11 to 13 June 2011

It was with some relief that I caught the 0745 Aurigny flight to Alderney on Saturday 11th June, as colour ringing adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the colony there forms an important part of my Bailiwick-wide research project on this gull. At times during the week before it seemed that the visit this year would prove impossible to pull off in the time window available, given work commitments, weather problems, boat availability and then an injury to Chris Mourant a few days before, which meant that he was unavailable to help out. Fortunately the Alderney Wildlife Trust stepped in, and with their usual courtesy and help not only sorted out the boat trips to and from Burhou (during an especially busy time for them), but also provided both the ecologist (Liz Morgan) and the summer researcher (Lizzy White) to help me. This help was to prove invaluable, as without Liz and Lizzy I would have been severely restricted in what I could have achieved. 

Once airborne I breathed a sigh of relief. Unusually we landed on the northerly grass strip at Alderney, and as the Trislander slowed to a stop I saw two raptors on a kill on the grass. The plane came to a halt right by them – a pair of Peregrines on a kill. Both birds took off, one looping around the plane giving outstanding close range views.

AWT reserves warden Chris kindly picked me up from the airport and took me to a shop so that I could buy some food and drink for my two nights stay on Burhou. There was then time to meet Liz and Lizzy over tea at the AWT HQ at Essex Farm. Roland arrived back from an early morning boat trip to Les Etacs gannetry to try to recover some more of the data loggers, which Phil Atkinson and Louise Soanes had attached to the Gannets the previous week.  In total now they had retrieved 17 out of 23 loggers – which is a pretty outstanding achievement.

We enjoyed coffee and a chat in Town, before going to the AWT office in the High Street to take a look at the tracks of the 17 marked gannets. The results are absolutely fascinating – but I shall not steal the thunder of the project here! No doubt the results will be published in due course. However…the real value of being able to use such tracking devices on seabirds very soon becomes obvious. It is a powerful new tool in the box of ornithologists, and research biologists.

It did not take me long to discuss with Louise the possibility of, next year, extending her research work to fitting some data loggers on some adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls on Burhou – a project I would be keen to participate in!

Anyway…back to the purpose of this trip. At mid-day Roland took us over to Burhou in the AWT RIB “Sunrise”. It was a good crossing and we were soon installed in the hut. Given the forecast for rain the following day, I was keen to use the available time on Saturday to catch adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls for colour ringing. The previous week Liz had completed the 2011 nest count and reached a figure in excess of 1,100 nests, which is a little above recent years. Subjectively I thought the numbers were about similar to the past few years. Interestingly I think the gulls are pretty much on their usual timings too this year. The vast majority of nests checked contained three eggs, with few having tiny one or two day old chicks. This seems on a par with 2009 and 2010 – when I visited Burhou on pretty much the same dates.

What was again striking, however, is the real paucity of Herring Gulls on Burhou – such a change from the halcyon days (for this species) back in the 1980s and early 1990s! I cannot explain the strong decrease, and I believe that we are now seeing this even in Guernsey, Herm and Sark (where there is an abundant supply of food from the organic landfill at Chouet and also from the sewage outfall pipe in the Little Russell). Despite there being large numbers of adult birds in Guernsey, the breeding population seems to me to be in decline.

On that first day there was little time to consider anything other than colour ringing the adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and with a lot of hard work and commitment from the team we managed to handle 45 gulls by the end of the afternoon. Of these 41 were given a colour ring for the first time, while we caught four birds which had been colour ringed on Burhou in previous years (2010 – three and 2009 – one). In addition we caught three gulls which already had Jersey metal rings – all birds which had been ringed as chicks on Burhou - in 1994 (two) and 2000 (one).

It had been a stunning afternoon’s work, carried out in very pleasant clear blue skies with gorgeous sunshine, but also a gentle westerly breeze to keep temperatures from soaring too high. As dusk fell there was a tremendous sunset with a burning red sky – dotted with the occasional Lesser Black-backed Gulls flying across the horizon or perched on the rocks. It was a very beautiful end to a rather special day!

However…one thing I learnt on this visit is that the old adage “Red sky at night…shepherd’s delight” is a load or rubbish (unless of course the shepherd in question is a lover of perpetual rain!). Soon after darkness fell it began to rain…and it carried on through the night and right through the whole of the next day. As a result we spent no more than a few minutes outside the hut on Burhou for the whole of the day on Sunday. At least if gave me the chance to read Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull” again (how appropriate was that?!), and to catch up on quite a bit of lost sleep in recent weeks.

It was fascinating to be on Burhou in such weather for the gulls just sat quietly (for them!) on their nests keeping their eggs and in a very few cases small chicks dry and warm. There was hardly any of the usual gull banter and squabbling. The Puffin raft in the bay in front of the hut reached over 100 birds, with many of these birds being seen on land towards dusk. Several times there was at least one Common Guillemot amongst the Puffins.

Although we had managed to complete the majority of the work with the Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the Saturday, there was still about a third of the island to work on Monday morning. At first I feared that the sea mist that greeted the day would turn into drizzle that would stop our work, but we were fortunate with the conditions. This enabled us to work from 0730-1230 to pretty much complete a circuit of the colony. On this day we colour ringed another 23 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, including two more birds that were already metal ringed (one from 2003 and the other from 2006).

Spot on time at 1330 we were picked up again in Sunrise and whisked back to Braye Harbour through the sea fog. Throughout the morning Alderney had been appearing and disappearing out of the mist.  I had tea with Liz and Lizzy back at Essex, before returning to the airport, where the fog had caused chaos. With significant backlogs of people trying to fly out of the island I thought I may be delayed for many hours, but in the event I was airborne after only a 30 minute delay.

The return flight was also very scenic in that I had wonderful views of Les Etacs gannetry soon after take-off, and then further out across the Swinge I could see Burhou. As we approached Guernsey we had to await a landing slot, so we headed out flying parallel to Sark’s north coast, giving the best aerial views of this island I’ve ever had!

So…after fearing that I may miss out on my work with adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls on Burhou this year, the 2011 visit turned out to be extra special. Not only was it highly successful, enabling 64 new birds to be colour ringed, but it was a very enjoyable despite having to stay inside the hut all day on Sunday and work flat out on the Saturday afternoon and Monday morning to get the work covered.

My thanks once again to AWT for their help and support, and to Liz and Lizzy in particular for their much appreciated help with the work.




14 June 2011