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2014 field season underway

posted 16 May 2014, 13:38 by Philip Collins   [ updated 16 May 2014, 13:39 ]

With three visits to Puffin Island in the past week, the 2014 Puffin Island field season is well underway. After a mildly frustrating delay due to weather (wind as always), last week we were able to make the short, yet potentially troublesome crossing from Penmon to the Island to get things rolling.

The focus of this year’s work will be largely similar to last year. I will continue to study the kittiwakes as part of my PhD, GPS tracking of Guillemots and Razorbills for the RSPB will continue (as carried out by Steve Dodd), and again we will have our Shag productivity plot; the data from which feeds in to the JNCC’s Seabird Monitoring Programme.

One major addition to our work this year however, is a full-island gull survey. This is being led by Nicola Fairweather from The University of Liverpool and will form her Master’s thesis. This is a gull survey with a bit of a twist, in that she will be using a differential GPS system to map nests. The specifics of this piece of kit aren't too clear to me, however I do know that it results in us being able to map individual Herring, Lesser black-backed, and Greater Black-backed gull nests to sub-centimetre accuracy. Pretty impressive indeed! 

One part of the differential GPS system.

As impressive as this piece of kit is, it is also pretty damn heavy, and lugging it up the remnants of the track we used last year (now reclaimed by the vegetation), was a bit of a shock to the system for all involved. As I write this, the survey is two-thirds complete, with one more day of field work for next week currently scheduled.

During the gull census I managed to slink off to set up the remote cameras I use to monitor the kittiwakes. The cliffs are still a bit quiet, with it seeming to be quite early for the kittiwakes at the moment. There are some encouraging early breeding signs, with the beginnings of nests having been formed and individuals displaying some site fidelity when disturbed. This year I've set up five remote cameras, pointed at small sub-colonies on the island (up to 10 nests in each field of view), which have been programmed to capture an image once every four minutes 24/7. So the data are rolling in, although sorting through all the images is something I’d rather not think about for now.

A pair of kittiwakes, hopefully getting ready to breed. 

We also managed to set up our shag productivity plot. This consists of a sample of 30 nests which we have numbered and photographed. We will monitor the fate of these nests throughout the season. Currently a couple of nests contain very young chicks, but most of the shags are at the incubation stage, including one nest with five eggs in. If all hatch, the parents are sure to have a handful!

Jon Green marking a Shag nest. The hand gesture relates to the number of eggs present. To my knowledge it is not a gang related sign...

The five egg nest. 
There must be a significantly lighter female shag flying around out there. 

On Thursday Steve Dodd had a good look around the Guillemot and Razorbill breeding sites. Unfortunately the news isn’t great; a rough visual estimate puts adult numbers down by approximately a quarter to a third, with some nesting ledges looking particularly bare. This isn't completely unexpected, and fits in with the narrative of the strong winter storms around the UK resulting in large numbers of auks being wrecked. Steve informs me that the number of rings recovered from Puffin Island birds were particularly high at the start of this year in comparison to other years.  We will continue to monitor these numbers, including a boat based count of nesting auk numbers later in the year. This survey is carried out annually, and should hopefully help us put a number on the change in adults present.

One of the Guillemot ledges

So all in all, it’s been quite a busy few days with progress having been made already (especially with the gull survey). After last year’s poor Kittiwake breeding season, and the winter storms seeming to have affected the auks, how it turns out will certainly be interesting. Let’s hope it’s successful for birds and researchers alike.