An update from our Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) team on Fair Isle.

In the path of an Atlantic depression

Fair Isle is arguably the most remote inhabited island in the UK, sandwiched between slices of the Orkney Islands and mainland Shetland in the North Atlantic. Measuring about 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, its breathtaking cliffs and fading afternoon light can reduce the hardiest of observers to outbursts of clapping and nodding in synchronised appreciation. Fair Isle is also recognised for it’s traditional knitwear, unremitting shipwrecks and being closely followed by the words ‘gale force 8 increasing to severe gale force 9 later’, on Radio 4’s daily shipping forecast.

View from South Haven looking toward Sheep Rock by Jen Seven.

We are Senior Research Assistant Rob Hughes and Intern Tegan Newman, and we have been deployed to this wind-blown rock in the North Sea for the ‘summer’ as part of the RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) project.  The aim of the project is to study five species of seabirds: Northern fulmar, European shag, Black-legged kittiwake, razorbill and Common guillemot, in order to get an idea of their foraging behaviour and to identify important feeding areas.

A view to the north by Richard Cope.

This work is a new RSPB funded project called STAR (Seabird Tracking and Research) which was set up to build on the groundbreaking work undertaken in the Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment Project (FAME) in 2010, 2011 and 2012. If all goes according to plan, our work should see us do the following:

1)    Safely climb down into seabird colonies and attach small GPS devices to adult birds. These record the location of feeding birds at sea every 100 seconds over the duration of a four-day battery life. We also attach lightweight time/depth recorders to the shags, guillemots and razorbills, which enable us to see how deep the birds are diving in order to get their food.

2)    When the birds return from their sojourns at sea we can climb back into the colonies and retrieve the tracking devices before plugging them into a trusty computer and instantly seeing where they have been.

Sadly, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. After severe weather conditions over the winter the birds have arrived on Fair Isle in very poor breeding condition and the season is off to a very slow start. Numbers of adult razorbills at our main field site, Easter Lother, are down by about 40% on 2012. Incubating birds are spending a lot of time away from their eggs (leaving them open to predation from gulls and skuas), or abandoning them altogether - sacrificing a failed breeding attempt for their own survival.

West cliffs by Richard Cope.

Retrieving the GPS tags is proving to be difficult too; from the 7 devices that we have successfully recovered so far, the birds appear to be going on much longer feeding trips than previous years (when they spent about 2 days away from the colony). This year however, one Razorbill spent 4 full days away from the colony, travelling over 300km towards Montrose whilst it’s partner was left incubating the egg. The distance travelled by this individual is probably a world record for a Razorbill and much further than many people anticipated them foraging.

….But we remain optimistic! Yesterday (June 10th), we deployed another 7 GPS tags onto 6 razorbills and one guillemot and are hopeful of getting them back in the next couple of days. Our first kittiwake eggs were laid on June 9th and we will start tracking the adults soon. We will also be tracking fulmars at the end of June/early July when they (hopefully!) have chicks too.

South lighthouse by Richard Cope.

Aside from the seabird work, Fair Isle is a fantastic place to be based in terms of migrating birds. Tegan has become an official trainee under the BTO bird-ringing scheme and has been taking advantage of the rounds of the heligoland traps each morning. Rob found a stonking male bluethroat feeding in a ditch in the North of the island amongst many other species and is also maintaining a reputation for being able to spot ospreys from 1000 paces (all of which Tegan has missed).

Fair Isle bird observatory by Jen Seven.

Tegan refuses to bow to the demands of society by compiling a twitch ‘list’, but thanks to a superb team of staff here at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, has managed to see many new birds including Temmink’s stint, Collared flycatcher, Blyth’s reed warbler and River warbler. Rob is more content with adding Great-spotted woodpecker to his Fair Isle list. We’ve also both had the great privilege of observing a pod of 15 killer whales circumnavigate the island for around four hours on a beautifully calm evening last week.

 Thanks for reading!

 Tegan and Rob

Read more blogs from the STAR team: