What can seabirds tell us about the tide?

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Small global positioning system (GPS) trackers are now routinely used to study the movement and behaviour of birds at sea. If the birds rest on the water they become “drifters of opportunity” and can be used to give information about surface currents. In this paper, we use a small data set from satellite-tracked razorbills (Alca torda) in the Irish Sea to test the potential of this idea for measuring tidal currents. Razorbills regularly rest on the sea overnight and their tracks at this time are consistent with their drifting with the tidal flows and changing direction as the flood turns to ebb and vice versa. Data from 4 years (2011–2014) have been binned in a geographical grid and analysed to give the variation of current over a mean tidal cycle in each grid element. A map of maximum current speed is consistent with a numerical model of the tidal currents in the region. The root mean square difference between observed maximum speed and that predicted by the model is 0.15 m s−1, about 15 % of typical current speeds in the area. The divergence between bird-track speed and model prediction increases in regions of the fastest tidal currents. The method clearly has its limitations, but the results of this study show that tagged birds resting on the sea have potential to provide relatively inexpensive quantitative information about surface tidal currents over an extended geographical area.
Original languageEnglish
JournalOcean Science
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 29 Nov 2018

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