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News Story - Kittiwakes' trans-Atlantic winter odyssey linked to breeding success

Date: 05 Jan 2011

One of Britain’s best known seabirds winters on opposite sides of the Atlantic depending on whether its breeding attempt has been successful, according to new research published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The findings highlight previously unsuspected links between summer breeding performance and wintering distributions of kittiwakes.

The research team was led by Dr Maria Bogdanova from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) in conjunction with colleagues from CEH and Dr Richard Phillips from British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

Kittiwake, Isle of May NNR (Photo: Mark Newell/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)
Kittiwake, Isle of May NNR (Photo: Mark Newell/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)

The discovery of such patterns of segregated winter distributions is important for defining key wintering areas in declining species such as the kittiwake that are experiencing poor breeding seasons with increasing regularity.

The results show kittiwakes that experienced breeding failure left their colony earlier than successful breeders. Failed breeders then travelled over 3000km and wintered off Canada while their successful neighbours remained close to Britain. The two groups did not differ in the timing of return to the colony the following spring. However, over half the males from both groups made a previously undescribed long-distance journey out into the central Atlantic before the breeding season.

Lead author Dr Maria Bogdanova, an animal population ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said, “Our results demonstrate important but previously poorly understood links between breeding performance and winter distribution, with significant implications for populations. It is fascinating that successful and unsuccessful pairs nesting only a few metres apart in the colony can be separated by thousands of kilometres in the winter.”

This study used a tiny instrument (1.4g) for tracking animal migration, known as a geolocator. During the 2007 breeding season, the team fitted 80 kittiwakes on the Isle of May NNR off the east coast of Scotland, with geolocators.

Geolocators were developed by BAS and have so far been used on animals such as geese, albatrosses, penguins and seals. They make regular recordings of light intensity, data which can be used to generate two geographical positions per day.

Co-author Dr Richard Phillips, seabird ecologist from BAS said, “The development of these small and inexpensive loggers has made it possible to track the migrations of many birds of the same species. This has revealed a surprising degree of variation among different individuals in migration strategies, which in the case of the kittiwake is at least partly related to previous breeding success.”

Co-author Francis Daunt, a seabird ecologist also from CEH said, “Kittiwakes have declined substantially in the last 25 years over much of their range. Conservation efforts to protect wintering grounds should consider that winter distributions may be shifting as breeding failure is becoming more common.”

ENDS

Notes for editors

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Maria I. Bogdanova, Francis Daunt, Mark Newell, Richard A. Phillips, Michael P. Harris and Sarah Wanless. Seasonal interactions in the black-legged kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla: links between breeding performance and winter distribution.

Scottish Natural Heritage kindly provided access to the Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR). Funding for the work was provided by NERC.

Issued by the BAS Press Office:

To obtain a copy of the paper or to request an interview with the lead author, contact:

Heather Martin, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221226; mobile: 07740 822229; email: hert@bas.ac.uk

Linda Capper, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221448; mobile: 07714 233744; email: lmca@bas.ac.uk

BAS scientist contact details:

Richard Phillips, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221610; email: raphil@bas.ac.uk

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a component of the Natural Environment Research Council, delivers world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that underpins a productive economy and contributes to a sustainable world. Its numerous national and international collaborations, leadership role in Antarctic affairs and excellent infrastructure help ensure that the UK maintains a world leading position. BAS has over 450 staff and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica. Stunning broadcast-quality footage and stills of Antarctica are available from the BAS Press Office as above.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK’s Centre of Excellence for integrated research in the land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of the Natural Environment Research Council, employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales, hosts over 150 PhD students, and has an overall budget of about £35m. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £400m a year from the UK government’s science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences.