Thursday, 31 May 2012

Sun, fog, people, cuckoo, gull, owl, rain..this week

A bit of a catch up here as we have been so busy counting gulls to the exclusion of everything else. We are at a very small hiatus inbetween counting gulls and cliff nesters and with visitors numbers tailing off due to the weather.  So this week.....
the weather has turned from glorious warm days and stunning sunsets.....

through fog........

to pouring rain today. The birds are just sitting it out as it pours down.

The good weather brought lots of visitors some of whom left their thoughts on the comments board......

The gull counting is virtually done, just a couple of small areas to finish this afternoon.

Flora and Lucie are very pleased that it is finished.

The fantastic spring for migrant birds continues with several cuckoos passing through, some calling in the rain in the top trap,

others getting caught and ringed.

Other migrant highlights include a whole load of spotted and pied flycatchers, sedge warblers, common and lesser whitethroats, 3 sanderling and a couple of short eared owls moving through,

and best of all a thrush nightingale staying for a couple days,and singing in the top trap,
An Isle of May twitch for the thrush nightingale,
The scramble for photos,

The bird itself being papped.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Counting the gulls - another day at our office.

Today we have mostly been counting gulls. And they don't really appreciate it. This is a biennial operation which sweeps the island, every inch of it. So in scorching weather a team of us (island staff and recruits from the local SNH office that needed to see wildlife) have been slowly, systematically, intensely and with complete absorption sweeping over island sections counting the nests of the herring and lesser black back gulls.  There isn't much chance for your mind to wander as you clamber up and down rocks making sure that you don't miss any while being constantly dive bombed and given bad smelling "good luck" . If a few nests are missed out in each section then the overall population figure can quite a bit out so slowly does it to get as accurate figure as possible. So why do it ? Why is it important ? Strange as it may seem but herring gulls, those archetypal seaside birds are declining at such a rate that they have been declared a "bird of conservation concern." But on the Isle of May the population seems to be gradually increasing over a long period of time so for us to find out more about this we firstly need to know how the gulls are doing at the moment.
As you go along you see all sorts of interesting things - this clutch had eggs of different colours.
Some of the herring gulls are just starting to hatch - see the beak just starting to show through.

And some are out in the wide world.

This is a cute greater black back gull chick (on the right).

And the job this year is made more difficult by the lack of vegetation. The surface carpet of plants has been blasted by the weather and eaten by the rabbits and so there isn't the usual protective weave of roots and stems to support our weights when walking over the puffin burrow riddled surface. The result is that occasionally someone breaks through into the burrow itself. If left then this would be fatal for the chick inside so each holed burrow is re roofed with an old roofing slate. Never has it been more important to be a bit "light on ones feet " !
More gull counting tomorrow and the next day it is better than being on a computer all day and is another day at our office.
Lucie looked after the puffling while this burrow was mended.

Arms that reach down to the knees and have 2 elbows are needed to mend the burrows.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Listening in - the sounds of the May

The Isle of May is a remarkably quiet peaceful place and visitors and inhabitants are recognise this frequently. So with the thick fog early this morning making it difficult to see you hand in front of your face the sounds of the island came to the fore, disconnected from their source. So I headed out from Fluke Street in a thick grey blanket with ears flapping. Of course with 200,000 birds on a small island it is never quiet, and at Fluke Street we are surrounded by eiders and gulls. The gentle seductive woohoo of the male eider has now been replaced by the more earthy and practical mwuk, mwuk, mwuk of the females talking to each other across the gully or softly to a raft of ducklings on the loch. The gull colony is never silent at this time of year, even in the dark and their loud and varied calls echo from plateau to braes. Heading up Palpitation Brae I enter nervous breakdown territory where 2 of the islands's community go through their daily manic discourse. Oystercatchers are just in a complete state, almost continuously piping at the slightest presence around them. Arctic terns are also in a constant state of over excitement and could start and argument if on their own in a cardboard box. They have such a array of sounds that even when you can't see them you have a good idea of what they are doing. A machine gun burst is aimed at gulls they have taken a dislike to (usually with good reason). Heading out on a fishing mission needs a different set of calls to when they come back into the colony saying "hi look at the size of fish I've caught."
The noise of the cliff nesters only reaches you when you get to the cliff edge but once there the kittiwakes and guillemots have a lot to say and loudly. It is thought that guillemots can recognise their partners call even amongst 8000 seemingly identical individuals all yelling their heads off. I keep a ear open for 2 of the smallest island residents the rockets (rock pipits) and waggies (pied wagtails) as they are the islands intruder alarms. A breakout of twittering from them usually means a bird of prey entering island airspace.
But with all these noisy neighbours it is amazing that you do actually still do much of your bird watching with your ears. once tuned into the island you can pick out something different passing through like the burble of a skylark, the chay of a siskin or the rasping keehaw of a black-headed gull. All of these stand out like a a pink shag on a cliff once you have been on the island for a while.
And then there is the wind of course. 
So for an island that wears a cacophony all the time how come it is so peaceful and calm ? How does that work ?

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Why count all the birds?

To be counted.
Spotted and counted
Fulmers at the top of the cliff.

We are just entering the counting season on the island when we try to put a number on what birds we have here. This is when things go a bit mad. Visitors often ask us "how do we count all the mass of birds on the island?" as they watch thousands of puffins wheel over the island and cliff faces full of auks, and I then have to admit to them that we cheat a bit. It is not just a mater of counting birds as they whizz over head but we have a more systematic approach. Firstly from today onwards we start counting eiders and gulls. This we do by counting nests of both. We have a system where we get a group of 6-7 people over to the island for a few days and then systematically sweep every inch of the island counting nests and clutch sizes as we go. As soon as this finishes Jeremy starts counting all 5 species of cliff nesting birds, (guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmers and shags) over the whole island and I count all the guillemots and razorbills in 20 plots five times on different parts of the cliffs.
It is hard work, it means long days involving some planning, organisation, concentration and a lot of scrambling over rough terrain  but what a fantastic way to experience the island. For a few hours your whole focus is on the birds and the island and the rest of the world disappears until you emerge blinking and sated with data sheets full of numbers. And that is the real purpose, it isn't done because it is a nice thing to do (which it is) but because at the end of it there is a total for each species which because the same method is used each year can be compared to each other. With a number of years data trends can appear and we get an idea of how the different bird types are doing. It is vital when saying that a certain bird species is declining or increasing that you have rock solid data to back you up. In the past in other jobs I have been to farms where farmers have told me that they don't know what all of the fuss is about farmland birds declining as they have always seen skylarks everyday. But just seeing them everyday isn't enough, a farmer that sees 10 pairs of skylarks on his farm when there used to be 20 might not notice the difference even though he has lost half of them. And the same applies to sea birds, you can still see huge numbers of puffins and kittiwakes on the Isle of May but only close monitoring has shown that between 2003 and 2008 the puffin population dropped from 68,000 pairs to 45,000 and the kittiwakes, between 1991 and 2011, have dropped from 8,000 to 2,000 pairs. The value of this long term monitoring data is that it can be used to highlight the problem, raise awareness of the issues and then it can be used to lobby for better protection for the seabird population and marine environments so that the next generation will be able to enjoy thousands of puffins wheeling above them just as we have.

A kittiwakes view looking down a cliff.

Guillemots don't have to have much of a ledge to lay an egg on.

Friday, 25 May 2012

A dip in the harbour.

Well it is all change here. Today was the warmest day for a long time out on the island illustrated by the fact that most island residents were in shorts for at least part of the day. Only a few days ago we still had fires lit, were wearing thermals and hats and had to resort to a medicinal whisky each night to prevent hypothermia. Suddenly warm weather has arrived and so have the visitors.
 Being on the east coast this means a bit of fog in the mornings when the top of the mainlight kept appearing and dissappearing but once it had burnt off then things turned hot.

 The effect has been immediate as last night we had 11 moths in the moth trap compared to the 3 moths for the previous 6 weeks.

 The cliff nesting birds incubating eggs on the cliffs had to put up with the baking until their partner gave them a break. It was great to see they relieved of their duties and drop down onto the sea from their ledge and wash clean their plummage and cool down.This guillemot was panting with the heat while the razorbill below it was suffering from having a nesting ledge lower down the cliffs (raining guano).

It has also changed the researchers behaviour, phone calls can be made outside, we have even eaten tea out-side twice and ...
....tonight a (very quick) swim in the harbour.

 Anything the Farnes can do we can do as well.
It is peak seabird season with so much to see and with this weather set to hold a bit longer, its a great time to visit the island.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Another Eider sequence.......

We were having a meeting out by the Mouse House because the sun was shining. It was a very pleasant place to discuss  up and coming projects. As we went through our agenda our attention was attracted by an Eider with six hatched youngsters. The mother was clearly determined to get through the wall. Unfortunately she was able to get up the step but none of her youngsters managed it!

 She tried several times to tempt them up but they ended up in a duckling pile at the bottom of the step

We tried putting a step in for them. But instead of another attempt they decided to sit down with the islands most celebrated Eider, Toilet Duck. She is named because she nests year after year outside the doors to the toilet. She is a firm favourite with visitors as she's often the first Eider to be seen by the tourists!

The ducks did not really take to each other and Toilet duck took to pecking the youngsters

But the youngsters really took to toilet duck!

Mummy moved back in to take the children back from her foster mum. One of the ducklings had actually got underneath Toilet duck but got moved on. There was no sign of the teamwork that I'd recorded down at Horse Hole the other day. I waited for a while but had to see the Rib Osprey off so I never found  out whether the Eider got up the step.

Toilet Duck is due to hatch any day. hopefully she'll treat he offspring with a bit more kindness!