We have an outstanding reputation in ornithological research for seabird surveys, particularly in relation to seabirds. With over 670 (and counting) successfully completed boat-based surveys from 1-8 days in duration incorporating transect routes up to nearly 1,000 km in length, we believe we have more experience than any other single company in the UK and perhaps even in Europe.
A high proportion of surveys have been conducted for the offshore wind farm industry at eight Round 1 and 2 sites around the English coast, one Scottish Territorial Waters site and for three (a third of all) Round 3 zones - Firth of Forth, Irish Sea and Atlantic Array - encompassing waters around the UK and Ireland up to 70 km offshore. In all, we have worked on 13 separate sites. In the Firth of Forth, we surveyed 23,000 km of transect over two years, which we think is the most in-depth boat-based survey campaign for offshore wind development achieved in the UK.
We have a highly accomplished and experienced team of in-house and regular freelance surveyors that have undergone training with the JNCC or approved trainers in relation to European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) standards. Our main seabird surveyors are also all qualified Marine Mammal Observer (MMOs). All of our survey team hold appropriate offshore medical and sea survival certification. Surveyors are 'hand-picked' to meet the standards we require and expect, which also extends to the ability to cope with challenging conditions and work effectively within an extended team.
Our boat-based surveys have an excellent record of identifying birds to species level. On projects undertaken since 2007, the average proportion of identified birds to the species level exceeds 98%. This incorporates all bird taxa, including individuals observed at distances in excess of 300m.
Whilst we may follow ESAS methods where required, we also employ a more specific methodology in relation to sampling flying birds to allow more accurate estimation of density of this group, which is critical to the assessment of collision risk at wind farms. Sub-sampling is undertaken at fixed distance intervals (often 500 m) along transects and uses semi-circular snapshots within which different distance bands may be recorded. This protocol neatly complements survey of birds on the water in parallel distance bands from the vessel. We also typically survey both sides of the vessel (i.e. over 180°) as this increases sampling effort and makes for cost-effective use of vessel time.
To undertake surveys, we charter vessels to suit the location, conditions and to match the client budget bearing in mind COWRIE recommendations for offshore surveys are for vessels >20 m in length and >5 m eye-height. In order to allow safe and effective working in difficult conditions, we have used vessels in excess of 30 m, as this provides more scope to successfully deliver surveys. We have well-established links with a number of vessel owners around the UK.
As well as providing ornithological experts, we also have considerable expertise in managing offshore survey logistics. Staff ensure that all elements of offshore projects run smoothly including health and safety planning and operation, weather forecasting and liaison with boat skippers. Overall, our coordinated management system has meant that we have incurred over a handful of days weather downtime throughout all our survey programmes and several requiring >30 surveys within a campaign over two years incurred no downtime at all. We pride ourselves on what we think is an unchallenged ability in delivering surveys on time and at cost with no requirement for downtime.
For inshore surveys, including in inter-tidal areas we use smaller vessels such as 10-12 catamarans and workboats and even rigid-hulled inflatables (RIBs) from 6-10 m in length. The speed of survey can be increased aboard RIBs and catamarans to ensure the survey is completed within limited tidal cycles. As a result of our experience of operating in such conditions, we were commissioned by the JNCC to arrange and undertake boat-based surveys of Little terns at selected colonies around the UK in 2013.
We have also designed and implemented novel techniques to answer specific questions. These included the first radio tracking of Little terns in the UK, which was also the first time that telemetry had been undertaken on a seabird in relation to wind farm assessment. Our current team has considerable experience of tracking and telemetry of tagged birds including terns, gulls and penguins.
We also developed 'visual tracking' in which seabirds are followed at sea in a RIB, revealing offshore foraging behaviour and identification of key offshore foraging areas. This technique has since been adopted by the JNCC as a method for defining important offshore foraging areas for UK breeding terns. In order to explain seabird distribution patterns we have also simultaneously sampled water quality variables (salinity, pH, temperature and fluorescence to indicate algal abundance) and have developed bespoke methods of sampling important prey species. In relation to the latter, with colleagues in the fishing industry developed a small surface tow net to sample the prey available to Little terns in the upper surface layers and have also used commercial sand eel trawls to sample the prey available to Sandwich terns.
We have been contracted to offer impartial advice on selecting appropriate survey techniques and have recommended survey platforms other than boats. Indeed, we are familiar with other techniques such as aerial surveys and radar and camera systems as a result of handling aerial datasets for some clients. In order to also provide these services we can link with trusted specialists wherever required.