Brand new blog from Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn.
Some of the best days I have ever known have been spent amongst seabirds. Being with them at the cliffs and islands is like going through a door into the next level of a video game, a world of hyper-reality where the normal rules don’t seem to apply.
All the senses come equally into play – it’s loud and pungent, the colours are vibrant, the same breeze that makes the birds float on the air buffets you, you taste life. You take it all in at once and you notice the little details – a puffin with a beakful of fish here, two guillemots having a territorial dispute there, a seal bobbing far below just beyond the crashing surf.
This year’s breeding season is over and the colonies have fallen silent, the birds having gone to where they spend most of the year - out beyond the horizon, in what to us looks the most featureless and unchanging of environments, nothing but wind and waves. But that’s misleading – seabirds can navigate through it as easily as we can the journey to work or school. How do they do that? Well, new technology and good old hard work is beginning to give us an idea of where they go and why but unravelling their life at sea will always remain a challenge.
So, it’s really only when they return to our coasts in the spring that we get the chance to get up close and personal with them. And if ever there was a time when we needed to know how seabirds are doing it’s now. Sure, there’s still lots of them but numbers are falling fast. Climate change! Fish and plankton stocks!! A lack of protection!!! We don’t just need to halt the decline we need to start turning that decline around. One vital step in this is to know how many there are so we need to count them, not just at the odd colony but all of them, every single one.
It’s hard to convey just how difficult that is and, not surprisingly, it’s only attempted every 20 years or so but planning is underway for the next big national count, the fourth. And some colonies are tough, really tough.
St Kilda from Soay
Take Soay for example. First, you need to get to the Western Isles away up at the top left of the UK. The island group of St Kilda, without a permanent human population, lies another 40 miles beyond that and Soay sits at their westernmost point. Carry on and the next land you reach is Canada or, in other words, any winds or waves coming the other way have the whole width of the North Atlantic to build up, uninterrupted, until they hit Soay. Even landing on it is only possible on a handful of days each year and, if all the elements fall in your favour and you do manage to get there, you still have the seabird counts to do.
So Soay will be expedition-level counting but there’s lots of other seabird colonies that are far more accessible either in person or virtually. This will be the first national count to truly take place in the digital age and will give opportunities for the public to get involved that just weren’t there in previous counts.
The survey is still a couple of years away but the planning starts now. It’s not particularly glamorous stuff – getting funding sorted, partnership agreements, website design but these are the foundations, get them right and the count and public involvement will deliver something truly monumental.
As potential important members of this project as citizen scientists, if you have any ideas of how you could get involved let me know at email@example.com. In the meantime, sign the petition and help give something back. Seabirds enrich our lives; it’s time that we started enriching theirs.