Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Whole Island Seabird Counts and Shearwater Census

I am on Skomer for three weeks now. June is the busiest month on the island with visitors and breeding birds. As Seabird Volunteer I am an extra help for the main breeding season.

My name is Magdalena (Magda). I am from the northern part of Germany and currently studying Biology at the University of Hamburg. For my master’s thesis I analyse the foraging behaviour of two different wader species in the Wadden Sea: the Dunlin and the Red Knot.

I always wanted to go to an Island for a longer period to get inside on what is required to keep a place like Skomer running. Normally you must stay for at least three months. Being on Skomer as the Seabird Volunteer is a nice opportunity for me to live on an Island for five weeks, to learn more about monitoring birds and to get experience in practical conservation.

South Haven: Bluebells and Red Campion on South Plateau

When I first arrived on Skomer the Bluebells and the Red Campion were forming a blue pinkish carpet on the whole Island. Many butterflies and moths can be found and, of course, there are the birds!I am involved in everything which is connected to the whole island seabird counts - including counts from a boat, counts from land, the Manx Shearwater census and data entry. But of course, there are more things were help is needed e.g. chicks of many bird species get ringed.

Seabird boat counts with perfect weather

The Manx Shearwater census has a special addition this year. Apart from the annual census there is a whole island census, which recently came to an end. The whole island census had about 300 plots and there were six people who spend one to three weeks on the Island only for the census. In total they invested about 500 men hours crawling over the Island in all weathers.

How does the Manx Shearwater census work?

For the annual census there are 18 plots which we use each year. To find them they are marked with a metal cane and a GPS point. We use 25 m ropes. With the first rope we mark North and each person uses one rope to walk from the cane outwards forming many pie-like pieces.
We work clock wise and, using MP3-players, we play a territorial call of the Manx Shearwater for 10 seconds down every burrow, waiting another 10 seconds for the bird to respond. We use two different clickers - one for a positive response and another one for a negative response. As for burrows, we only count those which have a real breeding chamber and are not only a tunnel. We must make sure that we count burrows with two entrances only as one. Another difficulty is a double response. When there are two birds calling you must find out whether there are two burrows or two birds in one burrow.
Having finished all 18 plots it’s no surprise that some of us can mimic a Manxie call almost perfectly. Or is it because my “hutmate” Dulcie and I hear them all day AND all night...? 

Doing the Shearwater Plots everyone searches their “slice” for burrows

Keeping the motivation up, even when getting soaked

Our evening hobby is Oystercatcher ringing. There are many Oystercatcher breeding pairs on the Island, which all have chicks in a ring-able or almost ring-able age by now. The chicks must be big enough so that the rings don’t go off and if they are to big they might be able to fly and impossible to catch. That’s why the age of one to two weeks is perfect for ringing. But it is very difficult to find them. As soon as they hatch they are relatively mobile and hide under high vegetation. When we see a bird, we must be very fast, if we are to slow they will run and hide otherwise they will crouch. And then we must find the perfectly camouflaged chick, which is impossible if we haven’t seen were it went. Until today we managed to find six of them. All have got new shiny orange and metal bracelets.

Oystercatcher chick with his new rings

There are only two weeks left until I will return to Germany. I am looking forward to the rest of my stay.

Magdalena Behrens (Seabird Volunteer)

Friday, 8 June 2018

Farewell from Bee and Ed

It comes with mixed feelings that Bee and I say goodbye to Skomer Island and move on to pastures new at the end of this year. The last six years have been an eclectic whirl of seabirds, people, seals and lots of hard work. It has been a great privilege to work on such an amazing site and live amongst its numerous wild inhabitants. We have met so many wonderful people and built so many meaningful friendships that leaving will come with a touch of sadness.

Without some of these people the job would have been impossible and we would like to acknowledge them if we can. We would like to thank, all of the Long-term Volunteers, Weekly Volunteers, Work Party Volunteers, Assistant Wardens, Visitor Officers, Field Workers, the Lockley Lodge team and all other Trust staff that we have worked alongside. Also the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone team, the Friends of the Islands, members of the Islands Advisory Committee, the Trustees of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (a couple of very special ones in particular), Dale Sailing (as long as they loose the Skomer games this year!), all of the researchers who work on the island, donors to the Trust and of course all of the lovely visitors (both overnighters and day visitors) we have met over the years. On top of all of that there are the staff on other Pembrokeshire islands, the Marloes Parish Council, too many local people to name, local farmers, some ex-Skomer Wardens and the volunteers at the Wooltack Point coastguard lookout, amongst many, many others.

The island will definitely need continued support if it is to remain the amazing and world leading wildlife destination and research hotspot that it currently is and the new Wardens will need as much moral support as people can offer.

We 💗 maintenance work

For the new Wardens we would like to offer the following advise: the job comes with some hugely rewarding moments and the experience that you can gain on an island like this, working with seabirds and people, is literally second to none. However, don't expect to get through any meal without being interrupted, or for the phone to stop ringing, and you'll be alright.

Kraken - our foster child

Kraken, shortly before we released him back into the wild

Inevitably, we have made mistakes and not everybody has agreed with everything we have done, but at least we can say we have given it our all and tried our best for the island, the Trust, the visitors and, most importantly, the wildlife.

Our most memorable moments have included: the return of the seabirds in spring, helping with Guillemot work on the Amos, going to sleep with the sound of the shearwaters at night, freshly caught Mackerel and Pembs potatoes (thanks to Treehill farm), the Skomer Games, curry nights with our staff, working with the seals, helping the researchers with their studies and hundreds of hours spent on our boat counting seabirds.

Lunch time on the Amos

Beautiful Mackerel
Loving seals (Photo by Alistair Wilson)
Concentrated seabird counters

Thank you to everyone who has welcomed us here and most of all to Skomer Island! We will cherish our memories and never forget these exceptional years.

Happy Skomer Warden

Bee giving welcome talks

Feisty Shags

Amazing visitors (Short-eared Owl chicks) to Bee's garden
Ed and Bee
(Skomer Wardens)

Thursday, 24 May 2018

One hard earned Alpine Swift

Ted and I made our annual pilgrimage to Skomer between the 17th- 20th May to count and map the LBB’s (Lesser Black-backed Gulls), something I have done for many years now, and Ted for the last five.

Mike and Ted Wallen (front left and right respectively)
On the journey down Ted and I spoke again about how amazing it would be to see a certain bird at The Garland Stone, a conversation we have had a few times over the last few years, knowing it was just a dream ………….
The first task of the day however was to move 3 tonnes of sand/gravel up the steps, but with incredible staff on the island, Dale sailing and volunteers from elsewhere, somehow we managed, although some of us were a little worse for wear by the end of it!

140 'innocent' looking bags of grit. Believe you me they weren't that innocent when we were getting them up the steps 
We were then greeted by the islands wonderful wardens - Ed and Bee and more wonderful staff, assistants, volunteers, researchers, all making Skomer such a special place.
Soon we were onto the counting- this involves covering the whole island and counting LBB’s on nests, or birds about to nest, not gulls just standing around (as the photo). These are called the eye-counts, then later more accurate counts are carried out in certain colonies to establish the population of the whole island. The LBB’s on Skomer are of the race ‘graellsii’, which is in decline and of conservation concern.
Lesser Black-backed Gull 'just standing'

After a couple of hours Ted found a really good bird, whilst I was counting he did a quick sea watch and found a Pomarine Skua complete with spoons which I watched through my bins.
As we moved around it was very obvious that the island’s seabirds were in full swing, with first eggs being laid amongst the auks, gull chicks hatching and Kittiwakes nest building. Many of the latter visiting Moorey Mere (a small pond) to collect mud/vegetation, although after they’ve had a wash straight after they’ve collected some not a huge amount gets back to the nest. It is clear that some birds seem to go for much bigger beakfulls ……
Kittiwake collecting nest material from Moorey Mere

The next couple of days saw the counting continue in beautiful weather and light winds- winds from the right direction!
We saw the very elusive Black Redstart which appeared to have missed its chance of competing at the Winter Olympics-
Eddie the Eagle!

Tim Birkhead found a lovely male Whinchat which much of the island enjoyed and the large numbers of Short-eared Owls kept everyone happy, especially the photographers –
A smart, and showy, male Whinchat near the Farm
One of the even more showy Short-eared Owls

It was Saturday 19th when things really kicked off –
Early morning Ed and Bee found 2 Spoonbills heading north off of the north coast, now Spoonbills are one of Ted’s favourite birds, but by the time we got on them, it was a white blob heading for Ramsey, not brilliant, but the feeling in the air was that the day was young.
By mid-morning a flock of 8 Chough thermalling near the farm were suddenly joined by 4 Red Kites, in 33 years of visits I’d never seen Red Kite, I was very happy. After lunch Ted and I went to the north coast, specifically to The Garland Stone, our favourite place on the island, actually its our favourite place on planet earth, before we continued counting along the north side of the island. Ted and I were about 12ft apart, staring out to sea and along the cliffs checking through hirundines (Swallows and martins), we were about to move to the count point but we decided to stay for five more minutes, what a wise decision. All of a sudden a large bird flashed through, literally between us, as we both jumped up uttering the unbelievable words ‘ALPINE SWIFT’. It turned and flew straight at us, passing us at about 25ft!! Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for this moment- it was the bird we had spoken about for at least 3 years, at the exact location, it was unbelievable, totally unbelievable, it was literally a dream come true.
Bins were flying, camera’s were clicking as the bird whizzed around and then went east. I rang Ed and Sarah to get the news out. After a short while Ted said he’d got it again, I looked at the bird circling about a mile off the north coast - well out to sea and said, ‘no Ted that’s a Peregrine’, only for it to accelerate towards the island and indeed show itself as ‘Alpi’. Quite how Ted picked this up I’ll never know. By now Ed and Sarah had seen it and other birders on the island were trying to twitch it!

33 years in the waiting and probably one of the hardest earned birds of all time

We saw it four times in about an hour and then we lost it. We had to carry on counting so worked our way to the next point on the north coast, after about 15 minutes I heard Ted say ‘Spoonbill’, I thought he was saying something about the morning’s birds when I saw him grabbing for his camera, I looked up to see a Spoonbill coming in-off the sea, 50 ft above us !!!!!!
A Spoonbill which flew in off the sea during the afternnoon of the 19th May

This was crazy stuff. We took pics as it came in, and then I got on the phone to Ed, this is when it got even more crazy, as we watched the Spoony heading towards north pond I was talking to Ed, giving him directions, when I was suddenly uttering the words ‘ Oh my God, the Alpine Swift has just flown through my bins’, I’m really not sure if I was making much sense at this point, we had an Alpine Swift and a Spoonbill in the same binocular view- incredible stuff.
The Alpine Swift moved West and then dived over the cliff towards Bull Hole (never to be seen again), the Spoonbill decided against the pond and flew south.
This was simply the most exciting hour or so of birding I’ve ever experienced, something I will never ever forget.
The next morning was the last for us, we were still running on adrenaline from the day before but needed to finish the counts. We were almost finished, but the island had one more trick up it’s sleeve-  Ed rang from the CES ringing site to say they’d just trapped a Subalpine Warbler. We dropped all our stuff near North Haven, ran to the ringing site, saw the warbler as it was being processed and then ran back for the boat.
So we missed completing the final count that we were going to do, but sometimes the rares win the day.
The Swift was the first on the island in 50 years!!
What a fantastic few days, the likes of which I’m sure we will never repeat.
Mike + Ted Wallen
All pictures by Mike and Ted Wallen