Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

05 June 2023

Recording of the week: Seabirds in a plastic world

Northern Gannet with plastic

A northern gannet, a seabird with a white body, beige head and blue eyes, sits on a pile of blue and red fishing rope and holds a clump of it in its beak. Photo credit: Thomas Haeusler. 

Today is World Environment Day 2023. This year, it is hosted by Côte d'Ivoire, and the theme is focussing on tackling plastic pollution. By now, we should all be aware of the dangers around plastics entering the environment. The 2017 series Blue Planet II, brought our attention to the plight of our oceans due to the amount of plastic being introduced. We saw disturbing footage of albatross chicks perishing after being fed small pieces of sharp plastic. Since then, hard hitting assessments have regularly been in the headlines like “more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050”, “humans ingest the equivalent of a credit card worth of plastic every week”, and “microplastics found in human blood”. World Environment Day in 2018 also had the same theme and tagline: “Beat Plastic Pollution”. Yet despite this awareness, frustratingly little progress has been made in reducing plastic production and consumption. Worse still, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in plastic waste in the form of PPE.

Plastic affects all life on all parts of the planet, but some more than others. This recording of the week selection (British Library reference WA 1999/058/075 S1 C1) comes from a group of animals especially affected by human actions; seabirds. The northern gannet (Morus bassanus) is an iconic seabird, famous for their incredible fishing technique. As seen in the recent Wild Isles series, gannets catch their food by diving at high speed in to schools of fish, leaving trails of bubbles in their path like avian torpedoes.

Like most seabirds, gannets nest on cliff sides in large and often very noisy colonies, typically alongside other species such as kittiwakes, fulmars and guillemots. As such, getting a clean recording of an individual calling can be very challenging. The recordist responsible for this recording, Victor Lewis, used a long cable and careful field-craft to get his microphone as close as possible to the subject with minimal disturbance. The raucous calls of a pair at the nest is easily lost to our ears in the cacophony of other bird calls and sea sounds, but this is how they communicate with one another, so to hear it from the birds’ perspective gives better context to the sounds.

Listen to Gannets calling

Gannets courting

A pair of northern gannets face each other with their necks extended and beaks touching. Photo credit: Marco Federmann.

Gannets mate for life, and they have a unique mating ritual which they perform each season to re-affirm their bonds. They face each other, extend their necks, touch bills and shake their heads. If you are lucky enough to see this display when watching a colony, you may just hear the subtle clattering of their bills.

Over half the world’s gannets nest around the UK coast, estimated at around 220,000 pairs. That sounds like a healthy number, but it is declining due to a complex array of man-made problems. Overfishing depletes their food source and even ends with gannets caught in trawler nets as bycatch. Bird flu has been devastating to gannets in recent years, spreading through colonies very quickly and leaving thousands of dead chicks and adults. While plastic continues to be a terrible threat. In 2019, the scientists in the British Ornithologists’ Union studied 7280 gannet nests across 29 colonies, and found 46% contained plastic. A gannet colony on the island of Alderney was found by the Wildlife Trust to contain plastic in almost every single nest. Most of this is in the form of fishing gear lost or abandoned at sea. Chicks and adults can get entangled in fishing ropes or even end up ingesting plastic, and this is often fatal.

Every year people visit seabird sites like Bempton Cliffs, the Farne Islands, and Bass Rock in Scotland to marvel at the spectacle of thousands of birds breeding and feeding on the UK shores. To lose this annual festival of nature would be so devastating it doesn’t bare thinking about. As well as addressing other threats, we must stop plastic entering the ocean. Large scale solutions like new laws and legislation must come from higher up, but, in case you need a reminder, we can all play our part. Be mindful of what you are buying and throwing away. If you can afford to, always choose reusable alternatives to single-use plastics. You can also do a lot of good by helping to clean up your local spaces or joining in with a beach clean. The future lives of these beautiful birds, like so many other species, depends on all of our actions now.

Northern Gannets on rock

Several dozen Northern Gannets and their chicks sat at the top of a cliff with the sea in the background. Photo credit: Dr. Georg Wietschorke .

You can learn all about humans’ understanding and interpretation of animals in our exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound, open until 28th August 2023.

Today’s post was written by Greg Green, Metadata Support Officer.