Friday, 19 May 2017

Day 13 on The Rock!

(Article authored on Thursday the 18th of May 2017)
The bird of the season, Sterna dougallii A.K.A. The Roseate Tern, mid-preen [(Photograph courtesy of Shane Somers) Taken under NPWS License]

Day 13 in the Big Birdy House, oh sorry I mean Rockabill Island. Today is the first full day for our newest arrival Caroline McKeon, fresh in from finishing her final exams in Zoology, congratulations and fair play Caroline! We’ve been showing her the ropes and getting her used to all her new wardening duties. It’s also a day mixed with a tinge of sadness at losing our former Rockabill Warden/Blog writer/Pun Enthusiast Irene Sullivan yesterday, who has moved into a luxurious caravan in Kilcoole where she will be working as a Little Tern Warden and has access to all the pleasantries of mainland life such as running water and showers within a ten minute walk from her residence. 

A brand-spanking-new batch of nest-boxes thanks to the crafty students of Balbriggan Community College! Thanks folks! (Photograph courtesy of Shane Somers)

Along with our warden exchange we also received a fresh shipment of finely crafted and greatly appreciated nest boxes from the kind and skilled students of Balbriggan Community College. No time has been wasted in getting these precious love shacks out to the various sites around the Rock where they will provide ample protection for nesting Roseate Terns, their clutches of eggs and soon to be pulli (that’s chicks that haven’t fledge yet, for the uninitiated). Nest boxes have been instrumental in increasing the Roseate Tern population on Rockabill, they protect eggs and chicks from what can be extremely harsh weather conditions on this tiny island, as well as providing a hideout from the prying eyes of a variety of predators. So thank you very much to all the students and staff at Balbriggan Community College your work and generous donations will contribute to the conservation of one Europe’s rarest breeding seabirds! 

The old and the new; a row of our old and deteriorating boxes against our shiny, generously contributed, new boxes! [(Photograph courtesy of Shane Somers) Taken under NPWS License]

It doesn’t take long after deployment for our Rosies to start scouting out new boxes, as the pairs have a squawk about the new real estate, a bit of a perch and see if this is the next rung on the property ladder for them. Once the decision is made they’ll settle and get a scrape going, forming a nice fresh bowl under their luxurious ceilings and, with any luck, eggs.

Things are changing rapidly around Rockabill, we had our first Roseate egg on the 13th after a quiet lull of no other eggs in sight for 4 days, it’s all starting to happen at once with eggs springing up all over the place since yesterday (May 17th), it’s keeping myself, Shane and Caroline on our toes (literally: we have to be very careful moving around the island as eggs can be laid and hidden anywhere!).

Well that’s all for now everyone thanks for reading and may your day be filled with a lot less bird guano than mine! :D

Yours Truly
David Miley

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Rockabill Island Blog- The Season Commences

The year 1989 marks two very special occasions; the birth of one of this year’s Rockabill Wardens, David Miley, and the year Birdwatch Ireland began monitoring and protecting the Roseate Tern breeding colony on Rockabill Island, situated off the coast of Skerries, Co. Dublin. For those of you finding these blog posts for the first time, the Rock component of the island supports a lighthouse and accompanying accommodation. It is a stunningly beautiful location, providing highly significant breeding grounds for many species of seabird. These include Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Common Terns, Arctic Terns, and the species of primary concern for resident wardens, the Roseate Tern- the conservation of which by Birdwatch Ireland staff would not be possible without the efforts and contributions of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the EU LIFE Nature Project.
Rockabill Island lighthouse.

Kittiwakes perched on their most densely populated nesting area, known as “Kitti-City.”(picture taken under NPWS license)
Roseate Tern. (picture taken under NPWS license)
2017 marks the 29th year of wardening on Rockabill (woo!) and also marks the first year in which three wardens have been committed to the project for the full season. This year’s devoted tern protectors are Shane Somers, David Miley, and Caroline McKeon, with Irene Sullivan filling in before Caroline’s arrival on the 17th of May. Shane spent 6 weeks on Rockabill last summer, and as such spent some time showing his colleagues the ropes...

Tool safety training.

This year, the wardens arrived on the island on the 6th of May by ferry. Eoin and his boat, “Fionn Mac Cumhaill,” kindly brought the three wardens and their supplies of food and gear to the island. The wardens were also accompanied by a team of Skerries Sea Scouts, who volunteered to assist with the vital vegetation clearing that allows terns to nest unimpeded on Rockabill. The scouts brought energy, dedication and Coco-Pop Rocks, and their contribution was massive- so thank you lads!!
Common Terns in flight. (picture taken under NPWS license)
The first few days of the project involved clearing massive amounts of mallow and scurvy grass, readying study sites for nest boxes, and erecting hides. We were treated to spectacular weather and the sun split the stones of Rockabill while we prepared the island for nesting terns.

Shane and project leader Dr. Stephen Newton assembling a new hide.

Numerous bird species can be spotted on Rockabill; a broad diversity of which have already been encountered this year. These include puffins on the surface of the sea, cormorants and shags, turnstones, oyster-catchers, and non-seabirds such as swallows and warblers. The Bill component of the island can be accessed by boat or, if you’re feeling frisky, by swimming. David and Shane both braved the elements in their efforts to intimidate potential tern predators on the Bill.
Shane's and Miley's gear was wet-suited - I mean, well-suited to the conditions.
This year's first Roseate Tern egg was discovered by Irene on the 13th of May. Though an egg laid this unusually early in the season is likely to be an outlier, it is exciting to see the progression of the season as the terns settle on nest boxes and begin to scrape bowls on Rockabill.

As part of the introduction of this year’s wardens, it seems fitting to have their portraits included. Here is Shane in his natural state:

And here is David, in his characteristic robe after a hard day’s work at the office.

Stay tuned for updates on the progression of this year’s occupation of Rockabill!

- Irene Sullivan

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Rocky year for Roseates on Rockabill

Apologies for the major radio silence - the end of the season is one of our busiest times on Rockabill (along with the start of the season, and the middle of the season...) and after that followed our reintegration back into normal society, followed by a couple of weeks of data analysis and report writing! With all of that behind us we're now in a position to tell the story of how the biggest colony of Roseate Terns in Europe got on this year.

Roseate Terns on Rockabill, Summer 2016. (picture taken under NPWS license)

Large seabird colonies are all about life and death - Adults have to survive the winter and many undertake epic challenging migrations in the hope of reaching the colony, finding a mate and raising chicks. Many mate and produce eggs, which don't make it to hatching because of predation or harsh weather. Others manage to incubate and protect their eggs long enough for them to hatch, only for the chicks to die somewhere in the month or so it takes for them to grow feathers and begin to fly, again with predation and harsh weather the typical causes. Perhaps most heart-breaking of all is when adults pass all those hurdles of protecting their eggs and raising the chicks until they can fly, only for those fledglings to be predated soon after.

Roseate Terns early in the 2016 breeding season on Rockabill  (picture taken under NPWS license)

Roseate Terns on their nestboxes early in the 2016 breeding season  Rockabill. (picture taken under NPWS license)

We take it for granted that birds and mammals raise chicks and cubs every year, but sometimes we forget the gauntlet of challenges and hurdles they have to overcome to do that. Some, like many garden birds, have evolved to live short lives and aim to produce big numbers of offspring every year by laying lots of eggs and having more than one brood per summer. Others, like most seabirds, live long lives and put their time and energy into raising one or two chicks per year. Both strategies mean that their populations should be able to persist through a bad year or two, hopefully compensating with a good year or two or at least plenty of 'average' years. With that in mind, was this a good or a bad year for our Roseate Terns?

The Good:
Regular followers of the blog will remember the very pleasant surprise we had in late-June that the number of breeding pairs of Roseate Terns on Rockabill had risen by around 200 pairs to over 1,550. Given that Rockabill holds the biggest numbers in Europe this was a very welcome boost, and together with the work we're doing as part of the EU LIFE funded project with our partners in the RSPB and the North Wales Wildlife Trust it should help us secure they're future in this part of the world over the coming years.

In addition to that, the number of eggs laid by each pair was normal (I mean that in a good way!) and hatching rates were high too. We put out around 750 nestboxes and over 90% were occupied, the highest occupancy we've recorded to date! So there was plenty of good news by the middle of the season.

Roseate Tern sitting on its two eggs on Rockabill, Summer 2016. (picture taken under NPWS license)

Our new ring-reading hide, terracing and nestboxes, Summer 2016. (picture taken under NPWS license)

The first Roseate Tern egg on Rockabill in 2016 (picture taken under NPWS license)

The Bad:
It was around late June when our first Roseate chicks began to hatch, and unfortunately that's where the good news for this season ended. It very quickly became apparent that chick survival was going to be low. In almost all nests with two chicks the younger sibling died within 4 or 5 days. We weigh and measure chicks on a daily basis and this confirmed that growth rates were well below what they should be. During our chick-feeding studies we usually see the older chick getting two thirds of the food, with the younger chick managing to get some when the big chick is full. This year the older chick was never full however and kept competing for any incoming food, at the expense of the smaller chick. Our final tallies revealed that Roseate Tern productivity, i.e. the average number of chicks fledged per pair, was the lowest we've seen it on Rockabill with only 6 or 7 chicks surviving out of every 10 nests. Last year we ringed around 1500 Roseate Tern chicks whereas this year we ringed around two-thirds of that, despite having more pairs breeding this year.

A 'blonde' Roseate Tern chick on Rockabill, Summer 2016. (picture and handling under NPWS license)
Roseate Tern fledgling and parent on Rockabill, Summer 2016. (picture taken under NPWS license)

The Future:
I started this blog during the 2014 season and anyone following it since then might think this all sounds very familiar. The results of the 2014 season were very similar to 2016. Thankfully last year everything went well and breeding numbers and chick survival were all high. Those good years balance out the bad years, and it's because we've had a lot more good years than bad years that the Rockabill population of Roseate Terns has continued to grow since we started this conservation project in 1989. The frequency of bad years due to lack of suitable fish prey (2 of the last 3) is certainly cause for concern. It doesn't mean next year won't be fine, but how long until we have another bad year again? Were these temporary anomalies in suitable fish-prey numbers in the Irish Sea or are we seeing the start of a larger problem? Only time will tell.

Roseate Terns gathering on the edge of the colony at the end of the season (picture taken under NPWS license)

Earlier in the season we knew that Little Terns didn't even attempt to breed at their usual colony at Baltray in Louth, further north in the Irish Sea, and local fishermen commented on the lack of Sandeels in the area. Tern colonies at Dublin Port, Dalkey and Kilcoole all had a poor year too. Issues of predation played a larger part there, but there may have also been a lack of food. Thankfully our colleagues at Tern colonies further afield in the Irish Sea reported good years overall. Long-term and widespread monitoring  helps us see the bigger picture not only about our seabird populations, but the ecosystems and species they rely on and exist with. With that in mind we learned a lot in 2016. It'll be interesting to see what 2017 brings!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Come Fly With Me

After most of our Terns laid eggs in late-May and early-June, and they take around 22 days to hatch and another 28-30 days to be able to fly, we're now coming to the end of the Tern breeding season here on Rockabill. While we do still have some chicks around that have a bit more growing up to do, we have far more that are able to fly and have left the area where their nest was. Our Common Tern fledglings tend to congregate on large 'obvious' areas like the helipad or on some of the shed roofs, where they can be easily found by their parents and they can readily spot any incoming food that's either intended for them or another fledgling from whom they might be able to steal it off! Our Roseate Tern fledglings on the other hand to to stay a bit closer to their parents and hang out on the rocky parts of the edge of the island.

Some of our Rockabill Roseates have moved on already however, with sightings from elsewhere in Dublin and even as far south as Wexford already. Conversely, we've seen some fledglings from Lady's Island in Wexford here on Rockabill, with the birds from there tending to move north for a while after the breeding season before beginning their southern migration next month. So if you live on the coast keep an eye out for Terns on the move!

Productivity, that is the number of chicks that fledge per nest, hasn't been great this year on Rockabill with many chicks seemingly dying due to lack of food. But seeing the chicks that we've worked hard to protect and monitor take their first stumbling flight and even become experts in the air after a few days has provided a very welcome boost to morale as the season draws to a close!
Fledgling Common Tern on the Rockabill helipad.  (picture taken under NPWS license)

Fledgling Roseate Tern  (picture taken under NPWS license)

When it comes to ID'ing the two fledglings Roseate Tern fledglings are a little but smaller than their Common counterparts, and are generally darker in their feathering, with black legs and a black bill. Overall they bear a closer resemblance to Sandwich Tern chicks, despite not being particularly closely related to them. Common Tern fledglings have a mostly orange bill with pink-ish legs and warmer brown and light grey colours to their plumage.

Fledgling Roseate Tern calling out to its parents  (picture taken under NPWS license)

Common Tern fledgling  (picture taken under NPWS license)

Fledgling Roseate Tern and adult  (picture taken under NPWS license)

Fledgling Common Tern begging for food.  (picture taken under NPWS license)

Fledgling Roseate Tern on Rockabill  (picture taken under NPWS license)

Fledgling Common Tern having a rest in between meals. (picture taken under NPWS license)
Below are two videos of a Roseate Tern chick and parents. This chick is days away from fledging and can be seen making rough attempts at flight to get on top of the nestbox! Many of our Roseate Terns practice their flying skills in a similar way before eventually getting the skill and confidence to fly out of the nesting area. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Dalkey Tern - We have Roseates breeding!

To the north of Dalkey Island lie two small islands, one with some vegetation one just bare rock. These are Lamb Island and Maidens’ Rock and are home to three species of tern; Common, Arctic and Roseate.

We have some mixed news since our last update, having had such large numbers of nests and chicks on Lamb Island; it went very quiet around the July Bank Holiday Weekend. By Tuesday 5th July there were only 16 Adults and about 4 chicks on Lamb Island, many of the first chicks should have been old enough to fledge at that stage but many nests/eggs were predated. The main culprits are rats, Hooded Crows and possible large gulls. Although the numbers were down on Lamb they are up on Maidens’ with 7 new clutches with 10 eggs and 1 chick and 160 adults on 14th July. 2 Roseate Terns were seen at the public event on Tuesday 5th, hopefully the start of many visitors from Rockabill. On 14th July, when hopes of breeding Rosies had faded a pair of Roseates had laid an egg in Box 5 on Maidens’ Rock. Maybe not great prospects of a successful fledging for that egg/chick but they are here and will hopefully come earlier next year with a few companions.
This is still a record year in terms of total terns present during the breeding season.

Roseate Tern egg on Maiden's Rock, 14th July.
  Photograph and egg handling carried out under NPWS licenses.

On 21st & 27th June & 6th & 14th July myself and a few ringers, Steve Newton, Niall Tierney & Ricky Whelan got out to put leg rings on 54 chicks (6 Common) with 15 big enough to get a colour ring too. Hopefully we will be able to see these guys if/when they return in 2-3 years.
Ringing in progress on Lamb Island with Niall Tierney, RIcky Whelan and Steve Newton.
Ringing and photo carried out under NPWS licenses.
Public Events
The Tuesday evening and weekend events are going great, even when bad weather is forecast we got rainbows. 

Tuesday evening Rainbow Watch over Dalkey Island!

The BWI South Dublin branch has joined the Tuesday evening events (it’s been their event for years now) for July. I set up from 5pm then they all join from 6:30-8pm. It’s great having so many sets of eyes with local knowledge there to check every bird and inform the public.

Tuesday evening Tern Watch event with South Dublin BWI branch.

Weekend guided nature walks on Dalkey Island.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

And now for something completely different...

Our work changes a lot between various parts of the season - there's a lot of vegetation to be cut in May, a lot of eggs to be counted in June, chicks to be weighed and ringed in July and nestboxes to be scrubbed in August! One standard throughout the whole season however are our nest checks. Every morning and every evening we have specific study areas around the island that we visit and record any changes since our last visit - new nests, new eggs, chicks hatching, chicks dying etc etc. so that we have a few hundred 'nest histories' for each season. 

I was somewhat surprised by one nest in my study area earlier this summer as it appeared to be a Roseate Tern egg in a site I knew had been used by Commons in previous years. The egg was a 'typical' Roseate egg however and the location did offer some degree of shelter and so could conceivably have been picked out by a Roseate. A second egg was laid, again a typical Roseate egg and a little reconnaissance from a distance confirmed it was a Roseate Tern sitting on the eggs.

Then, last week on one of my nest rounds I saw that the first of the two eggs had hatched - that is the first of those two typical-looking Roseate Tern eggs that had been incubated by Roseate Terns for all those weeks. The only problem was that it had a fluffy appearance and pink legs among other features, meaning it was a Common Tern chick! 

A few days later and the second egg hatched - another Common Tern chick I hear you ask? Nope! A Roseate Tern chick! So this pair of Roseate Terns ended up with a brood of one Common and one Roseate Tern chick. There were no nearby nests that an egg could have been stolen or even accidentally rolled from, so the whole thing is a bit of a mystery! The adults are blissfully unaware however and are dutifully feeding their Common Tern chick as if it was their own - which I suppose it is now anyway! Given the similarities between the two species, particularly their diet, this chick stands as good a chance as any of fledging in the not too distant future!

Here are a couple of videos from this unusual nest - the larger and more active chick is the Common Tern and the smaller chick with a 'spiky' appearance is the Roseate Tern chick.

Monday, 11 July 2016

LIFE on Rockabill

Another busy week! Having thousands of birds on Rockabill is fairly standard over the summer months, but this week we had loads of people out here too! Given that there's usually only two of us out here, a bit of social interaction at this stage might be no harm as we we look to ease ourselves back into society at the end of August!

First of all we were visited by the Roseate Tern team from RSPB Coquet Island - Paul Morrison, Wes Davies and Tom Cadwallender. Coquet Island lies off the Northumberland coast in England and is home to 102 pairs of Roseate Terns (and counting!). The Coquet team's visit was facilitated by the current EU LIFE project to protect and expand the breeding range of the Roseate Tern in Ireland and Britain, and provided a great chance for the Rockabill and Coquet teams to meet up and 'talk Terns' and exchange knowledge on how we can continue to improve the fortunes of the Roseate Tern.

Check out the Coquet Island twitter account and website to keep up to date with all of the goings-on at Coquet and to see a live feed of how their Roseate Terns are getting on:

The Rockabill and Coquet Roseate Tern teams together for the first time.

It was also a great chance for the Rockabill team to sample the "Roseate Tern IPA", made by the 'From the Notebook' label which is on sale in the UK and from which a portion of sales go directly to the Roseate Tern project on Coquet. The label features a beautiful picture of a Roseate Tern with Coquet Island in the background, a short description of the species and it even has a pink/roseate cap! I had heard of the Roseate Tern IPA a couple of weeks ago, and let's just say it lived up to expectations!

Roseate Tern IPA on Rockabill!
The Coquet guys left on Thursday and on Friday we were delighted to welcome another group of visitors on Friday. It was great to meet Daniel Piec and Chantal Macleod-Nolan who are overseeing and co-ordinating the Roseate Tern LIFE project as part of the RSPB, as well as wardens and staff from a number of Tern colonies in Northern Ireland and Wales who came to see how we do things on Rockabill and how successful our work has been to date. (and Paddy from Kilcoole came out too, just 'cos Rockabill is the place to be!).

Given that every tern colony is different it was great to hear about other colonies and how they're faring this season, the different mix of species that each colony has, and the different problems each colony has and how they're tackled. These kinds of information-exchanges, however formal or informal, can be really valuable in the long run. Hopefully our visitors left with a renewed enthusiasm to attract Roseate Terns to their own colony and help this fantastic seabird become less rare in the coming years!

To keep up to date with the Roseate Tern LIFE project check out the facebook and twitter pages at the link below:
Our guests getting a tour of the island. (picture  by Daniel Piec)
The Rockabill team and our colleagues from the Roseate Tern LIFE project. (Pic via Chantal Macleod-Nolan & Usna Keating)

In addition to the Roseate Tern stuff we also had Saskia Wischnewski with us for most of the week. Saskia is studying seabird ecology at UCC and is currently carrying out work on behalf of Birdwatch Ireland which aims to look at where seabirds go to feed in the Irish Sea. She deployed a number of tags on our Kittiwakes and got some fascinating data with many of our birds heading far out to the north east in search of food to feed their chicks. 

Saskia removing a special tag that tracked the movements of one of the Rockabill Kittiwakes. Tag attached and picture taken under NPWS license.
And last but not least we had a changing of the guard recently. David Kinchin Smith has departed us to take up his dream job in the South Atlantic conserving birds on Gough Island - so his watch has ended. It was a pleasure working with David and on behalf of everyone here we want to wish him and Kilcoole's Em Witcutt the very best of luck on Gough and we look forward to tracking their progress in the coming months. 

Brian Burke and David Kinchin-Smith - Rockabill Wardens for 2016, just before David departed!

We are also delighted to welcome Shane Somers as the new warden on Rockabill. Unfortunately the Baltray Little Terns failed to breed this year, but Shane will definitely get his Tern-fix out here on Rockabill over the coming weeks and months! It's a big ask to begin work at such a large Tern colony in the middle of the season - the busiest time - but he has risen to the occasion and the Terns continue to be well looked after! 

Shane Somers- the new Rockabill warden! (pic by Matthew Byrne)