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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!