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Seabird failure on northern RSPB reserves continues for another year

Early reports of seabird breeding performance on RSPB Scotland’s coastal reserves indicate continuing problems for the country’s internationally important populations of guillemots, kittiwakes and other seabirds, with nests abandoned and empty cliffs which should now be teeming with thousands of nesting birds at this time of year.

Worryingly, evidence suggests these repeated annual breeding failures are now substantially reducing populations of certain species, with some experiencing massive population declines in recent years at cliffs that used to support huge colonies.

Different seabird species have experienced contrasting fortunes according to their location and feeding preferences, but colonies on the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland – together Scotland’s most important “seabird cities” – have been hit particularly hard.

Early in the season many guillemots and razorbills appeared to have given up any attempt to breed at RSPB’s Sumburgh head reserve on Shetland, with eggs left abandoned on the cliffs as parent birds spent more time at sea in a desperate search for food.

Kittiwakes also had serious problems, and although many adults began nest building, significant numbers appeared to give up; others that did lay failed to incubate the eggs to hatching.

Further south on the Aberdeenshire coast at Fowlsheugh the picture was slightly more encouraging, with razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes appearing to be nesting successfully, although counts are still well down on historic numbers.

On the west coast, the breeding season has been more mixed, with both razorbills and kittiwakes experiencing a poor year, but some Arctic tern colonies fared well and were bringing in plentiful food supplies.

Doug Gilbert, an ecologist with RSPB Scotland, said: “Regrettably the poor breeding performance of our internationally important seabird colonies is now an annual theme. When you look at the evidence over the last 15 years it is quite startling and cause for serious concern. At our Copinsay reserve on Orkney the kittiwake population has plummeted drastically since the mid 1980s, when there were at least 10,000 birds on the cliffs, but today there are just under 2,000, a pattern repeated in many areas of Scotland and the UK. This decline is a major conservation problem, as Scotland supports 45% of the nesting seabirds in the EU, and the colonies attract many visitors to marvel at the sight of the massed colonies.”

He continued: “The declines are primarily being driven by changes in the availability of the fish that these birds depend on. Sandeels, sprats and other small fish are obviously just not available to kittiwakes and other birds in the way they used to be. The adult birds are having to spend more time away from their eggs and chicks to find food and many are just giving up their breeding attempts this year. These changes are almost certainly being driven by changes in the sea environment that we still know little about. Sea birds are indicators of the health of the marine environment and, like the canary in the coalmine, the decline in their fortunes should be a wake-up call to us all that we must pay attention to.”

A full analysis of the season will only be possible at the end of the summer.

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