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

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