Ahead of World Seabird Day tomorrow, our next blog of our seabird series is all about the fantastic productivity monitoring we carry out here and why we do it.

So… what is productivity monitoring?

Productivity monitoring at Bempton Cliffs

Every year we carry out our seabird monitoring programme along the cliffs of Flamborough, Bempton and Filey. This is carried out by a seabird research team, reserve staff and a whole host of wonderful volunteers! A big part of this programme involves monitoring the productivity of guillemot, razorbill, gannet, kittiwake, herring gull and fulmar.

The monitoring is based on marking up apparently occupied sites (AOS) or apparently occupied nests (AON). Each volunteer will mark up nests on a laminated photograph of their plot. The sites we use were identified back when the Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs seabird monitoring programme was established back in 2009. Each of these plots, where possible, will look at taking a sample size of around 50 AOS/AON. This provides us with an overall sample size which is in excess of roughly 250 AOS/AON per species.

In 2011, 5 additional monitoring plots for kittiwake were established at Filey Cliffs, which were not previously included when the monitoring programme began in 2009. This in turn led to the extension of the Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs Special Protection Area (SPA) to include Filey Cliffs.

The map above shows the Special Protection Area of Flamborough Head and Filey Coast. This is the area that we carry out our seabird monitoring programme in. Did you know? The area of the Flamborough and Filey Coast SPA supports the largest mainland seabird colony in England, is the only mainland gannetry in England and is also one of the largest mainland Kittiwake colonies in the UK! So, the data we collect is super important and helps us not only to understand the state of our colony, but also feeds into wider seabird productivity studies.

Even though the monitoring programme wasn’t established here until 2009, data has been collected on our seabirds since at least 1969! Kittiwake breeding success for example, has been monitored continuously since 1986. That’s a lot of data!

Why do we monitor?

Due to the nature of the site, the importance of the seabird colony that calls this place home and the level of site protection we have here, Bempton is a fantastic place to monitor seabirds! They may be internationally important but unfortunately, they’re in decline (both in number and in breeding success too)! Monitoring is a really great way of collecting valuable data to help us understand the reasons why this is happening.

The data collected by the monitoring programme helps us to both understand the condition of this area of coastline and informs the management of the Flamborough and Filey Coast SPA, as well as the underpinning Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s). It will also inform things like current and new planning enquiries and environmental assessments.

Data collected is also used to inform the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP), which is coordinated by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the RSPB’s Annual Reserve Monitoring (ARM) programme, as well as reserve management plans of places along this area of coast, like Bempton.

The key aims of the seabird monitoring programme are:

  • Understanding variation and trends in seabird productivity
  • Understanding population numbers and trends
  • Understanding the relationship between the colony and the larger marine environment
  • Understanding how RSPB Bempton Cliffs relates to wider SPA and monitoring potential impacts disturbance can have on the colony (initiatives such as Operation Seabird have been fantastic for this)


What threats do our seabirds face?

Monitoring is great for understanding our seabirds, but also for understanding the threats they face too.

The North Sea has been subjected to decades of human activity from development and fisheries, so nature here is now in pretty poor condition. This poor condition of nature is reflected in the state of our internationally important seabirds, which are declining in number and breeding success. Did you know that globally seabird populations have declined by 70% since 1950?! This is huge! It makes seabirds the most threatened group of birds in the world.

Lots of our seabirds here at Bempton Cliffs have been impacted.  Species like puffins and kittiwakes rely on sandeels as a source of food. These are a small, shoaling fish that live in the North Sea and are great for growing chicks. However, the availability of sandeels is affected by things like climate change and fishing, which unfortunately means less food for our seabirds! This in turn is affecting their overall productivity. Kittiwakes for example a producing less than 1 chick per pair each year and this is in turn impacting the species.

In order to help them out, it’s clear that we need to change how we manage our seas. Doing so will help us ensure a much safer future for our seabirds and provide us with a better approach to net zero. To reduce our carbon emissions and reach this net zero, we need more renewable energy!

The UK has rightly set some ambitious targets for offshore wind, which if delivered would see this technology expand significantly between now and 2030, particularly in the North Sea. This is great news, but of course offshore wind can have an impact on seabirds, like puffins and kittiwakes, so it’s really important to ensure that this kind of planning works in harmony with wildlife.

The RSPB has worked on offshore wind since development first began in the UK. We support the deployment of this technology as part of the UK’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change – which is itself a major threat to our seabirds! However, this transition must be achieved in harmony with nature: the right technology in the right place, with enough space for nature. This approach must be informed by a robust evidence base and rigorous monitoring to assess any potential impacts… and this is one of the ways data collected from our monitoring programme can be really useful!


Next week I’ll be taking you around the reserve as I monitor our herring gull plots here. I'll be showing you how I monitor these plots each week and might even give you a sneak peak at their progress!