By Tessa Cole, RSPB Senior Research Assistant
I thought I’d take a rainy windy day to update you the first three weeks of this year’s RSPB seabird tracking efforts: two projects, FAME (Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment) and a new project ‘tracking 2012’ which sees us extending the number of sites we are able to work in. This is the third year FAME has been collecting data on where seabirds are foraging, so we’re starting to acquire quite an insight in to their exploits away from the cliff tops. As well as research on the Atlantic coastline, tracking 2012 is happening out on the East coast in the North Sea this year. I will update you on how all the other teams are getting on later in the season.
My colleague AJ and I are on the Island of Colonsay (Inner Hebrides) for the summer. After receiving some expert training on wilderness first aid and rope access in Aviemore in the first week, we’ve now been let loose on the cliff tops! Although we use ropes, no actual climbing is involved which is good as I get the Elvis legs which would be more than a little inconvenient when balancing on a cliff top! We work hard to be as invisible as possible. Sometimes I wish someone had invented an invisibility cloak (mind you the military probably has…..maybe we should ask them if we can be the guinea pigs for gadgets like that!)
We work silently with just one person, creeping towards the cliff edge, peering over till we can just see the bird's head. Everything is done in slow motion and we spend a lot of time crawling around on all fours or pretending to be rocks. Bet you’ve never seen a CV with “brilliant at acting like a rock” written on it……but it’s actually rather a useful skill in our line of work. The birds are caught and we quickly record their measurements and weight, but most importantly we attach a small GPS device (a tiny version of the sat nav in your car). The birds are then released quickly and calmly. They don't return to the nest immediately, so we wait patiently to protect the eggs or chicks from predators until the adult comes back. This can take ages, but however long it takes and however bitter the wind you have to stay as still as a rock (preferably whilst hiding behind an actual rock too!). Natural seabird egg predators such as gulls can be a problem, so if one of them starts being cheeky we suddenly jump up and start making as much noise as possible to scare them off……what a funny sight we must look! After all this we go through it all again three days later when we attempt to re-catch the bird to retrieve the GPS device to find out where they have been foraging. We re-catch over 50% of the tags we put out but sometimes the weather gets in our way or the birds become wise to our catching methods - however the tags are designed to fall off within the week so the bird isn’t left sporting this season's must have accessory.
We start off working on shags, as they breed earlier than the other species we’re working on (Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Fulmar). This means we can wean ourselves gently in to the chaotic season ahead! Most of them are currently incubating three relatively small eggs, hunkering down and ignoring what the weather throws at them. I was on this project last year but only caught kittiwakes then. They are easier to learn catching skills on due to their high hormone levels telling them to stay on the nest with their eggs and chicks. Kittiwakes are also rather angelic, gentle birds compared with the MUCH heavier shags who like to aim their beak for a point between your eyes…..hence the very fashionable safety goggles we model!
AJ and I have now caught our first shags of the season and managed to get the GPS tags back three days later…..the nerves and adrenalin rush you get are huge, we generally need a power nap and some chocolate to bring us back to life after releasing the birds! The highs of getting our first GPS tags back are now replaced by the worry that we’re one hit wonders after several days of checking nests only to find the partner of the bird we’re trying to retrieve a tag from is always incubating the eggs. This cycle of ecstatic highs and frustrating lows will continue throughout the season but at least we’ll know we’re guiding the scientific process of designating Marine Protected Areas and steering the placement of renewable energy developments away from sensitive places for our breeding seabirds. Anyway, who can complain when they have a view like this from their “office”!
The FAME project is funded by the European Commission through the European Regional Development Fund, Atlantic Area Transnational Programme to the sum of €2.2 million with an additional €1.2 million funded by the project partners. Investing in our common future