At the moment our days are consumed by all things Manx shearwater. We are in the middle of a full survey (which takes place every 4 to 5 years) and are eager to know if the upward trend seen in this species since rat eradication in 2000 continues or will the initial surge in numbers begin to plateau?
If you are visiting the island or going around it by boat you might see us on all fours with backsides to the skies as we play the duetting call of a male and female pair to a selection of burrows covering the whole island (knee pads and factor 50 sun cream on your lower back are vital when spending most of the day in this position!) With steep slopes to traverse too it’s quite a work out all in all! At the end a fancy formula will tell us the estimate for the number of breeding pairs
This is the sound we hear in our heads when trying to get to sleep at the moment! (we only have to play 25 seconds at a time but this is the 'uncut' version - worth listening to the end (or skipping to it!) as a third birds enters the nest and causes a rumpus! The higher pitched bird is the male, the lower, gruff call is the female
We might have finished lambing but Dewi our sheepdog is far from idle. He loves nothing more than helping us with this work and his keen nose can pick out a shearwater with ease!
Staying on the shearwater theme, some of you might remember us talking about installing artificial nest boxes to give us a population we can carry out tracking work on and monitor for productivity success (the number of chicks produced). After being in place for a year, we had our first pairs prospecting in 2015. This year two of those pairs are back in the same boxes and we were delighted to find both incubating eggs last time we checked. With a 53 days incubation period it will be late June to early July before we know if they will successfully hatch this year (it is not uncommon for first time breeders to fail at the egg stage). Either way this is very encouraging news and, we think, the first time Manx shearwaters have been recorded using artificial nest boxes (but happy to be proved wrong on this!)
Plus a bird ringed as a fledgling on Ramsey in 2012 has returned and was found in a nest box by day with a partner – less than 100m from where it was ringed four years ago! These newly paired birds won’t breed this year but, like those above, the signs are promising for them to make a go of it in 2017
Ringed as a fledgling on Ramsey in 2012 this bird is back and looking to breed
After a gap of ten years we resumed our chough fledgling ringing project this year. Two weeks ago our good friends Tim and Lou (who are expert cavers) came over to abseil into two of our nest sites. The chicks were carefully removed and ringed by locals from the Teifi Ringing Group under the supervision of Bob Haycock who had previously ringed on Ramsey for over 10 years. The first site we visited had 3 chicks ready for ringing. The second unfortunately was empty and confirmed my fears when I saw a raven being mobbed by the parents a few days previously as it flew off with something small and black in its beak. On closer inspection the nest showed classic signs of predation. It is only the second time in 20 years this regular site has failed so we hope normal service will be resumed here next year.
Colour ringing of chough chicks allows us to monitor these birds throughout their lives. A bird ringed here in 2000 is still breeding at 16 years old while two that we ringed as fledglings in 2006 are both breeding here too, with one of their siblings nesting on Skomer! First year survival of young chough is vital for the population as a whole but getting through their first winter is challenging. Colour ringing helps us monitor how many make it through and thus gives an indication of future prospects for this important species
17 day old chough chick with colour rings
Breeding wise we have 8 pairs of chough this year plus 2 non breeding territorial pairs. Fledging expected by middle of June so will keep you posted on success
In other news – 2 pairs of short eared owls have been confirmed breeding. This is the first time we have ever had more than one. 3 pairs of peregrines this year. The one we can easily monitor (it nests in full view of the footpath!) has 3 healthy chicks.
Short-eared owl chick - once hatched the parents usually move the chicks away from the nest site meaning staff have to be careful where we are walking when carrying out survey work! (photo A Colenutt)
The calendar says 18th May but its hard to believe where the time has gone. Here is a quick summary of what has been happening on Ramsey so far this month
We finished lambing! The last lambs (a set of twins) were born on 12th - we got the remaining 11 empties in to check them the next day. No signs of udders so out they all went. It was a very successful season - 128 lambs born (40 sets of twins and 48 singles) with only 4 losses at birth. The chough seem to be appreciating it as we have 10 territorial pairs this year, 8 of which nest built and all are feeding small young at the moment. The other 2 pairs are young non breeding pairs that hold territory but don't breed (but will hopefully do so in future year) - although one of them thought they would have a go at nest building yesterday!
Myself, Lisa and Dewi moving the final set of twins out of the lambing fields
Before turning everything out we treated all the ewes with a fly repellent to hopefully ward off fly strike until we can get them sheared in June
Only a month old but some of the single lambs are looking good
Someone is looking forward to a rest!
We also finished the arable plot - having ploughed it, rolled it and harrowed it (twice each) we sowed it in early May, just in time for a good drop of rain to start it on its way. The arable plot will provide sheep feed for the winter, seed for autumn and winter finches and maybe some cover for a rarity or two!
The arable plot freshly sown and electric fenced to keep rabbits and deer out (hopefully!)
The breeding season is in full swing now. Wheatears look to be having a good year. The disappearance of most females indicates incubation while males stand guard. This pair have nested in one of the stone cairns we built to mark the footpaths!
The auks are mostly incubating their single eggs now. This razorbill kept me company while I was monitoring a west coast chough site this morning
while over a hundred of our nationally scarce Dew moths flitted around my feet on the thrift
which is now out in full bloom
The weather has had its 'up and downs' this month but we've still managed to get a steady trickle of visitors across to enjoy the island. Late May and June see the island at its best in my view (other favourite months are available!) so if you would like to see a riot of spring flowers, cliffs packed with seabirds or just want to come and see the lambs then contact Thousand Islands Expeditions to book (01437 721721)
In April of this year we had a visit from Dilek Sahin, a Yelkouan shearwater researcher from Turkey. Yelkouan shearwaters are only found in the eastern Mediterranean and are a close relative of the Manx shearwater (which breed here on Ramsey). It was a real pleasure to meet Dilek and share shearwater stories. Below is a gust blog by Dilek about her visit
My name is Dilek Sahin. I have been counting Yelkouan shearwaters in the Bosporus –an important migratory bottleneck- since 2010. The main purpose of my study is to understand the movements of this threatened species in Turkish Strait System through which thousands of them migrates each year. I am also working on remote islands in Turkey to search for Yelkouan shearwater breeding colonies which are not discovered yet. For more information on the Yelkouan shearwater project in Turkey please visit our website via this link
Two years ago when I started my PhD at Bosporus University (Istanbul, Turkey) I found a surprising book in the library: ‘Shearwaters’ by Ronald Lockley. The book is all about Lockley’s pioneering research on Manx shearwaters on Skokholm Island. In a country where interest in birds and bird research is very limited I was surprised to find such a specific book on seabirds. It is perhaps due to the noticeable and non-stop Yelkouan shearwater passage in the Bosporus: just in the “garden” of my University.
All the stories that Lockley tells about Manxies in the book and all the experiments he did to reveal information about these tiny birds were amazing. I remember that I was taking frequent breaks when I was reading the book to delay finishing and enjoy it longer. As a shearwater enthusiast, I was dreaming myself of living on an island and studying shearwaters as he did.
When I landed on Ramsey Island for a short stay to meet Greg and discuss shearwaters, I realized that this was the opportunity to experience a few dream days. Although it was early in the shearwater season, I was lucky to handle my first Manx shearwater on the first night! For someone who has been counting Yelkouan shearwaters in a migration hotspot but not studying them in the breeding colonies, handling one of them awakened strong feelings, which are difficult to describe even in my mother language.
These birds are traveling vast distances during the non-breeding season, visiting South America’s Atlantic coast, spending several month of the year there, and then come back to the exactly same burrow to breed each season. For such a relatively small bird –weighting only 400g- it is remarkable they survive these adventures.
During my time on Ramsey (early April), Manx shearwaters started come to land to visit their nests. They usually visit their nests at night but in the early breeding season you can find couples resting inside their burrow by day, defending their territories. We encountered several such couples. . We know this because they were responding together to the recording of male and female Manxie duetting calls that we played to check the occupancy of the nest. Who knows what they are chatting about inside those burrows, maybe about their adventures during the non-breeding season; how they obtained food and how they prepare themselves for the next chick rearing ordeal! Despite miniaturized tracking devices, increasing number of scientific papers published on them and more scientists studying shearwaters there is still a lot to learn about their ecology!
Digging in Manx shearwater nest boxes with Ramsey Reserve Intern Sarah Parmor (photo G Morgan)
Together with RSPB volunteers, wardens Greg and Lisa put huge effort to better understand and protect not only Manxies but all wildlife on Ramsey Island. In just four days, I joined them on several conservation activities. We built and dug in nest boxes for Manx shearwaters. As they are using deep rabbit burrows on Ramsey, it is difficult to monitor the nests. To make monitoring work easier and to minimize the disturbance arising from processing birds they are investing in nest boxes. We also placed Puffin decoys in a location where some Puffins have been observed showing an interest previously. Puffins are not breeding on Ramsey Island as rats (now eradicated) were introduced by man in the 1800’s .Ramsey has lots of space for them in comparison to Skomer where thousands of Puffins breed in dense groups (Skomer has never had rats). Puffin colonization on Ramsey would take the burden from Skomer Island. We also checked the nest boxes (or rather concrete blocks!) and sound system installed for Storm petrels to make sure everything was working before their return (a few storm petrels have returned to breed on Ramsey post rat eradication). Chough was another species that we monitored the nests of. It was funny to compare our observations and discuss their behavior during our lunch or dinner and try to decide on the stage of breeding (i.e. if they are nest building, or already laid their eggs). Finally I was involved in many fruitful conversations about shearwaters and my own project during my time on Ramsey Island.
After Ramsey, I also visited Skomer Island to meet another great team and many more Manx shearwaters. Both of the islands are too good to be true, so peaceful yet so dynamic. Skomer feels like a movie set of a wildlife documentary whereas Ramsey feels like home (yes, despite the Welsh climate)!
Yelkouan shearwaters in Turkey (photo: Mehmet Hanay)