Guest blog by Jerry Gillham, Research Assistant, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.
Arrival on the Shiant Isles
Emily and I arrived on the Shiant Isles on 5th June, after a long journey up from Cambridge via Flamborough Head, Inverness, Ullapool and Stornoway. Early that morning we did a last-minute shop for fresh food and loaded our provisions onto the boat; six big plastic boxes full of camping gear, tagging technology and office supplies, three large barrels of food, four big water tanks, two rucksacks loaded with rope access equipment, a portable generator and large quantities of personal gear, all tightly dry-bagged.
As we sped across the Minch the excitement levels were rising as we were finally getting out of the office and into the real fieldwork. Flocks of seabirds watched us pass as they sat on the water while porpoise and a minke whale surfaced close by. It was a calm day but dominated by mist and drizzle that had steadily increased to a persistent rain by the time the Shiants loomed out of the grey; the tall, imposing, sheer cliffs surrounded by puffins, razorbills and guillemots filling the sea and the sky.
Photo 1: Our first view of the Shiants (Jerry Gillham)
It was a wet arrival but before long we were drinking tea in the bothy with the pre rat eradication monitoring team and by early afternoon the sun was out, giving us time to set up our tents before the storms of that evening drew in. The Islands The Shiants, owned by the Nicolson family, are located roughly half way between Stornoway and the Isle of Skye, in the middle of the turbulent Minch. They consist of three main islands and an assortment of smaller outcrops and rocks. We have been working on Eilean an Tighe and the larger, steeper Garbh Eilean, joined at all but the highest tide by a narrow shingle isthmus, crossing of which can dictate time spent in the field.
Photo 2. Looking back to Eilean an Tighe on a much nicer day. (Jerry Gillham)
Our base is beside the bothy on Eilean an Tighe. A small but comfortable, dry building with a lovely open fire and nearby water source, we have been extremely grateful for its presence in the poor weather which has dominated our stay.
Photo 3: Looking down to the bothy and surrounding area. (Jerry Gillham)
Around us are nesting oystercatchers, pied wagtails and meadow pipits while a small crèche of eider ducks are regularly seen around the isthmus. Further up the slope, defending their nests with the aggression one would expect, are the great skuas, often competing with the large gulls and ravens for territorial dominance. The cliffs are teeming with kittiwakes and auks, fulmars cackle loudly from patches among them and puffins cover the grassy slopes like discarded confetti. The mixture of upland, marshland and coastal plants and flowers means there is quite a diversity of colour amongst the well-grazed grasses, with bright yellow irises and pink/purple orchids the showpieces.
Photo 4. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars sharing cliff space. (Jerry Gillham)
The real star of the Shiants though is the boulder field, Carnach Mhor, surely one of the most amazing places in the world for sheer density of seabirds. It really is like a crowded city as every square meter is packed with birds, eggs, chicks, noise and smell. In little pockets on flat rocks the guillemots huddle together. Down in the cracks and gaps the razorbills make their home while further down still, in the smaller crevices, puffins peer out at you in their inimitable way. Every so often a loud honking reverberates around the enclosed rocks as a shag makes its presence felt.
Photo 5: Looking down on the boulder field. It must be camera trickery as I can’t remember it being this sunny and calm. (Jerry Gillham).
The sky above is filled with thousands of birds wheeling around, wings beating rapidly as they circle their landing sites. At times, such as when a predator flies over or when large numbers are returning with food at dusk, the sky looks so full it feels like a biblical swarm.
Photo 6: Looking upwards from within the boulder colony. (Jerry Gillham)
Seabird Tracking And Research
We are here for this season’s Seabird Tracking And Research (STAR) assignment, continuing the tracking of seabirds at sea during the breeding season to look into their behaviour and key feeding areas. We are concentrating on two of the most iconic and charismatic of the UKs seabirds, the guillemot and razorbill. We are using cutting edge technology with one of the first large-scale deployments of new Mataki tags. Unlike alternatives, we can remotely download the information from these tags rather than having to retrieve them from the birds, saving disturbance to individuals and to the colony. Depending on the settings these can gather data for three to eight days and will fall off the bird within a fortnight.
Photo 7: Our work environment. (Jerry Gillham)
Photo 8: Razorbill and chick (with hidden puffin). (Jerry Gillham)
With such new technology we have inevitably faced problems and had to learn through trial and error. Happily much of this took place back at RSPB headquarters, The Lodge, where I simulated a razorbill feeding trip by carrying the turned on tags while cycling in from Cambridge. With lessons learned we are confident of a high success rate of data collected. This will be resolved in the form of maps, with GPS points noting the bird’s location at regular intervals, showing us their trips and feeding locations.
Additional work It’s been a busy time on the normally isolated islands as work gears up towards the rat eradication project. Along with this team we have been joined at times by a small film crew documenting human-seabird interactions and by Scottish Natural Heritage, carrying out additional monitoring. In particular they have been counting the huge numbers of seabirds, something we got involved with, marking out areas of known active burrows on the puffin slopes then retiring and counting the hundreds of individuals standing out beside them.
Guest blog by Alice Ward-Francis, Globally Threatened Species Recovery Officer, International Direrctorate, RSPB
The RSPB has been working with Nature Kenya, the BirdLife Partner in Kenya, for over 15 years. We have been working to support Nature Kenya to develop and grow as an organisation. They are now one of the strongest partners we work with in Africa, with a highly capable team, led by the inspiring Dr Paul Matiku. They lead on large-scale projects, delivering critical conservation and sustainable livelihood development, through mobilising local civil society and direct action.
One of Nature Kenya’s top priorities is to save the Critically Endangered Taita Apalis. The Taita Apalis (Apalis fuscigularis) is one of the rarest birds in the world, living only in the forest fragments at the tops of the Taita Hills in southeastern Kenya. It is considered Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List because it has a tiny occupied range of 500 hectares. The very small population of the Taita Apalis has been fragmented into extremely small sub-populations and may consist of only 100-150 individuals.
The future of the Taita Apalis depends on how quickly the current habitat can be restored, expanded and protected. Actions include land purchase or lease, active restoration of degraded areas and engaging local people in protecting this unique species.
Nature Kenya has leased Msidunyi forest, a 6.28 hectare private forest fragment located on the western side of Vuria peak of the Taita Hills. This small forest fragment will secure 12 % of the world’s Taita Apalis population. Funding for the lease was secured from African Bird Club, the World Land Trust and other donors
Nature Kenya is also working with local communities, and plans to restore 115 hectares of degraded Vuria Community Forest, which is contiguous to Msidunyi and is held in trust for the local people by the Taita-Taveta County Government. Nature Kenya is also looking for more private land to buy or lease to secure the Taita Apalis habitat for perpetual survival.
Please visit Nature Kenya’s appeal page, if you are interested in supporting the project and for more information.
Guest blog by Dr Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.
You can read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7 and part 8 of the Henderson Island science expedition here
On 22 May 2015, the RSPB expedition team arrived on Henderson (Pitcairn Group, UK Overseas Territory) to better understand the ecology of this remote and rarely visited island.
Tagging Henderson petrels to investigate foraging behavior
Henderson petrels are endemic to Henderson island, and very little is known about their breeding biology. Because they are virtually indistinguishable from other dark petrel species at sea, there is absolutely no information where these birds forage at sea. The RSPB team therefore explored whether these birds could be tracked with tiny GPS loggers – a routine approach for many seabird species that had never been attempted with Henderson petrels.
Photo of a pair of Henderson petrels at their nest in the dense forest of Henderson Island
Henderson petrels can be quite aggressive at their nest, and they do not always tolerate being picked up by humans but may abandon their nest. Attaching a logger to a bird without sacrificing the nest was therefore quite challenging. The RSPB team proceeded extremely carefully and attached a GPS logger to an incubating Henderson petrel on 3 August. The bird happily returned to its nest and stubbornly continued to incubate until 14 Aug.
Henderson petrel egg destroyed by a rat
On 15 Aug the bird with the logger had finally left to go foraging at sea, and its partner had taken over the incubation duty at the nest. Unfortunately, the egg turned out to be rotten, and on 21 Aug the disillusioned adult left the nest and rats quickly devoured the abandoned egg. The odds against retrieving the valuable logger had just decreased dramatically because the nest had now failed.
Photo of a rotten Henderson petrel egg with rat bite marks
However, there was still a minor chance to retrieve the logger after the egg had been destroyed by a rat. After all, the bird foraging at sea could not know that its nest had failed, and would at some stage return to the nest. Without an egg left, the bird would not hang around for very long, so the only chance to retrieve the logger would be to intercept the bird upon its return to the nest. The team therefore had to spend every night at the nest waiting for the bird to return.
Awaiting the return of the Henderson petrel
Photo of RSPB scientist Steffen Oppel camping next to a failed Henderson petrel nest in the vain hope of retrieving a GPS logger
On 29 Aug, exactly one day before the RSPB team had to leave the island, the bird with the logger had returned to the nest and was picked up during a routine monitoring visit. The hard work seemed to have paid off and the team was tremendously excited to download the data from the logger. Alas, due to the dense canopy and the fact that the bird had sat on its nest for 12 days after deployment of the logger, the battery had been depleted before the bird departed for its foraging trip. So unfortunately there is still no information on where Henderson petrels go to forage, but we will keep trying to find out!
Over the next few months the new team will collect more data on vegetation, landbirds, rats, and seabirds.
The Henderson expedition is funded by The Darwin Initiative and David & Lucile Packard Foundation.
Find out more about our Henderson Island Restoration Programme