Helen Moncrieff drops us a line from Mousa, an RSPB reserve lying about a mile east of the southern mainland of Shetland, famous for it's Iron Age broch, seals and of course seabirds. Unlike Sumburgh Head, there isn't towering sea cliffs. Instead there is a subtle mosaic of tidal pools, maritime heath, machair and moorland. Being free from ground predators (except otters), it provides an ideal breeding site for Arctic terns.
Helen recently visited Mousa with the Shetland Conservation Volunteers and the Ness Under 14s football team. This is her story:
Mousa is an uninhabited island, accessible by boat. On the ferry crossing, we watched hundreds of Arctic terns (or tirricks as they are known in Shetland), feeding on sandeels in Mousa Sound. Every now and then, an awesome aerobatic display would be performed in front of us, as an Arctic skua would chase a tern to try and steal its' fish. This is one of my favourite summer scenes. Sandeels are an important food for many of our breeding seabirds and part of a fragile marine food web. Our researchers are looking at the connection between the warming sea temperatures and impact on sandeel numbers. But judging by the immense numbers of Arctic terns feeding in the Mousa area, and what I've been hearing from local fishermen, it looks like there are good numbers sandeels in our waters at the moment. This makes me optimistic.
However, experience has taught me that just because it looks good at this time of year doesn't mean that we'll see many fledged young. In 2008 for example, after a promising start not a single tern chick fledged on Mousa. This was due to a two week period when the terns couldn't seem to find fish to feed their tiny chicks. Here's hoping that the abundant sandeels remain through the breeding season and I'll keep you up-to-date with their story. Now, what are the local young football team doing on Mousa? THey were undertaking Da Voar Redd Up. Da Voar Redd Up translates as The Spring Clean, and every year in Shetland thousands of volunteers take to the roadsides and beaches to remove the rubbish that has accumulated. Much of the rubbish on Mousa comes from the sea, although there is evidence of visitors who cannot be bothered to take their litter home with them. Naughty naughty! Plastic bottles and containers made up the majority of the pollution, with netting, rope, polystyrene and stuff relating to marine industries making up the rest. It is ever so vexing to see such rubbish, particularly with the knowledge that seabirds and sea mammals can die from being entangled in netting, and also that fulmars eat small pieces of plastic having confused them with plankton. The RSPB is grateful to all who helped, and Mousa looks all the better for it. A tern colony had established at one area, so we will wait til after the breeding season so not to disturb the birds (whose defence strategy is to noisily attack you, dropping the occassional "bomb"), and leave their eggs open to predation by gulls and skuas. We were also accompanied by the Shetland Conservation Volunteers, and our new local volunteer Rebecca. Our job for the day was to measure out potential storm petrel habitat. Storm petrels, known locally as Alamooties, breed in boulder beaches and scree, but also in man made structures such as dry-stone dykes and even the 2000 year old Mousa Broch! Our task was to measure the walls and record the collapsed sections. It was a case of many hands make light work, and we really appreciate the help we get from the Volunteers. I was rather delighted as I heard my first storm petrels of 2009. The late Bobby Tulloch compared their churring call to the sound of "a fairy being sick!" I look forwards immensley to going on a special night trip to Mousa to see Britain's smallest seabird returning to the broch - Britains biggest bird box.
There is never a dull moment at a seabird colony, be it the drama of a skua chasing a tern or the tranquility of watching a kittiwakes in the evening light. Do try and visit a seabird colony as soon as you can - nature is good for you!
We're excited by the arrival of 150 new residents on Ramsey Island. In a bid to lure puffins to breed on Ramsey again, model decoys have been deployed around the island.
Lisa Morgan from Ramsey tell us that puffin decoys are finally here and installed in suitable locations around the island! The lifelike models were delivered by the sculptor and artist, Eddie Tycer, in early May and are now deployed.
Puffins bred on Ramsey back in the 1800's but their eggs and chicks became easy prey to the rats that arrived on the island through shipwrecks. According to records puffins last bred on the island in 1894.
A century later RSPB spent four months eradicating the rats. Since 2000 we have seen an increase in Manx shearwater numbers (although a small number managed to hang on during the “rat years”) and just last year storm petrels were found breeding for the first time on Ramsey. Puffins would complete the set.
Puffins are difficult to tempt to new breeding sites. They are sociable little birds and prefer to see other birds already established at a site before making landfall themselves. The strategically placed decoys are our attempt to lure the puffins to that important first landing! Once ashore they will find thousands of ready made burrows waiting for them thanks to the island's rabbit population.
With our seabirds struggling around the UK restoring a species to a former breeding site is worth a shot.
Success will not come overnight and may take years. But with a large puffin population on nearby Skomer Island, (c. 8,000 pairs, the largest colony in southern Britain) it is hoped we can pinch a few! These younger, non-breeding birds return to the colonies in late June and July so we will be keeping our eyes peeled over the coming few months!
Martin Heubeck can often be seen perched on Sumburgh Head, peering through a telescope. It could be said that Martin is almost as familiar a figure as lighthouse tower! For over thirty years, he has been working for Aberdeen University/SOTEAG monitoring the fortunes of Shetland's seabirds. It is of huge importance that we have such a long-term data set to work out the long term trends of seabirds as this can give us an insight into what is going on within the seas around us. Part of the monitoring programme Aberdeen University/SOATEAG carry out is monitoring guillemots breeding success. The first guillemot chick at Sumburgh Head hatched out yesterday! I'll be updating you on the chicks fortunes as the weeks progress.
Over on Mousa, Rob (our seasonal assistant warden) has been busy counting incubating terns. I was expecting a good number of birds, as the feeding activity around the island has been ever so busy, and reports from local fishermen say that sandeels are abundant. In 2008, there were 400 incubating birds. Rob did his first colony count on Tuesday and found 642 incubating birds! We haven't got a total figure yet (he's still on Mousa as I type), but from our phone conversation this afternoon, we are looking at more than 900pairs nesting on this island. I am keeping my fingers crossed for the sandeels to remain throughout the breeding season.
Today, we had P4 from one of the Lerwick primary schools visit SUmburgh Head as a part of our Living Classrooms field teaching programme. As well as learning about and enjoying watching our seabirds (mainly shags, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and puffins), they created a marine foodweb, measured out the lengths of the cetaceans that visit our shores, and played a migration game. It is really rewarding for us as staff to see young folk really engage with the wildlife, and ask such interesting questions. It is worth mentioning that when I asked how many of the class of 33 had seen killer whales (orca) almost all raised their hands! In fact three of them had watched a group of killer whales swimming by their local beach in town just last Sunday! Where else but Shetland?
Well, I'll sign off now, but STOP PRESS - Rob has just come off Mousa ferry and called to say there is a total of 901 pairs of Arctic terns nesting, with over 2600 individuals on the island. THat's the most in my six seasons of being a warden on Mousa. Smiley smiley.
Cheerio for noo