Guest blog by Kirsty Franklin, PhD student at the University of East Anglia

If lockdown restrictions have had you missing bustling colonies of seabirds, here is a chance to visit them – albeit remotely – while contributing to an exciting citizen science project called Seabird Watch.

Seabird populations are in decline globally, owing to threats from fisheries, pollution, invasive predators, habitat destruction and human disturbance. Impacts from these threats can occur at any stage in the annual cycle, and so understanding where and how this happens will enable us to better conserve them.

One way to effectively monitor seabirds is by using time-lapse photography. Cameras are programmed to capture images at the breeding colonies at regular intervals and are well suited to collecting data over long time periods. These cameras generate an enormous amount of data, often resulting in hundreds of thousands of images. One of the biggest challenges with this technology is to then turn this wealth of photographic information into a dataset that allows us to answer our research questions.

One of the cameras on Round Island © Kirsty Franklin

The power of citizen science

This is where you come in. Citizen science participation has proved a successful way of speeding up image processing, particularly before AI (Artificial Intelligence) can be trained on a new species. Teams of scientists, led by Dr Tom Hart (University of Oxford) and Dr Mark Jessopp (University College Cork), have deployed cameras at seabird colonies across the globe, and by giving you (the citizen scientists) access to these images, you can contribute to conservation research by simply clicking on seabirds!

On the Seabird Watch website, volunteers classify images by tagging individual seabirds as “adult,” “chick” or “egg” and other animals as “other.” Depending on the workflow you choose, this latter group is used to tag other species, such as giant tortoises, arctic foxes or other seabirds.

By classifying images, Seabird Watch volunteers facilitate subsequent analyses that are more in-depth, such as determining key phenological dates (e.g. egg-laying, hatching, chick fledging), the time and cause of nest failure, and how this might vary across a species range and in response to environmental conditions.

Example of the Seabird Watch website © Kirsty Franklin

Where in the world will Seabird Watch take you?

Seabird Watch has, until recently, focused on kittiwakes and guillemots across the North Atlantic, with cameras in locations such as the UK, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. However, if you fancy pretending that you’re somewhere more tropical, you can now help monitor seabirds on Round Island in Mauritius!

This new location features an enigmatic population of Pterodroma petrels, known as the Round Island petrel. You can find out more about this unusual population of petrels and the research we’re undertaking in this video.

Round Island petrel chick © Kirsty Franklin

Every click counts

It is incredibly easy to take part. If you have never volunteered for one of these projects, you can use an online tutorial as often as you like to understand the classification process (click on Classify, then choose Tutorial instead of Task). But if you can click on a seabird, you can help!

To find out more and get involved, head to our website, and follow us on Twitter for updates @seabird_watch.

Kirsty's PhD is based at the University of East Anglia, working in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and the British Antarctic Survey. Her PhD is the first to be funded by the British Ornithological Union’s (BOU) John and Pat Warham Studentship and is supported in-country by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) and National Parks and Conservation Service (NPCS).

Continue reading

Would you like to be kept up to date with our latest science news? Email with the heading 'enewsletter' to be added to our quarterly enewsletter.

Want our blogs emailed to you automatically? Click the cog in the top right of this page and select 'turn blog notifications on' (if you have an RSPB blog account) or 'subscribe by email'.