Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Very Rare Visitor on Rockabill

Given the lovely weather and calm seas today (and dire forecasts for the next week or so), and our hard work ethic (!), Andrew and I decided to put our rowing lessons to good use and take a trip over to 'The Bill' today to check for Arctic Tern nests, Black Guillemot nests and see if the Kittiwakes have started laying eggs yet (first egg on 'The Rock' yesterday!). 

Almost immediately we were greeted by two Swallows, a Wheatear, a Racing Pigeon and a Collared Dove - all species we've seen already on Rockabill this year, but all a welcome sight nevertheless. But then something a bit different caught Andrew's eye - a female Ortolan Bunting! We managed to get a good look at it, as well as a few pictures, as it bounced around in the rocks and small patches of vegetation on the Bill, before it headed off west towards the mainland - so keep your eyes out if you're in Dublin!!

Female Ortolan Bunting (A.Power)

The Ortolan Bunting is a very rare visitor to Ireland and Great Britain, with most Irish records from counties on the south coast and more often in autumn than in spring/summer. So this is not only quite a rarity, but is quite possibly the first record of the species in Dublin!

Female Ortolan Bunting (B. Burke)

The Ortolan Bunting winters in tropical Africa and breeds in many European countries, with this bird obviously having overshot it's normal migration and accidently ending up in Ireland. Unfortunately they are a target for some French chefs who catch them in nets, force-feed them and then drown them in brandy before serving them on a large plate for them to be eaten whole (read more here). Luckily we had both just had lunch, so were happy to just watch our new visitor!

It just goes to show you have to keep your eyes peeled no matter where you are, you just never know what might turn up!

Female Ortolan Bunting (B. Burke)

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Four Species and Counting on Eggs on Rockabill

I'm resisting any egg-based puns this time, so with that in mind lets crack on.....

It's late-May and we've been out here for two weeks. With the vegetation clearance out of the way and around 700 nestboxes put in place, the ball was in the bird's court - which would be first to lay an egg? Usually we'd find the first of the Black Guillemot eggs soon after the first week, followed by Common Terns which usually lay around two days before their Roseate counterparts. The first Kittiwake egg is usually towards the end of the month, and Arctic Terns are usually somewhere around then too but are hard to monitor given their smaller numbers and the fact that most of them breed on The Bill.

*Before I go on, it's worth re-iterating that all pictures in this blog are taken under NPWS license. It's forbidden to photograph breeding birds, nests, eggs or chicks without the appropriate license and we have the training and experience to ensure we cause them no stress or danger. It goes without saying that the birds are our top priority on Rockabill !*

So - as of this morning (23rd of May) we have four bird species on eggs. Take a guess at what ones! If I'm honest I wouldn't have guessed these four, or the order they were laid in.....here they are in order.......*drumroll*......

Egg #1
We found our first egg within a day of arriving on Rockabill and it's now a clutch of two eggs being incubated every day......

Two Oystercatcher eggs - our first on Rockabill in 2015. (Picture taken under NPWS license)

.....two Oystercatcher eggs! These I definitely wouldn't have predicted. There have been two Oystercatchers hanging around Rockabill in previous summers, usually trying to lay eggs on The Bill which are subsequently predated by Gulls. This year, for some reason, they decided to breed on the Rock - and so far so good! Fingers crossed we'll have two Oystercatcher chicks to report on in a couple of weeks.

Oystercatcher (Picture taken under NPWS License)

Egg #2
As per usual, a bit more than a week after landing on Rockabill we had our first Black Guillemot eggs. The winter before last was very stormy and a lot of Rockabill's Black Guillemots washed up dead at various parts of the Irish coast, leaving us with a greatly reduced population last summer. Counts of adults this year indicate the Rockabill population is bouncing back a bit though - fingers crossed they'll have a successful year and the population will continue to grow in the coming years.

Black Guillemot egg in a nest hole on Rockabill. (Picture taken under NPWS license)

Egg #3
Remember how I said Common Terns usually lay a couple of days before Roseate Terns? Well the main word to focus on there is 'usually', because this year we found our first Roseate Tern egg two days before our first Common Tern egg! Most Roseate Terns lay two eggs, but there is a trend for the first few pairs to just lay one egg, and that trend at least seems to have continued this year. The first egg was on Thursday afternoon and we only found our second Roseate egg today, with the Terns seemingly delayed and put off a bit by the gale force winds we had all last week - and who could blame them!

First Roseate Tern egg of 2015, in nestbox 461. (Picture taken under NPWS license)

Egg #4

So, no prizes for guessing that the fourth species to lay an egg on Rockabill this year was a Common Tern - found this morning. As above, the strong winds over the last week seem to have put a delay on things, but we're expecting plenty of eggs in the next few days as the season really picks up a gear!
Common Tern egg - a smaller and more rounded appearance than that of their Roseate cousins, with large blotches, and a more greenish colour on this particular egg. (Picture taken under NPWS license)


Egg #5
Well it'll either be Kittiwakes or Arctic Terns - and since most of the Arctics nest on The Bill, we'll probably spot the Kittiwakes first. We've seen plenty of Kittiwakes gathering nest material, but some were set back a few days by the bad weather, with large waves from a south-east gale hitting the Bill at high tide and washing away the beginnings of some nests. It would have been much worse if it happened any later in the season, so we're expecting the Kittiwakes to continue as normal.

'The Bill' getting battered by strong waves last week, taking the beginnings of some Kittiwake nests with them!

So that's where things stand at the moment - it's about to get crazy out here, with thousands of nests and eggs just around the corner. In a few weeks time we'll do our egg census and record every egg on Rockabill - a long but fun process!

In other news we had a very special guest from the BBC with us this week, filming our Roseate Terns for BBC Springwatch! We're big fans of Springwatch, and cameraman Jesse Wilkinson was great to have around for a few days, marvelling at the colony we have on Rockabill and sharing some stories and pictures from his other recent adventures. We havn't gotten a day or time yet, but we'll let you know as soon as we do, and you can enjoy the sights and sounds of Rockabill from your living room!

Until then!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

First Things First!

So - one of the first things people say to you when you tell them you work somewhere like Rockabill (after "are you mad?!?") is to ask "...so what do you actually do?". An excellent question with a long answer! The first thing we do is 'habitat management' i.e. making the island suitable for thousands of nesting terns.

There's usually considerable vegetation growth here between the wardens leaving in August and coming back in May, but the amount of vegetation we came back to this year was ridiculous!! The main culprit is Tree Mallow (Lavatera arborea), a large shrubby plant that grows very quickly and can grow to over 2 metres tall when left undisturbed. And believe me when I say the island was absolutely covered in it!! 

This nestbox was put down on bare ground in 2014 - a year later it's crowded out by Tree Mallow.

A bit of tree mallow here and there is actually a good thing - Roseate Terns will nest under it, but the sheer density of tree mallow last week was just too much. Roseates could nest around the edges in some areas, but all of the middle space would essentially have been wasted. The conservation project here on Rockabill has found that the best strategy is to cut most of the mallow down and to install nestboxes for Roseates, thus maximising the available space to allow as many Roseates to nest as possible.

Andrew clearing a garden area that was completely covered in Tree Mallow.
Andrew installing nestboxes while Brian takes pictures....
Clearing vegetation and putting in nestboxes helps us fit a larger number of nesting terns.

 And what about the Common Terns? Well they nest on the ground, in the open - so they don't use nestboxes, but they're delighted to see the tree mallow go as it opens up patches of bare ground for them.

Garden when we arrived - completely shaded out by Tree Mallow.
Same garden after an afternoon of hard work - ready to fit c.200 pairs of Common Terns and a few Roseates too!

So - 8 days later we cleared what feels like tonnes of tree mallow - some of which was thrown into the sea to provide nesting material for our Kittiwakes, and the rest of which was left in a large pile that we're pretty sure can now be seen from space.......

The end result? Rockabill is a small island but through managing the vegetation and habitat here we've ensured we can fit in as many breeding Roseate and Common Terns as possible - we have a record to beat!!

Roseate Tern nestboxes made by the pupils of Balbriggan Community College

On the topic of nesting Terns, we'd like to say a huge thank you to Sean Pierce and the pupils in Balbriggan Community College who kindly donated 40 nestboxes this year. The nestboxes are very solid, and many of the pupils took the time to decorate them accordingly. We're sure they'll be seen and appreciated by both wardens and terns alike for years to come!

'Welcome to your new house'

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Meet the Rockabill Team!

As usual, Rockabill is being wardened throughout the season by two wardens living on the island for the duration of the breeding season (May-August), with support from the mainland. Despite both being from inland counties (Roscommon and Carlow), this years wardens have plenty of experience between them.

Meet the Rockabill 2015 team:

Brian Burke

This is Brian's second season as a Roseate Tern Warden on Rockabill. He holds a degree in Zoology and a Masters in Wildlife Conservation and Management, both from University College Dublin. From work done during his masters he recently published research on the media coverage of the Irish White-tailed Eagle reintroduction project and will soon publish a study on the breeding Peregrine Falcon population of Co. Wicklow, carried out in conjunction with NPWS conservation rangers. Soon after completing his masters, Brian did an internship with the National Parks and Wildlife Service at Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, studying and documenting the Greenland White-fronted Goose (GWFG) in Ireland over the last thirty years. Irelands hosts c50% of the flyway population of GWFG every winter, the majority of which can be seen at Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, with important flocks in his native Roscommon. The GWFG is also the species featured on Birdwatch Ireland's logo.

Brian is delighted to be back on Rockabill and is already feeling the benefit of having a year of experience under his belt. Last year was a record year for Roseate Terns here, and he's eager to top that success in 2015.

You can follow Brian on twitter: https://twitter.com/BBurke88

Andrew Power

This is Andrew’s first season as a Rockabill Tern Warden after two years working with Little Terns in Kilcoole and Baltray. He has been secretary for the Carlow Branch of BirdWatch Ireland for the past five years and holds a degree in Zoology from Trinity College Dublin. Little Terns formed the subject matter of the research he undertook for his final year thesis. Following this, Andrew went on to complete the first ever study of the rare endemic Sinai Hairstreak Butterfly in Egypt as part of his Master of Research in Conservation Biology for the University of Nottingham. Since then, Andrew has continued to work in exotic climes; venturing to both Cape Verde and back to the Sinai, Egypt. In Cape Verde the work focused on the endemic Cape Verde Warbler, whilst in Egypt they were looking at the importance of Bedouin gardens to biodiversity. 

Andrew is delighted to be a part of the Rockabill team and hopes to bring some good luck to the project after being involved in a couple of record breaking seasons in Kilcoole and Baltray.

You can follow Andrew on twitter: https://twitter.com/aerpower

Dr. Steve Newton

Dr. Steve Newton is Senior Seabird Conservation Officer for BirdWatch Ireland. He is responsible for seabird research, monitoring and colony management. This comprises coordinating, on an annual basis, the Irish input to the Seabird Monitoring Programme (UK-Ireland) and managing the Rockabill Roseate Tern and the Kilcoole Little Tern Projects. Equally importantly (to us anyway!), he brings us out bread, milk and fruit on a regular basis!

Steve organised the first quantitative survey of nocturnal petrels and shearwaters on west coast islands in 2000-2001 as part of the Seabird 2000 Project. He was also responsible for managing the BWI/NPWS Chough Survey and follow-up research programme (2002 to 2010), the NPWS/BWI Upland Bird Survey (2002-2004), and other work on upland habitats and their birds, including Hen Harrier and Red Grouse. He is a member of the all-Ireland team responsible for the 'Birds of Conservation Concern' process which reviews the Red, Amber and Green lists for Ireland and is a member of the Irish Rare Breeding Birds Panel.

Skerries Seatours
While they don't do any work on the island, the guys from Skerries Seatours play an important role in the project. They drop the wardens and their mountain of supplies out to the island at the start of the season, they bring us home safely at the end of the season, and they keep us topped up with everything we need throughout the summer months (volunteers, water, shopping . . . . the occasional pizza . . . . all the essentials!). Eoin is a local RNLI crewman and is always just a phonecall away if we ever have any problems. 

They do tours around Rockabill - a great way to see the island and all of the birds without causing any disturbance. See http://www.skerriesseatours.ie/ or their Facebook page for more details. And give us a wave if you see us!

The project is funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to whom we are very grateful, as well as to the individuals in NPWS who provide various logistical support early in the season. 
We'd also like to thank the Commission of Irish Lights who allow us to use and stay on the island.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Rockablog 2: Return of the...eh....Terns

We're back!! The wardens have been out on Rockabill for just over a week now, but unfortunately a working electricity generator wasn't so quick to arrive, so forgive us for the lack of updates - normal service shall resume immediately!

So we set sail on Thursday last, enjoying one last visit to the chipper in Skerries before Eoin and Gerry of Skerries Seatours brought us out to Rockabill. 

Three months of supplies......mostly just teabags.....

Our last view of land before we set sail. (Skerries Harbour)

As expected, we were greeted by some curious seals at the pier and plenty of screeching terns overhead. The number present were only a fraction of what will breed here over the summer, but their numbers continue to build every day!

The Rockabill seals are always keeping an eye on us.

So it's been a hectic week - we've been busy making the island suitable for the Terns, we've had plenty of rain and sunshine as well as gale force winds that have given us a rapid start to our species list for the summer, and we've had our first eggs already...from two species! Expect blog posts on all of the above and more in the very near future.... We also have some new technology we'll be testing out soon, and our Roseate Terns are going to be on TV !

In the meantime, click the links below to hear me (Brian) talking to Neil Delamare on Today FM the day before we left, and Dave Fanning on 2FM after the first few days of being back on Rockabill again, with a new warden this year!

Brian talking to Neil Delamare on Today FM, before leaving for Rockabill
Brian talking to Dave Fanning on 2FM a day or two into the season

And read a newspaper article on the upcoming season/adventure here: Inishowen News


Rockabill Island - May 2015

As ever, a big thanks to the National Parks and Wildlife Service for funding the project, the Commission of Irish Lights for letting us use the island, the guys at Skerries Seatours for dropping us and our supplies out safe and sound, and to Dr. Steve Newton and Heather Cuddy for their help in getting everything set up!

Expect plenty of updates soon!