Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Oh Ophelia - what have you done?

Yesterday we had the  most incredible storm I've ever seen - and even Mark, from the Marine Conservation Zone, who is a local told me he had never witnessed seen such waves before.

The sea spray (it wasn't rain) was so fierce it stung my face and eyes and my hair thrashed around my head like a whip. All animal life had vanished, not a single rabbit was about and the gulls that still had been flying in the morning all had disappeared by the afternoon. The wind was howling around the house and the roof rattled like crazy. I couldn't see out of the windows anymore as they were covered by salt water and the attic hatches were dancing in their frames.

Unfortunately high tide and the strongest winds clashed and turned South Haven into a boiling soup pot - with the seal pups floating around like pearl barley. How many have survived we will know by this afternoon, once we have completed our seal round. 

And of course the buildings got a thrashing too: The Farm has lost several slates off the roof and North Haven has lots four roofing sheets. I had to watch them fly off and couldn't do anything to prevent it. By now they are in northern Scotland I suspect.

We will patch up the damage today in time for the next storm on the weekend.

(Skomer Warden)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Bagshot's Story

The seal season is well underway with over 170 pups born so far. We are continuing the Skomer seal study which started 34 years ago and the longer we do it the more interesting it gets. We get very detailed information on population changes as well as survival and birth rates and we also get insight into the life history of individual animals.

Every year we take many hundred seal photos. If a seal has a scar we try to find a match in our existing seal catalogue by comparing the new photo with the old ones. The photos of unscarred seals get uploaded into a Welsh database and a computer will do the matching.

Just the other day we made an amazing discovery: There is this seal called Bagshot or BK-066 and she was found in Perranporth, Cornwall on 11th February 2011 as a 12 week old immature with netting embedded deeply into her neck and chest. She was taken into care by the National Seal Sanctuary, Gweek and the netting was removed. As she was still growing the netting would have most likely strangled her as she got older. On the 21st of May 2011 she was released at Gwithian, Cornwall with a blue flipper tag attached to her hind flipper.

In September 2012 Dave Boyle, who was the Skomer Seal Field Worker, took a photo of a heavily scarred immature female Grey Seal on North Haven beach and noticed she had a blue flipper tag with the number 39. After a bit of research he found out that she came from Cornwall and was called Bagshot (her less inventive Skomer name is BK-066).

In April 2013 Dave photographed her again hauled-out on North Haven beach. She was heavily moulting, so Dave wasn't able to use the pattern of her coat to identify her but her scars make her an unmistakable seal.

And then she was seen again on Skomer by Ed and myself in March 2015. She seemed to return to Skomer regularly and liked hauling-out on North Haven beach. She was becoming a beautiful adult female (ignoring the scars).

This year we photographed her several times between the 9th and 19th of September - again hauled-out on North Haven beach. She did look rather big and we were wondering whether she was pregnant. By now she was in her 7th year and Grey Seals usually start breeding around that time.

And then - hurrah - on 30th of September she was seen with her (probably) first ever pup. The scars are still, after all these years, very raw and it seems that they have burst open again. Maybe it's  because she put on a lot of weight during her pregnancy. She will have to feed her pup, now weighing around 12kg, until it is about 50kg and she won't be able to go hunting whilst doing so. She will use up all her blubber to produce fat rich milk and only after three weeks of suckling will she be able to leave her pup and go back to sea to feed herself.

What an amazing success story and how wonderful that seals have been studied on Skomer so intensely for 34 years so we can tell such tales. We are very fortunate that NRW are funding this incredible piece of research.

(Skomer Warden)

Friday, 29 September 2017

What goes bump…

Here on Skomer Island there is so much that goes on that we don’t see. During July and August we began to receive sightings of an otter roaming about on the island. Excited by the news, we placed trail cameras at certain places on the island hoping to get a better sight of this rare and elusive mammal. While we did get fleeting views of the otter, what also excited us was the other wildlife as well as the behaviour shown when humans were not around to interfere. In particular, we were especially excited by the appearance of water rail! These particularly shy birds are recorded only rarely on the island during summer but by using these hidden cameras, we have been able to regularly get some great views!

Water Rail zipping past the camera

 It was not just water rails that were seen however. Our cameras also recorded fighting shearwaters, a puffling recently emerged from its burrow, foraging wood mice and even a dead shearwater that attracted gulls, crows and magpies to feed on it. All in all, it’s been really interesting to see what goes on when we’re not looking!
Carrion Crow, doing what it says in the name

In total, we’ve recorded over twenty species of animals (not counting the clouds of moths that were seen at night!), with everything from passerines such as Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers, to much larger Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Pheasants, Moorhen and (of course) an Otter. Perhaps the most interesting observation however, was just how curious our magpies are! While none of the other birds or mammals paid any heed to the hidden trail cameras, the magpies very quickly picked up that something new was in the neighbourhood, and spent quite some time pecking at the screens trying to work out what these strange new objects were.

A curious Magpie

While the trail cameras have been recording shy species and interesting behaviour on land, Jake, one of our Long Term Volunteers, has been putting out an underwater time lapse camera in North Haven to monitor the fish species that pass by. The kelp beds by the edge of the cliffs have proven to be particularly rich in life, with sea bass being regularly seen there, along with ballan wrasse, two spot gobies and shoals of both adult and juvenile pollock.

Bass swimming past the camera in the North Haven kelp

Jake and Joe, Long Term Volunteers 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Seasonal Change

With autumn starting to set in and my three and a half month stint on Skomer Island as a Long-term Volunteer (LTV) over, it is natural for me to be reflecting on change. Change turned out to be a very visual aspect of the habitats and wildlife on Skomer Island especially with the Wildflowers.

The spring started off with the centre of the island carpeted by a thick layer of Bluebells...

 Replaced quickly by the Red Campion in late April....

And by May, Sea Campion popped up around the puffin colonies...

Finally a splash of yellow was added to the mix in July with a touch of Ragwort supporting a burst of insect activity including Cinnabar moths, butterflies and bumblebees.

The Animal life also changed over the season. I arrived at the beginning of the spring bird migration, with the spectacle of dozens of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff and a few rarities like Black Redstart, Sub Alpine Warbler (pictured) and Dark Eyed Junco.

As for the famous Auks, I arrived as they started to return to the Island at the beginning of April and left around the time they did too by mid July. I had the privilege of watching them complete their breeding cycles and I was overjoyed when we found out that after hours of fieldwork and boat work that all species of Auk counted in 2017 were doing well or increasing in number on the island.

The marine life also changed with the seasons. In April I was greeted by up to 80 grey seals on North Haven beach in what is called a “haul out” where they arrive to moult, although one enterprising male preferred to find his own personal haul out.

The marine sightings really started to pour in during the summer however, where, replacing the seals, I was able to see Porpoise (almost daily), Common Dolphin, Sunfish in North Haven, Risso’s Dolphin and Barrel Jellyfish. Sea watches were also increasingly accompanied by the Skomer icon, the Manx Shearwater.

The new LTV’s will be enjoying different phenomena in the second half of the season. The seals have returned to pup on the beaches around the island, and many of the 300,000 pairs of shearwater have left for Argentina as well as their chicks who are currently in the process of fledging.

This is a dangerous time for the fledglings, especially due to the strong winds hitting the coasts, so keep an eye out for any inland that may have lost their way. Advice on how to deal with lost shearwaters can be found here

Other visitors to the reserve, in the form of Weekly Volunteers, always provided welcome new additions to the small community we have on the island.  Being a weekly volunteer remains one of the best ways to experience the wildlife on the island, and definitely prepared me for my time as LTV. It also allows you to see the island in a new way and is a brilliant way to connect with the wildlife and scenery.

Thank you to all the staff, researchers, Weekly Volunteers and visitors who made my stay so enjoyable. I hope to be back soon.

If you are interested in becoming a Weekly Volunteer Assistant Warden please visit the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales here.

Thomas Faulkner former LTV

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Weekly volunteer applications are out!

If you've ever visited Skomer Island you are likely to have met some of our wonderful volunteers. Volunteers stay on the Island from Saturday morning to the following Saturday midday and truly are essential to allowing the island to run smoothly. For volunteers it is a wonderful way to see and get to know the island, and meet our neighbours who only come out at night!

Manx Shearwaters, exploring the island at night and using our signs for extra elevation. (Photo: P. Reufsteck)

If you are interested in volunteering on Skomer in 2018, please fill out an application form by the 1st of October.

Application forms have been updated this year so if you are a returning volunteer I would really appreciate it if you could download and use the new application form (feel free to copy text from previous applications- many of the questions haven't changed!).

Applications can be found on the wildlife trust website or click HERE.

See you soon!

Sarah (Assistant Warden)

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Marine Biologist in 'Seabird Central'

Hello there!

My name is Jake Taylor-Bruce and I am the other half of the Long Term Volunteer duo (see last weeks blog for an introduction to Joe). I have just finished a four year degree Applied Marine Biology from Bangor University and am currently on Skomer until the very end of September. As you may have guessed from my degree title, I am hugely passionate about the ocean and the great variety of life that can be found within it. Luckily for me Skomer Island is in a brilliant location for marine life, situated off the west coast of Wales and (of course) surrounded by the Irish Sea. Not to mention the tall cliffs, which offer panoramic views out to sea, where on many days harbour porpoise and common dolphin can be seen in quite high numbers feeding or simply swimming by. If you’re really lucky there is also the possibility of seeing much rarer species like minke whale, bottlenose dolphin and even ocean sunfish! All three of which have been seen in the last few weeks. This isn’t to mention of course the fantastic views of sea birds both on and off the island. Truly Skomer is a marine biologists paradise!

Me, myself and I

As part of my time here on Skomer I am running a research project that is taking place in North Haven (one of the sheltered bays on the island). Of particular interest here is the sea grass bed, a disappearing habitat that can be home to many rare species, such as seahorses. My project involves placing an underwater camera alternately in the seagrass bed and in the kelp forests at the base of the cliffs. This camera is then left to run for around 45 minutes and when I return to pick it up I review the footage and identify the fish species that swim past when there is little human disturbance. The results so far have been great, with large sea bass and various wrasse species being abundant. In addition to this, both adult and juvenile pollack are regulars, along with large shoals of minute two spot blennys. While the camera is left running I follow along the cliff edge recording species that I have seen and I must say, the underwater world here is just beautiful! With shining jewel anemones, armies of long legged spiny spider crabs, large ballan wrasse drifting lazily through forests of kelp and multi coloured sea slugs like animated sweets hidden amongst the kelp fronds. To say nothing of the bizarre fan worms, sponges and star ascidians that litter the rock walls. Perhaps my favourite encounter so far involved following a beautiful orange snake pipe fish through the kelp forest, before spotting it spiraling about in an underwater glade.

Janolus cristatus, a crystal sea slug found off Skomer Island 

In my spare time here I am also working to improve my photography, a real passion of mine and something which Skomer provides the perfect opportunity to improve on. The combination of awesome seabirds, cetaceans and the frankly ludicrously beautiful sunsets and sun rises, as well as the ever-shifting light, create an environment that is perfect for photography improvement.

Common toad, trying to get into my house! 

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Joe, our super enthusiastic but slightly clumsy LTV

Hello hello! My name is Joe and I am one of the two Long Term Volunteers working on the island. I am currently an undergraduate at Aberystwyth University studying zoology about to enter my final year in September. I have spent a few weeks on Skomer in previous years prior to this placement as a short-term volunteer where I got a flavour of island life and from the moment I arrived in mid-July my time here has been nothing short of amazing.

Me struggling to see out of the Warden’s ringing glasses.
Since arriving I think it’s fair to say my clumsiness hasn’t gone unnoticed so if you’re thinking of visiting the island over the next few weeks and you see someone stumbling out of hides or tripping over boardwalks say hello, it’s probably me!

Recently we have been setting several camera traps about the island in response to the exciting otter sightings. Below I have complied a few highlights of the footage which currently spans over 20 species!

My favourite footage captured on the camera trap so far is without doubt the elusive water rail sightings. When viewing the footage for the first I got so excited I leapt vertically several feet out of my chair, bruised my ribs and jumped up and down madly for a while.


Can you spot the huge cyst on the otter’s hindleg?

A Puffling from earlier in the season just sneaking into the frame.

Check out the wingspan of the Manx shearwater…

Each Long Term Volunteer takes on a personal project whilst on the island and I have decided to investigate the calls of the numerous Manx shearwater. I aim to analyse the begging behaviour the shearwater chicks which are currently tucked away in a burrow waiting for their parents to return with food under the cover of darkness. I hope to integrate this research with my university honours project so keep an eye on the blog early next year for a link to my dissertation findings!

So far my time on Skomer has been incredible - the wildlife sightings are something else and with the arrival of autumn migration and seal numbers beginning to increase once again it will only get better! Over the coming month or so I will be helping the Wildlife Trust monitor seals and their super cute pups which are popping up all over the place as well as experimenting with moth traps and camera traps around the island. There’s never been a more exciting time to visit and I look forward to welcoming you all to the island over the next few weeks.

Joe (Long Term Volunteer)