Monday, 19 August 2019

A day in the life of long term volunteer Issy

The light streams in through the curtains, and a gentle breeze brushes my face. I'm eased out of sleep five minutes before my 7:15 alarm. I put on some music, jump out of bed, and get ready for the day.

Outside the hut where I’m living, young swallows fill the air, some goldfinches fly over, and I feel rejuvenated. I restock the water bottles in the visitor centre, and go to have breakfast
Rob and me on 'the Neck' after finishing a rare plant survey
with Rob (the other long term volunteer), Alexa (the fieldworker), and some visiting researchers. Conversation is on a common topic - will the boats be running?! We take our coffee outside to help identify moths from the moth trap. Our identification skills are rapidly improving. Today we had an elephant hawk moth - a stunning pink creature, about 6cm long, that most people would never guess is so common in the UK

At 9:30 I walk down to the harbour for my 'morning boats' duty. I update the chalkboard (including drawing a puffin), set up the sales point and chat with the weekly volunteers about their experiences, hopes, dreams and fears. As each boat arrives, I give a 5 minute talk introducing guests to the island - pointing out the best places for wildlife sightings, trying to crack jokes, and ensuring everyone has learnt the all-important golden rule: stay on the path! I also try to convey how Skomer fits into the bigger picture of wildlife conservation - if people can leave the island with a greater love of nature, and an understanding of the importance of wildlife conservation and combatting climate, then I feel I have done my job! Giving these talks has been a great experience and my public speaking has already improved.

Helping with the daily Manx shearwater chick weigh-in
Up close with puffins: Alexa showed us her 'hidden observation spot'

No machinery allowed: cutting bracken the old traditional way
Between talks I answer questions and chat to visitors. I love doing this, especially when people (children in particular) are enthusiastic about nature! There’s a great black-backed gull trying to swallow a Manx Shearwater chick, which the guests are mesmerised by. Other days we’ve had dolphins, peregrines, and always seals, to keep us company.

The morning boats session finishes at about 12:30, and I head back to the farm (where about half the staff/volunteers/researchers live) for lunch. Our fridge broke a few days ago, so we are surviving mostly off tinned/canned food for now. This doesn't matter though - there is still plenty of food to go round!

After lunch, I head out to do a butterfly survey with Sarah-Kay, the Assistant Warden. It’s a sunny day, so perfect for butterflies. The majority of the time is spent chasing down Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers - these two species look very similar from a distance, so you have to get up close to tell them apart! We also find a Grayling, with I have never seen before. This species has a fascinating behaviour: it orientates its body directly towards to sun to minimise its shadow, perhaps to keep it cool and/or make it hard to spot by predators.

The butterfly survey is followed by a cool shower (we do have hot water, from solar panels, but it’s a hot day!). I then drive the tractor (the loveable 'trundle') down to the beach to help with the storm petrel survey. Nathan abseils down the grassy cliff and plays storm petrel calls from a handheld speaker in front of potential petrel nesting sites (crevices in the rock). We listen very carefully for a reply from a petrel. Most of them are silent, but in a few of the crevices we hear the gentle 'purring' of a storm petrel!
Skomer vole surveys with Rob and some enthusiastic overnight guests!

I cook dinner with Rob and work on my Instagram page, @climate_science, which aims to make learning about the science behind climate change fun and easy (go check it out!). I’m able to fit a fair bit of my own work around Skomer-jobs. I then head out to watch the end of the sunset from a rocky ledge. Staring into the Irish Sea, perched on rocks, with seals in the water, I'm so happy. Once its dark, I collect the data for my research project on light pollution from oil tankers in St Bride's Bay. I count the lights on the ships, photograph them for brightness analysis, and note down their GPS locations.
Rockpooling for Hidden Secrets event and identifying lots of sucker fish!
                                                                  The bright lights attract young Manx Shearwaters onto the boats, from which they struggle to take flight again. We don't know much about how this is affecting the Shearwater population, but it is likely that is causing multiple deaths each night. I hope that my quantification of the light pollution from the ships will help encourage legislation to reduce light use on these ships in the Marine Conservation Zone.

On my walk back to the farm, I'm surrounded by Manx Shearwaters. Its magical. Like most nights, there's a toad sitting just outside the door of my hut. Tonight, however, there is another toad with him - the dynamics of their relationship I am yet to find out! I settle into bed, and sleep solidly, ready for another day of adventures tomorrow.

I've had an amazing few weeks on Skomer, soaking up the wildlife, learning loads, and making great friends. I thought I'd try to give you a sense of what a day is like for me from start to finish - I hope this was insightful for some of you! I just finished my undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences, specialising in Ecology, and aim to use my career to tackle climate change. Skomer is a wonderful place for me to gain a thorough understanding of how conservation works on the ground, and I am treasuring my time here.

  Issy Key (Skomer long term volunteer)

Monday, 12 August 2019

Skomer's Hidden Secrets...

So it’s that time of year again, the puffins have gone, their breeding season over for another year and they are now heading out to recuperate at sea. The island suddenly feels quieter again and one of my favourite events of the year is the ‘Hidden Secrets’ which is one where the overnight visitors to the island get a taste of the other little gems Skomer has to offer.
Enjoying the Wick with no puffins (Photo Dan Willis)

This year 14 guests, a mix of adults and children had a ‘behind the scenes’ access to the island along with the opportunity to join us on some of our wildlife surveys. Whilst organising this event I am never really sure how many of the six or seven activities will be taken up… I wonder if folk would prefer to explore the island by themselves? I should have known better, this year (just like last year) all 14 guests took the opportunity to get involved with every activity… and this is why.

This year’s activities were… (deep breath)
1.       Rock pooling/Seashore survey at North haven
2.       Seal counting on the Garland Stone
3.       Night time Manx shearwater guided walk
4.       Moths
5.       Skomer vole survey
6.       Reptile Survey
7.       Manx shearwater chick weighing

… and all this in just two days!

Day One
Rock pooling was our first event and Rob and Issy took the guests down to North Haven beach. Usually a ‘No Access’ area as seabirds breed here and later in August this will be a site for seal pupping. There is a little window of opportunity which allows us to complete a seashore survey. I have to thank Mark and Sue Burton of the  MCZ for providing seashore guides and a selection of species we should look for. Amazingly we found 16 out of 20 species on our check list including clingfish, shore crabs, anenomes…
          What's under here I wonder?     

        Everyone getting the hang of a seashore survey      

Spot the clingfish 

One of many shore crabs on the beach 
While we were on the seashore a few guests opted for a count of hauled out seals on the Garland Stone with our fieldworker Alexa. From August we record a daily count of hauled out seals here, identifying males, females and juveniles.

Alexa showing our youngest guest seals though a telescope (Photo Anne Boyere)
It must have been hard to stay awake into the early hours after an early start this morning but I was impressed that the whole group, including the children who all managed to stay awake for the night time guided walk with one of our wardens, Sylwia. As the heaven’s opened there was perhaps an element of apprehension at the prospect of getting a real soaking. However Manx shearwaters love a wet and windy night and as the guests, red lights on, made their way through the colony they were treated to the haunting calls of thousands of manxies coming back to their burrows and the little chicks waiting for a feed.
Manx shearwater

Be careful where you stand... close encounter with a Manx shearwater 
Day Two
As impressed as I was last night with everyone staying up into the wee hours, I was even more so when everyone was up and ready by 9am the next morning to look through the moth trap with volunteer Ed... Unfortunately moths don’t tend to be out on very wet nights and there were only a few in the trap by the following morning. Still, everyone got a chance to see how we look through a moth trap and go through the fun process of identifying them.

One of the highlights of this event is that it coincides with the annual Skomer vole surveying. Dr Tim Healing has been leading this survey for nearly 50 years and we now have a very long term data set on the Skomer vole population. Skomer voles are, as the name suggests, only found on Skomer island. This really was a chance of a lifetime to see a creature that you would normally be very lucky to catch the most fleeting of glimpses. All the guests saw the voles up close and found out all about their behaviour and ecology. I was waiting at the farm as each group returned from the vole survey area with the biggest smiles on their faces… the Skomer vole does it every time!

Skomer vole... slightly larger in size than a bank vole! (Photo Sarah Parmor)
Monday was a lovely sunny day so we decided to complete a reptile survey in the afternoon. This was a chance for our guests to see some slow worms and common lizards up close. It’s great to provide areas in your garden where these reptiles can shelter. An old metal sheet on the ground provides shelter from the rain and a lovely warm place after a bit of sunshine, which they love. Simply having a compost heap is another great way to attract reptiles to your garden.

Slow worms under a reptile coversheet (Photo Jon Coen)
So, two days and six activities down, we had one more left. Saving the best for last maybe…?
This one was a real treat and many thanks to Tash from OxNav, we managed to have a sneak peak at her daily routine of weighing some of the 50 or so Manx shearwater chicks in the Skomer study burrows. Most of the chicks are about half grown but there is real variation in ages and sizes at this time of year. One chick was a week old and weighed less than 200g while another one was nearly a couple of months old and over 600g! We didn’t stay too long as we needed to leave Tash to her work but what an absolute treat and a fitting way to end the weekend.

Little manxie chick in Tash's safe hands (Photo Dan Willis)

Weighing a little manxie chick (Photo Sarah Bruch)
So all in all everyone had a wonderful couple of days. We have had some lovely feedback about the event, much of which was thanking us all for making it so special. These events only work if people are keen, interested and willing to get involved and everyone certainly did. Many of the photos I have included in this blog have been sent in by participants and I think that says it all!
I personally would like to thank the whole island team for all sharing leading the activities but particular thanks to our long term volunteers Rob, Issy and regular volunteer Ed who led the lion’s share of the activities.

Hidden Secrets 2019 Skomer team and guests 
Thank you from the Skomer team (Photo Jon Coen)
Waving goodbye to the island (Photo Jon Coen)

And if all that wasn't enough, 'Hidden Secrets' was even more special for one of the guests, as for her this island stay was a birthday treat. Charlotte Willis had her 11th birthday while on the island and her love of wildlife was palpable for all to see. So I think it’s fitting the last words should come from Charlotte… and I quote “it was the best birthday ever!”

Sarah Parmor (Skomer Visitor Officer)

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Soaking up Skomer living as a long term volunteer...

Hi Everyone
My name is Rob and I have the absolute pleasure of being one of the long-term volunteers on Skomer this summer. I’ve been here for just over three weeks and already feel very at home on this wonderful island. Do come and say hello if you’re visiting, I’m here until the end of September!

Making the most of the fabulous views from Captain Kites

And so, a little about me. I’m originally from Kent, though have been more recently living on the south coast completing a Master’s in Zoology at the university of Southampton. Four years of study in Southampton has helped to hone my interests and as a result both my dissertations focused on how animal vocalisations can suggest behavioural responses to habitat disturbance. For my Masters dissertation I lived in Belize for three months in summer 2018, working with a local Mennonite community. Acoustic recorders were used to assess how bird and bat diversity and behaviour are affected by tropical forest fragmentation.

Setting up an acoustic recorder at a field site in Belize

Whilst at Southampton, I helped found the university’s natural history society and had a short stint leading tasks for the conservation volunteer group. When I wasn’t doing that, you could usually find me playing gigs with various folk or jazz groups, or attempting to control my lanky limbs with the ballet society…

Bog management on Brownsea Island (trying to ignore the leaky waders!)

Gigging for a Fresher's event

My love of nature came largely from my local reserve, RSPB Dungeness, which I have visited for as long as I can remember with my parents. In 2017, I completed a residential volunteering placement there which was a great insight into the effect and thought that goes in to reserve management. I am also a cetacean surveyor for ORCA and work for the university on occasion leasing nature walks and assisting with field trips.
So enough about me – what’s life like on Skomer? It’s difficult to describe a ‘typical’ day, because every day is different! One key aspect is visitor engagement. This involves welcoming our day visitors to the island and helping them to enjoy all the wonderful wildlife we have here, or else moving the overnight guests in to their accommodation with the help of everyone’s favourite tractor, Trundle (for which I’m now a fully-fledged driver!) Conservation wise, I’ve been involved with butterfly, moth, bat and seabird surveys, Manx Shearwater and Puffin chick research and bird ringing efforts - to name but a little!
As part of the long-term volunteer placement, I’ll be doing a personal research project conducting surveys for a variety of species. In August, I’ll be surveying bats, moths and toads in different habitats on the island. In September, my focus will turn towards seal pup boldness. Keep an eye out for a future blog post for an update on how all this is going!

Assisting with Manx shearwater chick research led by researchers from the OxNav Group

Skomer is giving me incredible skills which will be invaluable for a future career in ecological management and research. But it’s also proving to be so much more than that. From an outside perspective, island life could seem remote or inhospitable, but apart from the lack of chocolate, it’s quite the opposite (I do miss mars bars*). Skomer has a really homely atmosphere, and all the staff and researchers have been really welcoming. The island is a beautiful place, and I feel extremely privileged to call it home this summer. I already feel fiercely proud and protective of the island – and that’s after only three weeks, so let’s see what the next 10 have in store!

We got very excited about semolina...(food is an important topic of conversation on Skomer!)

You’ve made it this far, then, congratulations on reading my ramblings. 
Cheerio for now.
*Other chocolate bars are available

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Living the island dream!

One of the most common questions I get asked by visitors to Skomer is something along the lines of “Do you actually live here?” My answer ‘Yes’ is usually followed by a “How wonderful” type comment! It certainly is wonderful and for Nathan, Sylwia, Sarah-Kay and myself, we can call Skomer our home for around nine months of the year. During that nine month’s period we will be joined by many other people for varying lengths of time. Together these groups become a well-oiled team, all with our individual roles working to run this busy reserve and maintain a complete seabird monitoring programme.

    Who is ‘Team Skomer’

2019 Skomer team

Looking for that dream job!

Long term volunteers (LTVs)

Long term volunteering on Skomer is a unique placement usually undertaken usually by those looking for careers in conservation. LTVs develop essential skills such as visitor engagement, wildlife monitoring and developing initiative vital to island living. As well as this I think I can safely say that virutally every long term volunteer falls under the Skomer spell. Their three months passes far too quickly and there is the inevitable sadness as they leave the island. We have previously introduced our first two LTVs of the season Alice and Clare, also Gemma, the seabird monitoring volunteer. The second half season LTVs Rob and Issy will post their blogs later in in the season.
This week saw the changeover between them and I know both Alice and Clare were fighting back the tears as they left on the Dale Princess. The tears and the sadness will pass but the long term love for the island will never die.
LTVs Clare Alley and Alice Cousens... Friends for life :)

Seabird LTV Gemma Haggar

Rob Knott and Issy Key (She is so strong!!)

Clare and Alice... Garland Stone at sunset 

Giving their time to Skomer

It is not an understatement to say that the smooth running of Skomer Island would fall apart if it wasn’t for the four to six weekly volunteers that give their time throughout the visitor season. With up to 250 day visitors and 16 overnight guests on the island every day the weekly vols are visitor/island interface, habitat managers, DIYers and cleaners! They do it all with a smile, enthusiasm and a passion for the island. There is no doubt that positive day visitor experiences are enhanced by the lovely interactions with weekly volunteers. After all their hard work during the day they have the evenings to explore the island at its best. It is a week where friendships are made and most volunteers return year after year for which we are very grateful.

Weekly vols sunset moment :)
Photo: Caroline Faulder (Skomer weekly volunteer)

Getting their hands dirty...

No one understands the term 'guano' more than a seabird fieldworker! The researchers here are the core of what Skomer is. Without this specific monitoring year upon year we wouldn't know how our birds are faring in a time where many seabird colonies are on the brink of extinction.
Puffins checking out the researchers!
From the left: Viv, Alexa, Daryl, Tash, Chris and Julie

Due to its nationally important seabird colonies, Skomer Island is one of only four Nature Reserves in the UK, and the only one outside of Scotland required to complete a full seabird monitoring programme.

Skomer staff and a WTSWW fieldworker (Alexa Piggot), along with a fieldworker from the University of Gloucester (Viv Hastie) complete all the seabird monitoring for the JNCC (Joint National Conservation Committee).

Skomer fieldworker adopting the recognised bird retrieval position

Between April and July there is a dedicated guillemot fieldworker (Julie Riordan) gathering data for the 47 year guillemot study started by Professor Tim Birkhead (Sheffield Uni) and now taken on by Dr Steve Votier (Exeter Uni). Long term studies like this are rare and invaluable.

A guillemot on Skomer that was ringed as part of this study in 1985 as a chick, returning to Skomer year after year and even this year was seen rearing a chick at 34 years old!

There's a razorbill under there somewhere!

Finally and by no means least the OxNav team (Joe Wynn, Tash Gillies, Daryl Mcleod, Annette Fayet, Martyna Syposz and Chris Tyson) some of whom are based on the island for most of the season carry out long term monitoring of the study colonies of Manx shearwaters and puffins at North Haven. Over the years this group, founded by Professor Tim Guilford, has been at the forefront of research into Manx shearwaters. Much of what we know about this species has been discovered by this group of researchers and we look forward to all the new discoveries in future years based on their work on Skomer. Later on in the season we will bring you more blogs on how the shearwater season has been.

Joe and Daryl from OxNav weighing a Manx shearwater...
Office with a view!
Anyone wanting to have a glimpse into the researchers world can join us on Shearwater Week in September.With just a few spaces left and one of the highlights of the event is spending time with the OxNav researchers, seeing them work and hearing a talk given by one of the group.
For more information contact the WTSWW booking office on 01656 724100

Viv Hastie monitoring puffin chicks in the study burrows at  North Haven

There really are thousands of puffins flying around at times in North haven

How is this little one growing? Viv taking a wing length measurement

A puffling... no words :)

The luckiest ones of all...?

The Skomer staff are a team of four who are based in the island from February until November. Two Wardens, an Assistant Warden and a Visitor Officer. Every week brings new challenges and changes as the wildlife comes and goes along with the people. It wouldn’t suit everyone to spend the entire season on a remote island, but we feel incredibly lucky to call Skomer our home.

2019 Staff from left: Sarah J., Sylwia, Sarah K. and Nathan moving onto the island in February...
all our worldly possessions in one boat!

  Nathan Wilkie and Sylwia Zbijewska: arrival as new wardens

The Sarah's as we are generally known!
 Feeling cold during hen harrier roost count

Can't hide those smiles :)

February on the island is less than balmy...

Our work can be anything and everything, the joys of living remotely. We have to be anything from fieldworker to plumber, event manager to cleaner. Our love of wildlife and contributing to the conservation efforts of Skomer and the WTSWW is behind everything we do.

We are already more than half way through the 2019 season and hope that the second half will be just as good as the first. The seabirds will soon disappear as their breeding season draws to a close and they head off for a well earned rest. Seal pupping season will soon be upon us and we are looking forward to seeing what that brings.

So in a nutshell that is us. Anyone with a badge or working on Skomer will be one of the above. All staff and volunteers share the visitor work and have their own stories to tell. Come and say hello and let us know about your own Skomer experience.

Sarah Parmor  (Skomer Visitor Officer)

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The story of a little guillie chick, sentiment or conservation...?

My journey into conservation has not been traditional, I have quickly learnt to ‘toughen up’ to the ups and downs of wildlife survival. I love animals and wildlife and am passionate about the job I do, the core of which is visitor engagement and promoting wildlife conservation to the visitors to Skomer. Conservationists may sometimes be accused of lacking sentiment when it comes to the harsh reality of nature. There is inevitable loss and suffering in the wild community and a conservationist’s perspective is governed by species and population concerns. Conservationists can’t worry about the individuals; some puffins lose fish to gulls, some Manx shearwaters get predated, some guillemot chicks don’t survive their ‘jump’. The overriding conservation question concerns how well these species are doing at population level

Today I chatted to a visitor as she was leaving the island having had a wonderful day and a camera full of puffin photos. We got to talking about the guillemots that were close to the boat departure area. In a five minute conversation, this lady learnt that guillemot chicks at only 3 weeks old jump from the safety of their nest site and parent protection for a life out on the ocean. By the end of the breeding season the female is exhausted and the male takes over the final stages of chick rearing. He swims with the chick out to sea away from predatory gulls and they will remain together for the next five to seven weeks. They primarily do this because being out in feeding areas where the parent doesn’t have to fly back and forth to the colony means the chick will be fed twice as much as if it had remained in the colony. It will grow fast enabling higher survival chances and eventual recruitment in to the breeding population itself and subsequent survival of the species.

Being unable to fly, these little guillemot chicks must swim to productive feeding areas and it is essential that food sources relatively close to breeding colonies remains unaffected by climate change, overfishing or pollution. Greater awareness of the serious issues our wildlife is facing is key to the movement of governments to make those difficult but necessary decisions to act now against climate change.

Therefore, this lady’s last wildlife sighting on Skomer was of a little guillemot chick close to the boat landing step. I wonder what she will take from her visit today?

So let me tell you about that little guillemot chick, which against all my natural instinct will remain nameless. 

Little guillemot chick just a few days old
It hatched on the 4th June when just brief glimpses were had of a little grey downy chick sitting tight under the brooding parent. This pair of guillemots (presumably the same pair) had failed to rear a chick to fledging age in 2018 so this year  was willing them on to succeed. Each day I checked on the chick's progress, growing steadily but sill spending most of the time being brooded and protected by the parent. At two weeks old it would regularly spend time sitting next to the parent learning the art of preening. At any sign of danger it would quickly disappear back under the adult disappearing from view. Guillemot chicks have disproportionately large feet for their body size. They will need these for all the swimming to come, but for now it makes them look totally adorable to our human eyes.

7 days old and just look at those feet!

Learning to preen at 14 days old

22 days old and the last day time view I had of the little chick

At 16 days old guillemot productivity monitoring dictates that a chick has reached a fledging age and so from this time on I spent every evening watching for the time it would 'jump'. Each night the colony was remarkably quiet with no sign of any chicks leaving. Then on the sixth night as soon as I got to the site I could sense a change from all previous nights. The little colony was alive with noise, chicks and adults calling to each other with lots of movement on the ledges. Gulls responsive to this were inevitably hanging around waiting for the opportunity of an easy meal. I saw several chicks splash into the water and just about seeing them swim straight out to sea with their fathers. The light was fading and still my little chick was still sitting tight against the female.

Then for the first time the mother jumped away from the chick to a ledge above almost appearing to cajole the little one to go. The chick at first tried to jump up towards her but soon responded to the calls of the male in the water below, calling back and flapping its little wings. Then suddenly the first jump but just to a ledge below but straight into a row of adult guillemots that began viciously pecking at the intruder. Mum straight away jumped down to protect it and created some space for the little chick to regain composure. A few seconds later the chick moved to the edge and in an instant was gone, little wings flapping and feet outstretched helping the parachute style jump down to the water...

Video of the night time sound of guillemot males calling to their chicks

I can’t actually tell you if this chick made it. By now it was almost fully dark and very difficult to make out any birds in the water. But it had survived to 22 days old, had jumped under the cover of near darkness and therefore has given itself every chance of surviving.

So today was a good day, I watched 'my' guillemot chick fledge and helped a visitor going away from her day on Skomer knowing more about guillemots that before she came… I’d like to think its ok for this conservationist to be sentimental…

Subsequent to the chick's fledging I posted a video on facebook of the chick around 14 days old with an adult that was ringed I now know this adult was the father as was not often seen with the chick during it's time on the ledge. If anyone has any photos of the guillemots in this little colony showing a ringed adult we would love to hear from you. Contact Skomer visitor officer:

Sarah Parmor (Skomer Visitor Officer)