Update December: Lab work & Happy Christmas!

Online lecture: "Gannets & Marine Litter - Light and shadow in Germany's only seabird colony" on 04.02.2021 at 7:30 p.m.

The traditional winter lecture series of the Jordsand Association continues on Thursday, 4 February, at 7:30 pm, with the fourth lecture "Gannets & Marine Debris - Light and shadow in Germany's only seabird colony". The lecture will be streamed live via the association's website http://www.jordsand.de. Helgoland is home to Germany's only seabird colony with five breeding bird species that only occur there. However, this wonderful experience unfortunately does not have only positive sides: Since Gannets have been breeding on Heligoland, they have been putting synthetic fibres in their nests in addition to natural nesting material. This has an impact on the Gannets, but also on the neighbouring Common Murres: A certain number of individuals become entangled in the plastic fibres and are usually unable to free themselves. The project "Gannets & Marine Litter" researches the effects of macroplastics on seabirds and where the material comes from. Learn more about Germany's unique seabird colony and the first results of my research project.

Update December: Lab work & Happy Christmas!

The last months were characterized by a lot of lab work. During my parental leave I was regularly at the lab to examine the plastic fibers from the nests. This is not always easy, because the fibers are not necessarily "clean", if they were partly installed for several years in a Gannet nest. Nevertheless, I am on the "home stretch" here and the laboratory work will now be completed. In the meantime I was also able to obtain fresh samples of possible polluters. So a comparison of fresh material and material from the nests is now possible. This will be continued in January. On a positive note, however, it is possible to determine the type of plastic for most of the plastic fibers from the nests. A good basis for further "detective work" in the search for the origin.

I am sorry that I have not been in touch for the last months. But the lab work and structuring of the data in addition to literature research was not so "exciting" that I could post an update every few weeks. This I have now hopefully made up for! In this sense I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. In January there will hopefully be an outlook on 2021 in the project. Because of Corona many field works are unfortunately not yet plannable.

Update November: Development of breeding pair numbers at "Lummenfelsen" in 2020

In addition to the unfortunately high and unanticipated entanglement rates of Guillemots and Gannets, there are a few positive things to report for 2020. In June, I reported a record year for the so-called "Guillemot jump". That is reflected in the breeding pair numbers of Guillemots this year. We saw an increase in breeding pairs for both Gannets and Guillemots. The mapping is  done annually by the Vogelwarte Helgoland with the support of the Verein Jordsand.
The breeding pair numbers in 2020 are as follows:

  • Common Guillemot: 4243 (2019: 4050) - record year!
  • Northern Gannet: 1289 (2019: 1206) - record year!
  • Razorbill: 79 (2019: 84)
  • Black-legged Kittiwake: 3695 (2019: 3871)
  • Northern Fulmar: 31 (2019: 38)

Unfortunately, we have serious population declines, especially for Fulmar and Kittiwake. Factors here include climate change or mistaking plastic for food. If the pollution of the rock continues to increase due to the introduction of artificial nesting material, the situation for the other species can unfortunately change very quickly in the future. For this reason, I am very keen to publish the data collected over the next two years. Nevertheless, it is a nice thing, that some species also develop positively!

Update November: Entanglement in 2020

At the end of October I finished the entanglement recording of the last year. A year always includes winter from October to March and summer from April to the end of September. This is, of course, different from the Seasons, but maps well the breeding season and unoccupied time of the rock during the winter. Initial evaluations indicate that entanglement in the second year was also significantly higher than had been anticipated in advance.  Unfortunately, the fieldwork in the second year also clearly showed that the numbers from the first year were no exception. For example, a similar number of guillemots died (over 100 individuals) as well as more gannets than in 2019 (over 60 individuals). Among guillemots, mostly adults died during the breeding season. Juveniles are almost unaffected by entanglement because they do not come into contact with gannet nests. In the case of gannets, mainly young animals die, which become entangled in the nest as chicks and thus can never fly away. But also the winter half-year plays an important role in the entanglement of guillemots: About one third of the birds die in winter, when the individuals visit the rock during so-called "prospecting flights". Since no gannets are present, the guillemots then also sit down in the plastic nests.
This is not good news at first, as a high number of individuals of gannets and guillemots die from the plastic that the gannets bring in as nesting material. The field work of the entanglement is now completed after two winter and two summer seasons. A paper will be prepared on this in the next six months to publish the findings.

Update September: Parental leave

Currently I am on parental leave - for this reason there will be only irregular updates in the coming months (including November). During this time, however, the field work will be finished - hopefully including the laboratory work. Afterwards, the exciting part will begin in winter: The evaluation of the two-year fieldwork.

Update September: Master thesis in the project

From June to August, Alisa Rohrbach actively supported the project as part of her master's degree. Primarily she recorded the entangled birds in the rock and started to evaluate and model first data. Due to the good and productive cooperation with Alisa Rohrbach, the idea of working on the topic of entanglement and the resulting effects on population levels as part of a master's thesis developed. After intensive discussions, also with the responsible universities, this idea was received very positively by all parties involved. I am therefore very pleased to welcome Alisa Rohrbach as part of her master thesis in the project "Gannets & Marine Waste" and look forward to the results. The master thesis will be finished next year.

Update September: Summer entanglement Northern Gannets

In August until September most of the young Gannets are discovered, which have become entangled in different parts of their body as small chicks. At the beginning the young birds usually sit only in their nests and it is not recognizable whether they are entangled or not. When they are a little bit bigger and start their first movement attempts in their youth dress, you can usually recognize if they are entangled or not. Unfortunately there were more young gannets entangled in the plastic waste this year than in 2019, but about half of the young animals were able to free themselves or with the help of their parents. We were also able to catch and free one adult bird that got entangled - this is unfortunately very seldom the case due to the densely populated colony and the many young animals as well as the nature of the rock!

Picture: Uwe Fiedler, Andrea Harde

Update June/July 2020: Summer entanglement

The field work of the entanglement is also progressing steadily this year. At least three times a week, the nine test areas are checked for victims of entanglement. In 2019, the peak of involvement of the guillemots was at the turn of May/June. This can be well connected to the fact that the adults have to bring more and more food into the rock shortly before the guillemot jump, because the young animal is constantly growing. This of course also increases the probability of getting tangled up in the plastic during approach or departure. In 2020, however, the peak of entanglement with the guillemot shifted to mid-June. This is astonishing, as the guillemot peak also began around 10 June in 2020. However, the strongest jumping days last year were a little earlier than this year. Therefore it is possible that the adults had to feed a large number of the offspring a few days longer. At the end of June and the beginning of July, the involvement of the guillemots decreased significantly. After most of the young animals had jumped, and also the old animals defending the breeding ground left the rock, there were hardly any guillemots in the rock from about mid-June. The last young animals are still sitting in a single spot, but on the whole the Guillemots have left the rock.

If one compares the numbers of the summer entanglement in 2019 and 2020, it is clearly visible that the numbers approximately correspond. This is advantageous for further analysis, as it can be assumed that none of the two years considered was an "extreme year" with particularly many or few victims of entanglement.

One final point that came to light during the survey this summer: As last year, kittiwakes also increasingly incorporated plastic fibres into their nests. Here, an increase in the number of contaminated nests compared to last year was observed. In addition, we also had more entangled Kittiwakes (single-digit number) than last year. Nevertheless, this is still a very small number. However, the impact of these contaminated nests should not be neglected in the future, as the first guillemots died in the plastic of a Kittiwake's nest, not Gannet's.

Update June 2020: Guillemot jump

From about 10 June until the beginning of July our annual spectacle at the nature reserve "Lummenfelsen" took place: The Guillemot jump. During this period the small, approximately three weeks old guillemots jump from the rocks into the floods of the North Sea every year. As some of the sub-colonies are located in areas where the animals do not jump directly into the water but behind the protective mole, the staff of the Verein Jordsand and the ornithological station as well as islanders help the young Guillemots across the mole. At the same time the animals are ringed, measured and weighed. Thus one receives long-term data about the fitness state of the young guillemots and their nutritional condition. The guillemot jump in 2020 was - as in the previous year - a record year in terms of both the number of breeding pairs and the number of young guillemots jumped. All institutions and persons involved were able to catch and ring around 550 young animals (2019: approx. 520 young animals).

Fortunately, we were also able to find very few entangled young guillemots in the rocks. Of course some young Guillemots get entangled in the plastic, but compared to the young animals that were jumped, this is a negligible number of individuals!

Update June 2020: Breeding pairs on the rock 2020

Under the leadership of the ornithological station "Vogelwarte Helgoland" and supported by the Verein Jordsand, the five seabird species unique to Germany are recorded in the cliffs during May and early June. As in every year, I often have a feeling of what the development might look like and I am then amazed at the actual result: this year, the development of last year continued for almost every species. Kittiwakes and Fulmars continued to decrease, Razorbills stagnated at a high level and Common Guillemots and Northern Gannets increased. A new record number of breeding pairs could be observed in both of the latter two species.

This is a very pleasing development, if one looks at the numbers of entanglement. Over 100 Common Guillemots and over 50 Northern Gannets die every year. The evaluation following the completion of the field work in October 2020 will show whether an effect on the population can be measured with these figures. However, it can be assumed that the additional mortality caused by plastic waste has an effect on the population. The increase in the two species, which are also significantly affected by plastic waste pollution, is therefore probably also largely due to external growth.

Update May 2020:
Installation of camera traps and GPS-transmitters of Northern Gannets

In spite of the current situation, we have been able to equip some of the northern gannets with GPS-transmitters and to install several camera traps in the area of the northern gannets’ colony. The radio collaring was carried out in cooperation with the colleagues from the FTZ and the "Vogelwarte Helgoland" – many thanks to you all!


In 2019, the James-Krüss-Schule Helgoland had organised a charity run and gained 4000 € to the benefit of my project. This money has now been invested into the GPS-transmitters the animals have been equipped with. In addition to the transmitters, the corresponding nests have been provided with camera traps. Due to the current situation, we have not been able to install as many of the cameras as planned because of supply difficulties – but anyway, three completely equipped camera traps are now observing three northern gannets’ nests.


By dint of the data gained by transmitters and camera traps, we aim at narrowing down the areas approached by the northern gannets on their search for nesting material (see Chap. IV). Up to now, no findings whatsoever exist to answer the question, whether northern gannets pick up nesting material at random or whether certain areas in the perimeter of the island or the German Bight are approached deliberately. We hope, the sender data in combination with the camera trap pictures will give us information on the birds’ flight paths and destinations and will provide answers to the question, whether, inter alia, plastic material is gathered deliberately on defined sites.


Beside the radio collaring campaign, field work has been intensified and, inter alia. the phenology of the insertion of nesting material has been continued by investigating 90 defined nests. Here, too, I hope for exciting results with respect to the question, in which nesting phase which sort of material primarily is used. By means of last year’s data collection, one has to act on the assumption that most of the plastic material is inserted into the nests during May.

Update April 2020:
Laboratory analysis

The preparation of the artificial nesting material is almost completed, and an entire northern gannet’s nest has been stripped down to its single fibres. These fibres derive from about 1.5 kg of plastic material, which was located in the nest at its removal from the colony. The nest in question dates from the 2015 pilot project, when seven nests have been removed from the Helgoland cliffs during a coordinated campaign of GEO, Greenpeace, Verein Jordsand e. V. and the ornithological station Helgoland [Vogelwarte Helgoland].


Now, at the AWI laboratories, measurements are performed on the prepared samples by means of the ATR-spectrometer. These measurements have started in April and shall be finished in the weeks to come. The method works very well, and of almost each fibre the kind of plastics can be defined to a very high degree of precision. This is quite pleasing, because it will provide the basis for our second step: the possible future identification of the plastic producers!


The laboratory analysis will drag on into June at least, but nonetheless, I am glad of being able to use the laboratories, even in spite of the current situation.

Update April 2020:
Data collection on the entanglement of birds

As in every year, in April, the Lummenfelsen filled up gradually. The more of the breeding places were occupied, the more active the hustle in the colony became. The earliest of the northern gannets started nesting in March – in April, these activities were intensified, and the last breeding pairs occupied their nests. The guillemots, too, started breeding, and the bustle on the Lummenfelsen became more and more animated in the course of the month. At the end of month, the black-legged kittiwakes also started nesting – but they, too, unfortunately not only with natural material.


To be able to finally define the effects of plastic waste pollution on the population, I want to collect entanglement data for two years on the whole (November 2018 to November 2020). Therefore, we are now standing in the second year of field work, and it is clearly recognizable, that in April, the number of entanglement victims significantly augmented in comparison with March. This confirms the trend of last year’s data collection, when entanglement rates raised with increasing activity on the Lummenfelsen, too.

Primarily, guillemots are affected by this trend, but also some of the northern gannets have already entangled themselves in plastic waste.


In consequence, the focus, in April, lay on a very intense field work of about 5 days a week. Beside the entanglement victims, 90 specimens of nests on the cliffs have been observed. We wanted to gain information on whether the insertion of nesting material (artificial vs. natural) changed during the nesting phase. An augmentation of plastic insertion into the northern gannets’ nests was clearly recognizable in the course of the month.


With respect to the rest of the year, the highest number of guillemots died in May 2019. Equally in May, the largest amount of plastic was inserted into the nests by the northern gannets. In this context, it will remain to be seen which will be the results of the data collection in May 2020 and whether last year’s data acquisition will be substantiated by this year’s collection.

Update March 2020:
Repopulation of the cliffs

As every year in March, our breeding birds return to the cliffs. Meanwhile, all species actually have returned in high quantities to their breeding places.

The bustle in Germany’s only colony of pelagic birds hence slowly is awaking from hibernation. At the moment, all the birds are frequenting their breeding places again or are occupying their niches and defending them against their neighbours.


This time of year always is a very special one, because one can get first impressions of the increase or potentially and sadly the decrease of one or the other of the species. Besides, the nesting phase, especially with the northern gannets, is a very delicate one, because they now increasingly start integrating plastics again.


Last year already, I have tried to partially retrace the phenology of the insertion. This year, field work will be significantly more detailed: e. g. 90  nests will be closely monitored, landing individuals will be documented at least three times a week, and camera traps will be installed. Due to the Corona-situation, the radio collaring of the birds presumably and unfortunately will have to be cancelled.

Update January & February 2020:
Laboratory work

This winter, beside my field work, I could concentrate on working in the laboratory and on literature research more intensely than in former months. Meanwhile, a bulk of background information could thus be compiled. Due to the fact that in many fields, however, there exist but few insights or results from other studies, a lot of pioneering is demanded. In this regard, I hope to be able to publish some of my first results in the course of this year!


Meanwhile, the preparation of the fibres is largely completed. Consequently, in April, the fibres shall be examined with respect to their composition in the laboratory of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute. The Corona-situation willing, this plan will not have to be postponed!

Update January & February 2020:
Entanglement in winter

This winter again, many of the guillemots attended the cliffs. As we had already observed over the last years, this winter, too, the guillemots visited the cliffs in increasing numbers. On some days, more than 4000 individuals could be observed on the Helgoland cliffs.


About 30 % of the guillemots, which had hanged themselves in the cliffs in the first year of observation (winter 2018/19 to October 2019), died in winter. This winter, the same view is emerging. Again, a great many of individuals have died. One of the reasons is the absence of the northern gannets. As a result, the guillemots clearly come into contact with the plastic more often, because they rest in the northern gannets’ nests. By late March, the “winter gathering” will be closed officially, and subsequently, the numbers will be evaluated.

Due to the numerous storms in February, very many of last season’s hanged guillemots and northern gannets have “disappeared”. Equally, much of the plastic material has been stripped off the nests, especially on top of the plateaus. We are curious to see how this fact will affect plastic insertion in spring 2020.


In spite of the unfavourable conditions, we have looked out for entangled individuals at least three times a week all winter long, too. In cooperation with the "Vogelwarte Helgoland", an additional daily review of the guillemots’ presence has been executed.


After two years of field work, the recording of entanglement will be finally closed in October. The evaluation in the frame of a scientific publication will follow subsequently. We are allowed to be curious!

Update December 2019: Outlook 2020

What is going to happen in the project’s second year?


  • In May, selected northern gannets will be radio-collared and their nests will be provided with camera traps. I thus want to gain insights into the flight paths of the animals when searching for nesting material. In addition, the observation of nests will be scaled up. We hope thus to be able to better retrace and understand the insertion of artificial nesting material.
  • The collection of entanglement data several times a week will be continued all year long. 
  • The analysis of plastic material for the identification of plastic varieties in artificial nesting material will be completed. Subsequently, newly gained material will be analysed likewise to check possible matches. We hereby aim at an identification of the producers.
  • The scoring system for analysing the pollution in existing seabirds’ colonies will be completed.



One or two scientific publications are planned. Scoring system, entanglement and plastic analyses are the three main topics having supplied a sufficient data amount.

Public relations:

  • An English version of the website and an additional photo gallery are in progress and will be completed.
  • Further on, the project shall and will be accompanied actively by press and television.
  • In cooperation with the municipality of Helgoland, an island restricted environmental competition shall start in January (information soon to follow).
  • The pupils’ lab OPENSEA (AWI) has started its cooperation with the project “Basstölpel und Meeresmüll” [Northern gannets and marine waste]. In 2020, this module will be bookable for the first time and will enter the test phase.
  • Project instruction at schools, on and out of Helgoland, will be established and extended. The same applies to meetings, events and expositions.

Update December 2019: Hibernation and activites

In winter, the northern gannets are not to be found on the Heligoland cliffs. Instead, the guillemots return to their breeding places in irregular intervals. Last winter already, Verein Jordsand, in cooperation with the "Vogelwarte Helgoland", evaluated the presence of guillemots every day. The countings aim at the identification of wind and weather conditions favouring the regular return of great numbers of animals, or might very well reveal the total randomness of the whole phenomenon. Due to the absence of the northern gannets, the guillemots naturally also approach the northern gannets’ nests – another reason for our being attentive with the identification of possible entanglement victims. According to the current state of observation, a handful of guillemots have already died this winter. 


All winter long, beside the field work, the gathered plastic material will be completely prepared for the laboratory analysis in February. A third factor – contributing to a slightly reduced number of news in the near future – will be the analysis of nest photographs in regards to the scoring system as well as the draft of some first possible publications.