Thursday 24 May 2018

One hard earned Alpine Swift

Ted and I made our annual pilgrimage to Skomer between the 17th- 20th May to count and map the LBB’s (Lesser Black-backed Gulls), something I have done for many years now, and Ted for the last five.

Mike and Ted Wallen (front left and right respectively)
On the journey down Ted and I spoke again about how amazing it would be to see a certain bird at The Garland Stone, a conversation we have had a few times over the last few years, knowing it was just a dream ………….
The first task of the day however was to move 3 tonnes of sand/gravel up the steps, but with incredible staff on the island, Dale sailing and volunteers from elsewhere, somehow we managed, although some of us were a little worse for wear by the end of it!

140 'innocent' looking bags of grit. Believe you me they weren't that innocent when we were getting them up the steps 
We were then greeted by the islands wonderful wardens - Ed and Bee and more wonderful staff, assistants, volunteers, researchers, all making Skomer such a special place.
Soon we were onto the counting- this involves covering the whole island and counting LBB’s on nests, or birds about to nest, not gulls just standing around (as the photo). These are called the eye-counts, then later more accurate counts are carried out in certain colonies to establish the population of the whole island. The LBB’s on Skomer are of the race ‘graellsii’, which is in decline and of conservation concern.
Lesser Black-backed Gull 'just standing'

After a couple of hours Ted found a really good bird, whilst I was counting he did a quick sea watch and found a Pomarine Skua complete with spoons which I watched through my bins.
As we moved around it was very obvious that the island’s seabirds were in full swing, with first eggs being laid amongst the auks, gull chicks hatching and Kittiwakes nest building. Many of the latter visiting Moorey Mere (a small pond) to collect mud/vegetation, although after they’ve had a wash straight after they’ve collected some not a huge amount gets back to the nest. It is clear that some birds seem to go for much bigger beakfulls ……
Kittiwake collecting nest material from Moorey Mere

The next couple of days saw the counting continue in beautiful weather and light winds- winds from the right direction!
We saw the very elusive Black Redstart which appeared to have missed its chance of competing at the Winter Olympics-
Eddie the Eagle!

Tim Birkhead found a lovely male Whinchat which much of the island enjoyed and the large numbers of Short-eared Owls kept everyone happy, especially the photographers –
A smart, and showy, male Whinchat near the Farm
One of the even more showy Short-eared Owls

It was Saturday 19th when things really kicked off –
Early morning Ed and Bee found 2 Spoonbills heading north off of the north coast, now Spoonbills are one of Ted’s favourite birds, but by the time we got on them, it was a white blob heading for Ramsey, not brilliant, but the feeling in the air was that the day was young.
By mid-morning a flock of 8 Chough thermalling near the farm were suddenly joined by 4 Red Kites, in 33 years of visits I’d never seen Red Kite, I was very happy. After lunch Ted and I went to the north coast, specifically to The Garland Stone, our favourite place on the island, actually its our favourite place on planet earth, before we continued counting along the north side of the island. Ted and I were about 12ft apart, staring out to sea and along the cliffs checking through hirundines (Swallows and martins), we were about to move to the count point but we decided to stay for five more minutes, what a wise decision. All of a sudden a large bird flashed through, literally between us, as we both jumped up uttering the unbelievable words ‘ALPINE SWIFT’. It turned and flew straight at us, passing us at about 25ft!! Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for this moment- it was the bird we had spoken about for at least 3 years, at the exact location, it was unbelievable, totally unbelievable, it was literally a dream come true.
Bins were flying, camera’s were clicking as the bird whizzed around and then went east. I rang Ed and Sarah to get the news out. After a short while Ted said he’d got it again, I looked at the bird circling about a mile off the north coast - well out to sea and said, ‘no Ted that’s a Peregrine’, only for it to accelerate towards the island and indeed show itself as ‘Alpi’. Quite how Ted picked this up I’ll never know. By now Ed and Sarah had seen it and other birders on the island were trying to twitch it!

33 years in the waiting and probably one of the hardest earned birds of all time

We saw it four times in about an hour and then we lost it. We had to carry on counting so worked our way to the next point on the north coast, after about 15 minutes I heard Ted say ‘Spoonbill’, I thought he was saying something about the morning’s birds when I saw him grabbing for his camera, I looked up to see a Spoonbill coming in-off the sea, 50 ft above us !!!!!!
A Spoonbill which flew in off the sea during the afternnoon of the 19th May

This was crazy stuff. We took pics as it came in, and then I got on the phone to Ed, this is when it got even more crazy, as we watched the Spoony heading towards north pond I was talking to Ed, giving him directions, when I was suddenly uttering the words ‘ Oh my God, the Alpine Swift has just flown through my bins’, I’m really not sure if I was making much sense at this point, we had an Alpine Swift and a Spoonbill in the same binocular view- incredible stuff.
The Alpine Swift moved West and then dived over the cliff towards Bull Hole (never to be seen again), the Spoonbill decided against the pond and flew south.
This was simply the most exciting hour or so of birding I’ve ever experienced, something I will never ever forget.
The next morning was the last for us, we were still running on adrenaline from the day before but needed to finish the counts. We were almost finished, but the island had one more trick up it’s sleeve-  Ed rang from the CES ringing site to say they’d just trapped a Subalpine Warbler. We dropped all our stuff near North Haven, ran to the ringing site, saw the warbler as it was being processed and then ran back for the boat.
So we missed completing the final count that we were going to do, but sometimes the rares win the day.
The Swift was the first on the island in 50 years!!
What a fantastic few days, the likes of which I’m sure we will never repeat.
Mike + Ted Wallen
All pictures by Mike and Ted Wallen

Monday 14 May 2018

Manxies moving in?

Manx shearwaters (manxies) may not be as well known as the popular puffins but on a global scale they are probably the most important species on Skomer. They are a true seabird, distantly related to the albatross and only come to land to breed, where they nest in underground burrows. They have evolved to spend their lives out on the ocean with their legs positioned far back on their bodies, perfect for diving and swimming. They find it difficult to walk on land and shuffle ungainly around on their bellies. For this reason they only breed successfully on islands free from land predators such as rats, stoats and cats. Even here they are extremely vulnerable to predation by gulls. They are therefore far more elusive than puffins and only come to land to access their burrows under cover of darkness.

This year we will be completing a full island Manx shearwater census, last undertaken in 2011. Staff and specially recruited volunteers will be working hard throughout June to gather this data. Given that at the last census there were over 316,000 pairs this will be a major undertaking. This figure represents just under 50% of the world’s population of Manx shearwaters and therefore Skomer is vitally important to the continued success of the manxie.

Part of the process of protecting the shearwaters requires monitoring and long term survey work has been undertaken by researchers from Oxford University for many years. This has produced vital information regarding their migration routes, foraging strategies and breeding success.
This year we have decided to build and install some artificial nest boxes. This way the birds can be accessed to ring and weigh which is all vital to determining breeding success and adult survival. Our neighbours on Ramsey Island have had success with their nest box colony installed in 2015 and we are keen to see if the same will happen here.

Weighing manx shearwater chicks to monitor their progress

Manx shearwater chick in a nest box on Ramsey Island 2017

Staff and volunteers on Skomer constructed the boxes on the island and they were installed by digging them into the ground which acts as a nesting chamber, curved drain pipe was used to mimic the tunnels. This design has been used successfully for another shearwater species (Hutton’s shearwaters) in New Zealand and Ramsey Island copied this design for their Manx shearwater boxes.

Drainpipe mimics burrow tunnel

Nestbox and tunnel entrance

The whole Skomer team got involved digging in boxes

The boxes have been dug into an area close to the warden’s house in North Haven, a naturally dense shearwater colony where we hope that young birds prospecting for a nesting burrow will take a liking to one of the nest boxes. We check these boxes regularly and will keep you informed of how they fare this year. Hopefully if we get any birds in the boxes we will install a camera so that we can monitor how they are doing.

For now we have a camera in an established burrow where a pair of shearwaters have returned to breed. Live pictures from this burrow are being streamed and can be viewed in Lockley Lodge. So if you are visiting Skomer this season, be sure to stop off at the Lodge and see how they are doing.

Manx shearwater in "burrow cam" burrow

Some amazing Manx shearwater facts
  • 90% of the world’s population of Manx shearwaters breed around UK islands. 50% of these breed on the Pembrokeshire islands.
  • Manx shearwaters can live beyond 50 years of age. The oldest known bird was a female that bred on Bardsey Island. She was ringed as an adult in 1957 she was last seen in 2008 and so would have been at least 53 years of age.
  • Manxie pairs separate over winter but return to the same burrow and the same partner every year.
  • Manxies migrate from their breeding grounds around the UK to the Southern hemisphere off the Argentinian coast (8,000 miles) then return to the UK the following year. They may travel up to the equivalent of to the moon and back ten times in their lifetime.
  • Manxies lay only one egg but this is relatively large weighing up to 15% of the adult. After feeding their chick for around 6 weeks the adults leave for Argentina. The chick will emerge from the burrow around a week to ten days later and then leave land to follow a similar route taken by the adults to South America. They won’t touch land until they are two years of age and very often will return to an area very close to the burrow they were reared in.

All these are some of the reasons why Manx shearwaters continue to be one of my favourite birds. I feel privileged to live on Skomer where I only have to step outside my door to hear and see thousands of them coming and going every night.
Anyone wishing to enjoy this experience can do so by booking to stay overnight in our hostel accommodation on Skomer. We are also hosting a “Shearwater week” event form 2nd September to 10th September. This event will include talks by researchers, night walks and chick weighing as part of the experience. Please contact the booking office 01656 724100 for more information.

Sarah J., aka Small Sarah, aka Parmor!
Skomer Visitor Officer

Monday 7 May 2018

From Indonesia to Skomer. The words of a Pembrokeshire lad.

Hi, my name is Tom Lloyd and I’m one of the new Long-Term Volunteers (LTVs) here on Skomer Island. I’ve been here for just over a month now and while there has been a lot to learn and many changes to my life, I think I’m settling in well. 
I’ve wanted to work in animal conservation for my entire life, and I’ve studied both Zoology and Primate Conservation at university. I’ve also volunteered before, but for the most part this has been on the other side of the world, most notably in Indonesia, and in completely different field conditions.

Me in the Sabangau rainforest of Central Kalimantan, Borneo. Heat and mosquitoes are not pictured
Skomer has presented me with a whole different set of challenges to overcome and experiences to enjoy. The intense heat of the tropics has been replaced by the rain and cold and strong Atlantic winds of West Wales, but, being a Pembrokeshire native I have never been a stranger to these things.
There are no primates here on Skomer (excusing the human kind) but the island is absolutely swarming with an incredible variety of birds, as anyone familiar with it knows, and it has been both daunting and a pleasure to get to grips with all the different species and the ways in which they live their lives.

Skomer is about as far from the jungle as you can get really. For a start there are no trees.
What I’d like to talk about today though is something very novel to me. Something which, despite knowing for a while beforehand that I would be doing it, was still hard for me to picture.

And that is learning to drive the island tractor.

Trundle in profile
His name, appropriately, is Trundle, and he’s the only motorized vehicle on the island. You can often set your watch by the sound of his engine arriving at the Farm or landing to pick up the luggage of our overnight guests and our vital supplies of gas, food and fuel. Life would be a lot more difficult without him, as without the tractor everything would have to be moved by hand (or rather, by wheelbarrow) and the hill leading up from the landing is strenuous enough even when you’re empty-handed.

Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about engines and vehicles, and while I can drive a car there are many differences to driving this tractor, which have made my established instincts completely wrong. Sarah, the Assistant Warden, who can take most of the credit for teaching me, has speculated that it might even be easier to learn if you cannot drive to begin with! 
For a start, Trundle has no accelerator. Once he is in gear, he will go, and his engine, while only capable of trundling along at a speed a little faster than walking, is strong enough to haul incredibly heavy loads. Alongside this neither the brake nor the handbrake are strong enough to stop the tractor while the engine is engaged for that you'll need both brake and clutch. Perhaps most confusing for me was the fact that Trundle has three gear sticks, all of which need to be used for the tractor to go. It is a little more like riding a bike than driving a car in that respect.
One thing however that makes driving this slow but powerful vehicle a little bit more nerve wracking are the incredibly narrow paths we have to work with here on Skomer. The whole island is a honeycomb of tunnels, burrows and nesting chambers, made by the resident puffins, Manx shearwaters and rabbits. All of this underground infrastructure makes the ground so fragile that all it takes is the foot of a careless visitor, or the leg of a camera tripod to collapse the homes of the animals living underneath. 
This means that a lot of focus is required when driving, to make sure you are keeping inside the narrow margins available to you, and for the most part you have to resist the urge to bird-watch from the elevated vantage point of the tractor’s seat. Something which can be hard to do when you’ve just spooked a short-eared owl at a distance of ten metres.  
The tractor is surprisingly well-maintained, especially considering all of the mud we get on rainy days, and so it’s no surprise to hear that the tractor is Sarah’s baby, and she takes his cleaning and maintenance very seriously. Being high up on the tractor though does have the advantage of elevating your own boots and legs above said mud, keeping them clean for a few more precious hours.
Apart from that though perhaps why I most enjoy working on the tractor is the chance to sing at the top of my lungs, completely unheard by anyone above the sound of its engine.
Learning to drive the tractor has been a novel and at times stressful experience for me, but it is something I’m very glad I’ve had the chance to do, and I’m happy to say that after several weeks of tractoring up and down the island, I think I’m getting the hang of it.  

See you in the slow lane!
Tom Lloyd, Long Term Volunteer Spring 2018