Thursday, 21 September 2017

Seasonal Change

With autumn starting to set in and my three and a half month stint on Skomer Island as a Long-term Volunteer (LTV) over, it is natural for me to be reflecting on change. Change turned out to be a very visual aspect of the habitats and wildlife on Skomer Island especially with the Wildflowers.

The spring started off with the centre of the island carpeted by a thick layer of Bluebells...

 Replaced quickly by the Red Campion in late April....

And by May, Sea Campion popped up around the puffin colonies...

Finally a splash of yellow was added to the mix in July with a touch of Ragwort supporting a burst of insect activity including Cinnabar moths, butterflies and bumblebees.

The Animal life also changed over the season. I arrived at the beginning of the spring bird migration, with the spectacle of dozens of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff and a few rarities like Black Redstart, Sub Alpine Warbler (pictured) and Dark Eyed Junco.

As for the famous Auks, I arrived as they started to return to the Island at the beginning of April and left around the time they did too by mid July. I had the privilege of watching them complete their breeding cycles and I was overjoyed when we found out that after hours of fieldwork and boat work that all species of Auk counted in 2017 were doing well or increasing in number on the island.

The marine life also changed with the seasons. In April I was greeted by up to 80 grey seals on North Haven beach in what is called a “haul out” where they arrive to moult, although one enterprising male preferred to find his own personal haul out.

The marine sightings really started to pour in during the summer however, where, replacing the seals, I was able to see Porpoise (almost daily), Common Dolphin, Sunfish in North Haven, Risso’s Dolphin and Barrel Jellyfish. Sea watches were also increasingly accompanied by the Skomer icon, the Manx Shearwater.

The new LTV’s will be enjoying different phenomena in the second half of the season. The seals have returned to pup on the beaches around the island, and many of the 300,000 pairs of shearwater have left for Argentina as well as their chicks who are currently in the process of fledging.

This is a dangerous time for the fledglings, especially due to the strong winds hitting the coasts, so keep an eye out for any inland that may have lost their way. Advice on how to deal with lost shearwaters can be found here

Other visitors to the reserve, in the form of Weekly Volunteers, always provided welcome new additions to the small community we have on the island.  Being a weekly volunteer remains one of the best ways to experience the wildlife on the island, and definitely prepared me for my time as LTV. It also allows you to see the island in a new way and is a brilliant way to connect with the wildlife and scenery.

Thank you to all the staff, researchers, Weekly Volunteers and visitors who made my stay so enjoyable. I hope to be back soon.

If you are interested in becoming a Weekly Volunteer Assistant Warden please visit the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales here.

Thomas Faulkner former LTV

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Weekly volunteer applications are out!

If you've ever visited Skomer Island you are likely to have met some of our wonderful volunteers. Volunteers stay on the Island from Saturday morning to the following Saturday midday and truly are essential to allowing the island to run smoothly. For volunteers it is a wonderful way to see and get to know the island, and meet our neighbours who only come out at night!

Manx Shearwaters, exploring the island at night and using our signs for extra elevation. (Photo: P. Reufsteck)

If you are interested in volunteering on Skomer in 2018, please fill out an application form by the 1st of October.

Application forms have been updated this year so if you are a returning volunteer I would really appreciate it if you could download and use the new application form (feel free to copy text from previous applications- many of the questions haven't changed!).

Applications can be found on the wildlife trust website or click HERE.

See you soon!

Sarah (Assistant Warden)

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Marine Biologist in 'Seabird Central'

Hello there!

My name is Jake Taylor-Bruce and I am the other half of the Long Term Volunteer duo (see last weeks blog for an introduction to Joe). I have just finished a four year degree Applied Marine Biology from Bangor University and am currently on Skomer until the very end of September. As you may have guessed from my degree title, I am hugely passionate about the ocean and the great variety of life that can be found within it. Luckily for me Skomer Island is in a brilliant location for marine life, situated off the west coast of Wales and (of course) surrounded by the Irish Sea. Not to mention the tall cliffs, which offer panoramic views out to sea, where on many days harbour porpoise and common dolphin can be seen in quite high numbers feeding or simply swimming by. If you’re really lucky there is also the possibility of seeing much rarer species like minke whale, bottlenose dolphin and even ocean sunfish! All three of which have been seen in the last few weeks. This isn’t to mention of course the fantastic views of sea birds both on and off the island. Truly Skomer is a marine biologists paradise!

Me, myself and I

As part of my time here on Skomer I am running a research project that is taking place in North Haven (one of the sheltered bays on the island). Of particular interest here is the sea grass bed, a disappearing habitat that can be home to many rare species, such as seahorses. My project involves placing an underwater camera alternately in the seagrass bed and in the kelp forests at the base of the cliffs. This camera is then left to run for around 45 minutes and when I return to pick it up I review the footage and identify the fish species that swim past when there is little human disturbance. The results so far have been great, with large sea bass and various wrasse species being abundant. In addition to this, both adult and juvenile pollack are regulars, along with large shoals of minute two spot blennys. While the camera is left running I follow along the cliff edge recording species that I have seen and I must say, the underwater world here is just beautiful! With shining jewel anemones, armies of long legged spiny spider crabs, large ballan wrasse drifting lazily through forests of kelp and multi coloured sea slugs like animated sweets hidden amongst the kelp fronds. To say nothing of the bizarre fan worms, sponges and star ascidians that litter the rock walls. Perhaps my favourite encounter so far involved following a beautiful orange snake pipe fish through the kelp forest, before spotting it spiraling about in an underwater glade.

Janolus cristatus, a crystal sea slug found off Skomer Island 

In my spare time here I am also working to improve my photography, a real passion of mine and something which Skomer provides the perfect opportunity to improve on. The combination of awesome seabirds, cetaceans and the frankly ludicrously beautiful sunsets and sun rises, as well as the ever-shifting light, create an environment that is perfect for photography improvement.

Common toad, trying to get into my house! 

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Joe, our super enthusiastic but slightly clumsy LTV

Hello hello! My name is Joe and I am one of the two Long Term Volunteers working on the island. I am currently an undergraduate at Aberystwyth University studying zoology about to enter my final year in September. I have spent a few weeks on Skomer in previous years prior to this placement as a short-term volunteer where I got a flavour of island life and from the moment I arrived in mid-July my time here has been nothing short of amazing.

Me struggling to see out of the Warden’s ringing glasses.
Since arriving I think it’s fair to say my clumsiness hasn’t gone unnoticed so if you’re thinking of visiting the island over the next few weeks and you see someone stumbling out of hides or tripping over boardwalks say hello, it’s probably me!

Recently we have been setting several camera traps about the island in response to the exciting otter sightings. Below I have complied a few highlights of the footage which currently spans over 20 species!

My favourite footage captured on the camera trap so far is without doubt the elusive water rail sightings. When viewing the footage for the first I got so excited I leapt vertically several feet out of my chair, bruised my ribs and jumped up and down madly for a while.


Can you spot the huge cyst on the otter’s hindleg?

A Puffling from earlier in the season just sneaking into the frame.

Check out the wingspan of the Manx shearwater…

Each Long Term Volunteer takes on a personal project whilst on the island and I have decided to investigate the calls of the numerous Manx shearwater. I aim to analyse the begging behaviour the shearwater chicks which are currently tucked away in a burrow waiting for their parents to return with food under the cover of darkness. I hope to integrate this research with my university honours project so keep an eye on the blog early next year for a link to my dissertation findings!

So far my time on Skomer has been incredible - the wildlife sightings are something else and with the arrival of autumn migration and seal numbers beginning to increase once again it will only get better! Over the coming month or so I will be helping the Wildlife Trust monitor seals and their super cute pups which are popping up all over the place as well as experimenting with moth traps and camera traps around the island. There’s never been a more exciting time to visit and I look forward to welcoming you all to the island over the next few weeks.

Joe (Long Term Volunteer)

Monday, 14 August 2017

When things go ‘jump’ in the night… a puffling’s first flight to sea revealed by thermal imaging

Skomer Island isn't only a fantastic place for visitors to watch seabirds but also a hotspot for seabird research and lots of ground-braking scientific work has been conducted on the island over the years.

New technologies enable the researchers to take closer and closer looks at the life histories of Manx Shearwaters, Guillemots, Puffins and Co.

Read Emily Burford’s blog post about her research on Pufflings and have had a look at Sarah’s post on Auk chicks.

Fluffy Puffling (photo Pia Reufsteck)

Puffling old enough to fledge (poto Ben Dean)

We also captured a Puffling on one of our trail cameras. We were trying to get footage of the Otter which has been seen at Green Pond several times in the last few weeks and on top of Otter footage we managed to film 11 other species: Puffin, Jackdaw, Pheasant, Manx Shearwater, Moorhen, Water Rail, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Wren, Dunnock, Meadow Pipit and Woodmouse.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The world of the Black-legged Kittiwake

Most people wouldn't believe it but the Black-legged Kittiwake is apparently the most common gull species in the world. I'm guessing that people are more familiar with the classic 'seagull' of seaside resorts, the Herring Gull, but there are, in fact, twice as many Kittiwakes in Britain than Herring Gulls. Those who have made a trip to Bempton or the Farnes on the east coast, one of the Scottish islands or indeed Skomer may be aware of this dainty seabird but their pelagic lifestyle and choice of breeding habitat - vertical rocky sea cliffs, often on remote coastlines and islands - take them away from the sphere of most peoples consciousness. Having said this, all is not well in the world of the Black-legged Kittiwake.

Adult Black-legged Kittiwake

Adult on nest with a day old chick
The UK currently has around 380,000 breeding pairs of Kittiwakes which is around 8% of the world population. They are red listed in the UK due to steep declines in the population since the 1980s. These declines are likely caused by low productivity coupled with low survival.

Kittiwakes need a plentiful supply of oily fish, such as sandeels, in order to raise chicks and during the non-breeding season to survive the winter and to be in good enough condition to breed again the following summer. Sandeel numbers are highly susceptible to overfishing and changes in sea temperature and a reduction in sandeel numbers, or their availability, will have a negative impact on Kittiwake breeding success. If you are interested in finding out more about the relationship between sandeel numbers and the breeding success of Kittiwakes (and Puffins) see these sites: marine-life 
and RSPB

Skomer has one of the largest Kittiwake colonies in Southern Britain and the largest in Wales. They have undergone several years of slow decline on Skomer and the 2017 total of 1,336 nests is once again a drop in numbers ( 9% less than in 2016 and 24% less than the mean of the previous ten years). Nationally, and especially in Scotland, the situation is even worse with declines of up to 15% per annum.

Work is being done on Skomer to monitor and study the Kittiwake population with the aim of identifying reasons for the decline and applying this to its conservation (although this may be very difficult given the broad scale nature of the problems involved).

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales conduct a whole island population count every year as well as productivity monitoring of a sub-set of colonies. Gloucester University undertake additional studies to look at adult survival. These studies cover population, productivity and survival but one missing link is knowing where the birds go to find food. Tracking work over the last two years by Liverpool University has started to reveal some interesting patterns. It seems that Skomer's Kittiwakes are island hoppers, feeding mostly around the local islands of Ramsey, The Bishops and Clerks, The Smalls, Grassholm and Skokholm and travel no more than 40 km from the colony on a single feeding trip. The study also revealed that the Kittiwakes prefered shallower, more vertically mixed, water, possibly due to higher resource availability in these areas. You can follow Alice Trevail and Samantha Patrick on Twitter at: @SEG_UL

All birds within the study are colour ringed to follow their life history
Threats: Climate change, warming seas, overfishing, increased storm events, pollution, mortality as bycatch, collision with offshore wind turbines.

Kittiwake nests at the Wick being battered by a storm in June 2017
Actions (taken from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species):
The species could benefit from Species Action Plans, a regional monitoring strategy and further research on the effects on climate change and prey reductions. Creating a network of hunting-free reserves in coastal areas. Monitoring of bycatch of this species through on board observer programmes, and appropriate mitigation measures implemented where necessary. Sustainably manage fisheries to prevent over-fishing.

Obviously we can all help by reducing our carbon footprint and by making sure if we eat fish we source it and, other products, sustainably but there are also other small ways in which we can help. Supporting conservation organisations and research bodies who protect and study the lives of these vulnerable seabirds will give them a helping hand. If you are a keen birder, taking part in national and regional seabird surveys as well as making sure all of your seawatching data goes to Birdtrack will also help.

Let's keep them the most abundant gull in the world.    

Reasons for hope: A recent report by the BTO states that the Kittiwake is the only seabird within the RAS (Ringing Adults for Survival) network showing a long-term increase in survival. To read the full report see

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Auk Chicks

As a seabird colony, Skomer sees a huge influx of birds in the summer, with the vast majority of the seabirds only hoping to raise one chick in the year, if everything goes well.

Adult Guillemots and Razorbills preen and bond a the beginning of the season. (Photo P. Reufsteck)


As if puffins weren’t charismatic enough, their chicks have the adorable name ‘Pufflings’. Those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time have had glimpses of these young birds coming to the entrance of their burrows to stretch their wings and build up flight muscles, before retreating below ground to await more deliveries of fish from their parents.

This brave Puffling emerged from its burrow at the wick to stretch it's wings last week, and has most likely now fledged. (Photo by one of our weekly volunteers, Allan Rose)

The rest of the pufflings journey however is a lot harder to follow, with the pufflings only finally leaving the burrow and fledging out to sea after complete darkness. If they survive their first winter, they will return next summer, after the breeding adults have already got eggs or chicks down their burrows and watch what’s going on. This social return is thought to be why Puffins are often slow to colonise new areas.

If you get a good enough look at them, or have a decent quality photo you can tell these youngsters by their slightly darker bills with fewer grooves.

If you look closely, you can see the bird in the left photo has few if any groves on its bill, compared to the bird in the right photo, which is a breeding adult.


Razorbills with a young chick. (Photo P. Reufsteck)

The first guillemot chicks hatched on the second of June and the first Razorbill on the 28th May. For both of these Auk species, chicks stay on the cliffs protected by an adult until when they only a third grown (sometimes as young as 15 days old), head out to sea. One of the adults (normally the male) goes down to the water and calls the chick, which calls back with a characteristic high pitched call, and eventually, during the evening it jumps off the cliff. This is where they get their name from. They do this before they are big enough to fly, and their wings can only slightly break their fall. If they survive the jump and make it to the water, they then have to make it to their parents before a gull makes it to them. Once safe from the immediate danger, the male will take them out to sea, where they will continue to feed it away from the dangers of life on the cliffs.

Similarly to Puffins, young birds return to the island when they are a few years old, but they generally don’t begin breeding until they are five to seven years old. Thanks to long term ringing studies like the one run by Tim Birkhead of Sheffield University, we are able to know in amazing detail the life history of some of our birds. For more information click here.

A guillemot chick on one of Skomers cliffs, being protected by an adult. this bird would probably have only stayed on the cliff a few more days before jumping. (Photo P. Reufsteck)

All being well the majority of our chicks will return to the island in a couple or three years’ time, and start breeding themselves a few years after that.

Good luck to them all!

Sarah (assistant warden)