We are sad to report the death of Professor Mike Harris, who was a pioneer of seabird monitoring in the UK and globally.

Mike, 84, a Fellow of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), was renowned globally for long-term studies of seabirds on the Isle of May, Firth of Forth, which he set up 50 years ago, one of the most comprehensive of its kind. 

In the 1970s, Mike worked for the Nature Conservancy in Aberdeen, which then became the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology and later the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. 

He was initially primarily involved in monitoring Atlantic Puffins, writing the seminal book The Puffin in 1984, revised in 2011. However, his research involved studying the ecology of many species and in 1986 he set up the Seabird Monitoring Programme to observe the population changes of our internationally important breeding seabird species at coastal and inland colonies across the UK. The programme continues to this day.

Mike focused on making careful observations and attaching rings to birds in order to make huge advances in our understanding of the diet, breeding performance and survival of seabirds. During the 1980s, Mike and his partner and fellow researcher, Sarah Wanless, then began to use logging devices to discover where they were going to feed and what they did there. 

Historically, the main threat to the UK’s seabirds was believed to be hunting, oil spills and introduced mammals, and his research provided critical evidence to aid our understanding of these threats. The research by Mike and his colleagues also provided evidence of the impacts of commercial fishing and rising ocean temperatures due to global warming.

Mike retired in 1999, becoming a Fellow, handing over responsibility for running the Isle of May research to Sarah Wanless, but remained committed to fieldwork, providing invaluable support to students and colleagues.

Professor Francis Daunt, leader of the Ecological and Socio-Ecological Interactions Group at UKCEH, says: “Mike was a giant of seabird ecology. Tributes pouring in talk of his generosity of time, always happy to discuss seabird research and provide advice.

“He was on the Isle of May this year collecting data, as every year since the start.”

Mike had studied at the University College of Wales in Swansea, and did his PhD on gulls at Skomer Island.

During his long career, he produced more than 300 papers, with 15,000 citations. His international research included studying seabirds in the Galapagos, writing a comprehensive field guide to the islands’ species.

Mike received several awards during his career, including the British Ornithologists’ Union Godman-Salvin Medal and the British Trust for Ornithology’s Bernard Tucker Medal. He was made an Honorary Professor of the University of Glasgow in 1996.