Burhou, Alderney

15 & 16 August 2011

At the request of the Alderney Wildlife Trust, Chris Mourant and Paul Veron visited Burhou on 15/16 August to help the BBC Coast television crew film Storm Petrels on the island.  This is the latest in the season I’ve ever visited Burhou, so it was much appreciated to have this “bonus” trip both to ring a few Storm Petrels after a gap of several years, and also to see what was going on in the Lesser Black-backed Gull colonies. We flew up from Guernsey on the 0745 flight, arriving at Alderney Airport 10 minutes later, where Roland Gauvain and Liz Morgan, AWT kindly met us. After coffee at the airport we headed back to St Anne, but with the rest of the morning free Chris and I jumped out at Crabby Bay to try to read some gull colour rings. However…with the tide high there were very few gulls on the beach. We therefore wandered along the seafront as far as the northern end of Braye Beach, before returning to the harbour for another coffee.

A second walk along the top of Crabby Beach was more productive with nine cr LBBGs present in the flock of 100 birds. This included the rare sight of a 2011 fledged LBBG chick from Burhou (Black 2.AF6), as well as adults from 2009 (one), 2010 (one) and 2011 (six). At mid-day we joined up with Roland again and together with Paul Thompson (researcher for the BBC coast programme) we headed out across the Swinge in AWT’s RIB Sunrise. Approaching Burhou we could see many hundreds of adult Lesser black-backed Gulls till on the island – despite their largely failed breeding season. Once on the island we carried the equipment to the hut, before indulging in a cup of tea (the first of many). Paul returned with Roland to Alderney, leaving Chris and I to enjoy the solitude of Burhou.

I spent a wonderful very productive afternoon with my telescope carefully working through the loafing gulls to record colour ring numbers. I was surprised to discover that perhaps just over half (i.e. c 1,200 birds) of the adult LBBGs were still on the island. Although many were still attached to their colonies, with the season being very largely unproductive the gulls spent much of the time loafing in the short grass or on the rocks making ring reading relatively easy. After a couple of hours I popped back to the hut for another cup of tea, before returning to spend another two hours gazing at the gulls.

It was very rewarding, providing some superb data for my gull research. On that first day I managed to take 69 reads of cr LBBGs – all Channel Islands birds – except for White D:Z, which had been ringed as chick in Bristol, Avon, England by Peter Rock in June 2003. This bird breeds in the SW of England, being seen at Shortwood Landfill, Gloucester as recently as 11 July 2011. Many of the LBBGs recorded are already building interesting life histories with movements to Iberia over the autumn/winter, and returns in spring/summer to Burhou. Four of these records involve chicks ringed on Burhou in July 2011 (where only 17 were ringed). In addition three 2011 colour ringed fledged Herring Gull chicks from Burhou were recorded, along with a single Great Black-backed Gull (Yellow 0.CC5) which had been ringed as a chick in June 2010 on Jethou, and which is regularly recorded at Chouet, Guernsey.

During the late afternoon Roland ferried the rest of the BBC film crew across to Burhou. Just before the last of the five man crew arrived Chris discovered that the mist nets were missing from his bag. Rapid telephone calls were made, but the last flight from Guernsey to Alderney had already gone. As I was talking through options with Paul Thompson, with a  view to rescheduling the Burhou work to the following night, Roland was informed of the news. Undeterred by this glitch Roland took Chris back to Guernsey in Sunrise (a 75 minute journey each way) to get the nets – and thus both save the day and help ease my blood pressure back somewhere near normal!

Roland dropped Chris back on Burhou just before dusk, and we set to work erecting three 18 metre mist nets at the north-eastern end of Burhou. This took a little longer than usual as the film crew wanted to record the nets being erected and set (which was why we had not put them up earlier in the day when we arrived).  Once this was done the crew headed back to the hut for supper. However…no sooner had they gone than Chris and I caught our first Storm petrel (21.30 hrs). This surprised me because we were only a day or so outside the Full Moon. I therefore expected petrel activity to be late in the night and also much reduced. However complete cloud cover hid the moon and made the sky much darker than it would have otherwise been.

Once Chris had returned and set up the ringing station, I checked the nets again – 10 Stormies were already ion the nets. I extracted these and took them to Chris to ring and process – enjoying handling these tiny seabird jewels for the first time in several years. Incredibly one of the birds I took out of the bag to ring carried a British ring – so it will be interesting to see where this bird had been ringed and when. With the film crew back, and in full flow, we had a very busy couple of hours. We worked solidly for three and a half hours up until 0100, by which time BBC Coast had all the footage and interviews they wanted, and some rain showers began to sweep in. Not wanting to push our luck, especially with only Chris and me ringing, with Liz Morgan ably assisting, we decided to furl the nets. This proved to be a very wise decision as the rain showers kept going right through the night until dawn, and at times they were heavy and prolonged.

In our three and a half hours operating with three nets we had caught and processed 61 Storm petrels – 40 new birds, 19 retraps from Burhou and the British-ringed bird. If we had been able to keep going until dawn we would have very easily cleared more than 100 petrels…but in the event both Chris and I settled for the success we had enjoyed…and especially because the film crew (the reason we aware on the island) had secured all the footage they wanted.
Although not comparable with the usual full scale Storm Petrel ringing carried out in a number of years since the early 2000, the evidence we saw on our one limited night of operation led us to believe that Storm petrels are present on Burhou in similar numbers to when we last undertook some ringing/recapture work in 2008.

With eight of us in the hut sleeping arrangements were rather cramped, but any sleep was a bonus as we had fully expected to be working right through the night. Soon after dawn Chris and I wandered over to the furled nets and took them down, packing away al the gear and taking it back to the hut. After a cup of tea I then went off again with my telescope to secure some more cr reads on the gulls. Although gull numbers seemed a little lower today, there were still many rings to record and I ended up the session with 35 more cr sightings on Lesser Black-backed Gulls – including Blue T.NAY – a juvenile ringed at Zeebrugge, Belgium on 5th July 2011. It was very nice to record this gull, because it was categorical proof that some of the juvenile gulls present on Burhou were indeed migrants passing through from other colonies. I could not get the full ring reads on two French Great Black-backed Gulls – one which had been ringed in the Chausey Islands, Manche (Seb Provost) and one from Seine-Maritime (Gilles Le Guillou).

At mid-day Roland returned to pick us up. The film crew went in the first run, so that they could get on with their work on Alderney itself. Soon we were motoring back across the Swinge – after a really successful and enjoyable trip to Burhou. It had been a significant privilege for me to get to the island for a third time in a single season...and the data obtained for my gull research was much more valuable than I had envisaged. Back on Alderney Chris and I grabbed some lunch from the harbour mobile cafe, before checking Crabby Beach again. With the tide low, there were 400+ Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the beach. The ratio of juvenile birds to adults was, as expected, very low.  Another 22 colour ring reads were taken on the LBBGs – including another 2009 chick.

Chris and I walked back up to the airport in time for our 18.15 flight home. After a couple of cups of tea we heard our plane coming in...but it then overflew. Much to our amazement visibility had declined with a very low cloud base. Despite repeated attempts to land, the two circling Trislanders got diverted to Guernsey, and soon afterwards the flight home was cancelled and the airport shut. Roland kindly picked us up, dropped us at Nelly Gray’s Indian Restaurant for a slap up supper. We then slept at the AWT hostel at Essex Farm, before returning to the airport early in the morning. We got off on time at 0920...and I ended up racing straight into work.

25 August 2011