Monday, 2 January 2012

Guillimot Feeding Watch

Common Guillimot

Fair isle is internationally known for its diversity of seabirds from Auks to Skuas, from Terns and Gulls to Shags, Petrels and Gannets. Every Year, during in the summer, the island comes alive with 250,000 breeding birds of 19 species which can get very noisy. As part as the Observatorys work, it is their duty to monitor them to keep an eye on population changes, productivity rates, etc. One of their annual activities is to do a 24 hour feeding watch at Peitron Guillimot colony where we take it turns and do a couple of two hour shifts each sat on top of a cliff watching the auks..

Peitron Hide
During our shifts, every 20 minutes we do a chick count. When I first took part 10 years ago, we was counting 80 chicks but as the years went on, the numbers dwindled down to an all time low where in 2011 during the watch, we started off with 20 chicks but went down to less then 10 when we fiinished.


This  watch was producing around 40 chicks


The ledges used to be packed with Guillimots
but in these hard time they are struggling to breed.
  Our main aims for the watch is to find out:
  • What type of fish they are bringing in
  • What size of fish they are bringing in
  • How often they are bringing in the fish.
The Guillimots main food source as with all Auks are Sand Eels but over the last several years, the Sand Eels had started to disappear making the auks go further out to sea for there food. Because of this they take longer searching  for the fish leaving the chicks to starve. Rob Hughs (RSPB) and Beckie Langton (PHD Aberdeen Univerisity) were putting small transmiters on sea birds to find out where they are going. From there data, they were going as far as Norway, Orkney and Aberdeen taking several days per a single trip. But we also found they are bringing different types of fish back such a Pipefish, Gagoids, etc. Sometimes the birds were not bringing food back at all.

Guillimot with a unidentified fish
This bird eventually came back with some food but the chick had disappeared.
(Digi-scoped image)
As well as dwindling food supplies, The Auks has to defend there colony from predators. During my watch in 2011, Gulls, Skuas and Covids were patrolling the cliffs waiting fot an oppotunity to snatch a chick.

A Patrolling Herring Gull
Recently, The chicks have become very easy takings as both adults are often out searching for food. The Predators dont have to put up with  whole colony of dagger like beaks pointing up at them no more so if I was a avian predator, I will defintly take my chances.

Luckily the chick manange to hide

I have seen gulls take chicks before but I have also seen them fledge. When they are about half the size of an adult and cant fly, they take an extraodinary leap of faith of the cliff ledge to crash in to the water below, This is when the father of the chick will then take it out to sea and look after it. The Chick will not see land again until its an breeding adult. It does bring a tear to you eye when you watch them but I fear there is only a matter of time until this will becomes a rare sight on Fair Isle.  This is why the observatorys work is of upmost importance in trying to work with different organisations to safe guard the marine life around shetland.

What Stunning Birds!

For more infomation on the seabird sof Fair Isle, Please click on the following links:

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