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Seabirds - mystical ocean wanderers and marine sentinels

By Ross Wanless (BirdLife Africa), Lara Atkinson (SAEON) and Wim Hugo (SAEON)

Understanding where marine biodiversity is concentrated, when it does so, and to what extent, is a key part of SAEON’s mandate.

Seabirds are amongst the easiest of marine animals to track, mostly because they inhabit the air above the oceans, which is of course a space we humans are adept at using.

Tracking seabirds by using loggers or satellite transmitters provides extremely precise information about their location and activities, but does so only for very few individuals. Typically no more than a handful of individuals from any population are tracked with loggers or satellite transmitters due to the exorbitant costs of these tracking devices. But, watching seabirds is more than a fun pastime for a few hardcore seabird nutters. It is a really valuable exercise to get information about bird concentrations and equally about areas where birds are scarce.

Atlas of Seabirds at Sea

The Atlas of Seabirds at Sea (AS@S, pronounced “Ay-sass”) is an initiative that SAEON hosts on behalf of BirdLife South Africa and the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) of the University of Cape Town.

AS@S is designed to allow anyone who can identify a seabird with reasonable certainty to contribute towards the growing database. This project capitalises on the fact that there are hundreds of ‘platforms of opportunity’ out there every day - research, commercial and tourist cruises - which can contribute towards at-sea seabird atlas data.

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AS@S is not confined geographically, so data on seabirds from any place with salty water is eligible, including the tropical seas where Masked Boobys occur (Picture: Ross Wanless)

White-chinned Petrel is one of the most abundant seabirds in the AS@S database (Picture: Wikimedia)

There are many such schemes around the world, but to our knowledge, AS@S is unique in that the data are immediately freely available to anyone who is interested and wants to make use of it. All the data that are submitted to the online database are freely available to anyone.

Observers who dedicate their time to collecting the information do so for the greater good. That makes managing the data relatively simple - a bit of vetting to make sure the submissions are believable, and then the forms get uploaded online and anyone can access them. In time, this resource could be used to generate lists of species that tour boats could use - to give their passengers an idea of the likely species (in order of expected abundance) on a daily basis.

Useful resource

This resource is already being used in the scientific community towards studies that will improve our knowledge of our ocean environment. Data from AS@S has already been used in one MSc thesis on Oceanography, and is currently being used in a PhD thesis on seabird bycatch.

Dr Wayne Goschen of SAEON’s Egagasini Node revamped the existing Atlas for Seabirds at Sea database and website that was originally supported by ADU. SAEON have now taken on hosting the database and website, with continued links and collaboration with ADU. The new location for AS@S is http://seabirds.saeon.ac.za 

Anyone going on a ship for a reasonable length of time and who can identify seabirds, are invited to register online, download the field data sheet (an Excel spreadsheet) and start contributing to this large-scale, long-term database.

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Hotspots where large numbers of seabirds aggregate cannot be easily determined using tracking devices, but at-sea atlas data is perfect for helping to identify such hotspots (Picture: Ross Wanless)

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