Initial findings of a ground-breaking project that tracks
Scotland’s seabirds using technology akin to car ‘sat-navs’, has revealed that
seabirds are foraging much further afield than scientists had thought.

The Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment
(FAME) project tracks Common Guillemot, Kittiwake and other seabird species in
an attempt to identify crucial marine feeding locations. The project followed
several birds from the Northern Isles looking for food vast distances from the
colony while others stayed closer to home. The islands are together home to some
of Scotland’s most important “seabird cities”.

This information coincides with early reports of
seabird breeding performance on RSPB Scotland’s reserves in Orkney and Shetland,
which indicate continuing problems for some of the country’s internationally
important seabird populations. Project data showed one Common Guillemot from
Fair Isle travelled as far south as waters off Dundee in search of sand-eels and
other small fish; this is an epic 350 km journey for a species that was
previously thought to forage almost entirely in waters close to its colonies
during the breeding season.

In an intriguing twist, individuals of the same
species – from colonies just 9 km apart – have been found to feed in completely
different locations. One Razorbill, tracked at the start of June from Swona in
Orkney, made about 12 foraging trips over 3 days, all within 31 km of its nest.
Another Razorbill, tracked from Muckle Skerry, went on only 2 feeding trips over
60 hours, but flew up to 144 km from the colony in search of food.

Commenting on the initial data, Rory Crawford,
RSPB Scotland Seabird Policy Officer said: “Although it is still early days for
this project, we are already seeing some fascinating results. While some birds
are displaying what we think of as more characteristic feeding habits – staying
nearer their colonies to feed during the breeding season – other birds are
travelling huge distances in search of food. By carrying out this tracking work,
we hope to discover whether birds having to travel further to find food is
contributing to the dramatic declines we’ve seen.

“What is most important is that this information
is used to improve conservation measures for our seabird colonies. These birds
need vastly improved protection at sea if they are to have any hope of
weathering this storm of decline.”

Doug Gilbert, RSPB Scotland Reserves Ecologist
added: “Seabirds, like Razorbills and Common Guillemots, are in big trouble on
our nature reserves. RSPB staff have found a startling decline in many species,
including a 63 per cent decline in Kittiwakes since 2000. At Troup Head on the
Banff coast, Common Guillemots have declined from nearly 40,000 birds in 2001 to
barely 14,000 this year.

“These declines are closely linked with the birds’
food supply, which in turn is influenced by changes in the marine environment,
partly driven by climate change. The FAME project is giving us vital information
on how far some birds are having to travel to get food. It’s revolutionising our
understanding of the birds’ feeding habits.”