The Humps

01 July 2013

In recent years the most difficult colonies for the Seabird Monitoring Team to visit have proved to be The Humps, a small collection of islets north of Herm. The area is surrounded by reefs and rocks and has a strong tidal current, so boat owners have to know what they are doing even to get close to the islets. This of course is what has given the islets the best protection to date, and is the reason why the islets host valuable seabird colonies.

This year was no different and we struggled to get out to the islets to undertake the monitoring. That is until Chris Morris, the Senior Sea Fisheries Officer stepped in and offered to take us out in the Sea Fisheries Rib, as part of the Department’s commitment to environmental monitoring.

Normally a visit on 1st July would be a little late to monitor the season, but as the seabirds generally this year seem to be a week or so late we hoped to be able to get a reasonable assessment of the season.

With only Phil Alexander and my son Merlin available to help, we had a small team. Chris picked us up at 12.45 and we motored out around the back of Jethou, reaching The Humps within 25 minutes. The sea was calm with only a gentle westerly breeze. We carried on to Grande Amfrocque, the most distant of the islets. It has been around five years since any of the Seabird Team had landed here, so it was a particularly valuable visit. There were comparatively few seabirds, with eight Shag nests (only one chick ringed). Most nests were empty. They were clearly this year’s nests but not mucky enough to look as if they had been successful. Eight adult Great Black-backed Gulls were calling overhead, and two chicks were found (both colour ringed). Another nest with two eggs was located. A dead Great Black-backed Gull found on Grande Amfrocque had been ringed by Jamie Hooper as a chick on The Humps in July 2001.

At least one pair of Oystercatchers was nesting, and a migrant Whimbrel and six Turnstones were also on the rocks. In the sea three Atlantic Grey Seals watched our landing with their usual interest. They are such curious creatures!

After 25 minutes on the islet, Chris picked us up again and took us over to Longue Pierre (historically my favourite of the four islets with seabirds). As we approached it was obvious that it was a very good season for seabirds. On the rocks on the northern tip a group of c 35 Common Guillemots could be seen standing on the rocks watching our landing. Landing on the NE corner we immediately came across two large Great Black-backed Gull chicks hiding in the boulders. We quickly colour ringed these birds, and then moved around the island approaching from the sea to drive any large chicks up the islet and away from the sea.

There were far more birds available to ring than Phil and I could cope with, even with Merlin’s help scribing. Phil ringed 15 Shag chicks, but this was less than half of the visible chicks. I concentrated on the Great Black-backed Gulls finding six well-grown chicks on the island. We also ringed a couple of Common Guillemot chicks and an adult in a cleft between rocks. The majority of Guillemots were still with their chicks under the boulders higher up the islet. With time passing, and no serious study underway with ringing this species, we left the birds in peace with their chicks. It was fantastic to see the colony thriving with very good productivity...especially given the pre-season scare we’d had with the very bad PIB incident off South-west England in April when a minimum of 4,000 seabirds (the majority auks) had been killed by the pollutant discharged at sea.

I was surprised to see an adult Razorbill with a chick under a boulder – the first I recall seeing breeding on the islet (although five Razorbills were present on the stack (Longue Pierre) where I’ve seen them breeding several times before). At least six Atlantic Puffins were whizzing about, again a good count for The Humps.

All the Great Cormorant nests on the top of the islet were empty with no dead chicks. As we approached to land we had seen several very large fledged Cormorants standing on these rocks but they flew as we approached, having no doubt fledged several weeks earlier.

With time racing by, we left Longue Pierre absolutely delighted with the breeding productivity amongst the auks. There must have been c 50 – 60 pairs of Guillemots, six-eight pairs of Razorbills and at least six Puffins. We estimated c 35 Shag nests (many empty), but at least 30 chicks were still in nests (across a full range in sizes from recently hatched to virtually fledged). There must have been around eight to ten pairs of Great Black-backed Gulls and a few Herring Gulls (two chicks ringed).

A dead adult Herring Gull found on Longue Pierre had been ringed in May 2011 at Chouet landfill, and been recorded there a few times since.

Our last landing was made on Godin. Here we located another seven Great Black-backed Gull chicks (from perhaps ten breeding pairs). There were also c 20 Shag nests with c 20 chicks, but we only ringed one, as we soon gave all our attention to the Great Cormorants that were still in or near their nests. I had assumed that all these chicks would have fledged weeks ago, but with the season being late this was fortuitously a well-timed visit to ring this species. It was hard work with just Phil and me, with Merlin helping to coral the few larger birds. Before we knew it we had colour-ringed all 20 Cormorant chicks seen on the islet!

However, the biggest surprise on Godin was the presence of 20 pairs (40 birds overhead) of Common Terns nesting on the south side of the small island. All nests seen contained two or three eggs, but we did not walk through the whole colony. It is so wonderful to have this species breeding again, after several absent years. One can but hope that these birds remain undisturbed as they complete their breeding season, and that they raise chicks successfully, and this encourages them to return again next year!

Another success was the Common Guillemots on Godin. There were 30+ pairs, with eggs and chicks – absolutely fantastic to see.

After 50 minutes on the islet Chris picked us up, and we set course back to St Peter Port Harbour. If we had not got out today the 2013 seabird breeding season on The Humps would have gone virtually unrecorded. Although Shag seemed to be having a modest season (as witnessed in all the colonies visited this year), 2013 is an excellent year for the auks and the gulls in particular. The Cormorants appear to have done well too, and the return of Common Terns after years of absence was marvellous.

The ringing tally for the visit was 57 birds as follows: 20 Great Cormorants, 17 European Shag, 15 Great Black-backed Gulls, three Common Guillemots and two Herring Gulls. However...the observational data was even more valuable.

We are very grateful to Chris and Sea Fisheries for enabling this important environmental monitoring, which shows just how valuable the small seabird colonies of The Humps are. They punch well above their size, and deserve to be recognised, designated and properly protected as Important Areas for Breeding Seabirds in the Channel Islands!

 

PKV

02 July 2013