Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Recording an unmeasurable loss

I've been taking part in the RSPB Beached Bird Survey and have surveyed 16km of Arran's beaches.  I'm just one of many hundreds of volunteers who are counting the cost of the winter on our seabirds, and reporting disturbing findings. I can only speak for my own small patch but I've been finding dead birds every 200m or so along the shore.  Most of these are razorbills, members of the auk family, who nest on Ailsa Craig, a rocky island to the south of Arran.

Eslewhere in the UK, the news is little better, with stories of mass puffin deaths along the coasts of Wales and France and as many as 600 washed up on beaches in Jersey. Puffins are close relatives of razorbills, and it seems succumb to similar pressures when wintering at sea.

Mass strandings of dead seabirds are known as "wrecks", and their causes are often complex and hard to determine.  What is known about this particular wreck is that members of the auk family are particularly badly affected, and that the weather is likely to be a factor. Post mortems have shown birds to be undernourished, and unable to feed in the bad weather, they have died of starvation. These brutal winter storms this season are not just bad for humans, but for our seabirds too. The Met Office has said that we can expect more and more winters like this, as climate change tightens it's grip. Our seabirds are under seige from all sides, with worsening weather patterns coupled with diminishing fish stocks through over fishing and changes to the temperature/pH of the oceans.

It's vital that we record wreck events as they happen, but we probably won't know the full extent of the damage until the birds return to their breeding colonies in the spring. Then the living can be counted, compared to previous years, and the catastrophe measured. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such loss, but we must find ways to help these birds if we can.

I take this all quite personally, I have to admit.  These birds are a part of who I am. Childhood holidays by the sea, boat trips to visit seabird colonies, me lying belly down on cliff tops watching the swirling mass of squawking, bickering bird life below. I took these things for granted as a child, and seeing them as an adult brings the child out in me all over again. It is a joy that never diminshes, and I think it is a tragedy if our children's children don't get to enjoy these sights as well.

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