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Early signs suggest another worrying breeding season for Scottish seabirds

Mid-season reports from RSPB coastal reserves suggest that Scotland’s seabirds are having yet another poor breeding season, with some areas in the North and West displaying near empty cliffs where there should be thousands of birds nesting.  Climate change seems to be be disrupting food availability, but more research is needed to better understand changes in the the complex marine ecosystem.

Scotland’s long and diverse coastline support’s an incredible 45% of the EU’s breeding seabird population. Although the full picture won’t be known until later in the summer, it’s already clear that some areas have had a disastrous year, with Orkney, parts of Shetland and the North West suffering badly – definitely worse than last year, and probably the worst since the dreadful 2004 season.

Other areas of the country – East coast reserves like Fowlsheugh and Troup Head, and Southern colonies like Mull of Galloway – seem to be holding up better, but in line with recent years still down from historical highs.  Even in the South things might take a turn for the worse; large chicks can still die if food becomes scarce.  

The mixed fortunes between different species make the changes harder to assess.  Common terns seem to have done consistently badly around the country, with kittiwakes holding on in the South and East, but guillemots have once again been hit hard.

Norman Ratcliffe, seabird ecologist with RSPB Scotland, said: “Yet again Scotland’s seabirds seem to have had another worrying season.  Our reserves on Orkney and the west coast definitely seem to have suffered from lack of food to feed chicks.  Some cliffs which should be packed with birds are just about bare, as adult birds abandon the nest once their breeding attempt has failed.

“This is all linked to food availability, which can be disrupted for a number of reasons.  We’re fairly certain that on the East coast, rising sea temperatures are leading to plankton regime shifts, which in turn affects fish like sandeels – a major food source for seabirds.   

“Sandeels might be abundant for a time but when this critical food source enters the next phase of its life cycle they swim down to the bottom of the sea and bury themselves in the sand, meaning they become unavailable as food. This often happens sometime in July, but if it occurs early you can get mass mortality of near-fledged chicks as has been seen for Coquet terns this year.

“Parent birds may then switch to pipefish, but chicks find these hard to swallow, they are less nutritious, and the parents spend much longer away from the nest leaving chicks vulnerable to predation and attack from neighbouring nests.”

In other parts of the country, the relationship between temperature and food isn’t as clear cut and requires more research. It is not as simple as saying ‘warmer waters are bad for seabirds’, because if warmer waters bring more food then seabirds will do well. Puffins in Norway do well in warmer years because herring there are more productive in higher sea temperatures.

A full analysis of the season will only be possible at the end of the summer, but RSPB believes it is indeed very worrying that this is another in a recurrent run of bad seabird breeding years in Scotland, and an indication of how wildlife is having difficulty adjusting to our changing climate.

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