Last winter’s stormy seas took their toll on our seabirds

Great Shearwater (DC)

Between October 2013 and March 2014, the northeast Atlantic experienced the stormiest winter since systematic meteorological recording began about 100 years ago. Violent storms would usually come at a rate of two per week, with a calmer day or two in between if we were lucky.

What impact did this have on our seabirds? From an Irish perspective, we know that many of our breeding auks move south in winter, often frequenting the seas off western France to northern Spain. This understanding has been based on ringing recoveries from the now infamous oil spills of the Erika and Prestige.

Nothing much was detected until early in the New Year, when reports of dead or emaciated birds on beaches in Ireland and elsewhere began to trickle in. The trickle then became a flood by February and March and obviously people began sending in ringing recoveries to the national schemes in France, the UK and Ireland. In a typical winter, we may receive one or two recoveries; the winter of 2013/14 produced nearly 100, with the main species as follows: Common Guillemot 42; Razorbill 33; Atlantic Puffin 6; Black Guillemot 6.

We are now in the middle of the seabird breeding season at the moment and our staff members have completed censuses at some colonies. These are showing the impact of increased adult overwinter mortality. For example, in 2011 and 2012, we had 90 and 92 pairs of Black Guilllemots on Rockabill. This summer, we only have 54 pairs (41% decline) and many ‘prime’ nest holes are vacant. On Wicklow Head, the numbers of breeding Common Guillemots and Razorbills declined by 41% and 29% respectively since the last count in 2009.

Stephen Newton, Birdwatch Ireland’s Senior Conservation Officer

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