Friday, 21 July 2017

The world of the Black-legged Kittiwake

Most people wouldn't believe it but the Black-legged Kittiwake is apparently the most common gull species in the world. I'm guessing that people are more familiar with the classic 'seagull' of seaside resorts, the Herring Gull, but there are, in fact, twice as many Kittiwakes in Britain than Herring Gulls. Those who have made a trip to Bempton or the Farnes on the east coast, one of the Scottish islands or indeed Skomer may be aware of this dainty seabird but their pelagic lifestyle and choice of breeding habitat - vertical rocky sea cliffs, often on remote coastlines and islands - take them away from the sphere of most peoples consciousness. Having said this, all is not well in the world of the Black-legged Kittiwake.

Adult Black-legged Kittiwake

Adult on nest with a day old chick
The UK currently has around 380,000 breeding pairs of Kittiwakes which is around 8% of the world population. They are red listed in the UK due to steep declines in the population since the 1980s. These declines are likely caused by low productivity coupled with low survival.

Kittiwakes need a plentiful supply of oily fish, such as sandeels, in order to raise chicks and during the non-breeding season to survive the winter and to be in good enough condition to breed again the following summer. Sandeel numbers are highly susceptible to overfishing and changes in sea temperature and a reduction in sandeel numbers, or their availability, will have a negative impact on Kittiwake breeding success. If you are interested in finding out more about the relationship between sandeel numbers and the breeding success of Kittiwakes (and Puffins) see these sites: marine-life 
and RSPB

Skomer has one of the largest Kittiwake colonies in Southern Britain and the largest in Wales. They have undergone several years of slow decline on Skomer and the 2017 total of 1,336 nests is once again a drop in numbers ( 9% less than in 2016 and 24% less than the mean of the previous ten years). Nationally, and especially in Scotland, the situation is even worse with declines of up to 15% per annum.

Work is being done on Skomer to monitor and study the Kittiwake population with the aim of identifying reasons for the decline and applying this to its conservation (although this may be very difficult given the broad scale nature of the problems involved).

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales conduct a whole island population count every year as well as productivity monitoring of a sub-set of colonies. Gloucester University undertake additional studies to look at adult survival. These studies cover population, productivity and survival but one missing link is knowing where the birds go to find food. Tracking work over the last two years by Liverpool University has started to reveal some interesting patterns. It seems that Skomer's Kittiwakes are island hoppers, feeding mostly around the local islands of Ramsey, The Bishops and Clerks, The Smalls, Grassholm and Skokholm and travel no more than 40 km from the colony on a single feeding trip. The study also revealed that the Kittiwakes prefered shallower, more vertically mixed, water, possibly due to higher resource availability in these areas. You can follow Alice Trevail and Samantha Patrick on Twitter at: @SEG_UL

All birds within the study are colour ringed to follow their life history
Threats: Climate change, warming seas, overfishing, increased storm events, pollution, mortality as bycatch, collision with offshore wind turbines.

Kittiwake nests at the Wick being battered by a storm in June 2017
Actions (taken from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species):
The species could benefit from Species Action Plans, a regional monitoring strategy and further research on the effects on climate change and prey reductions. Creating a network of hunting-free reserves in coastal areas. Monitoring of bycatch of this species through on board observer programmes, and appropriate mitigation measures implemented where necessary. Sustainably manage fisheries to prevent over-fishing.

Obviously we can all help by reducing our carbon footprint and by making sure if we eat fish we source it and, other products, sustainably but there are also other small ways in which we can help. Supporting conservation organisations and research bodies who protect and study the lives of these vulnerable seabirds will give them a helping hand. If you are a keen birder, taking part in national and regional seabird surveys as well as making sure all of your seawatching data goes to Birdtrack will also help.

Let's keep them the most abundant gull in the world.    

Reasons for hope: A recent report by the BTO states that the Kittiwake is the only seabird within the RAS (Ringing Adults for Survival) network showing a long-term increase in survival. To read the full report see

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Auk Chicks

As a seabird colony, Skomer sees a huge influx of birds in the summer, with the vast majority of the seabirds only hoping to raise one chick in the year, if everything goes well.

Adult Guillemots and Razorbills preen and bond a the beginning of the season. (Photo P. Reufsteck)


As if puffins weren’t charismatic enough, their chicks have the adorable name ‘Pufflings’. Those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time have had glimpses of these young birds coming to the entrance of their burrows to stretch their wings and build up flight muscles, before retreating below ground to await more deliveries of fish from their parents.

This brave Puffling emerged from its burrow at the wick to stretch it's wings last week, and has most likely now fledged. (Photo by one of our weekly volunteers, Allan Rose)

The rest of the pufflings journey however is a lot harder to follow, with the pufflings only finally leaving the burrow and fledging out to sea after complete darkness. If they survive their first winter, they will return next summer, after the breeding adults have already got eggs or chicks down their burrows and watch what’s going on. This social return is thought to be why Puffins are often slow to colonise new areas.

If you get a good enough look at them, or have a decent quality photo you can tell these youngsters by their slightly darker bills with fewer grooves.

If you look closely, you can see the bird in the left photo has few if any groves on its bill, compared to the bird in the right photo, which is a breeding adult.


Razorbills with a young chick. (Photo P. Reufsteck)

The first guillemot chicks hatched on the second of June and the first Razorbill on the 28th May. For both of these Auk species, chicks stay on the cliffs protected by an adult until when they only a third grown (sometimes as young as 15 days old), head out to sea. One of the adults (normally the male) goes down to the water and calls the chick, which calls back with a characteristic high pitched call, and eventually, during the evening it jumps off the cliff. This is where they get their name from. They do this before they are big enough to fly, and their wings can only slightly break their fall. If they survive the jump and make it to the water, they then have to make it to their parents before a gull makes it to them. Once safe from the immediate danger, the male will take them out to sea, where they will continue to feed it away from the dangers of life on the cliffs.

Similarly to Puffins, young birds return to the island when they are a few years old, but they generally don’t begin breeding until they are five to seven years old. Thanks to long term ringing studies like the one run by Tim Birkhead of Sheffield University, we are able to know in amazing detail the life history of some of our birds. For more information click here.

A guillemot chick on one of Skomers cliffs, being protected by an adult. this bird would probably have only stayed on the cliff a few more days before jumping. (Photo P. Reufsteck)

All being well the majority of our chicks will return to the island in a couple or three years’ time, and start breeding themselves a few years after that.

Good luck to them all!

Sarah (assistant warden)

Friday, 30 June 2017

Seabird Census 2017

Every year the seabirds on Skomer are counted, and we are pleased to announce (despite losing at least a week to poor weather!) we have recently finished this year's count. 

The seabirds we counted included: puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and great black backed gulls. We also carried out productivity and survival studies on most species to assess how well the breeding season has gone and how many birds have survived the winter. Razorbillls and fulmars were not included in the Whole Island Count as they were counted in 2016 as part of a two year rotation with guillemots. Manx shearwaters were not included in the Whole Island Count this time as they are surveyed every 10 years, although we carried out surveys at a subset of sites. This makes the count more manageable given the time frame and man power we have to carry out the census. 

Boat counts
Land counts
Getting out in some beautiful locations...

and having fun whilst doing serious work!

Many a data sheet

One of many guillemot colonies counted by boat
What did we find out? It looks like puffins are doing fantastically on Skomer, having increased from 22,539 individuals in 2016 to 25,227 this year (12% increase). This is an encouraging trend given that puffins have experienced rapid declines throughout their European range.


Guillemots are also doing well on Skomer with a 4% increase bringing the total up to around 24,665 individuals this year, compared with 23,746 in 2015. Although the global guillemot population is increasing, sharp declines in Iceland highlight the importance of monitoring these fascinating auks.

Kittiwakes, unfortunately, are not faring so well. This year we documented a 10% decline in kittiwake nests, leaving us with around 1,336 compared to 1,477 in 2016. These birds are declining throughout their range, with particularly sharp declines in Scotland which is a worrying trend for these charismatic seabirds.

Great black-backed gulls have increased slightly, with 108 nests counted in 2016 and 120 this year. This suggests the population is continuing to recover after declines between 1960-1980.

Lesser black-backed gulls continue to decline on the island and, even though there is still some number crunching to do before the final whole island population estimate can be made, the decrease is obvious.

Interestingly, cormorants appear to have relocated themselves on the south eastern corner of Middleholm after decades of breeding on the Mew Stone. As a result there were no cormorants recorded on Skomer this year but seven nests found on Middleholm.

Skomer’s shags did a similar hop over to Middleholm in the 1980s. There used to be a largish colony at an area appropriately named Shag Hole Bay on the north side of the Neck but these moved to Middlehom over a period of years, leaving only a few birds still breeding on Skomer, now mostly around the Garland Stone. A total of five nests were found (four near the Garland Stone and one on the Mew Stone) which is one less than in 2016.

At the end of the year the results (including the survival and productivity studies) will be available in the “Seabird Monitoring on Skomer Island 2017” JNCC report on the Trusts website. The data will form part of a long term and ongoing data set which will enable us to document changes in seabird populations, understand the factors influencing population changes and most importantly, help us to manage the island for the benefit of the incredible seabirds that come to breed on Skomer. 

By Hannah Meinertzhagen (seabird monitoring volunteer)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Trixie little seal

On the 29th of May, almost one month ago, we noticed a seal with an orange flipper tag in North Haven. We worked hard to read the tag and get photos so that we could find out where it came from and discover more about it.

Orange 80191
Orange 80191 was born in Devon last year so is only just over half a year old. She (yes apparently she is a female) was picked up in Salcombe late last year and was released on the 7th of February this year at Combe Martin, North Devon. The RSPCA staff that rehabilitated her named her Trixie during her stay with them in Devon. Seals move around a lot and it is not particularly surprising that a seal can make it from North Devon to South West Wales but what will be interesting is what happens to Trixie next. Where will she go now, when will she start breeding and where will she pup?

Trixie the Devonshire seal

Trixie seems to be quite a curious seal and habituated to humans. She often comes up to the boat dropping off passengers at the steps in North Haven and will swim around our little tender as we come and go from the beach. She seems to have a favorite little spot for hauling out on the western side of North Haven between the steps and the beach where she likes to watch the Puffins.

Curious seal
Trixie watching Puffins in North Haven
Hopefully the code on the tag will stand up to the wear and tear that Trixie will inevitably put it through and more can be learned about her and Grey Seals in general. If you have any sightings of Trixie or any marked seals please report them to us at

Monday, 5 June 2017

People, Puffins and Pembrokeshire Potatoes

June is the month of the "Ps" with people watching Puffins and us enjoying the new Pembrokeshire potatoes.

People: The end of May and beginning of June saw some amazing days with calm sunny weather and hundreds of people visiting the island.

photo by Pia Reufsteck
Puffins: The Puffin eggs have hatched so the adults are now bringing in fish - sometimes more or less successfully.

Pembrokeshire Potatoes: Finally the long awaited Pembrokeshire New Potatoes are ready to be harvested. Every year Treehill Farm, just up the road from Martin's Haven, kindly give us seed potatoes so that we can grow our own on Skomer and on top of that they often throw in a bag of their produce - just to make sure we don't starve over here.

...and after

Unfortunately I don't grow enough potatoes to share them with our visitors but luckily Peter and Gina Smithies from Treehill Farm do and they have a little stand next to the road between Marloes village and Martin's Haven. So go and get yourself a bag next time you are visiting Skomer!

(Skomer Warden)

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Wise owls

Our Short-eared Owls and Little Owls have never been easier to see and pretty much every single visitor to the island in the last week or so has had amazing views of either a shortie, a Little Owl, or both. Often multiple shorties can be seen at the same time, mostly hunting or heading back to young with a vole, on the ground or perched on a fence post, or sometimes circling high over the island. We reckon that eggs started hatching around the end of the first week of May and since then the activity of the adults has gone through the roof. At least four pairs of shorties are nesting this year, as well as the usual pair of Little Owls. They have become quite habituated to people, hunting and flying extremely close as they go about their business, offering fantastic photographic opportunities.

Little Owl on Micks Skomer Vole study plot markers

Can you spot the little owl?

How about now? - Little owl on one of the old walls.
Shorties providing great views for visitors, volunteers and Staff, photo by Trevor Greaves
Short Eared Owl hunting over the bluebells just in front of North Pond public hide.

People enjoying great views of owls and Skomer's other wildlife
The Short-eared Owl chicks are growing fast on a diet of Skomer Vole
It seems to be quite a good year for shorties, at least in Pembrokeshire, as Ramsey have two nesting pairs for the second year running and Skokholm have the first nesting pair in recorded history. So it's never been a better time to see these wonderful birds in the wild.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Digging up the past

Skomer Island is not only a wonderful place to see wildlife but it also the place to see an amazing array of pre-historic remains - one of the best preserved remains in Britain.

Toby Driver showing flint tools at the Harold Stone

On the 27th of April we organised a history walk and Louise Barker and Toby Driver from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales were our guides. We were very lucky that the walk went ahead as it had to be postponed the previous day due to strong northerly winds. However, the weather last Thursday was good even though there was still a rather chilly northerly breeze blowing.

The history walk participants walking through fields of Bluebells and Red Campion in the sun

Eighteen participants enjoyed walking around the island and delving into pre-history with Toby and Louise bringing the past to life: we could nearly smell the Iron Age cooking fires and hear the cattle mooing.

Pretending to be Iron Age people in the roundhouse at the Wick

One of the sites we visited was the roundhouse at the Wick. Archaeologists believe that this circular structure was once an Iron Age roundhouse, home to some of Skomer’s earliest settlers. You can still walk in through the original front door. Probably belonging to a farming family, this roundhouse would have been used for cooking, eating and sleeping, as well as providing shelter from the elements. The roundhouse sits at one end of a rectangular paddock, and is located within an extensive prehistoric field system which crosses The Wick.

While this hut is the clearest and most accessible, there are many more similar structures dotted around the island. Some are too small to have been used as homes, and are believed to have been used as storerooms instead, perhaps for crops or fuel. One theory is that some could even have been used as sweat lodges - the prehistoric versions of saunas!

Louise explaining to the guests what the team of archaeologists found at their last excavation in April 2017
In 2014 Louise and Toby's team of archaeologists started to excavate some of the remains in order to date them and to gather more information about the former inhabitants of Skomer.  

Between 5th-8th April 2017, the Skomer Island Project Team undertook another excavation on a deep field lynchet in the southern part of the island. It is hoped that charcoal and luminescence samples (by Aberystwyth University) taken from the lynchet may help to establish absolute chronological markers for key phases in the development of the Island’s fields and settlements, while further environmental sampling (by Cardiff University) will allow the more accurate reconstruction the environmental history of the island. For more information and photos of the dig see here.

(Skomer Warden)