Wednesday, 12 October 2016

What will week 41 bring?

So far this season 156 seal pups have been born on Skomer, which is four less than the same time last year. The final number of course will depend on how the end of the season turns out. Maybe we have already reached the peak?

Week 39 (26/9-3/10) was very productive this year with 34 births. In 2013 we had 37 births in week 39 but in the following two years we found no more than 19 new born pups during the same period.

Seal pup births per week in 2015

If the pattern of the last two years continues we will reach our maximum number of births this week (week 41). We were lucky enough to witness a seal pup getting born this morning: after noticing a large, pregnant female on North Haven beach last night. We were expecting to see a new pup on the beach this morning. However at 07.00h the cow was still in the same spot and no new born pup in sight.

Then at 08.30h Alice, our Long-term Volunteer, came down to the office and she noticed this female lifting her lower body up and straining. So we all rushed outside to brace the cold northerly winds to watch with bated breath the female give birth to a soggy looking pup. Luckily (for her and for us watching with cold fingers) it only took her 15 minutes to give birth.

At 10.30h when Alice and I came back from checking the caves for seals the female was still with her pup and she was encouraging it to drink, she was stroking its head with her flipper and finally it managed to find the teat and suckle- probably its first drink

(Skomer Warden)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Cold-blooded inhabitants of Skomer

From April-September we have short term volunteers on the island, as well as helping out with the day to day running of the island and visitor engagement, they also carry out some important surveys while on the island, including our reptile surveys.

We have two reptile transects on the island: the Farm and the coast transect. They both consist of around 20 refugia which heat up during the day and attract the cold blooded inhabitants of the island. The normally illusive Slow Worms Anguis fragilis are the most common visitors to these refugia. Common Toad, Skomer Vole and Common Lizards are also often seen.

The numbers of Slow Worms found can depend on weather conditions and time of year, our peak numbers were found in July and August with a peak total of 144 individuals in our farm transect (11/08/2016), and a peak of 25 individuals in our outer island transect (24/08/2016). All of the data collected is collated and then sent off to the Reptile and Amphibian Conservation Trust.

Slow Worms are neither worms nor snakes but belong to the lizard family, through evolution they have lost their legs, making them look surprisingly like snakes. They also have a very interesting evolutionary trait, similar to our common lizards, the Slow Worm can drop its tail when threatened to create a diversion in the hope that the predator will go for its tail and not the body, they then regrow their tail which happens slowly. Like all other reptiles, Slow Worms are ectotherm and need to find warm places to bask (warm their blood) to be able to get the energy to hunt, this is where our refugia come in. They provide the perfect basking habitat.. Slow worms mainly eat slugs, worms and other insects, which are plentiful on Skomer!

Slow Worms (photo by Pia Reufsteck)

Toads are much more frequently seen on Skomer than frogs, if you have stayed the night here you will know that when night descends the toads come out hunting for worms and slugs. There are often counts of over 100 individual toads between the Farm and North Haven, while frog numbers on the island are much smaller and harder to count, only a handful are seen along the same route.

Toad (photo by Pia Reufsteck)

Thanks to all of our lovely volunteers who took part in this year’s reptile surveys!

Alice Brooke (Long Term Volunteer)

Thursday, 22 September 2016

New hides for Skomer

This week the Friends of Skomerand Skokholm have been working hard to rebuild the hides at North Pond and Moorey Mere. The work party group split into two teams (4 at Moorey Mere and 2 at North Pond). 

So far some friendly competition has developed between the two groups: to see who can finish the hide first! Four days in and the North Pond team is in the lead with only the windows to make (estimated half a day of work left), and the Moorey Mere team is just slightly behind with the windows, floor and benches to finish (estimated 2 days of work left).

Moorey Mere hide

By Friday, the hides should be finished and ready for public use again. So come along to spot the migrant birds in our lovely new hides before the island shuts for the season! Hopefully all their hard work will pay off and the hides will still be standing strong after the winter winds and for lots of years to come!     

North Pond hide

Many thanks go out to Howard, John, Rob, Ronan, Peter and Steve for making the hides, to the Friends of Skokholm and Skomer in general for donating the hides and the volunteers for hauling all the wood up the dreaded steps from the landing!  

If you would like to support the work we do on Skomer why not become a member of the Friends. For more information click here.

(Long-term Volunteer)

And many thanks more go to our lovely Long-term Volunteers Alice and Cerren who did the cooking for the work party! Well done girls!

(Skomer Warden)

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Island's daughter

The Seals

Leave her alone,
She is the Island's daughter.
Sleek heads, dark heads
Are risen from the water:
Leaver her the company
Her songs have brought her.

The old grey music doctors
Of the ocean,
Their holy, happy eyes
Shining devotion,
Applaud and blow
In foam and soft commotion.

It is her hour.
The Island's only daughter.
The dark, sleek heads
Are risen from the water:
Leave her the company
Her songs have brought her.

L.A.G. Strong

It's no secret that I adore the Grey Seals that spend at least part of their lives in Skomer's waters. The pupping season has begun and since beginning of August 51 seal pups have been born.

When Grey Seal pups are born they wear a white coat which they moult into the adult pelage after three weeks. They look very cute when they are lying quite helplessly on the beaches waiting to be fed. At birth they weigh between 12 and 20kg but they soon turn from an elongated looking creature into a balloon shaped one and then weigh 60 or more kilograms. They feed on very rich milk with a fat content of up to 60% (butter has a fat content of 80%) and gain nearly two kilograms of weight per day. 

The males are massive, their skin is covered in scars, the flesh around their necks lies in folds and they look truly scary. When they fight with each other, for the right to mate with the females on the beach, they grunt and bite often drawing blood, churn up the water and make pebbles fly.

The females are beautiful sleek animals with dark shiny eyes and smooth skin. Their fur can show the most amazing patterns and they are caring and gentle with their pups. However they become fearsome warriors when their offspring is in danger.

(Skomer Warden)

Friday, 9 September 2016

Puffinus puffinus – Manx Shearwater Week

Every year, guests come to Skomer to take part in the ‘Shearwater experience’ and learn more about these incredible birds and their extraordinary lives out at sea, on the largest colony of Manx Shearwaters in the world. An amazing 316,000 pairs breed on Skomer, with the birds returning in early March and staying until late September. 

It all starts on the first night with a talk from the Oxford University researchers, from the Oxford Navigation Group, on the life history of Shearwaters, the historical research on these amazing navigators and also the current research being carried out by the team from Oxford.

With the help of a volunteer from the Friends of Skokholm and Skomer we then head out on a night time walk to witness the Shearwater chicks out of their burrows, practicing their wingbeats and maybe, if you’re lucky, taking their very first flight. Red lights are best for the Shearwaters and as a bonus it doesn’t hinder your night vision so if it is a clear night, the stars can be incredible too! 

As part of Shearwater Week, guests are also invited to weigh chicks with the researchers on the second day of their stay. There’s around 60 chicks to weigh and you can get as involved as you like, from carrying, weighing or even giving it a go at getting the chicks out of the burrows.

This chick still has quite a lot of down left around the neck and belly, which some people like to see as the Shearwaters trousers. 

It’s difficult to make out, but this chick weighs 455g. Adults weigh between 400-450g and chicks can weigh up to 550-600g at their heaviest! Chicks will then lose the excess weight in the build up to fledging. 

Shearwater Week guests lined up on the research colony at North Haven, ready to weigh chicks.

It’s amazing to think that some of the chicks that fledged during the first few days of Shearwater Week are now probably most of their way to their wintering grounds off the east coast of South America, 10,000km away. How do they navigate? I hear you ask. You'll have to attend next years Shearwater Week to find out. 

A special thanks to all of the guests that attended Shearwater Week, the Friends of Skokholm and Skomer and Oxford Navigation Group, especially Ollie Padget, Sarah Bond, Amaia Mendinueta and Tim Guilford. For more information on the research being carried out on Skomer Island by Oxford Navigation Group please see: 

Bookings for next year’s Shearwater Week will open on 3rd October for members of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, and 17th October for non-members. Shearwater Week will run from 22nd August until 30th August in 2017, again as a two night stay. Contact: or 01656 724100 to book.  

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

What’s lurking in the undergrowth?

I am Alice, one of this years long term volunteers, I have been on Skomer since mid-July and have really enjoyed myself so far. I have just finished my degree in conservation at Aberystwyth. I love the challenges that come with living on an island, the harsh environment and the tricky weather. It is such a privilege to be able to spend time here and immerse myself in the research, public engagement, running of the island and of course the wildlife, no two days are the same!

Since being on Skomer I have learned so much about the species that call this island their home, from the moths to the sea birds and everything in-between. I have become more and more interested in the species that are present on the island, but are not often seen, for example the bats, common lizards and of course the Skomer vole.

My personal project is looking at the populations of the charismatic Skomer vole on the island. Last year I was lucky enough to be able to come to the island with Dr Tim Healing, who did his PhD on the Skomer vole, for 10 days to help him carry out a census on the vole populations. This year I have taken on the project myself, following Tim’s methodology, carrying out 5 nights of mark and recapture on two separate sites, one with high density and a lower density site.

The Skomer vole is a sub species of bank vole that is endemic to Skomer, it is one of four small mammals on the island, including the wood mouse, common shrew and the pygmy shrew. It was thought that the bank vole was introduced to the island by accident possibly by a boat, and they have been on the island for so long that they have become genetically different to the mainland bank vole, creating a new subspecies. The Skomer vole is larger and has slightly different behaviour to the mainland bank vole; they are not used to having any ground predators and so are quite tame. They are only used to aerial predators and so stay still when they feel threatened. During my time trapping them, I have gotten to know certain animals very well. Last year, ‘Endless’ was my favourite (a juvenile male with no tail) and this year it is an adult female (number 918) that I watched foraging around the bracken in the evening, I have caught her almost every night.

The likely hood of seeing the Skomer vole is normally quite slim but if you are lucky, you could catch a glance on one running across the path. A little easier to spot during your visit are the common lizards. On sunny days they warm themselves on the board walk outside the hide at Moorey Mere. The common lizards are ectotherm (they can't generate heat themselves unlike mammals) and so need to warm their blood up by basking in the sun in order to hunt for small insects. Look out for the blue coloured juveniles and the extremely small immature animals.

When darkness falls on the island and the Manx shearwaters start to fly in be sure to look around your feet for the frogs and toads that come out and hunt insects, slugs and worms. Also look out for bats flying above your head, there have been nine different bat species recorded. Pipistrelles are most commonly seen, often flying around the old farm buildings at dusk.

When you are next on Skomer, keep one eye in the sky and one on the ground and let us know what you have seen!

Alice Brooke, Long Term Volunteer

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Secret Life of Skomer’s Sea Shores

Hi, my name is Cerren and I am one of the Long Term Volunteers here on Skomer for the second half of the season. I had never been to Skomer before, but so far I have enjoyed every second! Each day has been so different and enjoyable.

Skomer is home to an impressive array of wildlife, and most people associate the island with its large colonies of seabirds, however, little attention is given to the shore life of Skomer. As I am currently reading Marine Biology with Oceanography at university, I have a keen interest in marine life and decided to go rockpooling in the intertidal zone along the beaches of Skomer. The intertidal zone, the area between the high and low tide, is one of the harshest environments for animals to survive in because of the changing environmental conditions. The animals living there have to cope with the stresses of changing salinity as it rains, the temperature as the sun heats the rockpools, long periods out of water as the tide recedes, and the mechanical strength of the waves. As a result, the fauna living in the intertidal zone have undergone some fascinating adaptations!

Cornish lumpsucker (Photo: P. Reufsteck)

Even though North Haven beach seems like a simple pile of rocks and boulders- it is teeming with life! Under the first rock I turned over, I found three shore clingfish also known as Cornish lumpsuckers. These fish have remarkable adaptations for example their pelvic fins have fused together to form suckers which help them to remain stuck to the rocks on exposed shores. They are also covered in a layer of mucous which allows them to remain hydrated during periods out of water. Some other species that I found included the broad-clawed porcelain crab which has flattened hairy claws to catch small particles in the water, sea mats which look like tiny bubble-wrap on top of kelp but they are actually a colony of individual bryozoans and by-the-wind sailors which are free-floating hydrozoans from the same phylum as jellyfish (the cnidarians). Like the jellyfish, by-the wind sailors also have stinging cells called nematocysts which they use to stun their prey.

By-the-wind sailor (Photo: J. Milborrow)

Normally, the public don’t have access to the beaches on Skomer to minimise disturbance to wildlife, but on Wednesday, I held a seashore spectacular family day activity. It was a very successful day with a great turn out of people. Around 15 children and their parents joined me for a two hour session of rock pooling on North Haven beach. The children loved finding the variety of invertebrates and vertebrates along the shore. Some of the species that were found included compass jellyfish, by-the wind sailors, keelworms, barnacles, limpets, topshells, dog whelk, anemones, shannies, blennies and common shore crab. Their favourite animals by far were the crabs therefore we all decided to have a competition to find the largest crab on the beach (the winner found a 5cm common shore crab).

Edible crab (Photo: C. Richards)

Next time you go to a rocky shore, check under the rocks to see what fascinating creatures you can find, but remember to place the rocks back gently where you found them!

(Long Term Volunteer)