Diver Diaries

By Jamie Duckworth

Earlier this year, I was able to travel to North East Iceland to carry out some field work for my PhD on red-throated diver behaviour and energetics. This was my first real experience of seabird fieldwork and it certainly didn’t disappoint! With incredible scenery and stunning animals around every corner, it made for a very memorable trip with plenty of practical knowledge garnered on the way.

Iceland itself was unlike anything else I have experienced. The whole country is almost completely devoid of trees! This provides a very interesting landscape where you can see for miles with only fjords or mountains to break your line of sight, making for a stunning landscape! The weather though was incredibly unpredictable. For example, in a single day I experienced both sunburn and sub-zero temperatures!

Beautiful Icelandic scenery

While most seabird research takes place in large colonies, red-throated divers prefer a calmer, quieter environment, usually nesting on in-land lakes. This has two distinct benefits for fieldwork: 1. You can easily manoeuvre between sites, without the need for a boat or climbing gear. 2. This can open up opportunities to try some funky capturing methods. We fully took advantage of these benefits and would spend the days driving between different nest sites and working out the best methodology to capture the birds. In total, we used three different published methodologies, with varying success across nests. One of these even involved setting out a “decoy” diver, which we named Ib! Ib would sing his diver songs through a Bluetooth speaker to aid us in the recovery of our work.

Decoy diver, Ib.

The red-throated divers we were capturing had tags attached to them last year (2018). These tags would tell us both the location of the bird and how deep they were diving to forage. While deploying these tags in 2018 was relatively straightforward, recovering them in 2019 was not. Unlike me, it seems these birds have good memories; they remembered how they were caught last year and were cautious of human presence. This also went as far as some individuals recognising our car! Unfortunately, the budget could not stretch to purchasing a second decoy car for our fieldwork.

Given the difficulties, I was pleased when I realised we had managed to recover two thirds of our tags by the end of the season. The red-throated divers were very tricky to work with and any information that we could get was going to be novel! We’re hoping that we’ll soon be able to start sharing some of the insights we’ve gained from these tags!

A red-throated diver, Gavia stellata

Our work was in parallel with teams across Finland, Shetland and Orkney. Together we managed to retrieve a fantastic number of tags, which will keep me busy for the next year! We hope that by using the data we collected we will be able to describe the winter foraging behaviour of the elusive red-throated diver. Eventually, we hope to use this information to help make predictions about the impacts of off-shore energy developments. But that is a story for a later blog!

A big thank you to Aevar and Guðmundur for hosting me!

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