“Year of the Terns” Flyway Story Series #16 – Prof. Daniel Roby, Seabird researcher and conservationist

As EAAFP is designating 2022 the “Year of the Terns”, we are bringing great work and stories on tern conservation to you. The first one we would like to introduce is Prof. Daniel Roby, from the U.S.A., who has been dedicated to seabird research and conservation for over 25 years. He was just awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Pacific Seabird Group.

Prof. Daniel Roby holding a Short-tailed Albatross © Daniel Roby


EAAFP: Hello Dan, congratulations for being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Pacific Seabird Group! We are eager to bring your story to our audience of your life-long contribution to nature conservation. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? When and what did you get inspired by nature?

Dan: I was enthralled by wildlife from a very early age. At the age of 2 years I would pour through my parents’ books looking for pictures of charismatic megafauna, especially African megafauna. I wanted to be a zookeeper when I was young, because this seemed to be the best job to have if you wanted to be close to the wild animals that fascinated me. I didn’t become fascinated by birds until the ripe age of 11, when it suddenly occurred to me that there was an enormous diversity of birds that I could see and try to identify all around me, and they were wild, free-ranging, and you didn’t need to visit a zoo to see them.

EAAFP: We read that your M.Sc study was on Caribou and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. What made you interested in seabirds?

Dan: I was very interested in birds in general, and seabirds in particular, before I conducted my M.Sc. thesis research on the behavior of barren-ground caribou in northern Alaska, but I was intrigued by the research project on caribou because I was concerned about the potential impact of construction of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline on a large migratory animal like caribou. After I completed my M.Sc. degree, I spent a year in Greenland studying caribou there, and became very interested in high latitude seabirds, especially Dovekies (aka Little Auks), that were so abundant in northern Greenland. After that experience, I decided I wanted to conduct Ph.D. research on seabirds nesting at high latitudes.

EAAFP: Oil spill is a serious human-induced disaster to nature, and you were involved in a project studying the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on seabirds in Alaska, and help the impacted seabirds to recover from the spill, could you please tell us about your work on this issue?

Dan: A number of us seabird ecologists who conducted research on the potential long-term impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on seabirds in coastal Alaska thought that if there were long-term impacts from the spill it would be because the spill damaged the populations of important seabird prey, such as forage fish and macrozooplankton. So we tried to test the hypothesis that seabird reproductive success in the aftermath of the spill was negatively affected by the lower quality and quantity of available seabird prey. We found evidence that the recovery of seabird populations that had been damaged by the spill was inhibited by the longer term impacts of the spill on seabird food supply for at least 15 years after the spill. We also discovered that one species of seabird that really struggled to recover from the spill (Pigeon Guillemots) was experiencing high rates of nest predation by mink that had been intentionally introduced to some of their most important breeding islands before the spill, and that mink predation on guillemot nests was preventing recovery after the spill. Once the introduced mink were removed from the islands where they had been introduced, guillemot numbers started to recover.

EAAFP: Human-bird conflict is a challenge for conservation. How and what have you developed to introduce non-lethal methods to mitigate the impacts of bird predation on ESA-listed salmonids in the Columbia River Basin? Anything you think would be applicable for EAA Flyway when dealing with conflict between fishery and waterbirds?

Dan: Our experience with working on the issue of salmon-seabird conflict in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States taught us that if bird predation on young salmon of conservation concern was so intense that it limited the recovery of depleted salmon populations, it could be explained by anthropogenic changes in the environment of salmon and seabirds. For example, hydroelectric dams make young salmon out-migrating to the ocean more susceptible to predation from seabirds, and islands created from disposal of dredged materials from shipping lanes can make excellent sites for breeding colonies of fish-eating seabirds. In order to reduce predation impacts on salmon and other fish of conservation concern, we found that controlling where fish-eating seabirds are allowed to nest can be effective at reducing predation without resorting to widespread lethal control. Social attraction techniques (e.g., decoys and audio playback of vocalizations) along with management of nesting habitat can help ensure that fish-eating seabirds nest where their impact on fisheries is miniml or non-existent, while ensuring that populations of the seabirds themselves remain healthy and robust. This general approach to mitigating seabird-fisheries conflict, namely to control where large seabird breeding colonies are located, can be used anywhere in the world, including the EAA Flyway.

Daniel Roby © Simba Chan


EAAFP: Since the critically endangered Chinese Crested Tern is a key species to EAA Flyway, you had been a technical advisor for the restoration efforts for them. We are interested in how you got involved and your experience in the project. Could you tell us, please?

Dan: Back in 2010, Simba Chan, then with BirdLife International, asked my former professor, Steve Kress, if he could come to China to advise Chinese ornithologists how to restore breeding colonies of Chinese Crested Terns that had been abandoned due to illegal harvest of tern eggs. Steve was the director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program and had a lot of experience restoring tern colonies in the Gulf of Maine. Steve had a conflict and couldn’t attend the workshop back in 2010, so he asked if I could go in his place. I agreed, and while attending the workshop I became really interested in how active colony restoration techniques for terns might be a valuable tool for restoring this critically endangered species. Chen Shuihua and his team at the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History, ably assisted by Simba Chan, used the techniques that Steve Kress pioneered to successfully restore a productive colony of Chinese Crested Terns in the Jiushan Islands, on the small island of Tiedun Dao. This is really a remarkable conservation success story, for which all who were involved should be extraordinarily proud. Similar techniques are now being employed to establish or maintain breeding colonies of Chinese Crested Terns in the Matsu Islands (Taiwan), the Wuzhishan Islands, and South Korea. This international effort to develop a network of secure breeding sites for Chinese Crested Terns in the EAA Flyway foretells a brighter future for a charismatic seabird that was literally on the doorstep of extinction.

Chinese Crested Tern © Daniel Roby

EAAFP: We learned that you have conducted field research on the ecology of seabirds in various countries, from the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S, Alaska, Hawaii, Greenland, Newfoundland, South Georgia, China, to even Antarctica, could you share any memorable or enjoyable experiences with us?

Dan: During research for my Ph.D. dissertation on seabirds, I spent a breeding season on Bird Island off the west end of South Georgia, a large subantarctic island in the South Atlantic. I was conducting research on diving petrels and other small, burrow-nesting seabirds on Bird Island, species that had been extirpated as breeding species on the main island of South Georgia by introduced rats and mice. Except for small, rat- and mice-free islands near South Georgia, it seemed that the future of these vulnerable burrow- and crevice-nesting seabirds were very bleak. Much to the surprise of most seabird scientists and conservationists, rats and mice were successfully eradicted from South Georgia recently, and now a wealth of native wildlife, including small seabirds, that were formerly suppressed by invasive rodents are making a dramatic comeback. This is a truly astonishing and inspiring conservation success story that demonstrates how seabird restoration that was unthinkable just a few decades ago is now realistic and achievable.

During my time advising for the Chinese Crested Tern restoration effort in China, I think the most memorable and enjoyable experience was in 2013, the first year when we tried to get Greater Crested Terns to nest on Tiedun Dao. Despite habitat enhancement and deployment of tern decoys and audio playback systems on Tiedun Dao, no tern colony had formed and it was getting late in the nesting season. The staff at the Jiushan Islands National Nature Reserve was ready to remove the social attraction and end the effort to attract a tern breeding colony that season. I visited Tiedun Dao with colleagues from the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History to try to understand why the social attraction hadn’t been successful. When we checked the audio playback systems we discovered that they were not working and no vocalizations of crested terns were being broadcast. After some time, a technician got the audio playback systems working again, and within a few minutes there were Greater Crested Terns circling and calling overhead. The terns were interested in Tiedun Dao afterall! Within a week a breeding colony of Greater Crested Terns had become established on Tiedun Dao, the first time a breeding colony of terns had ever been documented on the island, and in amongst the thousands of Greater Crested Terns were 19 Chinese Crested Terns!

Prof. Roby and the Chinese Crested Tern Conservation project team from Zhejiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan © Simba Chan

EAAFP: You also were the chair of the Pacific Seabird Group (PSG) in 2005. Do you have any suggestions on how PSG and EAAFP, especially our Seabird Working Group (SWG), can work together in our efforts to promote and conserve seabirds?

Dan: The Pacific Seabird Group has a committee that is dedication to information-sharing and collaboration to conserve and restore seabirds in the western Pacific Ocean, called the East Asia Seabird Conservation Committee (formerly the Northeast Asia Seabird Conservation Committee). Engagement on this Committee by the Seabird Working Group for the EAAFP would be welcome and help build collaboration and cooperation between the EAAFP and PSG. Because most annual meetings of the PSG have been held in North America on the eastern side of the Pacific, it has been more expensive and challenging for seabird researchers, conservationists, and managers from the EAAF to participate regularly in PSG meetings. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, PSG has been forced to hold annual meetings virtually, and now that the pandemic is beginning to subside, PSG will likely to continue to hold virtual meetings, or at least hybrid meetings with a virtual option. This would make it easier for those who live and work in the EAAF to participate in PSG meetings and meetings of PSG’s East Asia Seabird Conservation Committee.

In 2009, the annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group was held in Hakodate, Japan. This meeting was considered highly successful by the PSG Executive Council, and fostered a number of collaborations on seabird research and conservation that involved seabird scientists on both sides of the Pacific. An additional annual meeting of PSG on the western side of the Pacific (e.g., Japan, South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Philippines) sometime in the future would likely enhance cooperation and collaboration between PSG and the EAAFP.

EAAFP: With your expansive experiences as a mentor and an educator, what do you think is key in fostering the next generation of researchers and conservationists who will work on the frontlines in the future?

Dan: In my view, effective conservation requires sound scientific understanding of the ecology of the populations or ecological communities that are the target of conservation. That is why I have devoted my career to conducting research that supports science-based conservation and restoration and training young scientists to pursue related careers. Understanding the ecology of terns and other seabirds is essential for identifying those limiting factors that can be managed so that healthy populations can be sustained into the future, and depleted populations can be restored. With anthropogenic climate change causing a global challenge to wildlife populations everywhere, finding ways to enhance the resilience of terns and other seabirds to a rapidly changing environment will be crucial for mitigating the 6th mass extinction on earth.

EAAFP: You recently retired from your positions as a Unit Leader for the Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and a Professor at Oregon State University, are there any future pursuits or projects you have in mind?


Dan: One project I am working on now is editing a book on the conservation and restoration of Oregon’s birds, which I hope will be published by the end of this year. Caspian Terns and Double-crested Cormorants are two species of seabird that I have worked with a lot in the last few decades, and I would like to continue some work to ensure that these species are wisely managed and conserved. And I remain fascinated by the seabird islands of Alaska, where 85% of all the seabirds in the U.S. nest. Some of the largest seabird colonies in Alaska are threatened by climate change, and enhancing the resiliency of these colonies to climate change will be crucial for their future. Finally, seabird restoration in the EAA Flyway continues to intrigue me, especially restoration of the flyway’s tern species. I hope I will be involved in more projects like the Chinese Crested Tern restoration project in the future.



EAAFP: The EAAFP Secretariat and Seabird Working Group have dedicated 2022 as the “Year of the Terns”. Do you have any suggestions or activities that could link to our campaign?

Dan: One suggestion that I have is to publicize, help distribute, and make available to the public the wildlife documentary film by Chieh-Te Liang entitled “Enigma: The Chinese Crested Tern.” This 90-minute film documents the efforts made by a large number of individuals from a number of countries to protect and restore a species of tern that had been assumed extinct for 63 years. While the Chinese Crested Tern is still threatened with extinction, the film shows the conservation-minded public what can be done to change the fate of a species that is extraordinarly close to extinction and encourages the dedication to restoration of those like the film-maker.

“Enigma: The Chinese Crested Tern.” Trailer

Another suggestion I have is to promote the concept throughout the EAA Flyway that a network of secure, protected, and monitored islands in the flyway will help ensure the future of terns and other seabird species that nest in the flyway. A tern colony “GAP analysis” could help identify certain areas within the flyway where newly established tern colonies could be especially effective in restoring tern populations that are currently in decline. Removing predators from islands, especially predators that have been introduced to islands (either intentionally or unintentially) is an especially effective approach to restoring a network of secure nesting sites for terns in the flyway. Another effective approach is to remove dense vegetation from a select group of islands, vegetation that can effectively exclude terns as nesting species on an otherwise suitable island. Advocating for active management to restore/establish a network of tern nesting islands in the flyway would benefit all seven target tern species for the Year of the Terns,” as well as most of the other nine tern species that also nest in the flyway.

Holding a “Tern Photo Competition” as part of the “Year of the Terns” campaign by the EAAFP is a good idea, I think, and will enhance the public’s appreciation of the terns that inhabit the flyway. Another effective way to engage the public in “citizen science” and seabird conservation is through the resighting of banded and marked terns and other seabirds. Bird watchers along the EAA Flyway could join in the excitement of tracking birds that are marked with field-readable bands, while contributing valuable data on the distribution and seasonal movements of terns and other seabirds. Extoling the value of these resightings to the public can build a lot of awareness and enthusiasm for conservation and restoration efforts. Including resightings and photos of resighted birds in newsletters and other public outreach from the EAAFP can help build a large and enthusiastic group of citizen scientists. Perhaps the Tern Photo Competition could include a category for photos of terns with field readable leg bands or other markers? Tern species lend themselves to this type of photo documentation particularly well because large numbers of young birds can be banded on breeding colonies before the young fledge and if banded with field-readable bands, individuals can be readily photographed and identified at daytime resting and loafing sites, or even in flight, by citizen-scientist photographers throughout the flyway.

Another potential way to engage school or bird-watching groups in research and conservation of terns is through live video feed of nesting terns at a colony where video cameras have been deployed, such as Tiedun Dao in the Jiushan Islands and Tiejien Island in the Matsu Islands. This would give interested members of the public with the link to the website with the live video feed an intimate experience of the lives of nesting terns in real-time. Another highly effective way to engage the public is to allow them to access via the internet the tracks of adult terns that have been satellite-tagged and tracked during the nesting season, post-nesting season, fall migration, and on the wintering range. I think that a few Greater Crested Terns may be satellite-tagged on Tiedun Dao this year, and the project leaders with the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History might be willing to share the tracks of these terns on their website. The public is easily engaged by the movements in real-time of individual birds across maps, especially during migration when the distances covered can be impressive.

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