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Masters Project 2017

posted 29 Nov 2017, 09:28 by Jonathan Green   [ updated 14 Dec 2017, 13:27 ]

My name is Will Bevan, and I have just completed a Master’s degree in Conservation and Resource Management at the University of Liverpool. As part of my degree I had to develop a research project which would contribute to a large chunk of my final grade. Having been fascinated by seabirds for a long time but never being able to get any experience working with them, I jumped at the chance to work on Puffin Island, signing myself up for a project looking at what factors were influencing the ecology of the European shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) population on the island. Although the breeding season is now over, this post is a summary of my fieldwork and other monitoring activities I took part in over the spring and summer this year, as well as the findings of my research project.

Our first trip out took place on a grey day in early April, with my supervisor Jon Green and another master’s student Joe Hanlon. This was mostly a day to become familiar with the island and to see how the birds were faring, with some of the birds having already begun to lay eggs. I was instantly enthralled with the island, having never worked in a seabird colony before, and was more than a little trigger happy with my camera that day. I couldn’t wait to return.

Coming back in early May, the breeding season was already well under way for some of the birds, and I began to monitor the nests of shag pairs as part of the productivity monitoring which has been conducted by the Seabird Ecology Group at the University of Liverpool (SEGUL) since they started working on the island in 2010. This involved visiting nests in three distinct plots; named the ledge, main and beach plots, and counting the number of chicks and eggs in each nest every time I visited the island until the chicks had fledged or the nests failed. From working out the mean number of chicks which fledged per nest over the breeding season, an estimate of productivity for the population on Puffin Island could be determined for this year. This is useful because it can help us see how productivity is changing from year to year, and so we can determine what factors in any given year might be influencing it. We can also use information on productivity to create accurate population models which can predict changes in the size of the population on the island.

In late May a number of us from SEGUL and others from different agencies and organisations helped conduct a survey of the gulls on the island, which had not been undertaken since 2014. Over the course of three glorious but unrelentngly hot days (especially as there is nowhere to take shelter on the island), we counted 1105 nests, and all three species; herring, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed, had increased in numbers.

Another aspect of my project involved looking at how the number of shags had changed on the island since the first count of the population in 1979. Whilst I used counts taken by Natural Resources Wales for this, a complete census of the shags on the island had not been undertaken since 2010, and so over two days in mid-June I went along with the SCAN ringing group to count shag nests as they tried to ring adult and juvenile shags and razorbills, and inaccessible nests were counted by boat. I was also able to ring a few of the birds myself, an opportunity I had not had before, and was invited back to help on another day of ringing, this time primarily for guillemots and cormorants. These days were exhausting and slightly nerve wracking, whether perching on the edge of the cliffs with a bag full of guillemot chicks ready to be ringed tied to my arm, or herding skittish cormorant chicks up the steep slopes on the other side of the island. The days were exhilarating though and it was great to see the SCAN team at work; I was even able to ring a puffin!

My research back in Liverpool mostly involved bringing together previously collected data on productivity and population numbers from Puffin Island and seeing how these had changed over time, as well as whether changes in productivity could be linked to inter-annual variations in environmental conditions. I also used tracking data collected for a previous study to identify core feeding areas used by the shags in the sea surrounding the island. I found that the number of breeding pairs has been increasing on the island over time, in addition to productivity. This suggests that the Puffin Island colony is becoming more established, compared to some places in the UK where numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years, and this is also the national trend for shags. In order to fully protect the shags on Puffin Island, which is itself a Special Protected Area (SPA), this area should be extended to include marine areas used by the birds.

        When fieldwork was virtually at an end for the season, we returned one last time to the island in mid-July to collect a camera which had been monitoring kittiwakes. To our surprise in the main shag plot around 40-50 puffins were perched on the cliffs, the most we had seen at any one time in the season. It may have been that with the shags having good year and their chicks fledging relatively early on, ledges were freed up where the puffins could lay eggs. It was a fitting end to my fieldwork and I hope that my research will help further understanding of the European shag population on Puffin Island. 

Slightly belated new paper

posted 9 Mar 2017, 14:20 by Jonathan Green

Sorry for the slight delay.....but we have published another paper based on data from Puffin Island, this time looking at behaviour and energy costs of breeding in kittiwakes, the latest work from Phil Collins' thesis. You can read the full paper (for free) at this link

ANOTHER New Publication

posted 7 Oct 2015, 01:37 by Jonathan Green   [ updated 7 Oct 2015, 01:42 ]

Data from Puffin Island has contributed to a new paper led by RSPB which links breeding success in kittiwakes to changes in conditions in their foraging areas at sea. 

Carroll, M.J., Butler, A., Owen, E., Ewing, S.R., Cole, T., Green, J.A., Soanes, L.M., Arnould, J.P.Y., Newton, S.F., Baer, J., Daunt, F., Wanless, S., Newell, M.A., Robertson, G.S., Mavor, R.A. & Bolton, M. (2015) Effects of sea temperature and stratification changes on seabird breeding success. Climate Research. 66: 75-89

Find the paper HERE


New publication

posted 6 Oct 2015, 02:04 by Philip Collins

We are pleased to announce that our latest paper:

 "Collins PM, Green JA,Warwick-Evans V, Dodd SG, Shaw P, Arnould JPY & Halsey LG (2015)  Interpreting behaviours from accelerometry: a method combining simplicity and objectivity Ecology and Evolution 

has just been published and can be found here 

This paper uses data collected on kittiwakes from Puffin Island to demonstrate a method of interpreting behaviours from accelerometry data. The method we present combines both simplicity and objectivity, and we therefore hope it will be of use to those analysing such data, regardless of their study species. 

A quick summary of the paper can also be found in poster format here 







Kittiwake Foraging and Productivity

posted 18 Jul 2015, 07:03 by Ruth Dunn   [ updated 18 Jul 2015, 14:01 ]

Today I am going to take some time to finally tell you about the research on kittiwakes that I have been doing as part of my Masters course.

I am interested in seabirds because of their vulnerability and status as an increasingly threatened group of birds. They are also spatially wide-ranging in their foraging and migratory behaviour, and consequently make ideal study species for someone like me, who enjoys conducting research using geographical information systems (GIS). This long distance travel also means that seabirds are susceptible to the effects of numerous anthropogenic impacts worldwide. These include plastic ingestion and entanglement, fisheries conflict, bycatch issues, oil spills and the impact of marine renewable energy developments.

It is because of this interest that in May I moved to Liverpool (a copy of The Kittiwake by J.C. Coulson under my arm) with the aim of gaining seabird fieldwork experience and investigating the foraging behaviour of Puffin Island’s kittiwakes!

Heading to work across the island with Sam Patrick and Jon Green

In the past week SEGUL (Seabird Ecology Group University of Liverpool) have undertaken 4 trips to the island. Kittiwake productivity checks at my control plot suggest a higher rate of breeding success this year than within the rather disheartening last two years: I have observed a productivity of approximately 0.8 chicks per nest. Kittiwakes usually lay two eggs per year and therefore this figure is still not particularly high, especially when compared with observations from a decade ago. 73 kittiwake chicks were ringed this week and 65 retraps/ resightings of adults were made. Many of these adults have only been resighted a couple of times over the last 5 years which suggests that many are not breeding every year.

Jon on the look out for kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are an Amber listed species within the UK which have shown breeding population declines over the last 30 years. These declines are thought to be linked to changes in the marine environment and prey abundance.

Within my project I am hoping to analyse how interactions between annual differences in oceanic conditions, possible prey abundance, kittiwake foraging behaviour and breeding success influence each other. In order to do this I will work with remotely sensed environmetal data alongside productivity data and GPS tracking data collected during each breeding season since 2010.

This year we caught 15 kittiwakes from the cliffs that drop into the Irish Sea from the north side of the island. We attached GPS loggers, using waterproof tape, to their back feathers (see center photo below). Smaller 100 mAh batteries were used this year in order to reduce the disturbance that the extra mass of the loggers has on the birds. 9 tags were recovered and no visible signs of plumage damage or distress were observed.

Installing remote cameras to monitor productivity and equipping the birds with their GPS logger backpacks

Given their small size, at first it is quite surprising that Puffin Island’s kittiwakes have been found to forage up to 75 km from the island, travelling total distances of up to 180 km on these trips. This year the birds tend to have engaged mostly on lots of shorter trip: on average they have foraged for less than an hour at a time, travelling an average of 11 km in total (up to an average range of 5 km from the colony) in order to find invertebrates and fish to feed themselves and their chicks. Some longer trips can also be clearly seen in the map below.

Map of kittiwake foraging trips throughout 2015 including some of up to 45 km from the colony. Puffin Island is represented by a white star.

Thursday marked my last day of Puffin Island fieldwork. If you were to ask me whether I will miss the early starts, the long drives and train journeys wedged between piles of field gear, the uphill climb through head-high vegetation, the clamminess of sweat and sun-cream on my skin, the barking of greater black-backed gulls, the splattering of sludgy poo falling from the skies, the smell of guano that seems to waft in waves and the random patches of sunburn that I discover the next day then I would answer yes! I would more than happily do it all again.

Goodbye!

Life and Death on the Island

posted 4 Jul 2015, 06:42 by Ruth Dunn   [ updated 6 Jul 2015, 11:41 ]

It has been a quiet week or so in terms of visiting Puffin Island. After leaving the birds to it for a bit, avoiding unnecessary disturbance, yesterday members of the Seabird Ecology Group at University of Liverpool and the SCAN Ringing Group returned to the cliffs!

After a 5.30 start in Liverpool we caught the 8.10am boat from Penmon Point

My first stops were the three shag monitoring areas where it seems to me that the shags have experienced a pretty good breeding season. Many nests are now empty, but this isn't due to reproductive failure. The chicks are now so mature that they run away when they see me coming and are very close to being fledged.

Satisfied shags looking out to sea

As the sun continued to warm, the ringers traversed the upper banks of the island. They ringed cormorant chicks (total = 249) as they moved and were covered by guano in the process. Puffin Island is inhabited by the UK’s largest population of cormorants and because of this is a designated Special Protection Area of European importance.

SCAN are particularly interested in ringing cormorants in order to collect data on how long they stay on the island, whether they remain in coastal habitats or travel in-land and whether the chicks return when they are mature enough to breed. By interpreting this information they hope to determine whether conflict with fisheries (and the bird-scaring activities that the government permit them to deploy) might affect the cormorants from this colony.

If I were a cormorant, I think that I would return

Human-animal conflict is something that many conservationists work towards understanding and attempting to resolve. I feel that the public however have become removed from the harsh reality of death within the natural world.

Despite the island being a site of seabird breeding and start life of thousands of individuals each year, I find that evidence of death is also extremely evident on every trip that I make. Hungry seals wait at the foot of the cliffs, looking up with their large eyes, ready to catch and devour tumbling auk chicks which make their breaks into the sea without yet even having learnt the ability to fly. Fish bones, crab carapaces and empty mollusc shells lay discarded – the sign of a seabird feast and the marine food web in action. Gull carcasses and skeletons are also visible; some appear to have been trapped beneath rocks, others may have been the weaker individual within a scrap to the death, whilst dead chicks at varying stages of decomposure may have been the victim of abandonment or cannibalistic predation.

Monitoring new life alongside a dead gull

I hop around these traces of shells and bones to visit the cliff where I have been monitoring kittiwake productivity on an approximately-weekly basis. Equipped with binoculars and a telescope, I have been observing 68 kittiwake nests, nestled upon the shelves of a steep cliff. Yesterday I was excited to see that the majority of these nests are now filled with clutches of either one or two of the cutest little kittiwake chicks, snuggling beneath their parents, regularly begging for food. This advancement means that the time has come for us to track adult kittiwake foraging behaviour! This shall be the focus of my next post.

See you next week kittiwakes!

Shag Monitoring and Ringing

posted 24 Jun 2015, 05:52 by Ruth Dunn   [ updated 24 Jun 2015, 08:52 ]

Although the focus of my MRes project is the black-legged kittiwake, I have also been helping Nana with her shag nest monitoring. Puffin Island’s population of breeding European shag pairs is the largest colony in Wales and our monitoring focuses on approximately 80 nests across three areas: a beach in the south-west, a rocky ledge in the north and the main larger vegetated/ cliff section.

Basking Shags (main monitoring area)

European shags have been found to be good ecological indicators of the state of the marine environment because their behaviour and breeding success is heavily influenced by environmental factors and prey availability. It is therefore concerning that they are considered an amber listed species within Europe. Because they are coastal breeders which dive in order to forage for food, shags are also likely to be particularly sensitive to offshore marine developments and therefore monitoring their productivity is particularly important.

As Puffin Island is uninhabited by both humans and terrestrial herbivorous grazers, throughout summer the vegetation grows at an alarming rate. This has caused me some difficulty in locating some of the shag nests as the season has progressed – I often have to dive head first into guano-splattered bushes in order to observe the hidden contents of a nest. The adults guarding the nests also seem to be becoming less hospitable towards me. The hissing females are easier to ignore, but the rusty motorbike-like honking of the male shags can get a little exasperating by the end of the day!

Exhibiting excellent observation skills alongside Nana and a noisy male shag

Shags have variable breeding seasons which cover a number of months. This means that some of the Puffin Island nests still contain eggs (typically clutches of 3), whilst others are home to rather large chicks which are beginning to closely resemble their adult parents as opposed to scrawny, dinosaur-like lumps.

Neighbouring Shag Nests: A common clutch of three eggs; two young chicks

On Saturday I travelled to the island with the SCAN ringing group whose aim for the day was to ring shag and razorbill chicks (pulli). It was a busy day, made slightly trickier by the morning’s wet conditions turning the dried guano into a slippery layer that coated the rocks. Between 8.30am and 6.30pm the team managed to ring 135 shag pulli (as well as 164 razorbill pulli). Retrap highlights included a shag that was ringed as a chick in 2001, as well a razorbill adult from 1999 and chick from 2000.

Throughout the last few weeks many of the adults at the main nest site have also been colour ringed. This work, headed by Steve Dodd, will form part of a Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) monitoring project.

Combined with a handful of guillemot chicks, gull chicks and a few adults, the total number of birds ringed on Saturday was 423 – a successful day’s work!

A colour ringed adult

Gull Chicks and GPS Trips

posted 19 Jun 2015, 06:39 by Ruth Dunn   [ updated 19 Jun 2015, 09:01 ]

My name is Ruth and I am an MRes student at Imperial College London who is excited to be working with the Seabird Ecology Group at the University of Liverpool on Puffin Island this summer!

So far this season I have not had a hugely high success rate in accessing the island due to poor weather and high winds. Thankfully, that changed this week and I have survived two early mornings followed by productive days of seabird surveying, with another planned for the weekend. This is my first experience of working on a wild, bird covered island – a place very different to a lot of the British Isles where human influence is extremely evident.

Looking over at Puffin Island

As I push through the guano-splattered vegetation to reach our areas of monitoring, the gulls are always the first to make their presence known. There are three groups of calls: the herring gull, which is commonly heard within coastal towns and cities, the high barking and ‘kaw’ of the lesser black-backed gull and the deeper tone of the greater black-backed gull.

These gulls build their nests on the ground amidst the undergrowth and therefore often seem unimpressed with human disturbance. I find this strange due to the apparent indifference that they show to neighbouring adults when they cannibalise each other’s eggs.

Many of the eggs that have survived predation so far have now hatched and the chicks have increased in size and decreased in cuteness: from soft, fluffy bundles of small feathers to inquisitive, tottering dumplings. Should any of these wander too far into another gull’s territory, they may again suffer at the beak of a neighbouring adult.

I move quickly across the island, past the gulls, trying to avoid stepping on chicks and receiving too many dollops of bird poo to the head.

Swarming Gulls

Despite witnessing a warm April, the breeding season at Puffin Island is once again quite late – an unexpected observation which reiterates the fact that there is still so much that we don’t know about the natural world that surrounds us.

Despite this, work on the island is now well underway: Steve Dodd, RSPB, deployed 20 GPS devices on both Razorbills and Guillemots, many of which are now on chicks. We have recaptured 14 of the guillemot tags and 9 razorbill tags - a great total when the recapture aim is generally around 50%. Data from these tags will be used within the RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) project. It will reveal information about the birds' foraging trips and help seek to answer questions about seabird population declines.

GPS Tracking: equipment and a guillemot

University of Liverpool research is also progressing well, and I will talk more about another time.

I have already fallen in love with the island and look forward to sharing the work that we are getting up to this breeding season with you!

Puffin Island 2015 underway

posted 8 May 2015, 13:56 by Jonathan Green   [ updated 8 May 2015, 14:01 ]

Season six is off and running at Puffin Island. This season we will be focussing on shags, with new MSc student Nana Wei looking closely at nesting behaviour and breeding success around the island. SCAN will be starting a new colour ringing scheme on shags too. We also welcome Samantha Patrick, new lecturer at the University of Liverpool to our team, who will be bringing some of her research on animal behaviour and personality to the island.


Déjà vu

posted 6 Aug 2014, 10:22 by Philip Collins   [ updated 6 Aug 2014, 15:38 ]

The end of the fieldwork season has snuck up on me once more; or rather it has abruptly smacked me in the face.

Unfortunately it’s not the end to fieldwork I had hoped for, as once again the kittiwakes have had a frankly abysmal breeding season. All birds in my study plots (consisting of ~40 active nests) have failed to successfully fledge young, and furthermore our control colony, which we monitor as an indicator of island productivity free from the influence of our work, has had a similar success rate.  Here only five chicks from 71 nests survived to the fledgling stage. This is less abysmal than last year’s grand total of 0 fledglings, but only slightly.

   

Kittiwake chick before it kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, ran down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible…

Although we can’t be certain of the causes of breeding failure across the entire colony, we do know that a fair few of the chicks from my study nests (and therefore probably others on the island) were depredated by a Peregrine Falcon. As with last year we managed to capture this predation on some of the remote cameras stationed around the island.

 

Before and during images captured by the remote cameras of the peregrine eating a chick. Click to enlarge the images!

One cannot complain though as predation of this type is all part of the norm for these populations. In fact it’s pretty interesting to capture the peregrine repeatedly tapping in to this reliable, easy food source; I've started thinking kittiwake nests should instead be referred to as peregrine larders.

Despite this blog starting to read like the seabird equivalent of a Greek tragedy (albeit much less thrilling), all is not doom and gloom. My project was designed to address the overarching question of “Do phenotypic traits explain reproductive skew in kittiwakes” and as such a lack of reproductive success does throw a spanner in the works. I do however have a wealth of data including (and not limited to): high resolution accelerometry from numerous adults, morphometrics from yet more birds, and a seemingly endless number of images from the remote cameras I had stationed around the island. By seemingly endless I actually mean 314,897 images, which is close enough to endless for me (I am not a mathematician). This means that I have had to adjust the focus of my work and will use these data to answer other novel questions regarding the breeding biology of kittiwakes. As far as I am concerned this is all par for the course when it comes to  scientific research, in fact for me it is a large part of what makes it all so engaging. Inevitably studies such as mine should be dynamic and reflect what is happening in the real world including the difficulties faced. In fact if you showed me someone who says that their PhD had turned out exactly as they had initially planned, I would quite happily show you a liar.

Shifting away from my sob story and the implications of all of this for me, such periods of low reproductive success, although far from ideal, are not hugely uncommon or disastrous for most seabird species. Kittiwakes are long lived birds, meaning that they are likely to have numerous opportunities to breed throughout their lifespan; therefore these years should be viewed in a wider context. To effectively get a sense of context, long-term monitoring is required.  This is something that those of us working on Puffin Island are hoping to achieve through monitoring productivity repeatedly across years (we have five years of monitoring so far). We also feed our data in to the Seabird monitoring programme further allowing the data we record to be viewed not only over time, but also in relation to other colonies across the UK.

Productivity data from kittiwakes and shags over the last 5 years. 

So for me my fieldwork is over and I will now get cracking with the big write up.  No doubt I’ll be pining for Puffin Island again, especially when I'm locked up in a dark room sorting through the 314,897 images from the remote cameras.

 

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