11 June 2008

International Efforts Continue to Conserve Ivory Gulls

Ivory Gulls nest in colonies, sometimes in large numbers, up to many hundreds. Their nests can be placed densely, and intra-specific aggressive behaviour is characteristic in this species. Image courtesy of Maria Gavrilo, whom also provided the image captions.

Research this summer in the polar Arctic regions will continue to provide details essential for a better understanding of the Ivory Gull and how to conserve this imperiled species.

The Russian team will work in a recently discovered colony on Alexandra Land, west Frantz-Josef Land where 300 pairs bred both in 2006 and 2007, according to Maria Gavrilo, a research scientist at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. The Russian team includes Andrey Volkov and Mikhail Ivanov, both from Moscow.

“To evaluate the status of the species on their core breeding range is the main goal of the studies needed to better understand processes observed with the species worldwide. Other breeding areas will be studied as well with a Norwegian team working on Svalbard, and the French group continuing in north-east Greenland.”

Efforts to better understand the Ivory Gull are needed because it “is a rare species in a global context and is one of the most poorly known seabird species in the world,” she said. “There is growing concern in the circumpolar Arctic that the Ivory Gull may be in decline. The most recent information on population trend of Ivory Gulls exists for Canada, Svalbard and Russia. In Canada, the Ivory Gull has a highly restricted range, breeding exclusively in Nunavut Territory. Until recently, the Canadian Arctic was thought to support 15-20% of the entire global breeding population, and colonies of continental and global importance. However, aerial surveys conducted in 2002-2006 allowed Canadian scientists to record an 80-85% decline in national breeding population since the early 1980s. Estimate from 1990s suggested Russia supported 10,000 breeding pairs from 14,000 breeding pairs worldwide.”

An Ivory Gull on the nest, Domashny Island, Severnaya Zemlya, 2006. Both images taken by Maria Gavrilo.

In spite of the rest of the gull species nesting on land, Ivory Gulls have uniformly-coloured grey downy chicks. These several-days old chicks are from the north-eastermost breeding colony in Russia, Komsomolets Island, Severnaya Zemlya, at 80.48 N/97 E.

In the “Status report on marine birds breeding in the Barents Sea Region” prepared by seabird experts from Russia and Norway, the Ivory Gull is listed as a high priority species The main breeding area of the species stretches from the Kara Sea through the chain of high-latitudinal islands to the Greenland Sea. Recent survey in Svalbard suggests that only a few of the known colonies are still being used and that the total population is smaller than previously estimated. Information obtained currently (2006-2007) on Russian breeding grounds indicate stable populations in some key colonies, although considerable fluctuations in numbers of breeding birds. Thus Russian Arctic is core breeding area for the species which supports nesting colonies of global importance.”

“The Ivory Gull project was initiated several years ago within the framework of the Russian-Norwegian co-operation on environmental protection after ornithologists of our two countries clearly understood that only joint and coordinated efforts in studying this species will be effective for solving the problem of the Ivory Gull population status,” Gavrilo said. “The field work started in 2006 at both Russia and Svalbard. That year we (Russian team) made extensive survey from Severnaya Zemlya (Central Siberian Arctic) westwards till Victoria Island, visiting the Frantz Josef Land Archipelago. This ambitious survey of a vast area of remote Arctic islands during short summer season was possible only because of the support provided by the Federal Border Guard and its Arctic network. In 2007, we continued and visited in Russia Severnaya Zemlya and FJL, partly the same islands, but also new ones. This work was partly supported by Russian IPY program. Valuable services were also provided by the network of Sevhydromet (Northern Directorate of Federal Hydrometeorological Service) and its network of polar weather stations.”

Andrey Volkov is preparing a bait for trapping Ivory Gulls, Hayes Island, Franz-Josef Land, 2007. Pictures by Maria Gavrilo.

Mikhail Ivanov just caught an Ivory Gull. Field camp on Hayes Island, Franz-Josef Land, 2007.

“We plan to place two satellite transmitters on birds, trap and ring birds with metal and individual encoded plastic rings, sample blood (used for studies of genetics, physiology, immune status, cytogenetics, and sexing), sample food items, collect samples for contaminant analysis (eggs and blood), count birds, and evaluate reproductive success count birds, and evaluate reproductive success.” Accessible islands will also be surveyed for population numbers and reproductive success.

Satellite transmitter’s placed on several Ivory Gull’s have been used to track a birds’ movements in the Arctic Ocean, northwest Russia and around southern Greenland, an assessment essential to understanding the species range and habitat use. The most recent “registered position” of several Ivory Gulls can be tracked at the Norwegian-Russian Project on Ivory Gull interactive satellite tracking map at a website sponsored by the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.

Movements of the birds which receive a transmitter this summer around mid-July will be viewable at the tracking map as soon as device will start signaling.

“Telemetry in coming season is a continuation of the project successfully started 2007, when satellite transmitters were attached to 18 Ivory Gulls for the first time,” Gavrilo said. “We obtained very valuable and amazing data on ivory gull migrations. One of the important finding was that birds both from Svalbard (Norway) and Franz-Josef Land (Russia) use the same flyways and share wintering grounds, and birds from the same colony use both major wintering grounds, i.e. gulls from neighboring nests may go to the North Atlantic while another goes to the North Pacific. Thus, the birds from the same breeding colony may face different hazards while on different wintering grounds and using different flyways, i.e. they may accumulate different contaminants or experience different climatic and feeding conditions. Later, during breeding this may affect their reproductive capability in different ways. We also hope that satellite tracking will draw light on the problem of breeding site fidelity in Ivory Gulls – do birds return to the same nesting colony next year and can they change their breeding sites or just miss breeding in the case of poor season, i.e., too little sea ice around. Knowing what types of ice habitats Ivory Gulls prefer will allow us to predict species distribution according to models describing climatic and sea ice cover changes. Tracking movements with help of transmitters is possibly the only way to study migration and habitat use in Ivory Gulls since traditional ringing provides very few information due to extremely low recovery rate.

Ivory Gull Summary

Courtesy of Maria Gavrilo

The Ivory Gull, Pagophila eburnea, is a high Arctic seabird which is associated with sea ice all year round. In spite of an early discovery by Jonas Poole in 1609, it still remains one of the less studied seabird species in the world.

The Ivory Gull has semi-circumpolar breeding distribution in the high latitudes of Atlantic sector of the Arctic. Scattered, mostly small colonies occur in Arctic Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, and the northern islands of Russia in the Barents and Kara seas. The wintering distribution of the Ivory Gull is poorly known, although it generally winters along the southern edge of Arctic pack ice in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean (Davis Strait and Labrador, Greenland and Barents seas), and the North Pacific Ocean (Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and perhaps Beaufort and Chukchi seas).

Ivory gull breeding colonies are indicated by large dots on map. The gulls typically spend most of the winter at sea off the icepack areas of the Arctic Ocean, shown by the stippled areas. Map prepared by Environment Canada/Canadian Wildlife Service.

Being a characteristic species of the ice zone of the Arctic it has a restricted breeding range and a relatively low overall population size.

The Ivory Gull project is a joint effort of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Troms and the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, St. Petersburg. It is a part of the working plan of the Joint Norwegian-Russian Commission on Environmental Protection in the Barents Sea Region.

Effective fulfillment of the project was not possible without mutual cooperation between all parties involved in the project as well as the assistance of many engaged people and facilities of different organizations.

The satellite tracking project has been funded by the Norwegian oil company StatoilHydro. The population survey, contaminant analyses and monitoring activity have been financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Environment, the Governor of Svalbard, the Norwegian State Pollution Control Authority, the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management, the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

“The Ivory Gull keeps all year round in remote oceans far from human settlements; it is also not a game species, therefore we can’t obtain information from the hunters like for example goose people do. Moreover, I’d say that following birds from their home island all way on their traveling over the thousand miles of ice covered oceans is quite thrilling amusement, and every morning while running my notebook, I first come to the project website to see what’s going on with our birds at their ice-bound home country.”

The Ivory Gull – a top predator in its marine ecosystem – is a “characteristic high Arctic species associated with ice seascapes and landscapes throughout the annual cycle and is a good indicator of the ecological status of the Arctic Ocean. It is at risk of climate changes and environmental pollution, hence, it is believed of high conservation concern.” As a rare species, it is recently uplisted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to the “Near Threatened” category, and Red listed in Russia, Norway and Canada.

“Seabirds are good indicators of the health of marine environment in polar regions,” Gavrilo said. “There are two major long-term and persistent impacts affecting Arctic seabirds currently: global change and persistent organochlorine pollutants (POPs).”

“In spite of the remoteness of the areas and long distance of the major industrial activity spots, seabirds in high Arctic are facing several global threats currently and potentially as well. One is global pollution with long-distance transportation of contaminants ending in the Arctic Ocean. Our study revealed amazingly high concentrations of POPs in Ivory Gull eggs, with dominance of DDE and PCBs.

“Climate change poses considerable challenge especially to those species which make use of ice habitats in the Arctic (i.e. pagophilous species, like the Polar Bear and Ivory Gull). Northwards penetration of industrial activity, i.e., shipping, shelf oil and gas extraction and transportation, tourism following recent climate warming in the Arctic will bring new threats to the remote wilderness areas and seabirds of the high Arctic. Oil pollution is of special concern since seabirds are the most vulnerable group of biota in relation to oiling. Nowadays, there is a threat to Arctic seabirds from oiling on their wintering grounds, i.e., in the Sea of Okhotsk for the Ivory Gulls.

“Disturbance from mass tourism might become a problem in some areas, especially taking into account easier access to previously ice-blocked areas in high latitudes. Mining is an increasing problem in some areas, i.e. already in Arctic Canada, probably in some Russian islands as well.”

“Considering the very low public awareness of Ivory Gulls – the species is virtually unknown to the general public – we used every chance to introduce Ivory Gulls to the people who live in the High Arctic side by side with this interesting and enigmatic bird. Collaboration between the expedition team and personnel involved in logistic support of the project provided a good opportunity to distribute information about the importance of the Ivory Gull study. Before the expedition, promotional material such as press-release and souvenir products was prepared. Special envelope, stickers and expedition logo were designed. Press release and souvenirs were distributed among crew members, personnel of frontier outposts and polar stations. Libraries of frontier outposts, as well as Dikson Hydromet and the polar stations were given a Russian edition of the book ‘The status of marine birds breeding in the Barents Sea Region.’ As a feedback valuable information on Ivory Gull was later obtained from remote settlements on the islands.”

The “High Arctic islands of Russia is a unique areas of so-called arctic desert, still enough remote to keep pristine wildlife far away from major centers of industrial activity like petroleum industry and commercial fishing. These areas still support viable and to a certain extent undisturbed populations of wildlife, and seabirds in particular. The central Russian Arctic ‘sector’ including Kara and Laptev seas under current climatic changes is a refuge for many species tied up with ice habitats, i.e., for the Ivory Gull. Other seabirds surveyed in the Kara Sea during our recent visit like Glaucous Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes, are also in a good state demonstrating stable and even increasing population trends in contrast to many areas in the Barents Sea region.

“The great value of the wildlife and wilderness of these islands allowed to propose and almost establish a national park named The Russian Arctic covered Franz-Josef Land Archipelago and the northernmost portion of Northern Island of Novaya Zemlya. The project is currently in the final stage of consideration by the Russian Government.

“The most difficult side of the work in such regions in Russia is inaccessibility of the areas, where the virtually absent infrastructure leads to high costs of the project, and unpredictability including availability of transportation, getting permissions and funds. After all this, harsh Arctic climate, absence of comfortable facilities and unavailability of internet is not a trouble at all.”

Maria Gavrilo with first tagged Ivory Gull at the Krenkel Polar station, Hayes Island, Franz-Josef Land, 31 July, 2007. This gull #74888, after completing the breeding season on Franz-Josef Land, went along the ice edge to its South Greenland wintering quarters. The last satellite signal was received on 2 January, 2008.

Foggy weather was dominating both in 2006 and 2007 seasons and seriously limited visibility and restricted our ability to watch polar bears. Oleg Prodan, our expedition leader in 2006, guards with a rifle nearby our field "lab" on Domashny Island, where we had polar bears every day. Photograph by Maria Gavrilo.

The unique Ivory Gull is of special interest to Ms. Gavrilo, and recent studies and education by her and other researchers have initiated efforts to help the species survive, and in particular, preparing and implementing a plan for its conservation.

“The Circumpolar Seabird Group (CBird) under CAFF (Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna of the Arctic Council) are currently developing a Conservation Strategy and Action plan for the Ivory Gull,” she said. Her current studies will “follow many recommendations stated in this Strategy which aims to conserve the Ivory Gull not only in Russia but worldwide.”

Following the 2006 expedition, there was a broadcast about the effort on Novosibirsk state television, Gavrilo said. A video in the news program entitled “Ivory Gulls rear offspring under protection of frontier guard” was shown later, “both regionally and on central Russian channel, and received the recognition among the best TV reports of the Company in 2006.” After the expeditions had been completed, special calendars for year 2007 and 2008 with pictures of Ivory Gulls were designed and widely distributed.”

Other successful efforts to publicize the Ivory Gull and its plight include:

  • A talk entitled “In search of the ivory gulls: heliborne insert on the High Arctic islands” was given by Maria Gavrilo at the session of Polar Commission in The Russian Geographical Society, Saint-Petersburg in February 2006 to present results of the expedition to a general audience.
  • A scientific talk “In search of the ivory gulls. Results of the Russian-Norwegian project in 2006” (by Maria Gavrilo, Andrey Volkov and Hallvard Strom, who is Ivory Gull project leader from Norwegian side) was given at the joint session of Menzbir’s Ornithological Society and Moscow Society of Nature Explorers, at Moscow in April 2007.
  • Expedition highlights were also announced in “National Geographic Russia” (February, 2007, p. 28) and in World Wildlife Fund Arctic Bulletin in 2007, issue 3.
  • Most recently, in April 2008 an exhibition devoted to the project was opened in State Biological Museum in Moscow entitled “Beyond the 67 N: We study the Arctic”

Envelope commemorating the Ivory Gull, 2006.

Commemorative envelope in 2007.

Gavrilo has also studied polar birds for more than two decades, following her graduation as a zoologist from Leningrad State University with a specialty in ornithology.

“I have been working in polar region regions, both Arctic and Antarctic (mostly in the Arctic) studying seabirds, their distribution in polar oceans and mapping, doing assessment of their vulnerability to different human impacts such as oiling and petroleum activity, shipping etc., and also dealing with conservation issues,” she said. “I’m really enjoying my work. I love to work in remote polar areas, in ice-covered oceans, observing birds at their wild pristine Arctic habitats. I’m thrilled at the observing wildlife under extreme Arctic conditions, trying to understand how they survive and what are their adaptations to harsh climate conditions.”

Maria Gavrilo taking blood sample from the Ivory Gull in the largest worldwide breeding colony on Domashny Island, Severnaya Zemlya, 2006. Photograph by Oleg Prodan.

Andrey Volkov and Maria Gavrilo separating blood samples for plasma and cells in the "laboratory" at the frontier post on Domashny Island, Severnaya Zemlya, 79 N. Photograph by Alexey Lokhov.

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