Friday 30 July 2021

Skomer highlights - Samanta's summary

So, what is it really like living on an island of limited hot water and no roads, surrounded by 34,796 puffins, 349,663 pairs of shearwaters, 7,529 razorbills, and 28,798 guillemots? Much like home really. 

The highlight of the placement has been spending time watching the sea cliffs, not only from our little boat during sea counts but also during razorbill productivity surveys. At the beginning of my placement, I blogged about fixing up Bull Hole hide for our fieldworker - as it turns out I’m the one who has used it all season as I watched the razorbills on ‘my’ section of the cliff. This consisted of visiting them daily and marking them as present or absent, and whether they were sitting on an egg or a chick. It takes roughly 32-39 days for an egg to hatch and both parents take it in turns to incubate. Once hatched, the chicks remain on the ledge for 14-25 days before taking a leap of faith off the cliff and accompanying dad out to sea. The excitement of watching an egg being laid then hatching and growing into a full-sized chick taking its first tentative steps off the cliff face is hard to beat. 

Razorbills and guillemots at Bull Hole

Upon returning from Bull Hole, I would scour the island for Pembrokeshire’s last breeding curlew as part of my personal project, mapping their territory and locating nests. The area of the island with most curlew activity is surrounding North Pond, where I have spent many a sunny day sitting outside the public hide watching foraging behaviour and their beautiful bubbling territorial displays before seeing them disappear off into the undergrowth. I am currently writing up my findings and hope to present them to the Friends of Skokholm and Skomer. 

Another highlight has been assisting Oxford University Navigation Group (OxNav) with their research, whether attaching GPS tags or helping to weigh chicks. It makes all the crawling around on the floor surveying burrows feel worthwhile knowing that these little fluffballs are hiding out under the fragile earth. 

Manx shearwater chick being weighed

Some traditional practices are very much alive on Skomer, as you’ll see from the newly scythed areas. Over the last few weeks on the island we have been managing the spread of the invasive rosebay willowherb Chamaenerion angustifolium. The work was fun but I do not envy the pastoral workers of yesteryear!

Scything rosebay willowherb

Checking for gull chicks

Of all the things I will miss, the sounds of the island will probably be the main thing. At the beginning, nights were unnerving as the calls of Manxies, oystercatchers and rampaging bunnies surrounded me, echoing the calls of the diurnal sea cliffs, but now they are a comfort. 

Birding Highlights: 
  • My first hen harrier
  • The island is home to 4 pairs of short-eared owls, it has been a pleasure watching them hunt Skomer voles to feed their young, even if their ‘barking’ alerted me to their displeasure as I carried out duties around the island. 
  • For years I have hoped for a grey shrike, and this season I have been blessed with both a lesser grey shrike and a woodchat shrike! Not to mention all the wheatear fledglings. 
  • Being from Cornwall, the chough holds a special place in my heart and it has been a pleasure watching so many pairs fledge this season. I hope that ‘brĂ¢n Arthur’ (Arthur’s crow) will once again fill the Cornish skies as it does the Pembrokeshire coast.

Diversity, Equality, Inclusion 

Skomer Island is an important National Nature Reserve, but it is more than that; it is a place that has inspired so many. The experience for me has been more than fulfilling a lifetime ambition to stay on the island whilst making new friends and gaining career enhancing skills, it has helped me reconnect with the land. My family has always been involved in land management in one way or another, our Romani culture fosters a strong connection with the land but with the decline in traditional industries I fear this connection is becoming lost. The experience gained on Skomer is helping me forge a new path for myself, and I hope that other people from Underserved Demographics find their way onto the island and into the conservation sector. 

What next? 

I have a NERC funded Centre for Satellite Data in Environmental Science placement with the University of Edinburgh working on ‘Machine Learning for Conservation Management’ that I will be working on for the next couple of months, but I hope to continue working on remote islands and earning my BTO ringing licence, all whilst making more BBC Natural History Documentaries. My eventual aim is to work on Bird Island, South Georgia (Antarctica). I really do hope to return to Skomer in the future, and maybe even visit our sister island Skokholm.

Birthday cake in the garden

Team BBQ

Friday 16 July 2021

Until next time - a farewell from Becca

Hey everyone, it’s Becca again! My three and a half months as LTV on the island are almost up and while I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to Skomer just yet, all good things must come to an end and so this is my farewell blog post (I promise I’m not crying, it’s just hayfever…).

Now that the madness of June is over, the team has been able to turn its attention to other tasks around the island. There’s been a big effort put into the management of invasive plant species over the last couple of weeks, and focus has shifted from counting seabirds to monitoring and ringing chicks. It’s a time of change on Skomer, with many of the seabirds starting to leave the cliffs as their chicks fledge, glow worms and toads appearing on a night, and vegetation rapidly growing taller than me in some places!

One of the Manx shearwater chicks currently being weighed on a daily basis, held by an extremely excited LTV 

I genuinely struggle to find the right words to express how incredible my time here has been - I’ve had so many amazing experiences and learned so much since arriving in April and feel as though the island has really changed me. Doing at least six welcome talks a week means my days of being an anxious wreck at the thought of public speaking are behind me, going a week without a shower no longer makes me feel like a filthy gremlin, and I can walk up a hill a lot faster than I could three months ago!

A lot of people have been asking me what my most memorable moments have been on the island, and there’s been so many of them that it’s hard to pick which are the most notable. A front-runner has to be watching my backpack roll off a cliff edge and drop 40ft down to the rocks below… despite a broken scope, obliterated camera and reinforced reputation of being a massive idiot, it gave us all a pretty good laugh and is an incident I’ll remember for a long time yet (not that anyone will be letting me forget it!). Another memorable moment is an evening spent watching guillemot and razorbill chicks fledging. Seeing the tiny birds hurling themselves off the cliffs into the water below was like a suspenseful TV drama, we all got so invested in their journeys and whether they were going to make it! I also really enjoyed being able to see the island from a different perspective whilst in the RIB doing seabird counts - some parts of the coastline are like something from a pirate movie, and you don’t realise from land quite how many birds are actually on the cliffs around the island.


A young razorbill chick with its parents just a few days before fledging

I’m going to miss a lot of things about living and working on Skomer - being able to walk around the island every day, surrounded by fantastic views and amazing wildlife, is something I’ll definitely miss when I’m back home. Seeing puffins on my daily commute has become the norm, so it’ll be quite an adjustment going back to my hometown and seeing a few scruffy pigeons at most! Strangely, I think I’ll also miss the noise of the island. The constant sound of gulls has become almost comforting, and hearing thousands of Manx shearwaters during the night is something I feel very privileged to have been able to experience, even if it has woken me up a few times.

It’s going to be really difficult leaving the island, but I think I’ll find it even more difficult to say goodbye to the friends I’ve made here. Some of my best memories from my time on Skomer have been with the people here, whether that be the movie nights we had in the library, the big potluck dinners we held at the farm or just the general fun and laughter whilst working together. I’ve enjoyed every second of working here and have them to thank for it!

It doesn’t have to be warm for al fresco dining at the farm!

Clutching my bag as I returned to the scene of The Incident

Hopefully this isn’t goodbye to the island, but more of a ‘see you later’… I’m sure I’ll be back to visit before long. So, until next time, thank you for having me Skomer, and I’ll see you soon!

Sunday 11 July 2021

Comings and goings

It's all change on the island this week. Yesterday, we farewelled our LTVs Becca and Samanta, whose three and a half months on Skomer seem to have flown by. When they arrived back in the beginning of April, two duvets, thermals and hot water bottles were the order of the day - by July they'd at least ditched the thermals, and even ventured a dip in the sea in their final days here! 

A final swim!

They've been invaluable members of the team and have got stuck into every aspect of island work - from species monitoring to vegetation management, from hostel cleaning to welcome talks. We are grateful for their enthusiasm and hard graft - be they covered in mud after Manx shearwater census work, slightly green from choppy seas, or beset by bracken allergies. Outside of work, we've also enjoyed film nights, some shockingly bad games of frisbee, and exceptional baked goods. They've each written a bit for the blog about their time on the island (read Becca's farewell post here | read Samanta's farewell post here), so we won't write much more here, other than to thank them for their work and company, and to wish them all the best for the future. Pob lwc!

Becca assisting with razorbill chick ringing

Samanta scything

Week 1: carpentry with Leighton

Muddy work fuelled by biscuits

We've also said a heartfelt goodbye and thank you to guillemot fieldworker Julie, who will soon return to Australia after eight years and seven seasons on Skomer. Over the years, Jules has shown incredible dedication to her work as well as enhancing the island experience for all those who shared it with her. The 'heart of the research kitchen', she'll be very much missed. 

Pudding al fresco

A boat trip spotting Manxies

Showing the ropes

It's not all goodbyes though - time for some hellos! We are excited to welcome Ed Betteridge to the team as a long-term volunteer (LTV) for the second half of the season. Ed might well be familiar to some of you - he's been visiting the island as a weekly volunteer since 2016, and volunteered for four weeks last year when it was closed to the public. In his first 24 hours, he's been covered in poo and vomit whilst ringing gulls, has cleaned toilets, carried bags, and delivered his first welcome talks in the pouring rain - all with a smile on his face. We'll hear more from Ed soon - watch this space. 

One slightly soggy LTV!

In the meantime, the guillemots and razorbills are also leaving Skomer, as the brave jumpling chicks take the leap into the sea. Kittiwakes will be here for a few weeks more though, filling the cliffs with their distinctive call. On the high grassy ledges at the tops of cliffs you might spot fulmars with chicks, who will soon be left alone for parts of the day by the adults - they are well-equipped for self-defense, as they will projectile vomit on anything that comes too near. Manxies and puffins are both on chicks (check out our burrow-cam footage of a Manx shearwater with its chick here). Sharp-eyed visitors in July might spot pufflings emerging from their burrows for a wing-flap and a look around. We're making the most of our seabirds whilst we can - sight, sound and smell... 

- Ceris, Assistant Warden

Can't make it to Skomer just now? - We'll be doing our best to bring the island to you, in a new series of #SkomerLIVE, running from the 19th-23rd July at 6pm each evening. Tune in here