Skip to content
  • Audio
  • 15 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Staying ahead of the game: Seabirds

Updated Monday 13th September 2010

The Saving Species team continue their investigation into seabird populations in an interview with seabird ecologist Sarah Wanless. Here she discusses how the changing sea is impacting on the seabirds of the Isle of May.


Copyright open university


Presenter:  So we’ve moved away now from the absolutely noisiest bits of the seabird colony, sitting on a very pleasant grassy ledge looking down over a sort of rocky islet in front of us, still with seabirds all over the place there, with lots flying past us.  You know, I have to say, having walked round the island, having heard the noises, having smelled the wonderful smell of seabirds, it’s very difficult to believe that there’s a problem with seabirds.  There seems to be heaps and heaps of them here.  Is that really the situation, Sarah?

Sarah Wanless:  Well it’s indeed the case that, yes, I mean this is still a vibrant seabird colony.  But numbers have decreased substantially since perhaps its heyday in 1980s leading up to the 1990s.  So there are things, we are now starting to see things happen but, although we’ve been looking at birds since the 1970s, over the last 30, almost 40 years, we’re starting to see things that we haven’t seen before, and sometimes seeing changes, breeding failures occurring increasingly rapidly.

So, yes, I mean you’re right, this is still an important seabird colony but we should also be looking in detail about what’s happening, some of the subtleties and nuances to pick up early warning signals as to what might be going wrong.  And it’s very much you’ve got these huge numbers, things very often happen quite slowly in seabird colonies, so what you want to be doing is right on top of the situation to then help you then see what might happen into the future.  Because it’s a bit like the sort of supertanker effect, so you’re not going to change things around very quickly so being smart, ahead of the game, is what you need to be.

Presenter:  So Mike’s already told us about the fate of the puffin and the ups and downs in puffin numbers, what about the other seabirds here, I mean we’re looking over on the cliff there to some razor bills and some guillemots for example sitting in the cliffs, are they suffering the same sort of problems as the puffin?

Sarah Wanless:  Well, obviously, they’re also quite closely related to puffins, so there’s still again these sorts of diving seabirds.  They’ve got relatively small wings and they’re using those wings underwater to help them fly through the water to catch their food.

Presenter:  Almost like penguins when you see them in the flesh there.

Sarah Wanless:  Yes, so a lot of people coming out here do always sort of think that they superficially look a bit like penguins, except that they’re just so much smaller than a penguin.  So penguins are much bigger, and of course penguins have really sort of gone that extra mile and have flippers as opposed to wings.  So these guys are sort of slightly hedge betting, so what they can do is travel out to good feeding areas, fly, and get there much faster than if they were swimming, but their actual sort of diving abilities, they are very good divers, and we know that in terms of how they’re actually pursuing prey underwater; they have to be very skilled divers to catch those prey.  But nevertheless they’re probably not quite the consummate divers that penguins are.

Presenter:  And what’s happening with their populations?

Sarah Wanless:  Well their populations are, now particularly guillemots, we are starting to see numbers coming down, and the key thing is what we have been seeing up until recently is a succession of much poorer breeding years for the chicks, so low production of chicks.  And the chicks, when they’ve been leaving the colony, have been that much lower in weight.  So again one of the things that we’ll be doing in a few weeks’ time is actually going around and actually catching a sample of those birds to weigh them, to measure them, put rings on them so that we can follow them in subsequent seasons.  And so what we know is that compared to the 1980s and early 1990s, as we’ve come into the 2000s, particularly the last three or four years, then we’ve been seeing those chicks much, well fewer chicks and the chicks that there have been have been lower in weight.  

And I think the other seabird here that you’re, a lot of people are particularly worried about is that very dapper little gull that we’re looking at down there, the kittiwake, and one or two of them flying over us a little while ago and calling their name ‘kittiwake, kittiwake’ as they went past.  They really are struggling it seems at the moment?

Sarah Wanless:  So the numbers, their numbers have been decreasing, well really going back much further than the guillemots, so back in fact since the 1980s numbers here have been coming down.  And particularly if you look up in the northern isles, up in Orkney and Shetland, there are much more severe population declines up there.  So yeah, so that’s again one of the species that we’ve been most concerned about because we’ve seen big, big decreases in the numbers.  So yes, I mean you’re saying here that this still looks like a vibrant colony, but it’s probably the kittiwakes, if you could remember back even sort of 10, 15 years, the colony would look substantially different in terms of the kittiwakes on the cliffs to what you’re seeing today.

One of the big things that’s happening at the moment is that there is a marine bill for England and Wales, and there’s a Scottish marine bill that had gone through the parliaments, and one of the things that both those bills allow for the first time is the establishment of marine protected areas out at sea.  Do you think there is any future in that? Do you think that a marine protected area could help some of these seabirds, or is the key still protection here at their breeding sites?

Sarah Wanless: 
Well I mean I would say that we really are missing a trick if we’re not protecting them out at sea.  I mean the difficulty is firstly we need a lot of information to know precisely where to protect because what we’re not going to be allowed to say is right we’ve got to protect the whole of the North Sea.  So we’re going to have to be quite specific and choosing areas that benefit a whole range of different species when we already know that they all feed in different ways is quite a challenge.  So I think we’re not saying that it will be easy to do that, but I think it’s something that we seriously need to be moving towards.

Because it’s not just protecting the areas for the birds, it’s then providing refuges for a lot of these species lower down the food chain which then need good conditions to then prosper and increase as rapidly as they can.  And then even if they’re not actually using them there, they can then move out into other areas and improve conditions over a wider area.  So I think definitely trying to move towards marine protected areas is something that we really need to do as a matter of priority.

And so presumably Sarah, the important thing is to make sure that all of the amazing data that you’re collecting here on the Isle of May is fed into all the sort of international datasets that are around to make sure that we really understand what’s happening to these seabird populations, and so that if we do decide to take action we’re doing the right thing at the right place at the right time.

Sarah Wanless:  That’s absolutely right, and of course here we’re just one little dot on the map so to speak, and there are seabird colonies right the way around the UK, and so it’s important for us to compare how things are doing on the Isle of May compared to elsewhere in Britain.  But also then to join that up with colleagues down in France, in Norway, up as far as Iceland.  Because a lot of the species that we work on do have this very broad distribution, and actually one of the things that is interesting is that a lot of the species that we’re looking at, so puffin, kittiwake, guillemot, all of these, actually here we’re almost at the southern end of their distribution.

So a lot of these birds really are very much arctic species or at least cold water species, and so again when we’re talking and saying that we’re concerned as temperatures are rising, one of the reasons why we are concerned is that actually they are very much sort of suited to colder climes.  And as we warm up here, then again one of the things you can see, on a hot day if you look down on the colonies, you see birds sitting there panting, obviously really getting very hot because of the micro climate on those ledges.  If we think it’s hot on the top of the cliff, it’s probably a good five or ten degrees warmer right where they are.

From a human point of view we think that they’re having it tough when it’s cold and wet and windy, in actual fact those are the conditions that they’re much better adapted to cope with, and so for them it’s a much bigger problem when it’s warm, not only on the land but in particular when it’s warm in the sea.  Because as the sea is warming up, then the whole food chain, the whole sort of composition of food which is out there is changing.  And at the moment is probably changing in ways which is not to the birds that we’ve got, not to their liking.

So on the whole then food availability is poorer, so either there is less food or the food that there is, is of lower quality, and when you bring both of those two things together then if you’re then trying to feed a brood of very hungry chicks then that’s, from the parents’ point of view, is making life a lot of work and not all of those chicks are then going to survive.

I guess the last question I need to ask you: Pessimistic for the future? Optimistic for the future? Or are you a scientist and say you want more data before you can decide?

Sarah Wanless:  I think if you take the very long view looking back, then indeed what we were talking about – providing protection for birds in the colonies – we’ve become very good at that and that was very very important because the biggest threats to the birds were actually at the colonies, from humans going in and exploiting them for their eggs, for the birds themselves or just causing an awful lot of disturbance.  So at that stage I think the birds had plenty to eat when they were at sea, the problem for them was when they came to land.

So by and large by setting up a very effective network of reserves and obviously now being very much the case that when you do go to reserves you respect the birds, you watch them but you keep quiet and try to minimise disturbance, then that’s been very beneficial to a lot of the species and numbers have been able to increase.  I think what’s much riskier for them is what’s happening out at sea, and indeed how we are going to do something to safeguard them out there.   In terms of things that we can do in the short term, it’s obviously making sure that we don’t disturb them, say, when they’re on the waters round about, the island is just proving a resting, and there has been some effective methods coming in to then sort of try and safeguard them when they’re very close to the, on the waters very close to the colonies.

The next challenge is to obviously try and safeguard some areas further away which we think are good for feeding.  And I mean in terms of where I think things might go in the future, I have to confess I’m probably more pessimistic at the moment because although particularly, say, in 2010, we’re seeing conditions I think have improved because we’ve had a couple of colder winters, and those in fact, but although those have been unpleasant for humans so we’ve had problems with snow and cold temperatures, then for the birds that’s actually been, for our seabirds that is actually good news.  So I think conditions, well last year they improved a little, this year we would be cautiously optimistic that they might improve quite a lot.

But that probably if we think about some of these long-term climate projections are, then that’s not actually what’s going to happen in the longer term.  So we will probably see more and more warmer seasons, and in the longer term that I think is not going to benefit a lot of the seabirds here because their feeding conditions, at least during the breeding season, are going to decline.  So I think numbers may continue to fall consistently, so these won’t be quite the vibrant colonies that we’ve been used to.

But all of that means it’s important to continue the work that you’re doing here, so that we do at least have a handle on what’s happening?

Sarah Wanless:  Absolutely, and there are things that we can do, more effective fisheries management, bring smart about perhaps protecting areas and not fishing every year, and there are ways that we’re starting to make that happen.  I think that is encouraging, and that could again sort of mean that declines aren’t as rapid as they would be without those measures. 

Two razorbills on cliff Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Michael Scott

Two razorbills on a cliff


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?