Eggs and musings

Jules spotted the first egg on the Amos on April 30th! Can you spot it in the photo below?


Since then the wind and rain has come pelting down on us from all angles, so we have only had a couple of opportunities to get to the Amos. A few powercuts have done funny things to the sockets in our kitchen, so electricity is now a rare commodity and lighting the oven is always an adventure. Having said that, my latest loaf was positively edible, smashing my reputation for baking terrible bread to smithereens. The bluebells are on their way, and I’m looking forward to that neon purple carpet.

I find it difficult to sum up ‘island life’, so I have tried to paint a picture of my fieldwork exploits here…

Skomer is large tubs of peanut butter which are gone within a week. It is loud laughter shared around the kitchen table, hysterical over the desire for cheese, for biscuits, for a fresh crunchy salad. The endless consumption of tea, as people who are drawn together by the love of birds, of outdoors, of simple living, get to know each other. The gossip is the predation of eggs, finding a BTO ring on a carcass, the antics of peregrines, the glimpse of migrant birds sweeping through the island, sometimes slightly slower than the bird itself so others are left to wonder whether it was there at all.

It is beautiful sunrises, each mornings red glow unique and only for me.  It is the wind whistling past your ears as your brace yourself, body bent into the wind, with the heavy weight of a large rucksack on your hips, rabbits skittering along the path in front of you. It is scampering down the path to the tiny hide perched on the cliff, as nimble as a goat in gaiters. It is being amazed and amused at the fall-outs, infidelities and fighting between guillemots, the bashful retreats and the calm preening, the long elegant necks bobbing in alarm. It is feeling loved when, after the noisy squawking has got too much, the compilation CD or podcast made for you by a friend has you laughing and singing along to your ipod as you record timings, identities, behaviours, reactions, comings and goings. It is the slow stretch of cold stiff muscles as you stomp back up the cliff path, urged on by growling puffins, stern ravens, and a skylark far above.

It is processing data while wrapped in a sleeping bag at a desk, with a hot water bottle on your lap and a candle to try to keep your fingers warm. It is dressing by torchlight, washing with minimal water, composting and recycling almost everything, and burning the remaining waste. It is pacing in the bitter wind where there is sufficient phone signal to speak to a loved one. It is early bedtimes, under several blankets, exhausted and excited for the next day.

I have loved every minute of this first month!

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Guillemots are bac… Oh no wait, they’ve gone again

At the beginning of the breeding season, guillemots and other auks spend a few days at their breeding ground competing for territory and mates, before heading out to sea again to forage for food. This coming-and-going occurs several times until they lay, so the first few weeks of fieldwork are always a bit of a rollercoaster between spending time with the birds and laptop-based preparations for the season ahead.

When the guillemots are on the cliffs, the Amos is covered in birds jostling, preening, copulating, fighting and squawking noisily. We have had glorious sunshine for two weeks and it has been such a pleasure to be outside watching the guillemots, as well as watching raven chicks and nest-building choughs. One day I even took off my thermal base layer it was so warm!

When the guillemots head out to sea again I have a few days to catch up on laptop-based tasks – seeing which birds survived the winter, whether they appear to be in the same breeding spot as last year, using the database to find birds which will be useful for my research questions, and other such jobs. The island is strangely quiet, and I have time to cook dinners, go for a run and do some laundry. And just when I’m settling into this routine, the guillemots suddenly appear back on the Amos and I go to see what they’re up to all over again.

We’re keeping out eyes peeled for the first beautiful blue egg. The timing of laying tends to vary with environmental factors, such as air or sea temperatures. Researchers at Bempton Cliffs have seen several guillemot eggs already, so the first Skomer egg should be soon…


Rising early, for the guillemots and the stunning sunrises


Julie has joined me! Our fantastic new post-doc will be monitoring guillemot productivity and recruitment. (This is us shopping for food in Haverfordwest. Skomer has much less concrete!)


Sunrise on the Amos, the view from my hide

Bird of the day: a stonechat. The call of these cute orange-chested birds sounds like two stones being hit together, but mainly I like this one because apparently their Spanish name means ‘poo sticks’, because they are always found at the top of hedges as if they had pooed out the sticks below them. You’re welcome!

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Regaining Skomer-level fitness

On my first morning I walked all around the island, stopping at my favourite spots to soak up the scenery. The guillemots are still at sea but the cliffs are scattered with kittiwakes and fulmars, the sky is filled with the screeches of gulls and oystercatchers, puffins are gradually returning to the island, and at night the shearwaters are as noisy as ever – there are plenty of interesting birds to be looking at! The weather has alternated between glorious clear blue sky and sunshine, extreme wind, and thick fog, and I am glad of my many layers.

Despite the absence of my study species, I have plenty to be getting on with. I need to go through my field work plan to ensure that my questions are focussed, and search the database for specific birds which will be useful for answering my questions (that sounds like I can just ask them… that would make things easier ha!). Fortunately my relatively early arrival onto the island also allows me the time to settle into island life and get to know the new team members. I have been helping the team of staff and volunteers with an ‘island clean up’ by lugging TONNES of scrap metal down to the landing stage and onto a waiting boat. The 30+ years worth of junk includes old tractor parts for tractors that are no longer on the island, several old fridges, cookers and washing machines, a rusty cement mixer, multiple car batteries, generators, scaffolding, reams of rusty chicken wire, metal poles, plastic pipes, toilet seats and inexplicably (considering there are no trees on Skomer) a leaf-blower. And much, much more. Our team of around 15 people took 4 hours, several cuts and bruises, and (surprisingly, considering the terrain!) zero slips or accidents to transport everything onto the boat. The boat was seriously listing by the time we got everything on! Pictures of the dream team to follow.

Thanks to Howard’s fine handiwork last season, both hides at the Amos are in fine condition. Mine has been bleached in the winter sun and could do with a lick of paint to make it more camouflaged, but they remain strong, sturdy and (relatively!) cosy.

Unsurprisingly, my first bread-baking attempt this year didn’t turn out so well – any tips on bread making or fool-proof bread recipes would be very welcome! I’ve heard that raw dough isn’t too good for you…

Bird of the (yester)day: a wryneck, spotted on the wall by the hut. These light brown/grey birds are very well camouflaged, and have a distinctive dark stripe from the top of their head down their neck. They get their name from their ability to twist their head around 180 degrees, which they use in threat displays. They are the odd-bods in the woodpecker family, preferring the ground to trees.

Bird of the day: a ring ouzel, spotted behind the Farm. Similar to blackbirds, but with a white band around the throat (breast band), silvery feather edgings on the wings, and longer tail feathers. Both males and females have these characteristics, although the females are paler. They breed in mountains (a mountain blackbird!), and 4 or 5 pass through Skomer each year on their way to their mountainous breeding grounds.

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It’s egg-cellent to be back!

I have arrived on Skomer Island for my second field season!

After several days of madly biking around Sheffield sorting things out in the Easter sunshine, transporting everything in my bedroom into the cellar to let my room out, and saying goodbye to wonderful friends, I eventually managed to wedge all the fieldwork equipment and waterproof trousers into Gwithian (my lovely car) and head off. Traffic from Sheffield to Gloucestershire was awful, but the wonders of speakerphone meant I enjoyed some last minute catch ups with friends while stuck in traffic. I spent the night at my parent’s house and set off for Martins Haven early this morning. I picked up a large pane of double-glazing for the island library on my way, and using my mad Tetris skillz I managed to squeeze it into Gwithian.

Leighton (the visitor officer), Bryony (a volunteer) and Eddie (one of the wardens) met me at Lockley Lodge, where they kindly helped to unpack everything and lug it onto the boat. They almost convinced me that the tractor was broken, and that I would need to wheelbarrow everything from the boat landing to The Farm (researcher’s accommodation)… fortunately we were met by more kind helpers at the boat landing who helped to haul everything up the 80-odd steps to the tractor.


Everything on the boat! With someone elses Tesco order – unfortunately that Stella would not have fitted in my car!


View of Skomer from the boat

The drive along the country lanes from Haverfordwest was lovely, and the view of Skomer from the boat was as dramatic as ever. There are so many reminders of the larks and japes we had last year! Copies of The Week magazine that my mum kindly posted out to me regularly last year are yellowing in the window ledge, the happy birthday banner we bought for Cat’s birthday is still in the drawer, and her greater black-backed gull cake decoration is above the sink. Sophia’s vomit-saving Kwells tablets are still here, alongside the ridiculous ‘Mr Happy’ apron and chef’s hat we gave to Alastair, and Julie’s (empty) pot of fancy coffee. I wish you were all here again!

I’ve written a very long list of things I need to be getting on with in this first week and I’m excited to get started. I intend to blog more frequently than last year, but we’ll see how that goes… internet at The Farm isn’t working yet, so for internet access I need to head to North Haven (the library and warden’s accommodation) where it is working faster than ever – apparently you can even watch YouTube videos!

Bird of the day: A hoopoe! They have an undulating flight, and they call sounds like ‘hoo-poe’, surprisingly enough. Hoopoe’s don’t tend to breed in the UK, but are spotted in the south of the UK as they migrate north from Africa to Europe. They nest in cavities in vertical surfaces, like trees, cliffs or walls, so are found breeding in a variety of habitats.

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The guillemot season is ova

Start with a pun, end with a pun.

This last month has flown by. My first field season is now over, and like a guillemot jumpling I feel I have taken a giant leap off a very tall cliff, stumbling and rolling clumsily between the ledges until finally crashing into the sea, which turns out to be the real start to the adventure. I am finishing this season feeling considerably more zen compared to the start, having learned a lot, and (I think!) having collected some relevant, useful data. Here’s to the next challenge…analysing it all!

Watching the chicks grow and the colony’s accompanying change in behaviour has been fun. I stopped needing to get up at 5am so was able to be sociable in the evenings and appreciate other aspects of island life. We were all sorry to see Cat and Sophia leave at the end of their placements – we had quickly formed a supportive, cooperative family in the weeks that we lived together, frequently sprinkled with uncontrollable snorting laughter, which I’m sure you’ll agree is the necessary ingredient for a successful field season.


‘Paddleboarding’ with Cat, Sophia and a curious seal

I helped to count cliff-nesting seabirds from the boat, record puffin feeding watches, and measure shearwater productivity by spending a delightful afternoon checking burrows for fluffy shearwater chicks, and accidentally finding a puffling too.

IMG_1875 IMG_1882

A Manx shearwater chick, and Ros and I smelling a puffin chick

Everyone has been excited about hatching and fledging, and the island has been a frenzy of ringing activity. Identifying the birds by individual rings allows us to monitor their movements and survival. TRB and BJH came over to do the guillemot ringing for our study. The four of us were the dream team, ringing 312 chicks and 4 adults in 7 hours.

IMG_4713At the end of the intense guillemot ringing session. As you can see, I’m pretty wild.

I have had a fantastic few months here. I am excited to be returning to Sheffield, to start wading through my data, and I am looking forward to entering my next season prepared with everything I have learned this year…

Best things about fieldwork:

– Living by nature: the days activities depend on the angle of the sun, the rain, the wind, the fog, sunrise and sunset. No amount of pressure or stress can change the weather!

– Being outside all the time, in a beautiful place, so close to the sea, simply stunning.

– Awareness of resources: I have become even more aware of conserving water and electricity, appreciating food, and dealing with waste.

– Learning: I have learned a huge amount about my own area of research and necessary field skills, as well as global conservation work, how small communities behave, and Australian slang.

– The people: I’ve laughed a lot, been laughed at a lot, and been supported through fluctuating sleep and stress levels by wonderfully accepting people.

– The birds, of course!

– Being grubby all the time

Not-so-good things about fieldwork:

– Missing friends and family

– Being mobbed by gulls

– Bad internet/phone signal/electricity reliability when you have things to do

– Being grubby all the time


To the next adventure!

IMG_1916A delicious guillemot cake complete with pasta identification leg ring, made by Alastair



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We got chicks!

The first chicks have hatched on the Amos! The little balls of fluff poke their tiny bills around the parents’ wing trying to escape their protectors’ clutches, but so far they have been nestled safely back into position wedged between the parent and the cliff face. It will be interesting to see if and how behaviours change as more chicks hatch…

I am super excited to see the first hatchlings, particularly as fieldwork has felt a bit relentless for the last few weeks. The constant early mornings and long days have taken their toll on my behaviour a few times (much to my housemates’ amusement!) and the weather has been frustrating for data collection: guillemots behave very differently and are unidentifiable when it rains, and the serious wind and fog has made the hide shaky and the journey to the site pointless. However, the few breaks from the hide have given me time to concentrate on other aspects of my research, from a slightly cosier place generally involving pyjamas.

Joyfully breaking up the would-be monotony of the last few weeks were several lovely visitors. It was great to see TRB and JET for a few days, who brought with them the biggest block of cheddar I have ever seen. Naturally, it was gone within a week. We had a few lovely evenings eating dinner outside in the sun, and some interesting guillemot-related discussions.


L-R: Julie, Tim, me and Jamie, enjoying an evening in the sun

The wonderful CBC and TKK popped over too, and between them brought all the gin, fruit, sweet goodies, tea and a Momma Wills malt loaf – what a haul! I enjoyed seeing the island through fresh eyes, since after 8 weeks of living here I have grown almost accustomed to the dramatic rock falls, crashing waves, rolling green hills and squawking seabirds. That is not to say that I no longer appreciate my current location (I do!) but that I seem to have adapted to the way of life on this ‘tropical paradise island’ (TKK)!

Tiny baby rabbits are bobbing everywhere, the bluebells have disappeared and the bracken is growing up quickly. The gulls are more aggressive when protecting their chicks, and I am frequently mobbed when walking near their colonies. Two volunteers from the University of Gloucestershire have arrived to look at the Manx Shearwaters and beetles for the week, so our kitchen is now rather busy. Cat’s birthday brought everyone on the island together for a lot of gin and a lot more cake.


Bird of the day: Guillemot chicks of course! Also, I have finally seen the elusive Skomer Vole! It took some dedicated searching under the lizard quadrats, and it scurried away before we could get photographic evidence, but I can assure you that the Skomer Vole is present. Joy!

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Marching through May

Time is rapidly passing me by! I have been trying to figure out how to look at guillemot behaviour in a systematic way since I started this PhD, but I soon realised how little I knew about anything while watching the crazy pre-laying period behaviours: aggressive fights, manic copulations and sneakily pottering about attempting to take over territory is difficult to follow with the eyes, let alone to record. The colony jumble has finally given way to the relative calm of the incubation period, and I have vaguely settled down into a routine.

My day starts at 5am as I blearily layer up and brush my teeth while waiting for the kettle to boil. Sometimes the electricity has run out so I crash about in torchlight, other times the gas has run out so I can’t make a thermos of tea. As I’m sure you can imagine, the latter event requires a fair amount of effort to remain zen. As soon as I step out into the rising sun, glowing red clouds and the mist just lifting off the island, the struggle to get up and out is forgotten. Sunrise is an amazing time to be the only one awake on a beautiful island! The dew on the shin-high heather dampens my trousers as I pick out the path crossing a noisy gull colony. I often pass the carcasses of one or two Manx Shearwaters, those unlucky ones which weren’t quick enough when returning to their burrows during the night and so became a tasty meal for a Great Black-backed gull – survival of the fittest I’m afraid.

Twenty minutes later I am wedged into my hide with the telescope and video camera focussed on the day’s chosen group of guillemots. I spend the next few hours recording their behaviour and trying to identify those guillemots present by seeing their rings. During the incubation period ring observations are tricky because once they are sat on the egg they don’t move until their partner comes back to relieve them of their incubation shift. They say a watched pot never boils, but it often feels like a watched guillemot NEVER MOVES! Partners swap incubating duty soon after sunrise and again in the late afternoon, hence my early start. I have been seeing some interesting preening patterns over the last week, so I am looking forward to seeing how this may change when the chicks hatch, and also comparing it to pre-laying preening behaviour. Often much of this time is spent talking to the guillemots (obviously), lip-syncing to whichever album I’m listening to, and gradually adding more layers of clothing to my already-padded body.

I pack up, bashing my head several times in the process (although I’m getting better at avoiding this), have a quick chat with Julie in the neighbouring hide about guillemot/island gossip, and head back up to the farm. The raven chicks near the Amos have fledged, but the adults still squawk at me as a puff back up the cliff path. By now the sun is high in the sky, and the bluebells are a neon purple carpet. I startle the pheasants and accidently chase the rabbits while meadow pipits, wrens, wheatears and swallows flit around me.  A skylark sings me home to a bowl of porridge and hot cup of tea (by this time the electricity and gas are usually working again).

I spend the morning backing up the videos to several external hard drives, so I always have one spare to throw in the sea or sit on if I feel like it :/ Day visitors start to arrive as I check out other study sites to see what the guillemots are up to elsewhere on the island, before settling down to work at the computer for a while – spreadsheets, databases, reading papers, vaguely writing, video analysis etc. Like anyone, I can’t think about anything at all if I am tired, so a power doze or at least a time out from being ‘on the job’ is a necessary part of the day! Other necessary tasks may include making bread, clothes washing, or even taking a shower, but this is a fairly rare occurrence! All our water comes from a fresh spring here on the island, so we must be careful not to use too much in case it runs out. The overnight visitors tend to be excessive in their water usage, so naturally it falls to the residents of the island to take more care. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere…

In the afternoon I head down to the Amos again for another observation session. Sometimes it is warm enough to sit outside rather than in the hide, so if the good weather continues I will have a great one-sided tan (burn) from the sun being on only one side of me for a few solid hours each day. I eventually come home to dinner with Julie, Alastair, Sophia and Cat, and often other staff or researchers with stories of bird sightings, bird fights, eggs, owl pellets in the fridge, moth trappings, boat and visitor dramas and general jolly chat.

So that’s been my general day-to-day adventures for the last week or so. A few days ago we took the RIB to Skokholm, a neighbouring island, to pick up some pipes for the septic tank (classic task). It was fun being out at sea and seeing Skomer’s coast from a different angle. I had a lovely day with Momma Wills who brought the sunshine, fresh fruit and a malt loaf – dreamy. Chris the artist has been working very hard, and has come up with some cool ideas for representing our research on the guillemot colonies. He had a slight disagreement with the thunderstorm that rolled in yesterday, but managed to save his work which will be on display in Sheffield in September.

Bird of the day: A Black-headed Bunting just popped into the farm courtyard, and everyone went running outside to look at it. I took a picture of the people taking a picture of the super rare bird:Image

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