Sunday, 7 December 2014

3 month round up & future plans

I can't really believe it's been over 3 months since I last updated my blog. This hasn't been through a lack of interesting things to post, but more through a lack of time to post about the interesting things I've been doing. I've only spent a handful of days at home since leaving Skomer.

There have been trips to Carmarthen, Llanidloes, Hereford, Cambridge, The Wash, Dumfries and Galloway, the Lake District, and multiple trips to North Wales. I've also joined a choir, taken up Welsh classes and set myself up for mist netting at home. 

Swallow roost - juvenile
Juvenile Female Wheatear at CES -
the 85th species I've ringed.

Parasol Mushrooms & my Mum's new terrier puppy
Lake District - a fantastic,
if wet, long weekend
Cannon netting with SCAN, North Wales.
I've also joined the Wash Wader Ringing
Group for a week long trip.
Chough colour ringing in North Wales
Mist netting at home & showing
my family what it's all about.
Jen (my sister) & Freya (my niece)

The last month (November) has been taken up working for BTO Cymru taking soil samples across Snowdonia in Ffridd habitats. This was hard fieldwork but took me to some wonderful places in Snowdonia that few people ever seem to see. 

1 of the sample sites with the corer & my equipment in the foreground
An interesting bulk density sample

I finished this fieldwork on Thursday and celebrated by attending the BTO Conference in Swanick. A fantastic weekend that I intend to give a blog post all of its own!

I have various things planned for December, but my next major step is 2 months travelling up the East coast of Australia (5th January - 28th February). This will then leave March free for necessary preparations before returning to Skomer in April, for a second season of seabird monitoring.

It feels very nice to have plans and things sorted until next September. My intention is then to go back to the southern hemisphere / tropics for our winter 2015, and obtain a breeding season research fieldworker post, or ringing station job before returning for the spring. These are only preliminary post- Skomer plans however, and I'm always on the look out for other opportunities!

Monday, 25 August 2014

End of Skomer contract, Graduation and other things...

Again, apologies for not blogging recently. It's been a very busy month and a half, and this, coupled with slow internet, has put blog writing pretty low on my list of priorities. Things have calmed down somewhat now though, so time for an update.


July was mainly about seabird chicks for me. Early July was spent finishing the ringing and repeat measurements of Razorbill chicks. I managed to find 60 chicks all-in-all and colour ring 25 new breeding adults for the ongoing adult survival project. 
Mid to late July was spent finding, ringing and measuring Puffin chicks. Due to the very poor productivity, I only managed to find 28 chicks (50-100 is the target) and get repeat measurements. I did manage to colour ring 23 new adults however, which should boost the colour ringed population, which seems to be down after the winter storms.

This was also the time of year when the majority of the island's Lesser Black-backed Gull chicks were big enough to ring. Most of my late mornings - afternoons were taken up trawling through the vegetation, across the island, looking for these crafty little critters. There are several large colonies across the island and the aim was to ring 300-500 chicks. After many gruelling hours being scratched, stung, bitten and pooed on, I managed to ring 279 chicks. On many days I had some very willing and able volunteers who were undoubtedly the best help I had the entire season! Lesser chicks are incredibly well camouflaged and don't move, even when you're standing right over them, so finding them in thick bracken, Yorkshire Fog, brambles and stinging nettles can be a real trial. Thankfully, the very good breeding season meant there were plenty of chicks, and each session yielded at least 5 newly ringed chicks. 
However, I did find an alarming amount of rubbish in each colony. Several of the chicks I found were severely emaciated  and had arrested their feather growth, despite seeming to have full stomachs. I highly suspect this was because they had been fed on plastic/rubbish. I've no idea what can be done about this problem, but it genuinely made me feel ashamed to be human.

Just a small sample of the rubbish I found.
At least a bin bag full was collected in total.

I also continued the 24hr (dawn-dusk) Puffin watches in July. The early starts were pretty unpleasant, but due to the poor breeding season, the feeding rate was relatively low, making the recording much easier.

Sunrise on Puffin watch No. 2 (8th July)

Despite my busy schedule, I did manage to fit in some fun and interesting ringing training. I don't have enough experience to ring raptors or pulli, other than seabirds, on my own, so when invited to ring Short-eared Owl chicks, I jumped at the chance. After a short search, I managed to find this little beauty. It's surprising how similar their camouflage is to Lesser Black-backed chicks (I mistook the owl for a gull chick at first), and they take the same ring size!

A gorgeous hand warmer
What beautiful eyes you have


The middle of the month brought my graduation from Bangor University. I was glad of a few days break, but a little anxious at leaving the island, and my fast growing chicks. It was also a shock being back in the concrete, fast car world, and dressing up nicely. By this point in the season I spent more time covered in bird poo, suncream and dust than not, so being clean, wearing make-up and nice clothes felt some-what alien.

Never-the-less the day went very smoothly and the ceremony was lovely. I even got a special, personal mention at the end. Many thanks to Professor Chris Freemen for slipping this into the ceremony (and any other lecturers that had a hand in it). The uni also wrote a piece on me for the website - .

It was great to catch up with friends and find out what everyone else had been up to. I'm sad to think that this may have been the last time I see a lot of my cohort. We've been a fantastic, down-to-earth group and I will sincerely miss being at university with them all!

Classic graduation ivy-background shot
Me and bestie Emilie Pearson after the ceremony
Me and my dissertation/computer room buddy, Rob McCann
 - a few glasses of champagne in!
All too much for my mum's new puppy.
I was tempted to join him on the soft grass.
A very nice trip down to Treborth Botanic Gardens.
I'll miss the gardens and Nigel Brown a lot!
Me and Chris

Back on the island...

...and it was straight back to work. My manager (Dr. Matt Wood - Gloucestershire University) popped over to help me set up for ringing Storm Petrels. There is a small, accessible breeding colony at the south-west corner of Skomer, which has been monitored for adult survival in previous years. Although not part of my contract, Storm Petrels are too awesome not to ring, so the night work (on top of full days) was worth it! This was also another chance to further my ringing experience. Being the ringer-in-charge of night mist netting sessions, at the bottom of steep cliffs, is invaluable experience. We ringed these throughout the rest of July and early August and caught 25 new birds, 25 different retraps and 5 controls!

Breeding adult Storm Petrel

By the end of July my work load was beginning to slacken, but this was also the time when I became most exhausted. For the first time in the season I took some evenings off and just enjoyed being on the island. I spent a wonderful evening at The Wick with Alastair Wilson and his parents enjoying the puffins. It was nice to stop and appreciate these birds, rather than cursing them for having tiny legs that hide colour rings, tick and flea infested burrows and impossible to reach chicks. One bird even trusted me so much it decided to see if my back or bottom would make a good resting spot. It stayed for about 20 seconds, giving me a nice little massage, before finally deciding to jump off due to the uncontrollable shakes I had from silent laughter. 

A close encounter of the Skomer kind.
Photo by Alastair Wilson
( ;
The best kind of Skomer butt massage.
Photo by Mark Wilson (Twitter: @piedfly)

The end of July was also when my niece was born. Lovely little Freya was born on 24th July (24/7) after a long labour. I got a chance to meet her in early August, but am looking forward to getting to know her properly now I'm off the island.

Jenny (my eldest sister) and new born baby Freya
Aunties (Me and Mel) meeting Freya for the first time.


My last two weeks on Skomer were mainly spent doing paperwork, but I did also have to finish the Lesser Black-backed Gull productivity counts and Manx Shearwater productivity work. The Lesser counts involved checking all the loafing chicks around the island and counting the ratio of ringed:unringed chicks. Thankfully I had 5 very able volunteers to help me with this, so the whole island was thoroughly counted in two hours, on four separate evenings. The Manx Shearwater productivity assessment involved one final check on all my study plot burrows and ringing the chicks.

My final Shearwater chick of the season

Furthering skills

I also took advantage of the reduced workload to gain some new ID skills. I've been interested in invertebrate ID for years, but never had the time, location, equipment or correct reference guides to make a serious go of it. I used the last two weeks to try and identify every moth, butterfly, spider, hoverfly and grasshopper I came across (plus an ant or two). This was mostly successful and I'm hoping to continue practising these skills as much as possible...though this may be harder now I've lost access to the giant reference library on Skomer.

Adult female Enoplognatha ovata
Male Episyrphus balteatus on Sea Mayweed.
The eyes meeting in the middle make this male.
Female Episyrphus balteatus with a gap between the eyes.
A Red Admiral chrysalis with Knot Grass moth behind
Emerged Red our kitchen window

I also took this opportunity to stargaze and learn some constellations. This is something I've wanted to do for years, but never had the concentrated motivation. Thankfully, Alastair is also a keen stargazer and the combination of clear skies after Storm Petrel ringing, low light pollution and a knowledgeable partner in stargazing-crime meant I learnt a lot in a short time. We learnt many constellations, saw the International Space Station and its refuelling shuttle (ATX5) several times plus many satellites, innumerable shooting stars thanks to the Perseids, Andromeda galaxy, Jupiter and Saturn's mindbogglingly beautiful rings. I finally got to use the star chart and stargazing book I asked for two years ago for Christmas, and now have a much better idea of what I'm looking at on clear nights. I'm hoping to continue learning more whenever I get a chance, though it won't be the same without the Skomer clear skies, sound of Manxie's and excellent company.

Ali and me stargazing on a spectacular night.
Photo by Alastair Wilson

I left Skomer last week and am missing it deeply. It was a fantastic season and I simply could not have asked for a better job to start my career. I'm still undecided as to whether or not I'll go back next year, but Skomer, it's wildlife and people will always hold a very special place in my heart. If nothing else, it's shown me that I'm a ringer, field worker and birder through-and-through and that island life is definitely my kind of living!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Skomer update, birthday, degree results and seabird progress

It's been a month since my last post, mainly due to the heavy workload I'm currently coping with. Things on Skomer are still going very well and, with the help of the other staff and volunteers, I'm managing to keep on top of all my work.

End of May 
My first full day off since coming to the island (in mid April) was on the last day of May. This was my 22nd birthday and I celebrated with a fun day. It started at 04:15 with a CES (constant effort site) ringing session. It was so nice to extract and handle some small birds again, particularly as they don't bite and scratch! The sunrise was gorgeous and the weather was fantastic. After CES I took a slow wander back to the accommodation and managed to hand catch this tiny bunny.

Birthday Sunrise on Skomer
Tiny hand caught baby rabbit
Getting presents by post is awesome!

Bee, the warden, has been joking about having a pet black baby rabbit for months, so I couldn't resist. I had a fun 15 minutes holding the apathetic cutey and then let it go back where I found it. 

After lunch I went snorkelling in North Haven. This was an incredible experience! Once a little way from the shore, the Puffins and Razorbills surrounded me and watched me from above and below the water. There were also some fantastic bio-luminescing cone jellyfish, massive spider crabs, urchins, moon jellyfish and fantastic, life-rich, kelp forests. It also felt great to be back in the water. I've sincerely missed scuba diving recently and this snorkel took the edge off that longing.

The evening was spent having a long overdue shower (only about once every 5 days now) and then a surprise party where the other island staff turned up to celebrate with me. All in all a fantastic day and a birthday to remember! 

June has been an incredibly busy month. I've checked 200 Manx Shearwater burrows every 4-6 days and recorded and ringed both adults in each of these. I've also recorded whether an egg is present or not. This, combined with chick ringing at the end of the season, will give a good indication of adult survival and breeding success/productivity. The first chicks have started hatching now, along with the puffins. The puffin breeding season seems to be about 2-3 weeks behind average here. We've only started seeing lots of fish carrying puffins (adults with chicks) in the last week! 

Day old Manx Shearwater Chick
Puffin Chick (Puffling) - couple of days old

I've also finished colour ringing adult Kittiwakes and Razorbills, and am currently BTO ringing the Razorbill chicks (50+ chicks). I take wing and weight measurements of the chicks and repeat these a week later. I also managed to hand catch a Fulmar that was sitting at the top of the cliff where I do Manx burrow checks. A very long and slow army crawl got me close enough to the stubborn bird to catch it. I didn't get any good pictures whilst ringing it, as I was terrified of being covered in more sick, poo and bites. The picture below is of it in roughly the same position as where I caught it.

Hand caught this Fulmar whilst doing Manx Shearwater burrow checks
Kittiwake colour ringing
Colour ringed adult razorbill ready for release
and prepared to give me a parting bite
Razorbill chick checks & ringing - a first class way to celebrate

The first Razorbill chick checks I did were a form of celebration of my degree result. I'm incredibly pleased that I managed to get a 1st class honours degree despite all the difficulties I've had in the last year, and having to juggle my final exams and assignments with Skomer work. It's a real relief. I'm also honoured to have been recommended by my School (School of Biological Sciences) for media coverage at graduation. It will be nice to have some pictures and video taken of me without being covered in bird poo for once!

Champagne & cream tea celebration
thanks to the researchers living at The Farm.
Particular thanks to Alastair for the meal
before this and the Champagne!

Island life and the demands of the work started to get to me a couple of weeks ago, so I decided to take a break before the chick ringing and monitoring season began. I went to the Northumberland coast to see Chris and find out where he's working. It's been incredibly hard being away from him for 2 months, and was so nice to see the tern monitoring he's doing with his 4 colleagues. As a 1st class treat, to celebrate our first anniversary and both having jobs, we treated ourselves to a couple of nights in a beautiful B&B on the beach in Beadnell. 

Panorama of luxury for 2 field workers!
A room with a view towards Chris' office - heaven!

Chris' office rivals mine for its beauty and continuous cacophony of birds. The team of 5 are valiantly managing to keep a colony of nesting Little Terns alive through high tides and against badgers, foxes, otters, egg collectors and dog walkers!

Chris on the job with a stunning view
Feeding Arctic Terns right on Chris' doorstep
Ringed Arctic Tern perched right next to the visitors platform
Hungry tern chicks

I was only planning to stay Thursday - Saturday morning and then get back to Skomer on the first Sunday boat. However, a turn in the weather on the west coast meant there were no Sunday boats, so I got to stay an extra day! Fortuitously this meant I could join Chris and his colleagues on a National Trust "get together" picnic on The Farnes. The density of nesting terns is unbelievable! It was great to meet The Farnes team, and a real treat to be there at the same time as the Bridled Tern. All in all a brilliant way to round of the holiday. This is the first time I've ever had a real holiday, away from work, with no lingering guilt that I should be doing an essay, revising, or something along those lines. It made me feel quite grown up and really did mark the end of my academic career (for now). 

Flat calm seas at Seahouses
On our way around The Farnes
The welcoming committee
Oblivious to the beauty above him...
...or the imminent dangers...
...but he did make a new friend.
Freshly hatched Arctic Tern chick
1 or 2 day old tiny chick
Slightly older Arctic chick (1 - 2 weeks)
Bridled Tern Sandwich ... get it.
Poor record shot, but got to love that forehead!
We had gorgeous views of the Bridled Tern

Since I got back I've been catching up with work. I've had 2 trips back to the Razorbill colony to get repeat wing and weight measurements of the chicks, and find the newly hatched one. Liam Langley, a fellow NGB (Next Generation Birders) member ( and Skomer researcher helped me with some. 

Liam cuddling his new best friend
Some of the chicks are becoming proper little adults now

I'm also trying to get better at moth and butterfly ID. It helps that 2 traps are run most nights, and that the moths come into our kitchen at night.

Buff Tip (Phalera bucephala)
Burnished Brass (Diachrysia chrysitis)
Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi)

The weather has continued to be nice, so I'm slowly working through my suncream supplies. Today has been very rainy though, so I'm catching up on data entry and this blog post.

Sunrise, 45 mins after starting my 24hr Puffin feeding watch
2 down, 3 to go

The next month will involve ringing and measuring 50 - 100 Razorbill and Puffin chicks, ringing 300 - 500 Lesser Black-backed Gull chicks, colour ringing adult Puffins, three 24 hour Puffin feeding watches, 4 nights counting ringed : non-ringed Lesser Black-backed chicks, and the continuation of colour ring resightings and Manx burrow checks. All in all it should keep me busy and I'll be glad of a 3 day break for graduation mid-July!