RSPB Seabird Tracking Work

posted 21 Sep 2018, 07:31 by Jonathan Green

Since we started work in 2010, data from seabird tracking at Puffin Island has contributed to ongoing work by the RSPB on seabird movement and conservation. Recently some of the major findings and outputs from this research have been released on their website

A paper (from a little while ago)

posted 19 Jul 2018, 14:30 by Jonathan Green   [ updated 19 Jul 2018, 14:34 ]

A paper from Ewan Wakefield and colleagues at the RSPB which includes Puffin Island data. 
Download the paper HERE


posted 27 Jun 2018, 00:30 by Jonathan Green   [ updated 27 Jun 2018, 07:48 ]

We were pleased to help Dr Toby Driver and his team and colleagues from the CHERISH project as they surveyed the historic buildings on the island, particularly the church and telegraph station. They will shortly be reporting on this in more detail on their Facebook page.

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.


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

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