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Monitoring Seabirds

Seabird Seabirds

Seabirds are some of the more conspicuous inhabitants of our offshore waters. This project is examining primarily the occurrence of seabirds in the Atlantic Margin waters. It is being undertaken by staff working for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) who are visiting these waters on board a dedicated survey vessel and counting seabirds in a standard fashion. These counts are being conducted on a monthly basis throughout the year.


The history of work on seabirds at sea off the United Kingdom stretches back to 1979. In that year, prompted by concerns of possible impacts of the then young offshore oil industry, government departments and oil companies sponsored the first phase of the Seabirds at Sea project. This phase lasted for three years and focused on developing techniques and surveys in the northern North Sea. Following this, sponsorship was obtained to extend coverage into the remaining areas of the North Sea. In 1986, a third phase encompassed waters to the north and west of Scotland. BP and the Departments of Trade and Industry and of Transport provided extra funds to survey areas north of the Hebrides at this time. Most surveys in these phases were undertaken from vessels, such as naval ships and fisheries research vessels, using these areas for other purposes. This has the advantage of being comparatively cheap, but the disadvantage that it is difficult to ensure complete coverage of survey areas.

Work Programme

The results of these surveys have been combined with those of other European researchers in the European Seabirds at Sea database and have been published in a variety of atlases of bird distribution; in analyses of seabird community vulnerability to oil pollution and in scientific papers.

Work on seabirds at sea around Great Britain and Ireland continued, but it was not until the mid 1990's with the discovery of potentially commercial oilfields on the Atlantic Margin that surveys started in this area again. Analysis of survey requirements revealed that the use of ships engaged in other activities was unlikely to be adequate. Ships were therefore chartered for dedicated seabird survey purposes.

Note that dolphins and whales (cetaceans) are also counted when seen. Summaries of information on cetaceans may be read under Project 3: Marine Mammals. Seabird surveys on the Atlantic Margin have been carried out over a period of many years, funded by individual operators, or operators consortia working with the JNCC. In 1996 the funding of the surveys around the 16th licence round area was taken over by AFEN and this continued during 2000 and was extended to cover the 17th round areas. JNCC also works jointly with other specialists carrying out similar surveys for the Faroes GEM Group, AFEN's equivalent body, in adjacent Faroes waters.

A report on the work was published by Bloor et al 1996 and 2000. Further reports are in the late stages of preparation. All the data will be placed in the public domain either by publication or via the European Seabirds Data base. Surveys of the numbers of seabirds breeding at colonies around the Atlantic Margin were undertaken in 1985/87 and published in Lloyd et al 1990. Counts at these colonies were repeated again in 1998/99 and 1999/2000. These results have been contributed to the Seabird 2000 project and will be published in due course.

Early Results

More than 10% of the world's population of guillemots, razorbills, puffins, great skuas and gannets, and more than 1% of kittiwakes and black guillemots breed in the Atlantic Margin area. Apart from the great skua and black guillemot, these species, together with fulmars, are numerically the most abundant species in offshore areas of the North Sea and North Atlantic. Large numbers of birds use the islands for feeding, roosting or preening.


During the pre-breeding season (March-April) large numbers of guillemots and puffins and smaller numbers of gannets and great black-backed gulls occur in the area. During March and April adult puffins may be flightless due to the moulting of their feathers. Large numbers of kittiwakes and fulmars can also be found on various parts of the UK Continental Shelf during this period. Large numbers of puffins are found around the study area during the early part of the breeding season.

During the winter period (Oct-Feb) guillemots are the only auk to occur offshore in moderate numbers within the study area. Although numbers of fulmars and kittiwakes decrease during this period, they are still the most abundant species in the area during the winter months.

In May there is a large scale arrival of guillemots and puffins for the breeding season (May-July). Adults and young start moving off to sea in July, and the area is relatively unimportant for most seabirds in the post-breeding season (July-Sept).

This information was used to map areas of vulnerability to oil and gas activities, which influence timings and procedures of operations; an example is shown to the right.

Areas of vulnerability

Recent Results

Results to date indicate that for the majority of the year, the deep water areas are inhabited primarily by fulmars.

See also the RSPB Image Library Web Site

Nearby shelf areas support a much higher diversity of seabird species. The greatest use of these areas by the seabird community in general is during the breeding season in summer. One seabird, Leach's Petrel, might be regarded as a specialist over deep waters, particularly west of the Hebrides. The largest European colony is on St Kilda and birds feed to the west of these islands.

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