The seabird wreck in the Bay of Biscay and South-Western Approaches in 2014: A review of reported mortality

Tim I. Morley1*, Annette L. Fayet2, Helene Jessop3, Paul Veron4, Merlin Veron5, Jacquie Clark6 and Matt J. Wood7.

1 Alderney Wildlife Trust, Slades, 48 Victoria Street, Alderney, GY9 3TA, Channel Islands;

2 Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK;

3 RSPB, Keble House, Southernay Gardens, Exeter, Devon, EX1 1NT, UK;

4 Mermaid Cottage, Mannez Lighthouse, Alderney, GY9 3YJ, Channel Islands;

5 Le Grand Verger, Rue Des Marais, Vale, Guernsey, GY6 8AU, Channel Islands;

6 British Trust for Ornithology, The Nunnery, Thetford, IP24 2PU, UK;

7 School of Natural & Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham GL50 4AZ, UK.

Full paper

Abstract

Between December 2013 and February 2014, a series of storm events occurred in areas of the North Atlantic frequented by migratory seabirds. Prolonged exposure to sustained storm conditions was followed by an unprecedented level of seabird mortality, apparently due to starvation, exhaustion and drowning. A total of 54,982 wrecked birds was recorded along European coastlines of the North-East Atlantic over the winter; 94% of which were dead. The majority of birds found were recorded on the French coastline (79.6%), and the most impacted species was the Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica (53.5%). In this paper, we describe the conditions surrounding this wreck event and report the numbers of wrecked and stranded seabirds by combining reports from multiple affected countries.

Introduction

Seabird wrecks occur when large numbers of dead, injured or exhausted seabirds wash up on coastlines with no obvious cause of death (Birkhead 2014). Such events are extremely hard to quantify because most mortality occurs at sea. Even when birds do wash ashore they often do so in inaccessible locations, such as at the bottom of steep cliff shorelines. Despite these challenges, it is important to attempt to quantify the magnitude of wreck events and put them into context with other wrecks to inform long-term studies of seabird population dynamics, because they can have large impacts on seabird populations (Votier et al. 2005, 2008; Mesquita et al. 2015).

Between December 2013 and February 2014 a succession of extreme and persistent weather events generated such severe conditions that a number of seabird species, usually wintering in the open ocean, were adversely affected. Although no individual storm was an exceptional event, the clustering and persistence of the storms was highly unusual (Slingo et al. 2014). The storms occurred from the first week of December 2013, through January and into early February 2014 causing record wind gusts (> 60 knots) and rainfall in the UK (Slingo et al. 2014). A notable feature of the storms was the long peak wave period and high wave height, resulting in waves carrying a large amount of energy causing substantial damage to North-East Atlantic coasts; presumably conditions at sea for wintering seabirds must have been similarly extreme. Conditions also included an unusually strong North Atlantic jet stream and a prolonged series of storm events, with winds gusting in excess of 100 mph; the worst recorded for a century (Slingo et al. 2014).

Tracking studies have shown that several seabird species including Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica, hereafter ‘Puffin’ (Guilford et al. 2011; Jessopp et al. 2013; Fayet et al. 2016), Common Guillemot Uria aalge, hereafter ‘Guillemot’ (Stone et al. 1995), Northern Gannets Morus bassanus, hereafter ‘Gannet’, from the UK and Norway (Veron & Lawlor 2009; Fort et al. 2012), and Black-legged Kittiwakes Rissa tridactylaet al., hereafter ‘Kittiwake’, from Western Europe (Frederiksen et al. 2012), would have been in the Celtic Sea, Bay of Biscay and/or western English Channel during late winter (January–February), and therefore at risk of being affected by the storm events during this period. Large numbers of dead and injured seabirds were subsequently washed ashore over much of the North-East Atlantic coast of Europe, as ocean currents and wind carried dead and moribund birds ashore.

This paper attempts to give a detailed report of the mortality associated with the 2013/14 seabird wreck by combining beached bird surveys from across the entire affected area. Information will be provided on the origin of the species most affected by the wreck using ring recovery data; note that data were available from the UK only for this review. We also report evidence on cause of death from post-mortem examinations of dead seabirds.

Acknowledgements

We would like thank the hundreds of dedicated staff, volunteers and members of the public across Western Europe who responded to the wreck event with efforts to survey its impact. We would like to thank the organisations across Europe that contributed to the response to and recording of the wreck, including: Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), RSPB, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset Wildlife Trusts (and the Cornwall Marine Strandings Network and DoWT staff at Chesil Beach, Dorset in particular), RSPCA, South Devon Seabird Trust, BTO Ringing Scheme, National Trust, Natural England, SEO Birdlife, Alderney Wildlife Trust, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, States of Jersey, States of Guernsey, other county Wildlife Trusts and Sussex Ornithological Society. We would particularly like to thank the following people for their specific help in supplying data and details on responses to the wreck event in their location: Mike Harris (CEH, Scotland), Glyn Young (Durrell Conservation Trust, Jersey), Cristina Sellares (National Trust, Jersey), Catherine Veron (La Société Guernesiaise, Guernsey), Janice Dockerill (Environment Department, Guernsey), Anne-Isabelle Boulon (Living Islands, Alderney), Ed Stubbings (Warden Skomer Island, Wales), Bee Bueche (Warden Skomer Island, Wales), Pembrokeshire Bird Group (Wales), Phil Read (Chesil Beach, Wales), John Walmsley (Newgale Beach, Wales), Tim van Nus (Portugal), Olivier le Gall (LPO, France), Amélie Boue (LPO, France) and Albert Cama Torrell (Spain). We are also grateful to Martin Heubeck, Viola Ross-Smith, Richard Sherley and two anonymous referees, whose comments greatly improved this paper.

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