Typical bank holiday weather returned and after nearly 2 weeks of uninterrupted boats and increasingly settled weather, low pressure is back and with it strong northerly winds that meant no landings on Ramsey today.
We took the opportunity to get our puffin sound system and decoys in place for the season. Puffins used to breed on Ramsey in the 1800's but with the arrival of rats through shipwrecks their days as a breeding species on the island were numbered. Rats are voracious predators and when they find their way onto seabird islands their impact is devastating. Millions of years of evolution have seen some species of seabird adapt to breed in burrows underground. This allows them to avoid avain predators such as gulls but when you suddenly introduce an alien mammalian predator to which they have no defense the impact is catastrophic.
Luckily sterling work 14 years ago by RSPB and Wildlife Management International meant that the introduced rats were finally eradicated. The response of Manx shearwaters has been impressive with an increase from 850 pairs in 1999 to 3,835 pairs in 2012. Storm petrels were recorded breeding for the first time in 2008 but puffins have not made it back yet
Following the success of a similar project on Copeland Island a couple of years ago we decided to try it on Ramsey. Nigel Butcher, ace technician in our Conservation Science department at the RSPB made the sound system which plays the call of a puffin on a repeat loop from a loudspeaker (very loudly!). German technology then completed the outfit when Michael Hoffman, one of our regular and very talented volunteers made a sturdy frame on which to securly site the device plus a solar panel to keep the battery topped up.
To accompany the sound system are some decoy puffins, made by Ed Tycer. It is hoped these will act as an added attraction if birds make landfall.
We trialed the sytem last year for a short 4 week period with some success whilst dealing with early teething problems. Birds were recorded making landfall on low tide rocks below the speaker and on one memorable occasion 8 birds landed on the cliff tops among the decoys. With the device out for a full season this year it is hoped we can build on this success and see puffins return to their rightful place on the Ramsey Island breeding bird list.
Below are some photos from this morning
Step 1: Volunteer Michael positions the base and car battery
Step 2: The speaker is connected and solar panel board attached
Step 3: Solar panel is wired up to complete the job
The decoy puffins are assembled on the cliff top to try and resemble a busy colony amongst ready dug rabbit and shearwater burrows
Volunteers Michael, Iris and Lesley with Reserve Assistant Amy braved the biting Northerly wind to get the job done. Fingers crossed for success......
Ramsey has several shallow ponds in acid rich soils. They are nationally important for some of the UK’s rarest aquatic plants but some are also full of newts. There are no frogs or toads on the island, but the Newts represents the amphibians here and both Palmate and Smooth newts are found in these damp areas.
Although not more than 10cm long, the male palmate newt is relatively easy to identify. They have a thin filament with extends from the tip of the tail and the back feet are webbed, making them look like tiny black Maple leaves. The females are more difficult to tell apart from the similar Smooth newt, but Palmate have a clear pink or yellow chin whereas Smooth newt females have a spotted under chin.
They spend the breeding season in the ponds but then spend a lot of time on land during the rest of the year in damp areas under logs or vegetation. RSPB volunteer Mike found a palmate newt several hundred metres away from our nearest pond under some stones at the farm and this set him thinking that we should provide a winter home, nearer to the ponds.
So Mike has been busy for the last few days building a ‘Hibernaculm’ where newts can spend the winter months. It is a stone construction, just a couple of metres from the pond with entrance holes to allow the animals easy access. Our construction had to be fairly sturdy to stop curious sheep knocking it down, but in less harsh environments hibernacula for amphibians can be made from earth and rubble. The inside is filled with moss and wood to give the perfect protection from the elements and predators during our cold stormy winters.
Mike is now out surveying our other shallow ponds for signs of newts. They can be encouraged out for a closer look and for identification using a home made fishing line and a worm but should be handled carefully and returned immediately to carry on their business.
Over the last eight years Dr Steve Votier and his team of researchers from University of Exeter have been working with us on Grassholm Island. Their work on Gannets has evolved dramatically over this time. Initially we looked at quite basic aspects of the Gannet life-cycle like where our birds spent the winter.
The available technologies have improved significantly. Trackers have become smaller and cheaper and these devices can now record all sorts of information. They can tell us about the bird’s location at sea, its speed and even whether it is in the air or in the water. We can also use still and video cameras to look at the interaction of gannets with fishing vessels, marine mammals and other seabirds including other gannets.
The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales organised a seabird symposium last week, which brought together some of our most eminent seabird biologists, all with strong connections with the Pembrokeshire Islands, some going back 50 years.
He also looks at how this research can be used to monitor the impacts of environmental change, changes in fish stocks and fisheries policy on our Gannets in the future.
It's a really interesting 20 minute over-view of a lot of hard work, sweat and tears!