Seabird surveys on the R.V Celtic Explorer – WESPAS Leg 1

CE19010 Western Edge Small Pelagics Acoustic Survey 13thJune – 4th July 2019

Hello, my identify is Sally O’Meara and I’ve just lately come to the tip of 4 years finding out Utilized Freshwater and Marine Biology in GMIT. Woo! To my delight I used to be given the good alternative via Good Sea College to work as a seabird observer (SBO) on the R.V Celtic Explorer for the primary leg of WESPAS. All through this weblog I’ll give a short overview of the tasks of a seabird observer and *hopefully* spark an curiosity in seabird shenanigans in all of you! 

Seabird surveys have been carried out on the R.V Celtic Explorer throughout acoustic fisheries surveys since 2012. WESPAS leg 1 marks my fourth survey working as a seabird observer, my first being the Blue Whiting survey in 2018. The general goal is to report the abundance, distribution, and variety of seabirds in offshore waters which helps inform each fisheries and conservation administration. 

Generally birds prefer to land on the boat! This was Jasper, a racing pigeon that spent a couple of days with us whereas sheltering from unhealthy climate.

Seabirds Matter!

Seabirds are an important a part of the marine ecosystem, and so they function glorious indicators of the well being of our oceans. They’re usually long-lived, extremely cell, and fairly delicate to adjustments within the marine surroundings which makes them an important candidate for long-term monitoring. Adjustments corresponding to reductions within the availability of meals and a rise in ranges of pollution (chemical compounds, marine litter, and so forth) can have apparent and sometimes devastating results on seabirds by way of their abundance, distribution, and breeding success. 

Out of Attain

Seabirds usually solely turn into accessible to scientists throughout the breeding season once they come ashore to rear their younger, and even at that some species breed on inaccessible cliffs and distant islands. They spend the rest of the 12 months typically far out to sea and never a lot is thought about this a part of their life. A seabird’s pure habitat is the ocean (therefore the identify).  For scientists to get an general image of seabirds habits it’s actually necessary that alternatives come up for individuals to go offshore to watch these animals and I really feel very grateful that I’ve had such alternatives to hold out such important work.  

Gannet with a bit of rope caught in its beak.. Sadly, there have been a number of birds seen entangled in some type of litter over the course of the journey. © Sally O’Meara


Seabird surveys are undertaken with two seabird observers (one to scribe and one to identify) throughout daytime. Together with recording seabirds, notes are made from migrating terrestrial birds (corresponding to doves or songbirds), marine litter, fishing vessels within the neighborhood, and marine mammals. It’s additionally necessary to notice the ages of seabirds (the place doable) as completely different areas could be dominated by sure age courses which may point out necessary wintering or feeding grounds. For instance, lots of our surveys throughout WESPAS leg 1 have been carried out in The Celtic Sea greater than a 100 miles from land the place they’ve been dominated by immature (1-3 years outdated) Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus). Nevertheless, as we travelled nearer to land and additional north it was fairly obvious that grownup (4/5+ years outdated) Northern Gannets had been dominating the scene. 

A camera-shy Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), one in every of my favorite seabirds. Kittiwakes have jet black wing ideas, in contrast to different gulls present in Irish waters which have white recognizing among the many black. © Sally O’Meara

Surveys are carried out on the second highest platform on the boat, generally known as the monkey island. It’s roughly 13.5m above the water and gives glorious views of passing seabirds, underneath appropriate situations that’s! When the climate takes a flip for the more severe surveys are carried out from the consolation and security of the bridge. 

Immature 1st 12 months Gannet – notice darkish wings/again (upperparts) and white stomach/throat (underparts) © Sally O’Meara

Grownup Gannet – notice white physique, lengthy white wings with black ideas and yellow head. Additionally take a look at that attractive blue eye! © Sally O’Meara

Paul (the opposite SBO) and I working arduous on the monkey island. Picture credit score: Stephanie Linehan

Over, on and underneath the ocean

One of many the explanation why seabirds fascinate me is due to how extremely fine-tuned to the marine surroundings they’re. They’re at dwelling above, on, and underneath the ocean and you may’t say that about many animals! Some seabirds can dive to spectacular depths, for instance the Razorbill (Alca torda) and the Frequent Guillemot (Uria aalge) the place research have discovered these species diving as deep down as 140m and 180m respectively!

Gannets are additionally spectacular divers. They will plunge into the ocean from as excessive up as 40m within the air, hitting the water at roughly 88km an hour which is sort of the identical pace that Crimson Bull cliff divers can rack up on their descent. Diving at such peak/pace entails an amazing pressure of impression however Gannets have some intelligent variations to beat this difficulty. This entails streamlined our bodies which lessens the pressure of impression upon coming into the water, respiration via slits versus nostrils which might be coated by a flap of inflexible tissue that closes when the chook dives into the water, and inflating air sacks (extensions of the respiratory system) to cushion and defend their our bodies. And that’s simply Gannets! 

There are numerous species of seabirds which have tailored in so some ways to outlive in an surroundings that may be extremely harsh and unpredictable at instances. 

In the midst of this journey, we noticed 24 species of seabird and seven species of terrestrial migrants on our 3-week voyage. 

Kittiwake skimming over a cresting sea © Sally O’Meara

European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) on a flat calm © Sally O’Meara

First Report of South Polar Skua in Irish Waters

The undoubted spotlight of the journey was the mega sighting of a South Polar Skua (SPS) (Stercorarius maccormicki) 110 miles south of Mizen Head on the twenty second of June. This species of chook had not been formally recorded in Irish waters ever earlier than till now and has been scarcely reported in European waters. South Polar Skuas breed in Antarctica and spend the non-breeding season far out to sea within the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean however have been seen regularly alongside the east coast of America. SPS have been recorded as far north as Alaska and Greenland, that’s a whopping journey of over 17,000km! 

An expertise I am going to always remember! This South Polar Skua spent a number of minutes circling the boat proper above our heads which fortunately offered us with some nice picture alternatives. © Sally O’Meara

Nice Skua (Stercorarius skua) © Sally O’Meara

South Polar Skuas are very related seeking to Nice Skuas due to this fact good photos are usually wanted to confidently separate the 2 species.  SPS have a slighter physique, thinner invoice, smaller head, narrower wings and uniformly darkish brown plumage in comparison with Nice Skuas. The identification of SPS is often at all times all the way down to plumage options, which incorporates assessing the color and general construction of feathers on numerous elements of the physique corresponding to the pinnacle, again, stomach, and wings. South Polar Skuas additionally moult their feathers in a special sequence to Nice Skuas which additionally helps with the identification course of. 

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) © Sally O’Meara

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) © Sally O’Meara

I actually loved penning this weblog and sharing my expertise of engaged on the R.V Celtic Explorer as a seabird observer with you all! I hope I’ve succeeded in sparking an curiosity in these exceptional animals and hopefully the following time you encounter a seabird you’re going to understand them as greater than only a “seagull”. 

Not only a seagull! A Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) completely tailored to the ocean © Sally O’Meara

Míle Buíochas

Thanks for taking the time to learn this weblog. An enormous due to all of the crew members and scientists on the R.V Celtic Explorer for placing up with me for 3 weeks! And thanks 1,000,000 to the Marine Institute and SMART for a superb alternative and my first South Polar Skua!

Some Good Chook Sources

Birdwatch Eire:

Allison Man’s weblog on seabird adapations:

Nicole’s chook (what else?) weblog:


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