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.

 

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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.

 

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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…

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!

My Month on St Agnes

Here are a few sights from my recent trip to St Agnes in the Scilly Isles. It’s my first attempt at proper video editing so its no award winner but I was pretty happy with the overall quality of film and control I had over the clips and sound. Next time I’ll have a proper story to pull it all together and remember to take a load more shots so I can have more to choose from (a few shaky shots made it into this video…)

Storm Petrel

When I was interviewed to come and work out on Skomer I was asked what my favourite seabird was. My answer was the Fulmar because of their masterful flight and the subtlety of their almost monochrome plumage. But I am slowly being swayed by another black and white bird, the European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus).
stormy
These small seabirds are only the size of a Swallow and yet spend the vast majority of their time out at sea, being buffeted by storms and waves. They feed on oily scraps on the surface of the water and wander vast distances, returning to land once a year to breed.
Storm Petrels nest in cracks and crevices on rocky shores, and are mostly nocturnal, so are very hard to observe on land but now that I have a bit of free time on Skomer I’m giving it a go. These birds are quite vocal and can be prompted to call by playing them a recording of another petrel. This is useful to survey them as you can go along a shoreline and identify nest sites by playing the recording and noting down any responses. If you fancy hearing a Stormy for yourself go and visit Xeno Canto – a brilliant site for recordings of most bird species’ calls.

Guillemot

I’ve been saying for quite a while that I would write about my job this year so I thought I would actually get round to it!  This year I am the Field Assistant on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire.  This means that I am responsible for quite a bit of seabird monitoring on this amazing seabird colony- mostly Great Blacked Gulls, Guillemot, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmar.  And as the Guillies take up the majority of my time I thought I’d start with them and follow up with posts about the others over the next couple of weeks.

guilly swimming

A bridled Guillemot – a plumage variation of a white line behind the eye which occurs roughly once in every 40 birds in this area.

Guillemot are Auks, a type of seabird that is quite stocky and specialises in diving underwater and catching small fish as they go.  To do this they have short stubby wings which are very good for swimming whilst still just about letting them fly- although when they do it does look like quite an effort!  This lifestyle means they can spend most of the time at sea, and only come to land to breed (because eggs don’t do very well in the sea…).  This is where I come in!

guilly ledgeGuillemot breed at very high densities on sea cliffs where they are free from land predators and their sharp beaks (and those of their neighbours) help to deter flying predators such as gulls.  I have five study plots scattered around Skomer which contain some breeding pairs and I spend many, many hours watching them to determine which ones have eggs, which ones have chicks and which ones have nothing!  From this I can work out how successful the breeding attempts are and how many new guillemots are fledged each year.  Unfortunately, the birds are very close together (each territory being as small as 15cm of ledge!) and look identical so it is a bit tricky to tell them apart at times…  But hopefully at the end of the year my numbers will make sense and I will be able to report back that the Guillemots have had a good year.

 

Flighty Puffins: Falling with Style!

After a post a while back saying flying puffins were impossible to photograph, I’ll swiftly contradict myself by showing some shots where I’m actually pretty happy with my results.  It might also get the Puffin photos out of my system, and then I can get on with my season of looking at other seabirds!

Puffin Flying

This guy above was gliding slowly down to his burrow, hanging on the strong updraught from the onshore winds, obviously with enough time to take a look at me and wonder what I was doing there.

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Groynes

The shingle on my local beach is pretty mobile, suffering from longshore drift that if left to its own devices would block the river to the east.  To stop this there are wooden groynes built into the beach, repeating walls aimed at stopping the movement of all the stones.  This is a close-up of one of the huge timbers installed there, the harsh seas and winds wear away the wood and leave it beautifully smoothed.

groyne

These objects are a thing that I photograph all the time because they are so close to my house, so sort of another photographic addiction to add to my admissions….

Water

Just before the big freeze I took a wander along the shore and took a close look at some of the pools in the sand at low tide.  I was looking for interesting bits of seaweed and other living things attached to some of the sea defences but in the end my nicest images were the simplest- just the water.

ripples in the breeze

ripples in the breeze

The slight breeze was creating some really nice ripples in the water and they caught the winter light really nicely.  This was a bit of a risky shot though as it included holding my camera and macro lens just a centimetre or two from the surface.   I was paranoid of giving it a dunking in the cold and salty water, but luckily I didn’t ruin my kit and came home with a nice picture or two!

Grassholm

 

with a slight haze of more gannets in the distance

After several failed attempts, I made it out to Grassholm recently as part of a leaving do for Jerry.  We got two boatloads of people out on a nice calm evening and had a great time watching dolphins, seals, seabirds and a lighthouse!

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