Monitoring Manxies

One of my main tasks in my first week on Ramsey Island has been helping with the Manx Shearwater survey. ‘Manxies’ are long-distance travelling seabirds which return to breed to the coasts on the western side of the British Isles each year, after spending the Northern Hemisphere winter off the eastern seaboard of South America.

These burrow-nesting birds were severely affected by rats on Ramsey but the eradication of the rodents 15 years ago has enabled the number of Manxies to slowly recover. The last survey in 2012 found 3,835 nesting pairs, and in 2016 it is hoped that numbers will have increased significantly.

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Following a survey of suitable nesting burrows earlier in the year (before the growth of bracken across the island made it much more difficult), the main survey involves the playing recordings of male and female Manxie calls down the burrows to check if any are ‘home’. My small role in the surveys was to help find the burrows into which the calls were then played. With the surveys now complete, the Island’s wardens now need to work out exactly how many Manxies are now breeding here.

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It’s not just when undertaking the surveys that the sound of Manxies can be heard across the Island. One of the most memorable aspects of a stay on Ramsey is listening to the giggling and gurgling calls of the birds as they fly into their burrows near the volunteers’ Bungalow home. The birds only come to land at night, so the calls are an erie accompaniment to many a night’s sleep.

In addition to the natural burrows that the Manxies use for nesting, the wardens have installed a number of artificial nests and another task was to check whether these were occupied. While doing this, the wardens take the opportunity to ring individuals as part of their research and I was lucky enough to be there on one occasion during this stay – and even got to handle one!

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One evening Manxie activity is to go out to the western side of the island at dusk to see the thousand upon thousand of these birds flying southwards, skimming just above the surface of the sea, to the much bigger colonies on the nearby islands of Skomer and Skokholm.

This link to the RSPB website provides a bit more information on Manx Shearwaters including a recording of their calls.

The first few days back on Ramsey Island

I’ve been on Ramsey Island, the RSPB’s reserve off the coast of Pembrokeshire, since Saturday but due to my stupidity have been without the internet until now. I was planning to blog each day but will have to start with a post about the first few days of my two-week stay.

The weather has been a bit mixed so far with the conditions only good enough for boats twice since I’ve been here. Yesterday, following two boatless days, we had a bumper load of visitors with an almost capacity crowd of 78. I did my first introductory talk of the year to a full boat shed, which didn’t go too badly and I even got a business card from a wildlife tour leader suggesting I should do a bit of tour leading myself!

On my first full day, the sheep shearers came across in the late afternoon to de-fleece the 96 Welsh Mountain ewes. I was a bit more actively involved this year, particularly in the first task which was to split the ewes from their lambs. The lambs were born over a few weeks from mid-April and have grown a lot since, so the task of dividing them from the ewes wasn’t without some of effort.

The shearers again amazed me with how quick they could get a fleece off a sheep with about one and a half minutes being  the standard. The closely-cropped ewes were soon reunited with their youngsters in the farmyard, all making a racket until they found each other.

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I’ve also helped with manx shearwater surveys and did a house martin survey at the farmhouse (despite what others have said, I was definitely not asleep!).  We also went out on Gower Ranger yesterday (the boat that links the island to the mainland) to do a kittiwake and fulmar survey of the cliffs that could not be seen from the island – a great way to do a survey!

The weather forecast indicates that boats may not come across for the next couple of days, so it will be quiet around the island again but I’m sure there will be plenty to get on with.  There will also be more time to look at the scenery and wildlife which are as good as ever.

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House Martin Nest Study 2016

My favourite summer migrants have returned – the swallows, house martins, sand martins and swifts. I’m fortunate that three of these species (not sand martins) breed in the area where I live and I can usually see them flying in the sky above my house. I’m even more fortunate that there’s usually a house martin nest on under my eaves; I say usually but in fact there has been at least one nest for the past 15 summers than I have lived here. I thought the unbroken record was going to come to an end last summer when the house martins failed to return around their usual time. There was no sign of them for most of the spring and summer until I retuned home from work in late August to find droppings on the driveway beneath the nest, which was still up there from the previous year. That seemed very late for a first brood particularly compared to the usual May or June in previous year.

The chicks fledged in late September and it wasn’t clear if this was by accident or design. I worked from home one day and in the afternoon there seemed to be lots of comings and goings from the nest. It was only when I left the house later on that I noticed the nest on the driveway and the fledgelings flying up to the point when it used to cling to the eaves. The next day they were all gone and I didn’t see any more house martins around my home again last year.

Over the years I have sporadically kept a record of when the house martins first arrived back at the nest and most records show it was around mid to late April. When the month changed into May, I started to suspect there would be another late return this year. However, when I was cooking my evening meal yesterday I had a spare moment and popped my head out of the kitchen and popped my head round the corner of my house and looked upwards. Up at the apex of the eaves was the ring of mud, all that remained of the nest, but there was something else up there too. At first it looked like a bit of black plastic blown up there by the wind but after I shaded by eyes from the evening sun, the shape was clearly a house martin and there was another flying around just above the roof.

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House martins are ‘amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern listings and numbers have been in rapid decline.  I’m sure that when first moved into my house, another pair nested under next door’s eaves and there were other nests in the area.  Now there is mine and very few others.  However, the pattern of decline isn’t uniform.  Ramsey Island for example (the RSPB reserve where I volunteer for a couple of weeks each year), didn’t have any house martins before a first nest in 2014 and it had eight nests last year (extra emergency artificial nests had to be shipped across!). Something is certainly happening to house martins but fortunately it’s been noticed and hopefully before it’s too late to reverse the overall declines.

Last year I took part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) House Martin Nest Survey. I was given an Ordnance Survey grid square, luckily for me the one immediately nest to the one in which I live, and I made several visits to record the number of nests on buildings and the amount of activity. This year there’s another house martin survey for the BTO. The House Martin Nest Study 2016 requires surveyors to choose a nest/nests and record the activity over the course of the spring and summer. The survey can be done with varying levels of detail and I hope to do as much monitoring as I can, doing daily records of activity whenever possible (holidays allowing). Now that house martins have returned to my home, I’m going to have a very convenient nest to monitor!

The chortling house martin chicks wafting in through my landing window on warm summer evenings as I lie in bed really is one of my favourite things about the season and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until I hear those sounds once again. By doing the survey this year, I hope that I can make a small contribution to helping to ensure this will always be a sound of summer.

Friends of Ramsey Island

One of my first tasks after returning home has been to become a ‘Friend of Ramsey Island’. Whilst I’m already a member of the RSPB, becoming a ‘Friend’ is a way to provide further, financial, support specifically to the Island itself. Whilst volunteering on the island may seem like work to some people, to me it is both a joy and privilege and I feel quite guilty that I get to spend two weeks on the island for free. So this is a way for me to ‘pay’ for my lodgings.

If any of my blog posts on Ramsey Island have sparked an interest in the island, maybe you would like to become a ‘Friend of Ramsey Island’ too or just make a one-off donation?

‘Friends of Ramsey Island’ webpage

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The Essence of Ramsey Island

I’m home now after (nearly) two weeks on Ramsey Island and it’s always a wrench to leave the place behind – especially yesterday as it was bathed in warm sunshine when I left.

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At the beginning of each of my previous stays on Ramsey, I have thought that my next stint of residential volunteering should be on a different RSPB reserve. During the course of each stay, this usually changes to deciding to return to Ramsey, but only for one week, and eventually deciding to return the next year for another whole two weeks. This again happened this time and on the long five hour journey home, I started to think about exactly what it is about the place that draws me back each time. There are so many things that make Ramsey Island so special:

The People – The only place I can start is with the Ramsey Island staff – Greg, Lisa and Amy; they couldn’t be more friendly, welcoming, helpful, informative, understanding and patient. They all have a real passion for the island and its wildlife and this is passed on to the volunteers. Without them, the island, and volunteering there, wouldn’t be the same.

Volunteering on the island also wouldn’t be the same without the other volunteers. I have made some true friends during my stays and I’m sure I will make more during future visits.

I also have to mention Dewi, the island’s border collie – perhaps the best dog in the world!

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Community – For a brief one or two week period, volunteers are part of a real, thriving and vibrant community, and not just on the island itself. Ramsey is just a small part of the wider community that also includes the boat crews and staff, scientists, locals, visitors and, of course, Derek, the local farmer who does so much to support the management of the island. However, while physically part of the community for only a brief period, with the island’s Twitter and blog posts it is now possible to be part of the ‘virtual’ community all year round.

The Work – Volunteering on an island and spending most days working on a range of tasks may seem like an odd way to spend annual leave to many people but beach holidays just aren’t for me. The work volunteers are given is so varied that few days are the same, with tasks ranging from helping with the boats and serving in the small island shop, to wildlife surveys, building maintenance, through to bracken bashing and talking to visitors (or is that bashing visitors and talking to bracken?). I have to say that the surveys and physical land management tasks may be where my real interest lies at the moment but I also really enjoy the other tasks and I find something very inspiring and energising about talking to visitors about the wildlife, the island and volunteering.

Wildlife – Well, we all volunteer on Ramsey for the wildlife and it’s a pretty special place where nature is concerned. However, it’s not just the obvious elements of the natural world, the birds and mammals, that make Ramsey an interesting location to spend some time. Through volunteering there my appreciation of the commonly overlooked aspects of the natural world has increased – from collecting dung beetles to being enthusiastically shown tiny spiders. During this stay the wild flowers also came into full bloom, transforming large parts of the island, with swathes of bluebells around the Bungalow and the base of Carn Llundain.

The Island – Finally, there’s the island itself, which seems to draw me further under its spell with every visit. I have to honestly say that I’m hooked and it has had quite a profound effect on me. It’s difficult to put my finger on it but it certainly has something, an essence, that I’ve found nowhere else. The fact that so many volunteers return year after year, shows that others have the same, or even stronger, feelings for the place.

Maybe that essence is the scenery. The island is truly beautiful and I never get tired of the views; I love sitting on the bungalow doorstep each morning (weather permitting) and staring out over the sheep fields and Ramsey Sound, towards Whitesands Bay and Carn Llidi. However, the island’s scenery changes as you walk around it and also through the seasons and different weather conditions – it is a stunningly beautiful place and I don’t think I could ever get tired of gazing across it.

Maybe the essence is related to the feeling of isolation, perhaps made stronger by the fact that the mainland and ‘civilisation’ are within sight and almost within touching distance. When on the island, the outside world seems so far away, yet it can be heard on the wind, when it’s in the right direction.

Maybe the essence is some mystical power the island holds; it certainly has a long spiritual history and many people have visited the island over the centuries for religious and spiritual reasons.

Maybe the essence is everything above all wrapped up together – the people, the community, the work, the wildlife and the island itself. In some ways, I hope I never work it out; I think it may be best left unexplained – helping to ensure I keep being drawn back!

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Last Day on Ramsey Island

Well, that’s nearly it…I’ve just finished my last full day on Ramsey Island and I nearly blogged every day (doing much better than I thought I would).

The past (nearly) two weeks has flown by, as they usually do on the island, especially when there are boats to help with.

Today, as well as helping with the boat arrivals and departures, I finished doing a wheatear survey around the north and centre of the island, took some photos of the wildflowers and went on a boat trip around the island and out to the Bishops and Clarks.

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The boat trip was with Thousand Islands Expeditions, the same company that runs the boat across to the Ramsey Island, and it’s well worth the price (a couple of flapjacks in my case!).

Ramsey Island Running Champion!

After my run around part of the island a few days ago, I was told of the Ramsey Island Three Peaks Challenge.  This ‘competition’ was set by a previous volunteer, Glyn Holt, in 2008, and involves running the tourist track, starting and finishing at the gateway to the Bungalow and taking in all three of Ramsey Island’s huge peaks (the towering Carn Ysgubor – 101 metres, the enormous Carn Llundain – 136 metres and the mighty Foel Fawr – 72 metres). The route is approximately 3.5 miles long and Glyn set the benchmark for the challenge with a time of 46 minutes.  In 2011, Tom Pinches broke the record, setting a time of 42 minutes and that stood until this afternoon.

Much to my amazement, particularly considering my age disadvantage (with at least 10 years on the previous contenders), I set a time of 38 minutes 56 seconds. I think I may have taken a slight shortcut but if the others have gone the longer route, this would only add around a minute to their time.

My record may not last very long, however, as Tom is returning next week for another stint of volunteering.

We had some departures and arrivals today with volunteers Nicola and Steve leaving and Harriet arriving.  We also had quite a few visitors with 17 on the 10:00 boat and 25 on the 12:00. I spent the day helping with the visitors and then tried to do a wheatear survey but didn’t get very far after talking to a visitor about a possible peregrine nest and trying to find chough for another group of visitors.

The weather today was spectacular with almost wall-to-wall sunshine.  There was a cool north-westerly breeze at the beginning of the day but this lessened as the day progressed – I’m amazed I haven’t been sunburnt yet!

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Visitors!!!

For the first time in eight days, Ramsey Island had more than six people on its shores. Ever since my arrival, last Sunday, the winds have been too strong for the Gower Ranger to sail from St. Justinian on the mainland to Ramsey harbour.  Over the course of my four stays on Ramsey, that was by far the longest the island has been without visitors and I almost forgot that looking after them is the main part of the volunteers’ job.

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The boat brought two loads of visitors across today, with six on the 10:00 sailing and four on the 12:00, and they were in for a real treat.  Ramsey was at its best, with a warm sun, brilliant blue skies and a (comparatively) light wind.  I’m writing this with a slight glow about me – generated either by the Sun or the wine I’ve just been drinking (but probably both).

The volunteers again spent the day doing different tasks, in addition to helping with the boat arrivals and departures, and serving in the island’s shop.  I did a chough watch in the morning, observing the comings and goings around a nest site, and in the afternoon I did a wheatear survey, walking around the eastern part of the island noting the wheatears spotted and their behaviour.

While my favourite time of day on Ramsey is first thing in the morning, I also love the hour or so just before the visitors leave, when they are all waiting around the farmhouse for the boat to take them off at 16:00.  This is often a time to have a good chat to them and talk about what they have seen and what a great place Ramsey is – especially as a volunteer!

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The Bungalow is warm tonight, probably the warmest it’s been since I arrived, helped by the sun and the wood burning stove in the main room (and maybe a wee dram or two)

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