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.

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