Sunday 21 July 2019

Living the island dream!

One of the most common questions I get asked by visitors to Skomer is something along the lines of “Do you actually live here?” My answer ‘Yes’ is usually followed by a “How wonderful” type comment! It certainly is wonderful and for Nathan, Sylwia, Sarah-Kay and myself, we can call Skomer our home for around nine months of the year. During that nine month’s period we will be joined by many other people for varying lengths of time. Together these groups become a well-oiled team, all with our individual roles working to run this busy reserve and maintain a complete seabird monitoring programme.

    Who is ‘Team Skomer’

2019 Skomer team

Looking for that dream job!

Long term volunteers (LTVs)

Long term volunteering on Skomer is a unique placement usually undertaken usually by those looking for careers in conservation. LTVs develop essential skills such as visitor engagement, wildlife monitoring and developing initiative vital to island living. As well as this I think I can safely say that virutally every long term volunteer falls under the Skomer spell. Their three months passes far too quickly and there is the inevitable sadness as they leave the island. We have previously introduced our first two LTVs of the season Alice and Clare, also Gemma, the seabird monitoring volunteer. The second half season LTVs Rob and Issy will post their blogs later in in the season.
This week saw the changeover between them and I know both Alice and Clare were fighting back the tears as they left on the Dale Princess. The tears and the sadness will pass but the long term love for the island will never die.
LTVs Clare Alley and Alice Cousens... Friends for life :)

Seabird LTV Gemma Haggar

Rob Knott and Issy Key (She is so strong!!)

Clare and Alice... Garland Stone at sunset 

Giving their time to Skomer

It is not an understatement to say that the smooth running of Skomer Island would fall apart if it wasn’t for the four to six weekly volunteers that give their time throughout the visitor season. With up to 250 day visitors and 16 overnight guests on the island every day the weekly vols are visitor/island interface, habitat managers, DIYers and cleaners! They do it all with a smile, enthusiasm and a passion for the island. There is no doubt that positive day visitor experiences are enhanced by the lovely interactions with weekly volunteers. After all their hard work during the day they have the evenings to explore the island at its best. It is a week where friendships are made and most volunteers return year after year for which we are very grateful.

Weekly vols sunset moment :)
Photo: Caroline Faulder (Skomer weekly volunteer)

Getting their hands dirty...

No one understands the term 'guano' more than a seabird fieldworker! The researchers here are the core of what Skomer is. Without this specific monitoring year upon year we wouldn't know how our birds are faring in a time where many seabird colonies are on the brink of extinction.
Puffins checking out the researchers!
From the left: Viv, Alexa, Daryl, Tash, Chris and Julie

Due to its nationally important seabird colonies, Skomer Island is one of only four Nature Reserves in the UK, and the only one outside of Scotland required to complete a full seabird monitoring programme.

Skomer staff and a WTSWW fieldworker (Alexa Piggot), along with a fieldworker from the University of Gloucester (Viv Hastie) complete all the seabird monitoring for the JNCC (Joint National Conservation Committee).

Skomer fieldworker adopting the recognised bird retrieval position

Between April and July there is a dedicated guillemot fieldworker (Julie Riordan) gathering data for the 47 year guillemot study started by Professor Tim Birkhead (Sheffield Uni) and now taken on by Dr Steve Votier (Exeter Uni). Long term studies like this are rare and invaluable.

A guillemot on Skomer that was ringed as part of this study in 1985 as a chick, returning to Skomer year after year and even this year was seen rearing a chick at 34 years old!

There's a razorbill under there somewhere!

Finally and by no means least the OxNav team (Joe Wynn, Tash Gillies, Daryl Mcleod, Annette Fayet, Martyna Syposz and Chris Tyson) some of whom are based on the island for most of the season carry out long term monitoring of the study colonies of Manx shearwaters and puffins at North Haven. Over the years this group, founded by Professor Tim Guilford, has been at the forefront of research into Manx shearwaters. Much of what we know about this species has been discovered by this group of researchers and we look forward to all the new discoveries in future years based on their work on Skomer. Later on in the season we will bring you more blogs on how the shearwater season has been.

Joe and Daryl from OxNav weighing a Manx shearwater...
Office with a view!
Anyone wanting to have a glimpse into the researchers world can join us on Shearwater Week in September.With just a few spaces left and one of the highlights of the event is spending time with the OxNav researchers, seeing them work and hearing a talk given by one of the group.
For more information contact the WTSWW booking office on 01656 724100

Viv Hastie monitoring puffin chicks in the study burrows at  North Haven

There really are thousands of puffins flying around at times in North haven

How is this little one growing? Viv taking a wing length measurement

A puffling... no words :)

The luckiest ones of all...?

The Skomer staff are a team of four who are based in the island from February until November. Two Wardens, an Assistant Warden and a Visitor Officer. Every week brings new challenges and changes as the wildlife comes and goes along with the people. It wouldn’t suit everyone to spend the entire season on a remote island, but we feel incredibly lucky to call Skomer our home.

2019 Staff from left: Sarah J., Sylwia, Sarah K. and Nathan moving onto the island in February...
all our worldly possessions in one boat!

  Nathan Wilkie and Sylwia Zbijewska: arrival as new wardens

The Sarah's as we are generally known!
 Feeling cold during hen harrier roost count

Can't hide those smiles :)

February on the island is less than balmy...

Our work can be anything and everything, the joys of living remotely. We have to be anything from fieldworker to plumber, event manager to cleaner. Our love of wildlife and contributing to the conservation efforts of Skomer and the WTSWW is behind everything we do.

We are already more than half way through the 2019 season and hope that the second half will be just as good as the first. The seabirds will soon disappear as their breeding season draws to a close and they head off for a well earned rest. Seal pupping season will soon be upon us and we are looking forward to seeing what that brings.

So in a nutshell that is us. Anyone with a badge or working on Skomer will be one of the above. All staff and volunteers share the visitor work and have their own stories to tell. Come and say hello and let us know about your own Skomer experience.

Sarah Parmor  (Skomer Visitor Officer)

Wednesday 3 July 2019

The story of a little guillie chick, sentiment or conservation...?

My journey into conservation has not been traditional, I have quickly learnt to ‘toughen up’ to the ups and downs of wildlife survival. I love animals and wildlife and am passionate about the job I do, the core of which is visitor engagement and promoting wildlife conservation to the visitors to Skomer. Conservationists may sometimes be accused of lacking sentiment when it comes to the harsh reality of nature. There is inevitable loss and suffering in the wild community and a conservationist’s perspective is governed by species and population concerns. Conservationists can’t worry about the individuals; some puffins lose fish to gulls, some Manx shearwaters get predated, some guillemot chicks don’t survive their ‘jump’. The overriding conservation question concerns how well these species are doing at population level

Today I chatted to a visitor as she was leaving the island having had a wonderful day and a camera full of puffin photos. We got to talking about the guillemots that were close to the boat departure area. In a five minute conversation, this lady learnt that guillemot chicks at only 3 weeks old jump from the safety of their nest site and parent protection for a life out on the ocean. By the end of the breeding season the female is exhausted and the male takes over the final stages of chick rearing. He swims with the chick out to sea away from predatory gulls and they will remain together for the next five to seven weeks. They primarily do this because being out in feeding areas where the parent doesn’t have to fly back and forth to the colony means the chick will be fed twice as much as if it had remained in the colony. It will grow fast enabling higher survival chances and eventual recruitment in to the breeding population itself and subsequent survival of the species.

Being unable to fly, these little guillemot chicks must swim to productive feeding areas and it is essential that food sources relatively close to breeding colonies remains unaffected by climate change, overfishing or pollution. Greater awareness of the serious issues our wildlife is facing is key to the movement of governments to make those difficult but necessary decisions to act now against climate change.

Therefore, this lady’s last wildlife sighting on Skomer was of a little guillemot chick close to the boat landing step. I wonder what she will take from her visit today?

So let me tell you about that little guillemot chick, which against all my natural instinct will remain nameless. 

Little guillemot chick just a few days old
It hatched on the 4th June when just brief glimpses were had of a little grey downy chick sitting tight under the brooding parent. This pair of guillemots (presumably the same pair) had failed to rear a chick to fledging age in 2018 so this year  was willing them on to succeed. Each day I checked on the chick's progress, growing steadily but sill spending most of the time being brooded and protected by the parent. At two weeks old it would regularly spend time sitting next to the parent learning the art of preening. At any sign of danger it would quickly disappear back under the adult disappearing from view. Guillemot chicks have disproportionately large feet for their body size. They will need these for all the swimming to come, but for now it makes them look totally adorable to our human eyes.

7 days old and just look at those feet!

Learning to preen at 14 days old

22 days old and the last day time view I had of the little chick

At 16 days old guillemot productivity monitoring dictates that a chick has reached a fledging age and so from this time on I spent every evening watching for the time it would 'jump'. Each night the colony was remarkably quiet with no sign of any chicks leaving. Then on the sixth night as soon as I got to the site I could sense a change from all previous nights. The little colony was alive with noise, chicks and adults calling to each other with lots of movement on the ledges. Gulls responsive to this were inevitably hanging around waiting for the opportunity of an easy meal. I saw several chicks splash into the water and just about seeing them swim straight out to sea with their fathers. The light was fading and still my little chick was still sitting tight against the female.

Then for the first time the mother jumped away from the chick to a ledge above almost appearing to cajole the little one to go. The chick at first tried to jump up towards her but soon responded to the calls of the male in the water below, calling back and flapping its little wings. Then suddenly the first jump but just to a ledge below but straight into a row of adult guillemots that began viciously pecking at the intruder. Mum straight away jumped down to protect it and created some space for the little chick to regain composure. A few seconds later the chick moved to the edge and in an instant was gone, little wings flapping and feet outstretched helping the parachute style jump down to the water...

Video of the night time sound of guillemot males calling to their chicks

I can’t actually tell you if this chick made it. By now it was almost fully dark and very difficult to make out any birds in the water. But it had survived to 22 days old, had jumped under the cover of near darkness and therefore has given itself every chance of surviving.

So today was a good day, I watched 'my' guillemot chick fledge and helped a visitor going away from her day on Skomer knowing more about guillemots that before she came… I’d like to think its ok for this conservationist to be sentimental…

Subsequent to the chick's fledging I posted a video on facebook of the chick around 14 days old with an adult that was ringed I now know this adult was the father as was not often seen with the chick during it's time on the ledge. If anyone has any photos of the guillemots in this little colony showing a ringed adult we would love to hear from you. Contact Skomer visitor officer:

Sarah Parmor (Skomer Visitor Officer)