RSPB Seabird Surveyor, Thalassa McMurdo-Hamilton, gives us an update on the Orkney seabird breeding season.
Dramatic seabird breeding failures in Orkney for another season
Welcome to the second Orcadian seabird blog (to read the first blog click here). This past month has been full of ups and downs for me as a seabird surveyor. This month, it’s been all about guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake chicks: hatching, survival and fledging.
We’ve expanded our productivity monitoring to razorbills and shags. Shags appear to be doing well, with many fledged young visible along the cliffs at the moment. I’ve also learned that razorbills sit even more tightly on their eggs and chicks than guillemots. It makes for some long watches but it’s worth it when you get a glimpse of a chick beak poking out from the top of the adult’s wing! From both plots, I’ve had a few successful jumplings but it’s a mixed picture for this species and one that won’t become clear until the end of the season, or even after a few years of monitoring.
A razorbill brings in some sandeels for a young chick, at Marwick Head.
The same chick, a bit older and close to leaving the cliff ledge, looking like a mini adult!
Guillemots are also struggling and it is shaping up to be a disappointing season. There has been quite a bit of variation between the colonies, for example, chicks began to hatch a whole week earlier on the east coast than the west coast. At Mull Head in the east, from a total of 70 pairs, less than ten chicks fledged, and the breeding tailed off dramatically towards the end leaving the cliff face empty of auks by mid-July. At Marwick Head in the west, after losing three-quarters of the guillemots on eggs within around a week, I had only one small shelf left. The birds there hung on, and with seven medium-large sized chicks, I had high hopes! In the end, only 6 chicks fledged out of 63 pairs.
At another unmonitored location on the east coast, I was lucky enough to see 6 guillemot chicks leaving the cliff ledges! They had some loud encouragement from an adult below, and sometimes a bit of a tap on the head as encouragement on the edge.
This year we have spent some time looking at how often food is brought to the guillemot chicks and what type it is. It’s really enjoyable as I get to see lots of fascinating behaviours and I always enjoy seeing food coming into the colony. Recently, I saw a guillemot coming in with a display fish. However, it seemed the perfect size to feed a growing chick and attracted quite a lot of loud attention from the brooding adults. Eventually it was wrestled out of its beak, but dropped to the ground on the ledge. One smart parent clocked it very quickly, picking it up off the ground and feeding it quickly to its chick. Even the interesting behaviour was not enough to distract me from the fact that very small amounts of prey were being brought to chicks.
My final ledge of guillemots at Marwick Head that I grew quite attached to – can you tell which ones are brooding chicks?
There really is no good news for the kittiwakes this season. The seriousness of the situation is making everyone take notice and you may have heard me talking on BBC Radio Orkney earlier this month. Kittiwakes becoming media darlings is not enough to rescue the situation however and after a very slow start, few pairs laid eggs and even fewer made it to chick stage. At this point in the season (late July) even large colonies with almost 100 pairs have been reduced to less than 5 birds. Although it was predicted that this year would be bad, it is still very sad to see so many empty nests.
A deserted colony on the Brough of Birsay which holds just one nest with kittiwake chick in mid July (marked by red circle).
Why are kittiwakes and guillemots doing so badly? These species are sensitive to prey quality and availability. Kittiwakes are surface divers and cannot access the wide range of food in the whole water column that other species can. Guillemots, despite being able to dive up to 60m to find their prey, can only carry one prey item at a time. Therefore if the only prey they can find is small or of poor quality, they cannot make up for this by carrying more food. Due to rising sea surface temperatures around Orkney waters, breeding seabirds’ key prey item, the sandeel, is simply not found in high numbers anymore. It is believed that poor food availability is the main driver of the long-term seabird declines in Orkney – it’s not just kittiwakes and guillemots that are suffering.
I will be writing again soon to summarise the year, including a fulmar update and the final outcome of the kittiwake season. In the mean time, there are still plenty of beautiful wildflowers along the cliffs, as well as amazing behaviours to be observed, so put your boots on and admire our coastlines – they may look very different in the years to come.
Marwick Head in sea fog – a landscape that may fall silent in years to come.
All photos by Thalassa McMurdo-Hamilton
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, sign the petition and help give something back. Seabirds enrich our lives; it’s time that we started enriching theirs.
With buses they say you wait for ages and then two come along at once. But special places for nature are scarce and becoming rarer.
In an exciting partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, we've secured a special part of Scotland for nature and people.
Why is it so special?
Is it the stunning views with wetlands, woodlands and snow capped mountains (yes, they were still snow capped last week)? Or is it the wintering white-fronted geese that make a 3,000 mile round trip every year from Greenland?
Perhaps it's the 200+ species of flowering plant (an eighth of the species recorded in the whole of Britain)? Or maybe the lamprey, a primitive eel-like fish, which can be traced back to 200 million years before the dinosaurs existed? Possibly it's the vast range of small beasties that exist, often out of view.
Despite having only just got to know the site, I suspect it is all of the above and more. And that is at the centre of our plans.
We want to protect what we know is here, find what hasn't already been discovered and allow existing and new visitors more opportunities to enjoy the stories and experiences the landscape and wildlife has to offer.
Making it happen
Well, the first step has been taken.
Following support form the National Park Authority, SNH, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the generous donations of our supporters through an appeal, we have secured purchase of the land. The next step will be to appoint a site manager (lucky devil!).
We have already started the important process of talking to the local communities, gathering information about the site and monitoring the wildlife. Next will be formulating a plan to improve the site over the coming years.
In the meantime, if you want to visit the reserve there is a path from the Millennium Hall in Gartocharn which will give you a flavour of the site and its potential.