A summer of shearwaters
A visit to Pembrokeshire simply isn’t the same without a trip to Skomer Island.
With some of the rarest and most important bird and mammal sightings and colonies in the UK, it’s a nature lovers paradise - but what goes on after the boats go home? And if you’re one of the lucky members of the public who have booked to stay on the island itself, what can you expect to see the resident research team and wardens doing?
We caught up with the 2016 OxNav researcher Sarah Bond for a sneak peek behind the scenes, and to talk about the important work that goes on at Skomer that you may never have realised happens.
“I see a lot of sunsets and a lot of sunrises!’ Sarah laughs. Her work this year is focusing mainly on Manx shearwaters, and she works quite often through the night deploying the GPS tracking locators to the back of the bird, and geolocators onto the shearwater’s legs.
She shows us the tiny locators, half the size of a paperclip, and then fires up the laptop to show us some of the data; on the screen, jagged lines of yellow show over a map. ‘This is one birds’ course over three days. They cover hundreds of miles.’ This information is crucial to monitoring the feeding and flight habits of a colony, and to filling the gaps in our information. You may think with modern technology it is possible to locate any animals wherever they are in the world, but that isn’t the case.
‘After a shearwater chick fledges, they don’t come back for their first year - and we don’t really know where they are or what they’re doing. This research also means we can look at where the colonies are feeding, and what that means for fish stocks.’ Sarah has worked on Skomer before, and she spent the winter months in Mallorca monitoring the very rare Balearic shearwater.
She takes us out to the burrows, where she and one other researcher check all the monitored burrows for shearwaters that may or may not have nested during the night, and possibly even laid their first egg. We get a chance to remove the marker, feel our way into the sandy smooth burrow, and after a few empties, find our first occupied nest. Holding the wings to their body, I lift the bird out and swiftly cover its head with a dark cloth bag for its own comfort. Shearwaters only come out at night - fantastic flyers and swimmers, they make an ungainly sight on land and can quickly be picked off by predators, so landing in darkness is an advantage. We note down the number on it’s ringed leg, weighs it and marks the burrow too. This bird, which is incredibly light, has a geolocator tracker attached to its leg too - at this Sarah gets excited, it’s one she hasn’t seen before, which means it could carry data from up to three years ago. We can't tell immediately if it’s damaged or not, but all fingers are crossed for some intelligible readings.
We leave the girls to their important work, Manx shearwaters are just one of the extraordinary animals that need researching on the island, with it being home to puffins, guillemots, razorbills and choughs as well as greater and lesser black backed gulls, buzzards and even a Little owl. We can’t think of a better way to spend a summer holiday!
If you want to try your hand at helping, keep an eye out for ‘shearwater week’ between the 27th of August and the 6th of September where you can help weigh the new chicks on the island, with talk from researchers and nighttime walks to see the first birds fledge. Or keep up to date with all the goings on at Skomer on the wardens blog.
Can't make shearwater week. Don't worry you can stay on the island from April until September - read our story from when we spent 24 hours on Skomer.
Have you been to Skomer this year? Or is it on your ‘to do’ list? Let us know what you saw via our Facebook or Twitter.