Sunday, 22 April 2018

Looking back; Looking forwards

As my second year as assistant warden seems to be rushing into full swing, I find myself looking back at last year, and anticipating what lies in store for the next few weeks.
It’s notable how different the two springs have been.

In the low vegetation early this year, the black rabbits stand out even more than normal!
In 2017 I arrived for my first cold Skomer march to an island, surprisingly green. Areas of the island which had been bare ground, or with sparse grass to support the network of burrows running underneath, in 2016 had grown lush grass over the winter, and while the island looked a little bleak in certain lights, there was green to be seen. This year however, we arrived to ice (already quite a difference) and salt/wind burned vegetation. All the bracken from last year has been completely flattened and most of the grass was brown and looking rather dead. What followed was something I never thought I’d see- Skomer covered in SNOW.

The courtyard at the farm in early March 2018

The days of "The Beast From The East" really highlighted the coldness of the buildings out here. In the kitchen my olive oil solidified, my plates cooled my food down before I’d eaten it, and the fridge got down to minus 1 without turning on. Each day was just something to be survived and it was nearly impossible to get anything done.

My kitchen windows were turned to frosted glass by freezing rain.
Outside the wind was biting, and six layers of warm and windproof clothing wasn’t enough, inside, the cold seeped into your bones as you sat at the computer, wearing even more layers and continuously drinking tea.

The perks of being on the island early; the wildlife still thinks of the farm as its' territory, with chough feeding in the courtyard and buzzard using the railings at the compost loos as a lookout post.

While we readied the island for visitors and busied ourselves training up our new Long Term Volunteers, Dulcie and Tom (full introductions and blogs from them are coming soon!), the island has started to change. In the last week bushes suddenly have green bursts of growth, green grass is poking through the dead brown vegetation lying across most of the island. Lots of birds have been seen collecting nesting material and the bluebell leaves are subtly taking hold, and there are flowers breaking through all over, a mere hint at what is to come.

2017: Kittiwakes collecting nesting material last year

2017: Before we know it the island will be full of colour

Myself and Ed have braved the shorts a few times, and at least the inside of our buildings are up to a more reasonable 15°C! (the corridor and bedrooms stubbornly remained at around 5°C for the entirety of March.)

2017: The Blackthorn was in flower by mid April last year, this year it's a little behind.

We’ve just had our first Razorbill egg so it’s time to look closely to spot more, and find the first bright blue guillemot egg on the cliffs!

Postcards are available on the island showing the diversity and colour of guillemot eggs

You may have seen Skomer’s Guillemot’s feature on a recent Natural World (David Attenboroughs Wonder of Eggs), if you missed it, you can watch it here (available for the next two weeks)

And if you’d like to find out more or support the long term guillemot study on Skomer, please click here

Hope you're all warm and well, 
Sarah-Kay aka Purdo aka Assistant Warden aka SKP aka Tall Sarah

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Spring work party 2018

Have you ever thought about where the water that comes out of the hostel taps on Skomer comes from?

Well the short answer is - from a well, up to a holding tank and then into a header tank via several pumps and treatment units. And, believe you me, you do not want to hear the long answer.

It was also considered prudent to store as much water as possible as an insurance policy in dry years. Hence an emergency tank was built in the garden at the Farm to hold up to 95,000 litres in years of drought. However, the tank leaked and needed rebuilding.

This brings me onto the work party and the amazing work that they did between the 24th and 31st of March this year. The tank had previously been dismantled by a group of volunteers (thanks again to them) and staff last year. The work parties job was to clean all of the old water tank panels ready to be put back together in a new configuration with new sealant.

On top of this main task, the guys also rebuilt our compost bins, cleared the garden ready for a new tractor shed and for work to take place on the new water tank, as well as helping with deliveries and other odd jobs. 

This was going to be grueling work and they would need to be well fed. So we got our master chef Myfanwy in to make sure they were. Her chocolate peanut butter squares were so full of tasty energy that the guys could work non stop, through the rain and cold, all week long.

The upmost thanks go to all of our volunteers. If it was not for them we wouldn't be able to keep this place so special for wildlife and people.

Helping bring deliveries up the steps

Loading on a new sofa for the hostel

Work begins on the water tank panel cleaning

Replacing the old compost bins

Emptying the old bins - believe it or not but most of what goes into the compost bins comes from the compost loos and more obviously the kitchens

A surprising benefit of the new compost bins is that they work just like a five-bar gate - great for leaning on

A few days later and the pile of panels is going down

Pete took this picture of a two headed Puffin which we put on twitter on the first of April!
Job done - the finished pile of cleaned panels


Saturday, 7 April 2018

So what about the seals?

The seabirds have returned from their wintering grounds and are getting ready to breed but what are the seals doing?

The seals got a lot of publicity last autumn as the winter storms hit during the pupping season, so I thought I should update all seal lovers on how the seals did in the end and what has been happening this season.

New born seal pup looking a little water shy

There is some good news: even though a lot of pups and weaned youngsters were affected by the storms last autumn the end result of the breeding season was not as disastrous as we had feared.

We know the fate of nearly all 225 pups with reasonable certainty, only one pup's fate was completely unknown. 170 Skomer pups are assumed to have survived, giving a survival rate of 76%, which is only 2% lower than the average since records began.

This relatively good survival rate is rather astonishing given the two storms (Ophelia (16/10) and Brian (21/10) which hit Skomer with immense force during peak pupping time. Storm Ophelia developed wind speeds of over 100km/h and the weather station at St. Ann’s Head measured wave heights of more than 16 meters. Ophelia washed roughly two-thirds of the white coated pups off the beaches. Storm Brian, only five days later, was less severe but no less devastating, sweeping some of the remaining pups away. 

Well grown seal pup but only 14 days old

The reason why the overall breeding season was still relatively positive, can be explained by the very good start and end to the seal pupping season. 

Luckily, by the time the storms hit many pups had already left the natal beaches, as they take approximately three weeks from birth to weaning.  A good end to the seal pupping season, and the fact that some of Skomer beaches are more sheltered than the ones on the mainland, also contributed to a higher survival rate than on the mainland.

Sadly the mainland breeding season wasn't such a good one with a survival rate of only 60%.

Skomer and MCZ mainland (Marloes Peninsular) seal pup survival rate 1983-2017

And what has been happening this spring? The seals haul-out mainly on North Haven beach to moult. They shed their old fur and, as they need a lot of energy to grow their new pelage, they take every opportunity to rest on land, or in our boat...

We conduct daily seal haul-out counts in North Haven and most days we observe over a hundred animals.

Seals provide endless entertainment. Here are just a few things we have observed and learned about them this spring:

Seal snot is tasty and nutritious - at least when you are a Turnstone
Not only seals eat fish - Ravens too - which seems to puzzle this seal a bit
Not every seal needs a comfy Zodiac to sleep in, some are quite content with a rock as a pillow
Trixie is still around! She was in North Haven most of last year and she is still here (Orange tag with the number 80191)
And here is Velma with an orange tag with the number 80204
(Skomer Warden)