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)

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