Wednesday, 19 July 2023

Island update: LTVs El and Maddie

Hi! I'm El, one of the long term volunteers on Skomer this July to September. After a day's delay due to poor weather conditions we arrived on Skomer to a warm welcome and warm weather. I've only been on Skomer a week but am already settled in and excited for what the next three months will bring.

A well wrapped-up figure sitting next to a boulder and looking through binoculars at a steep cliff face.
El spotting kittiwakes at the Wick

I studied Ecology and Conservation Biology. After graduating in 2021 I worked in practical conservation and habitat management at an environmental education center. Eager to get a chance to get more involved with species monitoring efforts, last summer I volunteered on the Isle of Eigg. There I developed a taste for island life, and I knew I wanted to continue working in places surrounded by the sea and as many birds as possible. I spent this spring and early summer on Skokholm, Skomer's neighboring island. I got the chance to work with a range of seabirds, including great black backed gulls, Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, puffins and fulmars. 

Now on Skomer, I am getting into the swing of welcoming day visitors to the island and chatting with people about Skomer's awesome wildlife. I've also been cutting back fast-growing bracken and brambles from paths and signs, and have helped check biosecurity boxes set up around the island. I have enjoyed spending my free time so far exploring the island and watching my favourite gulls, kittiwakes, with their young. The highlight of the week was getting to see an incredibly fluffy Manx shearwater chick (thanks Emma!). I'm looking forward to starting seal counts as they begin returning to Skomer to pup. 

Thanks for reading! 

- El

Two long-term volunteers wearing caps and standing in front of Skomer's sales point
El and Maddie running morning boats


Hi - my name’s Maddie, I’m 23 years old and the second new Skomer Island long-term volunteer (LTV) for July-September. During my short time on the island I’ve already started aching all over from getting stuck into the hard work, including lugging visitors’ bags and brushcutting - but I’m still not used to the sheer amount of wildlife now on doorstep!

I’ve recently graduated from Cardiff University with an integrated Master’s degree in Biological Sciences. My degree choice was definitely influenced by my lifelong passion for the natural world (especially birds!), but I wanted to do something completely different to studying over the summer, with practical conservation work. Alongside uni, I volunteered time to get involved with conservation efforts whenever possible, including wetland bird surveying, nest box monitoring, Great-crested Newt surveying, vegetation management at local wild spaces and helping to set up my university’s ornithological society. Each of these rewarding experiences have helped prepare me for this role, but there’s still been a lot to learn! 

Maddie smiling at the camera, in the middle of a field full of wood sage
Maddie on a morning wander

After my initial arrival on the island and getting a chance to take in all the wildlife, I soon jumped straight into work. My tasks so far have included helping the day visitors and hostel guests on and off the island, including giving welcome talks about Skomer – these pushed me out of my comfort zone initially, but I now really enjoy sharing facts and recent sightings with the visitors. I’ve also got involved with other tasks, such as path clearance with a brushcutter, sorting out kit and contributing to bird log (a relaxed daily chat with staff and guests to record everything we’ve seen during the day).

In such a short space of time I feel like I’ve already gathered many memories that will stick with me. Three of the most exciting parts for me so far have been:

1.     Stepping outside at midnight to hear the endless cacophony of thousands of nocturnal Manx Shearwaters calling out as they flew above – the sound is incredible, and quite spooky!

2.     Spotting a leucistic (white) Puffin bobbing on the water among its more colourful companions

3.     Seeing young birds all over the island – Oystercatchers, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Curlew, Meadow Pipits, Guillemots and many more!

Young Oystercatcher with dusky bill runs from left to right through green vegetation
Young Oystercatcher 


Throughout summer and as autumn draws nearer, I’m excited to join in with more conservation work – including monitoring the Atlantic Grey Seals during the pupping season in just a few weeks time. Very soon I’ll also be starting a personal research project (once I’ve finally narrowed down a study species!). Lastly, I’m really looking forward to chatting with more guests, as well as getting to spend lots more time with the friendly staff and researchers here. 

Thanks for reading! 

- Maddie 



Hand holding a young Puffin with book shelves in the background
This young Puffin ended up in the Library after wandering into an open door, blown open at night

Saturday, 15 July 2023

Seabird Counts 2023 - How Did We Count Them?

 If you were on the island in May or June, you may have noticed our staff carrying out lots of land and boat surveys – that’s because it was seabird counting season. With the aid of some photos, we thought it would be nice to explain a little more about what the survey work entailed. Our Puffin counts were completed in March (see blog post here) so we were focusing on Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Manx Shearwaters.

Rob and Leighton fixing up the boat on the dry dock.
Rob and Leighton fixing up the boat ready for launch

Rob wearing sunglasses and a hat driving an orange boat.
Rob on his powerboat course pre-season

Guillemots and Razorbills

Our counts for Guillemots and Razorbills started on 25th May and had to be completed by 11th June. The island is split into 45 sections of coast, each of which has to be counted twice. Every Guillemot and Razorbill in suitable breeding habitat (not sitting on the tideline and clearly on nest sites) are counted.

Hannah and Lisa using binoculars to count seabirds from the side of the boat.
Hannah and Lisa counting Guillemots and Razorbills

The photo below shows the difference between a Guillemot and a Razorbill. Razorbills are black with a blunt thick bill with a white stripe and a long pointed tail, whereas the Guillemots are chocolate brown with a shorter tail and long thin beak.
A brown Guillemot on a cliff with a pair of darker Razorbills above it with a chick.
A Guillemot (bottom) and pair of Razorbills with a chick (centre)

Fulmars and Kittiwakes

The counts for these birds start on the 1st June to time with their incubation, though the rest of the methodology is the same.

Kittiwakes are found in dense colonies. They are medium-sized gulls with black legs and wingtips, a prominent dark eye and yellow bill. Fulmars, who are members of the Albatross family despite resembling gulls, have broad stiff wings and a prominent “tube-nose” capable of spraying an oily substance at predators when threatened.

A steep cliff face with Kittiwakes nesting.
Kittiwakes on a cliff face with chicks


Hebe and Issy counting with binoculars with the cliffs behind them.
Hebe and Issy counting Fulmars and Kittiwakes from the boat

Manx Shearwater Census

To monitor the Manx Shearwater numbers, we have a series of 100m2 circular plots around the island. As this starts on 1st June, Manx Shearwaters should be on their nests incubating during the day. As a team, we move through the plots, playing Manx Shearwater calls down every burrow we find – the Manxies will usually call back to the recording if they’re in there. By working out how many burrows in a plot are occupied, we can scale this up to get an estimate of island numbers.

A view down a steep hill with Rob, Hebe, Erin and Lotti all holding ropes.
Rob, Hebe, Erin and Lotti putting ropes to mark the Manx Shearwater area

Erin and Leighton crawling over burrows holding speakers.
Leighton and Erin checking burrows

Will lying on the ground holding a speaker in the entrance of a Manx Shearwater burrow.
Will playing a Manx Shearwater call down a burrow

From all of this data, we can calculate the populations of these five seabird species on Skomer. It tells us how our seabirds are doing and informs our conservation management for the future.

We are incredibly grateful to all our staff, researchers and weekly volunteers for their help in completing this work. We are especially thankful to Hebe, our seabird volunteer, Erin and Lotti, our long-term volunteers and Issy, our 2022 seabird volunteer, for their tireless work on boat and land surveys. 

Hebe smiling at the camera in the boat with a view of the cliffs behind her.
Hebe on our boat

Ceris, Erin, Hebe, Tani and Rob taking a selfie on the island.
The team celebrating the completion of another Manx Shearwater plot - this one took 5 hours!

Until next year, seabird counts!

This project is funded by the Nature Networks Programme. It is being delivered by the Heritage Fund, on behalf of the Welsh Government. We are very grateful, as this funded the boat repairs, boat clothes, Rob’s powerboat course and whole island seabird counts.

Rob driving the boat whilst wearing a new blue boat jacket.
Rob modelling some of the new boat clothes provided by the funding.


Heritage Fund Logo

Thursday, 22 June 2023

LBB (Lesser Black-backed Gull) counts 2023 - Which is also known as – ‘Finding Rare Birds’

A guest blog from two volunteers; Mike and Ted Wallen who count Lesser Black-backed Gulls on Skomer every year: 

 

We are honoured once again be be asked to write a guest blog of our annual pilgrimage to Skomer to count the Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

The weather forecast looked good for the 5 days, and although the wind direction for our stay (mainly north) didn’t look brilliant for rare birds, you can never really tell, little did we know what lay ahead ………

At the end of the day, we were here to count gulls, not find rare birds …………

 

We were met by Leighton as we jumped off the Dale Queen with our not so light rucksacks, packed full of thousands of calories to get us through the long days ahead, and said hello to a few of the 2023 team at the top of the steps.

We walked with Leighton to the farm and talked through the gull counts ensuring our work wouldn’t impact on both the scarce breeding species and the other researchers already on the island.

After throwing our stuff out of the rucksacks and stocking up the ‘day bag’ with loads of food we were off counting…….well, after a quick check of North Valley Crossing bushes. Straight away 3 Redpoll went over, a few Swift and hirundines were pouring through West.  

 

We started on the North coast towards the Garland Stone, incredibly almost the first gull we looked at was a hybrid Herring X LBB.

 

Hybrid Herring Gull x LBB Gull by Mike


After a few counts here we reached the coast and looked over the stunning view of the north coast and the Garland Stone- my favourite place on the planet. A few more small counts, ate lunch at the farm and then headed off into the west fields.

We were out just beyond West pond when a significant number of gulls went berserk towards the Wick, rising up to mob something…. something that was heading our way ! Unsurprisingly Ted was the first one to see it, and exclaimed (quite loudly ๐Ÿ˜Š) that it was ‘massive’. I got on it and after a second or two shouted  - Osprey !!

This is Ted’s favourite bird in the world, total shock took over as the bird flew towards us, the sun behind us and dazzling blue skies behind the bird. To describe the views as sensational is no understatement, we punched the air, fist bumped and hugged, well after we’d taken a few pics and the bird had passed us. A moment of magic, a memory for a life-time !!

 

Osprey by Ted

We moved on, but a day of beautiful birds wasn’t over yet, as Ted then found a full S/P Golden Plover, the sun was lower in the sky at this point, the plover looked fantastic in the late afternoon sun, in the most stunning scenery – Wow !

 


Golden Plover by Ted

Counting LBB’s

So just a brief idea of what we and the island staff do to count the gulls.

The whole island is one colony of LBB’s, it is then divided into sub-colonies which stay the same each year with minor fluctuations in size/ shape, then there are fixed points to view each sub-colony from. Ted and I go to those fixed points and count how many birds are actually on nests/ nesting, these are called the eye counts.

 

The next day saw us continuing with the counts but obviously ‘migrant bashing’ early morning and evening.

Good birds were still to be found in between the counts, firstly a lovely S/P Black-tailed Godwit near Gorse Hill and then we watched 3 Greylag Geese Fly-in, they are rare out here. At lunch at the farm a male House Sparrow was a surprise and also a really rare bird here.

 

Greylag Geese by Ted

The counts were going well with lots of fine weather, it was the 13th the next day, would it be unlucky for us.

 

Sat 13th May

Dawned clear, bright and sunny, another stunning day.

As usual we started looking for rarities at North Valley crossing, but it wasn’t a visual thing that got the adrenalin pumping, but one of the most beautiful songs in the bird world- a singing Nightingale – Boom !!

How incredible to be standing in the morning sun, amongst acres of bluebells, the smells, the sounds, and then being serenaded by this beauty.

 


Nightingale recording by Ted (volume up)

 

Other good birds arrived with a Yellow Wagtail flying into North pond (later moving to Moorey Mere) and 2 Reed Warblers.

 

Yellow Wagtail by Mike 

We were above High Cliff just before midday when Ted picked up a Skylark flying in from the East, another good bird, we finished a count and moved to South Plateau near the Mew Stone, having a look for the Skylark.

On looking to my left I saw a big flock of ‘black’ birds going away, I exclaimed to Ted and looked at them, seeing a flap,flap glide and their Gizz I uttered an expletive and said they were Cormorants and that I’d hoped they were something good. We both lifted our bins again and then both shouted – GLOSSY IBIS !!!!!!!! Pandamonium ensued. There were about 20, yes 20 of them. It was a mixture of looking at them, getting photos and trying to alert Leighton and the rest of the team, whilst your hands shook from the adrenaline, thank goodness we were sitting down !

We watched the flock fly along the south coast all the way to Skomer Head where they turned north and continued around the coast of this magical island. Only afterwards when we’d calmed down could we count them in our photos- there were 17 – absolutely incredible ๐Ÿ˜Š

 


Glossy Ibis by Ted

Monday 15th May saw us camped out at Skomer head at 0615 for a very chilly seawatch. Well, we don’t have a whole lot of sea in Bucks, so we have to make the most of it. Despite our hands turning numb in the cold northerlies, it was actually really good for waders. In 2hrs we enjoyed flocks of 2 Turnstone, 13 Ringed Plover, 5 Dunlin, 5 Sanderling and 3 Whimbrel. We finished the gull counts by the afternoon and actually had an hour to just sit near the Mew Stone and look for migrants arriving on the South Coast, before a beautiful evenings sunset.

 

Sunset by Mike


Tuesday 16th May was our last morning before we had to leave this awesome place, the island decided to give us one more gift as Ted found a Lapwing flying around over North Valley, another new island bird for Ted.

5 Swift as we made our way East to North Haven and all too soon it was time to jump on the Dale Queen and head for the mainland.

 

Once again an incredible few days, with totally amazing people, brilliant birds and a few thousand gulls on what is to me, the most beautiful place on planet earth.

Mike + Ted Wallen

Friday, 19 May 2023

Meet The 2023 Skomer Island Team

The arrival of May has seen our seabirds starting to lay and our researchers are hard at work monitoring their productivity. But the changing season has also brought a flurry of new staff to the island.

And so, introducing Skomer Island’s WTSWW 2023 staff…

The Skomer Island team standing in front of a book case. Left to right, we have Hannah, Lotti, Erin, Leighton, Rob and Ceris.
The 2023 Team, L-R: Hannah (Fieldworker), Lotti (LTV), Erin (LTV), Leighton (Warden), Rob (Visitor Officer), Ceris (Assistant Warden) © Skomer VO

Leighton driving the boat off Skomer.
Leighton out on the boat © Skomer Warden

Leighton – Warden (he/him)

Leighton is back for his third year as Warden and sixth year in total. As a previous Visitor Officer on Skomer, he knows the island inside out! He oversees all research, monitoring and visitor operations on the island.



Ceris driving the dumper truck down to the beach.
Ceris driving the dumper truck © Skomer Warden


Ceris – Assistant Warden (she/her)

Ceris has returned to the island for her fourth season on Skomer as our Assistant Warden. She is a strong advocate for increasing diversity and inclusion on the island and is in charge of the weekly volunteer work plans, along with a range of monitoring and surveys, maintenance work and welcome talks to guests. She is learning Welsh and enjoys practising this on morning boats!



Rob out on a breeding bird survey © Skomer AW

Rob – Visitor Officer (he/him)

The team are excited to welcome Rob as Visitor Officer for his first season. Taking over from Beth, he has big shoes to fill – but thankfully has big feet. Rob runs our hostel, is responsible for day visitors, runs the social media and carries out a range of monitoring work. As a previous long-term volunteer, he is excited to be back to show off our birds, bats, plants and everything in between in all their glory! When not working, he is learning Welsh, enjoys playing his instruments and gives Leighton a run for his money in island cricket matches...


A cliff on Skomer with Hannah just visible using a scope on the right hand side to survey.
Can you spot Hannah surveying? © Lotti B-H

Hannah – Fieldworker (she/her)

Hannah has joined us as Fieldworker this year. An experienced seabird researcher, Hannah has worked on the Isle of May, Malta and the Azores. She monitors Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Herring Gulls and Greater Black-backed Gulls for breeding success. When she’s not looking through her scope, she’s a big fan of sea swimming and can be found birding all over the island.



Lotti (she/her) and Erin (she/her) – Long-Term Volunteers

Last and not least, we have our amazing Long-Term Volunteers, Lotti and Erin! They are with us until mid-July and are getting stuck in with everything going on – to read about them, here’s their introductions: Introducing Lotti and Erin.

Lotti and Erin holding Easter eggs in the garden
Lotti and Erin, our LTVs from March to July © Skomer VO 

So there we have it, our team for 2023! If you’re over this summer, please feel free to stop us and say hello.

Hope to see you soon.

The Skomer Island Team

Monday, 1 May 2023

Clickers at the ready...

So, how do we count the Atlantic puffin?

Puffins massing on land. Sparse vegetation is seen underneath them.
Puffins massing on the Isthmus © Skomer Warden
Unlike the majority of our seabirds, which are counted in May or June, our puffin count takes place sometime in late March or early April. Counts are carried out at this early point in the season as later on a large proportion of our puffins will be hidden away in burrows incubating eggs and later feeding chicks. Therefore impossible to count by eye!

Often coinciding with the weather improving, counts occur on evenings where the puffins begin to mass in large numbers off the island. Once a threshold is passed, it's decided that we will be counting. This year, those fateful evenings were the 27th March and 3rd April.

Map and clickers overlooking the coast.
The essentials for counting puffins. View from the top of High Cliff © Skomer VO
Skomer is split into seven sections and, from 5pm onwards, staff and volunteers work to count every bird on land, on sea, and swirling in the air. It’s quite a task, made all the more difficult by fragile burrowed ground and an ever approaching sunset. The kit list however is simple: binoculars, a map, two pencils, a handful of clickers, and a large number of layers.

Land counts are by far the simplest, with rocks, grassy banks and clefts in the cliffs being used as markers to indicate where you’ve counted to. Counts of rafts out at sea can be split using buoys or rocks if they are there, but this is rarely the case. Air counts are tricker still…

Puffins swirling in the sky. Coastline visible in the backdrop.
Puffins swirling in South Haven © Skomer Assistant Warden
There will inevitably be a degree of error in our counts – some birds will be counted more than once, others will be missed altogether. But the important thing is that the methodology remains the same year on year, meaning that our annual counts are comparable. This year a record breaking 42,513 birds were recorded on and around Skomer - our highest count since the early 1900s.

In 2023 our final numbers came in at 42,513 puffins on the 27th March, and 42,406 puffins (a mere 107 birds fewer) on the 3rd April.

Counts end with a large hot chocolate, some much needed snacks, and a general feeling of ‘blimey’ once the maths has all been done. Shortly followed by collapsing into bed, thumb inevitably still twitching...whoever suggested counting sheep had clearly never come across puffins!

Until next time. Wela i di wedyn!

Beth, Skomer VO.

Sunday, 23 April 2023

Island update: LTVs Lotti and Erin

Su’mae! My name is Lotti and I am one of the long-term volunteers (LTVs) on Skomer from April to July 2023! 

I graduated in Zoology last year, during which I spent an incredible year as a placement student with a field centre in the Scottish Highlands, and after which I worked as an Assistant Ecologist in Devon. I came to Skomer because I wanted to learn more about surveying breeding birds and what goes into managing a nature reserve, as well as to connect with other nature enthusiasts and experience an alternative way of life that is more connected with wildlife and the land – and what better place than Skomer?! 


A person in a navy blue coat wearing a puffin headband opening a grey box on the ground

Checking biosecurity boxes

I had never been to Skomer before and was in awe as I arrived on a gloriously sunny day, with wonderful swirls of puffins around our boat as I made the short crossing over, and the cheery waves of the staff and volunteers already on the island greeting me. My first couple of weeks here have flown past and I have already been involved in lots of exciting tasks all over the island, from the second island-wide puffin census of the season, biosecurity checks and repairing burrows, to welcoming day visitors and giving talks. I have also really enjoyed getting back into the habitat of making daily bird counts and sharing them at the evening Skomer bird logs where we can hear what everyone else saw around the island as well. The staff have all been incredibly kind and welcoming throughout, even surprising us with a hilarious Easter egg hunt when least expected 



Two figures on a narrow strip of land lit by bright sunshine. One is walking away whilst the other smiles at the camera

Sunshine on the Neck

After the busy of the day, I have enjoyed spending time exploring the island further and have spotted hen harrier, black redstart, porpoise, common dolphin, Skomer’s own vole subspecies, and of course all of the auks, puffins and Manx shearwater! I have also discovered my favourite place to watch puffins: along the sea campion swathed slopes of the south-east of the island, where I have watched the puffins at sunset billing and collecting large tufts of campion to line their burrows.  


Profile of a puffin surrounded by white flowers

Watching puffins at sunset in the sea campion © Lotti Budd-Thiemann 


The highlight so far has been experiencing the magic of the Manx shearwater at night. Under the cover of darkness, the island is filled with a cacophony of their calls, and having never seen or even heard Manxies before, it has been incredible to find yourself residing an island that by night is theirs. By our red lights we watched birds sitting by the path and running clumsily along the ground, with one even running straight under our feet! 


Photograph of a Manx shearwater lit by red light
Night time walks looking for Manx shearwater! © Lotti Budd-Thiemann 


It is a privilege to be able to spend several months on such a special island and I can’t wait to see how it changes as the breeding season ramps up and the island blooms with bluebells and red campion. I am also looking forward to the bustle of breeding bird surveys, carrying out a personal project, and hopefully learning to ace bread making and crocheting in my free time!  


Looking forward to writing another blog of Skomer adventures soon! 


- Lotti, LTV


Two young women dressed in overalls smiling at the camera and holding handfuls of Creme eggs
Lotti and Erin with their Easter egg hunt haul!

                                            --------------------------------------------------


Hi everyone! My name is Erin, I'm 23 and I'm one of the long-term volunteers on Skomer for March - July. I arrived on Skomer nearly three weeks ago, but the warm welcome has made it feel like I've been here for much longer. Armed with a map and clicker, I spent my first evening here helping with the record-breaking puffin count under the guidance of legendary volunteer Alison. After one day of sun my first week turned wet and windy, but I was kept busy with cleaning, painting, drilling and digging to get the island ready for visitors. Since then, I have been giving welcome talks to day visitors, doing biosecurity checks, exploring the island, as well as going on my first breeding bird survey.

Photograph through an open door of a young woman painting the walls in a corridor
Painting the fishbowl corridor


Studying zoology in Cornwall was where I discovered my love for seabirds, especially gulls. Living a few minutes' walk from the beach, my time at university felt constantly observed by the ever-watchful eyes of the resident herring gulls. Through their permanent presence on the beach, in the bins and nesting on the roof, I noticed how beautiful, intelligent and full of character gulls are, and studying their behaviour has made me realise how just a few simple steps can make it easy for people to live alongside them. As for other seabirds, watching Manx shearwater fly past from a ferry to the Scilly Isles, finding fulmar and kittiwake nests along the Cornish cliffs, and paddling past cormorants during sunset sea swims are all memories that stand out from my time in Cornwall. I can't wait to share the wonderful world of seabirds with Skomer's visitors, and maybe even convert some of them into gull lovers, or at least gull appreciators!

Since graduating in 2021, I have volunteered with giraffes in South Africa, at a seabird reserve in Anglesey, and in a peat bog on Mull. Spending just a week or two in each of these amazing places made me look for opportunities to volunteer for longer periods of time, so I am super excited to be staying on Skomer for over three months. While here I am hoping to gain more practical conservation skills and improve my wildlife ID, from bumblebee species to breeding bird calls to ageing immature gulls. After living inland for the past two years, I am thrilled to be back by the sea and living on an island surrounded by diving gannets, nesting fulmars, calling chough and singing seals.


A landscape photo in blues and greys showing a ridgeline and sea in the background. In the distance there is a figure walking. There is a gull flying in the top left of the image.
Walking along the ridge above High Cliff - Siรขn Hassan

Highlights from the past three weeks have included seeing Manxies for the first time, learning to drive the gator, and working with three fantastic groups of weekly volunteers. Having never been to Skomer before, I am looking forward to getting to know the island in depth and seeing how Skomer changes over the next three months. I am particularly excited to help with seabird counts, start my project on the predation of Manxies on Skomer, go swimming in North Haven and hopefully see some gull chicks.

Thanks for reading! Diolch! 

- Erin, LTV