Storm petrel tagging study reveals secret life of tiniest seabird

The UK’s smallest seabird often flies up to 300km offshore to fish in the stormy waters around Shetland, new research has revealed.

The findings come from a ground-breaking study that used satellite tags to monitor the activities of storm petrels over a number of years.

Experts say the data provides a unique insight into the behaviour of the tiny seabirds, which are mainly active at night, and offers important lessons about how they might be protected.

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An adult storm petrel is not much bigger than a sparrow and weighs just 25g to 30g – the same as three £1 coins.

A ground-breaking tagging study has shone new light on the activities of the UK's smallest seabird, the storm petrel

Scotland and the UK are a key stronghold for the amber-listed species, with around 2.5 per cent of the global population – almost 11,000 pairs – based on the isle of Mousa in Shetland.

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Researchers built nest boxes on Mousa, a designated European Special Protection Area with storm petrels as a named feature, allowing them to easily capture, tag and release the birds.

GPS tags weighing less than 1g were fitted to the tail feathers of 42 individuals, which were then tracked over four breeding seasons.

Researchers used satellite tags weighing 1g to track storm petrels on Shetland, where the tiny birds are known as alamootie

Data showed foraging trips usually lasted from one to three days and ranged up to 300km from the nests.

However, one bird – which may have been blown off course in a storm – travelled almost 400km to Norwegian coast and then stunned researchers by returning its nest in just 24 hours.

Researcher Mark Bolton said: “This was ambitious research and provides the most comprehensive insight into how these tiny birds use our vast marine environment to feed and raise their young.

“The new insights about their behaviour demonstrate the value of fundamental science as well as providing an amazing window into the travels of our smallest seabird.”

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Head of marine policy at RSPB Scotland Alex Kinninmonth added: “Embracing this game-changing technology has allowed us to build a more complete picture of the lives of these elusive birds.”

Experts say the insights could help shape future work to safeguard the birds.

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