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'Sat-nav' tags aim to find what's driving vital seabird colonies to thrive along Welsh coast; RISING POPULATION AT ODDS WITH DECLINES ELSEWHERE.

Byline: GRAHAM HENRY

VITAL seabird colonies off the Welsh coast are being tracked every two minutes by sat-nav style tags under a scheme bidding to shed light on how they behave.

It is hoped that an extensive GPS-tagging project by RSPB Cymru on Bardsey Island in North Wales, which focused on internationally-significant populations of kittiwakes and razorbills, can shed light on why Welsh populations have thrived while numbers elsewhere in the UK have collapsed.

Welsh bird populations have been rising or declining far less rapidly in recent years - with initial indications showing that adapted feeding habits may contribute to their success. Data also suggests that birds studied in the project - part of the Europe-wide Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment (Fame) scheme - may save energy better than other populations by coasting along on strong currents.

The Seabirds Cymru "sat-nav" project - run by RSPB Cymru - has been running over the course of a year - and has collated data that maps a bird's position every 100 seconds, including how deep birds dive, how far they travel for food and distances they drift as they sleep.

The data has already revealed that the birds appear to be flying far less distance than others in the rest of the UK, suggesting they may have access to more food or a wider range to support numbers.

It has also revealed that some birds drift for vast distances - suggesting that they may save energy more effectively.

The Bardsey project off the Gwynedd coast is in addition to a similar project being run on Puffin Island off Anglesey.

The Environment Wales-funded project fitted tiny GPS devices - in the style of a TomTom - to razorbills and kittiwakes on Bardsey and has already revealed surprising data.

This included one razorbill diving to a depth of 130m under the sea - a depth greater than Wales' tallest buildings - and that birds were routinely travelling around 40km from their nesting sites.

Birds in Scotland had been recorded travelling up to 200km (124 miles) for food.

RSPB Cymru's marine policy officer John Clark said that the research gave valuable insight into seabirds' movements and feeding habits, informing an "ongoing debate" on seawardbound borders of marine protected areas (MPAs) which give special preservation to the environment and wildlife within it.

He said: "This study gives us additional evidence into patterns in how seabirds forage, which is helpful for the ongoing debate on decisions over MPAs.

"But it has been very helpful in mapping the feeding areas of these populations so that any developments - such as renewable energy developments - do not impact on these key areas."

He said that it also provided evidence as to why seabird populations in Wales were faring better than populations in the north, which had experienced wholesale declines.

"Our data has shown how flexible these species can be," he said.

"The birds are behaving quite differently here than in Scotland, for example, and by tracking them across the UK we get this wonderful insight into how these birds can function."

Broadcaster and conservationist Iolo Williams said that Wales had an "internationallyimportant" selection of seabird populations.

"This type of study is absolutely vital, because seabirds are - by far - our most important bird," he said.

"While populations of puffins, for example, in the north as far as Iceland have gone down, Wales has seen big increases in the bird, and in Manx shearwaters, kittiwakes and razorbills.

"Things are looking very good in Wales, but it is still a mystery why ours are doing very well while further afield they are struggling."

He pointed to half the world's population of Manx shearwaters being in Wales, along with "very significant" populations of several other birds.

He said that GPS tagging of animals offered the chance of continuous monitoring of birds' behaviour to record their feeding, when previously conservationists had to "ring birds and hope they get some sort of recovery".

"These locators are extremely valuable for getting information that would've been impossible just five years ago," he added.

A DAY IN THE LIFE...

Movements monitored by the Seabirds Cymru project has led to a unique insight into the behaviour of birds that was previously unknown.

Here are the observations of tracking one kittiwake and one razorbill over the course of one day.

After tracking the kittiwake as it left the colony in the evening (just before 6pm), it was registered flying south for around 30km (18 miles), before starting an "intensive" search for food until 10pm.

As it became dark, the GPS taggers found that it landed on the water and spent the night "drifting with the tide until dawn", when it started a searching flight en route to the colony on Bardsey. * Later in the morning, it made another shorter trip - only 22km (13 miles) - to the south east in a figure of eight.

The razorbill left its colony during the evening (around 8pm) and flew 23km (14 miles) to the south west, before landing on the water an hour later. * Overnight it drifted with the tide for around 13km (8 miles) in a "J-shaped loop". * At dawn, around 3am, it began foraging, mixing short search flights with diving - no deeper than five metres - still transported by the tide. * By 6am, it had started a "rapid return flight" to the colony.

CAPTION(S):

* Welsh seabirds, such as the kittiwake, are being tracked using sat-nav style tags
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 15, 2011
Words:893
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