Monday, 12 September 2016

Fair Isle - an adventure of a lifetime by Lewis Mitchell

I was fortunate to volunteer at Fair Isle Bird Observatory for 3 weeks in July 2016. It was an opportunity for
Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
me to gain some experience in bird monitoring, surveying, ringing and habitat management, as well as obtaining contacts which could be essential in searches for employment later on in life. Furthermore, I was able to grow my knowledge of wildlife and improve my skills in wildlife identification.

Leaving home for 3 and a half weeks was always going to be strange. Independence is something I am trying to learn, ready for when I (hopefully) go to university. In order to get to Fair Isle I had to take the train to London, then the coach to Aberdeen, in Scotland, then the ferry to Lerwick in Shetland, which is Britain's most northerly town, the bus to the southern tip of mainland Shetland, and finally the tiny Good Shepherd IV (see picture below) ferry to Fair Isle, Britain's most remote inhabited island. In Aberdeen I met up with Sam Hood who I would be spending some of my time on Fair Isle with. We travelled the rest of the way together.

The Good Shepherd IV by Lewis Mitchell
The Good Shepherd IV by Lewis Mitchell
At the observatory I was made to feel very welcome by all the staff as well as the guests. Food was cooked by the wonderful chef that is Orlando, who on one occasion managed to make carrots taste like cider because he put them in with the pork cooked in cider for dinner one day. That was a taste from home!

Whilst on Fair Isle, I helped in the ringing of the birds, as well as did some work on habitat management and bird surveying and monitoring. I ringed 18 storm petrels, c.20 puffin chicks (or, pufflings) (by putting my hand in their burrows), 3 herring gull chicks and a meadow pipit. All is valuable experience as I become a trainee ringer.  

On 10th July we were clearing the scrape just outside the observatory and came back to the obs for a drink as it was a warm day. Chris (also known to the staff team as Doddy) and Ciaran came to check out our handy-work. whilst stood on the patio, Doddy noticed something in North Haven. "Orca." Doddy mumbled to himself, unsure what was lurking beneath the waves. "ORCA!!!" Doddy, now confident in his discovery, yelled to alert everyone present. Shaking, I raised my binoculars to my eyes, and was greeted with a truly magnificent spectacle of a pod of 5 killer whales in close at North Haven. I was so excited to see this! A once in a lifetime experience. To this discovery, Doddy ran through the observatory, alerting guests on his way, with Ciaran and us volunteers following behind. I rushed to put my wellies on and ran out the door and across to Buness for a closer look. Peering over the cliff edge we saw the orcas within 60ft from us. They proceeded to hunt and kill two grey seals right in front of us. That definitely made my time on Fair Isle brilliant. Here is one of Sam's photos of the killer whales:

Orcas by Samuel Hood
Orcas by Samuel Hood

During our stay the Euro 2016 was on so a few times us staff, as well as a few guests, all huddled in the warden's flat to watch the football games. this was great fun because we had a few passionate German fans in the obs. Also on the theme of football, a game took place on the island between a team from the observatory and a team of islanders and those on a National Trust for Scotland work camp. I think the final score was OBS 12 - 9 ISLANDERS. Here's a group photo:

In preparation for the match, us volunteers decided to have a kick about when all of a sudden a Fulmar burst out from under a van! It didn't have enough room to take off. It proceeded to vomit on the drive. Our bird was successfully caught by Sam and was ringed and safely released. Fulmars are seabirds who use projectile vomit as defence from predators. Here is a picture of a very photogenic one I saw on Fair Isle:

Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
Fulmar by Lewis Mitchell
At the end of my stay we took part in the sheep round up and shearing. This was a new experience for me. Each crofter on Fair isle has 20 sheep that roam all over the island and then are rounded up by the locals and other volunteers (e.g. us volunteers). We did a lot of fencing, trap repairs, food sampling, bird monitoring and scrape management as well as some gardening for one of the islanders.

One day Oli Beacock, one of the volunteers found a long eared owl in the obs garden which was very wet from the rain. On another occasion we found a grey heron in a trap and it was brought back to the obs to be ringed, and was released after.

We spent most of our free time chilling in the lounge, catching up on sleep and going out across the island watching the wildlife and practising taking photos of many, many wheatears (I must have a few hundred wheatear photos) Here is a good take off shot I got:

Wheatear by Lewis Mitchell
Wheatear by Lewis Mitchell
The puffins on Fair Isle were extremely brave and I was able to get close to them.

Puffin by Lewis Mitchell
Puffin by Lewis Mitchell
Here are the best of the rest of the photos:

Great Skua by Lewis Mitchell
A Great Skua looking angry as ever! By Lewis Mitchell
Arctic Tern by Lewis Mitchell
Angry Arctic Tern as I walked through its territory by Lewis Mitchell

I would like to thank the observatory staff for accepting me onto the team and making me so welcome. To achieve this I used the John Harrison Memorial Fund at Fair Isle Bird Observatory, as well as the BTO Young Bird Observatory Volunteer Fund.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

My first solo Breeding Bird Survey by Gethin Jenkins-Jones

I’ve always got a kick out of doing bird surveys. It’s great going out knowing that your records will become a tiny piece of the jigsaw that’ll help answer the puzzles of ornithology. Over the last six years I have had a lot of fun doing various surveys for the BTO including Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts, Birdtrack, BTO Garden BirdWatch and the Winter Thrushes Survey. However this year I decided to go further and take on possibly the BTO’s most challenging survey - the Breeding Bird Survey.

The BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of the UK’s common breeding birds. It involves two spring visits to a local Ordnance Survey 1-km square, to count all the birds you see or hear while walking along two 1-km lines across the square. These squares are randomly selected by the BTO and so, on a day around last Christmas, I sat down with my Dad to look at some which were on the list in Glamorgan. One particular square near Blackmill in the Ogwr Valley looked quite promising, with a nice variety of habitats and little disturbance. This was the square for me!

 River Ogwr by Gethin Jenkins-Jones

River Ogwr on the first transect
On a mild early March morning we checked out the site. Although it was just a reconnaissance visit, we also noted the different habitats present in the square – another essential part of the survey. The first kilometre transect seemed pretty promising for the season to come, with a small river nearby, some open lowland fields and a large old Oak woodland stretching along the path. Although just over 500m away, the second 1-km transect suggested we’d see a different selection of birds. Upland farmland was the dominant habitat here, although another Oak woodland at the end of the transect raised hopes of some decent woodland species too. I was very much looking forward to see what species I would get!

A month later on a quiet April morning, at a time when the majority of us teenagers are rarely awake, we left Cardiff and headed west. The day looked promising with good visibility, no rain and only a slight breeze.

At precisely 6:48 – you must note your start and finish time – we were ready to go. Our pace along the track also had to be taken into consideration: not too fast and not too slow. Each 1-km transect is split into 5 x 200m sections on your Field Recording Sheet with each 200m stretch expected to take 9-10 minutes. Although slower than my usual rambles, it gave me more of an opportunity to take everything in and to encounter more species.  The adrenalin began to pick up as I jotted the first species of the morning; a singing Robin and 2 calling Coal Tit within 25m of the footpath. But as so many birds were singing, calling and flying around, the stress began to build up!

Over the next 45 minutes recording the birds had some sort of rhythm to it; a singing Mistle Thrush over 25 metres away, a Nuthatch calling nearby, 2 Ravens ‘cronking’ overhead, and….hello, a Pied Flycatcher?! Yes, a female, and good views too. I pencilled the letters ‘PF’ on the sheet with a lot of satisfaction. It was the wakeup call I needed at such an hour and I began to enjoy the morning more and more from then on.

The longer we walked the easier it seemed to get, especially since we were encountering the same species again and again and I grew in confidence in remembering the two-letter BTO code of every bird. Our first 1km produced some nice birds. Along with the Pied Flycatcher we recorded many singing Willow Warbler (WW), some Blackcaps (BC) and singles of Green (G.) and Great Spotted Woodpeckers (GS).

I certainly enjoyed the survey, but as we finished the first 1km stretch and walked back to the car to travel to the start point of the second 1-km transect, I was happy to be able to switch off for a few minutes. The concentration required for BBS is intense, there’s no denying it!
The ridge of Oak woodland at Blackmill by Gethin Jenkins-Jones
The ridge of Oak woodland at Blackmill

We hopped into the car and after a 2 minute drive we clambered out and strode up the hill towards our second starting point. Before I knew it we were off again, and it was great to see some new species; Buzzard flying over distantly, Skylark singing above, a Linnet going over, calling.
About half way through our first transect we briefly saw another of the day’s specialities, a Redstart which flashed its rusty tail as it flew off. The fact we were on a hill (and most of the time in open country) meant we saw many more distant birds than in the first transect, and we saw more birds than we heard. The fields held many thrushes and Jackdaws that all went down on the Field Recording Sheet.

Wood Warbler by Allan Drewitt
Wood Warbler by Allan Drewitt
Before long we were walking under the canopy of the Oak woodland and we pricked our ears upwards. A Redstart and Willow Warbler was a good start, although nothing prepared us for what we heard next. Among the chorus of bird song the cascading notes of the Wood Warbler echoed through the wood. Get in there! Dad was beginning to get jealous he didn’t have this square for himself. Scribbling down this species gave me more pleasure than the Pied Fly. I’m quite lucky, I thought, to have this square. Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart: Welsh birds at their best!

Exhausted but happy!
Our final 2 x 200m sections were some of the best as we could still hear the woodland species to our right and also pick up farmland species to our left. Skylarks singing and, in the distance, a Red Kite was circling the area, making the day even more spectacular, another 2 singing Wood Warblers and some Swallows which were nesting in a nearby barn. As we walked further up the path I finally saw the finishing line – marked in yellow paint on the road by my father on our recce in March – which told me that I had at last completed my first BBS survey. Halleluiah! I don’t know if it’s the survey itself or my lazy teenage habits, but I was so tired that the road looked very comfy and all I wanted to do was to lie down on it, and that’s what I did!   You can see the finishing line between my feet.

I very much enjoyed doing this survey. You don’t need to be an expert to take part, but you should be able to identify common birds by sight and sound and even though the high levels of concentration needed to do it properly are challenging, I can’t wait to go there again next year. In a few years I will be able appreciate it even more by comparing the birds recorded year after year and see how the wildlife will change over time. For me, there aren’t many things better than that!

Gethin Jenkins-Jones, Cardiff