May 20, 2016
Wind E @ 10 Knots
Air Temperature 12°C
Sea State 1 M
Cover Photo: Long-tailed Skua. Photo: William Hunt
As a wildlife conservationist I have had the privilege to work with a wide range of animal groups across a myriad of environments ranging from the high arid mountains of the South Sinai to the tropical islands of Cape Verde off West Africa. I completed a Research Masters in Conservation Biology in the University of Nottingham in 2012. Since I graduated I’ve worked on a wide variety of conservation projects but my work in recent years has been particularly focused on seabirds. I spent three summers working as a Tern Warden for BirdWatch Ireland, helping conserve and research some of Ireland’s most endangered breeding seabirds. This eventually led me here to the TRASNA trans-Atlantic voyage as a research assistant to PhD student Niall Keogh (Marine and Freshwater Research Centre, GMIT).
Niall has undertaken 14 trips on the RV Celtic Explorer as a seabird observer and is collecting information on the distribution and abundance of seabirds at sea. Seabird ecology in many ways is poorly understood and projects like this allow us to better understand how seabirds utilise the ocean; where they feed and where they migrate. Most seabirds are strongly migratory and may spend each year in several different countries; if we protect them only in one country it does not guarantee them a safe future. Climate change and overfishing may be having a strong influence on seabird distribution and ecology. Research like this is essential in safeguarding the future of seabirds and the marine environment. We survey each day as much as possible, weather plays a big role in seabird and cetacean monitoring at sea.
We left St. John’s in Newfoundland on the 11th and we are now two days away from Galway on the west coast of Ireland. It has been an incredible experience for me to see how the makeup up of birds has changed from day to day. The first couple of days on our departure from St. John’s were particularly exciting for me. I had never seen Brünnich's guillemot, Little Auk or American Herring Gull before and I had only seen Leach’s Storm-petrel, Pomarine Skua (jaeger) and Long-tailed Skua a handful of times in Ireland. Leach’s Storm-petrel breed in huge numbers around Newfoundland and this was reflected in our counts. Of course there were familiar species on our first days such as Common Guillemot, Fulmar and Kittiwake which are common in Ireland. As we got further out to sea the species diversity dropped and shifted.
In the middle of the Atlantic we saw fewer gulls and Auk species and more of the true pelagic seabirds such as Great and Sooty Shearwaters. Perhaps the most spectacular moment of the journey was seeing over 400 long-tailed Skuas migrating over the mid-Atlantic ridge. Skuas are the pirates of the bird world and frequently harass other bird species such as these unfortunate Grey Phalaropes!
Passing the mid-Atlantic ridge onto the “European” side the birds started to get a bit more familiar; Manx Shearwaters, European Storm-petrels, Puffins and Gannets becoming the norm. You never really know what you are going to see in the middle of the ocean such as the South Polar Skua that Niall mentioned before in a previous blog post. The award for the most unusual bird on this crossing (so far!) has to go to the Taiga Merlin seen over the mid-Atlantic ridge! Initially spotted by Marine Mammal Observer William Hunt, the Merlin spent several hours perched on the crow’s nest of the ship and presumably spent the night on-board as it was seen the following day hunting Arctic Terns! It was incredible for me to see Arctic Terns out here as I’ve worked with them before on Rockabill Island in Dublin. They have the longest migration of any bird and it is estimated that a 30 year old Tern may have travelled up to 1.5 million miles in it’s lifetime!
It was extremely interesting observing the transition of bird diversity and abundance along the crossing. Shallow waters around the shelf edge, the mid-Atlantic ridge and sea mounts appear to be the most productive areas for seabirds while the open areas of deep water between the shelf edge and the mid-Atlantic ridge are comparatively barren. Water temperature, currents, fish distribution and a host of other factors also help shape the distribution of the seabirds and this survey will no doubt shed more light on the mysterious ecology of seabirds.
Leaving St. John's Photo: Andrew Power
Great Shearwater Photo: Andrew Power
Taiga Merlin in flight Photo: William Hunt