2020 has been a pretty tough year for many people, with a variety of ups and downs. The world of conservation has reflected this roller coaster ride, with much of our work, and wildlife, being impacted including our annual seabird surveys.

Following the successes and surprises of 2019 we headed towards our 2020 seabird survey season hoping for additional evidence to support our previous years findings and with a lot more questions we hoped to answer; however, to coin a phrase from my dear Nan, 2020 turned into a bit of a "damp squib".

Unfortunately, Covid-19 put pay to a lot of our early survey work; with restrictions coming into force in March, just prior to the scheduled start date of surveying in April 2020. 

Consequently, our seabird survey work began in July, when Lockdown restrictions eased, and continued until the end of September, when the monitoring of seabird breeding would ordinarily end. 

This meant, however, that the main survey window for all of our breeding seabirds, apart from Storm petrel, was missed.   Additionally, we made the decision not to conduct surveys on Annet as the extra logistics and health and safety precautions, with potential for strain on other services, was deemed inappropriate under the current circumstances. 

As a result the data collected for 2020 is greatly restricted and sadly not as representative of our entire seabird assemblage, as we had hoped.

That being said the restricted data still proves interesting and below we share the highlights!  You can read the full report here

Main Survey Window Missed:

Ordinarily our seabird surveys would begin in late April with counts of Puffin returning to breed; moving into May we'd begin surveying of our Gull species (Herring, Lesser & Greater black-backed); then on into early June we would add Fulmar, Kittiwake and Common tern to our survey trips, followed by Guillemot, Razorbill and Manx shearwater later in the month.

As our survey work started in July we were unable to collect the usual data on any of the above species, bar the Manx shearwater, where we were able to collect some records of fledging success during August & September on St Agnes & Gugh.

Manx shearwater:

Although we were unable to get data from playbacks for the number of Apparently Occupied Burrows (AOB's), as this is carried out in late May to early June, we were able to monitor and record the number of "stargazing" chicks, as evening "chick-checks" are done between August and late September.

"Chick-checks" across St Agnes & Gugh resulted in a total of 31 Manx shearwater chicks being recorded during 2020; this is lower than in the 4 previous years, where 2016 saw 32 and the highest number (48) was recorded in 2018. 

The 2020 survey results are significantly lower than previous years and could appear worrying, but there are a number of theories behind this. 

One theory notes that peak fledging period this year coincided with a full moon and a long period of clear night skies, which may have reduced the number of chicks "stargazing"; when the moon is bright, chicks rarely venture out as the light can be enough to allow nocturnal Gull predation.

2020 also saw no records of "stargazing" chicks on either Peninnis Head, St Mary's or Shipman Head Down, Bryher.

Needless to say next years data will give us a better idea of whether this years records are just a "blip" or the precursor to changes in trends and nesting preferences across our Islands. 

Storm petrel:

Storm petrel surveys were the only seabird surveys this year to be completed in their entirety with playback surveys at our study sites on St Agnes and Gugh being carried out during July, recording 3 and 11 Apparently Occupied Sites (AOS) respectively; an additional 20 AOS's were recorded on Burnt Island.  Later in August 9 chicks were heard cheeping from AOS's on Gugh.

Numbers responding in playback surveys at our study sites were equal to those of 2019, but less than the two previous years. 

As in 2019 we discovered dismembered wings at one of our study sites this year, as well as on Burnt Island, suggesting that a cat was once again taking advantage of this seasonal "snacking opportunity". 

Camera trap footage captured a tabby cat, without a collar, actively hunting and eating the birds.  A cat scarer was deployed at the site but did not seem to have any significant effect on the cat, which was again recorded hunting. 

No wings were found after 16th July, but it was likely that this was because the birds had been taken by the cat; no replies were elicited during playback survey's of this site during 2020.  

Storm petrel chick caught on camera on Burnt Island

So, once again, it was a mixed bag for our surveys and our seabirds this year but luckily the year is ending on a high for the future of our seabirds with the announcement from Natural England that the long-awaited expansion of the Isles of Scilly Special Protected Area is now in place.  Below is the Press Release issued by DEFRA yesterday:

Extension of seabird haven to benefit 15,000 individual birds

  •  Government announces expansion of Isles of Scilly protected area
  •  Blue Belt expansion to protect 15,000 rare seabirds
  •  Site will encourage recovery of the internationally important European storm petrel and lesser black-backed gull

Today (17 November), the government has announced the expansion of a protected area in the Isles of Scilly, home to some of our rarest seabirds such as the Manx shearwater and storm petrel.

This decision is based on extensive work by Natural England with a comprehensive package, over 4 years of scientific advice and research, on the new boundaries followed by a public consultation in early spring 2019.

The Isles of Scilly supports a greater diversity of seabirds than any other site in England, with internationally important populations of European storm petrel and lesser black-backed gull. The expansion will see the site boosted by approximately 12,930 hectares and benefit 15,000 seabirds. It is one of only two protected sites in England where Manx shearwater and European storm petrel breed, and is also home to the largest population of great black-backed gulls in the UK.

Our seabird populations are an important barometer of the health of the marine environment and this marine extension to the Isles of Scilly site demonstrates the UK Government’s commitment to securing the sustainable use of our seas.

With the expansion of the Isles of Scilly site into the coastal seas around the archipelago, there are now 114 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) specifically protecting birds across the UK. The newly-expanded site protects the waters around the islands for activities like feeding and preening that are crucial to the life cycles of over 15,000 seabirds.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

“The UK seabird population is of global importance with the UK holding more than a quarter of Europe’s breeding seabirds. The expansion of this site demonstrates our ongoing commitment to protect and improve the resilience of our marine environment and precious wildlife.

 Together with the development of our Seabird Conservation Strategy, we will help the coastal environment to recover and thrive for future generations to enjoy.”

Kate Sugar, Marine Lead Adviser at Natural England, said:

 “The Isles of Scilly is one of the most important areas for breeding seabirds in England and their continued presence is important to the sense of place for the local community and visitors.

 “These inshore waters are just as important to protecting breeding seabirds as the nesting sites themselves. Natural England’s public consultation on the proposals for this site enabled the local community to understand the evidence collected, the importance and implications of the designation.

“Today’s announcement secures greater protection for thousands of seabirds and is a positive step forward as we continue to protect and enhance Britain’s sea and shorebirds.”

The expansion of the site will help encourage population growth and recovery in European storm petrel and the lesser black-backed gull, while additionally offering new protections for the European shag and the great black-backed gull.

This MPA forms part of the UK’s ‘Blue Belt’ in helping to boost resilience to man-made pressures, as well as providing space to help species adapt to the impacts of climate change.

There are now 358 MPAs in total across the UK. Regulators, such as the Marine Management Organisation and local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs), are responsible for ensuring the MPAs are managed to protect their species and habitats, working with local fishing communities and other organisations.

Our Seabird Survey work is kindly part-funded

by DEFRA through the Isles of Scilly AONB.