Skokholm Island: 16th to 19th September 2019

In 2014 I was fortunate enough to go to Skokholm with my trainer Ian Grier, plus Richard Pike and Geoff Carrs.  I was lucky enough to ring my first Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and, star bird, Icterine Warbler.  It has taken a while, whilst I achieved my own C- then A-permits and trainer’s endorsement, but this year I managed to get a team together to go back.  My most experienced pair, Ellie Jones and Jonny Cooper, came along and we were joined by trainees Julia Hayes and Tom Uridge from the West Oxfordshire Farmland group.

We made our way to the south western tip of Pembrokeshire on the Sunday, ready for the ferry to Skokholm at 9:00 on Monday morning.  The crossing is about 3.5 miles: 3.0 to the island and another 0.5 around the island to the landing area.  Everything went according to plan and we were on the island by 10:30.  Skokholm has the distinction of being the first and the most recent bird observatory in the UK.  It was originally established by Ronald Lockley, a great early to mid-20th Century naturalist, in 1933.  It lost Observatory status in 1976, because the then owner turned against bird ringing, which is one of the key requirements for that status.  In 2014 it regained its Observatory status, after hard work by the new wardens, Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle, and numerous volunteers from the local Wildlife Trust and community to bring the buildings and facilities back into full commission.  Our original group must have been one of the first ringing teams to visit.  It was great to meet up with them again: Giselle’s response to my “Remember me” question was “Icterine Warbler” – nice to be known for such a stunning bird!

There were three groups on the island: us, Chris Payne and his team, who have been monitoring the Storm Petrel nests on the island during the breeding season plus a team from Oxford University monitoring the House Mouse population on Skokholm.  I thought rabbits were the speciality Skokholm mammal (Lockley’s book “The Private Life of the Rabbit”), but it turns out that the House Mice are far more interesting – having become less House Mouse and more Wood Mouse in their habits.  We all got on well, which for a bunch of strangers on a small isolated island, is always a good thing. No Agatha Christie moments to speak of!

After the meet and greet with the warden and volunteers, Richard took us on a tour around the island.  Since I was last there they have developed several complexes of Storm Petrel nest holes. Many are still occupied by young birds. Richard told us that these were probably the young of first-time breeders:

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Whatever, they are the most gorgeous bundles of fluff!  Unfortunately, our nighttime forays to try and catch some adults failed.

We started our ringing activities after lunch.  The set up is a combination of mist-nets and Heligoland traps. These traps are named after the first place they were used: Heligoland Island, in the Heligoland Bight to the north of Germany.  For non-ringers, the latter are large mesh-walled tunnels, filled with vegetation, that give migrant birds a safe place to roost, and ringers a way of catching birds without using nets.  The birds are shushed along the trap to a large collecting area, which can be closed off. A ringer then encourages them into the smaller catching box, which is closed by a remotely operated drawbridge.  They are then safely removed by hand from the box.  Last time on the island we caught most of our birds in the Heligolands, this time it was the mist-nets that caught most birds.  However, it was a Heligoland trap that caught my star birds of the stay. More later.

After dark we went on a Manx Shearwater catch.  As anyone who has seen a Manx Shearwater on dry land, their legs are far back and they are not the greatest walkers / runners in the world. To be blunt: they are an easy target for any predatory species.  On Skokholm these are Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls.  It is why the adults fly in at night to feed their young and why their young fledge at night.  Fledging youngsters were our targets.  This was done by using a thermal imaging camera to identify where the birds were, a dazzling torch to illuminate them and a hand net to control them.  There are so many burrows for Manx Shearwater on the island that all catching is restricted to the main paths and within what you can reach without leaving the path, so as not to potentially collapse any of the nesting tunnels.   Unfortunately, a virus based disease has hit the island. It is called Puffinosis (it does not affect Puffins, binomial Fratercula arctica, but Manx Shearwaters, Puffinus puffinus) and can be fatal. So we had to be careful to ensure that we were only ringing healthy birds. This involved looking at the overall condition of the bird, checking that there was no nervous shaking of the head, or twitching of the legs, that the legs were not warm and that the feet were not blistered.  Fortunately, it seems that the level of infection is very low in the main colony. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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Everybody got the opportunity to ring them and everybody, except Ellie, got the opportunity to ring some species that they haven’t ringed before. Jonny was the first to strike lucky with a Greenland race Northern Wheatear.  We were very pleased with this catch. Having bothered to take some live mealworms with us, to use with the island’s spring and Potter traps, they were not as successful as our last visit, with only two successful captures. However, as one of those was the Wheatear, it was worth it.

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Julia was the next to add to her fledgling list of birds ringed with the first Spotted Flycatcher caught on the island this autumn:

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Then both Tom and Julia got to ring their first Stonechats:


Finally, the Cottage Heligoland delivered the catch of the session for me, and it was the most unexpected of catches. I always know that there is something special going on when Jonny starts running.  I had said at the outset that any top birds that nobody had ringed before we would draw lots for: only the whole of the team ganged up on me and insisted that I ring it:

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My first Water Rail.

All in all, the catch for the stay was: Manx Shearwater 53(2); Water Rail 1; Swallow 3; Wren 6(2); Meadow Pipit 95(5); Spotted Flycatcher 1; Wheatear 1; Stonechat 4; Robin 11(7); Blackbird (1); Sedge Warbler (2); Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 41(2); Willow Warbler 11(4); Goldcrest 11(4).  Totals: 243 birds ringed from 13 species, 29 birds recaptured from 9 species, making 272 birds processed from 15 species.  All birds were juveniles except for 4 of the Goldcrests, 2 Wrens, 1 Meadow Pipit and 3 Blackcaps.

A mention for the Meadow Pipits: one was retrapped in a spring trap, but the vast bulk were caught in a net set of 21 metres on the edge of the accommodation.

Unfortunately, our stay was curtailed by a day, due to high winds and rough seas forecast for the Friday, as the tail-end of Hurricane Dorian was due to hit.  It was either leave this Thursday or wait until the next time the ferry could make it across (someone suggested it could be the following Thursday).  However, knowing this was likely to be the case, we packed an awful lot into the three days we were active and were happy with what we achieved.

Thanks to Tom for the photos of the Storm Petrel, Manx Shearwater and Stonechats.

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