Friday, 20 May 2016

Long distance migrant

My name is Jane and I am fortunate enough to be one of the Long Term Volunteers here on Skomer Island. This is not only my first time to Skomer, but also my first time to Great Britain, and Europe! I’ve conducted my own northward migration and have arrived from my home in Victoria, Australia.

My most recent role was as Assistant Warden at the Broome Bird Observatory in North Western Australia. Needless to say I noticed a stark contrast in climates and have only now downgraded from two to one hot water bottles at night.

The fauna differs a little between Broome in NW Australia and Skomer Island, Wales. Photo: Nigel Jackett

The Broome Bird Observatory is famous for its Waders which in their hundreds of thousands utilize Broome’s nutrient rich mudflats. Shorebird identification is often considered meticulous and difficult…but UK birds have certainly lived up to their reputation of being LBJ’s.

A flock of mixed Shorebirds on Roebuck Bay, Broome. Photo: Ric Else

Although Broome Bird Observatory is itself in a remote location there are unique challenges with island living. Have you ever stopped and considered how an entire fleet of full gas bottles makes their way onto an island? I hadn’t either, before I donned waders and reversed the tractor across our rocky beach to load the inflatable boat with gas bottles.

It really is amazing to have the opportunity to explore the island. With each change of the tide and with the change of seasons (I think this is what the Brits consider ‘summer’) a new world is exposed and presents a shift in the flora and fauna on the island. Bluebells have carpeted the island and the Red Campion has also begun to flower. The bare brown grass that dominated most of the landscape for the last six weeks has now been transformed into fresh new shoots of bracken, poking up through winter’s debris.

Conducting a Puffin count

A steady flow of summer migrants have made their way across the island and its amazing to see new species like Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Swallows, Blackcaps, Wood-chat Shrike, Sedge-Warblers. Meadow Pipits, Blackbirds, Mallard, Wheatear, Linnets and Pied Wagtail can all be seen busily nest building as we conduct our Breeding Bird Surveys. The hundreds of seals that hauled out into North Haven each low tide have been slowly disappearing- only to return in autumn to have their pups.

Spotted Flycatchers have been seen around the Island since early May. Photo: Eddie Stubbings

It’s been a fascinating first few weeks and I can’t wait to see what the rest of my time at Skomer Island brings!

Monday, 9 May 2016

Archaeology on Skomer Island

As many of you will know, Skomer Island is not only famous important for its breeding seabirds and other wildlife, but it also boasts significant historical importance, with some of the best preserved ancient iron-age structures in Britain. Over the last couple of years Skomer has hosted teams from Sheffield, Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities, conducting various excavation and geophysical work. The team has kindly written a guest blog, which you can enjoy below.

Last week, the Skomer Island Project team returned to Skomer to undertake the latest phase of archaeological research on the Island. This year archaeologists Louise Barker and Toby Driver (RCAHMW), Bob Johnston (University of Sheffield) and Oliver Davis (Cardiff University) were delighted to be joined by geographer and environmental scientist Sarah Davies of Aberystwyth University.

Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire is famed for its wildlife and for the survival of its ancient field systems which are amongst the best preserved anywhere in Britain. (© Crown Copyright: RCAHMW, AP_2010_3294)

The aims of this year’s work were twofold; to excavate one of the Island’s main archaeological features, a prehistoric field boundary and the continuation of geophysical survey within the improved fields surrounding the old farm in the centre of the Island.

Despite Storm Katie cutting short our planned four days of fieldwork, we managed to achieve our goals in the two sunny and still days we had and were also lucky enough to witness the return of the puffins.

Archaeological fieldwork involves lots of kit. Getting onto Skomer is always an energetic start to the field season. (© Crown Copyright: RCAHMW)

The site of the excavation. (© Crown Copyright: RCAHMW)

The focus of our small evaluation trench was a substantial lynchet, part of the Northern Field Systems on the Island. A lynchet is a bank of earth that builds up on the downslope of a field ploughed over a period of time and the resulting earth or plough soil is important for helping us reconstruct the environmental history of the Island, identify what was being cultivated and possibly at what date. Therefore, the principal focus of the excavation was to recover samples of the soils within the lynchet which will now be carefully analysed over the coming months.

Excavation in progress. A large number of stones, the result of field
 clearance, were encountered. (© Crown Copyright: RCAHMW)

Preliminary results from the geophysical survey also look positive. Within the improved fields surrounding the farm in the centre of the Island, there is little evidence for surviving archaeology; however geophysics undertaken in 2012 did reveal sub-surface archaeological features and we wanted to see if this was the case elsewhere. This was indeed the case, and in the area surveyed directly to the west of the farm, the gradiometer detected a linear feature, perhaps a ditch cut by later cultivation ridges.

Geophysical survey in progress with some promising preliminary results (© Crown Copyright: RCAHMW)
As ever the Skomer Island Project team would like to thank the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and the Skomer Wardens for their continued support and help with our work on the Island.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

A week of firsts

This last week on Skomer has really felt like the spring has kicked off. Even though the weather has been a little hit and miss, our seabirds have been busy!
Our first Razorbill egg was recorded on the Wick on the 26th. Spotting it proved a little easier for Elisa (Field Worker) as most of the Auks had deserted the cliffs that day, narrowing the search to just a few birds. Sadly, the 26th was also when we saw our first Razorbill egg predated by a Raven, as is often the case with the first eggs laid. 

 If you look really closely at the feet of the bird on the left you can see part of an egg! We recorded our first Guillemot egg on the 27th, although It was seen flying past in a Ravens beak, another casualty to the Ravens needing to feed their ever growing chicks. More eggs have been recorded since, and this photo was taken at the Wick.

Ravens are one of our earliest breeders on Skomer and were on eggs when we first checked them at the start of March. The chicks are now getting huge and starting to explore the cliff outside the nest. This chick is at the Amos and there are 3 chicks at the Wick and 3 chicks at High Cliff, not to mention the other nests dotted around the island. Fledglings wont be long...

Can you spot the bird in this picture? Manx Shearwaters can get caught out by the morning light and find the nearest dark spot to hide. This one chose a small hole in the bottom of the garden wall. 

 To make it easier here’s an overexposed photo. On the 28th the first Manx Shearwater egg was found, and it was laid by the same bird as the earliest laying bird in 2015, amazingly! We also had the first Lesser Black Backed Gull egg on the 20th and the first Great Black Backed Gull egg on the 18th.

We are noticing lots of baby Rabbits about, but not many of them are as cute as this one, which is often found in the daffodils in the Courtyard. 

 Buzzards have been attentively sitting on the nest for the last few weeks and can be seen well at Pigstone bay. Look out for the grassy clump on the diagonal band of lighter rock on the face of the cliff.
This male pied wagtail successfully bred at the farm last year and has another nest this year. Through a combination of numerous photos and photographers over two years we have finally managed to read the ring. This bird was ringed as a juvenile male on Skokholm in 2014, maybe not as far as we’d hoped it had travelled but still an interesting record!

The weather over the last week has been fairly rubbish with strong winds mainly from the north. Although we’ve had some heavy hail storms, they are sometimes followed by sunny skies and amazing rainbows. Lets hope the weather improves for May! 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Skomer Spring Migration Special April 2016

Skomer Island had the pleasure of hosting another fantastic Spring Migration Special last weekend, led by Dave Astins. There can be no better way to convey how well this three day special went, than to allow Dave to guest-blog, which he has done below! Enjoy.  

The omens did not look good for this one.  Firstly, for various reasons the trip was earlier than ideal.  Puffins wouldn’t be settled, could be absent altogether. Same for Razorbills and Guillemots.  Manx Shearwaters would be back for sure though (something for after dark!).  Migrants?  A complete lottery, especially so early into the spring.  And 2016 has been a slow spring, at least here in deepest darkest West Wales.  And the final straw?  A weather forecast that changed more times than a catwalk model, and never looked very inspiring at best.  What could go wrong?!
The result?  Another brilliant 3 days on Skomer Island.  The usual anticipation built as the 10 participants (Richard, Susan, Alan, Philip, Janet, Peter, Julia, Leigh, Jackie & Sally) arrived and greeted each other at Martin’s Haven. Cars parked at West Hook Farm, a slight delay due to the massive high tide, bags loaded onto the Dale Princess with ruthless efficiency, and we were on our way.  A few seabirds on the way over set up us nicely, before the unloading/loading of the boat and the ferrying up the steps that marks changeover day.
Warden Bee gave us the introductory talk, and after unpacking and a nice cuppa and some cake, the first walk around the island saw us notch up some great birds including Peregrine, Chough, Hen Harrier, Raven, single Puffin, Guillemot & Razorbill, and passage migrants in the form of Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap.  Several Harbour Porpoise from Skomer Head were well received.  Highlights included 2 sightings of Short-eared Owl, which pleased 2 people more than most as they had missed them on this trip last year!
Willow Warbler – a daunting task separating Willow Warblers from
Chiffchaffs when they are not singing or calling

Day 2 was windy….very windy.  An average wind speed of 37mph, gusting to 50mph, meant most of the island’s birds had their heads down.  The group was undaunted – “take us to the most exposed spot” they cried!  So that’s what we did.  And it was fun!  Thankfully it was dry and the skies were impressive but the best bird of the trip waited until late on…a cracking Little Ringed Plover at Moory Mere was just the 7th record ever for Skomer, the 1st for 5 years, and the 1st ever in April.  Boom!
Little Ringed Plover – the first on Skomer for 5 years and only the 7th ever

Day 3 and, as predicted, the south-easterly winds delivered.  First for the group a cracking male Redstart, quickly followed by a superb male Pied Flycatcher and brief glimpse of a Water Rail.  Then a male Ring Ouzel showed to all, having eluded us earlier.  Saturday’s Hen Harrier gave some great views.  After lunch at the Farm an epic 10 minutes, not 1 but 2 male Ring Ouzels were seen, and drew in the (a) male Redstart and the (a) male Pied Flycatcher – just stunning!  And later in the afternoon the male Redstart was seen chasing…another male Redstart.  The day was capped by over 1,000 Puffins in North Haven – a brilliant end to a brilliant day.  And this was followed by a fascinating talk on Albatross conservation and the longest ‘bird log’ in history (well, in 3 days for sure).  Warden Ed was more or less delirious by the end.
Male Pied Flycatcher – a bird hatched in 2015 due to
the browner tinged primary feathers (barely visible)

Our final few hours were spent packing and enjoying a beautiful morning, Black Redstart was added to the list and the final half hour couldn’t have been better with several hundred Guillemots and Razorbills returning to the cliffs in North Haven, creating a cacophony fitting for our departure.  It really was a fitting finale and all 11 of us were beaming from ear to ear even though our mini-adventure was over…61 species and an unforgettable 72 hours later.  So glad I packed my hot water bottle (and my long johns).
Razorbill – conveniently returned to the cliffs on our final morning

The list of bird species seen during the trip can be found here: Skomer Spring Migration Special 2016 Bird List
A gallery of photos from the trip can be found here: Skomer Spring Migration Special 2016 Gallery

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Long Term Volunteer - first week

Hello! My name is Hannah, and I’m lucky enough to be one of the long term volunteers out on Skomer this season. I’ve only been here about a week so far, so everything still feels very new and novel, despite my having visited many times before! However, as my first week draws to a close, I’m beginning to feel much more settled in and accustomed to island life.

Over past years I’ve been able to come to Skomer in many different capacities - first as a day visitor with my parents, then as an overnight guest, and more recently as a short term volunteer. Each time it’s been amazing to discover more about the island, and a gap year post A-Levels seemed the perfect time to try and give something back. Luckily, having been a short term volunteer a couple of times in the past, I had a rough idea of what I was letting myself in for, so I was well prepared for the freezing weather and rationing of food supplies! That said, I’ve already polished off an entire month’s worth of biscuits in about three days, so maybe the self control still needs a little work.

Getting to know all corners of the island, this is Middle Holme seen from the Neck

Aside from eating (which me and the other long term volunteer seem to do a lot of - we’re always hungry!), we’ve begun to get stuck in with some of the jobs that need doing around the island. Luckily it hasn't been too rainy, so we’ve been able to help complete some outdoor maintenance work, such as replacing the old signs with new ones and painting the hand rails down at the landing. Other activities we have been getting involved in include giving introductory talks to the day visitors, as well as the daily puffin and seal counts (I have yet to count more than seven seals on my patch though…). These seal surveys have to be completed in the four hour window around low tide, so can often involve a mad dash up to the Garland Stone in the two hours either side - especially tough when you’re busy at the other end of the island! However, I’m beginning to get used to it now, despite the seals being rather uncooperative at times.

As the breeding season gets into full swing, we will also be helping to monitor some of the nest sites around the island. At the moment, the Choughs are pairing off and settling down, so over the last couple of days the wardens have taken us to see a few of the known breeding sites. This was amazing, if a little scary at times, as we had to clamber down a few cliffs in high winds just to get a peek at them! Luckily we were rewarded with an appearance by two of the three pairs we went to see, which was amazing given the weather conditions. I know if I were a bird I would have wanted to stay hunkered down!

Chough showing breeding behaviour

Raven's nest with two eggs
However, to our relief, today’s weather was much better, and it was even nice enough that we were able to zip over to the mainland to collect some gas bottles. This involved both driving the tractor (something I’m slowly getting used to), and driving the boat (something I'm decidedly NOT used to). Given the fact I’d never driven either before last Monday, though, I decided to count both stints as an unqualified success - especially as I managed to keep both vehicles upright! 

So far, the most important thing I've learned is that every day on Skomer Island is different. There are never two the same, and a lot of the time you can find yourself doing something you weren't expecting when you got up that morning. But that’s part of its charm - it’s never boring - and I don't think I’d want it any other way!

Fulmars are our noisy neighbours
(Long-term Volunteer)

Monday, 4 April 2016

Gone a bit nutty

Do you like ginger nuts? Yes? Well so does our work party - or at least we hope they do as we made over 200 of these brown biscuits. I do admit that we didn't make so many intentionally but more out of sheer desperation. 
The reason why we had to bake such a mountain was because the recipe that Ed had written down was a bit confusing and instead of using one egg, Tanya put six into the mix. Luckily she noticed her mistake before she tried to roll the very wet dough into balls and solved the problem by adding more of the other ingredients, resulting in 200 ginger nuts and rather nutty bakers...
Quite a lot...

...and there is more to come

Today the work party was in full swing (when they weren't munching on ginger nuts) and even the wildlife was making an appearance on this lovely warm, sunny and calm day.

Oystercatchers getting ready to breed

Still a bit bare but the Bluebells are growing

Team Rabbit

Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were singing today, the Short-eared Owl was making the most of the calm weather and was out hunting in the afternoon, there were Wheatears galore, Goldfinches and Linnets flying over, Sand Martins hunting over Green Pond and the bushes were alive with Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers.

Another seal enjoying the sun on our boat

And then, in the afternoon, the Puffins arrived. We counted 3753 alone in North Haven.

And last but not least I would like to invite you to take part in this little quizz:

I found a sack of about 100 of these plastic things in the workshop and no one knows what they are. I am afraid to throw them away as we will surely need them as soon as they are gone. 

So I need your help! Please tell me (or guess) what these round plastic things are. 

The best answer will receive a price - a Ginger Biscuit!

Dave Perry thinks they are Laughing Cow cheese triangle mould

(Skomer Warden)

PS: Thanks Sonia for the lovely wildlife photos!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Time flies...

...when you've got lots of work to do OR of course when you are having fun! The question is: What is the reason on Skomer.

March is nearly over so here is an update on what has been happening since we arrived on Skomer four weeks ago.

One of the jobs we did was to repair the damaged roofs at the Farm and North Haven - attentive readers might have noticed  that our blog log post from three weeks ago only mentioned damaged roofs at the Farm.

Windy North Haven
Well the night of the 8th of March was very windy (wind force 8) and I slept rather badly due to the howling and rattling all around the house. I even got up to have a look outside our bedroom window as it sounded as if some fish box or plant pot was bouncing around outside, however I couldn't spot anything. The mystery was solved the next morning: The corner bit of our roof had blown off. 

We were able to find some of the roofing sheets but most of them had been lost. So in order to fix the roof we had to dismantle our reptile transect which had been constructed by using left over roofing sheets. When you come to visit you will be surprised to find reptile sheet number 8 on our roof.

A note for our dear volunteers: there is no need for concern, we are not going to send you on top of the library to look for reptiles.

The smallest one, hence me, had a look inside the loft space to see what was going on.
After several days of work the roof was finally fixed.

However we also had some really nice, calm and sunny days and have enjoyed several breakfasts on our new breakfast bar (which Ed built) on our balcony.

A few, mostly young, seals have kept us amused by seiging our inflateable at a regular basis. We have even been able to watch how they leap in: The seal shoots out of the water like a dolphin and throws itself against the side of the boat, which quite often just moves off and the seal bounces back into the water with a big splash. However when the seal gets it right it slides onto the tube with grace and then happily sunbathes on our boat for the rest of the day.

Also very amusing to watch are the playing seals on North Haven beach.

Another March highlight was when we spotted 11 Mallard ducklings getting led down South Stream by their mum.

Other than roofs we have been working on our new Sales Point which is coming along nicely.

Jason and Bee fitting the drawers
Here are some pictures of Leighton and Ed who are the main constructors of this work of art (maybe they have worked on it a bit too long...)

Nearly finished

We also have had our first two groups of volunteers over who were absolutely amazing helping us to get the island ready for the visitors. A huge thank you to Sarah, Rachel, Tanya, Bridget and Pat for all the painting, scrubbing, washing, sweeping and scraping they have done.

Ladies action

And then Easter Friday arrived and for the first time this year we opened Skomer to the public. It was a day with sunny spells and not too windy, so we were able to welcome 53 visitors. Unfortunately the rest of Easter was a complete washout but I cheered myself up by looking at this lovely Lesser Celandine which has started to flower on the Neck.

See you soon

(Skomer Warden)