An update from Tegan Newman, a member of our Orkney seabird tracking team.
Having a whale of a time on Muckle Skerry
Somehow, over a month has disappeared since Derren’s last blog so here is a summary of what has been keeping us busy in Orkney….
Having arrived on Orkney in April after witnessing a shocking year for seabird productivity on Fair Isle last year, I was really hoping to see a positive change in the state of the seabird cliffs this year and get a small taste of what the once-thriving colonies may have looked like (Kittiwakes alone have declined 87% in Orkney from 24,000 to 3,000 since the year 2000).
In late June, Derren Fox and I camped out on the stunning uninhabited island of Muckle Skerry to try our luck at deploying GPS tags on nesting kittiwakes – something I had not done before as the kittiwakes had all failed on Fair Isle the previous year (in fact, no chicks have successfully fledged there since 2010)! The colony on Muckle Skerry is special because it’s in a long gully that you can hear (and smell) long before you actually see it. Approaching on foot, we could already hear the distinct cacophony of a bustling kittiwake colony, with the very recognisable “KITT-I-WAKE” calls resonating around the cliffs as noisy neighbours grew impatient with each other, or pairs of birds converged together again after a brief separation at sea. As we rounded a corner and saw it for the first time, it was brilliant to see the ledges alive with a frenzy of active birds; nests inches apart from each other, all occupied by protective parents guarding eggs or chicks, which seemed to be spilling out from the cliffs. It was a very special sight to behold after the plight of previous years.
Part of the Kittiwake colony on Muckle Skerry (photo by Derren Fox).
Kittwake with chick (photo by Derren Fox).
We managed to deploy 16 GPS tags on adult kittiwakes to assess where they were foraging for food and the results are encouraging. All of the birds on Muckle Skerry appear to be feeding locally – with the fast moving currents of water around the island providing a bountiful supply of fresh fish and meaning that adults are barely having to leave their nests to find enough food to raise their young chicks. One of our birds made a record 20 separate foraging trips within 24 hours!
Kittiwake (Photo by Derren Fox).
From our personal observations, it also seems that predation by gulls and skuas is much lower on Muckle Skerry than we have witnessed elsewhere on Orkney, possibly due to the fact that they are also benefiting from the fertile waters surrounding the island and therefore do not need to resort to hunting small chicks or eggs. However, whilst our results are tentatively more promising this year, there is still a very long way to go before numbers are anywhere near being back to what they have been in the past and it is only with continued monitoring that we can try to understand the patterns in population changes.
A gull feeding frenzy in the fast flowing waters surrounding Muckle Skerry (Photo by Derren Fox).
It’s not all birds that appear to be benefiting from the fertile waters of the Firth this year . The undoubted highlight of the camping trip was the sight of four killer whales circumnavigating Muckle Skerry for over an hour one evening. At one point they were tail-slapping and loitering off an apparent ‘hotspot’ amongst the up-welling water at a very close distance to us. Credit definitely needs to be given to Derren at this point who successfully recorded the event with some stunning photography – I on the other hand was completely useless as I was so excited.
A killer whale, disgustingly close (Photo by Derren Fox).
Another perspective of the killer whale spectacle (Photo by Derren Fox).
We have also had the privilege of working in collaboration with the Orkney Ringing Group up here on Muckle Skerry and Swona to try and investigate the over-wintering destinations of some of Orkney’s puffins and razorbills. We've been using miniature light-logging geolocators, weighing in at 2 grams, which record sunrise and sunset and longitude and latitude, which tells us the location of the bird in the world! Due to their small size and weight, these geolocators can be fitted to the bird’s leg and left for a whole year without causing any irritation or disturbance to their usual behaviour.
Razorbill with geolocator (Photo by Derren Fox).
This kind of research is incredibly exciting because although we know that the birds faithfully return each year to breed on these islands, there is still a relative black hole in the knowledge of where they disperse to over the winter – something that is important to find out from these colonies in Orkney where numbers of auks have declined in recent years, possibly as a result of increased over-winter mortality. On the successful retrieval of the geolocators this time next year, it will not only be possible to observe where the birds have been during the non-breeding season, but also whether they’ve been resting on land or at sea (the devices can detect whether or not they’re in salt water). We’ve also managed to deploy the geolocators on both parents in some nests, so it will be possible to see the differences in couples over-wintering behaviour and their subsequent arrival back at their nesting sites next year.
Razorbill (Photo by Derren Fox).
Puffin (Photo by Derren Fox).
Seabird monitoring isn’t all about the latest technology though. This season’s tagging work is drawing to an end now that most chicks have fledged, or are impatiently shuffling on their ledges in preparation to leave. But there is still time to head back to Swona with the Orkney Ringing Group for some reliable, old-fashioned ringing of the fulmar chicks before they fledge in late-August/September. Ringing recoveries are still invaluable in terms of long-term monitoring and can provide vital information about dispersal and feeding behaviour, site fidelity, mortality and longevity. The oldest known fulmar in Britain was from Eynhallow in Orkney and it’s thanks to ringing that we know that ‘Flora’ was ringed as an adult in 1951 and was last seen in 1992 back on Eynhallow, an impressive 40 years and 10 months later!
Fulmar (Photo by Derren Fox).
That’s about all for now, other than to say a big thank you to Derren Fox for his advice, patience and general good company this summer. Also, for the use of his photos! Here’s a final one of a European Shag that doesn’t really fit in with anything I’ve written about but it’s too good not to include!
European Shag (Photo by Derren Fox).
Finally, just time to say a big hello to the other STaR teams – I’m looking forward to a post-season catch up very soon! Check out the other blogs from Fair Isle, Colonsay and the west coast to find out how they’ve fared this summer.
Thanks a lot for reading,
Read more about STaR team research by following the links below.
Genevieve Dalley, RSPB Trainee Ecologist, tells us about a recent trip to Forsinard Flows.
Going with the Flow
As a trainee ecologist I get to travel around Scotland, waving nets and poking through pond weed in search of freshwater invertebrates.
This week I was at Forsinard Flows, right at the very top of Scotland. The birds have largely moved on by this time of year but there is still plenty of interest, such as the carnivorous sundew plants (below) coming into flower.
There was also an abundance of dragonflies and damselflies – with common hawkers whizzing past my ears and female black darters (who are in fact bright yellow) busy laying eggs in the sparkling pools.
Common hawker dragonfly (Aeshna juncea).
Female black darter (Sympetrum danae).
I was also lucky enough to have a ‘first’ moment: the first time I have ever seen the incredible egg laying behaviour of the emerald damselfly.
Once mated, the male continues to hold onto the female and together they slowly climb down a piece of reed and head underwater to lay their eggs.
This is a risky business! It is difficult to break the surface tension to enter the water for such small creatures, and once under the water they risk being eaten by predators such as fish. They then have to attempt to break the surface water tension on the way out – not always managing to release their wings and fly again.
Male above and female below. These emerald damselflies enter the water.
Completely submerged, the female starts to lay eggs.
I also had the chance to work on a project investigating the potential of some of the lochs at Forsinard for breeding Scoters. I got to use a variety of methods to survey for freshwater invertebrates (a food source for Scoter chicks) – and have fun messing about in a loch with a dry suit!
Me (left) and fellow trainee ecologist Kirsty Godsman (right) in a loch in the depths of Forsinard.
There is a serious side to this work – Forsinard holds a large proportion of Britain’s breeding common scoter population, which is currently a red listed species. Their numbers halved between 1995 and 2007 and the reasons for this are not fully known. However, there is a team of dedicated people determined to find out quickly and hopefully will be able to reverse this decline.
Common scoter chicks photo Andy Hay.
The interactions between fish, invertebrates and scoters are complicated and it is essential to untangle this web of interactions. An initial three-year study has investigated the behaviour of scoters, finding a preference for large invertebrates and shallow lochs. In light of this information, the current project aims to test various management methods to see how best to manage lochs for breeding scoters.
These are beautiful birds but can often be overlooked as they spend a lot of time in places where few people get to see them. Once they have bred in places like the lochs of Forsinard, they up sticks and live out to sea for the winter months – making them very hardy birds!
So, if you find yourself visiting Scotland this summer, or are not yet decided on where to take your travels, why not give Forsinard Flows a visit?
Allan Whyte, RSPB Scotland Marine Policy Officer, gives us some good news about seabirds.
Good news for Scotland's seabirds
There is a glimmer of hope reflecting on Scotland’s sea. Invariably it is bad news when seabirds make the headlines, but recent announcements by the Scottish Government have bucked the trend.
14 draft Special Protection Areas (SPAs) have been announced for seabirds, along with the designation of 30 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), including six for black guillemots and three for sandeels.
The announcements are an important first step towards creating a network of protected areas for seabirds and great news for RSPB Scotland and our supporters who have been campaigning for this for over a decade. We at RSPB would like to thank everyone who has taken part in our campaign and made this happen.
Scotland is home to globally important populations of seabirds, with 95% of the EU’s great skuas, 67% of the EU’s northern gannets and 65% of the EU’s black-legged kittiwakes all breeding on Scotland’s coasts. Climate change and poor management of Scotland’s marine environment has contributed to declines in seabird populations in Scotland, with around half of our seabirds disappearing since the mid 1980s.
A recent report, published by RSPB Scotland, identified key seabird feeding areas the Government must designate to meet its international obligations, so the draft SPAs announced are an important first step, but more must be done to properly protect seabirds in Scotland.
RSPB Scotland’s Director, Stuart Housden said “The designation of draft Special Protection Areas is an excellent first step on what will be a long journey towards securing a healthy marine environment in Scotland. However, the real test will be how well these sites are protected and managed to help restore Scotland’s seabird populations. Although we are now at last making progress in protecting key areas, our seabirds are still without the protection they need further out at sea where they feed. The Scottish Government must bring forward more SPAs for seabirds soon and also recognise the value of MPAs for other seabirds like razorbills, kittiwakes and Arctic terns.
“A number of crucially important areas, for example parts of the outer Firth of Forth, have not yet been protected for seabirds, despite their enormous value to gannets, kittiwakes and other species. Worryingly this is the same area being scoped for large scale offshore wind development. We will not stand idly by and let such areas be damaged. RSPB Scotland looks forward to continuing working with the Government to finish the designation job, enhance the seas around our coasts and restore our seabird and marine wildlife heritage.”
These sites have the potential to protect and enhance Scotland’s marine environment, benefit our world class industries and our coastal communities; the challenge of unlocking that potential is still to come. Watch this space!