Life as a Skokholm Island Volunteer : Part 2

September 15, 2019

It has been almost 2 months since my last post about my experiences working on Skokholm and the time has flown by. Summer has slipped away and the great autumn migration is now fully underway! The seabirds have slowly left us, although the manx shearwaters and storm petrels are still around for now, and watching the island change through the seasons has been one of the joys of living here long term. So much has happened it is hard to recount, so I will attempt to review the main projects and monitoring we have been working on.


A week after my last post, the puffins left en-masse. The day previous stormy weather broke what had been a fair and sunny few weeks, and as I was heading down to the Crab Bay colony to re-sight colour rings I could see that they were up in the air and circling around in their hundreds. There were also thousands standing around outside their burrows and on the cliff edges. Although some did come back, we never saw them again on land in such numbers. A few late breeders and stragglers hung on but by the end of July they were virtually all gone. It was sad to see them go, but the puffins are far from the only thing to be excited about on Skokholm. 


Last time the oldest fulmar chicks were only two weeks old and just starting to be left alone whilst their parents were out feeding at sea. More hatched afterwards, and over the past two months they have transformed from balls of fluff with heads to fully grown birds with snowy white and silvery grey plumage. Though some of our pairs failed at the egg stage, all the chicks which hatched fledged except one, making this year the highest for productivity in a decade. The first chick departed on the 23rd August and the final one only 6 days ago. The cliffs are virtually empty now except for the odd birds hanging around, and their aerial acrobatics will be missed greatly when they are gone. 

Storm petrels

In the past two months we finished monitoring the storm petrels using tape playback as well as the walks down to the Quarry with the infrared camera. Instead we started using mist nets and tape lures to catch and ring non-breeding birds down at South Haven where the boat comes in (catching breeding birds in this manner would cause too much disturbance for those on eggs or with chicks). There is still a lot to learn about storm petrels and so ringing and re-capturing them can provide invaluable information about their movements. Some of the birds we caught came from France and the Channel Islands! On the first few nights, under starry skies and shooting stars, we were catching over 100 birds each time. The island guests were invited down to watch and took turns releasing them. 

Ringing the chicks can be difficult, as storm petrels often nest in awkward and inaccessible places. It is important to try though, as getting to the birds at this stage means they can be definitively aged and their whole life history known. We can also see if birds ringed as chicks return to the island or even the same spots to breed. There was exciting news this year, with three chicks hatched in the ‘Petrel Station’, an artificial nesting wall built back in 2016. It’s the first time chicks have hatched successfully in the wall, meaning that there is potential for more in the future and easier access to ring and monitor them.

Manx shearwaters 

You would be hard pressed to find a better job than monitoring the manx shearwater chicks, and apparently I let out a distinctive and very audible “awwww” noise whenever I lift a chick from out of its burrow. As Ronald Lockley discovered when he first starting monitoring them on the island, the chicks and adults are very resilient to disturbance, and so a few visits to check up on them as they develop is of little consequence. As with the fulmars and the storm petrels, the transformation from featureless ball of fluff to adult is something magical, and seeing chicks which virtually resemble adults except for a tuft of stylish feathers on the head or a fluffy bottom is a source of much amusement. The parents stop coming in to feed them a little while before they leave the burrows, and the nights have begun to get quieter where they were once filled with their haunting cries. With a potential 60,000 or more chicks in burrows across the island, the nights now are occupied with trying to catch and ring the fledglings as they emerge, exercising off their excess weight and stretching their wings before finally finding a high perch to take off and make their way to South America! They have to be careful though, as now the moon has begun to wax the great black-back gulls will find it easier to pick them off. 

There is a slightly darker side to this fledgling period, as unique to Skokholm and neighbouring Skomer Island is the mysterious condition ‘puffinosis’. Afflicting the young manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus is their scientific names), the disease has been studied extensively but it's causes remain elusive. Symptoms include blisters, limb spasticity, paralysis, conjunctivitis, shivering and fever, with birds showing signs of the illness usually seen wandering about in the day. What is known is that the condition is most prevalent in damp areas, and it is potentially contracted in the nest. In the next few weeks it is likely we will see more and more birds with puffinosis, although on the whole not a huge number are affected when compared to how many healthy chicks will fledge.

Wheatear boxes

One of the major projects we have undertaken and our legacy on the island is the building and installation of 40 nesting boxes for wheatears. Continuing the pioneering work of Peter Conder, ex-warden of Skokholm and author of the ‘The Wheatear’, Ian Beggs has been conducting a long term study on the island's population since 2016. Already the study is bearing fruit, with new revelations regarding partner swapping and second broods being featured in this months issue of British Birds. It is hoped that our boxes will help aid future research and monitoring, and make it easier to access the chicks in the nest to ring them. 

The boxes were dug into the ground and covered with turf, and most of them are looking fantastic already apart from a few which the rabbits have dug up! We go around regularly and add soil and water them, and hopefully they will be ready for next years breeders. There is a theory that wheatears will scout out nesting locations for the next year, and with some of our boxes already proving popular with known colour ringed birds, it is hoped that we can prove this theory if these same birds return the nest boxes next year. 

Although my posts have been focused mainly on seabird monitoring so far, in my next and final post about my volunteering experience I will be talking about all the other exciting things which have happened on the island since I started. A whole host of birds call the island home and pass through on migration, and ringing and monitoring them is a huge part of Skokholm Bird Observatory's work. We have also been trapping moths on a regular basis, something I have really got into since coming here. With just over two weeks left the end is getting closer and I'm starting to feel very sad about leaving!

If you missed part 1 of life as a Skokholm Island volunteer, you can read it here!

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