This weather really blows

It was a bit breezy over the weekend. The wind roared at 45 knots, or up to 50 miles per hour. Gusts lifted us off our feet as the waves crashed and smashed high onto the rocks. It was too dangerous to walk on the visitor paths near the cliffs, let alone to walk to my study sites, so I had a couple of days to rest and recuperate. Alas, the guillemots did not have a shelter to go to, and when I eventually managed to get down to the Amos on Sunday afternoon, I found only a handful had remained at the colony. The few birds already incubating eggs when the wind came up appeared to have clung onto their ledge and egg successfully, withstanding what must have been a gruelling experience. It is amazing seeing what animals are willing to endure for their offspring! Over the next few hours the birds crept back to the rock, preening their feathers into place and resuming their territories. It seems like they never left. A few more eggs have since been laid on the Amos, and eggs have also been sighted at other colonies around the island, but clearly the population is slow to get going this season.

George Buchanan and the rest of the Springwatch team were here a few days ago, filming various colonies around the island to raise awareness of the plight of the guillemots, I’ll post when it becomes available. If you haven’t yet signed the petition to reinstate our project funding, you can do so here.

I am extremely grateful for my amazingly supportive climbing buddies from Sheffield, MSH, JS and TF. I think of you all often!

The sunshine has restarted the boat again, bringing with it hundreds of visitors, a new long-term volunteer Catherine, and a wonderful delivery of post. Thank you!

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A petition, an egg, and other egg-citing news

That pun was always going to happen, let’s face it.

 

Firstly, and most importantly, a petition has been launched to ask Natural Resources Wales to reinstate funding for our guillemot study. It would be great if you could sign it, so here’s why:

For over 40 years we have been studying productivity and survival of guillemots on Skomer Island, as well as monitoring dates of laying, hatching and fledging. Seabirds live for a long time (many of the birds I study are older than me!) and guillemots only start breeding when they are 6 or 7 years old, producing a maximum of 1 chick each year until they die around 25 years old. The time lag in returning to the colony means that changes in survival can take years to become apparent in the population.

Most UK populations of guillemots are declining. Skomer is one of the few colonies where the guillemot population is increasing, so it is important to assess how and why this population is different. Fluctuations in seabird populations indicate changes elsewhere in the ecosystem, so monitoring seabird colonies helps us to assess population changes in other species. For example, we think that overfishing has reduced the numbers of larger fish, which in turn has increased the numbers of smaller fish such as sprats and herrings which the guillemots eat. This raises questions about the effects of overfishing and sea stocks. Survival and productivity may be negatively affected by changes in currents and rising sea levels which could force the birds to forage further from the colony than usual. The big C-words, climate change, are also responsible for the huge storms this winter which caused the recent seabird wreck, one of the worst in history and estimated to include 16000 dead guillemots, which could have a devastating effect on auk populations now and in years to come.

Without this long-term study we would not be able to predict how species respond to a changing environment, because it takes time for the effects to become evident in the guillemot population. We would not know that the breeding season is now 2 weeks later than it was 40 years ago, nor that the main source of food given to chicks is changing, nor that breeding success has increased, and more. This information cannot be gained from simple colony counts or shorter studies. If NRW do not reinstate funding, then this year is likely to be the end of an informative, meaningful, useful study.

Natural Resources Wales have funded our study for the last 5 years, yet at this critical point the funding has been cut. The £12,000 annual allowance needed to keep this study going is pittance in the millions of pounds they have to allocate to projects. The study is there – we have a huge database, we know the colonies around the island, we know the history of the island population. Our findings are published and widely available, and are used by other seabird monitoring programs. Cutting funding for this study will stop us gaining vital information, which will not be rectifiable if a new study is set-up in a few years when NRW realise their mistake. If we want to understand the effect of the recent wreck on guillemot colonies, or in other words, if we want to understand and act against the effect of humankind’s abominable treatment of the natural world, then this study needs to be continued. Please sign here, and forward it to your friends and neighbours.

If you have the time, you could also email NRW and share your thoughts with them.

If you need convincing from a far more eloquent person, watch Iolo Williams:

In other news, the first egg has been laid on the Amos: at 6.30am on 5th May 2014 it was a healthy blue colour, around 12% of the guillemot body weight, both parents have been incubating it and appear to be delighted. There are now 14 eggs on the Amos (2 have already been lost/eaten/abandoned). It is a relief to finally watch some incubating birds.

Artist Chris Wallbank specialises in drawing entire guillemot colonies, and has been battling the elements over the last few days to draw the guillemot loomeries at Bull Hole and the Amos as part of a collaboration for Festival of the Mind. I am excited to see what he produces!

The forecast threatens us with high winds and bad weather, so all the overnight visitors and volunteers left yesterday. The 11 of us remaining are marooned here until at least Tuesday, content with the angel delight and oatcakes we inherited from the people leaving.

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Guillemot-free(ish) days

Huge congratulations to WH and CH on their marriage! Still gutted I couldn’t be with you to celebrate, it looked like you had an amazing day. I wish you (and the girls!) all the best!

And a very happy birthday to ECS, hope you had a lush day!

No mots for a few days now, and high winds have stopped the boats from running. I have spent the time catching up on my sleep, questioning my method, sorting out my behaviour recording program and protocol, reading about guillemots and statistical problems to overcome in behavioural data, questioning my method, making bread, crocheting, washing clothes, making rain covers for my telescope and video camera out of milk cartons and questioning my method. Some of these activities have been more enjoyable than others, but overall it has been nice to have a break from these past 2 weeks of tough physical labour!

 

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Rain-proof scope

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Sophia and Julie fill the washing machine with water from the shower

The bluebells are coming out, the little owl was spotted and we are enjoying eating fresh fruit and veg from our shopping escapade. I expect the auks will be back tomorrow so it is likely to be early starts from now on. The earliest guillemot egg to be laid on the Amos was 23rd April, and the latest start to the laying season was 7th May (in 2013), so they may be back to stay and lay. No more gallivanting off to sea for days at a time… I’m excited to see the first egg of this season!

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Crocheted egg cosy/egg sleeping bag/binocular cover/pepper pot cover

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Hide a go go

The guillemots returned in all their glory, looking refined and splendid as ever. Yesterday we counted 1100 on the Amos, today there were over 1800 birds copulating, preening and pottering about madly. It’s good to see some of the old faces (the ones I have been looking at in the database from previous years)!

A super powerful drill arrived from the mainland, so it was all hide stations go. Howard set to work using skill and panache…

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… as I lugged the walls and roof from the workshop using a wheelbarrow and brute strength. Girl got brawn.

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Clockwise from top left: Base secured into the cliff, walls and roof wheeled from the farm ready to carry down the cliff to the Amos, my completed hide with the Amos, the interior of the hide.

It was wonderful to see my observation house fit together so neatly. I would not be able to do my PhD without it, and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has helped. Preliminary uses show that it is fully functional, weatherproof and snug. Hurray!

Julie and I went food shopping! This involved catching the first boat at 9am with our empty backpacks and boxes, walking 10 minutes to my car, driving 30 minutes to Haverfordwest, 2 hours in a ginormous Tesco (other supermarkets available), a cheeky fish-and-chips/salad-and-cake for lunch, 30 minutes back via a quick stop to bribe the lady in the post office, realising we cannot a) physically lift our bags, and b) fit everything in to our bags, leaving a boot-ful of cans and non-perishables as we stagger down the road to the jetty, loading ourselves on and off the boat, and eventually leaping gracefully up 70+ steps and up the hill home. The leaping and gracefulness was not our forte, whether loaded with food or not, but we laughed a lot at our ridiculousness. Hopefully this shop will last at least 4 weeks, and we won’t be reduced to oats and milk powder for every meal…watch this space.

Still sunny, only 2 days of rain so far. Been too busy for birds of the day… I think I saw a tree pipit, and I do like the swallows which weave around me near Payne’s ledge.

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A Happy Easter

The guillemots have left for a few days so we got to stay in bed past 5am! It was glorious, I feel refreshed. I woke to the smell of Alastair’s freshly baked hot cross buns, and began breakfast with some of Sophia’s mini chocolate eggs, so a happy Easter Sunday indeed! Alastair is a researcher employed by JNCC looking at fulmar, guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake productivity, Sophia is a long-term volunteer involved in day visitors, overnight visitors, general running of the island and her project on puffins.

The hide saga continues as the ever-patient, ever-helpful Howard tried to drill into the cliff face to no avail. We have the wrong drill bit and it ran out of battery in a jiffy. We need a generator and a new drill bit from the mainland, but with no boat and high northerly winds making any sailing dangerous this may take a few days. Still, he fixed up Julie’s hide so it’s considerably more weatherproof, and sorted out her woodworm-filled stool so she won’t fall through it. Hurrah!

All the hide builders, assistant wardens and other volunteers piled into our kitchen for a cuppa and a hot cross bun – this island is certainly not devoid of life, love and laughter!

It’s raining heavily and I have spent the afternoon snuggled up thinking about guillemots, reading papers, looking at the database, and really thinking about what I am doing. I have heard that it is easy to let the first field season pass by without any meaningful data collection (through unexpected and unavoidable realities rather than from lack of preparation!) so I am trying to make sure that this field season is worthwhile. The last few days I have spent at the colony have given me lots to think about in terms of my data collection method, and ‘meeting’ the guillemots has thrown up many ideas and questions. I hope I can use the next few days to turn some wild ideas into answerable questions…

Movie night tonight at the wardens’ house, I am excited to be staying up past 9pm knowing that I don’t need to get up before sunrise. More exciting is that I have washed my hair! So many celebrations.

photo (4)Hot cross buns cooling on the window ledge, baked by Alastair

Birds of the day: choughs, gulls… too wet for anything much else. Saw 7 porpoises playing by the Amos!

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Initiation

Happy birthday Teacake! Hope you’re having amazing day bro 😀

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The Farm, us researchers live on the top floor

I have been here a week! I feel like I’ve been here much longer. The guillemots came back from their foraging escapades, so we tried to spend as much time as possible at the Amos – Julie to see as many ringed birds as possible, me to figure out what is going on with their behaviour. Time at the Amos was interspersed with painting and moving the hide, finding Manx Shearwater burrows and other guillemot colonies, and counting puffins. My hide is looking cracking, and everything we think we need has arrived from the mainland, so hopefully we’ll get the base fixed onto the cliff tomorrow, exciting! We have had nothing but glorious sunny days so far, if a little windy, so sitting on an exposed cliff has been fine. When the promised horizontal rain arrives, however, I will be happy to have my cosy hide!

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Poking a puffin

 To do the whole island counts, all the volunteers, researchers and staff on the island (14 of us) were assigned one-seventh of the island’s coast to count the puffins in the sea, land and sky – over 18000 were counted on Thursday, 14000 on Friday.

 

Contributing to island life is important to keep us ticking over nicely, and everything gets done quicker with all of us involved. We all need gas and want the island to be a successful conservation area, but helping to carry solar panels, wood stoves and gas containers up the 70+ steps is slightly less pleasurable than counting puffins!

I have learned alot about research over the last few days. I have listened to the sage advice of many, but until I experienced the frustration of things not going as planned/expected, I did not quite understand the wildness of field research! Here’s to another big old learning curve…

I permanently have binoculars round my neck, I have a sunburned/windburned face, and today I got pooed on by a gull – I think I’ve been initiated to fieldwork and island life!

Birds of the days: willow warblers, swallows, pied wagtails, pied flycatchers, short-eared owl, peregrine, buzzard, choughs, pheasants, canada geese, blackcaps, wrens, linnets, dunnocks, wheatears… yet to see a Skomer vole.

 

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 Julie and me on the Neck at sunrise. Photo by Alastair Wilson, I highly recommend checking out his other photos of Skomer. He’s done some mean timelapses…

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Like this stunning one of the old farm and Polaris

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Come back ‘mots!

Still no guillemots, but getting up before sunrise means that I get to see this:

photo 1Sunrise over the Farm

I chilled out at the Amos for a while, tried out my scope and video camera (all working fine, survived the trip, hurrah!), drank my tea, watched some Choughs gathering nest material and some raven chicks waking up, before lugging everything back to the Farm for porridge.  I headed down to meet the first boat to help carry equipment to install a wood burning stove in the overnighter’s accommodation – we’re hoping some of the heat will come through the floor to us (although I haven’t been too cold yet, just damp!). I removed some chicken wire from some planks which will become the shelf in my hide, which I think was like pulling teeth and rather satisfying. My hide now has a nifty window and a door so all we need now is a drill and a generator… and some guillemots. I did some washing which makes me feel settled in, but also worried that my pants will blow away onto a birder’s head. The internet is working down at the office so I’ve uploaded some photos to previous posts. I met some researchers from Oxford who will help me look at some Manx Shearwater and Puffin burrows… but basically, I want the Guillemots to come back!! Hopfs tomorrow…

photo 2Some toilets with plants in

Birds of the day: lots of willow warblers, dunnocks, peregrine falcon… I’m off to the South Hide now to see what’s kicking round the ponds.

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