Sniffer dogs deployed to detect burrowing birds on Firth of Forth island nature reserve

Specially trained dogs have sniffed out a colony of the UK’s smallest seabirds on a Scottish nature reserve in a conservation first.

Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 12:30 pm

Storm petrels were confirmed to be breeding on NatureScot’s Isle of May National Nature Reservefor the first time this summer, and with the sniffer dogs’ assistance, the location and extent of the colony has now been confirmed.

The nomadic birds breed in the UK during the summer but spend their lives out at sea. Most of the 26,000-strong UK population can be found on remote islands and the species is notoriously difficult to monitor due to its nocturnal habits and preference for remote, rocky islands.

Five sniffer dogs were trained to locate the scent of storm petrels underground in their burrows after all the other seabirds had left the island. They detected 63 confirmed positive responses – revealing burrows and indicating that pairs were nesting.

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Scent dog Pyper at work on the trail of the elusive burrowing Storm petrel.

David Steel, Reserve Manager at the Isle of May, said: “These special seabirds come ashore under the cover of darkness and nest underground in crevices, burrows, cairns or stone-walls, raising a single chick. During that time, their activities – singing away in total darkness, as well as their unique musky smell, make these birds so fascinating and mysterious.”

Dr Mark Bolton, the leading authority on storm petrels in the UK and a Principal Conservation Scientist for the RSPB, said the storm petrel discovery was ‘very exciting’.

He continued: “The fact that specially-trained scent dogs were used to locate many of the nesting sites is ground-breaking in the UK, and I hope it heralds a new era of greater use of scent dogs for seabird monitoring here.”

Simon Chapman, Senior Trainer at K9 Manhunt & ScentWork Scotland, added: “Having trained lots of different dogs over the years on a vast array different odours, this was a first for us to work in conservation and to locate a new colony of nesting seabirds. Dogs are a cost effective and fast method to cover the ground when conducting these types of surveys.”

Simon Chapman from K9 with Molly on the Isle of May. (Pic: NatureScot)

Over the years, volunteers at Scotland’s oldest bird observatory on the island have been ringing non-breeding storm petrels and tracking their subsequent movements. Recoveries of ringed birds have shown links to much of the traditional range, mainly to the north and west of Scotland and Ireland.

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Sniffer dog, Pyper, at work with trainer Lyn from K9 (Pic: NatureScot)
K9 staff with sniffer dogs, from left to right From the team photo from left to right Lyn with Pyper, Lorriane with Nelson, Lucy with Esmay, and Simon with Molly and Storm