Student Blog: A Summer on Bird Island

Liam LangleyImagine looking out across an idyllic bay with the under an azure blue sky, the only clouds consisting of huge flocks of Puffins swirling around your head in the glorious evening sunshine. The previous sentence reads like a line from a “Visit Wales” advert, but for three months this summer it was a daily reality for me as I carried out my undergraduate research project on Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire. Before I begin to describe my summer on this magical island I should confess that even compared to most Biologists I’m something of a bird nut, with a particular passion for seabirds, so when the opportunity to conduct my project on Skomer with Tim Guilford, Chris Perrins and the Oxford Navigation Group arose I eagerly grabbed it with both hands. The idea of the undergraduate research project is to conduct a piece of original scientific research and write it up in a manner akin to a paper in a scientific journal. Initially I just knew I wanted to work on Manx Shearwaters a medium-sized tubenose seabird which is basically a Northern Hemisphere relative of the Albatrosses. Skomer Island is a globally important site for Manx Shearwaters holding up to 300,000 pairs, a number which constitutes more than a third of the entire world population, and they have been actively studied since the days of Ronald Lockley in the 1930s on neighbouring Skokholm. Initially I thought I would be conducting my project for the standard six week period however after meeting with my supervisor Tim it became apparent that he wanted me to stay on the island for three months in order to measure the growth rates of Shearwater chicks from hatching to fledging in relation to the mystery disease puffinosis. A couple of somewhat confusing meetings later and suddenly it was June 15th and I found myself on board the Dale Princess sailing towards Skomer with a good deal more questions than answers and more than a pinch of apprehension as to how the following three months would pan out.

Luckily I was met at the landing in North Haven by Ollie Padget, an Oxford PhD student  also working on the Shearwaters whom I had got to know the previous term, and along with Marwa his research assistant we headed towards the research accommodation that would be my home for the next few months. After a whirlwind tour of the island we just about had time for dinner before I got my first taste of a Shearwater colony at night. Manx Shearwaters are not strictly nocturnal birds but are forced to return to their burrows at night to avoid predation by the brutish Great Black-backed Gulls that also reside on the island. From May to July the night sky is filled with an ethereal cacophony of Shearwaters as hundreds of thousands of birds fill the darkness with their eerie wailing calls. I had hear recordings of these before but nothing could prepare me for the sheer volume of noise produced by the birds as they whizzed, screaming through the night sky, the grandeur of the Milkyway overhead providing a backdrop adequate for the grandeur of the experience. Over the next couple of weeks I went about setting up my study colonies, finding new burrows using playback tapes to provoke a response from incubating birds, before he first chicks hatched on June 24th. This was a momentous occasion and the sight of that first, unbelievably adorable, ball of grey fluff raised the spirits of the team considerably. Over the next few weeks more and more birds hatched and before I knew it I was weighing and taking the wing lengths of over 100 birds a day, a labour intensive task to be undertaken in all but the worst of weathers. Seeing the progression of my birds from 45g balls of fluff to huge 500g fully feathered fledglings was an experience that I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced and when the chicks started fledge in September I felt a strange mixture of pride and sadness that I can only imagine a parent feels when their child leaves home (Ok I may have become slightly attached). My project taught me a lot about data collection and was a real acid test of whether I was suited for field research. It also taught me that science is a fluid organic process during which progress is informed by what is akin to a trial and error process and where collecting data ultimately opens up as many new questions as it provides answers.

What really made the summer so life-changing for me however was the wealth of life experiences I obtained outside of my project, from spending a summer on an isolated community where everything, including food, has to be brought on to the island by boat. Spending time living with incredibly passionate PhD students has inspired me to consider postgraduate study as a future option that I definitely want to undertake. They allowed me to get involved with exciting projects using tracking devices to monitor the foraging areas of the Shearwaters and though this involved a lot of late nights, it was an invaluable experience of the possibilities opened up by PhD study.  I also got my first real taste of handling birds on Skomer under the tutelage of Ros Green and Jason Moss this has inspired me to take up bird ringing in the future and expand my ornithological knowledge in a completely novel direction. Above all watching the dynamic seasonal progression on an island so rich in wildlife from pupping Grey Seals, to Peregrine Falcons, to one of the richest assemblages of breeding Seabirds on Earth was a truly once in a lifetime experience that is difficult to truly do justice to in words. Add to that the dramatic topography and stark windswept beauty of the island and the warm, passionate, diverse array of people that make up the community and its easy to see why the island has captured the imagination of so many people down the years. I’m already planning my return visit next summer; I don’t know why I was so nervous in the first place!

By Liam Langley (3rd Year Biology Student)

Read more about Biology at Brasenose and see the Skomer blog.

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