Guillemot Uria aalge, adult, with fish in bill, group, Isle of May National Nature reserve

Orkney's vanishing seabirds

Erik Meek, who previously worked for the RSPB as Orkney's Area Manager, told us about his experiences.

Arctic terns, guillemots and razorbills

"I've been lucky enough to live in the Orkney Islands for 27 years working as the RSPB’s Area Manager.  It’s a fantastic place, crammed full of birds but we’re seeing some major changes and some of those changes are undoubtedly the result of climate change.

The summer before I arrived here (1980), a survey of the nesting Arctic terns in the islands had revealed an incredible 33,000 pairs. From the mid ‘80s on however, the terns started to experience problems with breeding failures which couldn’t just be attributed to the weather. 

Like almost all our seabirds, Arctic terns feed on sand-eels and it became clear that the supply of these fish wasn’t what it had been. Tern numbers have dwindled and we have now lost some 75% of that enormous population. 

Terns are splash-divers, in other words they only use the top few centimetres of the sea to catch their food. Kittiwakes do the same and they too have plummeted in numbers. 

Our Arctic skuas, piratical seabirds which chase terns and kittiwakes to rob them of their food, are disappearing too because the birds they used to chase are simply not there.

Our deeper-diving seabirds like guillemots and razorbills were, we thought, buffered from this food shortage in the surface waters by having a much greater depth of water available to them.

Their numbers seemed to hold up for a long time but 2004 changed all that. In that season, guillemot breeding success halved and although things were better in 2005 and 2006, we saw another disastrous summer in 2007 with enormous gaps opening up in our once thriving seabird cities at places like Marwick Head and Copinsay."

Why is this happening?

"What seems to be happening is that much warmer water is coming into the North Sea through the Fair Isle gap between Orkney and Shetland.

This has apparently completely altered the plankton regime in our area so the sand-eels themselves have nothing to feed on. As a result, sand-eel numbers have dropped dramatically and our seabirds are struggling to find food with the inevitable result of their numbers dropping.

Huge numbers of seabirds still nest in Orkney but the reductions have been vast. We are hoping against hope that the situation may rectify itself but if it doesn’t then the only answer is to continue to press for worldwide action on climate change - action the RSPB continues to advocate at every opportunity."

Eric Meek, who previously worked as Orkney Area Manager for the RSPB.

Erik Meek with his dog