Over most of its range the Black Guillemot is a nearshore seabird, occupying coastal waters during both the breeding and nonbreeding seasons, as do other members of the genus Cepphus. Pelagic or open ocean waters can offer abundant prey resources, but these options are often distant, patchy and unpredictable.
The nearshore typically offers seabirds a smaller but more reliable source prey base consisting of forage fish and benthic fauna from the ocean floor such as crustaceans or mussels.
The Arctic Ocean has extensive sea ice cover in the nearshore for the majority of the year; this presents a number of challenges to a nearshore species. Our work on the Cooper Island Black Guillemots has revealed a number of ways in which the species has met these challenges.
The current view from my cabin window illustrates one of the major problems guillemots face in the Arctic. Sea ice extends from the north beach of the island to the horizon and covers Elson Lagoon to the south. The only water available to the guillemots is a brackish pond in the center of the colony that provides no prey but is deep enough to provide sanctuary if the guillemots need to dive when pursued by an owl or falcon — regular visitors to the island.
The Cooper Island Black Guillemot study was recently mentioned in an Associated Press story by Seth Borenstein about researchers who “accidentally” began studying climate change. A number of scientists measuring a biological phenomenon have encountered unanticipated effects from climate change and understood those effects were more important, both biologically and politically, than what originally motivated them to initiate their research. The 44-year Cooper Island study has undergone a number of changes before its current focus on assessing the decadal effects of Arctic warming on seabirds.
When I first landed on Cooper Island in 1975, I had no intention of studying climate change or global warming. Read more of George’s reflection on his forty four years of study on Cooper Island at Proteus.
In 2015 Christophe Barbraud of the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé began assisting us with the analysis of the four-decade demographic database we have obtained from the Cooper Island Black Guillemot colony. Christophe is a highly respected avian demographer whose study species include the Snow Petrel, an ice-obligate Antarctic seabird, as well as a number of other seabirds. We were fortunate to have him appreciate the potential and uniqueness of our long-term databases and show an interest in our work.
Our collaboration has led to the Cooper Island Black Guillemot study being part of the recently initiated project Sentinels of the Sea Ice (SENSEI) funded by the BNP Paribas Foundation. Their Climate Initiative program funds work that will improve our understanding of climate change, inform and mobilize citizens and, ultimately, assist in political decisions and solutions. While our participation in SENSEI will not assist us with the logistics of our field season and maintaining the long-term database, it will greatly facilitate data analysis and outreach efforts.
Comprised of 13 teams of researchers from six countries, the project will assess recent and ongoing responses of ice-associated seabirds and seals to changes in Arctic and Antarctic sea ice. The “sentinel species” being studied other than the Black Guillemot are the Thick-billed Murre, Black-legged Kittiwake and Hooded Seal in the Arctic and Snow Petrel, Adélie penguin, Weddell Seal and Elephant Seal in the Antarctic. The project’s official website has background on the study species, researchers and plans – including development of an educational platform in 2018 that will promote the scientific and conservation aspects of the project and is being developed with Luc Jacquet, who directed March of the Penguins.
Last month I visited Christophe and Yan Ropert-Coudert, the project’s other Principal Investigator, at their research center in Chizé, France to discuss the role of the Cooper Island research in the project and outline strategies for analyzing our 43 years of data. Will be posting more about this exciting opportunity as our plans develop.