Senior Research Assistant, Rob Hughes, and Aberdeen University PhD student, Marianna Chimienti,  have been deployed to Fair Isle for the ‘summer’ as part of the RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) project. 

Tracking seabirds on Fair Isle

Fair Isle is arguably the most remote inhabited island in the UK, sandwiched between slices of the Orkney Islands and mainland Shetland in the North Atlantic. Measuring about 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. Fair Isle is also recognised for its traditional knitwear, unremitting shipwrecks and being closely followed by the words ‘gale force 8 increasing to severe gale force 9 later’, on Radio 4’s daily shipping forecast.

This island offers amazing views of every kind! Landscapes, cliffs, marine and terrestrial wildlife can never disappoint any researcher/visitor of this place.

View of the cliffs of the north of Fair Isle, by Marianna Chimienti

We are Senior Research Assistant Rob Hughes and Aberdeen University PhD student Marianna Chimienti, and we have been deployed to this wind-blown rock in the North Sea for the ‘summer’ as part of the RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) project.  The aim of the project is to study five species of seabirds: Northern fulmar, European shag, Black-legged kittiwake, razorbill and Common guillemot, in order to get an idea of their foraging behaviour and to identify important feeding areas.

The STAR work is a continuation of the work undertaken in 2012 and 2013 and follows tracking work begun during the FAME (Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment Project) in 2010 and 2011.

 If all goes according to plan, our work should see us do the following:

1)    Safely climb down into seabird colonies and attaching small GPS devices to adult birds. These record the location of feeding birds at sea every 100 seconds over the duration of a four-day battery life. We also attach lightweight depth recorders to the shags, guillemots and razorbills, which enable us to see how deep the birds are diving in order to get their food.

2)    When the birds return from their sojourns at sea we can climb back into the colonies and retrieve the tracking devices before plugging them into a trusty computer and instantly seeing where they have been.


Marianna and Rob ready to climb down the cliff of Easter Lother and deploy some loggers!, by Ciaran Hastell

Between periods of gale force wind and rain falling through the static fog we have managed to tag 7 incubating razorbills and a guillemot. In previous years the birds have been foraging off the Aberdeenshire coast. However, in 2014 so far they have been foraging off the North Orkney coast. This is encouraging as in previous years breeding productivity has been so low that shorter and more frequent foraging trips could possibly bring about a bit more success. Fingers crossed!!!

For the other species we work on, fulmars and shags have just started laying their first eggs and kittiwakes are starting to collect mud from the freshwater scrapes in the south of the island.

In our spare time, Marianna is getting used to Rob disappearing on twitches to see some of the incredible rarities such as Cretzchmar’s bunting, Caspian stonechat, Hermit thrush and Calandra lark. Marianna is more content with wandering around the island, learning about migratory birds (with Rob testing her every so often about the identity of the species found around!!!) and taking pictures of the local scenery and all the seabirds and pinnipeds present on the island.


View of a small group of Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus) near its breeding colony on the north of Fair Isle, by Marianna Chimienti


Harbour seal coming back from the sea, by Marianna Chimienti

Thanks for reading!

Rob and Marianna