Tuesday, 27 November 2012

North Sea boat trip

In September, Dave and I took a boat trip out onto the North Sea with Northern Experience Wildlife Tours. We left Cumbria nice and early and headed to the marina at North Shields where we were sailing from. Arriving in plenty of time, we had a look around, chatted to the guys in the neighbouring vehicle and started to pull on the sixteen layers that we were going to need to keep us warm! Glancing behind me, I was surprised and delighted to see a friend from university and his family in the car park, donning as many layers as me. Trotting over to say hello, it turned out that we were on the same trip! There were all of ten passengers on this trip, so you would think that the chances of knowing someone else would be pretty slim!

It wasn’t long before the boat arrived and we filed on. Now, this trip had seemed a really good idea when I booked it. Half an hour into it though, as the swell had us bouncing up and down and clinging on for dear life, I was beginning to wonder. I don’t travel too well in boats and despite having taken a travel pill or two, I was beginning to wonder how on earth I was going to cope with eight hours of this. Thankfully, after a couple of hours, the sea calmed down and the tummy settled and I was able to enjoy the rest of the trip and take a few pictures.

There weren’t huge numbers of birds around but I did get a lifer when we had fantastically close views of two grey phalaropes. I also had far better views than ever before of a sooty shearwater, which was lovely. So, here are a few of my best shots. Not the best photos I have ever taken, but it’s not that easy to take photos one handed whilst using the other hand to try to make sure you don’t fall overboard!
Kittiwake keeping us company alongside the boat

Gannet flying past

Gannet again

Sooty shearwater with gulls

Sooty shearwater taking off

Sooty shearwater flying

Fulmar taking off

Fulmar running on water

Lift off

Grey phalaropes

Another gannet

Guillemot in winter plumage
Brent geese heading north

I wonder if anyone out there can answer a question. In winter plumage, do bridled guillemots retain any of their distinct white plumage or are they indistinguishable from non-bridled guillemots? No one I have asked this question to has been able to answer, so if you know, please leave me a comment below.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

Shiants 2012

At the end of June, I ventured northwards to undertake my second visit to the Shiants Isles in north-western Scotland to ring seabirds. After a very long and boring drive, I arrived at the B&B at Uig on the Isle of Skye where I met the rest of the team. The following morning, after a hearty breakfast and after making the most of the last shower that we were going to be having for a week (or two in Jim, David and Alistair’s case), we made our way down to the pier to await the arrival of Seamus, John and the Sea Harris. As we arrived, we spotted a problem... there was a big old tug boat parked in front of the steps where we normally load the boat. Enter Jim to schmooze the man with the power (harbour master) and pretty soon we were loading up from the ramp normally reserved for the CalMac ferries. Nice one Jim!
The Sea Harris, our chariot for the trip to the Shiants
As we departed Uig we looked to be heading in the right direction as we left dark, rain-laden clouds behind us. Ten excited ringers tried desperately hard to stay upright amongst the swell as we slowly cruised past the plethora of small islands that are inhabited only by birds and small mammals. We took a leisurely pass by Fladaigh Chuain (arctic tern colony) to see how it was looking (in anticipation of a visit later in the trip) before alighting on Trodday, an island never before explored by the Shiants Auk Ringing Group, that Jim had worked very hard to secure permission to land and ring on.
The island was interesting from the perspective that it had passerines breeding on it – at least three wheatear territories were spotted along with recently fledged young. All indications pointed towards breeding rock pipit too which led us to the conclusion that, unlike the Shiants, this island is not home to rats! As well as the little birds, oystercatcher, gulls and bonxies (great skuas) were also vociferous in their protestations towards us. Try as we might, we were unable to locate the oystercatcher or bonxie nests in the short time we were there, but we did manage to locate and ring both herring and lesser black-backed gull chicks (those that were old enough to give away their origins anyway!).
So, on to the Shiants. Now, actually getting on to the Shiants is always a fun thing to do (!) and this time was no different. As the tide was rapidly retreating we had no option but to lug all of our bags, tents, food, ringing equipment, table and chair (yes, indeed – we are classy up there!) over the toilet (okay, so maybe we’re not!). For those of you who haven’t experienced the Shiants, the toilet is a gigantic black rock, located opposite the bothy, which comes complete with twice daily automated flushing system and even has its own engaged sign! Luckily, as we were newly arrived on the island, we didn’t have to ‘watch our step’! After an hour or so of playing pass the parcel along the human chain (where was the music?) we had everything up onto dry land. We even managed to get our tents up before any more wet stuff fell out of the sky – result!
The bothy with the 'facilities' behind
For those not lucky enough to have been, the Shiants are a set of Hebridean islands located between Skye and Lewis. There are three main islands; Eilean an Taighe (House Island), Garbh Eilean (Rough Island) and Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island). The bothy, our base for the trip is, unsurprisingly, located on House Island which is connected to Rough Island by a storm beach. Mary Island is a completely separate island. The islands have a lot of history to them and the remains of old buildings can be found quite easily. For more info on the islands, see the website http://www.shiantisles.net/# or have a read of Adam Nicholson’s book Sea Room. Today the inhabitants are mostly birds, black rats and the few sheep that are grazed on there.
House Island (from the top of Rough Island)
Mary Island (looking from Rough Island)

Rough Island (from House Island)
After an evening of introductions and settling in, the hard work started on the Monday with a razorbill RAS (Retrapping Adults for Survival) on North Beach. The main seabird colony is Carnach Mhor, on Rough Island. Now, it is possible to walk into the colony, but this takes a while and can be a tad hairy in wet conditions (think unstable rocks covered in seaweed, algae and guano) so, the quickest way in is via boat. Once we were all on the beach, two mist nets were set to try to catch birds as they came and went from their nests in the boulders above us. Although technically a razorbill RAS, the nets also catch puffins and guillemots and it didn’t take long for the birds to start flying in. Razorbills are aptly named and they are more than capable of causing some serious bruising if you don’t have them properly under control (as I found out regularly last year!) whilst puffins, despite being incredibly cute, have very sharp bills and claws that are more than capable of drawing blood! In contrast, guillemots are far more gentle and rarely cause too much pain.
Carnach Mhor, the boulder colony. The beach in the middle is
where the razorbill RAS is undertaken and this is the colony we
ring pulli in.
The gentle and elegant guillemot and the
feisty razorbill
After a couple of hours of catching, the nets were moved further along the beach to target different birds and Jim took a team into the boulders to find and ring pulli (and any adults caught). By late afternoon, with a good tally of birds caught, the nets were taken down and the team went back to base for a well-earned curry (and no, I don’t mean a take-away!).
On Tuesday the focus turned to puffins and we undertook the puffin RAS. The puffin colony breeds in burrows on the steep slopes on the north side of Rough Island. The team split into two groups with one team setting nets at the top of the slope, the other starting at the bottom (take a wild guess which team I was in given my fear of heights?!). A row of two mist nets is set by each team and birds are ringed for two hours before the nets are moved up or down the slope. Each team rings at four locations on the slope. The day started out with beautiful weather and by the second of my team’s net rounds, the birds were flying in so quickly that we were essentially ringing and flinging (i.e. ringing, but not taking any biometrics). When the nets quietened down a little, I took the opportunity to snap a few photos of these most photogenic of birds. By the end of the day, it was throwing it down (which makes ringing on a steep grass slope a little bit interesting!) and, therefore, we finished 30 minutes early and headed back to the bothy.
Puffin posing on a rock
Ringed puffin looking at us with curiosity
Puffins are incredibly strong, muscular birds and a smack from
their wings can come very keen! 
Thankfully, the weather cleared up by the evening and we were able to put the mist nets up on the storm beach to try to catch storm petrels. As soon as it was dark enough (about midnight), the tape lures were put on and we took a steady catch until it started to get light again (about 3am). Now, at this point, I feel as though I must apologise to anyone living on Lewis and to the poor people who had chosen to moor their yacht in the lee of the island. The storm petrel tape lure is quite possibly the loudest and weirdest noise you can imagine. I dread to think what the people on the boat thought!
Storm petrel that has just been ringed. They smell amazing!
My favourite part of ringing storm petrels is releasing them. You take them outside to a dark area and put them on your hand. They will then sit there and get their eyes accustomed to the dark again before flying off. Occasionally, they will flutter up your arm and onto your shoulder before flying. One bird that I released this trip climbed up my arm, up my hair and onto my head, where he sat for about thirty seconds before heading out into the night. It was a magical moment!
After such a late night, we had a lazy morning on Wednesday. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and rain was restricting what we could safely do. The boulder colony becomes very tricky when the rocks are wet, as do the grassy slopes of Rough Island, so neither was accessible. Alister and I decided to try doing a survey looking for breeding storm petrels. We spent a few hours playing a (much quieter) tape lure outside potential breeding spots on House Island (dry stone walls, boulder scree, cavities in boulders) and listening for birds responding. Unfortunately, as expected, none did. The Shiants are home, not just to breeding seabirds, but also to black rats which are the likely reason why storm petrels appear not to be breeding on the islands.
On Thursday, we headed back to North Beach and put mist nets up again for auks. We also took a fleyg net into the colony and attempted to catch birds this way. This proved quite successful and I have to admit, I had great fun wielding it! Friday saw us have to abort an attempt to get back into the boulder colony. A nasty storm whilst we were out on the boat meant that the swell was too high to land on North Beach and we had to return to House Island, rather wetter than when we had left! When the weather cheered up, we headed to the lesser black-backed gull breeding colony on the east side of the island. Unfortunately, the chicks were too young to speciate and therefore couldn’t be ringed. The walk back to the bothy over the top of the island in gorgeous weather more than made up for it though. As did the incredible views of bonxies that we were treated to.
Catching a razorbill with the fleyg net (thanks
to Dave for the photo)
Puffins and a razorbill on a ledge on the
east side of House Island
Close encounter with a bonxie
On Saturday, we finally made it into the boulder colony to ring some razorbill and guillemot pulli and some shags! After a great few hours in the colony, rain again stopped play and it was a very wet and slippery walk back out (the swell was still too high to use the boat). That evening, Seamus and John joined us on the island with a couple of film makers who were on the island filming for a series about Scottish islands (I think). That meant that they were on hand nice and early in the morning for us to get away and head back to Uig. We took a quick detour via Fladaigh Chuain to ring arctic tern chicks, but unfortunately, the colony appeared to have moved location and we only found a few.
View from inside the boulder colony - an incredible place to be!

Shag - you really don't want to mess with
that beak (as Jim found out to his cost this year)
Arctic tern flying by the boat as we landed at
Fladaigh Chuain
So, the tired team waved goodbye to Jim, David and Alister, who were staying for a second week, and headed back to Uig. The second week’s team looked so clean and fresh in comparison to how we felt! We wished them well, said our goodbyes and headed for home … until next year!
The team on the way home - front row (left to right): Alister, Dave, Chris
Back row (left to right): David, Kathryn, Charlie, Kate, Jim, me, Karen 
Many thanks to Jim for organising the trip, to Jim, David and Alister for doing the leading and training during the week, to the whole team for making it such a great trip, to the Nicholsons for allowing us the privilege of visiting their island and to Dave for sharing the long drive home with me (sorry I nearly made you miss your train home!). And finally, thanks to the lady in the M6 service station who provided me and Dave with such merriment with her blue outburst when she realised she had forgotten, and subsequently burnt, the sausages!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Missing in action...

I thought it was about time I posted something on here, just in case anyone was wondering where I am and what I have been getting up to recently.
Puffins (on the Shiants Isles) - you looking for me?
My lack of posts doesn't mean that I haven't ringed anything for months, just that I have been super busy (work doesn't half get in the way of having fun!) and a little lazy when it comes to updating this blog!
If I am being completely honest, for a number of reasons I haven't ringed a single bird in my garden since my last post about garden ringing! I have, however, spent a week ringing auks on a beautiful set of Scottish islands called the Shiants Isles, ringed lots of lovely waders with the Wash Wader Ringing Group, ringed the odd owl with Jim and been out a couple of times with the South Notts Ringing Group (not as often as I would like mind you!).
Add to that a boat trip on the North Sea and a trip to Mull that I haven't blogged about and I am hanging my head in shame! So, I intend to rectify this and catch up with a couple of retrospective posts, starting with the Shiants. I am also hoping to find my garden ringing mojo (i.e. re-find the confidence to ring by myself again - I seem to have misplaced it somewhere!) and try to catch some of the dozens of house sparrows that are eating me out of house and home and see what other feathery friends are hiding in the shrubs and on the farmland at the bottom of the garden.
I promise to try my best to update this a little more frequently too!