Tuesday, 11 June 2019

half-season on Skomer (inspired by the strong northerly(?))

Weather like this normally doesn't inspire to write/reflect and/or to think much but today's strong northerly, rain, recent events and the not in the slightest bothered by it puffins flying conspicuously outside the window have evidently motivated to 'ink' something down.
With the time moving forward so fast and the people who come and go you almost think that there isn't enough of it to fully appreciate everyone and everything that surrounds you. But there certainly is a different way of looking at it and there most certainly is a more positive and encouraging way to live by than just worrying about how little time there is to enjoy ourselves, to save wildlife and how much we still have to do, especially on a remote island like Skomer. Many people who whether incidentally or not but have somehow been introduced to Skomer as the place of their endevours have been returning to the island for years even if only for a short day trip.
Skomer is the place where you can truly capture the essence of the lack of time due to the seasonal workload and a concious choice to enjoy it! Living and working on an island like this is a truly unique experience. It's almost tempting to say that only certain types of people would fully enjoy working and living here. It's more of a lifestyle than a set of rules (although there are some that we are very strict about here!) or a specific set-up that you follow. Can you give up on ice-creams for most of the year? Can you wake up at 4am to conduct a survey or stay up all night to carry out a study on manxies? Would you enjoy engaging with hundreds of visitors followed by long hours spent in the field counting seabirds from the boat and then rolling around on the ground checking hundreds of burrows? Would you enjoy a life where the energy and water supplies are limited but plenty for a comfortable remote living? Would you choose to work and live on an island to which access is very much weather dependent? We would and we love it!
Islanders have a mind of their own, special appreciation for this specific habitat and their life choices they make tend to be driven by the knowledge about the environment, global changes and effect humans have on wildlife.

You wake up every day; rain, wind or sun and you smile because you know that you are one of the people who get to live a life that very much isn't by the book and you feel inspired because you know that what you do is what you love, what changes and shapes you in many ways. You look outside the window to see Grey seals, thousands of seabirds, rough sea crashing against the cliffs, wind swooshing through the fields forcing much of the bracken and carpets of flowers to give in and every day you feel more alive because of the effect the island has on you! There is so much to explore and to discover on this island that a lifetime would probably not be enough to do so!

strong and cold northerly 11/06/2019
Saying all this, we have been extremely busy for the past few weeks and we heavily rely on everyone who assists us with the seabird monitoring, day visitors engagement, research and maintenance at this time of year. Much of the island personality is enhanced by the wonderful people who come to get involved with the work that is being done here in one way or another and much of it would feel different if they ever stopped.
The focus has been on the whole island seabird counts conducted from our boat, puffin watches and monitoring, shearwater study plots, gulls monitoring and the visitors. We have completed our first whole island count of guillemots and kittiwakes from the boat and have started the second one yesterday. The whole island counts enable us to estimate our breeding seabird populations on the island. Manx shearwater study plots are 1000m2 plots, within which we check every single burrow for the presence of shearwaters. We play a tape playback with a dual male and female manxie call and listen if they respond. By doing this we are able to calculate how many shearwaters are there based on how many responses we record. This method was thoroughly described by Magda last year, you can look it up in the past blog posts.

We have also been watching new life emerging on the island such as young chicks hatching pretty much on a daily basis, playing hide and seek with their natural predators in order to survive and their parents passionatelly putting all their energy into feeding them. We have been looking at short-eared owls carrying voles to feed their young, actively driving gulls away in order to protect them, some kittiwakes still determined to build their nests despite the time already not being in their favour. Razorbill, guillemot, many of the puffin chicks are growing fast. Shearwaters are still to be born so stay tuned for the first chick notifications in the next few weeks! We will then spend 3 months watching them grow and exercise their wings, familiarising themselves with the surroundings before they leave to migrate to Argentina.

All this of course has been happening in conjuction with the day boats bringing 250-300 day visitors to Skomer to whom we always strive to talk to and to share our passion for islands with. It makes our hearts sing when we hear and read about everyone's experience on the island, how a single trip to Skomer often changes their lifes and how inspired they feel to make this world a better place to support the environment and wildlife. We are with you on that and this is exactly what our aim is!

What is also amazing is that despite the fact that we have all been very busy and a little bit tired, everyone remains cheerful, passionate, loving, full of enthusiasm and joy. Spending time with the team and seeing everyone's smiley face is very contagious and really does make a difference. Seeing everyone smile makes you want to get up every day to spend some time with them! We have such a fantastic team here this year that words cannot describe how fabulous every single person is and how much each one of them brings into the dynamics of the island! Everyone is very considerate, hard working, flexible, supportive and thoughtful, which is what is very important on this busy island, where plans often fall through. Being able to adjust is another aspect of the Skomer busy life and everyone deserves an A* for often needing and easily coping with the sudden modifications, which often have to be made due to the weather changes for example.

us in between the Lesser Black-backed Gull cane counts

Manx Shearwater study plot counts
Counting cliff birds from our boat
To summarise, every one of us is special and brings something into this world, more specifically into this island. Having limited time with some, which saddens us, we strive to make the best of the time we have together by appreciaiting each other, and we try to make it fun as much as possible!
The key to the life on an island is to be in the present moment, to enjoy yourself, to enjoy other peoples company and really laugh! Laugh at everything and shake it all off ;) 
Do you know what makes this world a better place? - becoming the positive and uplifting change that you wish to see in it! Set the example so that the others may follow you and find ways to feel inspired like we do every single day! And be yourself! Step from the norm that's rigorously dictated by the society...step into the unexplored, the unmapped and uncharted version of you and do not let other people tell you what is possible and what isn't as you are the only one who makes that call!

Thank you ALL for being a part of this Skomer brilliant family!


Monday, 27 May 2019

LBB Counts - Mike and Ted Wallen

LBB counts 2019
( aka Skomer pilgrimage, aka finding rare birds)

We are very privilaged to once again be asked to guest blog of our venture to Skomer to count the Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
We arrived on May 16th, having just missed the Woodchat Shrike which was a shame, but after all we were here to count gulls, not find rare birds …………
So we met the wonderful new wardens Sylwia and Nathan and were reunited with friends from previous years and indeed met some new ones, all wonderful people.
After throwing our stuff out of the rucksacks and stocking up the ‘day bag’ with loads of calories that we knew we were going to need we were off counting. The wind was still in the south-east where it had been for a few days, so we were hopeful of a rarity from Europe.
The first few hours were uneventful, but there was a steady trickle of hirundines going west and of course it was fantastic to see the islands residents like Chough, Razorbill, Oystercatchers etc, and see the kittiwakes coming to Moorey Mere to collect material to build their nests.

Razorbill - taken by Mike
Kittiwakes at Moorey Mere - taken by Mike Wallen
After lunch we were back out and joined by Sylwia and Nathan to look at several colonies with a view to carrying out the cane counts (see below), we looked at one colony and moved onto ‘Z’ which is on the south coast. Having counted part of it from one fixed point we moved to the other, we were within metres of sitting on a rock looking at gulls, but we didn’t quite get to it as Ted having raised his bins stated, that looked like an odd Bunting !!! Ted and Sylwia were in front with myself and Nathan just behind. Then Ted and Sylwia raised their bins again and Ted said ‘there it is’, as the bird popped up on a rock about 10 metres away. I rapidly raised my bins and blurted out “ORTOLAN”, the bird flew within seconds, but fortunately only 25 metres. We then had a frantic 15-20 minutes of letting everyone on the island know and trying to re-find the bird, but safely and without flushing it- it was incredibly hard, even though we were looking into a small area but we were very patient. Ted went around in a loop and then found it in exactly the area we were looking, by this point Sarah-Kay was with us and we had a brief view before it moved back to where we’d found it. Other ‘islanders’ then arrived and we watched and photo’d the bird over the next 45 minutes. Sylwia asked to borrow my camera to take pictures of her own which was absolutely fine- but getting it back was another issue !! The way Sylwia was swinging the camera around and the shutter was blasting away I reckon there’s a chance that Sylwia has been part of the paparazzi before !!!! We were all laughing about it, that’s the great thing about everyone who works on the island- such nice people and a great sense of humour. We then left the bird in peace, still on the same rock outcrop.

Ortolan Bunting - taken 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. Within the next week the island staff visit selected colonies and by conducting a quick walk through establish exactly how may nests are there, invariably a few more than we saw. This gives a correction factor which is then used on the whole count from all the eye counts to establish the size of the whole colony.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - taken by Mike
The next day saw us continuing with the counts but obviously ‘migrant bashing’ early morning and evening.
Early morning saw a female Bar-tailed Godwit fly into North pond which is a good bird here, then Ted and I were at North Valley bushes when the orange flash that was in fact a Turtle Dove whizzed past us – another great bird, and one that Ted had been hoping for. Unfortunately this was not to be seen again.
The Saturday saw the return of another island ‘mega’, the House Sparrow had returned to the farm, as mad as it might sound until this bird I’d seen 3-4 House Sparrows here and I’ve been coming for 34 years !

House Sparrow - taken by Mike
In the evening Ted’s sharp eyes produced a couple of interesting gulls at North Pond, one a LBB X Herring hybrid, which is possibly the bird being reported as a Yellow-legged Gull and a really interesting LBB with a streaked head. It just goes to show that looking at all these gulls fine tunes your skills in seeing something different.

(Probable) Hybrid LBB x Herring Gull flanked by LBB's - taken by Mike
Streaked Headed LBB Gull - take by Ted
Sunday 19th was our last morning, we had half a day and had pretty much the same area’s to still count as our last morning last year. Last year was interrupted by the appearance of a Subalpine Warbler.
We went to the first count point where Ted had been itching to get to since we arrived as next to it is the biggest bush on the island. I was merrily counting away when Ted said – ‘There’s a Turtle Dove sitting on the wall in front of us’ – Boom !!!! We could see Nathan, Sylwia and Clare at the CES ringing site, but before I could ring them the bird flew and landed on another wall, I made the call and they all locked their bins on the spot where it was and then it flew again- they all got it. Incredibly it then flew straight into the bushes at the bottom of North Valley where the mist nets were………….surely we couldn’t be that lucky ?  We saw where it went in, then I looked at Nathan/ Sylwia and Clare- they were already on the move, a few second later the phone was ringing……………………….. surely not ?
YES !!!! Back of the net !!
The dove had flown straight into the mist net- unbelievable. The incredibly beautiful, and now sadly very rare bird was ringed and released where it flew off strongly back to the area where Ted first found it.

Turtle Dove - taken by Mike
Turtle Dove just after it was ringed and shortly after released - taken by Mike
So just like last year, our last 2 counts were missed, but hey, Nathan and Sylwia didn’t mind for a Turtle Dove.
Once again an amazing few days, with amazing people, brilliant birds, a few thousand gulls on what is to me, the most beautiful place on planet earth.

Mike + Ted Wallen

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Introducing our Long Term Volunteers- Part 2!

My name is Alice and I’m one of the long term volunteers on Skomer. I will be around until July so I get the exciting opportunity to be here during the breeding season! I visited the island for the first time last year. I was lucky enough to be brought on as one of the Manx Shearwater researchers. It was a team of 5 and we had the mammoth task of carrying out the whole island census! We also had one exciting day where we went over onto Middleholm where we did a census on there. It hadn't been done on Middleholm for 20 years so this was very interesting to be able to see how the population may have changed in that time period. It was hard work but so rewarding and to get the results that the manxies are doing well here with a whopping 350, 000 pairs of them on Skomer alone. To have been involved in the census was amazing and an experience I will never forget. The island is so important for this sea bird and to have over half the worlds population here is incredible.
Me after completing a Shearwater Census Plot near the Garland Stone in June 2018
 Since last year I have been wanting to return to Skomer so to have been accepted for a long term position was amazing.

I will try to not give you my whole life story but a little bit of background about me. I was working before I came out to Skomer for the Cats protection league as cat care assistant. I loved the job and it was very rewarding seeing the cats go to loving new homes. I have always loved animals and been interested in their behaviour. I am passionate about animal welfare and feel we have a duty to look after our natural environment and respect the other living things we share this planet with.
Me and my Dog
I have done other volunteering, I had a long term placement with the RSPB last year. I was at a beautiful reserve called Burton mere wetlands which is known as the Dee estuary reserve. I was able to live onsite which was a great experience being fully immersed in my surroundings and the wildlife. I was working on both the visitor and warden side so some days were spent talking to visitors in the reception area and pointing out various birds and wildlife they could see. Then other days I spent outside carrying out maintenance work on site, monitoring wildlife and helping with the running of the reserve. I learnt a great deal during my time from improving my wildlife I.D skills, practical skills and being able to grow in confidence with delivering talks and guided walks.
Conducting a Wetlands Bird Survey on the Dee Estuary in 2018.
 I am passionate about conservation and doing my part to protect wildlife and their habitats. I am wanting to gain further experience in the conservation field and explore different carer options. 
Searching for cetaceans in Ramsey Sound in 2017

In my spare time I enjoy going for long walks with my dog and hiking up mountains. I really enjoy challenging myself and love the feeling of being out all day. I go rock climbing which is a challenge as heights are a little scary for me but the feeling of getting to the top of a climb is amazing.I like bird watching and being out with my binoculars. I also enjoy photography, taking landscape and nature
photographs mainly but love the message that a photo can portray and how it can freeze a moment in time.
Climbing Tryfan on my birthday 2017
I am excited for the season ahead and to get stuck into the survey work. I am now a fledged tractor driver and delivering welcome talks to visitors confidently which is great experience for me to take forward into my next role. I will update on my time here and have more information on the personal project I will be undertaking during my placement.
If your still reading then well done! I'll sign off for now but thanks for reading.
Alice :)