Monday 19 August 2019

A day in the life of long term volunteer Issy

The light streams in through the curtains, and a gentle breeze brushes my face. I'm eased out of sleep five minutes before my 7:15 alarm. I put on some music, jump out of bed, and get ready for the day.

Outside the hut where I’m living, young swallows fill the air, some goldfinches fly over, and I feel rejuvenated. I restock the water bottles in the visitor centre, and go to have breakfast
Rob and me on 'the Neck' after finishing a rare plant survey
with Rob (the other long term volunteer), Alexa (the fieldworker), and some visiting researchers. Conversation is on a common topic - will the boats be running?! We take our coffee outside to help identify moths from the moth trap. Our identification skills are rapidly improving. Today we had an elephant hawk moth - a stunning pink creature, about 6cm long, that most people would never guess is so common in the UK

At 9:30 I walk down to the harbour for my 'morning boats' duty. I update the chalkboard (including drawing a puffin), set up the sales point and chat with the weekly volunteers about their experiences, hopes, dreams and fears. As each boat arrives, I give a 5 minute talk introducing guests to the island - pointing out the best places for wildlife sightings, trying to crack jokes, and ensuring everyone has learnt the all-important golden rule: stay on the path! I also try to convey how Skomer fits into the bigger picture of wildlife conservation - if people can leave the island with a greater love of nature, and an understanding of the importance of wildlife conservation and combatting climate, then I feel I have done my job! Giving these talks has been a great experience and my public speaking has already improved.

Helping with the daily Manx shearwater chick weigh-in
Up close with puffins: Alexa showed us her 'hidden observation spot'

No machinery allowed: cutting bracken the old traditional way
Between talks I answer questions and chat to visitors. I love doing this, especially when people (children in particular) are enthusiastic about nature! There’s a great black-backed gull trying to swallow a Manx Shearwater chick, which the guests are mesmerised by. Other days we’ve had dolphins, peregrines, and always seals, to keep us company.

The morning boats session finishes at about 12:30, and I head back to the farm (where about half the staff/volunteers/researchers live) for lunch. Our fridge broke a few days ago, so we are surviving mostly off tinned/canned food for now. This doesn't matter though - there is still plenty of food to go round!

After lunch, I head out to do a butterfly survey with Sarah-Kay, the Assistant Warden. It’s a sunny day, so perfect for butterflies. The majority of the time is spent chasing down Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers - these two species look very similar from a distance, so you have to get up close to tell them apart! We also find a Grayling, with I have never seen before. This species has a fascinating behaviour: it orientates its body directly towards to sun to minimise its shadow, perhaps to keep it cool and/or make it hard to spot by predators.

The butterfly survey is followed by a cool shower (we do have hot water, from solar panels, but it’s a hot day!). I then drive the tractor (the loveable 'trundle') down to the beach to help with the storm petrel survey. Nathan abseils down the grassy cliff and plays storm petrel calls from a handheld speaker in front of potential petrel nesting sites (crevices in the rock). We listen very carefully for a reply from a petrel. Most of them are silent, but in a few of the crevices we hear the gentle 'purring' of a storm petrel!
Skomer vole surveys with Rob and some enthusiastic overnight guests!

I cook dinner with Rob and work on my Instagram page, @climate_science, which aims to make learning about the science behind climate change fun and easy (go check it out!). I’m able to fit a fair bit of my own work around Skomer-jobs. I then head out to watch the end of the sunset from a rocky ledge. Staring into the Irish Sea, perched on rocks, with seals in the water, I'm so happy. Once its dark, I collect the data for my research project on light pollution from oil tankers in St Bride's Bay. I count the lights on the ships, photograph them for brightness analysis, and note down their GPS locations.
Rockpooling for Hidden Secrets event and identifying lots of sucker fish!
                                                                  The bright lights attract young Manx Shearwaters onto the boats, from which they struggle to take flight again. We don't know much about how this is affecting the Shearwater population, but it is likely that is causing multiple deaths each night. I hope that my quantification of the light pollution from the ships will help encourage legislation to reduce light use on these ships in the Marine Conservation Zone.

On my walk back to the farm, I'm surrounded by Manx Shearwaters. Its magical. Like most nights, there's a toad sitting just outside the door of my hut. Tonight, however, there is another toad with him - the dynamics of their relationship I am yet to find out! I settle into bed, and sleep solidly, ready for another day of adventures tomorrow.

I've had an amazing few weeks on Skomer, soaking up the wildlife, learning loads, and making great friends. I thought I'd try to give you a sense of what a day is like for me from start to finish - I hope this was insightful for some of you! I just finished my undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences, specialising in Ecology, and aim to use my career to tackle climate change. Skomer is a wonderful place for me to gain a thorough understanding of how conservation works on the ground, and I am treasuring my time here.

  Issy Key (Skomer long term volunteer)

Monday 12 August 2019

Skomer's Hidden Secrets...

So it’s that time of year again, the puffins have gone, their breeding season over for another year and they are now heading out to recuperate at sea. The island suddenly feels quieter again and one of my favourite events of the year is the ‘Hidden Secrets’ which is one where the overnight visitors to the island get a taste of the other little gems Skomer has to offer.
Enjoying the Wick with no puffins (Photo Dan Willis)

This year 14 guests, a mix of adults and children had a ‘behind the scenes’ access to the island along with the opportunity to join us on some of our wildlife surveys. Whilst organising this event I am never really sure how many of the six or seven activities will be taken up… I wonder if folk would prefer to explore the island by themselves? I should have known better, this year (just like last year) all 14 guests took the opportunity to get involved with every activity… and this is why.

This year’s activities were… (deep breath)
1.       Rock pooling/Seashore survey at North haven
2.       Seal counting on the Garland Stone
3.       Night time Manx shearwater guided walk
4.       Moths
5.       Skomer vole survey
6.       Reptile Survey
7.       Manx shearwater chick weighing

… and all this in just two days!

Day One
Rock pooling was our first event and Rob and Issy took the guests down to North Haven beach. Usually a ‘No Access’ area as seabirds breed here and later in August this will be a site for seal pupping. There is a little window of opportunity which allows us to complete a seashore survey. I have to thank Mark and Sue Burton of the  MCZ for providing seashore guides and a selection of species we should look for. Amazingly we found 16 out of 20 species on our check list including clingfish, shore crabs, anenomes…
          What's under here I wonder?     

        Everyone getting the hang of a seashore survey      

Spot the clingfish 

One of many shore crabs on the beach 
While we were on the seashore a few guests opted for a count of hauled out seals on the Garland Stone with our fieldworker Alexa. From August we record a daily count of hauled out seals here, identifying males, females and juveniles.

Alexa showing our youngest guest seals though a telescope (Photo Anne Boyere)
It must have been hard to stay awake into the early hours after an early start this morning but I was impressed that the whole group, including the children who all managed to stay awake for the night time guided walk with one of our wardens, Sylwia. As the heaven’s opened there was perhaps an element of apprehension at the prospect of getting a real soaking. However Manx shearwaters love a wet and windy night and as the guests, red lights on, made their way through the colony they were treated to the haunting calls of thousands of manxies coming back to their burrows and the little chicks waiting for a feed.
Manx shearwater

Be careful where you stand... close encounter with a Manx shearwater 
Day Two
As impressed as I was last night with everyone staying up into the wee hours, I was even more so when everyone was up and ready by 9am the next morning to look through the moth trap with volunteer Ed... Unfortunately moths don’t tend to be out on very wet nights and there were only a few in the trap by the following morning. Still, everyone got a chance to see how we look through a moth trap and go through the fun process of identifying them.

One of the highlights of this event is that it coincides with the annual Skomer vole surveying. Dr Tim Healing has been leading this survey for nearly 50 years and we now have a very long term data set on the Skomer vole population. Skomer voles are, as the name suggests, only found on Skomer island. This really was a chance of a lifetime to see a creature that you would normally be very lucky to catch the most fleeting of glimpses. All the guests saw the voles up close and found out all about their behaviour and ecology. I was waiting at the farm as each group returned from the vole survey area with the biggest smiles on their faces… the Skomer vole does it every time!

Skomer vole... slightly larger in size than a bank vole! (Photo Sarah Parmor)
Monday was a lovely sunny day so we decided to complete a reptile survey in the afternoon. This was a chance for our guests to see some slow worms and common lizards up close. It’s great to provide areas in your garden where these reptiles can shelter. An old metal sheet on the ground provides shelter from the rain and a lovely warm place after a bit of sunshine, which they love. Simply having a compost heap is another great way to attract reptiles to your garden.

Slow worms under a reptile coversheet (Photo Jon Coen)
So, two days and six activities down, we had one more left. Saving the best for last maybe…?
This one was a real treat and many thanks to Tash from OxNav, we managed to have a sneak peak at her daily routine of weighing some of the 50 or so Manx shearwater chicks in the Skomer study burrows. Most of the chicks are about half grown but there is real variation in ages and sizes at this time of year. One chick was a week old and weighed less than 200g while another one was nearly a couple of months old and over 600g! We didn’t stay too long as we needed to leave Tash to her work but what an absolute treat and a fitting way to end the weekend.

Little manxie chick in Tash's safe hands (Photo Dan Willis)

Weighing a little manxie chick (Photo Sarah Bruch)
So all in all everyone had a wonderful couple of days. We have had some lovely feedback about the event, much of which was thanking us all for making it so special. These events only work if people are keen, interested and willing to get involved and everyone certainly did. Many of the photos I have included in this blog have been sent in by participants and I think that says it all!
I personally would like to thank the whole island team for all sharing leading the activities but particular thanks to our long term volunteers Rob, Issy and regular volunteer Ed who led the lion’s share of the activities.

Hidden Secrets 2019 Skomer team and guests 
Thank you from the Skomer team (Photo Jon Coen)
Waving goodbye to the island (Photo Jon Coen)

And if all that wasn't enough, 'Hidden Secrets' was even more special for one of the guests, as for her this island stay was a birthday treat. Charlotte Willis had her 11th birthday while on the island and her love of wildlife was palpable for all to see. So I think it’s fitting the last words should come from Charlotte… and I quote “it was the best birthday ever!”

Sarah Parmor (Skomer Visitor Officer)

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Soaking up Skomer living as a long term volunteer...

Hi Everyone
My name is Rob and I have the absolute pleasure of being one of the long-term volunteers on Skomer this summer. I’ve been here for just over three weeks and already feel very at home on this wonderful island. Do come and say hello if you’re visiting, I’m here until the end of September!

Making the most of the fabulous views from Captain Kites

And so, a little about me. I’m originally from Kent, though have been more recently living on the south coast completing a Master’s in Zoology at the university of Southampton. Four years of study in Southampton has helped to hone my interests and as a result both my dissertations focused on how animal vocalisations can suggest behavioural responses to habitat disturbance. For my Masters dissertation I lived in Belize for three months in summer 2018, working with a local Mennonite community. Acoustic recorders were used to assess how bird and bat diversity and behaviour are affected by tropical forest fragmentation.

Setting up an acoustic recorder at a field site in Belize

Whilst at Southampton, I helped found the university’s natural history society and had a short stint leading tasks for the conservation volunteer group. When I wasn’t doing that, you could usually find me playing gigs with various folk or jazz groups, or attempting to control my lanky limbs with the ballet society…

Bog management on Brownsea Island (trying to ignore the leaky waders!)

Gigging for a Fresher's event

My love of nature came largely from my local reserve, RSPB Dungeness, which I have visited for as long as I can remember with my parents. In 2017, I completed a residential volunteering placement there which was a great insight into the effect and thought that goes in to reserve management. I am also a cetacean surveyor for ORCA and work for the university on occasion leasing nature walks and assisting with field trips.
So enough about me – what’s life like on Skomer? It’s difficult to describe a ‘typical’ day, because every day is different! One key aspect is visitor engagement. This involves welcoming our day visitors to the island and helping them to enjoy all the wonderful wildlife we have here, or else moving the overnight guests in to their accommodation with the help of everyone’s favourite tractor, Trundle (for which I’m now a fully-fledged driver!) Conservation wise, I’ve been involved with butterfly, moth, bat and seabird surveys, Manx Shearwater and Puffin chick research and bird ringing efforts - to name but a little!
As part of the long-term volunteer placement, I’ll be doing a personal research project conducting surveys for a variety of species. In August, I’ll be surveying bats, moths and toads in different habitats on the island. In September, my focus will turn towards seal pup boldness. Keep an eye out for a future blog post for an update on how all this is going!

Assisting with Manx shearwater chick research led by researchers from the OxNav Group

Skomer is giving me incredible skills which will be invaluable for a future career in ecological management and research. But it’s also proving to be so much more than that. From an outside perspective, island life could seem remote or inhospitable, but apart from the lack of chocolate, it’s quite the opposite (I do miss mars bars*). Skomer has a really homely atmosphere, and all the staff and researchers have been really welcoming. The island is a beautiful place, and I feel extremely privileged to call it home this summer. I already feel fiercely proud and protective of the island – and that’s after only three weeks, so let’s see what the next 10 have in store!

We got very excited about semolina...(food is an important topic of conversation on Skomer!)

You’ve made it this far, then, congratulations on reading my ramblings. 
Cheerio for now.
*Other chocolate bars are available