Status and Phenology of Breeding Seabirds and a Review of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas in the British Indian Ocean Territory

Carr, P., Votier, S., Koldewey, H., Godley, B., Wood, H. and Nicoll, M.A.C. (2020) Status and phenology of breeding seabirds and a review of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Bird Conservation International.


Seabirds are one of the most threatened avian taxa and are hence a high conservation priority. Managing seabirds is challenging, requiring conservation actions at sea (e.g. Marine Protected Areas – MPAs) and on land (e.g. protection of breeding sites). Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) have been successfully used to identify sites of global importance for the conservation of bird populations, including breeding seabirds. The challenge of identifying suitable IBAs for tropical seabirds is exacerbated by high levels of dispersal, aseasonal and asynchronous breeding. The western Indian Ocean supports ~19 million breeding seabirds of 30 species, making it one of the most significant tropical seabird assemblages in the world. Within this is the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), encompassing 55 islands of the Chagos Archipelago, which supports 18 species of breeding seabird and one of the world’s largest no-take MPAs. Between January and March in 1975 and 1996, eight and 45 islands respectively were surveyed for seabirds and the data used to designate 10 islands as IBAs. A further two were proposed following an expedition to 26 islands in February/March 2006. Due to the historic and restricted temporal and spatial nature of these surveys, the current IBA recommendations may not accurately represent the archipelago’s present seabird status and distribution. To update estimates of the BIOT breeding seabird assemblage and reassess the current IBA recommendations, we used seabird census data collected in every month except September from every island, gathered during 2008–2018. The maximum number of breeding seabirds for a nominal year was 281,596 pairs of 18 species, with three species making up 96%: Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus – 70%, Lesser Noddy Anous tenuirostris – 18% and Red-footed Booby Sula sula – 8%. Phenology was a complex species-specific mix of synchronous and asynchronous breeding, as well as seasonal and aseasonal breeding. Nine of the 10 designated IBAs and the two proposed IBAs qualified for IBA status based on breeding seabirds. However, not every IBA qualified each year because Sooty Terns periodically abandoned breeding islands and Tropical Shearwater Puffinus bailloni breeding numbers dropped below IBA qualifying criteria in some years. Further, one survey per year does not always capture the periodic breeding of some tropical seabirds. We propose therefore, that IBAs in BIOT are better designated at the island cluster level rather than by specific island and require two surveys six months apart per year. This work highlights the merits of long-term, systematic, versus incidental surveys for breeding tropical seabirds and the subsequent associated designation of IBAs.

DOI: 10.1017/S0959270920000295