Colloquy: Eyes around the North Sea

October 9, 2013

Nina M. RachColloquy: Editor's Column

Many stakeholder programs benefit from oil industry funding and local community approval gives oil companies a social license to operate. Just before the Offshore Europe conference in Aberdeen, I discovered the deep industry connections of the North Sea Bird Club (NSBC).

The first wells were drilled off the UK coast in the 1960s and were almost immediately followed by reports from keen British birders working on the rigs. What started as a pastime, grew into a constructive data collection program with the approval and support of North Sea operators.

The precursor to the NSBC was a monitoring program started by a single oil company in 1971 to record offshore bird sightings on data forms. After collating the data for a few years, it became apparent that migrating land birds were using offshore facilities as staging posts, and that the collected information would be useful in studying bird movements.

The North Sea Bird Club was established in 1979, by a few individuals in the oil industry and at Aberdeen University, who “saw a unique opportunity” to obtain offshore data on birds and other wildlife. NSBC was initially sponsored by eight companies and received data from 41 installations along the coast.

The NSBC issues a bulletin, The Fulmar, from its office at the University of Aberdeen’s Ocean Laboratory and Centre for Ecology in Newburgh, about 15 miles north of Aberdeen, at the mouth of the River Ythan.

The stated aims of the NSBC are to:

The Club is financed by 10 corporate sponsors: BG Group, Total E&P UK Plc, Chevron, Centrica Energy, Marathon Oil (UK) Ltd.; ConocoPhillips, Talisman Energy (UK) Ltd.; Shell Exploration and Production, Europe; and TAQA Bratani Ltd.

NSBC developed a “Guidance for Observers” booklet with advice for offshore workers about keeping records of sightings and guidance on all aspects of wildlife offshore.

NSBC has amassed more than 120,000 records of birds, cetaceans, and insects reported since 1979. Over the decades, the NSBC data has shown that British land birds travel much farther than previously thought.

Early reports

In August 1990, Reuters’ Ron Askew reported that North Sea oil rigs “swarm with birds,” and that the 200 oil installations in the British North Sea “make a unique network of observatories for studying their movements.” Bird watching is a natural recreation during long offshore shifts, and he cited offshore UK fields named for birds: Fulmar, Tern, and Dunlin.

The NSBC recorder in 1990, Sandy Anderson, said that in the club’s first decade, its 500 members (roustabouts, engineers, medics, and radio operators) recorded sightings of 206 different bird species offshore, including rarities and even birds underwater.

—A Black-billed Cuckoo seen on an oil rig 180 miles east of Aberdeen was the first British sighting of the species. —The pilot of an inspection ROV reported: “At a depth of 130m (430 ft), and later at 140m (460 ft), we observed a bird swimming. At first we thought it was a Guillemot, but the shape of the bill later led us to believe it was a Razorbill.”

In November 1991, four authors from the University of Aberdeen presented a paper at an SPE HSE conference in The Hague: “The North Sea Bird Club: Ten Years of Recording in the North Sea.”

“All over Britain, at strategic points on the coastline, there are bird observatories which record the arrival and departure of migrating birds. The presence of several hundred solid structures up and down the North Sea, which are used by birds en route, represents a huge, unique bird observatory, capable of uncovering facts about bird migration which have long eluded land-based scientists.”

Occasionally, birds recovered from UK platforms have been sent ashore via helicopter, such as the Scops Owl found stranded on the Forties Delta platform, 110 miles ENE of Aberdeen, in June 2004.

More recently, in mid-September, a TAQA Bratani observer reported two Great Spotted Woodpeckers on the Tern Alpha platform, raising hope that outdoor activities remain attractive, despite the allure of online pursuits. It would be nice to see this offshore initiative take flight in the Gulf of Mexico and other areas. OE