Mariner’s pilots

Pilot /ˈpʌɪlət/ Maritime: ‘A person with expert local knowledge …’

Seabirds were the mariner’s pilots of the 1860s. These ocean wanderers earned their prestigious pilot status guiding fishermen to profitable catches out at sea. On cold, foggy nights, the calls of a thousand breeding birds guarded merchant sailors off perilous rocky coasts. However, as pleasure seekers flocked to the coast to shoot the seabirds, cliffs once teeming with life became silent, and shipwrecks filled their place. The dwindling seabird populations and rising numbers of lives lost at sea did not go unnoticed by locals trying to support their families off the sustainable egg harvest. Eventually the pilot’s advocates successfully campaigned for their protection: the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 was one of the first wildlife protection laws in the world (1).

Fast forward to now, and our seabirds have more modern worries. Climate change, pollution, industrial fisheries and invasive species are rendering our cliffs quiet once more. Global seabird populations declined by 70% from 1950 to 2010 (2). And it’s not just the birds. Nearly two thirds of marine ecosystems that underpin livelihoods across the globe are degraded or exploited (3). It is as important now as during the 1860s to learn from our seabirds about the state of ocean health.

Our research seeks to uncover new information about life in seabird colonies. We can make the most of technological advances to learn fine scale details about which habitats birds choose for finding food, and what effects the likelihood of successfully rearing a chick. Over the course of my PhD, I have and will continue to visit coastal islands around the UK, becoming ever more familiar with the sounds and smells of seabird colonies, hoping to answer some of these questions.

Last summer, thanks to the invaluable help of our research group in Liverpool, we were able to track kittiwakes with GPS loggers at Skomer Island off Pembrokeshire (SW Wales) for the first time ever, and at Puffin Island off Anglesey (NW Wales) building on a strong 5 year data set. Kittiwakes are a small, gull-like species, who forage out at sea on small fish living near the surface. From tracking data, we discovered that kittiwakes choose where to feed according to the predictable 12 hour tidal cycle, and, interestingly, that the surrounding environment can determine the tidal influence on behaviour.

This year, we are (perhaps ambitiously) visiting a third colony as well: Rathlin Island off Northern Ireland. At all three colonies we’ve set up time-lapse cameras at kittiwake breeding sites to take a picture every hour, recording right through from nest-building to chick fledging. We’ll also be heading back later in the summer to track the adults again whilst they are rearing small chicks. Each colony offers a unique coastal environment to its resident seabirds, offering us an exciting opportunity to study what ocean features are important to kittiwakes. In the context of declining seabird populations, we will be able to ask what environmental conditions lead to the origins of different behaviours, and whether these equip or hinder the response of individuals and populations to change.

Seabird research continues to inform marine management and conservation. Kittiwake populations are of least conservation concern according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (4), however European policy has adopted kittiwakes as a key indicator species for marine management (5). They’re our modern day pilots . I hope that by further understanding the ecology of our valuable seabird populations we can continue to protect our marine ecosystems. I wonder when a seabird colony last saved people’s lives as in the 1860s, but I think that they are worth every effort to save them.

If you’re on a boat trip around Skomer, Puffin Island, or at the Rathlin Island seabird centre this summer, keep an eye out for our time lapse cameras! Thanks to all of the resident wardens and Kendrew Colhoun for their help. Thanks also to Perdix Wildlife Supplies for generous loan of a camera that will greatly enhance our project.

Time lapse camera on Skomer Island

(1) A Natural History of Britain (2009), The 1869 Sea Birds Preservation Act. Online [Accessed 12.05.17]

(2) Paleczny et al (2015), Population Trend of the World’s Monitored Seabirds, 1950-2010, PLoS ONE 10(6): e0129342.

(3) UNESCO, Facts and figures on marine biodiversity. Online [Accessed 12.05.17]

(4) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2016), Online [Accessed 12.05.17]

(5) OSPAR Commission (2007) EcoQO Handbook

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