Thursday, 11 October 2012

Keeping track...

For the second year in a row, our seabirds were the subjects of closer than usual study this year, with a small number of birds being fitted with electronic tagging devices. This year it was the RSPB undertaking the work as part of their Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment (FAME) Project. This involved attaching small a Global Positioning System (GPS) logger to the feathers of kittiwakes and guillemots, which they carried for just a few days. During that period, the logger recorded an accurate picture of the foraging destinations of the birds thanks to the high precision of GPS technology. These surveys will start to answer one of nature’s mysteries – where do seabirds go to feed when they leave the cliff. This will provide us with important information about what the birds need to thrive and will help us to conserve them in the future. Here's what a couple of our kittiwakes got up to over a couple of days:

The first was tagged on the 26th of May when it was incubating a clutch of two eggs. The map on the right shows the flight path this Kittiwake took during a two day period. The GPS tag attached to the feathers on the birds back logged a GPS point every 1 minute and 40 seconds. In areas where the dots are spread out the bird flew fast and in areas where the dots are clumped the bird slowed down to feed or rest. 

The second Kittiwake was tagged on the 27th of May when it, too, was incubationg a clutch of two eggs.  During the three day period this Kittiwake did three flights out to sea, one short trip south and two longer flights north (see map left). You can see quite clearly where this bird searched for food, flying tight circles. If you look closly you can see the side trip it did to visit the Isle of May.

It is truly amazing to see where these birds go to search for food during the breeding season. The map below shows the flight paths recorded for both of the above Kittiwakes on the same map, and gives a bit more perspective as to how far these small creatures travel over a small period of time. There are still many questions to answer, for instance, these maps show that not all bird go to the same place to feed, so what makes them choose the direction to fly in?  As usual, the more we find out, the more we realise we don't know!

Over the season the FAME Team were kept very busy as they were collecting data on kittiwake, guillemot, razorbill, shag and fulmar flight patterns on Orkney, Fair Isle, Colonsay, Isle of May, the Sillies, North Aberdeenshire, Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve and  Flamborough Head as well as at St Abb’s Head.

Another interesting project that stemmed from this work was "SEA Art in a Differnt Way" a collaboration between artists and scientists, culminating in an exhibition at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow between the 13th and the 21st October - check out the RSPB blog for more details

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