Saturday, 28 May 2016

...And Then There Were Five...

(*Note: All of the pictures we take out here are taken under NPWS license)

Apologies for the lack of updates - needless to say once the Terns start to lay eggs things get really busy out here! Before we had our first Tern eggs last week we had our first Black Guillemot egg in one of the specially designed nestboxes we put out for them! Black Guillemots are usually the first species to lay eggs every year on Rockabill and around 40 pairs are on nests at the moment, so we're hopeful that number will keep increasing over the coming week or two!

The first Black Guillemot egg on Rockabill in 2016. There are now two eggs in this nestbox! (Picture taken under NPWS license)
The first Black Guillemot egg on Rockabill this year - much larger and more blue than our Tern eggs!  (Picture taken under NPWS license)
4C10 is the box we found the first egg in this year - pictured here with one of the occupiers!  (Picture taken under NPWS license)
A pair of Black Guillemots sticking their heads out from their nest hole.  (Picture taken under NPWS license)

Shortly after our first Tern eggs we had our first Kittiwake eggs on both of our islands, the Rock and the Bill. There's still only a few nests with eggs at the moment, with the adult Kittiwakes still taking advantage of low tide to gather more nest material!

The first Kittiwake egg on Rockabill in 2016, in 'Kitti-City'.  (Picture taken under NPWS license)

You might notice above i said Black Guillemots are usually the first species to lay eggs on Rockabill. Regular followers of the blog might remember we actually had a pair of Oystercatchers lay first last year (see blogpost here). We had a pair of Oystercatchers hanging around on the Bill, but of they did try and lay eggs we suspect the large Gulls may have had them for lunch! So for the second year running if I was to have put my money on what species would lay its eggs first on Rockabill I would have started the season a little bit poorer - because this year we have a pair of Blackbirds

We had noticed both a male and a female hanging around and were hoping they would attempt to breed here... and then one day David happened to see two Blackbird chicks! They were way ahead of us and had a nest in the hedge in our front garden! We gave them plenty of space after that to make sure we didn't disturb the chicks or the adults and to give them every chance of success. Over the last week or so the two chicks have gotten much braver and are hopping around from garden to garden. Thankfully the Terns settling down hasn't been a problem as they barely give them a passing glance (though the Blackbirds occasionally cause a bit of a panic when they quickly fly into a hedge or some Tree Mallow!). Apart from the regular five seabirds out on Rockabill there have been records of stuff like Wrens, Stock Doves and Swallows trying to breed, so we're delighted to add Blackbirds to that list and to wake up to a singing Blackbird amongst thousands of squabbling Terns! They're a bird I'm sure many people tend to take for granted, but out here they're pretty special!

The moment we realised we had some unsuspected nesters on Rockabill this year! (DKS - Picture taken under NPWS license)

One of the fledgling Blackbirds on Rockabill this year. 
Rockabill's two fledgling Blackbirds.

We've also had a male and female Pied Wagtail seen on a regular basis on Rockabill, though we've seen much less of them in the last week or so... could they be on a nest somewhere too? Fingers crossed!

One of the two Pied Wagtails seen intermittently on Rockabill over recent weeks... fingers crossed we find a nest in the not too distant future! 

Saturday, 21 May 2016

First eggs on Rockabill for 2016!

If you're on Twitter you might be aware of "Seabirder Saturday" (or #SeabirderSaturday), which basically gives those of us who have an interest or appreciation for seabirds to post pictures, share observations and science and just generally talk about how great seabirds are once a week! Well it seems our Terns are getting in on the act as we found our first Roseate Tern and Common Tern eggs this morning!

Our first Roseate Tern egg is in one of the boxes kindly supplied by Balbriggan Community College last year. So a big thanks to the students and teachers at Balbriggan Community College, as well as the Fingal Branch of Birdwatch Ireland, for their support.

The first Roseate Tern egg on Rockabill in 2016. (BB - Picture taken under NPWS license)

The first Roseate Tern egg on Rockabill in 2016.  In general they have a longer more pointed shape than Common or Arctic Tern eggs, and have finer spots. (BB - Picture taken under NPWS license)

Our first Common Tern eggs (there's two in seperate nests) are in one of the gardens beside the lighthouse. See the pictures below to get an idea of the work we had to do to get it ready for nesting! (Edit: We're now on three nests and counting...)

The first Common Tern egg on Rockabill in 2016. (BB - Picture taken under NPWS license)
The second Common Tern egg on Rockabill in 2016! (BB - Picture taken under NPWS license)
The garden where we found our first Common Tern eggs before vegetation removal (DKS)
The same garden several hours later! Room for plenty of nests! (DKS)

The birds had been settling down more every day at the start of the week, but the strong winds in recent days have caused some disruption again unfortunately. Interestingly, the Rockabill Terns tend to lay their first eggs around a week later than those at Ladys Island in Wexford, and this year was no exception. Over the course of the summer we'll have something like 2,000-3,000 Roseate Tern eggs and 4,000+ Common Tern eggs on Rockabill. 

Things are about to get busy!! 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Kitti-City Under Construction

As a warden on Rockabill, the first thing that strikes you on your arrival at the start of the season is the huge amount of Tree Mallow and other vegetation covering the island. Needless to say several months of bird droppings provides all of the necessary nutrients for a select few plant species to thrive! The only problem is that 90% of this vegetation needs to be removed to make space for nesting Terns... so that means two weeks of hard work for the two wardens... possibly the worst part of the season for us!

One of our gardens at the start of the season - like a jungle! (DKS)
And this is the same garden after a lot of hard work! Room for plenty of Common Terns, and a few Roseates at the edges! (DKS)

We remove mountains of vegetation, and where possible throw it in the sea where it is swiftly spotted by our Kittiwakes, who fly in to claim it as building material for their nests! Some are still under construction as I type this, though it shouldn't be long before we see our first egg in Kitti-City!

Kittiwakes are in decline in this part of the world, likely due to climate change and the knock-on effects in their prey species. Though our Rockabill population is comparatively small to those elsewhere in Ireland and the UK, we did have an increase in breeding pairs last year so fingers crossed that continues in 2016! 

Kittiwakes gathering vegetation from the sea (BB)

There are some squabbles over the good bits! (BB)
...and they have to watch out for waves! (BB)

Their nests start out fairly modest, but will be added to bit by bit until they're capable of safely holding 1-3 eggs. (BB)

They'll also add bits of seaweed gathered from rocks at low tide - nests getting bigger every day! (BB)

The nests need a bit of work... (BB)
... and there might be the chance to 'borrow' some materials from your neighbours (BB)
Eventually they'll have made a sturdy, comfortable nest with a  great view! (BB)

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Meet the Rockabill team for 2016

As usual, Rockabill is being wardened  by two Birdwatch Ireland staff living on the island for the duration of the breeding season (May-August), with support from the mainland. Andrew Power was warden last year but has moved on to other projects after three record-breaking years Tern wardening at Kilcoole and Rockabill. So this year we welcome David Kinchin-Smith to the island.

Meet the Rockabill 2016 team:

Brian Burke

Brian returns again to Rockabill, becoming the fifth person to join the exclusive club of three-time Rockabill wardens. He holds a degree in Zoology and a Masters in Wildlife Conservation and Management, both from University College Dublin, and has published research on Peregrine Falcons and White-tailed Sea Eagles in Ireland. His love of raptors means he's a bit more forgiving of the Peregrines that visit Rockabill than other wardens might be!  Soon after graduating, Brian did an internship with the NPWS at Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, 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 again and looks forward to another tough but immensely rewarding season ahead. He's had record-breaking numbers of Roseate Terns in both of his previous years here, so fingers crossed for the hat-trick!

You can follow Brian on twitter:

David Kinchin-Smith

This is David's first season as a Tern Warden on Rockabill, making him the 40th warden on the island since the conservation project began here in 1989. His interest in seabirds stems from his final year dissertation as part of his Zoology degree from Newcastle University, where he researched the parental attendance of the Atlantic Puffin on the Farne Islands. He spent the following three years working as a Ranger on the Islands, gaining experience with a wide range of seabirds and Grey seals. He is delighted to be involved in the research and conservation of the threatened Roseate tern, a species which previously nested on the Farnes but no longer does. David hopes this season echoes the successes of previous years and has his head protection dusted off and ready for the Common terns!

You can follow David on twitter:

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 in their new bigger and better boat - a great way to see the island and all of the birds without causing any disturbance. See or their Facebook page for more details. And give us a wave if you see us!

David and Brian about to head off to Rockabill in April 2016. (Michael Burke)

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.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Rock on, 2016!

It's that time of year again! The sun is shining (in between showers...), Swallows are flying in and out of sheds, Warblers of various species can be heard from every hedgerow, and the familiar call of the Cuckoo can be heard across the countryside. If you're on the coast there's a good chance you've seen and heard our various Tern species as they too arrived back from Africa. With their arrival comes the beginning of Birdwatch Ireland's breeding seabird conservation programmes for this year and once again two wardens have been left (abandoned?!) on Rockabill Island, 6km off the coast of north County Dublin, to look after the largest colony of Roseate Terns in Europe!
Rockabill Island, Dublin - an internationally important site for breeding seabirds (BB)

We arrived out on Rockabill at the end of April this year, around two weeks earlier than usual. We departed Skerries harbour on a windy Monday evening and took around 25 minutes to reach Rockabill... before realising that the winds and swell meant landing wasn't possible, and turning back to the mainland... you can imagine our disappointment! We departed again on a breezy but altogether improved Wednesday afternoon, this time from Loughshinny, and will be here for the next three months to protect and monitor breeding Roseate, Common and Arctic Terns, Black Guillemots and Kittiwakes - around 4,000 pairs of seabirds in total!

Spot the boat! En route to Rockabill on a windy day.. (Michael Burke)

Rockabill wardens ready to depart (the first time!) (Michael Burke)

Three months of food and supplies for two people... we hope... (BB)

Our early start this year has been facilitated by the beginning of an EU LIFE-funded project to enhance the habitat for Roseate Terns in Ireland and the UK. We'll tell you more about that later! We'll also have a few blog posts in the coming days to get you up to speed on what's happened on Rockabill since we arrived. In the meantime we hope you're enjoying having all of your summer migrants back, and if you're close to the sea (or some of our big lakes) keep an eye out for Terns! We've been reliably informed that the Little Terns are back in Kilcoole and the Common and Arctic Terns are back in Dublin Port.

As ever we'd like to thank Eoin from Skerries Seatours for getting us out safe and sound, as he always does! If you want to get a close look at Rockabill Island over the summer then contact him via the Skerries Seatours Website. We'd also like to thank the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Commission of Irish Lights for facilitating our work out here every year.  

The  Skerries Seatours boat 'Fionn Mac Cumhaill' that brought us out to Rockabill this year. (BB)