Monday, 8 July 2013

A Day in the Life of a Skomer Field Assistant

The cliffs on Skomer are full of activity at the moment so I thought I'd take a minute to share the slightly bizarre lifestyle of the Field Assistant.  Every year one lucky individual gets the opportunity to monitor a set of study plots and assess the success of the seabirds breeding attempts.  This covers Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake and Fulmar but as the auks are just about to wrap up their season I thought I'd write bout them here and will hopefully follow up with the other birds in a few weeks when they are finishing their season:
Me in my office.

So my day starts with an early morning visit to High Cliff.  This large cliff is home to thousands of birds but I'm here to look at the Razorbills.  These stout birds lay their eggs in nooks and crannies all over the cliff face- spread out in ones and twos they try to hide away as much as possible to make it easier to defend their eggs and chicks from marauding gulls.  Earlier in the season I mapped all the visible pairs of Razorbills in this plot (and a few others) and now visit every day or two to follow their progress, noting which pairs have chicks and timing their progress to determine whether they fledge successfully and swim out to sea with their fathers or become part of the food chain which produces a nice plump gull!

Razorbills defend their cliff ledges fiercely with their large, powerful beaks.
Guillemot are very similar to the Razorbill in many ways.  They have similar colouring and also breed on rocky cliff faces.  They are much more social birds though, and gather in huge clusters of breeding birds that can grow to well over a thousand birds!  

Guillemot have to try hard to not lose eggs and chicks over the edge!
This strength in numbers does give them some protection against predatory gulls but it is not perfect.  So like with the Razorbills, I mapped several plots of these birds earlier in the year and now regularly return to check on their progress.  This is made more confusing by the proximity of the birds, and it can be very difficult to tell individuals apart (is that one No. 123 or No. 124....?).  Fortunately, every once in a while there is a colour variation referred to as bridled birds.  these birds have a vivid white eyestripe that makes them stand out from the crowd and act as waypoints for me when I am navigating the larger colonies.

A beautiful bridled bird on the water, but more useful on the cliffs...
So most of my days so far have been busy with these two species, wind or rain I am to be found sitting on cliff tops around the island with my telescope trained on distant birds.  Its an amazing way to follow the life cycle of these stunning seabirds and a great way to improve your attention span- as some birds have to be watched for half an hour or so before they reveal if they have an egg, a chick or sometimes nothing at all underneath them!  But I do get other tasks from time to time to provide some variety, however I will leave this ramble to tell you about my work on Kittiwake and Fulmar another time.

From this year's Field Assistant,
Lewis Yates

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