Atlantic storms take toll on Irish seabird populations

The violent Atlantic storms of last winter took their toll on Ireland’s seabirds with almost half of some species (41%) wiped out, a study has shown.

The country’s western seaboard experienced the worst weather in living memory between last October and March, with storms often coming at a relentless rate of two per week.

Birdwatch Ireland says the severity of the weather, coupled with little recovery time in between the storms, proved too much for some seabird species to withstand.

The organisation said it received a record number of reports of ringed birds washing up dead in the first quarter of this year. These reports jumped almost one hundred-fold — from a typical winter average of one or two reports to 100.

“Nothing much was detected until early in the New Year, when reports of dead or emaciated birds on beaches in Ireland and elsewhere began to trickle in,” said Birdwatch Ireland senior conservation officer Stephen Newton. “The trickle then became a flood by February and March, and obviously people began sending in ringing recoveries to the national schemes in France, the UK and Ireland.

“In a typical winter, we may receive one or two [ringing] recoveries, but the winter of 2013/2014 produced nearly 100.”

He said the common guillemot took the biggest hit here, with 42 reported dead. This was followed by the razorbill (33 mortalities), Atlantic puffin (six mortalities) and black guillemot (six mortalities). The figures do not account for the hundreds more that did not wash up and whose deaths could not be recorded.

Birdwatch Ireland has now completed summer censuses at some of the country’s most important seabird breeding sites which also bear out the statistics in relation to last winter’s severe mortality rate.

“For example, in 2011 and 2012, we had 90 and 92 pairs of black guillemots on Rockabill. This summer, we only have 54 pairs — a 41% decline — and many prime nest holes are vacant,” said Dr Newton. “On Wicklow Head, the numbers of breeding common guillemots and razorbills declined by 41% and 29% respectively since the count in 2009.”


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