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

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

Graduation

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 - http://www.bangor.ac.uk/news/latest/high-flying-zoology-student-graduates-19426 .

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
(http://alastairwilsonphotos.blogspot.co.uk ;
http://www.amwphotos.co.uk/wp/)
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.

August

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 Admiral...in 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!

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