Thursday 30 August 2018

A Wick-ed Clean Up Operation!

It’s been three and a half weeks in the planning, but today, we made it into the wick to do a clean-up.
This was only possible with cooperation with the lovely folk at the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). After waiting for the kittiwakes to fledge their nest, we kept in contact with the MCZ and had to fit planning the clean in around weather, as any westerlies would result in large swell in the wick which would make it impossible to go ahead. We then had to fit around Skalmey (the MCZ’s boat) having her annual service, and around both the MCZ and our own work and projects.
Heading out on Skalmey
 At one point I didn’t think it would happen, but yesterday I rang up and things looked good. Then this morning it was all stations go. At midday, the MCZ picked up myself (Sarah-Kay aka Tall Sarah), Sarah J (Small Sarah), Harriet and Ellie (Long Term Volunteers). We joined three of the MCZ staff (and one son of an MCZ staff!) and headed round to the Wick. Once there, a few of us came ashore in the dingy, and a few swam in in dry suits.
Plastic bottles strewn across the beach
Once ashore, we began. The first things we reached were mostly rope and plastic bottles, but once we made it up to the top of the beach, we started collecting more and more fishing buoys.
Amoungst the large amounst of drift wood, parts of a wheely bin.
We found a large number of shoes, with 7 of us picking, and each of us picked up at least 4 shoes. I found a pair of almost unused wellies, at least 1 walking boot, 3 trainers, 4 crocks, and at least a dozen shoe insoles.
One of the stranger items- a My Little Pony (?!)
Getting Tyred of how many Buoys there are!
This Manxie's body is caught up in a fishing net. We cannot know if it became entangled before or after the birds death.
The team, picking away in the cave
We strung up buoys onto ropes and swam them back out to the boat, and bags of rubbish were rowed back out. After a little over an hour of picking we ran out of bags, and the tide was dropping meaning we had to carry the rubbish further down the beach, over slippery rocks, and then take them further out to the boat, floating out of the way of the large rocks, and we had other duties to attend to. The MCZ team had some inter-tidal surveys to complete, and the Skomer team had seal caves to check for pups.
Carrying everything down the beach
It slightly broke my heart to leave what we did, and just look at all the firewood! but we've vowwed to come back again next year, at high tide and collect up anything else that has washed up, and dig a little deeper into the debris.

What we have collected will be left on Skalmey for the next day or two, and on Sunday we will unload the boat and do a full count of the amount we collected, but I did a rough count on the boat and we think we collected at least 17 large bags of litter, mostly plastic bottles and rope, foam, polystyrene, shoes, and other random items. In addition to these bags were many buoys, large sections of rope, and other awkward items, such as most of a wheely bin. 
 While some items were strange and surprising, but the vast majority was just plastic bottles, and fishing gear.
For just an hour or so, it's a lot of stuff!
 On Skomer we are all too aware of the damage that abandoned or lost fishing gear can cause, bycatch of seabirds, and most upsettingly at this time of year, entangled seals.

A Huge thank you to the entire Skomer Marine Conservation Zone team for all that they do, and for making this possible.
All Photos by Harriet Sleight.
I will update in the next few days when we've unloaded the boat and have a better idea of the numbers!
Sarah-Kay (Assistant Warden, aka Tall Sarah) x

Thursday 23 August 2018

We think he's Cracked it!

When you work on Skomer, there is a high chance that you'll either be called Sarah, or a Professor named Tim.
One of "our" Professor Tims (Dr Tim Birkhead) has been studying our guillemots for over 40 years (for more on the continuing work being carried out, click here to read 2018's field worker, Hannah's blog!) has just announced his latest breakthrough.

If you saw the BBC programme this spring, Attenborough's Wonder of Eggs, you will be familiar with the problem of just why a guillemot's egg is so pointy. In the programme a theory was discussed of it being the distribution of dirt, but now there's a new idea in town.

 The work is the combined efforts of Tim, Jamie Thompson, Bob Montgomerie and John Biggins.

Tim spoke on BBC Radio 4 today at 1630 about it, and it will be repeated this evening at 2100, or click here to listen to it from the website.

If you'd like to read the whole article, it has been published in Auk, Ornithological Advances, which is Open Access so click here to download it!  (But Be Warned! It's American and "common murre" is the American name for our Common guillemots!)

Diddorol Iawn!

Saturday 18 August 2018

Magical Skomer Island

Hello, I’m Ellie, one of the two Long-Term volunteers (LTVs). I arrived on Skomer nearly four weeks ago and am here till the end of September. I’m absolutely loving it – each day I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to call this amazing island home for the summer. There have been so many highlights and new experiences just in these few short weeks it’s hard to know where to begin…

As well as welcoming day visitors and introducing them to the island’s wildlife in the morning and co-ordinating boat departures in the afternoon, early activities included learning to drive the tractor to transport the luggage of overnight guests up to the hostel, and manning the telescope at the Wick to show visitors close-up views of breeding kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots, and, of course, the ever-popular puffin (no telescopes required for them).

                                                    Ellie enjoying the Skomer puffins

While on Skomer, each LTV has their own project to complete, and while I am here I will be looking at plastic ingestion by Manx shearwaters. I am collecting the carcasses of dead Manxies from around the island, and dissecting them to see whether they contain any macro-plastic (pieces large enough to see). I am also collecting samples of prey items, stomach contents and pre-faeces for micro-plastics analysis at the University of Gloucestershire. Dissection and plastic ingestion are new areas of study for me so I am learning a lot.

I have also been lucky enough to get involved with a variety of other fieldwork projects. A number of studies are being carried out on the Manx shearwater population on Skomer, and I have assisted with catching adults at their burrows during the night to fit and retrieve GPS trackers, chick weighing (which is done every day at selected study burrows), and chick ringing to allow future monitoring of the population. I have helped to monitor kittiwake nests to record the numbers and sizes of chicks, and have helped to catch and ring juvenile lesser black-backed gulls and carry out re-sighting surveys to determine their productivity this year. I have assisted with gull diet surveys around great black-backed gull nests to see what they have been eating and feeding to their chicks, and with night-time catching and ringing of storm-petrels to monitor their population. I have been learning my butterflies and helping out on the weekly butterfly transect survey, and also helped with the moth trap, rock-pooling, vole trapping, and reptile transects which has involved encounters with beautiful moths, anemones, sucker-fish, eels, Skomer voles and slow-worms. I am in wildlife heaven!

                                                       Ellie helping researchers weigh
                                                           manx shearwater chicks

Learning to walk carefully around the burrows to carry out the monitoring work has been one of my most nerve-wracking experiences – the island is so fragile, like a honeycomb with all the puffin and rabbit burrows as well as those of the Manxies – and it is a real skill to do this with confidence.

Other activities so far have included a trip to the mainland to collect new gas bottles for North Haven and the farm – all our cooking is done on gas and this is an important and physically demanding task (the full gas bottles are very heavy). Getting to drive the RIB across Jack Sound was a big highlight! We had another trip out on the RIB in the evening to see the rafts of Manx shearwaters out on the water, and went fishing - I caught my first ever fish, a mackerel, which I duly gutted and cooked… very tasty!

My favourite wildlife encounters since I’ve been here have included:

·         Seeing my first ever porpoise – off Skomer Head – and then some more when I was coming back across on the Dale Princess with my food shopping.

·         Hearing the Manx shearwaters come in to the island about 11pm with their wonderful haunting, eerie cries, and seeing the sky full of flying shapes, and watching them scurry across the ground in the red light of my torch. I can even hear them from my bed at night, and it’s the most amazing sound, one I will never forget.

·         Seeing the grey seals starting to come in, and the first pup in Castle Bay on the Neck, and hearing their wailing calls while standing on the cliffs at North Haven.

I reckon sailors in olden days shipwrecked in the pitch dark on an island like this, surrounded by wailing seals and haunting shearwater cries must have been terrified...its a truly magical place!

Ellie Ames
Skomer Island Long term Volunteer

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Hidden Secrets on Skomer.

With the puffins just leaving it is time to showcase some of Skomer’s other wildlife.  The Hidden Secrets event is an annual event where hostel guests are invited to take part in a range of activities on the island with special access to the monitoring and research here on Skomer.  This year the event ran from the 5th to the 7th of August and with a fully booked hostel it was a busy and exciting weekend.

The event began with Shearwater Showcase and a visit to North Haven to meet our researchers from the OxNav group studying Manx Shearwaters.  As these researchers are often nocturnal this was a unique opportunity to meet them and see their research.  The group were able to meet Martyna, and watch as some of this year’s chicks were brought out of their burrows to be weighed. 

A participent assists Martyna with Manx Shearwater weighing

Once everyone had got a good look at a shearwater chick it was time to leave Martyna and her colleagues to continue their research and head down to North Haven beach to search for some shore life.  Skomer is designated as a Marine Conservation Zone both for its seabirds and its less well known shore life.  Our keen guests were determined rock poolers and we found and identified; Beadlet Anemones, Keel worms, Barnacles, limpets, an eel, shore clingfish, things that looked like chiton, and gobi.  After this it was time to head back to the farm for hot chocolates after a busy day.

A Skomer vole, held by one of the hostel guests waiting to be released while data is recorded by researchers.
 Monday was Mammal and Moth Morning and guests joined Dr Tim Healing who has been researching the Skomer voles for over 40 years.  The Skomer vole is endemic to Skomer and is a sub-species of the bank vole.  The guests were lucky enough to see these shy mammals as they were weighed as part of ongoing research.  Meanwhile at the farm, our assistant warden Sarah-Kay went through a moth trap to identify the species caught overnight the previous night.  In total, there were 22 number of species identified and the highlights were; Garden Tiger, Oak Eggar, Flame Shoulder, Spectacle and Lesser Broad Bordered Yellow Underwing

Hostel guests, Volunteeers and Staff looking through the moths trap.
In the early afternoon guests were invited to take part in the Reptile Review.  Around the farm sheets have been laid down on the ground to attract reptiles as they warm up in the sun and create a suitable environment.  Skomer is home to slow worms, toads, frogs and lizards.  Everyone gathered round the reptile sheets and the suspense built as we carefully lifted each one to reveal the reptiles.  Whilst slow worms look like snakes, they are in fact legless lizards who feed on slugs and small insects but are predated upon by invasive Pheasants.  Slow worms can grow up to 45cm in length and a few were discovered around this length.  A few were also uncovered with unusually blunt tail ends and this is because slow worms are able to drop their tails as a distraction when they are predated.

Monday evening we put the ‘Scope on Seals with our guests looking out over the Garland Stone at low tide with our visitor officer Sarah-Jay. They were treated to ten hauled out Atlantic Grey Seals, unfortunately one of these had rope wraped around her neck. Scanning out to sea also delivered wonderful views of rafts of thousands of Manx Shearwaters. To celebrate National Marine Week, each Birdlog has concluded a marine-themed fun fact and this week one of the fun facts was that Grey Seals can swim up to 32km/h or 19.8mph! 

The final activity of the weekend was a shearwater Discovery in the Dark and guests were lead around the island to see the adult shearwaters.

Tuesday morning was time to say farewell to our wildlife exploring guests.  If you would like to join in on any of the activities mentioned above then keep an eye out on our events page to book on this exclusive event in 2019. Booking will open later this year with bookings taken over the phone on
01656 724 100.

Harriet - Long Term Volunteer (another blog from me coming soon!)