At 3 a.m. on a damp May night, I found myself on a sheer cliff in the pitch black. There was not a sign of the Yelkouan Shearwaters that we were waiting for, not even a call. Even a die-hard researcher like my project partner, John J. Borg from Heritage Malta, was slumped against a burrow with his eyes closed, to all intents and purposes fast asleep.
It appears, however, that 25 years of research have given John an uncanny ability to detect an incoming bird without so much as twitching an eyelid. Before I even registered movement, John had reanimated as if from the dead, his arms shooting up to head height and his hands clutching a very surprised looking Yelkouan Shearwater.
All this nocturnal activity was part of the EU LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater Project, of which I am the Project Manager. One aim of the project is to find out where these seabirds are fishing and rafting. While you can do that to some extent by boat, the best way to find out where these birds are going is through telemetry work (fitting electronic tracking devices). And to do that, you need to spend a lot of time on the cliffs at the project site of Rdum tal-Madonna - 59 nights in total this year.
The Yelkouan that John had just caught in mid air was a perfect candidate for fitting a GPS data logger device. However, that was only the beginning of the process. The challenge was to recapture the bird and the device so that we could download the data onto a computer for analysis. The Yelkouans can take trips of up to 6 days at sea before they return to their burrows to feed their chicks.
By the end of June, although we were sleep deprived and practically welded into our fieldwork clothes, the team had triumphed, obtaining five tracks showing the birds’ movements. This gave the project detailed indications of the areas the birds are using at sea. Importantly, the data confirmed that the Yelkouans spent time opposite the cliff colony of Rdum tal-Madonna at night. Since their use of these waters is mainly nocturnal, we could never have obtained this information through conventional surveys.
In July, our project work switched to satellite tags, this time to track fledglings. Young Yelkouan Shearwaters had never been monitored using this technology before and satellite tags were fitted just before the chicks left their nest.
The first tag signal was detected from Maltese waters on 2 July and subsequent signals showed that the fledglings had started heading east, one to Greece and the other to Crete. We expected this second bird to head into the Black or Aegean Sea, where we have previously received two ring recoveries from birds ringed in Malta. Instead, our bird flew to the coast of North Africa. More research is needed to find out whether other chicks follow this pattern, and if this is the case, it could increase the importance of North African waters for these birds.
The results of our fieldwork have not only shown exactly where these long ranging birds are fishing, but also allowed the team to obtain satellite information on chick migration patterns. All of this data will be used to identify Marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to protect the birds effectively at sea. Since Yelkouan Shearwaters, like many other seabirds, spend most of their time at sea, we need to make sure that we can protect the marine areas that are important to them effectively. Designating Marine SPAs is one way to do this and the project will be helping the government to fulfil its EU obligations in working towards this goal, with help from project partners SPEA and the RSPB.
The bird monitoring work is just one part of this ambitious LIFE project, which also involves a series of coordinated actions to ensure the birds are protected at sea, as well as around breeding sites at the critical times. Plus of course, everyone is kept busy battling with the timesheets and claim forms!
The partnership has been the project’s biggest strength and through it, we have been able to take great steps forward. The team are now looking forward to the next eighteen months as we conclude the final year’s fieldwork and plot the way ahead for marine SPA designation.
Helen Raine - Project manager
SPA Site and Sea Actions Saving Puffinus yelkouan
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