Friday 25 June 2021

A whirlwind month

Hi! My name's Izzy and I’m the Seabird Monitoring Volunteer for 2021. I finished my Zoology degree in 2019 and after getting overly excited about seabirds while doing cetacean research, I’m mixing it up to get excited about cetaceans while helping with seabird monitoring! I’ve come to Skomer for the mad month of June to help with the whole island seabird counts and Manx shearwater census.


Arriving on the island in late May it was my first visit to Skomer, and it leaves a lasting impression. A flyby of a short-eared owl in the first 10 minutes and then an evening swim with auks flying above our heads and puffins sat only metres away. I knew it was going to be a special month from the off.

First up on the to-do list was the small matter of the whole island seabird counts. The island’s circumference is split into 45 sections, all of which needed to be surveyed either from land or sea to count the cliff-nesting birds, specifically guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes. After we’ve done it once, we start over and do the whole island a second time, hoping the weather is kind enough to get it all done by the end of the 3rd week of June.

Leighton rowing the tender

The 1st of June came along with a whiff. The seal which uses the boat as a snooze station had really made its mark. After 10 minutes of scrubbing and a ‘fragrant’ fishy smell we were ready to load the boat up, jump onboard and head to our first section. Working in teams of 2 we count a species and then compare our numbers; hoping that they are within 10%. If not, we’d try again, often talking through sections of birds (not so beneficial with hundreds of guillemots, but very helpful for the others!). Once we’d ticked off all 4 species we’d move onto the next section. Counting conditions were often affected by winds and tides, so on the days we couldn’t count by boat, we’d do the land count sections instead. These included the mass of birds at Bull Hole, the Wick and High Cliff, some of which took 5 hours for only a small area!

Izzy counting Wick

Soggy but happy

Becca, Samanta and Izzy

Becca and Izzy at North Haven 

After some long days of staring through our binoculars, we got the initial count done within the first week, just in time to start the Manx shearwater census. This yearly survey monitors the population of Manx shearwaters by playing calls down burrows and listening for a response. Most years, we monitor 18 random plots across the island to gather the general trend, then every 10 years there is a full island census. Each plot has as its centre a metal pole from which you run 17.84m ropes to create a circular plot of 100m2, checking every burrow in that area. If you visited Skomer in early June and saw us crawling around on the wet, muddy ground, this was our purpose! We can do the census in any weather, so it meant the foggy/rainy days we had in the second 2 weeks of June were put to good use getting the plots surveyed.

The final Manxie plot!

Cold-calling Manxies

Although there were a few moments of worry about getting the counts done in time, very quickly it all came together and we finished off the land counts on the 19th of June. A big push on the 20th also saw the final 2 Manxie plots finished, though I do take full blame for the long day; hoping/expecting we would get them done by lunchtime meant we didn’t get back until past 6.30pm…

Though it is a cliché, this month really has been a whirlwind. Long days of seabirds, wet bums and laughs. The whole team here on Skomer really have been great to work in this intense time. Even when the weather was grim and we were soaked to the skin we were still laughing, singing ABBA, or telling awful jokes. I’m really hoping this is only a temporary goodbye to Skomer and that I can be back soon for more of the amazing wildlife and the lovely community (though I’m not overly upset to be leaving the overprotective gulls behind!)

See a bird, click!

- Izzy, Seabird Monitoring Volunteer

Tuesday 8 June 2021

June already!

From blustery May into sunny June, time flies here - we're now in the midst of the busiest time of year, where we must count all of the island's cliffnesting seabirds. It's busy, tiring and exhilarating - long days are spent on the boat, with one of us at the helm and three or four others using binoculars to scour the cliffs. Using clickers, we set to - a click per bird seen, or a click per ten on some of the busier stretches of cliffs. Two counts are done of all of the birds in each of the island's 45 sections. Two people count each species in a section, and if these two counts are within 10% of one another they are allowed. If not, we begin again.

And once we've finished all 45 sections? Well, we start again, with the entire island needing to be counted twice. When we close our eyes, we see guillemots... 

Off the water, the island’s hard-working weekly volunteers have a full programme welcoming visitors, patrolling the island and cleaning the accommodation. They keep the whole island ticking over, and we’d be quite lost without them. Over the past two months, they’ve also set to with a whole miscellany of tasks: sign-making, hide repairs, landslide clearance, painting, sanding, bench and gate construction, exclosure deconstruction, and – unenviably – boat-scrubbing. One large bull seal unfortunately seems to view the island boat as his personal lilo and toilet (!) - extra time for boat scrubbing is now being factored into each day of boat counts.




... And more scrubbing!

We’ve had a marvellous bunch of volunteers since the season began, adapting well to new ways of working under Covid restrictions and contributing humour, hard graft, Welsh lessons and cake – all very welcome! Diolch yn fawr! (Please note - applications to volunteer on Skomer in 2022 will be advertised on from 1st September). 

Meanwhile, the island is busy with new life. Late May saw the first herring, great and lesser black-backed gull chicks, tiny bundles of fluff guarded by loud and protective parents. They were soon followed by the first puffin chicks - the island is now teeming with puffins bearing sand eels, a sign that beneath the surface hungry pufflings are being well fed. Peeping sounds from the cliffs lead the keen-eyed observer to small fluffy guillemot and razorbill chicks, whilst today (8th June) our first downy kittiwake chick was spotted. 

Lesser black-backed gull chicks © Josie Hewitt

Fulmar with egg © Skomer Warden

Puffin with fish © Skomer Warden

Our earliest chicks, the ravens, are now fledging or have fledged, and look very smart in their fresh plumage – in stark contrast with the now rather ragged adults, which are going into moult. Two shelduck chicks (dubbed shelducklings) are defying our expectations by surviving (for now) in the midst of a gull colony, whilst North Pond boasts three broods of moorhen chicks – small pom-poms with comically oversized feet. 

Highlights of May included a gorgeous male grey-headed wagtail at Moorey Mere on the 21st – this dazzling subspecies of the yellow wagtail is rare in the UK, and was a first for a few of us. We’ve had several cuckoos passing through, including 5 in one day on the 15th, and whimbrel, dunlin, green sandpiper and common sandpiper within the past fortnight. On the 24th, a spoonbill, and an osprey (spotted by Dave of West Coast Birdwatching on one of his tours; compensation for the cold, the wet, and the wind!). And, on the 30th, a male western subalpine warbler - incredibly elusive, but well worth the brief views. Topping off the whole month, on 31st May Leighton spotted a stunning lesser grey shrike at the farm - my first ever shrike, and the island's first since 1993.

Grey-headed wagtail © Joe Wynn
Spoonbill © Kerry Fisher
Osprey © Dave Astins/ West Coast Birdwatching

We're not long into June yet, but it's been quite the start, with the lesser grey shrike being followed on the 1st June by a very smart woodchat shrike, spotted by Lisa at the farm, who on the same day had 7 great egrets overhead - a Pembrokeshire record. 

Lesser grey shrike © Dave Astins/ West Coast Birdwatching

Woodchat shrike © Josie Hewitt

You probably won't hear much from us for a few weeks, as we spend time out on boats or dotted around the island for the rest of seabird season. Wish us luck - and see you on the other side!

– Ceris, Assistant Warden