Thursday, 2 June 2011

Old shags and seabird puke

Mark ringing a fulmar chick.

Catching shags in the early morning.

A shag on nest.

Guillemot and chick

Colour-ringed razorbill.

Colour-ringed Kittewake

Discarded sandeels.
Mark Newell oversees the day to day research programme on the Isle of May for seabirds and has a very detail knowledge of the islands birds:

"Returning to the May Isle for my seventh season in my current guise working for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) I am finding each season vastly different. As mentioned in previous blogs we are experiencing one of the earliest seasons on record which has meant adjusting the timing of our work. Part of my role on the isle includes coordinating the arrival and departure of the various researchers and ensuring there are enough beds to go around without having to top and tail and this is something akin to herding cats. An unexpectedly early season involves various changes of plans and a fair bit of juggling.

When not playing some kind of quartermaster role it is up to me to coordinate the long term studies on the isle which are now in their 40th season. Between us we follow up to 800 pairs of Guillemots from when they lay their eggs right through to the father leading the chick to sea. This requires several visits a day to the hides to check on progress and this is quite exciting at the moment as the chicks are hatching. I find myself looking out for certain pairs where I saw the female laying in the hope of seeing the chick hatch. However, on most occasions we just see some broken egg shell before glimpsing the chick at a few days old. Similar studies are ongoing with Razorbills but they are even more covert with the stage that they are at. We are also on the lookout for colour ringed birds. We have Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, Kittiwakes and Puffins all with an individually inscribed ring or a unique combination of rings. This allows us to get an estimate of survival of birds from one year to the next. So far this season we have a pair of shags where the male is 22 years old and his mate is 19 years old. We also have a nest where two females are sharing incubation!

We will soon be catching birds for ringing and occasionally they throw up their dinner. To most folk this is pretty disgusting but to us it is quite exciting as it allows us an insight into their diet. Ideally most of the seabirds here wish to feed on large sandeels as they are the most nutritious so if we start finding different fish or very small sandeels it can help explain why in some years the birds do poorly. Only this morning I picked up some sandeels from one of the paths which would have been dropped by a puffin, probably to escape the attentions of a piratical gull. These fish were measured then stored in the freezer until after we leave the isle when some will be analysed to establish the calorific value and add to the picture of the Isle of May seabird’s successes and failures each year."

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