Thursday 29 May 2014

My first weeks as Long Term Volunteer on Skomer Island

Hello! I’m Catherine and I’m the long term conservation volunteer here on Skomer Island. My season began slightly later than planned so I only arrived two weeks ago, but I am already fully settled into island life and will be here until the beginning of July.

I think I should begin by talking about the blind panic I was in as I reached the boat landing with my four large plastic boxes of food. I was sure I was going to have to carry them up the steps by myself and furthermore be judged by the amount I had brought... Instead, everyone was very helpful in helping to carry the load and I was welcomed like a hero into my shared kitchen for bringing in fresh fruit and veg!

My food rations for the next month
I am sharing the kitchen with three researchers and the other long term volunteer. Everyone was very welcoming and after being shown where my study plot for the razorbills and guillemots was by one of the researchers, I was able to roam freely around the island for the afternoon. In the evening, everyone got involved in the cooking and we all ate together around the kitchen table. This is the norm and whoever gets in first makes a start on dinner. The same goes for bread (and we eat a lot of it!) Having never really made bread before, I seem to be okay at it and actually quite like spending time kneading the dough- it’s almost like a stress reliever! I did think perhaps that living on an island would be slightly like a slimming boot camp, but since I’ve been here I’ve been treated to lots of tasty treats including lemon cake, teacake and flapjacks! Yum!

From my first day here onwards, I have been spending a large proportion of my day at Bull Hole, where I sit with a telescope and survey a razorbill and guillemot colony to monitor their breeding success. I get so excited when I catch a glimpse of one of their turquoise coloured eggs that I do sometimes talk to myself (a habit I have noticed increasingly since living on an island!) Alastair was with me for the first few days to help, as looking at a cliff face through a telescope can be quite daunting. Every day it gets a little bit easier though as you start to recognise different rock shapes and get the feel for it. There is also a little hide at Bull Hole that is handy in bad weather, although my time here so far has been blessed by beautiful weather! Saying that, there was one afternoon where Alastair and I took shelter in there from a heavy thunderstorm and it was precarious to say the least!

Monitoring Razorbills and Guillemots at Bull Hole for the JNCC
Other things I have been getting involved in include giving introductory talks to day visitors and assisting the wardens with gull counts (walking through lesser black backed colonies in a line to spot nests- miraculously no one got pooed on!) I also got the opportunity to go across to Skokholm Island on the Zodiac on one of the sunniest days so far. This was immense fun as we splashed our way across the water. We were able to have fifteen minutes to quickly explore the island and I would love to go back there to spend an whole afternoon. Soon I will be starting a side project on moths, where I will be comparing the bracken vegetation with the thrift vegetation on the coastal cliffs to see what species appear where. But I will save that for a later post!
My entry into the Puffin photographic competition

My neighbours at Bull Hole: Marcy and Marvin, the Greater Black-backed Gull chicks
Skomer Island is truly a breath-taking place; the bluebells, the noisy seabird colonies, the salty air, the sunsets, the illusive seals and cetaceans that you catch a glimpse of... I feel so lucky to be spending two months on this tranquil island and can’t wait to see what else is in store! Bye for now...

Catherine Blower, Long Term Volunteer

Tuesday 27 May 2014

As promised, here is a short video of yesterdays Blyth's Reed Warbler singing. Turn up the volume to hear it well! And please ignore the chatting in the background!

(Video courtesy of Jason Moss)

Sunday 25 May 2014

Bank Holiday

May is nearly over and we are approaching peak season for visitors to Skomer. For the next two months Puffins will be in focus (or out of focus depending on what lens you brought with you) along with our Guillemots and Razorbills. The island, it's birds, it's wildlife and it's residents are moving into top gear.

But we really shouldn't forget all the other birds and wildlife that are raising young on the island. Oystercatchers have been aggressively defending their chicks, alarmed by any gulls that come too close. Dunnocks, Wrens and Wheatears have chicks in their nests, some have fledged already. We've even seen a fledged Short-eared Owl gliding behind it's parents, learning the art of silent hunting. Ravens have fledged. Chough won't be far behind, and soon the island's gull colonies will be crying with the sounds of chicks. It's quite amazing to think that these birds can raise their young so quickly yet our Manx Shearwaters, already incubating eggs in their burrows, will still be feeding chicks into late August. the Manx chicks will only wriggle from their burrows to meet the world well after all the other islands birds have been on the wing for a month or two.

Meanwhile staff and volunteers are settling into the daily routines of welcoming visitors to the island, explaining the work of the Wildlife Trust to our visitors and setting them off to explore Skomer. The Dale Princess slides over Jack Sound, fighting the tugging tidal flows to drop off visitors. They arrive puffing with anticipation at the top of the steps.

After the recent sighting of the Black-headed Bunting, the number of birders visiting the island soared (yes another bird related metaphor...). Photos were put on Twitter, and the Rare Bird Network helped spread the word. It's amazing how quickly news spreads through the birding world these days.

So far the Whitsun weekend has proved a bit damp and dreary, but it wouldn't be a British Bank Holiday without some rain. Monday looks set to be sunny and we expect a busy week for visitors. The team will be out on patrol around the site answering questions and explaining the amazing lives of our seabirds. For us, our love affair with Skomer continues, and we hope to spend our time this week making you fall in love with this island too.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Black-headed Bunting

As reported on in our last blog post, May is the time for spring migration and yesterday there was another bird on Skomer who's breeding grounds lay somewhere way to the south east of here, possibly no closer than Italy. There were also three Red Kites yesterday.

It was another very difficult to identify species but we think it is a Black-headed Bunting, who's close relative, the Red-headed Bunting, it sometimes interbreeds with. Adult males in breeding plumage are striking with a black head, reddish back and yellow underparts but females and young birds are much more tricky. I wont go into too much detail but it has a slightly darker patch behind its eye (ear coverts), streaking on the head, very yellow underparts and quite a long bill. It is quite muted generally which might indicate a young female (approx. 1 year old). Jason (Assistant Warden), who found the bird, has experience of the species from The Farne Islands, on the east coast, but this is a new bird for me, so if anyone can add to the debate please feel free.

Female Black-headed Bunting

The lack of 'warm' red-brown tones in the upper parts possibly indicate a young bird   

Some crown and mantle (back) streaking is visible in this photo

All pictures Black-headed Bunting, Edward Stubbings

Eddie Stubbings, Skomer Warden

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Spring migrants

A lot is going on in May and as well as the hubbub of a huge seabird colony migrants are very much on the move. As well as being a safe haven for breeding seabirds, Skomer is also an important stop over for some passage migrants (birds coming and going from wintering grounds, normally further south). On the 15th of May there was a Yellow Wagtail at Moorey Mere which is part of a complex group of birds comprising several different subspecies. Identification is not easy but it was probably part of a 'southern' group of wagtails which 'overshot' it's breeding grounds.

'Southern' Yellow Wagtail

The right side of the bird showed less of a stripe above the eye (the supercilium) which may complicate the identification of this bird even more
The next day a Black Kite flew over North Valley. It circled over the farm and, probably because it was something new, all the gulls and waders mobbed and chased it. Within 10 minutes it had drifted back off east and our sighting was over.

Black Kite being mobbed by oystercatchers and gulls

Between the 16th and the 20th we have also seen a Blue-headed Yellow Wagtail (like the above but not quite as rare), a female Ring Ouzel, a female Black Redstart and at least two Turtle Doves as well as a Whinchat, Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Reed Warblers, Blackcaps and lots of Swifts and Swallows.

Some of our breeding seabirds also migrate and today we found a dead Lesser Black-backed Gull that had been ringed, probably on, or near it's wintering grounds in Spain.

Eddie Stubbings, Skomer Warden

Sunday 11 May 2014

Meet our Guillemot Researchers

Last winter wreaked havoc on our seabirds. The storms wrecked tens of thousands of Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills along the coasts of Britain and mainland Europe. Losses have been high across the board, and 2014 was set up to be an important year for the ongoing seabird research on Skomer Island. Then the funding was cut. The Wildlife Trust immediately responded with the Save Our Seabirds Campaign which asked you to help fill the funding gap and ensure that 40 years of continuous seabird studies carries on to shed some light on the effects of the winter storms on our breeding birds.
pic: Dave Boyle

The recent visit from Gordon Buchanan of Springwatch will no doubt raise awareness of the work on Skomer and of the plight of our seabirds, especially the Guillemot. But we thought that our supporters might be interested in what the research involves, who does it, and how. So we caught up with some of our international team of researchers currently living on the island.

Professor Tim Birkhead is one of the leading figures in British ornithology and avian biology. He has been involved in Guillemot research on Skomer since 1972 when, as a postgraduate, he took a job studying the population for the Nature Conservancy Council. After a population high of 100,000 in the early 1930s, the Guillemot population on Skomer had crashed to just 2000, and Tim was spending hours watching, ringing and studying productivity in the hope of finding the cause of this change.

By the 1980s the Guillemot population was on the rise and Tim set up a yearly study through Sheffield University to monitor the Skomer population. We have one of the only increasing populations in Britain. While the dramatic decline of Guillemots in Scotland and the North East of England has been linked to losses of sand eels and changes in fishing practices, Skomer’s Guillemots feed largely on sprats which remain abundant. Despite it’s apparent prosperity, Tim is always quick to point out that more levels of legal and physical protection are needed for Skomer’s bird population. While more research is vital to shedding light on the complex interaction of seabirds, fish stocks and the marine environment so that we can safeguard our Guillemots from the fate of their North Sea cousins.

Working on her Phd, Elspeth Kenny is studying the fascinating social interactions of Guillemots under Tim’s supervision. Guillemots breed in some of the densest colonies of any bird, sometimes up to 70 in a square metre. This affords them some protection from predators, but also has the potential to cause lots of squabbles between the birds during the hectic time before eggs are laid. Social rules are needed to maintain a dense and therefore safe and productive colony, and to make sure the birds keep their breeding site from being taken over by other birds. It seems the social life of Guillemots is a lot more complicated than it might appear, as they nest next to their neighbours nearly every year of their 20 year life. One of the behaviours being studied is allo-preening, the act of preening one’s neighbours which helps to forge the strong bonds between a Guillemot, it’s partner and it’s neighbours. The birds may well be as faithful to their friends as they are their ledges.

So Elspeth wakes early every day and walks to her study site. Her custom built bird hide was constructed with the help of one of our volunteers, Howard, a retired carpenter. Built in a workshop, and designed to be clipped together with no screws on site, the hide was a piece of flat packed engineering that would have had Ikea’s design team turning green with envy. Now rooted to a rocky ledge, much like the Guillemots, it allows Elspeth a unique view into the private life of our birds, and will be her home from home for the next three years.

Julie Riordan comes from Australia. I think it’s fair to say that for the first month on Skomer she was constantly cold. Spring has finally forced the damp winters’ air from the old farm buildings where the researchers stay, and Julie is busy everyday now, monitoring the productivity of the Guillemots at various study sites around the island. While Elspeth’s role is to get know a few pairs of Guillemots relationships intimately, Julie has a wider remit, monitoring population levels and taking the down the details of any ringed birds. The BTO had large numbers of dead ringed birds reported (the highest level of ring re-sightings of Skomer birds since the study began) over the winter, a large proportion of which were female. How this will impact the overall productivity of the seabirds after their stressful winter is one of the questions Julie’s research hopes to answer. Once the Guillemots chicks have all leaped faithfully into the sea after their parents, Julie will also be taking flight, back to Australia.

Eslpeth's twitter feed
Petition to reinstate funding
Save Our Seabirds