Tim Guilford, Oxnav, University of Oxford.
The vital conservation value of the monitoring and management work done by the wardens and volunteers on our Wildlife Trust reserves is clear to us all. But what are all the visiting scientists up to on our islands each season? Interesting stuff, you might think, but what’s it got to do with conserving our seabirds?
Skomer’s science, it turns out, has a long reach, and Oxnav’s work is just one example of many. For some years we’ve been studying the behaviour of Manx shearwaters at sea using miniature on-board tracking technologies, and they make some remarkable journeys. In summer, parents return from sea every night or two to feed their chick. But they also take turns to go much further in search of good resources to replenish their own bodies, exhausted by childcare.
More than 200km away, rich waters around the Irish Sea Front prove an especially important destination. And it’s not just Skomer birds that rely on it, because we found shearwaters from as far away as Rum and Copeland in the north and Lundy in the south travelling here to feed. These data proved key evidence in the gazetting of the UK’s first entirely offshore Special Protection Area (in 2017) for foraging seabirds: the Irish Sea Front marine SPA, 180 km2 of ocean about 35km south west of the Isle of Man.
Even more remarkable, a second area turns out to be important for Skomer’s pelagic seabirds (puffins and kittiwakes, as well as shearwaters), this time far out into the North Atlantic between the Grand Banks and the Mid-Atlantic ridge. A global collaboration of tracking scientists led by Birdlife international (and including Skomer) have now discovered this area to be a key overwintering hotspot for more than 20 pelagic seabirds, even some Southern ocean breeders, as well as sharks, tuna, turtles and whales.
More than half a million square kilometres of high seas known as the North Atlantic Current & Evlanov Seamount is set to become one of the largest MPAs for seabirds in the North Atlantic. Our shearwaters stopover here to forage during annual migration to and from Patagonia, but remarkably they also travel here to feed during breeding too, several thousand kilometres from their nests on Skomer, something we never suspected.
So next time you spot a weird experiment in the distance, or exhausted-looking graduate students scurrying about their mysterious business, spare a thought for the contributions that Skomer’s science makes to global conservation: it may not be obvious at first.
Figure 1. Main figure: The UK’s first entirely offshore protection area for seabirds, the Irish Sea Front SPA (in red), was gazetted in 2017 and is located in the rich waters around the Irish Sea Front (blue band). GPS tracks of shearwaters from four colonies (gold stars) over several years show the extent of foraging by this extraordinarily pelagic species. Inset: Approximate area (in red) of the proposed North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Seamount MPA, hotspot for pelagic seabirds including Manx shearwaters, puffins and kittiwakes from Skomer.
Figure 2. Header Image of a Manx shearwater, photo by Joe Wynn