Les Autelets and Sark Coastline

14 May 2014

It was a very valuable bonus to continue on from the trip to monitor seabirds breeding on The Humps, and to go across to Sark. The real impetus was to take a look at Les Autelets to count the nesting Common Guillemots. We were most fortunate that Sea Fisheries staff made this possible by extending the seabird monitoring session.

Once off Godin, we crossed the Little Russell in the Sea Fisheries RIB (Puma) and cruised up to Les Autelets. If The Humps had been a very pleasant surprise for its numbers of breeding Common Guillemots this year, the same could not be said for Les Autelets. Historically this is by far the largest colony in the Channel Islands (with 250-260 birds recorded during the Seabird 2000 counts). No matter how many times we counted and re-counted we could not improve on a total of 80+ Common Guillemots on Les Autelets. This is only a single count…but it does indicate a very large drop in breeding birds this year. This needs to be monitored again this season, because if the count is representative and broadly accurate, this is potentially serious for this colony. No Bridled birds were observed.

On the cliffs just to the north of Les Autelets a family of five Common Ravens were flying around the ravine. It was very valuable to cruise slowly along the western cliff coastline of Big Sark, because this is not an area we often visit and record breeding seabirds. There were, as expected, relatively few gulls. Perhaps c 50-80 pairs of Herring Gulls from La Grune to the Gouliot caves, with only single figures of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Northern Fulmars were a little more numerous than Lesser Black-backed Gulls with c 15 pairs.

Moie de Gouliot is a valuable islet, with c 60 pairs of nesting Herring Gulls and a couple of Great Black-backed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We returned to the Leopardess, which had followed us across the Big Russell and was moored at Havre Gosselin. Lunch and a cup of tea was enjoyed in the lovely warm sunshine, while watching a small party of Adventure Sark coasteerers coming out of the Gouliot Caves and then climbing a small way up the southern face of Moie de Gouliot to jump into the water (with some associated noise). While it is perhaps unfortunate that such activity is taking place on an important seabird nesting islet, the Herring Gulls, while clearly strongly focused on the coasteerers and calling in an agitated fashion, did not leave their nests. Clearly an important factor is that the people approached the rock from the sea and did not climb more than three metres before jumping back into the sea. The level of disturbance would have been completely different if the people had descended down through the colony.

After lunch we re-boarded the RIB and motored all the way down the west coast of Big Sark and then Little Sark. There are relatively few seabirds on this coastline with only a few scattered Northern Fulmars and Herring Gulls being recorded.

Once around the southern end of the island, the cliffs held a few more nesting Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Here we were able to get close enough to a couple of small flocks of resting gulls that we were able to record the colour rings:- Lesser Black-backed Gulls Black 2.L5 (ringed at Chouet landfill in May 2010) and Black 2AX6 (ringed at Chouet Landfill in May 2013) and Herring Gull White 0HC4 (also ringed at Chouet Landfill in May 2013). It is particularly valuable for the Gulls Research underway in the Bailiwick of Guernsey to be able to track down the probable nesting areas for these gulls. Black 2.L5 is known to winter in Portugal (see link http://birdrings.digimap.gg/SightingReport.aspx?ColourRing=B2L5 ).

A circuit around L’Etac de Serk showed it to be nothing like the Seabird mecca it has historically been. Not a single Atlantic Puffin was visible on the water or on the islet. In Seabird 2000 the count was 50-60 birds. European Shag appeared to be completely absent. In many years during the 1980s this rock had up to 100 pairs, and even in the mid-2000s I counted up to 80 pairs in several years. Without landing we cannot be sure what the European Shag breeding population is now, but it appears to be just a remnant of its former size.

Off Brecqhou’ s north coast we had seen a raft of c 150 European Shag, while off Big Sark’s east coast there were 80+ Shag resting on one of the offshore rocks. Such signs of rafting/flocking birds so early in the breeding season probably reflect the very poor season in that these birds are likely to be a mixture of immature birds and non-breeding or failed breeding adults.

The other disappointment at L’Etac de Serk was the lack of sightings of any auks, as both Common Guillemot and Razorbill are usually very obvious in the water and standing ashore on this large islet. For such a potentially (and historically) good seabird islet, L’Etac currently looks very sparse and degraded as a seabird breeding site. It isn’t exactly clear why this should be so.

Opposite L’Etac, Breniere looked a little stronger for gulls than last year, with c 25 pairs of nesting Herring Gulls and seven or eight Lesser Black-backed Gulls. However, this increase was offset by a corresponding decrease in the cliff colony on the mainland just opposite Breniere. For the past couple of years this colony has been 50+ pairs of Herring and LBBG Gulls, but this year the totals were more like 25 Herring Gulls and a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Cruising north up the west coast to La Coupé, Northern Fulmars were about usual numbers (10-15 pairs), but there appeared to be fewer scattered gulls. Derrible Headland also looked less busy than in recent years with totals of c 50 pairs of Herring Gulls and under 30 pairs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

With time rapidly shooting by we re-boarded the Leopardess in Derrible Bay, and then motored up to Creux Harbour and around the north-east coast – enabling a little further quick monitoring as we passed by. Moie de Lache islet has c 15 pairs of Herring Gulls and only five Lesser Black-backed Gulls, while the cliffs at Maseline held 20 pairs of Herring Gulls. The LBBG colony just east of the lighthouse has all but disappeared, with only four pairs present, while the Lighthouse colony appeared to be 15-20 pairs of Herring Gulls.

We did not visit either Grand Moie or Petit Moie, but passing Banquette Landing on the way back home revealed another gull colony down in numbers to 12 LBBGs and eight Herring Gulls.

Then we were clear of Sark and heading back across the Big Russell, accompanied of course by more of the day’s omni-present migrating Barn Swallows and a few House Martins! We were back in port by 4 p.m., after a really valuable (and unexpected) full day of monitoring the seabird breeding season both on The Humps, Herm and also around the majority of the Sark coast.

While not disastrous, there appear to be worrying signs amongst Sark’s seabird colonies in that most appear to be in decline. Les Autelets (the Channel Islands’ most important breeding colony of Common Guillemots) appears to be well down in numbers this year, while L’Etac de Serk (a former jewel in Sark’s Seabird Crown) really seems to have lost its sparkle.

Although gull numbers around the cliffs appear reasonable, there is evidence that numbers of breeding birds are declining all around the coast. Again the reasons are unclear.

Finally, while Northern Fulmars are clinging on to their numbers, 2014 appears to be a very poor season for breeding European Shag in Sark.

We intend to calibrate these early findings later in the season, by landing on some of the main islets…but at this stage Sark seems to have cause for some concern.



16 May 2014

Important Postscript 17 May 2014

A telephone conversation with Sark boatman and seabird enthusiast, George Guille, added considerable value to these notes. George operates regular round the island boat trips in which he observes seabird numbers. Since putting his boat in the water a month ago and commencing the trips his personal highest count so far this season for Atlantic Puffin is just three birds, although his brother has recorded up to 20 – all in the vicinity of L’Etac de Serk. George confirmed that there do not appear to be any breeding Common Guillemots or Razorbills on L’Etac, and European Shag numbers there are very much reduced (only up to 30 birds recorded in the area).

Much better news was Les Autelets, where George says daily counts can fluctuate from dozens of birds to c 300 – so our single count of 80+ must be viewed with some caution (although of course adults should be incubating eggs by now –as they are on The Humps north of Herm).

Finally, we did not survey Grande or Petit Moie on this visit and George informed us that this area is very rich for Common Guillemots and Razorbill numbers, with more than 70 of the former and good numbers of the latter. It may be that birds formerly nesting on L’Etac de Serk have moved a little further north to these rocks, although why this should be is a mystery. To my knowledge there are no rats on L’Etac de Serk...but if they have got there this could be an explanation (pure speculation)?

The value of a local person interested in the seabirds noting the seasons is shown by these very helpful observations from George, for which we are most grateful!