Tuesday, 31 October 2017

'New' boat shed

It may seem like a boring subject to write a blog post about but our newly painted boat shed is well worth it and is the culmination of pretty much a years work. If you read What are they up to? last autumn you would know the background to the project. Celtic Sustainables donated some environmentally friendly, high quality and highly durable paint to bring our boat shed up to scratch and we are very grateful to them for their kind donation. What we hadn't realised is how much work would be involved. It was a classic case of opening a can of worms. As we scraped the old paint off we realised that a lot of the render was also falling off and to cut a long story short we spent the whole of this summer knocking off loose render and re rendering. This was done with a lot of help from our weekly volunteers and even friends and family that came to visit us on the island. Then came the satisfying job of getting the paint on. Anti fungal solution came first then three coats of Keim paint. The finished job looks amazing but I will let the following pictures paint the full picture.

The boat shed as was
How it sits in North Haven
Render falling off
Ooh, nasty!
Work begins - Bee and Mick scraping off old paint and loose render
New render going on
Fungicidal wash going on
Hard at work
Ready to paint
Three coats of paint went on with decreasing levels of dilution

Sarah checking the final coat
Last stroke
A beautiful new protective layer of paint to last 100years

So the job is done and we would like to thank everyone involved. This includes Celtic Sustainables for the paint, Chris Ward of BC Building for his help and advice with the rendering and of course everyone who helped with the work through the middle of an incredibly busy season on Skomer. The paint was a pleasure to use and looks great so we are happy to recommend the paint itself and Celtic Sustainables for sustainable building options from natural insulation to heating and rainwater harvesting. Check them out online or at their store in Cardigan.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Seals and Storms

I’m Julie, a behavioural ecologist from Australia, who now lives in the UK and has spent three seasons working on Skomer, but this is the first year I have worked for The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales as their field worker. In the summer I was involved in monitoring the breeding success of seabirds, and during Autumn I am part of the team monitoring the Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) population.

Julie and pup 89

Watching seals from the cliff tops can be lots of fun, but there is also a serious side to our work. Long-term monitoring projects, such as the seal project that started in 1983, provide insight into the vulnerability of marine populations to pressures created by human-induced disturbances and climate change. These projects can help us understand how to protect and preserve the marine environments and its wildlife.

Julie conducting a site visit at South Castle Beach Cave

The seal monitoring on Skomer is conducted each autumn by a small team who:

1) maintain daily records of the number of seals that are laid out on key beaches around the island, including their age and sex;

2) document seals that are entangled with human-made materials, such as plastics, ropes and fishing line;

3) record the number of pups born at these beaches and determines their survival rates; and

4) record fatalities and probable causes of death.

Bull seal entangled in a blue pallet strap

Unfortunately, recent events on the island have led to an increase in fatalities. Earlier this week, the UK experienced ex-Hurricane Ophelia, the strongest storm since 1987. The winds and waves caused by Ophelia were phenomenal with over 16m measured at St. Ann’s Head (the weather station can’t measure more than 16m so no one knows how large the biggest waves really were). And this weekend storm “Bryan” battered the island severely once again.

Wave heights from St. Ann's Head Weather Station

There was some impact on the island infrastructure, but the effects on the seal population were much worse. Approximately two-thirds of the seals pups have died or disappeared from the monitoring beaches; that is 50 of 75 pups lost since the first storm (we haven’t yet counted what is left after storm Bryan). Those that remain appear to have injuries to their heads or bodies and often look lethargic and weak. We have also noticed pups washed up on different beaches from where they were born, which happens every year but not to such an extent. If they are still small and their mothers can’t find them they will starve. The number of adult seals hauled-out on the beaches has also decreased since the storm.

Dead seal pup trapped under boulders

Dead immature seal

While sharing this information is rather saddening, there is also some positive news to report. We found two seal pups born the day after storm Ophelia with a couple more born later in the week. Importantly, the data collected this year will be compared with other years and may increase our understanding of the influence of storm events, such as Ophelia, on the breeding population of Grey Seals.

New life after the storm

If you are interested in the seal monitoring work done on Skomer, you can read more in the 2016 report, which is available here on the WTSWW homepage.

Julie Riordan
(Field Worker)

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Oh Ophelia - what have you done?

Yesterday we had the most incredible storm I've ever seen - and even Mark, from the Marine Conservation Zone, who is a local told me he had never witnessed such waves before.

The sea spray (it wasn't rain) was so fierce it stung my face and eyes and my hair thrashed around my head like a whip. All animal life had vanished, not a single rabbit was about and the gulls that still had been flying in the morning all had disappeared by the afternoon. The wind was howling around the house and the roof rattled like crazy. I couldn't see out of the windows anymore as they were covered by salt water and the attic hatches were dancing in their frames.

Unfortunately high tide and the strongest winds clashed and turned South Haven into a boiling soup pot - with the seal pups floating around like pearl barley. How many have survived we will know by this afternoon, once we have completed our seal round.

And of course the buildings got a thrashing too: The Farm has lost several slates off the roof and North Haven has lost four roofing sheets. I had to watch them fly off and couldn't do anything to prevent it. By now they are in northern Scotland I suspect.

We will patch up the damage today in time for the next storm on the weekend.

(Skomer Warden)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Bagshot's Story

The seal season is well underway with over 170 pups born so far. We are continuing the Skomer seal study which started 34 years ago and the longer we do it the more interesting it gets. We get very detailed information on population changes as well as survival and birth rates and we also get insight into the life history of individual animals.

Every year we take many hundred seal photos. If a seal has a scar we try to find a match in our existing seal catalogue by comparing the new photo with the old ones. The photos of unscarred seals get uploaded into a Welsh database and a computer will do the matching.

Just the other day we made an amazing discovery: There is this seal called Bagshot or BK-066 and she was found in Perranporth, Cornwall on 11th February 2011 as a 12 week old immature with netting embedded deeply into her neck and chest. She was taken into care by the National Seal Sanctuary, Gweek and the netting was removed. As she was still growing the netting would have most likely strangled her as she got older. On the 21st of May 2011 she was released at Gwithian, Cornwall with a blue flipper tag attached to her hind flipper.

In September 2012 Dave Boyle, who was the Skomer Seal Field Worker, took a photo of a heavily scarred immature female Grey Seal on North Haven beach and noticed she had a blue flipper tag with the number 39. After a bit of research he found out that she came from Cornwall and was called Bagshot (her less inventive Skomer name is BK-066).

In April 2013 Dave photographed her again hauled-out on North Haven beach. She was heavily moulting, so Dave wasn't able to use the pattern of her coat to identify her but her scars make her an unmistakable seal.

And then she was seen again on Skomer by Ed and myself in March 2015. She seemed to return to Skomer regularly and liked hauling-out on North Haven beach. She was becoming a beautiful adult female (ignoring the scars).

This year we photographed her several times between the 9th and 19th of September - again hauled-out on North Haven beach. She did look rather big and we were wondering whether she was pregnant. By now she was in her 7th year and Grey Seals usually start breeding around that time.

And then - hurrah - on 30th of September she was seen with her (probably) first ever pup. The scars are still, after all these years, very raw and it seems that they have burst open again. Maybe it's  because she put on a lot of weight during her pregnancy. She will have to feed her pup, now weighing around 12kg, until it is about 50kg and she won't be able to go hunting whilst doing so. She will use up all her blubber to produce fat rich milk and only after three weeks of suckling will she be able to leave her pup and go back to sea to feed herself.

What an amazing success story and how wonderful that seals have been studied on Skomer so intensely for 34 years so we can tell such tales. We are very fortunate that NRW are funding this incredible piece of research.

(Skomer Warden)

Friday, 29 September 2017

What goes bump…

Here on Skomer Island there is so much that goes on that we don’t see. During July and August we began to receive sightings of an otter roaming about on the island. Excited by the news, we placed trail cameras at certain places on the island hoping to get a better sight of this rare and elusive mammal. While we did get fleeting views of the otter, what also excited us was the other wildlife as well as the behaviour shown when humans were not around to interfere. In particular, we were especially excited by the appearance of water rail! These particularly shy birds are recorded only rarely on the island during summer but by using these hidden cameras, we have been able to regularly get some great views!

Water Rail zipping past the camera

 It was not just water rails that were seen however. Our cameras also recorded fighting shearwaters, a puffling recently emerged from its burrow, foraging wood mice and even a dead shearwater that attracted gulls, crows and magpies to feed on it. All in all, it’s been really interesting to see what goes on when we’re not looking!
Carrion Crow, doing what it says in the name

In total, we’ve recorded over twenty species of animals (not counting the clouds of moths that were seen at night!), with everything from passerines such as Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers, to much larger Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Pheasants, Moorhen and (of course) an Otter. Perhaps the most interesting observation however, was just how curious our magpies are! While none of the other birds or mammals paid any heed to the hidden trail cameras, the magpies very quickly picked up that something new was in the neighbourhood, and spent quite some time pecking at the screens trying to work out what these strange new objects were.

A curious Magpie

While the trail cameras have been recording shy species and interesting behaviour on land, Jake, one of our Long Term Volunteers, has been putting out an underwater time lapse camera in North Haven to monitor the fish species that pass by. The kelp beds by the edge of the cliffs have proven to be particularly rich in life, with sea bass being regularly seen there, along with ballan wrasse, two spot gobies and shoals of both adult and juvenile pollock.

Bass swimming past the camera in the North Haven kelp

Jake and Joe, Long Term Volunteers 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Seasonal Change

With autumn starting to set in and my three and a half month stint on Skomer Island as a Long-term Volunteer (LTV) over, it is natural for me to be reflecting on change. Change turned out to be a very visual aspect of the habitats and wildlife on Skomer Island especially with the Wildflowers.

The spring started off with the centre of the island carpeted by a thick layer of Bluebells...

 Replaced quickly by the Red Campion in late April....

And by May, Sea Campion popped up around the puffin colonies...

Finally a splash of yellow was added to the mix in July with a touch of Ragwort supporting a burst of insect activity including Cinnabar moths, butterflies and bumblebees.

The Animal life also changed over the season. I arrived at the beginning of the spring bird migration, with the spectacle of dozens of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff and a few rarities like Black Redstart, Sub Alpine Warbler (pictured) and Dark Eyed Junco.

As for the famous Auks, I arrived as they started to return to the Island at the beginning of April and left around the time they did too by mid July. I had the privilege of watching them complete their breeding cycles and I was overjoyed when we found out that after hours of fieldwork and boat work that all species of Auk counted in 2017 were doing well or increasing in number on the island.

The marine life also changed with the seasons. In April I was greeted by up to 80 grey seals on North Haven beach in what is called a “haul out” where they arrive to moult, although one enterprising male preferred to find his own personal haul out.

The marine sightings really started to pour in during the summer however, where, replacing the seals, I was able to see Porpoise (almost daily), Common Dolphin, Sunfish in North Haven, Risso’s Dolphin and Barrel Jellyfish. Sea watches were also increasingly accompanied by the Skomer icon, the Manx Shearwater.

The new LTV’s will be enjoying different phenomena in the second half of the season. The seals have returned to pup on the beaches around the island, and many of the 300,000 pairs of shearwater have left for Argentina as well as their chicks who are currently in the process of fledging.

This is a dangerous time for the fledglings, especially due to the strong winds hitting the coasts, so keep an eye out for any inland that may have lost their way. Advice on how to deal with lost shearwaters can be found here

Other visitors to the reserve, in the form of Weekly Volunteers, always provided welcome new additions to the small community we have on the island.  Being a weekly volunteer remains one of the best ways to experience the wildlife on the island, and definitely prepared me for my time as LTV. It also allows you to see the island in a new way and is a brilliant way to connect with the wildlife and scenery.

Thank you to all the staff, researchers, Weekly Volunteers and visitors who made my stay so enjoyable. I hope to be back soon.

If you are interested in becoming a Weekly Volunteer Assistant Warden please visit the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales here.

Thomas Faulkner former LTV

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Weekly volunteer applications are out!

If you've ever visited Skomer Island you are likely to have met some of our wonderful volunteers. Volunteers stay on the Island from Saturday morning to the following Saturday midday and truly are essential to allowing the island to run smoothly. For volunteers it is a wonderful way to see and get to know the island, and meet our neighbours who only come out at night!

Manx Shearwaters, exploring the island at night and using our signs for extra elevation. (Photo: P. Reufsteck)

If you are interested in volunteering on Skomer in 2018, please fill out an application form by the 1st of October.

Application forms have been updated this year so if you are a returning volunteer I would really appreciate it if you could download and use the new application form (feel free to copy text from previous applications- many of the questions haven't changed!).

Applications can be found on the wildlife trust website or click HERE.

See you soon!

Sarah (Assistant Warden)