Wednesday 19 July 2023

Island update: LTVs El and Maddie

Hi! I'm El, one of the long term volunteers on Skomer this July to September. After a day's delay due to poor weather conditions we arrived on Skomer to a warm welcome and warm weather. I've only been on Skomer a week but am already settled in and excited for what the next three months will bring.

A well wrapped-up figure sitting next to a boulder and looking through binoculars at a steep cliff face.
El spotting kittiwakes at the Wick

I studied Ecology and Conservation Biology. After graduating in 2021 I worked in practical conservation and habitat management at an environmental education center. Eager to get a chance to get more involved with species monitoring efforts, last summer I volunteered on the Isle of Eigg. There I developed a taste for island life, and I knew I wanted to continue working in places surrounded by the sea and as many birds as possible. I spent this spring and early summer on Skokholm, Skomer's neighboring island. I got the chance to work with a range of seabirds, including great black backed gulls, Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, puffins and fulmars. 

Now on Skomer, I am getting into the swing of welcoming day visitors to the island and chatting with people about Skomer's awesome wildlife. I've also been cutting back fast-growing bracken and brambles from paths and signs, and have helped check biosecurity boxes set up around the island. I have enjoyed spending my free time so far exploring the island and watching my favourite gulls, kittiwakes, with their young. The highlight of the week was getting to see an incredibly fluffy Manx shearwater chick (thanks Emma!). I'm looking forward to starting seal counts as they begin returning to Skomer to pup. 

Thanks for reading! 

- El

Two long-term volunteers wearing caps and standing in front of Skomer's sales point
El and Maddie running morning boats

Hi - my name’s Maddie, I’m 23 years old and the second new Skomer Island long-term volunteer (LTV) for July-September. During my short time on the island I’ve already started aching all over from getting stuck into the hard work, including lugging visitors’ bags and brushcutting - but I’m still not used to the sheer amount of wildlife now on doorstep!

I’ve recently graduated from Cardiff University with an integrated Master’s degree in Biological Sciences. My degree choice was definitely influenced by my lifelong passion for the natural world (especially birds!), but I wanted to do something completely different to studying over the summer, with practical conservation work. Alongside uni, I volunteered time to get involved with conservation efforts whenever possible, including wetland bird surveying, nest box monitoring, Great-crested Newt surveying, vegetation management at local wild spaces and helping to set up my university’s ornithological society. Each of these rewarding experiences have helped prepare me for this role, but there’s still been a lot to learn! 

Maddie smiling at the camera, in the middle of a field full of wood sage
Maddie on a morning wander

After my initial arrival on the island and getting a chance to take in all the wildlife, I soon jumped straight into work. My tasks so far have included helping the day visitors and hostel guests on and off the island, including giving welcome talks about Skomer – these pushed me out of my comfort zone initially, but I now really enjoy sharing facts and recent sightings with the visitors. I’ve also got involved with other tasks, such as path clearance with a brushcutter, sorting out kit and contributing to bird log (a relaxed daily chat with staff and guests to record everything we’ve seen during the day).

In such a short space of time I feel like I’ve already gathered many memories that will stick with me. Three of the most exciting parts for me so far have been:

1.     Stepping outside at midnight to hear the endless cacophony of thousands of nocturnal Manx Shearwaters calling out as they flew above – the sound is incredible, and quite spooky!

2.     Spotting a leucistic (white) Puffin bobbing on the water among its more colourful companions

3.     Seeing young birds all over the island – Oystercatchers, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Curlew, Meadow Pipits, Guillemots and many more!

Young Oystercatcher with dusky bill runs from left to right through green vegetation
Young Oystercatcher 

Throughout summer and as autumn draws nearer, I’m excited to join in with more conservation work – including monitoring the Atlantic Grey Seals during the pupping season in just a few weeks time. Very soon I’ll also be starting a personal research project (once I’ve finally narrowed down a study species!). Lastly, I’m really looking forward to chatting with more guests, as well as getting to spend lots more time with the friendly staff and researchers here. 

Thanks for reading! 

- Maddie 

Hand holding a young Puffin with book shelves in the background
This young Puffin ended up in the Library after wandering into an open door, blown open at night

Saturday 15 July 2023

Seabird Counts 2023 - How Did We Count Them?

 If you were on the island in May or June, you may have noticed our staff carrying out lots of land and boat surveys – that’s because it was seabird counting season. With the aid of some photos, we thought it would be nice to explain a little more about what the survey work entailed. Our Puffin counts were completed in March (see blog post here) so we were focusing on Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Manx Shearwaters.

Rob and Leighton fixing up the boat on the dry dock.
Rob and Leighton fixing up the boat ready for launch

Rob wearing sunglasses and a hat driving an orange boat.
Rob on his powerboat course pre-season

Guillemots and Razorbills

Our counts for Guillemots and Razorbills started on 25th May and had to be completed by 11th June. The island is split into 45 sections of coast, each of which has to be counted twice. Every Guillemot and Razorbill in suitable breeding habitat (not sitting on the tideline and clearly on nest sites) are counted.

Hannah and Lisa using binoculars to count seabirds from the side of the boat.
Hannah and Lisa counting Guillemots and Razorbills

The photo below shows the difference between a Guillemot and a Razorbill. Razorbills are black with a blunt thick bill with a white stripe and a long pointed tail, whereas the Guillemots are chocolate brown with a shorter tail and long thin beak.
A brown Guillemot on a cliff with a pair of darker Razorbills above it with a chick.
A Guillemot (bottom) and pair of Razorbills with a chick (centre)

Fulmars and Kittiwakes

The counts for these birds start on the 1st June to time with their incubation, though the rest of the methodology is the same.

Kittiwakes are found in dense colonies. They are medium-sized gulls with black legs and wingtips, a prominent dark eye and yellow bill. Fulmars, who are members of the Albatross family despite resembling gulls, have broad stiff wings and a prominent “tube-nose” capable of spraying an oily substance at predators when threatened.

A steep cliff face with Kittiwakes nesting.
Kittiwakes on a cliff face with chicks

Hebe and Issy counting with binoculars with the cliffs behind them.
Hebe and Issy counting Fulmars and Kittiwakes from the boat

Manx Shearwater Census

To monitor the Manx Shearwater numbers, we have a series of 100m2 circular plots around the island. As this starts on 1st June, Manx Shearwaters should be on their nests incubating during the day. As a team, we move through the plots, playing Manx Shearwater calls down every burrow we find – the Manxies will usually call back to the recording if they’re in there. By working out how many burrows in a plot are occupied, we can scale this up to get an estimate of island numbers.

A view down a steep hill with Rob, Hebe, Erin and Lotti all holding ropes.
Rob, Hebe, Erin and Lotti putting ropes to mark the Manx Shearwater area

Erin and Leighton crawling over burrows holding speakers.
Leighton and Erin checking burrows

Will lying on the ground holding a speaker in the entrance of a Manx Shearwater burrow.
Will playing a Manx Shearwater call down a burrow

From all of this data, we can calculate the populations of these five seabird species on Skomer. It tells us how our seabirds are doing and informs our conservation management for the future.

We are incredibly grateful to all our staff, researchers and weekly volunteers for their help in completing this work. We are especially thankful to Hebe, our seabird volunteer, Erin and Lotti, our long-term volunteers and Issy, our 2022 seabird volunteer, for their tireless work on boat and land surveys. 

Hebe smiling at the camera in the boat with a view of the cliffs behind her.
Hebe on our boat

Ceris, Erin, Hebe, Tani and Rob taking a selfie on the island.
The team celebrating the completion of another Manx Shearwater plot - this one took 5 hours!

Until next year, seabird counts!

This project is funded by the Nature Networks Programme. It is being delivered by the Heritage Fund, on behalf of the Welsh Government. We are very grateful, as this funded the boat repairs, boat clothes, Rob’s powerboat course and whole island seabird counts.

Rob driving the boat whilst wearing a new blue boat jacket.
Rob modelling some of the new boat clothes provided by the funding.

Heritage Fund Logo