The state of our seabirds


We present some exclusive extracts and photographs from a great new book, RSPB Seabirds, published by Bloomsbury.

RSPB Seabirds coverMarianne Taylor’s superb book, RSPB Seabirds, with photographs by David Tipling, is packed with fascinating information on how the birds around our coast are faring. Some of the news is encouraging, some gives cause for concern. He we present brief exclusive extracts on eight of the most striking species.

000671-eiderThe conservation status of the Eider in the UK is Amber, reflecting the importance of the wintering population here, which according to the most recent surveys is in a long-term gradual decline. The breeding population, however, is now stable following around 200 years of steady increase. The exception is the Shetland population, which has declined steeply in recent years. Like other seabirds that spend most of their time on the surface of the water, Eiders are very vulnerable to oil spillages and other pollution incidents. Conflict with mussel farmers is another potential hazard.

Great Crested Grebe
_DSC7449-gc-grebeThis species’ recovery as a breeding species in the British Isles has been remarkable. It was close to extinction in Victorian times because of hunting pressure, but is now a common, very familiar and much-loved species, with a population that is still growing (an 11 per cent increase was recorded in 1995–2011). It has benefited greatly from the many gravel workings around the country that were allowed to flood and slowly develop into lakes with rich natural flora and fauna, and more recently from relatively green urban developments that incorporate landscaped lakes. Picture shows a pair of Great Crested Grebes performing the ‘weed dance’, one of a number of distinctive courtship displays.

European Storm-petrel
003672-euro-s-petrelThe biggest threat European Storm-petrels face is from predatory mammals introduced to their nesting islands. It is therefore vital that these mammals are kept away from the islands occupied by European Storm-petrels. In most respects European Storm-petrel colonies are relatively easy to manage and protect. Disturbance by human activity is a potential problem, but most accessible colonies are well protected against this. Many others are on islands so remote and tiny that they are never visited by people, let alone other mammals. At present the signs are good that the population is stable.

000925-shagAfter dramatic increases up until the 1960s and in some areas the 1980s, Shags are in a period of decline, with a 26 per cent loss in 2000–2011. Some ornithologists believe that the increase in Shag numbers in the last century was partly in response to a general cessation of harvesting the birds for food. Published in the 1950s and 1960s, Lilian Beckwith’s books about her life on the Isle of Soay made several references to the islanders catching and consuming Shags. It is difficult to assess whether the Shag population is now falling back to a more natural level following an unusually productive spell, the result of natural fluctuations, or whether the decline is cause for concern.

Great Skua
21-g-skuaThis species’ success as a breeding bird in Britain seems to be largely the result of an increase in discards from commercial fisheries. Breeding Great Skuas have been persecuted in the past, because they were believed to present a danger to sheepfarming interests. The proportion of the diet that is made of other seabirds has increased generally in Scotland. With such a small world population, and a large proportion of it based in Scotland, the Great Skua is of high conservation priority. Protecting it on the breeding grounds and preventing illegal killing is important, but its impact on other seabird species, in particular Leach’s Petrel and the Arctic Skua, must also be investigated. Picture shows a man fending off a Great Skua with his stick.

Common Gull
30-c-gullCoastal-breeding Common Gulls have increased in number historically, with a rise of 25 per cent between Operation Seafarer in 1969–1970 and the Seabird Colony Register in the 1980s, and another increase of 36 per cent between the Seabird Colony Register and Seabird 2000. Overall inland colonies appear to be declining. Farming and land-management practices could potentially have a significant impact on Common Gulls nesting inland. Drainage of wet grassland, and conversion of moorland to pine plantation, both deprive the gulls of breeding habitat.

Arctic Tern
009884-artic-ternThe Arctic Tern is a high-profile victim of the well-documented declines in sandeels in the North Sea. To what extent the sandeel problems are caused by overfishing, climate change or natural redistribution is unclear. A shortage affects Arctic Terns directly, by reducing the amount of food available for them and their chicks, and indirectly, by increasing the likelihood of skua predation (although this is only a problem in northern Scotland), and by obliging the adults to spend more time away from their nests, leaving the eggs and chicks at risk from chilling. Identifying and protecting key feeding areas is key to ensuring the continued survival of this exceptional and inspiring bird.

Black Guillemot
001527-b-guillemotThe distribution and feeding behaviour of Black Guillemots is quite different from that of other auks. They are perhaps more at risk from oil spills as they feed closer inshore at all times of the year. However, Black Guillemots have higher productivity than other auks and can thus recover more quickly from losses like this. Some of the colony losses in western Scotland are thought to be the result of American Mink predation.

RSPB Seabirds is published by Bloomsbury at £25 – but you can buy it at the reduced price of £22.50 here.

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