A Summer on Skokholm

By Will Bevan

It was in 2017 that I worked with the SEGUL group, during my Masters degree in Conservation and Resource Management at the University of Liverpool. As I was doing a taught Masters, I had the choice of a range of research projects and jumped at the chance to work with seabirds. My project focused on factors influencing the breeding ecology of European shags on Puffin Island, North Wales, and through it I got to experience how thrilling seabird research was first hand. In addition to monitoring shag productivity and conducting a full island census of the population, I assisted with a gull survey, helped monitor kittiwakes and assisted the SCAN Ringing Group, getting my first taste of bird ringing whilst grappling with shags and cormorants. I was extremely happy with the way my project turned out; I got a distinction and was awarded the Penny Anderson Associates Prize for the best dissertation that year. Overall, the experiences I had with SEGUL solidified my decision to peruse a career in seabird research.

After my Masters I went travelling for a year to Canada and Asia and wanted to get some more experience with seabirds when I returned. I ended up applying for a position as a long-term volunteer on Skokholm Island in Pembrokeshire. Having applied for roles on neighbouring Skomer before but not succeeding, I believe that my experiences from my Masters project helped me greatly in getting the position, and on the 1st of July I was on a boat to Skokholm for a 3 month stint living and working on the island. Apart from the seabird monitoring and some housekeeping duties (the island hosts up to 20 guests at a time) I had no idea what to expect, and so what I experienced was way beyond what I imagined.

After a frantic first day of introductions, putting away my supplies and getting settled in, I stumbled out bleary eyed on my first night to a sky full of stars and the haunting cries of thousands of Manx shearwaters coming back to their burrows. Having never seen or heard one before it was an incredible spectacle, and it made me realise how lucky I was to be on Skokholm. The Manxies – as they are affectionately known – were a constant part of island life, and with an extremely protracted breeding season they were with us until the end of our stay.

With a Manxie chick, on Skokholm

Part of our job was to monitor the progress of the chicks in those burrows checked regularly each year as part of a productivity study. Armed with a ruler, we would tread lightly through heavily burrowed areas – made extremely fragile through year upon year of excavations – and find a numbered concrete slab under which each burrow was located. Removing the slab, we would blindly feel around inside for the chick or evidence of one, expecting a sharp nip at any moment. Hopefully the chick would be present and come out easily, and we would pull out a large and incredibly cute ball of fluff. Carefully we measured a stubby wing, the length of which was used as proxy for the overall size of the chick.

We did this right until they fledged, and placed a ring on the leg of each chick when they were big enough. On nights in September the fledglings emerged in their thousands, and we spent many of the nights wandering the paths and ringing the birds as they stretched their wings and prepared to finally fly off for South America.

We monitored fulmar productivity and visited certain plots on the cliff ledges every couple of days to see whether their eggs had hatched and how the chicks were faring. Watching the aerial acrobatics of the adults was exhilarating, as they effortlessly rode the wind and navigated the cliff tops. In late August the chicks started to fledge and it was emotional to see empty nests where chicks once had been. Bit by bit they departed and of all our monitored chicks, only one died post-hatching, making 2019 the best for productivity in a decade on Skokholm.

Coming to Skokholm was also the first time I had seen a storm petrel, and my first encounters with them were through the calls emitted from their nesting cavities.

Ringing a European storm petrel chick

Storm petrels are hard to monitor due to their sensitivity to disturbance and the fact that they're hidden amongst the boulders and walls of the island. The population size is therefore estimated by the rates of response from adults in their burrows to tape playback. We held potrable speakers next to the entrances of known nest site, and their occupations were revealed by a “kerr-chick” or soft purring noise (normally reserved for their partner returning), also lovingly described as the sound of a ‘fairy being sick’.

We also viewed the storm petrels fluttering around at night using infrared cameras and eventually started ringing the non-breeding birds at the other side of the island on nights in July and August under clear skies and shooting stars. In September we started ringing storm petrel chicks, with the success this year of 3 chicks fledged in the ‘Petrel Station’, a pioneering artificial storm petrel nesting wall, equipped with cameras and sound equipment.

It was also a privilege to be able to spend time within a large puffin colony. We spent the first few weeks in July frantically trying to re-sight the colour rings around the legs of the puffins to help make survival rate estimates, as due to the earlier start of the breeding season we had limited time before they left the island.

Apart from the seabird work their was so much more to do, and I started to get experience ringing passerines, built and installed nest boxes to help with a long term study on the resident wheatears, monitored the progress of seal pups, conducted a marine intertidal survey, helped with maintenance and landscaping, provided help and information to the guests, and much more. They call Skokholm ‘Dream Island’ and it truly is, and I would recommend anyone to take a trip there!

Skokholm Island, Pembrokeshire

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