Atlantic puffin with beak full of sand eels

How to Study: Seabirds

In this blog series for National Marine Week, Geography PhD Student Anna Guasco describes the many ways Cambridge postgraduate researchers study life in the ocean. Here she interviews:

Lily Bentley: Seabird Movement Ecology

Lily Bentley is PhD Student in the Department of Zoology. She is from Australia.

“We can’t hope to conserve or manage populations of animals that travel vast distances unless we know where they go.”

What do you study (and why)?

I study the journeys taken by marine birds when they are looking for food in the open ocean. From a human perspective, the ocean is vast and homogenous — but for a seabird like an albatross, it’s a rich tapestry of different foraging areas, some of which will have better food sources than others. I use miniature GPS tags (similar to what you have in a smartphone, and just a bit bigger than a £1 coin!) to follow the foraging trips seabirds make during the breeding season, and then overlay this data with information about the oceanic environment that we detect using satellites. This helps us to understand where they go for food, what sorts of environments they prefer, and if those environments are in any danger from human activity e.g. commercial fishing.

Black-footed albatross in flight
Black-footed albatross flying near Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Credit: Eric Dale/USFWS.
How did you get started studying this?

In general, I am interested in how and where wild animals move through an increasingly human-influenced environment. I got started in this field after taking an undergraduate degree in Zoology and meeting researchers working in movement ecology. I have previously studied the movement of saltwater crocodiles in northern Australia, using a slightly different kind of tracking technology (acoustic tags implanted in the animal’s underarm, which alert a receiver in the river each time they swim past) but very similar computational techniques. We can’t hope to conserve or manage populations of animals that travel vast distances unless we know where they go — if we protect their nesting area, for example, but then juveniles are killed when they leave the nest for the first time, our attempt at protection is ineffective. By combining different sorts of tracking data from GPS tags, acoustic tags, and satellites, we can form a better picture of animal movement behaviour.

Light-mantled sooty albatross in flight
Lily’s study species, the light-mantled sooty albatross. Credit: Natalie Tapson CC BY-NC-SA
How do you study what you study?

The key element to studying animal movement is some kind of tracker. This can be a GPS or acoustic tag, as I’ve mentioned, or other kinds of trackers like accelerometers (which also measure how the animal moves in space), or light-loggers (which we can use for very wide-ranging animals to work out their approximate latitude and longitude using the position of the sun). The challenge with many of these loggers is that you need to get them back off the animal in order to see where they have been! This is why studying seabirds at breeding islands makes this job easier, as these birds always come back to their nest after each journey to sea.

Tag types for seabird moniitoring
Compilation of common tag types that Lily uses. The words indicate what each tag measures. Credit: Lily Bentley
An albatross inspecting a camera
An albatross inspecting a camera. Credit: Eric Dale/USFWS

Once you have a track for the animal, you can learn about the kinds of places it has been using lots of different environmental data. Data from satellites are processed using computers to create maps showing lots of variables of different parts of the ocean, such as temperature, depth, salinity and chlorophyll concentration (a proxy for how much food is likely to be there). Then, I use a coding language called R to write instructions for models, in the hope to understand which environmental factors are more important to the animals I study, and which ones are less important. Sometimes, the models can help us to see that interacting effects (such as temperature and water depth) help to explain where the birds look for food.

Black-browed albatross and chick
Black-browed Albatross and Chick in the Falkland Islands. Credit: Liam Quinn CC BY-SA 2.0
Oldest-known breeding albatross
Wisdom, a bird famous for being the oldest known breeding albatross (and the oldest known wild bird in the world), incubating an egg in 2018. Credit: Daniel W. Clark/USFWS

Diane Borden: Mixing Social Sciences and Natural Sciences to Study Sea and Shore-Birds

Diane is a PhD student in the Department of Geography. Although her current research project focuses on bees, she previously has studied birds and continues to pursue this research, too. She is from the United States.

I quickly realized that bird research – any kind of ecological research – is always socially complex.

What do you study (and why)?

I’m an environmental geographer interested in multispecies studies. While I’m currently researching wild and managed bees in the UK for my PhD, most of my work has centered on research that looks at the relationships between humans, shore- and seabird species, and the environments in which they meet. Particularly, I’m interested in:

1. Rural and local ecological knowledges, how they are produced, and how they shape socio-ecological practices.

2. How we can think differently about time through these eco-social relationships and how this can offer important insights into larger issues around biodiversity, conservation, and our everyday relationships with nonhuman others.

I grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York in a very rural, working-class community. One where local and rural ecological knowledges are, at times, discounted within broader discussions surrounding biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability. I feel I have a responsibility to bring these kinds of voices into the uneasy conversations around human-wildlife conflict, conservation practice, and ecology work whenever undertaking my own research. Moreover, my interest in time emerged primarily from my research with Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland during my MSc.

Atlantic puffin with beak full of sand eels
Atlantic puffin with a mouthful of sandeels. Photo by Glen Hooper on Unsplash
How did you get started studying this?

It was completely by chance. I had just finished my BA in Anthropology and Environmental & Urban Studies at Bard College, and was looking for my first field job. I always envisioned myself working with a large, charismatic mammal like wolves, brown bears, or mountain lions. I had never thought about researching birds; however, there were so many more bird-related positions. So I figured, ‘why not?’

Northern Parula
Northern Parula (Setophaga americana), Jekyll Island, Georgia (US). Credit: Diane Borden, 2012.

I drove down to Georgia, US that summer to work with migratory songbird species and fell in love with birds. Through this work and my subsequent jobs with shorebirds and seabirds, I quickly realized that bird research – any kind of ecological research – is always socially complex.

Searching for seabirds with a telescope
Searching for seabirds during a snowstorm as part of research on migratory shorebird species just outside of Nome, Alaska. Credit: Diane Borden, 2013

Through my different field ornithology experiences (including in Alaska; along the Missouri River in South Dakota, and in Martha’s Vineyard),  I learned how ‘field sites’ were spaces defined by often fraught social relations and uneasy junctions of sociocultural and ecological values; where the values of ecologists, the Fish and Wildlife Service, local and/or Indigenous peoples, and various other publics did not always align.

My ecological work with birds – especially endangered shorebirds – was the catalyst for my interest in how different kinds of ‘nature’ become valued and constructed. At the time, I still had this notion that the social and the ecological were two very separate fields of thought. My MSc in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance (NSEG) at the University of Oxford changed that. There, I undertook research in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, working alongside ornithologists, puffin hunters, and Atlantic puffins – which really became my introduction to multispecies studies.

How do you study what you study?

I approach all of my research as both an ecologist and an environmental geographer. This allows me to ask questions regarding how a bird and their habitat is made knowable through different techniques, and what kinds of interlocking, sometimes surprising, more-than-human relationships influence our understanding of, say, a puffin.

Puffins on a cliff
Puffins sitting at Suðurey. Courtesy of S. Magnusson, 2008

My bird-related work always involved ornithological research, with varying degrees of my own participation in the ecological practices of the scientific researchers at my field sites. For instance, in Iceland I would go out with the puffin researchers to the various breeding colonies to check the occupancy (is the bird present?) and breeding success rates (are there any eggs or chicks?) of the puffin burrows. At first, I primarily watched as they went from burrow to burrow,  interviewing them as they worked. I later helped with data collection, taking notes while they observed the subterranean burrows through a camera ‘scope’ (shown below, left). I remember the first time I peered through the lens, the sense of disorientation at first, followed by a grainy, pale form that slowly took shape. Suddenly, just centimeters from my view, a black and white image of a puffin was staring back at me, blinking.

It is a kind of ‘participant observation’, but one that I am luckily afforded through my prior experience working with birds from an ecological point of view. I also spent a lot of time speaking with and learning from puffin hunters in Vestmannaeyjar. These conversations lead to discussions on foot as we ascended cliff-sides in search of puffins, conversing about past hunts over coffee and some generational photographs, and more. Being reintroduced to puffins in this way, I become aware of other aspects of landscape, sound, memory and history – other ways of knowing puffins that overlap, and sometimes challenge, scientific ways of knowing. As a researcher, observing and participating helps give me an idea of exactly what kinds of practices shape broader conversations around puffin conservation, care, and endangerment that otherwise would feel somewhat abstract. I’m incredibly grateful for the communities, researchers, and other experts (including puffin hunters) who welcome me into these spaces.

Banded western sandp
Banded Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri), near Nome, Alaska. Credit: Diane Borden, 2013

Please note: these interviews have been edited for clarity and/or length.

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