Thursday, 3 June 2010

Shag ringing expedition

Friday was a warm, calm day with a slight breeze. Perfect for a trip over to nearby Middleholm for a spot of shag chick ringing.
We set off in the early evening after the day trip boats had finished for the day. Using our own small inflatable boat we left North Haven and stopped off at Martin's Haven to pick up Steve and Anna Sutcliffe, Wendy, Richard and Paul; our expert ringers.
Chris (the warden and taxi for the evening) dropped us off on some rocks at Middleholm and promised to be back in about two hours.

As soon as I had sat down on a rock after getting off the boat a gull pebbledashed me with droppings, all down my back and in my hair. A good start to the adventure and an inkling of what was to come over the next couple of hours.

We split into two teams and set off in different directions around the island. The island is pretty small but very steep in places and the vegetation is much springier and taller than on Skomer. This is due to the absence of rabbits on the island. After a bout of myxomatosis in the 50's all the rabbits on Middleholm died out. Skomer, only one hundred meters away across the channel wasn't as badly affected and the rabbits survived.

Following Anna, Wendy and Richard around the north side of the island we quickly came across our first shag nest. The nest was fairly substantial and built from large pieces of grass and sticks, tucked into a recess at the bottom of a small crag. The chicks backed into a corner and squawked noisily, their parent having quickly flown away.

Anna explained that the chicks would try and peck at your eyes if you were handling them so to be very careful and grip them firmly. Their sharp pointy beaks looked like they could do some damage so we kept our faces well back from them. Pecking isn't the only form of defence that the chicks employ: squirting half a pint of stinking watery poo up your arm is also pretty effective!

A few of us have our trainee ringing licenses so we were able to practise ringing the chicks under supervision. Kneeling in bird poo at the side of the nest I gently pulled the nearest chick's leg out from under it and fixed the ring about it's leg. The rings are small, metal and silver coloured with a unique code printed onto them. It takes a bit of practise to get used to applying enough force to the ring with the pliers, but after a couple of chicks I was more confident.

Some chicks were too small to ring, and some were just out of the egg. It was hard to believe that they would be large birds within a few weeks. At first they are very small and completely bald. The fluffy down develops quickly and eventually proper feathers start to sprout.

On average there were three chicks in each nest. Some nests were inaccessible, situated on cliff faces so we marked these in our notebook. Part of our work on the island was to carry out a count of nest sites. Shags will also nest in caves and cracks in the rock which can be difficult to spot. One nest was tucked away in a small hole but luckily Wendy fancied a bit of potholing and so with a bit of assistance from Richard we were able to ring the chicks.

At the end of the day we had ringed 79 chicks, and I was covered in stinky seabird poo. Chris came to pick us up and we took a quick detour on the way back to North Haven to see the raft of shearwaters out on the sea. It was an amazing sight to see so many birds at once gliding over the sea, and a lovely end to a great evening.

Amy Corton, Assistant Warden.
To find out more about bird ringing visit

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