Burhou, Alderney

12 and 13 July 2014

Following very helpful reports form Tim Morley, AWT Seabird Ecologist this year (and last) that the Lesser Black-backed Gull colony on Burhou had produced some chicks this year, and that many were already large, I decided to play it safe and go up on the usual weekend of July…and not take the risk of leaving the gull monitoring until the following weekend (thus combining it with the Storm Petrel trip). In the end this proved to be a very wise decision!

Catherine and I flew up to Alderney on the first flight on Saturday 12 July and Tim met us at the airport and we enjoyed some breakfast in St Anne’s. Tim then dropped us at the harbour where I recorded a few gull colour rings on the high tide at Crabby Beach before enjoying another cup of tea at the Little Rock mobile café.

There was also time for a light lunch and a visit to the supermarket to secure a few supplies before we boarded Sula for the trip across the Swinge to Burhou. Conditions were excellent with a light westerly breeze and very pleasant seas.

After a brief pause to admire the Puffin raft, we landed and took all the equipment up to the hut. Within half an hour we’d unpacked all the ringing gear and boiled enough water for the flasks…so after what seemed like a long wait since last year…we set off. With the tide dropping well we covered the gull colony on the west side of Burhou first. Here we soon came across our first LBBG and Herring Gull chicks. The small team soon got into its stride finding, metal ringing, colour ringing and recording the gull chicks. It was wonderful to be finding chicks again in many of the “usual” areas. After a decent start along this beach, we returned to the hut for a cup of tea, before then entering the main LBBG colony at the south end of the island.

Initially chicks were relatively few and far between and I feared that we may be witnessing another virtual complete failure of the main colony. However…as soon as we moved off the beach and into the edge of the colony we started to encounter small clusters of well-grown LBBG chicks. The vegetation was so luxuriant this year that it was even easier than usual to overlook hiding chicks. In one place we found one chick…but only as we moved off did we see the other four chicks in the same spot!

We kept our heads down working slowly and very methodically through the colony. By late afternoon we had covered the whole of the eastern half of the colony, and with a few spots of very light rain and the need for more hot water for the colour rings, we called it a day and returned to the hut for some well-earned tea and a bite to eat.

Naturally we set the gull cage trap…and very soon had two adult Great Black-backed Gulls to ring – a huge male and a somewhat smaller female. We finished the first day with 101 LBBG and eight Herring Gull chicks ringed, along with the two adult GBBGs. Given last year’s total of 28 LBBGs ringed on the whole island, this was a considerable success!

After a good night’s sleep, only disturbed by the occasional LBBG fracas on the hut roof (!), we were up early eager to complete the gull ringing before the afternoon boat pick-up. We went straight back to the top half of the main colony and got our heads down in the bracken and campion again, finding another 50+ LBBG chicks to ring. In regard to timing, Tim was correct in his observation that the gulls seemed a little earlier this year, and we ringed a lot of chicks that were well advanced, with a small number that were just about capable of flight. Left another week and too many of these gulls would be on the wing or would be so large as to be able to flap/run to avoid capture.

After a cup of tea we then started along the beach in front of the hut. Many of the chicks were already at the edge of the bracken with several walking down the beach. We cut all the chicks off from the sea and drove them back onto the grass and into the adjacent bracken (where the nests are located). This stretch proved to be productive, as did the bracken behind the hut.

By the time we’d finished we just topped the 200 mark for LBBG chicks ringed…and soon after that we passed the 2012 total of 2002 chicks ringed – thereby ensuring that 2014 was the best season since 2010!

With time ticking by Tim and I went to the north end of the island in the hope of ringing a GBBG chick or two…but the only chick we saw was far too large and it ran off before we got anywhere near it. We did ring a few more LBBG chicks and another Herring Gull. We also saw six more Herring Gull chicks but they were too close to rocky drops to be able to approach them.  Catherine remained at the hut and counted 175 puffins in the water opposite the hut and a few colour ring records of LBBG and HG.

A quick tally before packing to leave Burhou gave us final totals of 209 LBBG chicks, 11 Herring Gull chicks and two GBBG adults – a grand total of 222 gulls colour-ringed in our 24 hour visit.

Once back on board AWT’s launch Sula of Braye, we enjoyed a trip out to see Les Etacs gannetry. This is the closest Catherine and I had been to the gannetry for at least five years, so it was a real treat to take in the spectacle, the noise and the smell of the birds and the rocks. We could see many large young with their dark brown/black flight feathers emerging as they went through the transition from while fluffy chick to dark brown fully grown gannet! After a cruise by several of the stacks we headed back to Braye.

Tim kindly dropped us back to the airport for our 18.30 flight home. We got superb aerial views of the Humps, Herm and Jethou as we approached Guernsey – a rather perfect ending to a wonderful trip. It was so good to be back on Burhou with a decent number of LBBG chicks doing well!




14 July 2014