In Nov 2013 we installed the first of our Manx shearwater study nest boxes. These were inspired from a visit to New Zealand where we saw them in action with Fluttering and Hutton's shearwaters. The aim was to give ourselves a population we could easily work on for productivity and GPS tracking purposes, something not that easy to achieve on Ramsey as most of our expanding population (still recovering following rat eradication) nest in a deep network of rabbit warrens.
14 of the 23 boxes installed to date have been visited by prospecting non-breeding birds. We know this from camera trapping and from evidence of occupation e.g. guano in entrance or in box or the fact that bracken stems carefully placed at the back of the tunnel had been knocked down.
However yesterday was a very exciting day in that a pair of birds were found in a box for the first time by day. This is a classic pattern that new pairs go through i.e. visiting the colony at night, finding a burrow, finding each other, then staying in the burrow by day to pair bond. I didn't have my ringing kit with me yesterday but Lisa and I went back this evening. Not unexpectedly this pair had gone back out to sea last night but another box (which had no birds in it yesterday but signs of a rudimentary nest) had 2 birds in it this time. We lifted the lid and carefully extracted the 2 birds from box 15 and put a metal BTO ring on each.
Hopefully these pairs, plus others will return to breed in the boxes next year. Non breeding birds return to the colony from year 2 onwards and find a mate and burrow in the following years before breeding for the first time at 5 or 6 years old.
Our next full survey is due in 2016 - in 2012 we had 3,800 pairs which is up from just 850 pairs in 1999, the year before the rat eradication project took place
Ramsey is slowly being restored to the seabird island it once was.
Lisa installing a Manx shearwater nest box in Nov 2013
GM ringing today's bird - the first to be found in the new nest boxes
The first Manx shearwater to take a shine to our nest boxes
Visitors to Ramsey will probably have come across our flock of Welsh mountain sheep. They are part of our conservation grazing scheme primarily for the benefit of chough although many other species benefit from the grazed grassland such as wheatears.
Managing the sheep involves a good deal of animal husbandry and Lisa and I have been well trained over the years in this respect by Derek Rees, a local farmer who also brings our post and supplies to the island in his purpose built boats. However there is one job that we all leave to the experts in this field.....shearing!
Each year around this time Aled and his gang from the Gwaun valley in north Pembrokeshire cross the Sound with all their equipment and make short work of our relatively small flock (100 animals this year).
Wool prices have improved of late and at least cover the costs of shearing. Shearing needs to be done regardless of the income however as leaving thick fleeces on the animals through summer would be very uncomfortable for them and leave them prone to a very nasty condition called fly-strike whereby green bottles lay their eggs in the fleece and when the maggots hatch start eating the flesh of the sheep. Untreated this will often kill the sheep. Now that they are sheared we can forget about this potential issue until at least September and the sheep can stay cool in the long hot summer that lies ahead for us!.......
Below is a short video we made yesterday of the event, starting off with a 'sheepdogs-eye' view of proceedings as Dewi gathered them in! It was all filmed on a new Go-Pro camera kindly donated to the island by our boat operator Thousand Islands Expeditions
I'm still very much getting used to using it so please excuse the shaky editing!
Manx sheawaters are arguably the RSPB's biggest success story on Ramsey. When we took over the island in 1992 it was plagued with introduced brown rats, a disaster for any burrowing nesting seabird which has evolved over millions of years to nest underground on offshore islands free of such predators.
In 1999/2000 the RSPB together with Wildlife Management International from NZ manged to eradicate the rats and the results have been extraordinary. In 1998 the population stood at just 850 pairs with productivity virtually zero. At the last full census in 2012 that figure had lept to 3,800 pairs. Our next full census is in 2016 and it will be interesting to see if the population has continued to rise over the past 4 years.
Today I was out surveying a small study plot to find out which burrows were occupied before spending a week in July attaching data loggers to birds in an on-going long term study on these remarkable birds migration patterns (they go to Argentina for the winter!). To do this we play a short burst of a recording of a male/female duetting pair and listen for a response. This is the only way to accurately survey a species that spends most of its life either at sea or underground! At this time of year birds are incubating eggs so you have the best chance of getting a response as at least one of the pair should be home by day.
I took this short video which hopefully illustrates the point and gives a glimpse into the underground world of the Manx shearwater. After a short burst of the MP3 recording the real thing calls back. This bird is a male (higher pitched than females)
As you will see I am accompanied by my trusty companion Dewi, our sheepdog! When he is off duty from sheep work he accompanies me on most tasks. He loves shearwater surveys as he can sniff them out long before I get to the burrow! He usually lies down outside a burrow to tell me if it is occupied or not. He is very well trained in this respect and its not unusual for dogs to be used to for seabird surveys. See this link for a story from Birdlife International - these are highly trained dogs however and ordinarily I wouldn't advocate taking a dog to a seabird island!
Signs were good today. 19 of my 21 study burrows were definitely occupied which means birds carrying data loggers from last year all seem to be present and correct. Fingers crossed our 2016 full survey sees the population go from strength to strength
To see these remarkable birds for yourself an overnight stay at a colony is required. Our friends and neighbours at the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales manage both Skomer and Skokholm islands. You can book through the Trust to stay on either island - see here for details
This is what was making all the noise!