as the Farne Islands, Skomer and the Isle of May but also off-the-beaten track colonies like Great Skellig, the Channel Islands and Fetlar.

    Photo: This map shows all the locations where photographs were captured – a great section of almost 40 colonies!

    It was great to have such an enthusiastic response and to receive so many photos! They will help us further our understanding of this declining seabird and find solutions to aid their recovery. Thanks to these pictures we have the first national snapshot of what puffins are feeding to their chicks which is important because some puffin colonies in their global range are declining to such an extent that puffins are now the same extinction risk level as giant pandas, requiring urgent action. Failure of their food supply is thought to contribute to these declines.

    The icons in the map above are sized according to how many pictures were received. Most pictures came from the Farne Islands (>500 pictures!), Skomer (more than 200) and the Isle of May (more than 200). It’s great that we managed to get lots of pictures from some sites because it means we can even look at how the food bought to chicks changed as the season progressed. We can also do some extra analysis to tell us how many pictures you really need in order to get a good idea of puffin diet at a colony. Some of the rarer colonies in our sample were the Isles of Scilly, Westray on Orkney and the East Caithness cliffs where we only managed a few images but those that we did get gave us vital clues in those areas.

    We were grateful for every picture and were particularly amazed to see children as young as 11 taking part and one keen member of the puffarazzi managed to capture 37 images for the project – top marks Nicola Shaw!

    Photo: Puffin with sandeels and squid, picture by Puffarazzi member Franco Lee

    Lots of fish to count…

    To analyse the pictures I have worked with a team of volunteer interns “the Puffineers”, who have been carefully looked at each picture and have identified the species of prey each puffin had caught and measured the sizes of each fish in each picture. With an average of 9 prey for puffin there were 12,182 fish to analyse!

    The interns did this job with skill and care over many hours. They recorded both adult and larval sandeels as well as rockling (tiny silver members of the cod family), other young fish from the cod family, herring/sprat and even squid in the diet of puffins (seen in the picture below). Early indications are that puffins may be finding smaller prey in some colonies in the North of the British Isles such as Orkney and Shetland. Puffins famously feed on sandeels but the proportion of this species also varied with them making up half of the diet of puffins in colonies in the northwest of Scotland compared to two-thirds at colonies in southern Scotland, northern England and Wales.

    The data have yet to be analysed but early indications are that the diets of puffin colonies vary around the UK has been successfully mapped, and that some colonies are struggling to find the abundant supply of large, nutritious fish needed to support growing pufflings.


    Photo: Puffin with 15 sandeels with average size ~1.5 of the puffin’s bill. Picture by Puffarazzi member Graham Wagner.

    Using citizen scientists is giving us data on a scale that we have never been able to collect before; showing what puffins are managing to find to feed their chicks across the length and breadth of our coastline.

    I will now be working hard to look more closely at the diet of puffins compared to their breeding success to pin down what part diet plays in the decline of puffins.

    It has been a great summer and I’ve loved coming to work every day and seeing the pictures coming in. This study would have been impossible without the amazing puffarazzi who responded so enthusiastically and the support from partners and RSPB staff at puffin colonies around our shores. Project puffin is showing how powerful citizen science can be and has certainly enlightened me to new ways to collect conservation data. Working out conservation solutions for birds like puffins is something everyone can be part of. Perhaps a leap from thinking of conservation as something ‘other people’ do to something ‘we all do’ – a bit like recycling – is the kind of shift in behaviour that really could bring the people-power conservation needs.

    To see more of the pictures and to learn about Project Puffin, visit

    On Twitter follow #ProjectPuffinUK

  • A close encounter with an albatross

    Nahuel Chavez is a seabird biologist who has worked as an Albatross Task Force (ATF) Instructor in Argentina for eight years. He has been passionate about saving albatross since his first trip on a longline-fishing vessel when he saw huge numbers of them being killed, and knew he had to do something to stop it. Nahuel writes to us from a trawler off the coast of Argentina where he is on a 55-day trip to monitor the impact on seabirds.




    “It has been over 40 days since we set sail on the ‘Tai-An’ freezer trawler from the city of Mar del Plata, Argentina, where I live. It is the second time I have been onboard this particular boat and thanks to this I have a good rapport with the captain and crew. They already know about saving the albatross and are always willing to help me. This is the only vessel in Argentina producing ‘surimi’, a fish paste, which you may be more familiar with in the UK as crabsticks. The Tai-An fishes for hake, hoki, and Southern blue whiting; all species found in the southern waters of Argentina, near Cape Horn.  Depending on the time of year, very strong winds blow here, providing the perfect conditions for the most threatened birds on the planet: the albatrosses and petrels. This puts the birds into contact with fishing vessels that sadly can kill large numbers of them.


    The job of an ATF instructor is to work to reduce the accidental mortality of albatrosses and petrels that either drown in fishing nets, or are struck and killed by the thick metal cables towing the net. I teach fishermen how to use Bird Scaring Lines (BSLs), which are hugely effective in reducing seabird deaths by more than 80%. The brightly coloured streamers blow in the wind and scare the birds away from dangerous cables and nets. One of my tasks is to observe the seabirds flying around the boat, identify the species and estimate their number, as well as recording instances of birds being injured or killed during trawling. I also give talks so the crew can learn more about the life of these birds and encourage them to get involved in the work to save them.



    Normally I see birds flying all around the boat, attracted by waste scraps of fish from the factory on the vessel, but on this trip I came face-to-face with the most abundant albatross in our sea, the Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris). One day after lunch the crew told me there was an albatross in the bow of the boat. When I went with the captain to see it, I saw it was an adult "black-brow" and was in perfect condition. Albatross need a lot of space to "taxi" and take flight, which of course at sea is very easy but from a boat it can become very difficult. We took several photos and other crew members also came to see the albatross. Seeing these fantastic birds up close really helps the crew develop an appreciation for these birds, their immense size is hard to comprehend when they are in the air.  Whilst watching this beautiful bird with its snow white feathers and its black streak above the eye, which give it its common name, I could not help but imagine its life a little.  As soon as they can fly they spend more than six years in the open ocean feeding and exploring the southern hemisphere, before returning to the exact location they were born in where they take a few more years to find a mate. It is only when they are 10 or 12 years old that they are ready to breed, laying just one egg per year. They are very long-lived birds, and can reach more than 60 years, as long as they are not accidentally killed by fishing vessels in search of food (fish, squid and offal discards from boats). The black-browed albatross nests on the remote islands of the southern cone, with over 70% of its population breeding on the Falkland Islands.


    Many people do not know much about albatrosses. Even the crew are surprised when I tell them about the life of the albatross and they see qualities that they can relate to themselves. The encounter with the albatross ended when we lifted it into the air and it spread its two and a half meters wings, taking advantage of the strong wind and glided away over the Argentine sea. Even though the encounter was over we had several photographs to cherish and a sense of satisfaction that working together, as a team, it is possible to continue watching them fly. Undoubtedly this close encounter was the best part of my trip.



    In the coming months I think the tide will begin to turn for these albatross as from May 2018 the use of BSLs will become mandatory for the freezer trawler boats in Argentina. Although the Tai-An already voluntarily uses BSLs, others in the fleet do not, and over 10,000 black-browed albatross will be saved every single year, just from using this simple device.


    All photos courtesy of Nahuel Chavez.


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