Monday 27 May 2019

LBB Counts - Mike and Ted Wallen

LBB counts 2019
( aka Skomer pilgrimage, aka finding rare birds)

We are very privilaged to once again be asked to guest blog of our venture to Skomer to count the Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
We arrived on May 16th, having just missed the Woodchat Shrike which was a shame, but after all we were here to count gulls, not find rare birds …………
So we met the wonderful new wardens Sylwia and Nathan and were reunited with friends from previous years and indeed met some new ones, all wonderful people.
After throwing our stuff out of the rucksacks and stocking up the ‘day bag’ with loads of calories that we knew we were going to need we were off counting. The wind was still in the south-east where it had been for a few days, so we were hopeful of a rarity from Europe.
The first few hours were uneventful, but there was a steady trickle of hirundines going west and of course it was fantastic to see the islands residents like Chough, Razorbill, Oystercatchers etc, and see the kittiwakes coming to Moorey Mere to collect material to build their nests.

Razorbill - taken by Mike
Kittiwakes at Moorey Mere - taken by Mike Wallen
After lunch we were back out and joined by Sylwia and Nathan to look at several colonies with a view to carrying out the cane counts (see below), we looked at one colony and moved onto ‘Z’ which is on the south coast. Having counted part of it from one fixed point we moved to the other, we were within metres of sitting on a rock looking at gulls, but we didn’t quite get to it as Ted having raised his bins stated, that looked like an odd Bunting !!! Ted and Sylwia were in front with myself and Nathan just behind. Then Ted and Sylwia raised their bins again and Ted said ‘there it is’, as the bird popped up on a rock about 10 metres away. I rapidly raised my bins and blurted out “ORTOLAN”, the bird flew within seconds, but fortunately only 25 metres. We then had a frantic 15-20 minutes of letting everyone on the island know and trying to re-find the bird, but safely and without flushing it- it was incredibly hard, even though we were looking into a small area but we were very patient. Ted went around in a loop and then found it in exactly the area we were looking, by this point Sarah-Kay was with us and we had a brief view before it moved back to where we’d found it. Other ‘islanders’ then arrived and we watched and photo’d the bird over the next 45 minutes. Sylwia asked to borrow my camera to take pictures of her own which was absolutely fine- but getting it back was another issue !! The way Sylwia was swinging the camera around and the shutter was blasting away I reckon there’s a chance that Sylwia has been part of the paparazzi before !!!! We were all laughing about it, that’s the great thing about everyone who works on the island- such nice people and a great sense of humour. We then left the bird in peace, still on the same rock outcrop.

Ortolan Bunting - taken by Ted
Counting LBB’s
So just a brief idea of what we and the island staff do to count the gulls.
The whole island is one colony of LBB’s , it is then divided into sub-colonies which stay the same each year with minor fluctuations in size/ shape, then there are fixed points to view each sub-colony from. Ted and I go to those fixed points and count how many birds are actually on nests/ nesting, these are called the eye counts. Within the next week the island staff visit selected colonies and by conducting a quick walk through establish exactly how may nests are there, invariably a few more than we saw. This gives a correction factor which is then used on the whole count from all the eye counts to establish the size of the whole colony.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - taken by Mike
The next day saw us continuing with the counts but obviously ‘migrant bashing’ early morning and evening.
Early morning saw a female Bar-tailed Godwit fly into North pond which is a good bird here, then Ted and I were at North Valley bushes when the orange flash that was in fact a Turtle Dove whizzed past us – another great bird, and one that Ted had been hoping for. Unfortunately this was not to be seen again.
The Saturday saw the return of another island ‘mega’, the House Sparrow had returned to the farm, as mad as it might sound until this bird I’d seen 3-4 House Sparrows here and I’ve been coming for 34 years !

House Sparrow - taken by Mike
In the evening Ted’s sharp eyes produced a couple of interesting gulls at North Pond, one a LBB X Herring hybrid, which is possibly the bird being reported as a Yellow-legged Gull and a really interesting LBB with a streaked head. It just goes to show that looking at all these gulls fine tunes your skills in seeing something different.

(Probable) Hybrid LBB x Herring Gull flanked by LBB's - taken by Mike
Streaked Headed LBB Gull - take by Ted
Sunday 19th was our last morning, we had half a day and had pretty much the same area’s to still count as our last morning last year. Last year was interrupted by the appearance of a Subalpine Warbler.
We went to the first count point where Ted had been itching to get to since we arrived as next to it is the biggest bush on the island. I was merrily counting away when Ted said – ‘There’s a Turtle Dove sitting on the wall in front of us’ – Boom !!!! We could see Nathan, Sylwia and Clare at the CES ringing site, but before I could ring them the bird flew and landed on another wall, I made the call and they all locked their bins on the spot where it was and then it flew again- they all got it. Incredibly it then flew straight into the bushes at the bottom of North Valley where the mist nets were………….surely we couldn’t be that lucky ?  We saw where it went in, then I looked at Nathan/ Sylwia and Clare- they were already on the move, a few second later the phone was ringing……………………….. surely not ?
YES !!!! Back of the net !!
The dove had flown straight into the mist net- unbelievable. The incredibly beautiful, and now sadly very rare bird was ringed and released where it flew off strongly back to the area where Ted first found it.

Turtle Dove - taken by Mike
Turtle Dove just after it was ringed and shortly after released - taken by Mike
So just like last year, our last 2 counts were missed, but hey, Nathan and Sylwia didn’t mind for a Turtle Dove.
Once again an amazing few days, with amazing people, brilliant birds, a few thousand gulls on what is to me, the most beautiful place on planet earth.

Mike + Ted Wallen

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