And so it begins…

Although I know seabirds exist year round, sometimes it’s hard to stay excited about them over winter when they’re mostly out to sea (and my work keeps me preoccupied in woodlands away from shore).  But it is that time of year again when colonies all around Britain start springing to life again.

So over the Easter weekend I returned to my old patch in Rye Bay to see the Sandwich Terns starting to grow in numbers on the migration roosts.  This is an important staging post for many terns on their way through, and some of the birds will of course stay for this years breeding season.

Can you spot the odd one out?

It was so nice to hear the chorus of tern calls again, even if it was just the Sandwich Terns so far.  A call that is so harsh and piercing when heard on its own can become almost soothing when heard on mass against the backdrop of a windy coast (thanks storm Katie!).  And it is a sure sign that many more birds are on their way back to our coasts.  A few Med Gulls and hundreds of Black Headed Gulls were already in residence but still looking a little lonely without all the others, including hundreds of Common Terns and a handful of noisy Little Terns.  Then the sound of summer will be in full force- a very different sound to the auk colonies I’ve worked on but just as comforting.

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Taxidermy

This is a bit of a Marmite topic with most people I’ve mentioned it to, but I am quite a fan of taxidermy.  I mean there are plenty of reasons not to- just follow @CrapTaxidermy on Twitter for a regular reminder (and a giggle).

But every now and then I see a perfectly mounted creature that could honestly be still alive which has been lovingly made by a real artist of the craft.  And although there are many animals that I would rather go out and see on a regular basis, there are some that are just too tricky to see.  I wouldn’t want a Blackbird but I do happen to have access to a Manx Shearwater and they are much harder to see without travelling (this bird was found freshly dead whilst at a colony and died of natural causes).  And even at their breeding sites at the correct time of year, Manxies only come to land at night so you rarely see them without dazzling them with your headtorch.  Something which is a bit mean if only for you to watch them for your own enjoyment.

manxy at night

So what do you think?  I would love to be able to study the form of such a graceful bird without having to charter a boat off the West coast but I know other people would be a bit creeped out by it.  I hope that a stuffed bird would last a lifetime, and could be used to inspire quite a few people about these birds that most will never even see.  Although taxidermy will never replace the thrill of being out on the open water and seeing seabirds gliding effortlessly over the water, you also don’t have to dress up in survival suits and fend off scrounging gulls for a few hours.

jerry and his gull

So I think I will soon be the owner of my very own Manx Shearwater but I am intrigued to see if anybody could convince me otherwise.

More Little Terns (Hopefully)

Little Tern with lunch

Little Tern with lunch

As the first sightings of Little Terns  start to come in across the country I’m starting to turn more of my attention to my local colony.  The South Swale nature reserve near Faversham is run by Kent Wildlife Trust and like many colonies across the country has declined over the years.  However a recent appeal from KWT raised significant funds and hopefully in the near future this colony will benefit from a huge increase in protection.  At present a small band of dedicated volunteers warden the site during the day, and this summer I am joining them.

Little Tern with prey

Little Tern with prey

Many of the larger colonies in the UK and Ireland have paid, full time staff to protect nesting birds from disturbance and predators over the summer months.  And this can make a massive impact on their breeding success.  Kilcoole in Ireland are just such an example and have even made a pretty cool little video about their work.   So although I won’t be quite as full on as them (I’m not staying in a caravan or going out at night with a gun…) I will be staking out some shingle and hoping that some Little Terns settle, and if we are really lucky they will get some chicks to fledging.

Just before a dive

Just before a dive

 

Puffins in the “News”

Hopefully not too bad...

Whats the outlook for Puffins this winter?

BBC News today has picked up on a story from last winter in the run up to this year’s first big storm.  The story is that the string of storms last year had a big impact on seabird mortality with large numbers of Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill dying at sea and washing up on French coasts.  This led to a big drop in numbers on Skomer and Skokholm Islands in Pembrokeshire, with up to a quarter of birds not returning to the islands this year.

 

This one had been sitting out in the wind and had had enough!

Puffins don’t always look their best- this shot was during a pretty gusty day where birds were mostly hunkered down in their burrows or out at sea.

When the thousands of of visitors to Skomer see the Puffins it is by default summer, the only time when they come to land to breed, so it is easy to forget that these stout little birds spend the rest of the year at sea.  Suddenly these jovial birds give up on their land based hi-jinx and spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at sea, often during stormy weather.  Imagine having to spend your days diving in almost freezing waters to catch ever decreasing numbers of fish to survive.  Then imagine that you have nowhere to sleep except on the surface of that chilly water, constantly being thrown about by waves and your feet never leaving the icy waters except for short flights between possible feeding waters.

This is why seabirds are tough.  Not only do they have amazing evolved adaptations such as insulating feathers, heat recovery built into their circulation system and amazing swimming abilities but imagine the mind that has had to evolve inside a Puffin.  This life of battling storm after storm in freezing conditions is the easiest one it knows- returning to land could mean starving or being eaten by land predators. So here are a couple of the more moody shots I have of Puffins, showing their tough side.  Which is every side.

Using an oil gland on their arse... who needs hair gel...?

But a quick bit of preening quickly gets the plumage back in tip top condition.

 

IMG_8338

What are you looking at?!

puffin

Seabirds can look hardy even on a calm day

Puffin Flying

But just hanging out in a gale is where they look toughest.

 

The end of another season

So for the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about terns (and posting a lot about terns, and taking a lot of pictures of terns, and writing a lot about terns…!).  I’ve been carrying out a survey of the breeding terns of Rye Bay and although they mostly flew away a while ago I’ve been making graphs, charts and tables about what I saw.  But it’s now the actual end, even though it’s dragged out a little bit over the last few weeks, and the report is all written up.  It will be published online but it’s working its way through the admin. process so I’ll post again to let you know when its up.  Its just left to me to get it all out of my system now, so here are my favourite tern photos of this year…

…Terns!

splash!

It took me a while to get used to the speed of some tern dives…

splash!

…quite a while…

Little Tern with prey

But sometimes the Little terns were fishing so close together that you couldn’t miss getting at least one in shot.

Just before a dive

And watching the moment just before the dive showed the absolute focus of a hunting tern- head locked in position and body wavering in the wind like a cat about to ponce.

Little Tern with lunch

So when you saw a tern with a fish it made you appreciate just how hard it had to try to get every single one.

Little tern decoys and electric fence

When there weren’t any real terns around there were always the decoys on the shingle trying to tempt them to nest.

Adult coming in to land

The Common Terns were much more reliable to watch and produced a reasonable number of little fluff balls this season.

Common Tern with prey

Common Tern often had prey and seemed to find better hunting conditions than the other species.

So there you go, a handful of the hundreds of shots I took showing some of the amazing acrobatic skills of the “sea swallows” around Rye Bay.  This year has given me a new appreciation for the sheer effort it takes to produce a new tern.  Fishing seems to have become much harder for the birds and even then they face the risk of being predated on the ground, if they find a nesting spot on the small nature reserves which try and protect them.  I just hope that in the coming years our management of land and sea help these dwindling breeding populations rather than hinder them…

Sanderling Citizen Science

Just to be clear, this is about people studying shorebirds, not a surreal Sanderling society where small, dumpy birds study the humans on a day out at the beach…

…So anyway, the other day I was at the beach.  I was at Dungeness with my telescope on the lookout for terns using the area as a fishing ground as part of my summer contract of tern monitoring.  But as its near the end of a pretty dismal breeding season in Sussex, there weren’t too many terns.  Instead I was drawn to some small shorebirds running along the water’s edge looking for food.  They were Sanderling and the very first one I saw happened to be colour ringed!

Sanderling

A pretty poor image but not bad for a phone down a dirty scope when Sanderlings never stand still!

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Longest Day

Well its come to that time of year when the evenings start to draw in, but for a while yet at least we can enjoy some amazing summer evenings.  Over the weekend I spent an evening at Camber Castle and shot this quick timelapse:

Hope you enjoy!

Fore Wood Video

Over the last few days I’ve been making another micro-film about a spot near me.  Fore Wood is a small RSPB reserve which is covered in woodland and has some really nice, quiet wooded trails.  I’m still getting used to filming and editing video, which is so much more fiddly and time consuming than taking and editing a photo.  But I think I’m slowly improving and once I get used to hearing my own voice on clips I might like it a bit more (FYI if anyone fancies doing free voice-over work then feel free to get in touch!  It will save me cringing the first five times I see my finished video…).

So here is my latest offering, Fore Wood in 101 seconds. To watch it in HD on the Vimeo website click here or else enjoy the slight blurriness of it below:

 

By the way this is all filmed using my dSLR (a Canon 550D) without a tripod or any other kit except a cheap, digital sound recorder.  I’m amazed at what you can get out of these relatively cheap bits of kit and if you have an SLR I think you should turn it onto video mode and see what you can do!

The Beach

I’m busy working on my tern project and also producing a mini film at the moment so haven’t had my camera in photo mode for a while.  But I was on the beach for an amazing sunrise recently and it reminded me of this shot I took a couple of years ago.  The sand has changed shape slightly under the tides but otherwise the scene was almost identical and pretty stunning.

beach

World Oceans Day

stormy sky

I spend a lot of time looking out to sea searching for seabirds.  A lot of the time there isn’t much out there but it is still mesmerising just looking out at the horizon.
Enjoy world oceans day and go take a look yourself!