We have been photographing female grey seals on Ramsey since 2007 in order to track their behaviour and movements from one year to the next.
Many have distinctive scars on their body which allow us to recognise them more easily. Scars can be caused by living in an ever changing coastal environment, resulting from a collision with rocks or scratches from the beach and some are caused when seals fight with other seals. Sadly, many are caused by contact with marine rubbish and set fishing gear and can result in nasty wounds and constrictions, usually around the neck and head.
Other females are pristine, but we can use their natural markings to recognise them too. Female’s coats are uniquely patterned with black splotches and distinctive shapes which are especially visible when the seal is wet.
One old friend returned to Ramsey to have her pup today. Known simply as ‘Number 37’, this experienced female has been giving birth in Ramsey’s harbour since 2011. If you have ever been to visit us in September you may well have had super close views of Number 37 and her previous pups as you landed from the Gower Ranger. Take a look at the photos from 2011, 2012 and the one taken today. All show the left side of Number 37's head and neck, so you should be able to match up the markings from one year to the next, confirming her identity.
13 Sept 2011
Pregnant female, pup born late evening
2 Sept 2012
Mother of newborn pup @ 17:00
12 Sept 2014
Pup born 16:15
12 Sept 2015
Pup born @16:30
13 Sept 2016
Pup born @ 09:30
Although she wasn’t seen in 2013, she has pupped here in 5 out of the six years since 2011 and on 4 of those occasions on either the 12th or 13th of September. In 2015 she gave birth at 4:30pm on 12 September and today (13 September 2016) she gave birth at 9:30am. Despite the harbour being a very busy place, with boats arriving daily, quad bikes, people and sheep dogs coming and going throughout the day, this seems to be her preferred nursery. And she is cool as a cucumber, not even looking up from her slumber as I drove past this afternoon.The beach here is tidal, so her pups are forced into the water twice each day on the high tide for a swim which can last up to three hours until the tide begins to ebb and the pebbles become exposed once more.
Grey seals have a gestation period of 8.5 months, so in order to pup annually they use a system called ‘delayed implantation’ which means the fertilised egg or ‘blastocyst’ remains free floating in the uterus until the beginning of the new year when it implants in the lining of the womb and pregnancy starts for real. The start of pregnancy is thought to be triggered by changes in sea-surface temperature and the females own body condition.
Over the years this blog has documented the devastating problems Ramsey’s burrow nesting seabirds faced when brown rats were accidentally introduced to the island via shipwrecks in the 1800’s. With eggs and defenceless chicks easy prey for this voracious alien predator a once thriving puffin colony became extinct, storm petrels disappeared and Manx shearwaters were severely impacted.
In 1999/2000 under the guidance of Wildlife Management International from New Zealand, the RSPB undertook an ambitious rat eradication programme, the biggest island to be tackled in the UK at the time. The success of this project paved the way for more recent eradications which the RSPB were involved in on Lundy, Scilly and, this year, The Shiants.
In 1998, the year before eradication, there were just 897 pairs of Manx shearwater breeding on Ramsey with very few chicks successfully fledging. In the first full survey after the rats had gone in 2007 this number had jumped to 2,387 pairs. By 2012 it had reached 3,835 pairs. Free from the pressure of marauding rats shearwaters were booming!
This year we undertook the next full survey and are delighted to announce the population has increased again! The figure now stands at 4,796 pairs – a 25% increase in 4 years.
Manx shearwater graph - rat eradication project took place in 1999/2000
With the rats gone Ramsey’s Manxies have been able to breed successfully, with ringed fledglings returning to breed on the island in their 4th or 5th year. The rapid increase has not been due to this alone however, with first time breeding birds from Skomer and Skokholm undoubtedly setting up home here too. To put the impact rats had on Ramsey into some context, our neighbouring islands have never had rats and between them account for nearly 50% of the entire world population of Manx shearwater with 316,000 pairs on Skomer and 38,000 on Skokholm.
Fledgling Manx shearwater on Ramsey - a very rare sight before the rat eradication
Ramsey’s remarkable population increase over the past 16 years means that Manx shearwater is now the most numerous breeding species on the island. Unfortunately very few visitors get to see one! Millions of years of evolution has produced a family of birds that breed in burrows on offshore islands free of ground predators, with a strategy of only coming ashore at night to avoid avain predators such as gulls. Long wings, for undertaking an epic migration to the coast of Argentina, coupled with legs set to the rear of the body to aid swimming makes for a top heavy, ungainly gait on land which would make them easy prey in they came ashore by day.
Surveying a species that nests underground and only comes ashore after dark is no easy task! The method involves playing a recording of the male and female ‘duetting’ call to a percentage of burrows on the island and knowing the total number of burrows you have to start with (yes we had to count them all!) .a correction factor is applied, worked out from a set of study burrows. With the help of a fancy formula we are then able to calculate an estimate of the total number of occupied burrows and thus breeding pairs
Click here to listen to the sound of a duetting pair of Manx shearwaters on Ramsey. The male is the higher pitched of the two
Sarah surveying shearwater burrows with Dewi!
There is no overnight visitor accommodation on Ramsey but the neighbouring islands of Skomer and Skokholm provide self catering facilities to allow people to experience the unforgettable sight and sound of these mega colonies. For further information contact the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales – make sure you pick a new moon period as far fewer birds come ashore on bright moonlit nights
If you are staying in the St David's area then a trip out to a coastal headland, like St David’s Head, on a summer’s evening with binoculars or telescope should reward you with the sight of thousands of birds streaming past as they return to the waters around the islands and gather in readiness for night fall. Even better you can go on an evening boat trip and get out amongst the Manxies – contact our RSPB contracted boat operator, Thousand Islands Expeditions, on 01437 721721 for more information
It is vitally important that Ramsey remains rat free. We have robust quarantine measures in place to try and prevent re-infestation not only by rats but any other alien ground predator such as house mice and hedgehogs. Visitors to the island will be aware of this as you will have been asked to search your bags for unwanted stowaways before setting foot on Ramsey! (it has happened elsewhere...)
Island restorations and the ongoing protection of breeding sites is only half the battle. Areas where shearwaters feed and migrate are of equal importance. Given the wide ranging nature of the Manx shearwater, capable of travelling to waters off the Isle of Man and back in a day to feed and spending 6 months of the year in the southern hemisphere, the need to adopt a robust network of Marine Protected Areas in the UK is an urgent priority. Maintaining strong links with our Birdlife partners and governments across the world is of crucial importance.
Seabirds are facing an uncertain future in the UK with severe declines seen in many species over the past 25 years. While this is a good news story for Manx shearwaters we mustn’t be complacent. The UK is responsible for around 90% of the entire world population of this species. Ongoing island restorations, quarantine plans, scientific research and political advocacy are all required to ensure this remarkable seabird continues to thrive.
Ramsey Reserve Intern Sarah Parmor with an update on her season
I’m already half way through my internship on Ramsey and the new experiences just keep coming.
I had very little experience of field and survey work before I started here and this was one of the main things I was looking forward to doing. For the first three months of the season, Greg, Lisa and I have been doing regular breeding bird surveys and it looks like being a good year on Ramsey for many of the breeding birds. I have been amazed at the numbers of linnets, stonechat, wheatear and meadow pipits; all do really well on Ramsey most years. The sound of skylarks singing has sadly become unusual for me back home but here they seem to be everywhere and even singing from the ground in places! In particular there have been two pairs of short-eared owls confirmed breeding this year which is a first for Ramsey. One of these is close to the volunteer’s bungalow and it has been an almost daily occurrence to watch the “shortie” hunting from our patio. Buzzards, peregrine and ravens have been successful too… it must have been a good year for the “Ramsey” vole! Talking of voles, another one of my roles is to do the rodent monitoring on Ramsey. Following the successful eradication of rats from the island 15 years ago we regularly check that the only rodent presence we have are voles and the common shrew. This is done by setting ink traps and chocolate infused wax block traps in various locations over the whole island. So far all I have found are vole footprints and vole teeth marks with the occasional rabbit also having a taste for the chocolate blocks! One of Ramsey’s priority species is the chough and I have really enjoyed the chough monitoring too. They are amazing birds, full of character and I have definitely got a soft spot for the birds in the two sites that I have been responsible for. One of these was the first to fledge this year and with a healthy productivity of four chicks at that! As I write this a total of 16 young have fledged from 7 nests with more still to come. It was great to get some of the chicks ringed as well this year on Ramsey. This is can be quite a challenge with chough as they nest in sea caves which are virtually inaccessible. Luckily one of the nest sites was deemed a possibility and in late May a team of ringers and cavers joined forces and three chicks were successfully ringed. This will be great for monitoring them in future years. In fact both parents of these chicks happen to be ringed too. The male we know is 16 years old and has successfully raised 43 chicks! What a bird.
14 day old chough chick being colour ringed - it has now fledged and can be seen flying around the island. Look out for our ringed birds if you visit Once we got to June, seabird monitoring season kicked off and although we are not doing a full seabird count this year we do fulmar counts and kittiwake productivity. I have been doing the productivity monitoring for the main kittiwake colony which has been really interesting and important for me to learn official seabird monitoring procedure. It was also great being able to go out on the Gower Ranger (thanks to Thousand Islands) to count the fulmar and kittiwakes that we can’t see from the island. Counting birds through binoculars on sea swell was an experience in itself - especially given my lack of seafaring prowess. Luckily for me (and the rest of the boat) it was relatively calm and I felt ok.
Counting cliff nesting seabirds from the Gower Ranger The big seabird event for Ramsey this year is the whole island manx shearwater survey which was last completed in 2012. This entails playing a recording of a male and female shearwater call into thousands of burrows over the whole island. The sight of us kneeling down, heads in a burrows listening for shearwaters has been an all too familiar sight for the first two weeks in June. A good pair of knee pads was definitely essential! A response from an incubating manx shearwater (male or female) is recorded and after some special maths a figure will be generated for the new total of breeding pairs on the island. After listening to recordings of the shearwater calls hundreds of times over I think I can now do a half decent shearwater call myself…and you never know when that may come in handy!
Manx shearwater population census
With our trusty 'shearwater finding' sheepdog, Dewi! So in a nutshell my Ramsey experience continues to be amazing and much of this is down to Greg and Lisa who do such a great job in running the whole reserve between them and hopefully I have been able to help in some way this year. Also, it goes without saying that we couldn’t manage without all the weekly volunteers who have been so supportive and keep all the visitor work going while the survey work is happening. I do seem to have acquired the name “head of bungalow” though….I am hoping this is meant more as a term of affection rather than that I’m too bossy! Finally, there is a lovely “end of day” routine here on Ramsey, where after a hard day’s work and all the visitors have gone, we all sit around one of the picnic benches with a cup of tea (and occasional pack of chocolate biscuits) to mull over the day’s events. Everyone who knows me is aware how I like nothing better than a proper strong cup of tea - I like to call it “special” .…just like the island.