Wednesday 26 September 2018

Shearwater Season on Skomer

Could Manx Shearwaters be the ‘National Bird of Wales’? Our neighbours on Ramsey Island have already put forward this suggestion and I am inclined to agree. 

Staggeringly around 50% of the world’s population of Manx Shearwaters breed on the islands of Skomer and Skokholm and if you add in the numbers from Ramsey and Bardsey Islands the figure is close to 60%.

Manx Shearwaters are an elusive bird only coming to land under cover of darkness to feed their chicks in underground burrows. They have evolved to live out at sea and are beautiful flyers and swimmers. However, on land they struggle to even walk and are at risk from predation by birds like Great Black-backed Gulls. Darkness is their friend, allowing them to sneak into their burrows unseen. It is a real treat for overnight visitors to Skomer to experience thousands of shearwaters coming and going once darkness falls.

They are unable to breed successfully on the UK mainland due to the predation of their eggs and chicks by rats. Therefore it is our absolute conservation priority to maintain Skomer as a rat free island.

Adult manx shearwater

We are now coming to the end of the shearwater season, most of the chicks have fledged and left the burrows they have spent their whole lives in, to embark on a massive migration to the southern hemisphere. They will spend the next couple of years out at sea off the coast of South America and in their second year will make the journey back to the UK. It will take them a few years to become breeders themselves but they undertake the migration every year to gain the experience and skills required to rear a chick. These amazing birds can live beyond 50 years of age and potentially fly the distance of ‘to the moon and back’ ten times in their lifetime…

1 week old shearwater chick

Shearwater chick starting to grow adult feathers

The start of September is when we hold a ‘shearwater special’ event on Skomer and this year it was more popular than ever. It is a two night event that includes a night time guided walk through the shearwater colony, a talk by researchers about their conservation work on the island and the ‘one off’ experience of helping researchers to weigh Manx Shearwater chicks in Skomer’s study colony. As well as that it is a chance to visit the island during a relatively quiet time of year, experiencing the peace and tranquillity of ‘island living’.

Weighing chicks in the shearwater special event 
Viewing shearwaters at night using red light to prevent disturbance

It has been a big year for Manx Shearwaters on Skomer this year. Highlights include:
  • A whole island census in June, last undertaken in 2011. Results from this are still to be determined so we will keep you updated on this as soon as we know!
  • The development of an artificial nest box colony at North Haven enabling close monitoring of the 'manxies'.
  • We had our own ‘Springwatch style’ camera installed in a manx shearwater burrow. Watching the underground goings on in the burrow was fascinating. Mating, egg laying, hatching chick and over two months later the successful fledging of  ‘burrow cam’ chick we imaginatively named Maxine…We hope to do the same next year and live footage will be streamed from Lockley Lodge. Be warned it is very addictive!

Burrow cam chick a month old

Burrow cam chick close to fledging spending most of its time preening
  • This year the WTSWW joined with the RSPB to promote a campaign advising on what to do with stranded Manx Shearwaters. Strong winds at fledging time can make it difficult for the youngsters to make it out to sea and once they get blown inland can easily get disorientated by mainland lights leaving them stranded. Over 100 birds have been rescued and returned to sea, thanks to local volunteers and Thousand Island Expeditions boat operators.
Poster campaign for stranded shearwaters

Around 100 birds were rescued and released out to sea

If you would like to see Manx Shearwaters then be sure to book in for an overnight stay on the island on next year's "shearwater special event". Bookings open on 1st October 2018 for WTSWW members and are fully open two weeks later. Please contact the booking office on 01656 724100 for more information.

Once you have seen this beautiful enigmatic seabird I’m sure you will agree that Manx Shearwaters should indeed be deemed the national bird of Wales.

Sarah Parmor  (Skomer visitor officer)

Monday 17 September 2018

New Wardens - Sylwia and Nathan

Our Arrival


We made it! The journey to our new island began with a nervous wait for a weather window to leave our previous island, the Calf of Man, which was a sad moment . It was also filled with excitement of what lay ahead on the new island - Skomer! As it is often the case on islands at this time of year, we were at the mercy of the weather again, which is one of the many appeals of island life - being connected to the natural world and day to day weather changes. Northerly winds meant we could not sail to Skomer on our planned day, which resulted in us staying on the mainland for 3 days. This gave us a chance to see a bit of the lovely Pembrokeshire and also meet some of the people associated with Skomer. We were very generously welcomed into their home by Anna and Steve Sutcliffe, it was fantastic to hear stories from their experience as Wardens from 1986 to 1994. They showed us some picturesque places such as Marloes Sands. We were even able to assist Anna with her bat surveys. We have also had enough time to try food and cakes in some of the local places like Dale, explored the countryside on the bicycles and went bird watching (obviously!). Pembrokeshire is absolutely sensational!

The day of our arrival was very nice and warm, which made the travel easier and much more enjoyable! It was lovely to meet some of the Dale Sailing crew.

So Who Are We

Nathan Wilkie - My home town is Dover, where some of you may have passed through when getting the ferry to France. Before moving to Skomer I was on a similarly sized island called the Calf of Man. I thoroughly enjoyed my role as Estate Warden on the fantastic island. Like Skomer, the Calf is an important island for seabirds, although there are not quite as many Manx Shearwaters - the 316,000 pairs here is quite a change from approximately 400 pairs on the Calf! The estimated 400 pairs on the Calf is a conservation success story however, with the species, that was named due to the colony on this small island off the coast of the Isle of Man, now recovering following a rat eradication in the winter of 2011/12. The Calf is also an important island for migrant birds and is home to a bird observatory, I was lucky to see and ring some fantastic birds. My highlight species include: Red-footed Falcon, Melodious Warbler, Sub-alpine Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Hen Harrier, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Cuckoo, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Hooded Crow, Chough... Ok I will stop listing now!
I have also been lucky to work on the Farne Islands and Mingulay Island in the Outer Hebrides - I like islands! Like Skomer these are also spectacular islands that are very important to seabirds and Grey Seals.
I have also lead research projects on butterflies in Indonesia, Madagascar and Romania - I like rain-forests, wildflower meadows and butterflies too!
Excluding a very short term contract as an Assistant Ecological Consultant, monitoring Great Crested Newts and bats, my first paid job was protecting Little Terns, on a Northumberland beach called the Long Nanny. The UK's second rarest seabird needs protecting from a wide array of threats, such as: Badgers, Foxes, Stoats, Kestrels, Crows, human and dog disturbance and the tide. This was a very rewarding job, with a recently unheard of 45 chicks fledged - I like Little Terns!
As is often the case in this career I have also done lots of volunteering, which includes a combined 13 months of residential volunteering at RSPB Minsmere and Saltholme, which I thoroughly enjoyed and gained a lot from.
Oh and I also studied Geography at Portsmouth University.
Ok that's probably enough about me! You'll just have to come and visit Skomer if you want to find out more!

The Calf's tractor is a bit smaller than Skomer's

 This splendid Red-footed Falcon hanged around for a few days on the Calf of Man
The Farne Islands has a few birds too!
One of the many cliffs Nathan tried to not fall off while monitoring seabirds on Mingulay
Little Tern nest scrapes raised into fish boxes to protect them from the tides at the Long Nanny

Sylwia Zbijewska - I come from Poland and that is where I grew up and went to school. I moved to the UK in 2009 to initially earn some money over summer and then to go back to study journalism in a city called Wroclaw. Plans have only slightly changed and it's been 9 years since!
I studied Geography, Wildlife Biology and Conservation Biology. During my studies, I carried out some very interesting field projects on invertebrates, butterflies, dung beetles and birds in Caer Llan, Lisbon, Bialowieza Forest, Cheshire and a lab based project on bumblebees. I have also worked full time in various non-related to my interests jobs to make a living. After completing my higher education, I was a position at an aquatic environmental consultancy in Greater Manchester. I will miss the ornithology team and our daily lunch walks and Friday pub evenings.
I have been a ringer since October 2016 and this year I mostly ringed on the Calf of Man. Calf of Man has a special place in my heart. I genuinely love that island for its beauty and charm. I love its landscapes, wildlife and bird migration. COM is also the island where I met fabulous people and made some lifelong friendships!
I have also worked as a research assistant in Borneo and volunteered at one of the UG's Bird Migration Research Stations for the Operation Baltic project (Gdansk, Poland). 
Being close to nature is what empowers me. Being able to work, care for the natural world, share the knowledge about wildlife with others and learn from them is what brings me joy. People and nature are my source of inspiration.
''Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness''. 
We need to use all our power to live our lives respecting each other and our home Earth.

A very powerful Black Woodpecker - Operation Baltic, Bukowo
Another spectacular bird Long-eared Owl - Operation Baltic, Bukowo
Posing with an Oystercatcher on the Calf of Man

Experiencing the smelly side of ringing Eiders on the Calf of Man
Unique Bornean flora

Our First 2 Weeks on Skomer - The team has really welcomed us and made us feel at home already. We are especially grateful to Bee and Ed for staying on Skomer until the end of the season so that they can pass on as much knowledge as they can from what they have learnt during 6 years of essentially living and working here.

We have been spending time familiarising ourselves with the island and some of the tasks that are undertaken on Skomer. One of our most memorable experiences so far has to be assisting Martyna and Joe from OxNav with their research on Manx Shearwaters and their migration, which entailed following the direction the chicks fly the very first moment they fledge! It has also been great to meet some of the Weekly Volunteers who regularly volunteer on Skomer. Another highlight is the first meal we shared with the entire team at the Farm and delicious meals we have shared with Ed and Bee in the Warden's house, particularly southern German dish called Spaetzle - We like trying new things! What is more, Skomer has already spoilt us with excellent views of Bonelli's Warbler!

Sylwia assisting with Manx Shearwater chick weighing
A Short-eared Owl was a welcome addition to Ed's talk to a group of students from France
Joe's talk on his research on Manx Shearwater migration was very interesting
A very showy Bonelli's Warbler

Monday 10 September 2018

The Assistant Unit

An improbability of puffins!

Hello! I’m Harriet and I am the second long-term volunteer for this half of the season.  In my non-island life I am a student at Lancaster University studying Environmental Science.  I’ve been coming to Skomer for the past three years as a weekly volunteer but this year I decided that one week at a time was just not enough and the summer between the second and third year of my degree seemed like the ideal time to be a long-term volunteer.

I have introduced the fun fact of the day to the end of bird log and so far everyone’s favourite has been that the collective noun for a group of puffins is an improbability.  This is certainly appropriate for Skomer now as a group of Puffins is highly improbable!  I arrived to thousands of puffins and now the Wick is deserted and the seals are taking over.  Other fun facts have featured fulmars, grey seals, slow worms, kittiwakes, shore clingfish, wryneck and marsh harriers and I take requests for specific themes.

Ignore the puffin- look at the plant below it!
 Aside from helping welcome visitors to the island I am conducting my own research project on the soils of Skomer Island and this work will form the basis of my undergraduate dissertation.  I am looking at the effects of burrowing and ground-nesting seabirds on the soil nutrient status.  My project involves sampling soils from three colonies around the island and measuring their pH, nitrate, phosphate and electrical conductivity (which indicates salt content).   Soil nutrient status and salinity influences vegetation and this is illustrated in the above photo as the plant in the foreground is Atriplex prostrata, which is a salt-tolerant nitrophile and therefore grows in saline, nitrate-enriched soils.  In this way, the seabirds may be influencing the soil type and, in turn, the vegetation - which has implications for the whole island ecosystem. 

So far I have found that the soils are quite acidic, with very high nitrate concentrations.  This is most likely because both feathers and seabird guano are high in nitrogen.  The soils of Skomer Head have an average nitrate concentration 1.9 times greater than the samples of the mainland on the deer park at Martin’s Haven despite the fact that these soils are considered to be of the same type.  I am currently processing my phosphate measurements at the moment so watch this space!

In order to conduct this project without acess to a lab, I had to alter my methods to allow air drying the samples. It has helped me that this year has been so dry!

pH testing my samples...

When I am not sampling and probing soils I have been lucky enough to help with other ongoing research projects on the island.  My favourites have been ringing storm petrels and Shearwater chicks to monitor the long-term productivity and behaviour of the species. 

Helping with Manx Shearwater chick ringing!

It’s the beginning of the seal pup season now and with most of the ringing completed I am excited to help with the seal monitoring.  A few weeks ago all the island staff undertook ropes access training to enable us to safely access all the cliff tops and remote beaches to monitor the success of the seal pups around the island.  This monitoring will continue over the coming weeks and get busier as more pups are born until there may be up to 100 pups being monitored at once!

In training...!

In action!

For anyone that hasn’t been lucky enough to stay over on Skomer and watch the sunset over the farm or the Garland Stone, I would like to share a time-lapse of the sunset over the farm which I took a few weeks ago.  This is just a 36-second summary of an evening on Skomer and if you would like to experience this for yourself then I would recommend booking to stay with the hostel bookings opening on the 1st of October for members.  Keep an eye on the website for more details.

 A lot of people have asked me what my favourite part of this position is and I have found this really difficult to answer.  As much as I love the natural world and everything Skomer has to offer, my favourite part of my time here has been the people.  From the island staff, to the researchers, to the research assistants, to the weekly volunteers, to the hostel guests, to the day visitors, to the bird-log digitisers, to the work party volunteers, it’s all the people I have met during my time here that have made it really special.  You have been incredible and I have learnt so much from you all, so thank you!

Harriet a.k.a The Assistant UNIT.