Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Great Reckoning

May and June is seabird monitoring time and as such is the busiest time of year for us every year. Our monitoring takes two forms – counting the total number of birds that are attempting to breed on the cliffs, and also monitoring how well they get on with their breeding. As the seabirds are only here for a very short time it is a pretty intense few weeks for us, and we have little time for anything else. For example, this year we spent some 250 hours, or 7 working weeks, out on the cliffs monitoring seabirds in May and June - phew! This is mostly me and Jack, our Seasonal Ranger, with a little help from some volunteers for a couple of days. This year was a big year though, as we were carrying out our quinquennial count of auks (guillemots and razorbills) as well as all the other species.  Our auks are so numerous (numbering some 35,000 birds) that we only have time to count them every 5 years! 

But why spend so much time counting seabirds, I hear you cry? Well, the presence of the large seabird colony is one of the main reasons why St Abb’s Head has been declared a National Nature Reserve, so it makes sense that they are a main area of focus. But also, did you know that some 45% of Europe’s seabirds breed in Scotland? So we have a huge responsibility to make sure we do as much as we can to conserve them. But also, seabirds are very good indicators of the health of the wider marine environment. So, by monitoring numbers and breeding success, we can have an idea of how they are faring, from year to year, but also in the longer term. And if the numbers decrease (as sadly, they have been for the last decade or so) then we can then look more closely as to the reasons behind this, and is there anything we can do to reverse this trend. So, seabird monitoring is arguably the most important thing that us Rangers do at St Abb’s Head.

And the fruits of our labours? Well, we can tell you with confidence that 42,490 seabirds settled down to breed at St Abb’s Head this year. But that this number, although it sounds impressive (and is truly is spectacular when you visit the colony) it is down on last year, and merely half of the number of birds we had breeding here in the late 80s and early 90s. The reasons for this decline? There are many factors involved, but climate change effecting food supplies and leading to extreme weather conditions is thought to be the largest contributor. So when wondering whether you should do something to reduce your carbon footprint – bear in mind the plight of our seabirds.

Anyway, here a breakdown of that figure: Guillemot 32,990 birds (decrease of 0.6% on 2008).
Razorbill 1,820 birds (increase of 7.9% on 2008).
Kittiwake 3,403 pairs (decrease of 21.1% on 2012).
Herring Gull 239 pairs (decrease of 10.1% on 2012).
Fulmar 104 pairs (decrease of 21.8% on 2012).
Shag 94 pairs (decrease of 45% on 2012).

We haven't finished our monitoring yet, still continuing with monitoring the breeding success of shags and kittiwakes, but its not looking like a productive year, sadly.  Watch this space for a report on these results.  Figures are emerging from other seabird colonies too, and it seems we are not alone in having a poor season.  I will report back with more information on that too.

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