Seabird tracking is telling us where the most important marine areas are for the UK’s seabirds

The UK and its Overseas Territories are home to internationally important populations of seabirds but many of them are in severe decline.

Gannet Morus bassana, pair preening, Bass Rock

Overview

Seabirds are masters of the marine realm, a realm so different from life on land it is difficult to quantify the threats they face at sea.

For decades, people have wondered where seabirds are going to and coming from when they disappear from land but recently these questions have become increasingly important. Severe declines and clues that the declines are related to a lack of safe and plentiful feeding opportunities have meant scientists have turned to technology to help solve these mysteries. Seabird tracking is a game-changer, revealing feeding areas, overlap with offshore development and areas where seabirds are at greatest risk of interacting with fisheries.

The RSPB conducts groundbreaking work to track seabirds. This work is undertaken by dedicated teams and collaborators working on almost 20 different species both close to home and in UK Overseas Territories, enabled by funding from a wide variety of sources. 

Objectives

  • To track the foraging movements of breeding and non-breeding seabirds.
  • To relate foraging areas to environmental characteristics to understand which environments are most important for seabirds.
  • To identify key at-sea areas used by seabirds to recommend for designation as protected areas.
  • To produce recommendations for managing these important sites for the benefit of marine wildlife.
  • To assess the degree of overlap of human activity (particularly fisheries & offshore industry) with the at-sea distribution of seabirds.

Progress

  • The RSPB has amassed some of the largest seabird tracking datasets of their kind in the world.
  • Satellite tracking Tristan albatrosses from Gough Island in the South Atlantic has shown clear overlap of their foraging distributions with long-line fisheries off South America and South Africa. Fisheries bycatch of seabirds is widely recognised as a significant source of mortality that explains the decline of some species.
  • Advances in the miniaturisation and mass-production of high-precision GPS tags, has enabled us to track the detailed movements of large numbers of seabirds, including some of the smaller species.
  • Around the coasts of Britain and Ireland since 2010 RSPB and collaborating scientists have tracked more than 2,000 seabirds of 12 species from nearly 40 colonies. This has shown that some birds travel much further from their breeding colonies than previously thought. For example, razorbills and guillemots nesting on Fair Isle regularly travel more than 300km in search of food for their young, which brings them into potential conflict with marine developments which had been thought to be well beyond range. 
  • In the South Atlantic Overseas Territories, we have tracked petrels, penguins, frigatebirds, boobies, albatrosses and tropicbirds. While it is generally believed that many of the species breeding at temperate latitudes prefer certain foraging areas which have predictably high food availability, the tropical species have tended to forage in many different directions from their colony, probably because the prey availability in tropical waters is less predictable or less patchily distributed.
  • Gannets fitted with satellite tags at Bempton Cliffs, have shown core feeding areas 50-150km from the colony. The birds’ feeding areas overlap with areas proposed for offshore wind farms including the Hornsea zone, which is closest to Bempton. After breeding some birds remained in the southern North Sea, for at least a few weeks while others started their southward migration, reaching Northwest Africa before the end of October or migrated north, around the north of Scotland before continuing south into the Bay of Biscay. 
  • Various tag technologies have been used, including some developed in-house by the RSPB's technical staff. These include combined video tag and GPS such as 'Gannetcam ', underwater dive loggers, accelerometers, remote download GPS tags and 'texting tags' which send seabird location data by text message.  
  • It will never be possible to track all seabirds at all colonies and therefore we are developing and testing statistical models to predict the foraging areas of seabirds across wide areas based on the preferences for particular oceanographic features and colony characteristics.

Planned Work

The RSPB will continue to identify the most pressing conservation problems where tagging can lead to the identification of effective solutions. As well as gathering more information we analyse the data which we have collected to ask questions such as why birds are feeding further from the colony than was previously expected and what effect longer trips may be having on the birds’ prospect of raising chicks.

We also identify important marine areas for seabirds where birds of different species and from several different colonies gather to feed. Our work helps assess changes taking place in the marine environment, such as the cumulative impact of multiple offshore windfarms on seabirds and what the risks and opportunities might be for seabirds interacting with wave and tidal energy devices.

Results

Gannet tracking at Bempton Cliffs

Nine potential development zones for offshore wind farms have been identified in UK waters as part of the current phase of development (Round 3), of which zones 3, Dogger Bank, 4, Hornsea, and 5, East Anglia, lie within the likely foraging range of breeding seabirds from Flamborough Head & Bempton Cliffs Special Protection Area (SPA), notably northern gannet Morus bassanus.

The foraging areas used by gannets from Bempton cliffs were unknown prior to this study. Satellite tracking provides information about the foraging flights and destinations at sea for individual birds from known breeding colonies, so confirming the origins of birds seen at sea.

The resulting information is being used to identify where the birds forage, especially during chick-rearing, in relation to proposed offshore wind farms and to aid the assessment of risk to breeding gannets from wind turbines, either through collision or indirect effects on the birds, their foraging habitats and prey. This information will be used to aid the planning of wind turbine locations in the marine environment. As offshore wind farms already in the planning system come into operation, it also may be possible to obtain some early indications of the gannets’ response to wind turbines.

Data were collected from adult gannets fitted with satellite tags at Bempton Cliffs, in July 2010 (14 adult birds), 2011 (13) and 2012 (15). All tags returned data during chick-rearing and several continued to transmit data into the early post-breeding period. For the first time, we have information about the marine areas used by gannets from Bempton Cliffs during the breeding season and early post-breeding period. The highest density of recorded locations at sea was within 50-150km from Bempton Cliffs; some inter-annual variation has been noted. The 95 per cent shaded density represents the sea area of active use in each year, while the 50 per cent area represents the core area of activity. The greatest overlap with any proposal area for offshore wind farms was with the Hornsea zone, which is closest to Bempton.

FAME and STAR

FAME (Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment fameproject.eu) and STAR (Seabird Tracking and Research) are twin projects which have organised the tracking of seabirds on the coast of Britain and Ireland from 2010 to present.

FAME is a trans-national study involving BirdLife partners in Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal as well as the University of Minho and the Wave Energy Centre in Portugal. Each country carried out a different program of work, ranging from questionnaires with fishermen to radar surveys, with the RSPB focusing on tracking seabirds. The scale of the work has been unprecedented and it remains one of the world’s largest seabird tracking and monitoring studies. The results and further information are available at FAMEproject.eu. STAR carries on the work which was started under the FAME project, tracking more birds at more sites in the UK and Ireland and including more species. During the FAME and STAR projects we have teamed up with a variety of organisations acknowledged below.

Data from FAME and STAR are publicly accessible and can be requested by emailing RSPB’s conservation data management unit dataunit@rspb.org.uk who also hold an up-to-date list of the tracking data available or from seabirdtracking.org where the data can also be viewed.

Seabird tracking is telling us where the most important areas at-sea for the UK’s seabirds are

Using FAME and STAR tracking data we have been able to develop sophisticated models that now allow us to predict the at-sea distribution of breeding kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and shags, all around the UK. This has important implications for marine planning as it helps identify sensitive areas for these seabirds.

We can now also identify hotspots at-sea for these species at different geographical scales. These hotspot maps identify discrete areas that are particularly important for these birds during the breeding season and will inform our work on advocating for Marine Protected Areas for seabirds.

Find out more in our storymap, where you can also find a technical report of how the analyses were carried out, examples of the results and information on how to access the data.

Tracking species for which there is a lack of tracking data

We have been making progress in our work to track species which are difficult to track, either because they are small (eg storm petrels) or because they are sensitive to handling (eg puffins, black guillemots), meaning we have developed techniques to use the smallest of tags and adapted methods to suit more sensitive species. We also monitor the effects which tracking these species has to both fill in important gaps in our knowledge of the needs of these species at sea and also progress ‘seabird-friendly’ tracking methods.

Herring and lesser black-backed gull tracking

These two large gull species have been tracked as part of a wider project investigating the significant declines of these seabirds.

UK Overseas Territory Seabird Tracking

The RSPB has tracked seabirds not only within the UK, but also in the UK Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic, South Pacific, and the Caribbean, where globally important seabird populations occur.

This work includes penguins, large albatrosses and petrels at subantarctic islands, and boobies, frigatebirds, petrels and tropicbirds on tropical islands. Large petrels and albatrosses have very large foraging ranges and travel between continents even during the breeding season. They frequently use highly productive upwelling areas, where large congregations occur, and site-based protection would be useful. Tropical seabirds, however, appear to forage in a very dispersed fashion and rarely congregate at reliable foraging hotspots. The tropical Murphy’s petrels breeding on Henderson Island in the south Pacific, however, appear to have the greatest foraging range of all seabirds, with single foraging trips during incubation exceeding 12,000 km.

For many of these marine birds it is therefore critical to sustainably manage the entire marine environment within their foraging range to conserve populations. Overall, tracking seabirds has enabled us to follow their fascinating journeys both during the breeding season – when the birds travel thousands of miles just to feed their chicks – and during the rest of the year, when some species undertake migrations around the entire Southern Ocean.

Funding

Contacts

Coast on a stormy day

Dr Mark Bolton

Principal Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

mark.bolton@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Ellie Owen

Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

ellie.owen@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Steffen Oppel

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

steffen.oppel@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Antje Steinfurth

Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

antje.steinfurth@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Lucy Wright

Principal Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

lucy.wright@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Aly McCluskie

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

aly.mccluskie@rspb.org.uk
Tagged with: Country: England Country: Northern Ireland Country: Scotland Country: Wales Habitat: Marine and intertidal Species: Gannet Species: Guillemot Species: Herring gull Species: Lesser black-backed gull Species: Puffin Species: Razorbill Species: Albatrosses Species: Henderson petrel Species: Murphy's petrel Species: Northern rockhopper penguin Species: Tristan albatross Project status: Ongoing Project types: Research