Ellie Owen, RSPB Conservation Scientist, celebrates an important milestone with her team...

The seabird tracking team 2013 celebrating an important milestone...

This week I have been thinking back to April 2010 when I, along with the rest of RSPB’s FAME seabird tracking team, headed out to my remote island sites to start the first season of catching and tagging seabirds on a scale and in a way that had never been attempted before. I remember the nervousness I felt. We had been given the opportunity, through EU funding, to solve one of the remaining mysteries in natural history – where do seabirds go when they leave the cliff to feed – but could we do it? It was urgent that we succeeded because seabirds are in trouble and in order to help we need to find out what they need to survive.

The task sounds near impossible on paper:  (1) Catch a seabird using the age-old techniques used by St Kildans, where the bird is caught using a loop on the end of a 10m long pole. It is a careful, painstaking game of cat and mouse as the bird could fly away at any point if we make any sudden movements.  (2) Attach a small ‘satnav’ style GPS tag to the plumage on its back using special tape. (3) Release the bird and leave it for a few days to record where it goes on its feeding trips. Sounds not too impossible so far... but then the hard part (4) Refind the same bird, which we do by catching birds on their nest sites so we know where to look for them, (5) Hope that the weather stays dry and calm so that we can (6) Recatch the same bird. This is tough because they remember us and are good at learning how not to be caught (...did I mention that the tags fall off after a few days so the clock is always ticking??). Finally, (7) Hope that the tag has functioned properly so that we can download the precious data so that it can be fast-tracked for conservation.

The first few weeks of tagging were difficult. Birds tested us, the weather battered us, and the technology failed us. We worked long hours trying, but failing to get any tags back. But gradually, we learned how to tweak the chances of being successful ever so slightly in our favour and the tags started to trickle in, almost to our surprise. Had we cracked it?

It is still a tough job and at times nerve-wracking but today is a very special day for anyone involved with the project, including all our supporters who have willed us on. We are in our 4th summer of tracking and have just managed to recatch and download our 1,000th GPS logger. In a way we have just solved our 1,000th seabird mystery.  The 1000th bird is a razorbill nicknamed ‘Sierra’ she was caught on the West of Scotland on the island of Colonsay where she nests on a secluded thrift covered cliff about 25 metres above the crashing Hebridean waves. From there, she was tagged and three days later our researchers Tessa and Emily saw that she was back. When you see a tagged bird is back and ready to be caught, it immediately starts your heart beating double time. As you rope up and then peer over the cliff, trying to be calm and quiet, you often catch a glimpse of the tag itself still attached to the bird. Being so close to the tag is tantalising as you are so near, but yet so far, the major test is still to come – would Sierra be caught? Luckily she would, but it was by no means an easy catch. As the loop touched the bird it started to close itself and the only thing keeping it on the bird was the curve at the tip of her razor sharp bill! After taking the tag off and releasing Sierra she returned to her egg and nestled down to incubate. It is a great feeling to see a bird looking settled after being caught. In 10 days time this egg will hatch revealing a mini razorbill chick, surely one of the cutest things in the whole of nature, but perhaps I am biased.

Razorbill with chick (RSPB Images)

When you get back to base you can download the data from the tag. It is a pure form of instant gratification because the data pops up on Google maps, showing you exactly where the bird has been in great detail. Sierra’s map shows that she flew East over an amazing natural whirlpool called the corryvrekan and then flew over the north of Jura and spent time feeding in the water between Jura and the mainland of Scotland. Her clever backpack also tells us that she made over 400 dives of up to 25m depth while she was feeding. We have seen other Razorbills from Sierra’s colony feeding in the same place, especially in the area close to the whirlpool. It is likely that the fast flowing waters of these areas bring fish close to the surface so that the birds can save energy by only needing to make relatively shallow dives. I’d love to see them underwater, where they are truly in their element, whizzing around corralling fish. At the moment it is a mystery how they manage to do this in such fast flowing water. Perhaps soon we will have the technology to find this out too. 

Sierra’s feeding trips

By the way, Sierra got her name after the ‘S’ that makes up the acronym of our new project ‘STaR’ – Seabird Tracking and Research. STaR builds on the findings of FAME, bringing in more sites, more species and more conservation! The data from FAME and STaR are already making a difference and if the weather, birds and technology allow it we will keep on tracking! Now that we have the data from 1,000 birds safely in our possession I can admit that there were times when part of me thought that this project was impossible. Thanks to the skill of the team and our incredible birds, we’ve made it this far. But this is just the beginning. STaR is already making more progress by tracking birds at new sites up and down the British Isles. Only this week we managed another world first: we have worked out how to track the elusive black guillemot for the first time ever. But that is another story...

You can see more tracks by visiting www.FAMEproject.eu

Watch this space for more news on the STaR project!!