Bird Island and Beyond!

Dr Javed Riaz

August was a busy month for our DPLUS168 project!

Braving the wintery conditions, Al and I spent 3 weeks on Bird Island, West Falkland living and working with the seals. Bird Island is a tiny little tussock island located in the south west part of the Falklands. It has a real Jurassic Park vibe to it – an untouched and pristine wilderness teeming with all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures – and such a privilege to have the opportunity to visit.

We were kindly transported to the island by the Lillibet – the Falkland Islands Government fisheries patrol vessel. From Stanley, it took approximately 12 hours to arrive. Skilfully battling the high swell and the awkward rocky landing site in their zodiac, the Lillibet crew successfully dropped us off on the island. They wished us good luck and waved us goodbye. Al and I moved all of our kit, equipment, food and water up the beach and away from the tide (where we naively thought it was safe!). We then began the mission of finding spots to pitch our tents. 

Easier said than done on an overgrown tussock island….
The mission of this 3-week trip was to deploy 19 satellite tags on male South American fur seals. These seal tracking devices transmit via satellite and provide us with valuable information about where seals are going and how they’re behaving while they’re out at sea. It was an exciting field objective! If successful, the tags would generate around 6-months’ worth of data for each individual, giving us unprecedented insight into the foraging behaviour and habitat use of this cryptic seal species.
Working days were hard and long, but nevertheless, time flew by! 14 sunrises, 5 snowstorms, 3 seal-trampled food boxes, 28 coffees, 35 bashed open tins of beans (because we forgot a can opener) and 1 broken tent later…we did it!

In 2 weeks, we managed to successfully deploy all 19 satellite tags on these awesome and charismatic animals. It’s extremely rewarding knowing these fieldwork efforts are poised to generate one of the largest movement datasets available for this species! And what’s really cool is that we’re able to follow our 19 boys live and in real-time! You can also check out their journeys here:

In the 7 days we had remaining of the trip, Al and I turned our attention to another work task which was not so glamorous… collecting seal poo. The aim was to collect as much poo as possible to allow us to study fur seal diet. We scoured the island in the days we had remaining and managed to achieve a pretty good haul! Over 100 samples of seal poo all bagged up and waiting to be examined. We’re super excited about the work, but it’s safe to say the Lillibet crew were rather confused when we boarded with 3 bin liners filled with seal poo. 

The excitement of our DPLUS168 project kept on rolling when we returned to Stanley. Sitting among the mountain of unread emails that had accumulated over the 3 weeks was the news that our recent research investigating the movement ecology of female South American fur seals had been accepted for publication in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation. Using two years of tracking data from female fur seals tagged at Bird Island in 2018 and 2019, this new study examined the spatial overlap with commercial fisheries in the Falkland Islands. In a nutshell, the study shows that fur seals and the commercial trawl fishery both target the same key habitats within the Falkland Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), likely competing for important squid and finfish resources. The study is available open access here:

This new publication represents a really important first step in building our understanding of seal-fishery interactions in the Falkland Islands. But plenty more research is required. We’re currently in the process of developing mathematical models which use a broad range of fisheries and environmental data to tell us which factors are most likely to influence seal-fishery interactions in the Falklands EEZ. And of course, we can’t forget about the lovely bags of seal poo waiting in the freezer for us. Working with our collaborators, we plan to conduct visual and DNA analyses of poo samples to better understand fur seal diet, including the relative importance of commercially caught species and whether there have been any changes in diet over time. It’s going to be a busy couple of months. Watch this space!
This project is funded by the UK Government through the Darwin Plus Fund - Darwin Plus project: 168

And is a partnership with the Falkland Islands Government Fisheries Department and the Falkland Islands Fishing Companies Association (FIFCA).
PO Box 609, Stanley Cottage North
Ross Road, Falkland Islands
Stanley, FIQQ 1ZZ
Falkland Islands: +500 27374
UK Office: +44 (0)203 745 1731
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