Monday, 17 September 2018

New Wardens - Sylwia and Nathan

Our Arrival


We made it! The journey to our new island began with a nervous wait for a weather window to leave our previous island, the Calf of Man, which was a sad moment . It was also filled with excitement of what lay ahead on the new island - Skomer! As it is often the case on islands at this time of year, we were at the mercy of the weather again, which is one of the many appeals of island life - being connected to the natural world and day to day weather changes. Northerly winds meant we could not sail to Skomer on our planned day, which resulted in us staying on the mainland for 3 days. This gave us a chance to see a bit of the lovely Pembrokeshire and also meet some of the people associated with Skomer. We were very generously welcomed into their home by Anna and Steve Sutcliffe, it was fantastic to hear stories from their experience as Wardens from 1986 to 1994. They showed us some picturesque places such as Marloes Sands. We were even able to assist Anna with her bat surveys. We have also had enough time to try food and cakes in some of the local places like Dale, explored the countryside on the bicycles and went bird watching (obviously!). Pembrokeshire is absolutely sensational!

The day of our arrival was very nice and warm, which made the travel easier and much more enjoyable! It was lovely to meet some of the Dale Sailing crew.

So Who Are We

Nathan Wilkie - My home town is Dover, where some of you may have passed through when getting the ferry to France. Before moving to Skomer I was on a similarly sized island called the Calf of Man. I thoroughly enjoyed my role as Estate Warden on the fantastic island. Like Skomer, the Calf is an important island for seabirds, although there are not quite as many Manx Shearwaters - the 316,000 pairs here is quite a change from approximately 400 pairs on the Calf! The estimated 400 pairs on the Calf is a conservation success story however, with the species, that was named due to the colony on this small island off the coast of the Isle of Man, now recovering following a rat eradication in the winter of 2011/12. The Calf is also an important island for migrant birds and is home to a bird observatory, I was lucky to see and ring some fantastic birds. My highlight species include: Red-footed Falcon, Melodious Warbler, Sub-alpine Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Hen Harrier, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Cuckoo, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Hooded Crow, Chough... Ok I will stop listing now!
I have also been lucky to work on the Farne Islands and Mingulay Island in the Outer Hebrides - I like islands! Like Skomer these are also spectacular islands that are very important to seabirds and Grey Seals.
I have also lead research projects on butterflies in Indonesia, Madagascar and Romania - I like rain-forests, wildflower meadows and butterflies too!
Excluding a very short term contract as an Assistant Ecological Consultant, monitoring Great Crested Newts and bats, my first paid job was protecting Little Terns, on a Northumberland beach called the Long Nanny. The UK's second rarest seabird needs protecting from a wide array of threats, such as: Badgers, Foxes, Stoats, Kestrels, Crows, human and dog disturbance and the tide. This was a very rewarding job, with a recently unheard of 45 chicks fledged - I like Little Terns!
As is often the case in this career I have also done lots of volunteering, which includes a combined 13 months of residential volunteering at RSPB Minsmere and Saltholme, which I thoroughly enjoyed and gained a lot from.
Oh and I also studied Geography at Portsmouth University.
Ok that's probably enough about me! You'll just have to come and visit Skomer if you want to find out more!

The Calf's tractor is a bit smaller than Skomer's

 This splendid Red-footed Falcon hanged around for a few days on the Calf of Man
The Farne Islands has a few birds too!
One of the many cliffs Nathan tried to not fall off while monitoring seabirds on Mingulay
Little Tern nest scrapes raised into fish boxes to protect them from the tides at the Long Nanny

Sylwia Zbijewska - I come from Poland and that is where I grew up and went to school. I moved to the UK in 2009 to initially earn some money over summer and then to go back to study journalism in a city called Wroclaw. Plans have only slightly changed and it's been 9 years since!
I studied at Manchester Metropolitan University between 2010 and 2016 where I got a foundation degree in Geography, degree in Wildlife Biology and a master's degree in Conservation Biology. During my studies, I carried out some very interesting field projects on invertebrates, butterflies, dung beetles and birds in Caer Llan, Lisbon, Bialowieza Forest, Cheshire and a lab based project on bumblebees. I have also worked full time in various non-related to my interests jobs to make a living. After completing my higher education, I was offered the Image Analyst position at aquatic environmental consultancy APEM in Stockport. I will miss the ornithology team and our daily lunch walks and Friday pub evenings.
I have been a ringer since October 2016 (South Manchester Ringing Group). However, this year I mostly ringed on the Calf of Man, where I volunteered as an assistant warden. Calf of Man has a special place in my heart. I genuinely love that island for its beauty and charm. I love its landscapes, wildlife and bird migration. COM is also the island where I met fabulous people and made some lifelong friendships!
I have also worked as a research assistant mist-netting in Danum Valley – Borneo and volunteered at one of the UG's Bird Migration Research Stations for the Operation Baltic project (Gdansk, Poland) in October 2017. 
Being close to nature is what empowers me. Being able to work, care for the natural world, share the knowledge about wildlife with others and learn from them is what brings me joy. People and nature are my source of inspiration.
''Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness''. 
The world is changing now and we need to use all our power to continue to protect nature, resources and live our lives respecting each other and our home Earth.

A very powerful Black Woodpecker - Operation Baltic, Bukowo
Another spectacular bird Long-eared Owl - Operation Baltic, Bukowo
Posing with an Oystercatcher on the Calf of Man

Experiencing the smelly side of ringing Eiders on the Calf of Man
Unique Bornean flora

Our First 2 Weeks on Skomer - The team has really welcomed us and made us feel at home already. We are especially grateful to Bee and Ed for staying on Skomer until the end of the season so that they can pass on as much knowledge as they can from what they have learnt during 6 years of essentially living and working here.

We have been spending time familiarising ourselves with the island and some of the tasks that are undertaken on Skomer. One of our most memorable experiences so far has to be assisting Martyna and Joe from OxNav with their research on Manx Shearwaters and their migration, which entailed following the direction the chicks fly the very first moment they fledge! It has also been great to meet some of the Weekly Volunteers who regularly volunteer on Skomer. Another highlight is the first meal we shared with the entire team at the Farm and delicious meals we have shared with Ed and Bee in the Warden's house, particularly southern German dish called Spaetzle - We like trying new things! What is more, Skomer has already spoilt us with excellent views of Bonelli's Warbler!

Sylwia assisting with Manx Shearwater chick weighing
A Short-eared Owl was a welcome addition to Ed's talk to a group of students from France
Joe's talk on his research on Manx Shearwater migration was very interesting
A very showy Bonelli's Warbler

Monday, 10 September 2018

The Assistant Unit

An improbability of puffins!

Hello! I’m Harriet and I am the second long-term volunteer for this half of the season.  In my non-island life I am a student at Lancaster University studying Environmental Science.  I’ve been coming to Skomer for the past three years as a weekly volunteer but this year I decided that one week at a time was just not enough and the summer between the second and third year of my degree seemed like the ideal time to be a long-term volunteer.

I have introduced the fun fact of the day to the end of bird log and so far everyone’s favourite has been that the collective noun for a group of puffins is an improbability.  This is certainly appropriate for Skomer now as a group of Puffins is highly improbable!  I arrived to thousands of puffins and now the Wick is deserted and the seals are taking over.  Other fun facts have featured fulmars, grey seals, slow worms, kittiwakes, shore clingfish, wryneck and marsh harriers and I take requests for specific themes.

Ignore the puffin- look at the plant below it!
 Aside from helping welcome visitors to the island I am conducting my own research project on the soils of Skomer Island and this work will form the basis of my undergraduate dissertation.  I am looking at the effects of burrowing and ground-nesting seabirds on the soil nutrient status.  My project involves sampling soils from three colonies around the island and measuring their pH, nitrate, phosphate and electrical conductivity (which indicates salt content).   Soil nutrient status and salinity influences vegetation and this is illustrated in the above photo as the plant in the foreground is Atriplex prostrata, which is a salt-tolerant nitrophile and therefore grows in saline, nitrate-enriched soils.  In this way, the seabirds may be influencing the soil type and, in turn, the vegetation - which has implications for the whole island ecosystem. 

So far I have found that the soils are quite acidic, with very high nitrate concentrations.  This is most likely because both feathers and seabird guano are high in nitrogen.  The soils of Skomer Head have an average nitrate concentration 1.9 times greater than the samples of the mainland on the deer park at Martin’s Haven despite the fact that these soils are considered to be of the same type.  I am currently processing my phosphate measurements at the moment so watch this space!

In order to conduct this project without acess to a lab, I had to alter my methods to allow air drying the samples. It has helped me that this year has been so dry!

pH testing my samples...

When I am not sampling and probing soils I have been lucky enough to help with other ongoing research projects on the island.  My favourites have been ringing storm petrels and Shearwater chicks to monitor the long-term productivity and behaviour of the species. 

Helping with Manx Shearwater chick ringing!

It’s the beginning of the seal pup season now and with most of the ringing completed I am excited to help with the seal monitoring.  A few weeks ago all the island staff undertook ropes access training to enable us to safely access all the cliff tops and remote beaches to monitor the success of the seal pups around the island.  This monitoring will continue over the coming weeks and get busier as more pups are born until there may be up to 100 pups being monitored at once!

In training...!

In action!

For anyone that hasn’t been lucky enough to stay over on Skomer and watch the sunset over the farm or the Garland Stone, I would like to share a time-lapse of the sunset over the farm which I took a few weeks ago.  This is just a 36-second summary of an evening on Skomer and if you would like to experience this for yourself then I would recommend booking to stay with the hostel bookings opening on the 1st of October for members.  Keep an eye on the website for more details.

 A lot of people have asked me what my favourite part of this position is and I have found this really difficult to answer.  As much as I love the natural world and everything Skomer has to offer, my favourite part of my time here has been the people.  From the island staff, to the researchers, to the research assistants, to the weekly volunteers, to the hostel guests, to the day visitors, to the bird-log digitisers, to the work party volunteers, it’s all the people I have met during my time here that have made it really special.  You have been incredible and I have learnt so much from you all, so thank you!

Harriet a.k.a The Assistant UNIT.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

A Wick-ed Clean Up Operation!

It’s been three and a half weeks in the planning, but today, we made it into the wick to do a clean-up.
This was only possible with cooperation with the lovely folk at the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). After waiting for the kittiwakes to fledge their nest, we kept in contact with the MCZ and had to fit planning the clean in around weather, as any westerlies would result in large swell in the wick which would make it impossible to go ahead. We then had to fit around Skalmey (the MCZ’s boat) having her annual service, and around both the MCZ and our own work and projects.
Heading out on Skalmey
 At one point I didn’t think it would happen, but yesterday I rang up and things looked good. Then this morning it was all stations go. At midday, the MCZ picked up myself (Sarah-Kay aka Tall Sarah), Sarah J (Small Sarah), Harriet and Ellie (Long Term Volunteers). We joined three of the MCZ staff (and one son of an MCZ staff!) and headed round to the Wick. Once there, a few of us came ashore in the dingy, and a few swam in in dry suits.
Plastic bottles strewn across the beach
Once ashore, we began. The first things we reached were mostly rope and plastic bottles, but once we made it up to the top of the beach, we started collecting more and more fishing buoys.
Amoungst the large amounst of drift wood, parts of a wheely bin.
We found a large number of shoes, with 7 of us picking, and each of us picked up at least 4 shoes. I found a pair of almost unused wellies, at least 1 walking boot, 3 trainers, 4 crocks, and at least a dozen shoe insoles.
One of the stranger items- a My Little Pony (?!)
Getting Tyred of how many Buoys there are!
This Manxie's body is caught up in a fishing net. We cannot know if it became entangled before or after the birds death.
The team, picking away in the cave
We strung up buoys onto ropes and swam them back out to the boat, and bags of rubbish were rowed back out. After a little over an hour of picking we ran out of bags, and the tide was dropping meaning we had to carry the rubbish further down the beach, over slippery rocks, and then take them further out to the boat, floating out of the way of the large rocks, and we had other duties to attend to. The MCZ team had some inter-tidal surveys to complete, and the Skomer team had seal caves to check for pups.
Carrying everything down the beach
It slightly broke my heart to leave what we did, and just look at all the firewood! but we've vowwed to come back again next year, at high tide and collect up anything else that has washed up, and dig a little deeper into the debris.

What we have collected will be left on Skalmey for the next day or two, and on Sunday we will unload the boat and do a full count of the amount we collected, but I did a rough count on the boat and we think we collected at least 17 large bags of litter, mostly plastic bottles and rope, foam, polystyrene, shoes, and other random items. In addition to these bags were many buoys, large sections of rope, and other awkward items, such as most of a wheely bin. 
 While some items were strange and surprising, but the vast majority was just plastic bottles, and fishing gear.
For just an hour or so, it's a lot of stuff!
 On Skomer we are all too aware of the damage that abandoned or lost fishing gear can cause, bycatch of seabirds, and most upsettingly at this time of year, entangled seals.

A Huge thank you to the entire Skomer Marine Conservation Zone team for all that they do, and for making this possible.
All Photos by Harriet Sleight.
I will update in the next few days when we've unloaded the boat and have a better idea of the numbers!
Sarah-Kay (Assistant Warden, aka Tall Sarah) x