Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus, adult flying low over the water of an evening, Isles of Scilly

Building homes for shearwaters

Ramsey Island warden, Lisa Morgan, explains how nest boxes used in New Zealand are helping us learn more about the migration journeys of Manx shearwaters.

Pin point tracking

"For the last four years, we’ve been studying the annual migration of Manx shearwaters as they depart from Ramsey Island and travel to South America. As part of this work, we now have the opportunity to spy on the daily lives of the island’s birds in fine detail.

To keep track of the birds, small GPS devices can be fitted to shearwaters whilst in their nesting burrows and then removed several days later. 

These 'loggers' use the same GPS technology that we might use in a car to navigate our way, and they can accurately record the bird’s position while it’s fishing out at sea. Devices like these have been used to track the journeys of many species of bird all over the world, without negative impacts on the individual bird or affecting their normal behaviour.

Further down the rabbit hole

Manx Shearwaters nest in burrows underground, so to fit these devices we have to cut a small clod of earth above the nesting chamber of the burrow, making a lid which can be lifted and replaced without causing unnecessary disturbance. It’s a tried and tested technique, used for many years on neighbouring islands without any problems. 

But as all island wardens know, things are never as simple as they first appear! Subsequently, we spent many hours over last winter with our arms down shearwater burrows, desperately trying to reach the end (and the nesting chamber) with our finger tips, but to no avail. 

Because on Ramsey most shearwater burrows were originally dug by rabbits and then taken over by the birds, the tunnels are just too long!

Then inspiration struck us. We remembered a project we had visited in New Zealand where another shearwater species, Hutton’s shearwater, was being studied in artificial burrows. 

This was our solution. Aided by donations from our supporters – thank you – we bought the materials needed and our skilled volunteers set to work, building nestboxes for shearwaters to the same design we had seen in the Southern Hemisphere."

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus taking flight from sea

Grand designs for shearwaters

"These custom made shearwater residences comprise of a piece of drainage pipe, acting as the entrance tunnel, leading into a wooden nestbox with an all important lid, allowing us easy access to attach the trackers and monitor the birds. 

Once dug into the ground, the boxes are watertight and desirable property for any house-hunting shearwater. We hope to establish a colony of 20 nestbox-living shearwaters on Ramsey, which we can use in our tracking studies in the future."

Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis, in flight and the rising moon, Ramsey Island RSPB reserve, Wales

A special chough

"It's been a good year for choughs with nine breeding pairs recorded. One very special chough is a colour-ringed male, hatched on Ramsey in 2000. He started to breed in 2003 and has bred every year since (coloured rings fitted on his leg help us keep track of what he is up to). 

Fourteen years on he is still one of a breeding pair, holding a prime territory on Ramsey’s west coast. He has produced a very respectable 35 offspring so far in his lifetime. By mid-May, he and his partner were busy feeding chicks again, so fingers crossed for some more successful offspring to add to his tally!"

Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, adult, at beach feeding site, Oronsay RSPB reserve, February 2000

A rough start to the year

"For the first time in eight years, we headed to the mainland for the festive season, leaving behind our precious island but glad to be in the company of our friends and family. And it turned out to be a very wise choice indeed. 

Into the New Year we watched and waited in St David’s as massive swells smashed our buildings at St Justinian’s, preventing us from returning home. One particularly violent storm took the roof clean off our store shed and smashed the heavy wooden doors on the RNLI’s boathouse.

When we finally returned to Ramsey on 9 January, we were pleasantly surprised to find the farmhouse intact. The most noticeable damage after the storms was that caused to the vegetation. The grass on the northern fields was scorched by the continual salt spray funnelling up the cliffs. 

By March, it looked like the island had been bleached silver, something we have never seen before. Although it took till April for green shoots to appear on some parts of the island, the vegetation is now recovering.       

The growing importance of Ramsey

With growing pressure on our marine environment coming from fisheries, renewable energy technologies and mineral prospecting, it has never been more critical to protect important areas for wildlife at sea. 

Research and ingenious techniques like these can help us discover the most important places for seabirds on land and, crucially, at sea. Such information helps work to protect these important places for wildlife.

Thank you for your loyal support. It makes all this possible."

- Lisa Morgan, Ramsey Island warden

View of coastline showing rocky beach, Ramsey Island RSPB reserve

How you can help

Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis, in flight and the rising moon, Ramsey Island RSPB reserve, Wales

Thank you for what you're already doing to help our projects in the UK and abroad - we couldn't do it without you. If you feel you can donate some additional money at this time, it will help us achieve even more.