Monday, 14 May 2018

Manxies moving in?

Manx shearwaters (manxies) may not be as well known as the popular puffins but on a global scale they are probably the most important species on Skomer. They are a true seabird, distantly related to the albatross and only come to land to breed, where they nest in underground burrows. They have evolved to spend their lives out on the ocean with their legs positioned far back on their bodies, perfect for diving and swimming. They find it difficult to walk on land and shuffle ungainly around on their bellies. For this reason they only breed successfully on islands free from land predators such as rats, stoats and cats. Even here they are extremely vulnerable to predation by gulls. They are therefore far more elusive than puffins and only come to land to access their burrows under cover of darkness.

This year we will be completing a full island Manx shearwater census, last undertaken in 2011. Staff and specially recruited volunteers will be working hard throughout June to gather this data. Given that at the last census there were over 316,000 pairs this will be a major undertaking. This figure represents just under 50% of the world’s population of Manx shearwaters and therefore Skomer is vitally important to the continued success of the manxie.

Part of the process of protecting the shearwaters requires monitoring and long term survey work has been undertaken by researchers from Oxford University for many years. This has produced vital information regarding their migration routes, foraging strategies and breeding success.
This year we have decided to build and install some artificial nest boxes. This way the birds can be accessed to ring and weigh which is all vital to determining breeding success and adult survival. Our neighbours on Ramsey Island have had success with their nest box colony installed in 2015 and we are keen to see if the same will happen here.

Weighing manx shearwater chicks to monitor their progress

Manx shearwater chick in a nest box on Ramsey Island 2017

Staff and volunteers on Skomer constructed the boxes on the island and they were installed by digging them into the ground which acts as a nesting chamber, curved drain pipe was used to mimic the tunnels. This design has been used successfully for another shearwater species (Hutton’s shearwaters) in New Zealand and Ramsey Island copied this design for their Manx shearwater boxes.

Drainpipe mimics burrow tunnel

Nestbox and tunnel entrance

The whole Skomer team got involved digging in boxes

The boxes have been dug into an area close to the warden’s house in North Haven, a naturally dense shearwater colony where we hope that young birds prospecting for a nesting burrow will take a liking to one of the nest boxes. We check these boxes regularly and will keep you informed of how they fare this year. Hopefully if we get any birds in the boxes we will install a camera so that we can monitor how they are doing.

For now we have a camera in an established burrow where a pair of shearwaters have returned to breed. Live pictures from this burrow are being streamed and can be viewed in Lockley Lodge. So if you are visiting Skomer this season, be sure to stop off at the Lodge and see how they are doing.

Manx shearwater in "burrow cam" burrow

Some amazing Manx shearwater facts
  • 90% of the world’s population of Manx shearwaters breed around UK islands. 50% of these breed on the Pembrokeshire islands.
  • Manx shearwaters can live beyond 50 years of age. The oldest known bird was a female that bred on Bardsey Island. She was ringed as an adult in 1957 she was last seen in 2008 and so would have been at least 53 years of age.
  • Manxie pairs separate over winter but return to the same burrow and the same partner every year.
  • Manxies migrate from their breeding grounds around the UK to the Southern hemisphere off the Argentinian coast (8,000 miles) then return to the UK the following year. They may travel up to the equivalent of to the moon and back ten times in their lifetime.
  • Manxies lay only one egg but this is relatively large weighing up to 15% of the adult. After feeding their chick for around 6 weeks the adults leave for Argentina. The chick will emerge from the burrow around a week to ten days later and then leave land to follow a similar route taken by the adults to South America. They won’t touch land until they are two years of age and very often will return to an area very close to the burrow they were reared in.

All these are some of the reasons why Manx shearwaters continue to be one of my favourite birds. I feel privileged to live on Skomer where I only have to step outside my door to hear and see thousands of them coming and going every night.
Anyone wishing to enjoy this experience can do so by booking to stay overnight in our hostel accommodation on Skomer. We are also hosting a “Shearwater week” event form 2nd September to 10th September. This event will include talks by researchers, night walks and chick weighing as part of the experience. Please contact the booking office 01656 724100 for more information.

Sarah J., aka Small Sarah, aka Parmor!
Skomer Visitor Officer

Monday, 7 May 2018

From Indonesia to Skomer. The words of a Pembrokeshire lad.

Hi, my name is Tom Lloyd and I’m one of the new Long-Term Volunteers (LTVs) here on Skomer Island. I’ve been here for just over a month now and while there has been a lot to learn and many changes to my life, I think I’m settling in well. 
I’ve wanted to work in animal conservation for my entire life, and I’ve studied both Zoology and Primate Conservation at university. I’ve also volunteered before, but for the most part this has been on the other side of the world, most notably in Indonesia, and in completely different field conditions.

Me in the Sabangau rainforest of Central Kalimantan, Borneo. Heat and mosquitoes are not pictured
Skomer has presented me with a whole different set of challenges to overcome and experiences to enjoy. The intense heat of the tropics has been replaced by the rain and cold and strong Atlantic winds of West Wales, but, being a Pembrokeshire native I have never been a stranger to these things.
There are no primates here on Skomer (excusing the human kind) but the island is absolutely swarming with an incredible variety of birds, as anyone familiar with it knows, and it has been both daunting and a pleasure to get to grips with all the different species and the ways in which they live their lives.

Skomer is about as far from the jungle as you can get really. For a start there are no trees.
What I’d like to talk about today though is something very novel to me. Something which, despite knowing for a while beforehand that I would be doing it, was still hard for me to picture.

And that is learning to drive the island tractor.

Trundle in profile
His name, appropriately, is Trundle, and he’s the only motorized vehicle on the island. You can often set your watch by the sound of his engine arriving at the Farm or landing to pick up the luggage of our overnight guests and our vital supplies of gas, food and fuel. Life would be a lot more difficult without him, as without the tractor everything would have to be moved by hand (or rather, by wheelbarrow) and the hill leading up from the landing is strenuous enough even when you’re empty-handed.

Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about engines and vehicles, and while I can drive a car there are many differences to driving this tractor, which have made my established instincts completely wrong. Sarah, the Assistant Warden, who can take most of the credit for teaching me, has speculated that it might even be easier to learn if you cannot drive to begin with! 
For a start, Trundle has no accelerator. Once he is in gear, he will go, and his engine, while only capable of trundling along at a speed a little faster than walking, is strong enough to haul incredibly heavy loads. Alongside this neither the brake nor the handbrake are strong enough to stop the tractor while the engine is engaged for that you'll need both brake and clutch. Perhaps most confusing for me was the fact that Trundle has three gear sticks, all of which need to be used for the tractor to go. It is a little more like riding a bike than driving a car in that respect.
One thing however that makes driving this slow but powerful vehicle a little bit more nerve wracking are the incredibly narrow paths we have to work with here on Skomer. The whole island is a honeycomb of tunnels, burrows and nesting chambers, made by the resident puffins, Manx shearwaters and rabbits. All of this underground infrastructure makes the ground so fragile that all it takes is the foot of a careless visitor, or the leg of a camera tripod to collapse the homes of the animals living underneath. 
This means that a lot of focus is required when driving, to make sure you are keeping inside the narrow margins available to you, and for the most part you have to resist the urge to bird-watch from the elevated vantage point of the tractor’s seat. Something which can be hard to do when you’ve just spooked a short-eared owl at a distance of ten metres.  
The tractor is surprisingly well-maintained, especially considering all of the mud we get on rainy days, and so it’s no surprise to hear that the tractor is Sarah’s baby, and she takes his cleaning and maintenance very seriously. Being high up on the tractor though does have the advantage of elevating your own boots and legs above said mud, keeping them clean for a few more precious hours.
Apart from that though perhaps why I most enjoy working on the tractor is the chance to sing at the top of my lungs, completely unheard by anyone above the sound of its engine.
Learning to drive the tractor has been a novel and at times stressful experience for me, but it is something I’m very glad I’ve had the chance to do, and I’m happy to say that after several weeks of tractoring up and down the island, I think I’m getting the hang of it.  

See you in the slow lane!
Tom Lloyd, Long Term Volunteer Spring 2018

Saturday, 28 April 2018

The wonders of Skomer

Hello! My name is Dulcie, and I’m one of the Long Term Volunteers (LTV) lucky enough to call Skomer my home for the busy spring season. 

I’ve been given the responsibility of the blog this week.

Prior to becoming a Long-term Volunteer (LTV), I volunteered for 6 months in a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa, and was also involved in a local peregrine falcon project on the edge of Dartmoor with the National Trust.

I graduated from Falmouth University in 2016 with a first-class degree in BA (Hons) Marine & Natural History Photography. The course was a unique blend of photography and biology, with the purpose of combining natural history image making with conservation and the environment.

Ultimately, we explored the potential influence and impact that a camera can achieve; it’s a cliché, but “a picture is worth a thousand words” – photography can definitely be valued as a vital tool in conservation.

Skomer is positively teeming with wildlife - making it not only a precious haven for nature, but a photographer’s paradise too. The island supports an impressive diversity of subjects to capture, from spring’s stunning exhibition of bluebells to the spectacular short-eared owl that glides low above them. A steady flow of summer migrants, such as the woodchat shrike that has recently graced the island, add even more excitement and intrigue for the keen nature enthusiast. 

Guillemots at North Haven 

Razorbill taking flight

Packed tightly on precarious cliff ledges, you can experience the sensory overload of guillemots in their sheer thousands. Hidden amongst them are the razorbills, tucked away in the cliff crevices. These large colonies are particularly fascinating to watch, with their lively behaviour offering a wealth of photographic opportunities. Masters of the skies, fulmars soar above and skillfully exploit the thermal air currents. Swirling just offshore, the unmissable spectacle of gannets high-speed diving can rival any Olympic event. Without a doubt, their remarkable aerial displays present an exhilarating challenge to try and capture. 

And, of course, who could forget the puffins…?! For many, these endearing little birds are often considered the ultimate highlight of a visit to the island. Colourful in both appearance and character, puffins boast enough charisma to fill an entire SD card (or three!). 

Puffin among the campion 

The most recent count of their population indicate that the species is certainly thriving here. Alongside the Manx shearwater, another specialist seabird that inhabits Skomer, puffins heavily rely on the intricate tunnels and burrows that honeycomb the island. This fragile environment provides the optimum habitat for these internationally important nesting colonies. Burrows are exceptionally delicate and vulnerable to collapse. It is for this reason that designated paths are maintained for visitors to prevent any potential casualties. Popular areas, such as The Wick, can become overwhelmingly congested during peak season (aka ‘puffin mania’).

Throughout this period a bustling puffin colony is usually a frenzy of energetic parents busy foraging for their little ones. While puffins are incredibly photogenic and obliging subjects, it’s important to respect their space. A poorly placed tripod leg, or hastily stepping as you spin the camera round, could result in burrow damage or worse. Not to mention, any puffin forced to linger too long with a bill full of sandeels may find itself mercilessly mobbed by another greedy bird! So, it really is essential to be aware of birds and other people, including our very helpful weekly volunteers - please do say hello to them! "

A sunny morning boat introduction talk

The close proximity of the puffins and other wildlife means that a long telephoto lens isn’t necessarily required – depending on the shot you’d like to compose, a 300mm is usually more than adequate. A lighter load of equipment will enable you to explore the island more freely with less strain and, above all, the 87 steps from the boat landing will be smooth sailing (if you pardon the pun!).

Whether you’re a complete beginner, enthusiast, aspiring professional or seasoned photographer, there’s something for everyone here on Skomer. Be creative, have fun, but please remember to be responsible; no photograph is ever worth a risk to wildlife.

Taken something you’re really proud of, or want to know more about what’s going on in your image? Feel free to share to our social media pages, or ask a warden in person – we’d love to hear from you!

A stunning Skomer sunset

Dulcie (Long-term Volunteer)