This summer, researchers will be out and about fitting satellite tags to seabirds as part of the Seabird Research and Tracking (STaR) project. The aim is to learn more about where fantastic species like shags, kittiwakes and razorbills forage for food. This summer, STaR team member Derren Fox is back in Orkney. Read on to find out about his work.

Tracking seabirds and tackling the Stenness Monster

Team Orkney saw a change this year, with Tegan Newman from team Fair Isle 2013 joining me. We arrived in Orkney in late April and settled into our house in Burray, a small island connected to Mainland Orkney by the barriers.

As with the other STAR (Seabird Tracking And Research) teams we had plenty of work to do setting up and testing the iGotU loggers we use to track the birds movements during the season.

Some of the 140 loggers we have been setting up for the season ahead - Photo Tegan Newman

Like last year, we are working on three small, uninhabited islands off the coast of mainland Orkney. These islands (Copinsay off the east coast of Deerness, Muckle Skerry in the Pentland Firth and Swona, to the East of South Ronaldsay) are all rat free and now uninhabited by human beings. They provide the perfect conditions for studying seabirds in their natural environments as they are undisturbed by humans and free from land based predators. These islands do however present certain logistical problems for the modern seabird fieldworker, namely no water and little shelter for the five-day stays necessary for our tracking studies. To carry out our work we take everything we need to survive on these remote islands, from tents, food and water to tracking devices and a laptop to download and store the data from the loggers.Plus enough supplies for a few extra days in case of any delays in being picked up due to weather, tides or other unexpected issues.

Our survey work started with a recce trip to Copinsay to ascertain how the birds are faring this season and allow us to assess when to start our GPS deployment work. We begin our deployments only once the birds are well settled on eggs, or on small chicks. This makes certain that the birds are established on their nest sites and that our work will have as little impact on their productivity as possible. We were pleased to see the birds on the island doing well compared to last year, with the shags (the first species we work on each year, as they breed early in the season) laying and some already on full clutches of eggs.

Tegan, Lucy and I on Copinsay.

There were also tentative signs of a more positive season than 2013 for some other species like kittiwakes, here in greater numbers, and guillemots, back on some colonies in better numbers than last year too. We were joined on this trip by Lucy Quinn who was a member of the Irish contingent of the team last year- she is now working for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) on a shag research project, assessing overwintering survival and return rates of birds to their breeding grounds.

Before we started our island stay we managed to take on the ‘Stenness Monster’ a local beast, made up of 8 scoops of Orkney ice cream and a huge waffle cone at the ice cream parlour in Stenness. All team members successfully completed the initial challenge but were more intimidated by the further challenge of eating two. A few fearless souls managed to  consume a stomach churning three, yes three of these chilly behemoths!


Tegan and the 'Stenness Monster'.

Our first trip to Copinsay for a deployment trip yielded some good data, with the shags proving to carry out their usual short range foraging trips, within a few kilometres of the island. We also managed to tag a few razorbills, undoubtedly the smartest member of the auk family, and these were carrying out some encouragingly short foraging trips as well. Although a little tentative at this early stage, and with only a few tracks to back up the conclusion, it made us more hopeful that the birds would have a better season as they were finding food in close proximity to the colonies that they breed in, rather than having to carry out marathon trips down to the Aberdeenshire coast as they were last year.

Our second trip was to Muckle Skerry, the largest island in the Pentland Skerries group, to the south of South Ronaldsay in the Pentland Firth. This island, although now uninhabited by humans is never quiet, especially at this time of year. It is alive with the drumming of innumerable snipe and the displays of meadow pipits in vast numbers inland. Around the coast, the seabirds nest in burrows, under boulders and on the distinctive ledges formed by the Old Red Sandstone of Orkney’s distinctive geology.

Fulmar at sunset from Muckle Skerry.

The signs here were encouraging too, with razorbills carrying out short foraging trips, both around the island and into the Pentland Firth. The island is an unusual one, with no grazing for many years, the flat top is covered with large tussocks of grass, making getting around a challenging and sometimes frustrating task. It also seems to provide the perfect breeding grounds for an unwelcome creature, the midge! These tiny creatures make life unpleasant at times, and work a little interesting, trying to concentrate on moving stealthily up on a bird and quietly handling and deploying our loggers on birds is hard when it feels like you are being eaten alive!

The highlight of the trip was a sighting of four killer whales, seen a few hundred metres off shore one afternoon. Fieldwork kit was dumped (carefully) on the ground and we did our best to keep up with them as they travelled along the south coast at speed, a few falls in the tussocks later we saw them disappear out of site to the north. Thinking ourselves lucky, we were stunned to get a very close up view of a lone male on the day we left the island, just a few metres from the boat. The closest view either of us has ever had, we could see this graceful creature below the water as the Firth was unusually calm at this time as the tides changed.

Orca in the Pentland Firth.

After a short stop on the Mainland, in which we had to wash ourselves (for the first time in nearly a week!), our clothes and prepare more loggers and our field kit for our next trip, we headed back to Copinsay to carry on tagging the shags and razorbills and also make a start on the kittiwakes and guillemots now that they are on eggs and small chicks. This was an encouraging time for us with more birds in the colonies than 2013 and the trips they were making to forage for food being very short compared to previous years. The highlight of the second trip, for me at least, was sending Tegan into a lovely cave whose colloquial name is unmentionable, and was referred to by Rob as ‘the cave that smells of death’. She came out a little the worse for wear and a few days later I delighted in sending her back in to recatch the shag and retrieve the logger. All in the name of bird science and Tegan’s personal and professional development of course!

Tegan after trip two in the 'cave that smells of death!'

We were joined on the last day of our trip by Uwe Stoneman. Uwe is reserves manager for the RSPB Tay Reserves and carrying out a sabbatical in Orkney which is an art based project, exploring heritage connections between people and seabirds on Orkney. Check out Uwe’s fantastic blog here and learn more about the Seabird Heritage Project here. Why not join in and make a bird for the ever growing flock too?

That’s all from Orkney for now, why not check out how the other teams are doing on Fair Isle, the west coast, and in a few weeks from Colonsay.

 All the best, Derren

 Check out Derren’s blogs from 2013 here.