Blog by Carmen Biondo, Senior Research Assistant and Luíse O’ Donovan, Research Assistant, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science carrying out the National Seabird Census in Orkney.

Another winter is over, even up here in Orkney! And with the beginning of the breeding season busy days have started for seabird fieldworkers.

Orkney is one of the biggest hotspots for breeding seabirds in the UK with nearly a million individuals recorded in the last census (Seabird 2000, which took place from 1998-2002).

Sadly, in recent years alarming declines have been recorded for many seabird species.

For this reason, investigating the status and the health of breeding colonies is of essential importance in terms of conservation. Counting birds over different years allows us to learn about the health of that colony and work out where and how we can best act to preserve breeding habitats and feeding areas. Thanks to this knowledge, a lot has already been done, such as the creation of Marine Protected Areas, and it will be used to inform future conservation efforts.


Photo: Marwick Head. This site hosts the biggest seabird colony on Orkney’s Mainland. Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots and even Puffins nest alongside each other on these cliffs. By Christine Hall.

What’s going on

To get a better idea of how seabirds are doing, we are currently carrying out an extensive census across Britain and Ireland: Seabirds Count.

This is the fourth census since 1969. A great example of collaboration in conservation, it was developed by the Seabird Monitoring Programme in partnership with the RSPB and 17 other organisations. It is coordinated by the JNCC.

Surveying began in 2015 and will end 2020, with a network of fieldworkers and over 1000 volunteers giving all their effort to record a picture of the status of breeding seabirds.

Springtime at colonies brings cliffs clamouring with seabirds, but by the end of the summer these are completely empty! Seabirds leave the breeding sites at the end of the season and spend the winter months at sea or in warmer climes.

During the breeding season, the birds are very faithful to the nest site. This gives us an opportunity to count them when they are not mixed with “immatures” (“teenage” birds who are not breeding yet).

For this reason, as well as to get data that we can compare between years, we need to do our surveys within strict “standard” time-windows. For tysties (black guillemots), this window is from the end of March to the beginning of May, with all other species spread from the end of May to the middle of July.

As this is the penultimate year of Seabirds Count, the race is on to cover under-recorded areas. These areas are mostly in Northern Scotland, Shetland and here in Orkney, where there are large numbers of seabirds and not so many humans to count them! 

This year, thanks to the generous contributions of funders, it has been possible to employ some fieldworkers to survey these areas.

Tysties at dawn

Here in Orkney April was an intense month in terms of counting a very elegant species all along the coastline: the tystie, (or black guillemot as they are known elsewhere). The northern name comes from the strange call they make, described as “peisti” in Old Norse, which over time transformed into tystie.

Photos: Adult tysties: These compact birds have a black body, a white patch on the wings and a black bill with a red gape, as well as red legs and feet. By Luíse O’ Donovan.

Unlike other seabirds, tysties don’t necessarily nest close together, with some birds nesting in single pairs and others scattered in loose colonies. Choice of nest sites is variable - sometimes under boulders, cracks in rocks or gaps in man-made walls or piers, but always hidden away in the dark, adding to the difficulty of detecting them.

For these reasons tysties are counted before the breeding season kicks off.                           

Just after dawn tysties gather near colonies to engage in courtship displays. On land, to impress the female, the male walks around her with exaggerated high steps, trying to make himself as tall as he can and pointing his bill down. Adults also congregate on the water, swimming next to their breeding territory, making their characteristic gentle, high-pitched call, and displaying their red feet and swimming ability by diving and swimming about just under the surface. Some research suggests that the intensity of the red of their feet is an indicator of their health, so this may help tysties choose healthy mates.

This behaviour also gives us the opportunity to count them!

This is mostly done from land, except where high cliffs and small islands require surveys to be done from boats. Between the end of March and the beginning of May, around 118 miles of Orkney coastline have been walked, thanks to the massive effort of many generous volunteers.

Our dawn starts were rewarded with gorgeous sunny mornings and fantastic wildlife sightings.


Photos: A few of many stunning early mornings. Spot the tysties! By Alan Leitch and Luíse O’ Donovan.

Good news!

Many of the northern isles won’t be surveyed until next year, but the results so far are heartening. Although we have seen declines at some sites the provisional picture is a positive one, with increases at several sites since Seabird 2000.

Photo: 2019 Coverage: We managed to cover all the south of Orkney, with only the Northern Isles left to count next year! 

In particular, there has been an incredible increase on North Ronaldsay where the observatory staff recorded 921 birds this year, compared to 476 in 2000. Also of interest is the increase where artificial nest sites were provided on Grass Holm. Paul Hollinrake has been building cairns (little rock caves) for tysties to nest in on the island for almost 30 years, with the help of friends including Alan Leitch. Currently around 100 cairns are present on the island, providing suitable breeding habitat for these birds. When he began there were only ten birds nesting on the island, whereas our results this year showed 168 birds attending the colony. This shows the difference a small group of people can make!

The tystie survey period may be over for this year but there will be plenty more to keep surveyors busy!  Puffins, gannets and terns have been focused on and covered in previous years, with gulls, skuas, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots left to cover. Their survey windows span from late May to mid-July. 

If you are a keen birdwatcher and are willing to get involved in these amazing surveys, it’s not too late! To get involved in your local area contact

If you happen to be in Orkney you can contact us directly at or

Happy counting! 

Once again, many thanks to all the folks who have helped so far. Some of them were captured in the photos below!

Photos of people from the seabird count team by Alan Leitch and Carmen Biondo.