The freshening wind swerved around to the north-west overnight and cleared away the torrential rain storms. A day of bright blue skies and wild foam-topped seas contrasted starkly to yesterday’s dulled monotones. The island’s wildlife also livened up a bit under the sunshine, with plenty more insects on the wing, providing a much-needed food source for parents provisioning hungry chicks.
Day six of 30 Days Wild was certainly a wild one, and a look out to sea in the morning revealed hundreds of Manx shearwaters powering past the coast with Gannets, Auks and Fulmars. A morning walk around ‘the Narrows’ coincided with high tide, and a fresh dump of seaweed on the beach was being torn apart by Pied Wagtails, Rock Pipits, Oystercatchers and gulls alike to utilise the nutritious bonanza of invertebrates within.
Walking back through the lowland wet pastures, I tried hard (and unsuccessfully) to find some Meadow Pipit nests in the long grass – many pairs now have chicks which we could ring if only we could find them! Instead, my attention was drawn to the abundance of Common Spotted Orchids in flower at the moment. Hundreds of these pretty spire-like wildflowers are peppered amongst the ragged robin, creeping buttercups and Juncus rushes…
Here on Bardsey we only really have two ‘conventional’ species of orchids, namely that of the Early Marsh and Common Spotted. We also have a third, far scarcer species, called the Autumn Ladie’s Tresses, which poke their delicate spires skyward in August and September. The Common Spotted Orchid pictured above can be confused with the Heath Spotted on the mainland, but the sepals of the latter tend to be less heavily marked and lack the well-defined loops seen on Common Spotted. Species in the Dactylorhiza family commonly hybridise too, just to make matters trickier!
Whilst Mum is away for a few days, the responsibility of milking our two goats, feeding the chickens, watering the rapidly-growing veg patches and emptying our composting loos (the best of the jobs…) is delegated between other members of the household. After my morning duties were thus completed, I spent some time prepping gear for my Manx shearwater project: programming GPS tags ready for deployment, preparing wooden stakes to mark their burrows and also finding easily-accessible shearwater burrows that will form the next ten birds in my tracking study.
In the late afternoon I headed around the East Side with BBFO assistant warden Liam Curson to do some breeding seabird counts. We particularly wanted to have a look at one of the island’s biggest Kittiwake colonies to see how their breeding season is progressing…
Passing Shag nests populated with large scruffy-looking chicks, and cliff ledges packed with lines of incubating Guillemots, we reached the Kittiwake colony and found a reasonable 54 pairs with active nests. Many of the nests still looked to be in the process of construction, with no eggs to be seen – let alone chicks. It seems their breeding season is a bit later this year, but at least the island’s population isn’t undergoing the tremendous declines seen in Britain’s far north and east coast colonies.
The Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) joined the UK’s redlist for Birds of Conservation Concern back in 2015. Why? The country’s population has more than halved in size since the 1980s, accompanied by heavy decreases in breeding productivity (read the JNCC report here). The situation has been particularly bleak in the far north, where counts revealed declines of 88% in some Orkney colonies – from 11,000 pairs in 2000 to just 2,000 pairs in 2012.
Food availability appears to be the primary driver of these declines: in particular, the availability of sand eels to sustain both the adults and their hungry chicks. Warmer seas have a negative impact on sand eel populations, and so the impacts of rising sea surface temperature and changing ocean currents are ultimately driving these trends. Sand eel fisheries off SE Scotland further exacerbate the situation, as illustrated in this paper. On top of this, Kittiwakes are surface feeders: this makes them vulnerable to food shortages as they can’t access other species present in the water column, which diving seabirds like Razorbills and Gannets can.
Thankfully the Irish Sea’s Kittiwakes seem to be faring somewhat better than England and Scotland’s birds. It was brilliant to watch pairs bonding and having heated arguments with the proximate neighbours – all to the piercing kittiwaaake – kittiwaaake calls that typify the soundscape of such bustling colonies
Another bright and breezy day tomorrow – the moth traps aren’t getting too much use for a few days!