Lead Author: 

Lynda E. Chambers 1

Co Authors: Peter Dann 2, Carol Devney 3, Nic Dunlop 4, and Eric J. Woehler 5

Download this report in PDF format: Click here

What is happening?

Tropical and subtropical species breeding at Houtman Abrolhos, WA are now experiencing poor breeding success outside of El Niño years linked to warming. Large range extension reported for Bridled Tern in south-west Australia in response to ocean warming.

What is expected?

Warming will impact the timing and breeding success of temperate seabird species. Little penguin breeding is expected to become earlier and more successful to 2030s, but later decline as temperatures warm further. Increases in extreme fire days in southern and eastern Australia will lead to higher risk of injury and death for colonial nesting species, such as penguins.

What we are doing about it?

Implementation of fast-response fire action plans to reduce the risk of fire in seabird colonies close to human settlements or infrastructure. Investigating human adaptation options to increase resilience of conservation dependent seabirds and marine mammals impacted by climate change


The 2009 Marine Report Card provided a comprehensive summary on the current body of research into the observed and predicted impacts of climate variation and change on seabirds in the Australian region. The vulnerability of a diverse range of Australian seabirds to variation and change in climate was determined and the species and ecosystems that may be more resilient to future climate warming were identified. It was clear from this first review that not all Australian seabirds are affected similarly, with responses varying by species and location, and that considerable data gaps hindered greater synthesis.

For seabirds in the Australian region, climatic and oceanographic variation and change has been associated with changes in distribution, success and timing of breeding, chick growth and survival of adults and immature birds, across many foraging guilds and regions. Since the first report card we also know that tropical and subtropical species breeding in Western Australia are now experiencing poor breeding success outside of El Niño years. Across temperate Australia, Little Penguin Eudyptula minor breeding and survival is being influenced by warmer sea surface temperatures (SST), changes in ocean current dynamics and wind components. Migratory species also appear less able to respond to climate variability compared to resident species. Research from the Southern Ocean, not previously addressed in the first report card, suggests winds over the Southern Ocean and current dynamics strongly influence foraging for seabirds that breed in southeast Australia and depend on prey resources close to the Antarctic each summer.

Considering the relatively few studies that have been added to the body of research on Australian seabirds in the three years since the first report card, the level of confidence in predicting potential impacts of future climate change on seabirds remains at the low-medium level. The only increased level of confidence is in regard to the influence of SSTs on the timing and success of breeding in some temperate seabird species. The relatively low confidence in most other aspects of predictions is due to incomplete knowledge of climate-ecosystem processes, including potential threshold changes, uncertain ability of species to alter phenology and prey species, and the often short historical biological data series available to us. The consensus remains that poleward expansion of breeding colonies will be limited by available habitat and the distribution of prey species, and that sea level rise will likely reduce and fragment existing breeding habitat, particularly for shorebirds and seabirds on low-lying sandy foreshores.

There is a relative lack of long-term monitoring and associated research studies on population dynamics of Australian seabirds. Combined with the scarcity of information on the distribution and biology of seabird prey, foraging patterns and movements of seabirds, and the ability of seabirds to switch between prey species or adjust timing of life cycles, this makes generalisations about the potential effects of climate change and adaptive capacity in seabirds difficult. These factors are a major constraint to the establishment of localised management of climate-related impacts on seabirds. Currently in many seabird colonies, management is limited to attempting to minimise the impacts of other potential stressors in the system, such as protecting known forage-fish resources, increasing protection during warm El Niño years, or additional protection of breeding sites from mammalian predators during peak breeding. Further research and monitoring of key species are still required to determine which species and systems are more vulnerable to climate change, where generalisations about impacts and adaptation can be made and which species may serve most effectively as indicators of climatic impacts on higher trophic predators in the Australian region.

Citation: Chambers L.E. et al. (2012) Seabirds. In Marine Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Report Card for Australia 2012 (Eds. E.S. Poloczanska, A.J. Hobday and A.J. Richardson). Retrieved from www.oceanclimatechange.org.au [Date]

Contact Details: 
1 Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, Bureau of Meteorology, GPO Box 1289, Melbourne, Vic 3001, Australia. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
2 Research Department, Phillip Island Nature Parks, PO Box 97, Cowes, Vic 3922, Australia
3 Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Cairns, Qld 4870, Australia.
4 Conservation Council (WA), 2 Delhi Street, West Perth, WA 6005, Australia.
5 School of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Sandy Bay, Tas 7005, Australia.

Click headings below to expand


Lynda Chambers

Lyndachambers seabirds

Dr Lynda Chambers is a principal research scientist within the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research (Bureau of Meteorology), where she...
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Dr Eric Woehler


Dr Eric Woehler completed a PhD at the University of California, Irvine on high-latitude seabirds. He undertook several long-term studies on...
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Dr Carol Devney

C devney seabirds

Dr Carol Devney holds a PhD in Conservation Biology and Marine Ecology from James Cook University- Cairns. Her current research projects examine...
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Peter Dann


Dr Peter Dann has worked as a wildlife ecologist for 30 years and has published extensively on seabirds and shorebirds in Australasia. He edited...
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Nic Dunlop


Dr Nic Dunlop has been a citizen scientist for nearly 30 years, indulging amongst other things a private passion for the ecology of tropical...
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Scientific Review:

Seabirds are key upper trophic level predators in marine ecosystems that are influenced strongly by oceanographic processes (Hunt and Schneider 1987, Congdon et al. 2007, Cullen et al. 2009). Large-scale oceanographic processes which can influence seabird foraging and breeding biology, and future survival include global processes such as the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and associated changes in sea-surface temperature (SST) and other oceanographic characteristics (reviewed by Chambers et al. 2011). Australian seabirds are also threatened by a variety of other climatic stressors and physical disturbances that are covered later in the text. Non-climatic anthropogenic threats include pollution, overexploitation of fish stocks by industrial fisheries, human disturbance at seabird colonies, feral predators and invasive animals and plants, coastal development and oil spills (Schreiber and Burger 2002). These stressors are expected to aggravate climate change impacts either through their direct impacts on seabirds or indirectly through their impact on the quality and availability of breeding habitats, and also on the quality and availability of prey.

The focus of the majority of the available research on Australian seabirds is primarily on climate-associated impacts on seabirds which breed in the Australian region, with impacts generally summarised by region. Species that only visit the region to forage during their non-breeding seasons are not included in this report card. The previous report card did not report on southerly species which breed within Australian territorial boundaries and forage in Antarctic waters or south of the Antarctic Polar Front. In the current report, available research on species from Australia’s most southerly regions is now included, including subantarctic Macquarie and Heard Islands.

Figure 1. White terns with fish, Lord Howe Island. Courtesy: L. Chambers

Observed Impacts:

Variation in, and changes to, the marine environment are known to affect seabirds globally, influencing prey density and seabird abundance, distributions, productivity and behaviour (Crawford and Jahncke 1999, Velarde et al. 2004, Congdon et al. 2007, Cullen et al. 2009, Forcada and Trathan 2009, Sydeman and Bograd 2009, Ainley et al. 2010, Ainley and Hyrenbach 2010). This is particularly true in regions where local SST and marine productivity are influenced by upwelling and boundary currents (Ainley et al. 1988, Crawford and Jahncke 1999, Velarde et al. 2004). Any changes in availability of prey items are likely to have flow on effects to seabird abundance, distribution, migration patterns and to the community structure at higher trophic levels (Richardson et al. 2006, Forcada and Trathan 2009).

Table 1 provides a contemporary confidence assessment summary of observed impacts of climate processes on Australian seabirds.

Temperature (land and ocean)

In the first report card, oceanographic variations in the Australian region were shown to be related to changes in seabird breeding participation and success, in addition to mortality and distribution shifts. In Western Australia, ENSO events were associated with prospecting and nesting of tropical seabirds outside their former breeding distributions (Dunlop 2009), mostly likely due to background rises in sea temperature (Dunlop, 2009). The foraging ecology of the Bridled Tern Onychoprion anaethetus in south-western Australia has apparently allowed this species to undertake one of the most spectacular range extensions reported in a seabird, in contrast to other members of its ‘dark tern’ guild (Dunlop and Surman in review). The rapidly increasing population outside the historical range in this species has been attributed to the rise in background sea-temperature.

In Western Australia, the relationship between the ENSO, the Leeuwin Current and breeding success has apparently become less orderly since the year 2000, with poor breeding outside of El Niño years and delayed breeding in a number of tropical species, possibly suggesting a regime shift in offshore and planktonic food chains off central Western Australia (Surman and Nicholson 2009, Surman et al. 2012). Delayed breeding, particularly during extreme ENSO conditions, has been associated with decreases in the proportion of the population of noddy and tern species breeding in Western Australia, and in strong ENSO years some species did not attempt to breed (Surman et al. 2012). Since 2000, breeding failures in the Houtman Abrolhos have become more frequent (Surman et al. 2012). New evidence suggests resident species, with greater knowledge of local foraging grounds, may be more resilient to oceanographic changes than migratory seabirds (Surman et al. 2012).

Additional evidence of the impacts of environmental variability, and of population size, on seabird breeding comes from a study of a sub-species of Silver Gull, the Red-billed Gull Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae scopulus in New Zealand (Mills et al. 2008). In their study, the proportion of the population breeding, the number of chicks fledged, mean egg-masses and laying dates were all influenced by variations in the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), through its impact on prey species availability during the breeding season. However, the relationships were not always static. When the population was at its maximum, as prey increased in availability laying dates became earlier and productivity increased, whereas later, when the population began to decrease, even when prey availability increased, laying dates became later (Mills et al. 2008). Australian Silver Gulls C. novaehollandiae novaehollandiae take the same prey species as Red-billed Gulls, in some parts of their range, and may be similarly influenced by environmental variability (Chambers et al. 2011).

High values of the SOI, corresponding to La Niña conditions, are generally associated with lower marine productivity at Macquarie Island, Southern Ocean, leading to later laying dates in Royal Penguins Eudyptes schlegeli (McMahon and Hindell 2009), but corresponded to improved breeding success in two migratory Western Australian species, the Common Noddy Anous stolidus and Wedge-tailed Shearwater Ardenna pacifica (Surman et al. 2012).

Increased SSTs have also been associated with reduced breeding success in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region, mainly through a reduction in provisioning rates (Smithers et al. 2003, Peck et al. 2004, Congdon et al. 2007). 

In south-eastern Australia, higher SSTs in the month of March, before the Little Penguin breeding season, result in earlier egg laying, as well as more and heavier chicks (Cullen et al. 2009). Cullen et al. (2009) reported that over the last 40 years these penguins had been laying later (~0.65 days / year, p = 0.021), however, recent research (Dann and Chambers, in prep) indicates that the trend towards later breeding is no longer statistically significant, perhaps as a result of increasing local SSTs (as predicted in Cullen et al. 2009). In a Western Australian population of Little Penguins, higher ocean temperatures, and periods of stronger Leeuwin Current, have been associated with an extended egg laying period (Belinda Cannell and Lynda Chambers, unpublished data). In contrast, a recent (shorter) study of a New Zealand sub-species of the Little Penguin, found no influence of climate, including ENSO and SST, on the breeding success (Allen et al. 2011). At this location, breeding success was considered to be high and stable during the study period, potentially reducing their ability to detect environmental signals in the penguin data.

Increased survival of first year Little Penguins has been associated with warmer SSTs, while the reverse appears to be true for adult survival (Sidhu 2007). Subsequent research (Sidhu et al. 2012) improves our understanding of the links between first-year survival and ocean temperatures, suggesting that models that use SST alone do not adequately explain patterns of juvenile survival, with east-west sea-temperature gradients in Bass Strait improving the predictive ability of models.

During the summer of 2010/11, a record heat wave (both marine and terrestrial) impacted the south-western coast of Western Australia (Pearce et al. 2011). Significant morbidity and mortality events were observed in fish and invertebrates, together with changes in seabird prey distributions, recruitment and growth rates. As the ‘heatwave’ occurred after the breeding period of most of seabird species in the region, impacts on the seabirds were expected to lag those of their prey. Unpublished observations during the 2011/12 breeding season support predictions of delayed impacts on seabird populations. The Little Penguin colony on Penguin Island had its lowest chick production in 20 years of monitoring and there was a pronounced spike in adult mortality. Adults were observed dispersing over greater distances from the colony and their preferred prey (Whitebait) was not present in faecal DNA analysis (Belinda Cannell pers. comm.) or being caught in the local whitebait fishery. Bridled Terns, also breeding on Penguin Island, had their latest laying date over the 25 years of monitoring, indicating that breeding success was likely to be exceptionally poor in 2012 (J.N. Dunlop pers. obs.). Delayed breeding was also observed in Common Noddies on the Abrolhos Islands with a possible major displacement of pre-breeders from this system in 2011/12, most likely driven by an extreme food shortage (J.N. Dunlop pers. obs.).

The breeding population of Rockhopper Penguins Eudyptes chrysocome on Campbell Island south of New Zealand decreased by more than 90% between the 1940s and the 1990s (Cunningham and Moors 1994), a trend that has been reported for other populations (BirdLife International 2010). Rising sea (surface) temperatures were identified as influencing prey availability and altering ecosystem dynamics resulting in lower penguin productivity.

Additional recent evidence on the impacts of higher air temperatures on seabird habitat is available from the Great Barrier Reef. Long-term increases in land temperatures, together with an increase in drought conditions, have contributed to dieback of Pisonia grandis and Argusia argentea, important nesting habitat for canopy-breeding seabirds, such as Black Noddies Anous minutus, and for the burrowing Wedge-tailed Shearwater (Batianoff et al. 2010).

Ocean currents, circulation and mixed layer depth

Ocean currents, and changes in ocean stratification, are integral oceanographic processes that regulate the appearance of cool, nutrient-rich oceanic waters at the surface (Steinberg 2007).

Marine productivity and seabird distributions in the Australian region are strongly influenced by the East Australia Current, the Sub-Antarctic Convergence and the Leeuwin Current (Blaber et al. 1996). Recent evidence from south-western Australia suggests that changes in the strength of the Leeuwin Current influence seabird breeding, with periods of stronger currents corresponding to an extended laying period (Belinda Cannell and Lynda Chambers, unpublished data).

Short-tailed Shearwaters A. tenuirostris utilise wind fields between their colonies and foraging locations to locate prey that are concentrated in spatially or temporally predictable areas (Woehler et al. 2006, Raymond et al. 2010). For shearwaters breeding in southeast Australia and foraging in the Southern Ocean, the timing of peak reliance on the Antarctic Polar Front and the Antarctic Divergence varies with stage of breeding (Woehler et al. 2006, Raymond et al. 2010). The shearwaters forage farther southward and westward as their breeding season progresses from September to April. In south-eastern Australia, survival of Little Penguins has also been linked to wind direction components (Ganendran et al. 2011). Higher survival of first-year penguins corresponded to increasing southerly winds before hatching and reduced survival to easterly winds in the summer of fledging. For adult penguins, there was a positive association between survival and increasing northerly winds in the autumn following breeding and a negative association with easterly winds in the preceding summer. Both age groups had lower survival with increasing easterly winds in summer, with winds from this direction thought to impede the movement of nutrient rich water, and prey species, from the west towards the colony (Ganendran et al. 2011).

Sea- level rise

The impact of rising sea level on seabirds is expected to vary with breeding habitat and location, with high rocky islands less at risk than low-lying islands with sandy foreshores (Bennett et al. 2007).  However, there are currently no known quantitative links between observed sea level rise and changes in the distribution and abundance of nesting Australian seabirds.

pH and aragonite saturation state

There are no known quantitative links between ocean acidification and changes in the distribution and abundance of nesting seabirds. However, changes in ocean chemistry may alter the physiological functioning, behaviour, and demographic traits of marine organisms, leading to shifts in the size structure, spatial range, and seasonal abundance of populations; in turn, leading to altered species interactions and trophic pathways as change cascades from primary producers to upper-trophic-level fish, seabirds and marine mammals (Doney et al. 2012).

Extreme events (winds, cyclones, storms, floods and fire)

In the first report card, changes in seabird breeding success, foraging and nesting habitats associated with changes in storm intensity, strong winds, cyclones and fire were reviewed. Impacts included catastrophic destruction of breeding colonies and deaths of individuals, changes to the timing of breeding, wave inundation, erosion under the influence of gale force winds, storm tides and intensified currents, and reduced ability of seabirds to obtain prey (King et al. 1992, Norman et al. 1996, Chambers 2004, Congdon et al. 2007, Devney et al. 2009b, Chambers et al. 2009).  Analogous situations exist with the loss of beach-nesting habitats for marine turtles (e.g. Fuentes et al. 2010a, b); see also the Marine Reptiles Assessment 2012 Marine Report Card). Other than for extreme heat events, there is no known information that has been published since the first card on the potential impacts of extreme events on Australian seabirds.

Confidence Assessments

Potential Impacts by the 2030s and 2100s: 

Table 2 provides a summary of our confidence, according to the amount of evidence and the degree of consensus, of the anticipated impacts of projected changes in climate on seabird populations.

The conclusions from the previous report card remain valid. Confidence levels for potential impacts by the 2030s and 2100s are low-medium due to incomplete knowledge of the climate-ecosystem processes, including potential threshold changes, uncertain ability of species to alter phenology and prey species, and often short historical biological records.  Southward expansion of breeding colonies will be limited by available habitat and prey species.  Sea level rise is likely to reduce breeding habitat, particularly for some nesting species on low-lying sandy islands – at least in the short term. 

Figure 2. King penguin colony. Courtesy E. Woehler

Adaptation Responses

Since the last Report Card there have been few additional studies highlighting adaptation options for seabirds and the previous conclusions remain valid. These include:

• Management of terrestrial habitats to buffer some of the anticipated impacts of changes in climate. For example, using vegetation to provide optimal and/or suitable microclimates for breeding and survival;
• Reducing or eliminating existing non-climate related threats to increase species resilience and likelihood of autonomous adaptation. Examples include, restricting human and predator access to breeding colonies, pest species control plans, marine protected areas and non-take fishing areas;
• Ex situ conservation or translocation and adaptation options requiring direct intervention. Examples include encouraging the establishment of breeding colonies in climatically suitable locations including through the use of artificial decoys, translocation of young birds or providing artificial islands; encouraging natural expansion and/or movement of breeding colonies through removal of introduced predators and optimising vegetation type and cover; reduce the potential for erosion by waves, storms or rainfall by protecting or increasing appropriate vegetation and reducing inappropriate vegetation; shading nests (either through natural vegetation or man-made structures) or designing insulated artificial nesting burrows; running powerlines underground and implementing a fast-response fire action plan to reduce the risk of fire in seabird colonies close to human settlements or infrastructure, and;
• Monitoring to determine effectiveness of management strategies and change management regimes when necessary to further adaptation success

At least in the short-term, the autonomous adaptive capacity of seabirds to respond to SST-associated changes in prey availability, will depend on the species’ ability to alter foraging behaviour (including location and prey species), nesting location, breeding timing and/or chick growth: responses which have been seen in recent decades in Australian seabird species. In some species, such as Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, adults breeding in the southern Great Barrier Reef alternate multiple short foraging trips to near-colony, but resource-poor areas, with longer trips to more highly productive, but distant, areas (Congdon et al. 2005, Peck and Congdon 2005). By using this strategy adults are able to breed in areas that would otherwise not support stable breeding populations (Congdon et al. 2005). This implies that for pelagic seabirds, such as these shearwaters, the ability to increase foraging rates may be limited and, as most species have single egg clutches, in any given season they either rear a chick or not. If productivity remains low for a number of years, there is a risk that the colony may become unviable (Congdon et al. 2007). Increasing foraging rates may also increase costs to breeding birds and reduce adult survivorship.

Recent research also from the southern Great Barrier Reef indicates that when Black Noddies faced wide variation in SST and associated changes to prey availability, adults were unable to modify their foraging behaviour (prey type, feeding frequency or meal size) and chicks did not demonstrate variable growth rates (Devney et al. 2010). These limitations suggest that the ability of this species to buffer climate change by altering behaviour or via developmental plasticity is also limited, and adaptive responses are therefore more likely to arise via natural selection (Devney et al. 2010). Provisioning adult Little Penguins in south-eastern Australia experienced similar inability to adjust their foraging behaviour during periods of decreased food availability, presumably due to their short foraging ranges (Chiaradia and Nisbet 2006). However, Little Penguin chicks reduced mass growth and delayed development when provisioning rates were reduced (Chiaradia and Nisbet 2006). The more flexible developmental patterns in Little Penguin chicks compared to Black Noddy chicks may be because, as temperate species, Little Penguins breed in more productive oceans compared to subtropical and tropical species (Behrenfeld et al. 2006) and thus are likely to face smaller variations in food supply. Therefore, temperate seabird chicks may be able to optimise growth through increased developmental plasticity without risking starvation during periods of extremely low provisioning (Schew and Ricklefs 1998).

Some seabirds may be able to adapt to changes in the frequency and intensity of cyclones and storms by adjusting either breeding timing, to avoid periods of peak storm activity, or relocating to less affected breeding sites. The capacity for Australian seabirds to do either of these, in response to these climate drivers, is largely unknown (Congdon et al. 2007).

The adaptive capacity of seabirds to sea level rise and significant rainfall changes depends on their ability to relocate to suitable breeding sites elsewhere (Congdon et al. 2007). The potential for suitable breeding sites to come into existence depends on a complex mixture of factors, including climate change-associated impacts on ocean acidification and coral growth, precipitation, and shifts in key foraging locations.

Figure 3. Left: Nest box shading. Planted vegetation shades nest boxes and reduces temperatures. Right: Boardwalk at Shearwater colony, Phillip Island. Raised boardwalks reduce human disturbance to seabird colonies

Observations and Modelling

Current and planned research effort

A Fisheries Research and Development Corporation – Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency project is currently underway investigating human adaptation options to increase resilience of conservation-dependent seabirds and marine mammals impacted by climate change. The project aims to provide an insight into the effects of climate change on a number of species, to develop requirements to protect species under climate change (adaptation options) and to produce monitoring guidelines, in conjunction with responsible agencies.

The national system for public recording of changes in timing and distribution of Australian species, ClimateWatch (http://www.climatewatch.org.au), has recently added a marine component to its observing scheme. Projects such as this provide real-time monitoring of species changes over large spatial scales and, over time, can add to our knowledge of how species respond to climatic change.

A similar community based system for tracking distributional changes in marine species is RedMap (http://www.redmap.org.au) and already has provided valuable information on shifts in seabird prey species.

Further Information

Seabird chapter in Climate Change and the Great Barrier Reef: A Vulnerability Assessment: http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/publications/misc_pub/climate_change_vulnerability_assessment/climate_change_vulnerability_assessment

Chambers, L.E., Devney, C.A., Congdon, B.C., Dunlop, N., Woehler, E.J., and Dann, P. (2011). Observed and predicted effects of climate on Australian seabirds. Emu, 111, 235-251.

See how climate change is affecting Australia’s fauna and flora and register to participate in the national monitoring scheme: http://www.climatewatch.org.au


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