In my view the Manx shearwater should be the official national bird of Wales! Over 50% of the world population of this species breeds here. With 316,000 pairs on Skomer and 62,000 pairs on Skokholm, Pembrokeshire alone accounts for most of that. Without doing any research I'll stick my neck out and say Manxies are the single most important bird species in Wales in terms of percentage of the world population breeding here. If I find out otherwise I'll update you! And happy to be proved wrong by anyone keen to take up the challenge!
Following rat eradication in 2000 by Wildlife Management International our Manx shearwater population exploded from 850 pairs (1998) to 4,796 pairs (2016). In order to monitor this nocturnal burrow nesting seabird we installed a series of artificial nest boxes used successfully on similar species in New Zealand.
Following several years of inspection by non breeding birds, our first two pairs laid eggs and reared young in 2016. Last year we had 7 incubating pairs of which 5 successfully fledged young while this year we had 5 incubating pairs of which 4 currently have young. The original 2 pairs from 2016 have returned to the same nest box each year and have hatched chicks for their third year in succession.
Having an easily accessible population allows us to carry out tracking work using GPS and geolocators to monitor where are birds are feeding and where they spend the winter. It also allows us to carry out more simple studies too such as productivity i.e. how successful birds are at raising young. Not an easy task for a species that is so tricky to monitor. Keeping track of weekly weight changes gives us an idea of how successful the adults are at finding food. At a time when seabirds worldwide are suffering population declines due to food shortages this is a useful monitoring tool. It allows us to compare growth weights and fledging weights year on year and, thanks to the long running projects on our neighbouring islands of Skomer and Skokholm, comparisons can be made dating back well into the last century.
It is always a huge privilege to work on this species, especially here on Ramsey where, prior to rat eradication, the scenes below would simply not have happened. Here is a little taster of our most recent weekly weigh in session
Nest box 17 - less than 2 weeks old and has put on an astonishing 115g in a week (127% increase!) - one of the pair is the same as last year but the partner is a new bird i.e. first time breeding together (both adults are out at sea by day foraging, returning at night to feed the chick)
The last one to hatch, nest box 45 - sometime in the last week, probably only in last few days given egg shell present. Adults can brood up to 7 days old but none of our birds have been present with the new chick for more than a few days. First weigh in was 53g
Box 15 and box 23 (the pioneering pairs who have bred each year since 2015) are leading the way. Typical of more experienced pairs (although you would hardly call them experts in a species that can live 50+ years) they laid earlier than novice pairs. Both hatched around 4th July and the chick from box 23 now weighs 398g; at 22 days old he/she is heavier than some adult birds. They will all need to continue this impressive early weight gain to stand any chance of returning to Ramsey to breed in future years. If they can hit a peak of 550-600g they will be doing well. The adults will abandon them from late August onwards and they will slowly whittle down their fat reserves and hopefully fledge around the 460g mark (studies on Skokholm in the 1970's showed this is to be the 'cut off weight' for fledglings being able to survive the arduous migration feat to Argentina)
It's astonishing to think the chicks in the photos above, in around 6 weeks from now, will be winging their way to the coast of Argentina, a journey that, for the quickest, can be done in 2 weeks! Even more amazing to think that in a few years time we might see them back on Ramsey, within 200m of the burrow they fledged from, looking for a nest site of their own. This is exactly what we found when we lifted the lid on box 52 last week.......
EY27530 was ringed in this very study plot as a fledgling on 7/9/12 weighing a healthy 532g. It was paired up with another non breeder who has been frequenting this box all season. Fingers crossed it is to both their liking and they produce an egg next year. It was a special moment as I held the bird to read the ring I had put on in 2012 to contemplate this individual had flown 84,000 miles on 6 return journeys to south America in that time........
I would encourage anyone to add spending a night in a Manx shearwater colony to their 'bucket list'. You can't fail to be disappointed (unless you go during the full moon! Manxies like dark nights to come ashore safely so pick new moon phases). To experience the sound of tens of thousands of birds screaming in to their colony under a star filled sky is one of life's true joys. Our neighbouring islands of Skomer and Skokholm, both managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales offer just such opportunities. To see them at sea in the evenings as they gather to come ashore I can highly recommend Thousand Islands Expeditions operating out of St Davids - click on the links for more information and enjoy the experience of Wales unofficial national bird for yourself!
As we reach July and the majority of viable gannet eggs have hatched on Grassholm, the fieldwork season for RSPB wardens and our research partners can begin. We’ve already completed seabird counts from the boat back in May and early June but we never land to work on the island until chicks are a few weeks old and the risk of disturbing incubating adults has passed.
Even so, the first landing of the season is always a very careful affair, with limited personnel and a sense of trepidation! However, on the morning of 4 July, when I jumped onto the island for the first time since last October from the VentureJet boat ‘shearwater’ things couldn’t have gone better. Firstly, I’d had a stunning ‘puffin and dolphin filled’ journey across St Brides Bay from Ramsey to Skomer, to collect the WTSWW wardens Bee and Ed. My island neighbours had agreed (without too much persuasion I should add) to come and help me that day. We landed effortlessly in the west gut, avoiding our usual landing place because of the guillemots with chicks on the cliff there. The gannets were very calm and as we moved slowly along the colony edge, just the non-breeders lifted off into the northerly breeze. The breeding birds; trying to contend with their large 4-week-old chicks, were a little pre-occupied, only giving us a suspicious side-ways glance as we crept by.
The purpose of two day trips in July is to locate birds marked with individually identifiable rings. In our case these are yellow plastic rings marked with three black numbers. With our research partners from University of Exeter we have fitted 517 gannets with rings since 2010 and it is these birds that we make every effort to re-sight each year. This mark-recapture study allows us to estimate the survival of adult gannets from one season to the next. Early indications are that adult survival on Grassholm is lower than we would expect, especially in females and this study is invaluable in trying to address these concerns. The ring sighting data will allow Exeter’s research scientists to make more accurate estimates and begin to investigate the causes of adult mortality.
It sounds like a relatively simple mission, but don’t be fooled. Brooding gannets have a tendency to snooze for long periods whilst the chick sprawls out underneath them. Sods law dictates the angle of the leg will always be just slightly off, making reading the ring number more challenging. The final digit is often blocked from view by another bird or splatted with guano, smeared with Grassholm dust or stuck tight with down feathers! It takes great determination and patience to decipher the code as my helpers will testify.
We stopped for lunch just as the heat was building and the island’s healthy population of green bottles come out to play with visiting humans and their provisions. Ed kindly fielded the brunt of the attack, it seems his cheese sandwiches with sweet onion relish were simply irresistible! After a successful 5 hours, we’d identified 68 ringed birds and were heading home to our respective islands.
A week later and it was a very early start at St Justinians for my second day trip. Apparently, there had been a sporting event of some significance the night before, which made the 7:30am pick-up slightly more problematic!) My wing-man this week the director of West Coast Birdwatching, David Astins, who I’d also been promising a Grassholm trip to for some time.
We got soaked with spray on the way out, but the landing went smoothly thanks again to the expert boat handling and good humour of boatman Tim Brooke. We were on land by 08:30 and had a good morning re-sighting rings at pace, made easier by the overcast sky and reduced glare from the birds. After lunch, the sun came out, the heat and dust intense. We were hot and bothered by the time ‘shearwater’ returned to collect us but with 70 ring sightings under our belt, I was happy, as was a highly competitive Dave, who was dead set on beating the Skomer/Ramsey warden tally from the previous week!
Thank-you to my excellent field team of Bee, Ed and Dave for their hard-work and company; we’re so fortunate to have such experienced conservationists and birders in Pembrokeshire to call upon.
Guest Blog by Andrew Crowder
When I was in my teens thinking about my future I knew I wanted to work somewhere within the field of biology. My wildest dreams were of animal research on the African plains or the jungles of South America. Real life didn’t quite deliver that opportunity although I did enjoy virtually my whole career within the NHS diagnostic science services. So when I retired I set out to experience just a little of those early romantic notions.
As a life long birder and RSPB member it seemed natural to look in that direction and I was really taken by the offer of residential volunteering on RSPB reserves. As I live in Wales and love Pembrokeshire, Ramsey Island was the obvious choice and I was lucky enough to be accepted for a fortnight in early June. With a little trepidation and two weeks worth of food (!) and clothes I arrived a few hours later than planned as the normal boat from St Justinians had broken down. This was my first encounter with the complications of ‘island life’ and it was not be the last. Travelling across with me was Geoff who was in his eleventh spell on Ramsey. We were met by the wardens, Greg & Lisa, then settled into our accommodation in the north of the island. I had no expectations of luxury and I wasn’t let down - for example the gas cooker was one my nana would probably have described as ‘a bit dated’ when she was alive! That said all the basic necessities for life were on hand and the views back across Ramsey Sound and south to Skomer Island were to die for.
The next day the daily routine began - welcoming the visitors off the morning boats and make sure they had all they needed to make their brief stay safe and enjoyable, including tea, coffee and information about what they could find on the island. We would then usually disperse to carry out wildlife surveys, which was just a joy for me. Logging Northern Wheatear breeding territories, monitoring Chough nests and counting nesting sea birds on the cliffs, etc - what a gift to this avid birder - and all in a rugged, fantastic setting with other fabulous wildlife encounters all around you. I was even more lucky - the weather for almost my whole stay was sunny and warm which really helps for this kind of work. Then it was back to the reserve centre to serve more refreshments and down to the harbour to see everyone off safely.
One particular visitor encounter stands out in my memory. I’d set off to do a Wheatear survey in the north but ran into a young couple who were desperate to see some of our Little Owls and Choughs. As I approached I had already picked an up an owl on top of a nearby wall and was able to point it out to their delight, which seemed to attract others (visitors, not owls…) who were equally as charmed. As if on cue, a flock of 14-15 non breeding Chough magically started circling and calling just above our heads. And that wasn’t the end - as we watched I heard a Peregrine Falcon calling nearby and saw the male bird land on a nearby cliff. One of the visitors had a telescope and everyone was able to get stunning close up views. By this time, it seemed like half the day’s visitors had joined us and I felt a bit like the pied piper but it was very rewarding to be able to share my knowledge and help make their day. Needless to say, I didn’t get much surveying done that afternoon.
After the visitors had left, the island was entirely ours and I was able to explore, bird and photograph to my hearts content. Perhaps the best perk for me of being a volunteer was the freedom to have unrestricted access to the whole reserve, getting up close and personal with the fabulous wildlife.
Of course, that freedom was partly because we were on an island. That separation brings a different way of thinking and being - ‘island life’. For example, you can’t just pop round the corner for a pint of milk, energy is limited and even the naturally sourced tap water has to be boiled before use. This means you have to plan further ahead all the time but keep options open. Despite the sunny weather no visitor boats could land on one day because of the combination of a unseasonal north winds and low tide times. And just as my arrival was late, my departure came 24 hours early because of the possibly unfavourable winds the following day. That morning I was undertaking a survey on a Chough nest but two hours later I was on the boat home - although not before I was privileged to record the first fledging of the island’s most iconic bird.
What a way to end my time as a volunteer, summing up what life can be like on Ramsey. I’d come looking for a unique life event and left having experienced the genuine article.