What caused the sudden disappearance of 700 shags from an island, leaving it desolate?
For many years, as the sun set each evening, approximately 700 shags would migrate from their feeding spots near Fife to the Isle of May to rest for the night. Some of these birds had been making this journey twice a day for two decades, coming back to the same cliff edge and arguing over their perching spots.
On October 31st, Mark Newell perched on a boulder, anticipating the loud homecoming. However, he witnessed nothing. After some time, 25 tired-looking birds slowly made their way back. Surprisingly, they did not take flight as he approached. The noise of honking and arguing had ceased.
According to Newell, who serves as the Isle of May field manager for the UK Centre for Hydrology & Ecology (UKCEH), it was a scene of devastation. Having spent two decades on the island, he describes the sight of birdless cliffs as jarring and concerning.
Newell spent four nights there, and when he returned weeks later, the flocks were gone. Despite surviving two years of avian flu, which has affected many of the UK’s seabird colonies, these birds mysteriously vanished all at once.
According to specialists, a string of October storms, including Storm Babet, is believed to be responsible for the vanishing and presumed demise of these avian creatures. However, this disappearance may serve as a representation of the larger issue occurring on other islands, and serve as a cautionary tale for the impact of severe weather on seabirds as these events increase in frequency.
Newell states that there are birds that he banded as juveniles 20 years ago, but a few days of unfavorable weather can result in their demise.
The island’s records have been maintained since the mid-1970s, and there has never been such a significant loss before. Newell states, “We have never witnessed anything of this magnitude in the past.”
Seabirds can withstand sporadic storms, but multiple consecutive storms can lead to “wrecks” where hundreds of undernourished seabirds are found on shore. In the months of December 2013 and February 2014, a sequence of severe storms along the European coast resulted in the demise of over 50,000 seabirds.
The increase in frequency and intensity of these occurrences is expected due to the climate crisis. Newell explains that using shags as an example is often simpler since their immediate impact is visible, whereas extreme weather will negatively affect a larger variety of seabirds.
According to Newell’s estimation, around 10% of the shag population in the UK may have been impacted by the recent storms. This is due to the fact that shags tend to nest on the east coast of the UK, which experienced severe damage from the storms.
Shags typically search for food near the coast, but when powerful easterly winds create rough seas, they are unable to hunt for multiple days. Due to their limited fat reserves, diving becomes more difficult and if they are unable to feed regularly, they may perish.
According to Newell, these birds were often at the optimal age for breeding and should have been able to produce offspring for several years. However, the fact that they will not be able to do so is quite devastating.
In 1993, 2004, and 2012-13, the Isle of May experienced severe storms that resulted in the loss of about half of its breeding population.
A recent study revealed that over half of the seabird species nesting on British and Irish shores have experienced a decrease in numbers in the last two decades. The population of shags has specifically dropped by 20%, with only 20,000 breeding pairs remaining.
Conservationists are currently attempting to locate their lost shags. Due to a lack of information from other islands, the full extent of losses will not be known until the next breeding season. However, reports and observations indicate that numerous shags have perished. A significant amount have been discovered deceased or in a state of starvation throughout the UK.
There have been sightings of unhealthy or deceased shags along the eastern coast of Scotland, as well as in areas as far south as Suffolk and Dover in England. One juvenile shag was also spotted in the Netherlands. UKCEH is urging individuals to notify and share photographs of any deceased shags with distinctive colored rings to [email protected].
Many fatigued shags were discovered at Fraserburgh port in Aberdeenshire; some were saved, while others were put to sleep.
Newell expresses disappointment, saying, “It’s disheartening.” They note that there are fewer people present than expected for this time of year, indicating a widespread issue.
A plastic ring on a carcass found on the Moray coast helped Newell identify its origin. He recalls, “I immediately recognized the individual and where it used to reside.”