Become a Seabird Scientist from your sofa!

Kirsty Ann Franklin

Like the idea of being a scientist from the comfort of your own sofa? Well, here is your chance to do so by taking part in an exciting citizen science project, helping to increase our understanding of the ecology of Round Island petrels.

Seabird populations are in decline globally, owing to threats from fisheries, pollution, invasive predators, habitat destruction and human disturbance. Impacts from these threats can occur at any stage in the annual cycle, and so understanding where and how this happens will enable us to better conserve them.

One way to effectively monitor seabirds is by using time-lapse photography. Cameras are programmed to capture images at the breeding colonies at regular intervals and are well suited to collecting data over long time periods. These cameras generate an enormous amount of data, often resulting in hundreds of thousands of images. One of the biggest challenges with this technology is to then turn this wealth of photographic information into a dataset that allows us to answer our research questions.

Camera trap in Antartica
A camera trap in Antarctica

Citizen science participation has proved a successful way of speeding up image processing, particularly before AI (Artificial Intelligence) can be trained on a new species. One hugely popular citizen science project, in which over 50,000 volunteers from all over the world have participated, is Penguin Watch. Hosted by Zooniverse, volunteers are asked to classify images by tagging and counting penguins. The success of Penguin Watch resulted in a new project, led by Tom Hart (who previously worked within the Institute of Zoology at ZSL) and Mark Jessopp, aimed at measuring populations of other seafaring birds – Seabird Watch

A sleeping Round Island petrel chick
A Round Island Petrel chick

Seabird Watch has, up until now, focused on kittiwakes and guillemots across the North Atlantic, with cameras in locations such as Iceland, Svalbard and the Faroe Islands. However, Seabird Watch recently spread its wings and expanded south to include a more tropical focus with images now coming from Round Island, Mauritius.

Cameras on Round Island were set up to monitor the hybrid population of Pterodroma petrels that breed there. More specifically, we want to understand the seasonal variation in breeding success, by identifying key phenological dates (e.g. egg-laying, hatching, chick fledging) and to identify the time and cause of nest failure. More information on this project can be found in my previous blog

This is where your help is needed! By participating in Seabird Watch you will help us answer the above questions by counting the number of petrels breeding on Round Island. Volunteers are shown a random image and are asked to ‘tag’ petrels by clicking on them. Volunteers are also asked to classify each record as an ‘adult’, ‘chick’, ‘egg’ or ‘other’. This latter group is used to tag other species, such as the endemic Round Island boa, Telfair skinks, giant tortoises, or other seabirds. 

A Tortoise is photographed alongside Round Island Petrels
A Round Island Tortoise makes an appearance in front of one of the camera traps!

Anyone with an internet connection from anywhere in the world can get involved. If you have never volunteered for one of these projects, you can use an online tutorial as often as you like to understand the classification process (click on Classify, then choose Tutorial instead of Task).

So, if you fancy being a scientist from your sofa and are intrigued by this unusual population of petrels, then we would love for you to spend a few minutes helping us with this awesome citizen science project. Keep your eyes peeled for the tortoises and skinks, among many other species, that also inhabit the island! 

You can get involved in Seabird Watch at https://www.seabirdwatch.org

A screenshot showing a camera trap image on the Seabird Watch website
Seabird Watch is easy to use

Kirsty's PhD is the first to be funded by the British Ornithological Union’s (BOU) John and Pat Warham Studentship and is supported in-country by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) and National Parks and Conservation Service (NPCS). 

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