14 June 2009

Paul and Sophie Veron caught the 1000 ferry across to Sark. With gentle winds and a fair start to the day’s weather, they were confident that the various landings on Sark’s islets would be possible. After the 45 minute crossing, Andy Cook met the team at the harbour, and there was time for a quick cup of tea at Millie’s harbour café, before Sue Daly joined us for the day’s seabirding.

This year Andy used his 4.8 m rib (50 Hp) for the outings, making for a fun day out! By 11 am we were just off L’Etac de Serk. However, the swell was surprisingly large, making landing at our usual site impossible. In fact there was only one spot where with good timing and expert boat handling we could jump ashore. Sophie and Sue joined Paul on the rock.

It was immediately obvious that Shag were breeding successfully, with several visible nests holding two or three well-grown, noisy youngsters. While Sue set off to photograph Razorbills, Sophie and Paul concentrated on reaching the ridge. From here they worked the southern slope of L’Etac finding two Great Black-backed Gulls to ring (one of which was large enough to hold a colour ring – 0L9), before they focused on the Shag nests.

After two years with virtually no successful nesting, it was marvellous to see shag back to form on L’Etac with many nests containing two or three well-grown youngsters. While Sophie sat on the ridge, Paul worked the south-western corner of the islet. Being the sole qualified ringer on this trip he concentrated almost exclusively on ringing the shag chicks. There was just one distraction when he could not resist ringing an adult Razorbill which he surprised (with its chick) under a boulder. This was the same site where he and Catherine had ringed Razorbill on previous visits.

                                                                             (photos © Sue Daly

Climbing back up to the ridge, Paul and Sophie then moved along to the northern end of L’Etac. Paul then dropped back down the western slope to ring the shag chicks in this area. Sophie rejoined him once he had reached the north-eastern area (where the terrain is a little gentler).

After 80 minutes it was time to leave. No detailed nest count had been possible on this trip, but with 65 young Shag ringed and an estimate of 50+ active nests, it was clear that 2009 is a very much better year for Shag than the previous two. While not a bumper year (Paul has seen a higher number nesting on L’Etac in some previous years – particularly in the late 1980s/ early 1990s) – he estimated that breeding effort and productivity in 2009 is a little above the norms of the most recent decade.

Although not specifically searched for, Paul did not encounter many Common Guillemot nesting on L’Etac, and many of the sites which have been used in some previous years were empty. Atlantic Puffins were seen on the water around L’Etac but there was no time during this quick visit to search for active burrows…and no Catherine this year…to get her fingers bitten and extract adults from rock crevices!

With such a good start to the day’s seabird visits we then returned to enjoy our sandwich lunch and tea on Andy’s yacht moored in the bay just west of Point Robert. It did not take the gulls nesting along the cliff face long to find the discarded sandwich crusts…nor to mob a passing Eurasian Buzzard.

The morning’s sunshine had by now faded as sea mist rolled in and slowly drifted up the cliffs. At times the Grande and Petit Moies disappeared in the fog. Nevertheless this did not prevent Andy being able to run us across to the rocky islets to see how the seabirds were faring there.

Grand Moie was the first visited. This year we only landed on the main stack (much of which is inaccessible or unsafe to work). Sue and I landed in the northern gulley, where three large Herring Gull chicks quickly hid in the rocks. I ringed two of them and fitted my first two colour rings on Herring gull chicks (5.HH1 and 5.HH2).

                                                                                (photos © Sue Daly

Climbing up the grassy slope I surprised an adult Shag on a nest of three tiny young. I ringed this handsome bird, before Sue photographed its beautiful plumage and head. We then returned it to the nest, where it remained as we moved away. Although only five shags were ringed on Grand Moie, there were several well-grown young in nests that were inaccessible. Paul estimated a breeding population of 15-18 pairs on this rock.

The visit to adjacent Petit Moie was interesting. While the Common Guillemots nesting under the boulders on this islet appear to have been displaced by European Shag, Paul did manage to catch an adult Razorbill as it flew out of a rock crevice right in front of him. Once ringed and photographed this adult was posted back into the crevice. On the other side of this same rock face, Paul found two adult Razorbills – one with a tiny chick that could only have been a day or so old and the other with an egg. With scenes of “domestic bliss” inside this crevice Paul could not bring himself to disturb these birds, but he did make sure that Sue was aware of them so that she could photograph the wonderful scene.

Ten young shags were ringed on Petit Moie, and Paul estimated around a dozen active nests. There were also a few gulls nests (all three species).

The final landing of the day was made on the rocky islet of Les Burons. Just before we arrived a Bottle-nosed Dolphin was seen swimming 100 metres or so beyond the rock. Andy slowed the boat and we saw a dolphin break the surface three or four times.

Paul was then dropped on the rock, which again held several nests with well-grown young shag. In total 13 more shag were ringed, along with a single Great Black-backed Gull chick. Paul estimated 12-15 nests on the islet.

With the work done, we headed out to see if the dolphins were still about, and indeed they were. We saw at least two Bottle-nosed Dolphins swimming in both directions. It appeared as if they were feeding. They certainly were not in playful mood! However, this sighting provided the icing on another really enjoyable and successful day out in Sark with Andy and Sue.

A total of 100 seabirds were ringed – 93 Shag, three Great Black-backed Gulls, two Herring Gulls and two Razorbills. It was just so pleasing to see the seabird colonies more vibrant and productive after the very poor seasons of 2007 and 2008. Although the gull colonies were not visited on this trip, they looked to be in good shape too. A further visit to Sark is therefore planned for about two weeks time to try to ring gull pulli.

 After a final cup of tea on Andy’s yacht, he and Sue dropped Sophie and Paul back at the harbour in time for the 5 pm ferry back to Guernsey.




16th June 2009