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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