Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A "wreck" of Leach's petrels

Severe storms in the Altantic over the last week or so have driven large numbers of Leach's storm petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) onto the coasts of Britain. This species is a bit bigger than our familiar European "stormies", with a forked tail and a whitish bar on the upperwing.

A Leach's petrel killed by storms in a previous "wreck" of petrels, on the Portuguese coast (Photo from A Rocha Portugal)

Several thousand petrels were "wrecked" on the coast, and some were even driven far inland by the strong winds. One place where many of the storm-driven birds gathered was in the Severn Estuary, on the Wales-England border. It was here that I had close views of 5-6 tired looking petrels on December 7th.

At the same time, four Leach's petrels took refuge at Eglwys Nunydd Reservoir, a few miles inland from the coast of South Wales.

One of the Leach's petrels at Eglwys Nunydd

One of these birds was so exhausted that local birdwatcher Barry Stewart tried to rescue it (as this seemed the bird's only chance of survival), by swimming out into the reservoir. However, the bird somehow found the energy to flutter out of reach. Although the bird was later caught by more conventional means, it sadly died on the way to the local wildlife hospital.


Really very chilly

Thanks to Paul Roberts for the photos, and to Barry Stewart for the dedication to the cause!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stormies on the BBC

Our storm petrel project has featured in a programme for BBC Radio 4, in the series "Planet Earth Under Threat", broadcast at 9pm on Monday evenings.
The storm petrels make their appearance in the third episode -Click here to listen to programme 3 online!

Click here to view the BBC's production blog page about the series (scroll down to read a storm petrel story), and to listen to the latest programme in the series.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

West Wales adventures

In late August, five intrepid storm petrellers headed west from Cardiff, to look for stormies in the wild west of Wales. Personnel were: Rob Thomas, Renata Medeiros, Alex Pollard, Sara Roda (all familiar names from the Earthwatch project), plus Viola Ross-Smith, who is studying for a PhD in seabird biology at Cardiff University. The aim was to spend 2 nights tape-luring stormies on the mainland, and to spend one night in the storm petrel colony on Skomer island. Photos by Sara.

The most westerly campsite in West Wales

After setting up camp, we took a walk down to the petrel-ringing point at Wooltack point -looking out over Skomer Island, to check out the wind conditions (howling) and wildlife (baby seals).

"Wild horses wouldn't drag me onto a boat to that island"

Night 1: we met up with Steve & Anna Sutcliffe of the Pembrokeshire ringing group, who brought along a young Manx Shearwater which had taken a wrong turn and ended up hiding under a car in Broad Haven! Alex got to ring it -she was so pleased that she almost didn't mind its sharp beak!

Tape-luring with Portuguese tapes works in the UK! We caught 17 stormies at Wooltack point. Hopefully we will be able to find out whether we get the same strong sex-ratio bias as we find among the Portuguese birds. Thanks very much to Steve and Anna for their enthusiastic help with the equipment and catching.

The team hard at work

At about 4am, the wind turned and strengthened, forcing us to pack up. Somehow, we managed to get lost in the dark amongst the gorse on Marloes deer park! It felt like a long walk home lugging the heavy equipment!

Day 2: Looking for feathers at the storm petrel colonies on Skomer. We found plenty of feathersfor Sara's mercury contamination study, as well as a storm petrel skull and various egg shells. The nest holes were quite easy to identify by the stormies' distinctive musky smell! One burrow held a bird churring away deep underground.

Night 2: A night in a storm petrel colony.
A very informative night -we secreted ourselves among the huge boulders of the Mew Stone colony, and waited as night fell. Against the night sky, we saw a series of stormies circling silently around the colony, and even crash-landing into a rock next to Sara! We didn't spot any stormies crawling into their burrows, but we did spot several toads crawling out!

Sometime in the middle of the night, we adjourned to the Skomer farm buildings to get some sleep without the risk of rolling off the cliff. On the way, we made our aquaintences with a few of the hunderds of thousands of Manx Shearwaters who breed on Skomer.

A very cold and uncomfortable few hours ensued, trying to sleep on bare flagstone floors in a draughty barn with no roof!

Night 3: Another night of tape-luring.
Back on the mainland, with the weather looking increasingly grim, we decided to try tape-luring in the shelter of Martin's Haven.

Debating whether to venture out for another night on the cliffs

However, by 2am we had not seen any birds let alone caught any, and with the drizzle starting up again we decided to call it a night and get some sleep before heading back to Cardiff and on up to Aberdeen for the Seabird Group Conference.

Friday, August 18, 2006

More news from Ireland

Another of "our" stormies has turned up in Ireland!
This time its an older bird -N00069- who was originally caught in Portugal on 22nd May 1998, when it was taken taken out of the net by Rob and ringed by Fillippe Jorge (A Rocha assistant warden at the time).

The bird was re-caught this year, on 15th August 2006, at a large breeding colony on the island of Inishglora in the Republic of Ireland. A team of intrepid Irish storm petrellers caught an amazing 1,959 European stormies and 2 Leach's storm petrels in just 4 nights, including 1,022 in a single night! Its enough to make an Earthwatch storm petreller weep, since in Portugal this year we had several full nights when just one bird was caught and we are currently pretty pleased to get 20 birds in a night!

Views of Inishglora, where N00069 now breeds

The Irish team was masterminded by Neville McKee of Copeland Bird Observatory, with whom Renata and Rob met up last year at a seabird conference in Belfast. Along with Declan Clarke, Neville and his "vomit officer" George Henderson have kindly been collecting regurgitated food samples from Irish stormies for Renata's analysis of storm petrel diet.

The storm petrellers' camp site on Inishglora

Putting up the nets
As N00069 would probably have been at least 2 years old when caught in Portugal, its current age is likely to be at least 10 years. This is a youngster however, compared to the 31 year old bird also retrapped this year on Inishglora. N00069 appeared to be breeding (as might be expected given its age), as it had a well-developed brood patch and weighed in at a hefty 30.3g.
Inishglora is a small rocky island with little vegetation, located off County Mayo in NW Eire. There are scattered boulder beaches along the edges, above the high water mark. The east end has the ruins of St Brendan the navigator’s ecclesiastical settlement (he may or may not have discovered America in the late 500s/early 600s AD -click here for more on the history and legends of Inishglora), and some more modern ruins including a near habitable bothy. Huge numbers of stormies breed among these boulders and ruins, and though the size of the population is hard to determine precisely, Neville estimates that the numbers are possibly in the upper part of the range 1,000 to 10,000 pairs.
A "hotspot" for nesting stormies
Thanks to Neville for all the news, to his wife Pat for these photos and of course to George for the vomit samples!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Project publicity

The latest Earthwatch newsletter includes an article by Sougato (team 2, 2006, holder of the "most prolific photographer" award) all about our project. To read it, click here.

Sougato and his loudspeakers

Meanwhile, Tanith (team 3, 2006) has written an article for the Devon & Cornwall Gazette (UK). These articles and the interest that they generate are potentially very helpful in attracting volunteers to join our Earthwatch project -if you think you could write one yourself, please do!

Friday, July 28, 2006

So long, and thanks for all the fish

Mr Squawky has now been released back into the wild, having spent a very happy couple of weeks eating (alternating between dog food, sardines, mackerel & prawns), sleeping, splashing, sqwawking, pooing and growing his flight feathers.
Lots of "samples" have been collected, to keep Renata busy in the lab, when she arrives back in Cardiff next week.
Alex released squawky on the banks of the river Taff in Cardiff, where he quickly acquainted himself with the local seagulls!

Here is a photo of the new-look ready-to-fledge Squawky, a few days before his release.

Rob's new job

In other news, Rob has at last got his act together and obtained a permanent lecturer's job at Cardiff University, thereby guaranteeing his continuing involvement in the Earthwatch Storm Petrels project (until his anticipated retirement in 2037).

Saturday, July 08, 2006

International news

Excellent news -one of "our" Portuguese-ringed stormies has just been re-caught in Ireland! Stormie no. N03279 was the final bird caught on the night of 14/15th of June -at 00:52, just as The Disastrous Rainstorm began (see earlier Blog entry).

He/she was then re-caught at 00:20 on the night of July 7/8th, on Sheepland, Ardglass. Co. Down -on the East coast of Northern Ireland, just south of the entrance into Strangford Lough.
Between first capture in Portugal and re-capture in Ireland, the bird had lost weight slightly, from 27.4g to 26.0g.

The bird was caught in Ireland by Declan Clarke and friends, who have already been collecting storm petrel vomit samples on our behalf, as part of the diet analysis project. Thanks Declan!

Some of the intrepid -but slightly soggy- storm petrellers who caught N03279 in Portugal.

Photo by Tanith.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

World cup shootout

Apparently there has been some kind of football tournament going on...

Ouch -now that has got to hurt!

Portugal 0, England 0.
Portugal go through on penalties.
It takes me back to 2004.... oh and 1990, 1996 & 1998.

Well done Portugal -good luck for the semi final!*

*A helpline for emotionally distressed England fans has been set up -please consult your Emergencies Briefing Document for details.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Thank You Earthwatchers!

Now that this year's Portuguese fieldwork is over, its a chance to say a big Thank You to everyone who has taken part this year.

Firstly, to our fantastic Earthwatch volunteers - who enable the project to happen in the first place and who make it such a stimulating and sociable time. This year we welcomed 12 volunteers from around the world -here are a few photos.

Team I: Polly (Hong Kong), Walaa (Egypt) & Thomas (Switzerland & South Africa)

Team II (along with Anna & Renata): Angela (Hong Kong), Sougato (India), Jenny (England), Dilip (United Arab Emirates & India), Niall (Northern Ireland) & Bill (USA).

Team III: Tanith (England), Lynn (USA), Emily (Scotland)

Thanks too to this year's field staff -Anna Jolliffe, Nicola Marples, Mark Bolton & Colin Beale, who all worked very hard to ensure the smooth running of the project.

In addition, the project benefitted greatly from the ideas and insights of a number of visitng scientists, including Jaime Ramos, Paula Tavares, Alex Pollard, Manuela Nunes, Vitor Paiva, Ruben Huttel, Emma Rosenfeld & Victoria Beale.

Last but by no means least -our two storm petrelling postgrads: Renata Medeiros (PhD) & Sara Roda (MSc), who appeared never to sleep for the whole month. Well done everyone on a fantastic effort!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Meet Mr Squawky!

Back home in Cardiff, the newest member of the storm petrel research team is a baby gull named Squawky. He/she is a lesser black-backed or herring gull chick (not quite sure which yet) who fell off a school roof in Cardiff and was taken to a local vets. Rob happened to be at the vets and offered a home for the gull while it grows its wing and tail feathers enough to be able to fly. Rob's daughter Nia initially named him Flappy (he flaps his wings a lot) and then Squawky (he squawks a lot) .

He has taken up temporary residence at the Cardiff University aviaries, where his role in our project is to eat different species of fish and then poo a lot. By collecting Squawky's poo, we can test the method of prey DNA extraction from seabird faeces before we use the method on our precious storm petrel faeces samples!

Squawky takes a bath, wathched by Nia Thomas

Stormy petrel

In the teeth of the gale and the raging swell
She nests among the angry rollers
Her flight firm and sure as the falcon

Her wings she lends to the storm
When the lions of the sea roar in the caves
Above the abyss she roams, across the trackless ocean

She seeks not the rock, the cape, nor the harbour
In insecurity she finds her strength
And the risk of death nourishes her

And she, it seems to me, is a model
For those who can live and sing through life’s storms

Translated and adapted by Earthwatch Team III, 2006 from the Portuguese poem Procellaria by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andersen.

Photo by Lynn

Friday, June 23, 2006

Boat trip no. 3

Another fantastic boat trip -8km out from Lagos on a rather lumpy sea! Amazingly, the prize for the most seasick boat-tripper was not awarded (largely because certain people wisely decided to stay on dry land!). The award for most enthusiastic family had to go to Sara's long-suffering parents and boyfriend, who added 3 hours on a rocking boat to their earlier night under a soggy tarpaulin.

A large box of old fish was rapidly turned into fish soup courtesy of Rob's feet [please remind him to take a shower -Ed.], and before long the first stormies appeared beside the boat.

Here is a European stormie photographed by Mark Bolton on boat trip 2.

Photo copyright Mark Bolton

The new "frisbee net" (mark V -modelled on a net described in the ornithological literature) was deployed but not used, owing to the stormies keeping well out from the boat. This was perhaps due to the rougher conditions drifting the fish lure rapidly away from the stern. However, the usual trawls with the zooplankton and phytoplankton nets were quite productive.

Along with about 4 European stormies, we had great views of another Wilson's petrel from the southern hemisphere, along with 3 cracking adult Sabine's gulls, 3 roseate terns, 2 common terns, Cory's shearwater, gannets, great skua, pomarine skua and a probable arctic skua chasing a definite Mediterranean shearwater! Not a bad day's birding!

At the end of another classic trip, we turned and raced the storm clouds back in to harbour. The inevitable ice-creams and chicken piri-piri were an important part of the post-trip medication/celebrations.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The disastrous rainstorm

After 17 years with more or less no rain, it was a bit of a shock for the outdoor-living storm petrellers to be pelted with tropical rainstorm-style downpours on 2 successive nights!
Here is a photo by Lynn showing conditions deteriorating...

Before long, all nets were furled and all hands + 1 surprised bird were under a large tarpaulin. This felt fairly grim -as shown on the faces of (l-r) Sara, Colin & Tanith at about 3am!

After the rain had put an end to our sound system for the night and the bird had got away safely, we decamped back to the minibus. Sara's parents and Bruno, who had come out with us for a pleasent night on the cliffs, seemed none the worst for wear!

After this first drenching we came prepared, and for the following few nights pitched a tarpaulin tent. Inside the tent, conditions had never been more civilised! Teas and coffees were served on a floor of blankets. This is the life -living outside will never seem the same again!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Missing: one beach!

As a result of the recent stormy weather, our nice sandy beach at Ponta de Almadena has been washed away! If anyone has seen it, please contact Dr Rob Thomas, care of A Rocha Portugal. Its all very inconvenient, as it has turned our pleasent stroll across the beach into yet another epic struggle across large slippery boulders!




Thursday, June 15, 2006

Here they come!

At last, the stormies have arrived in force!!!

After the long hard slog of 1-8 birds per night, we have at last broken the double-figures barrier with 16 birds on Tuesday night (June 13th) and 33 birds on Wednesday night. In fact, we could have had a HUGE catch on Wednesday night as all 33 birds were caught by 1am, whereupon the heavens opened and torrential rain caused the minidisk players to give up in disgust! Unbelievable weather for the Algarve in June [I blame global warming -Ed]. We all got completely soaked and returned to Cruzinha to dry out ourselves and the electronics.

On the plus side, at least I won the Mars Bar (1st time this year!). Everything seems to be working OK this morning, so we are gearing up for another big catch tonight -weather permitting of course.

Despite these technical traumas, we have now ringed our 105th bird of the year. Here is a photo of Sara with the 100th stormie of 2006 -horay!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Fairies being sick?

This just in from Niall, Team 3 2006:

Got home mid-afternoon (Tuesday) and, by a happy coincidence, Bill Oddie's Springwatch programme was on TV that evening and included a report from Simon King on the stormie breeders at Mousa Broch [Shetland Islands, UK].
He was saying how much he loved the "gentle cacophany" of their nesting calls and a local veteran birder told him that he thought it sounded like "fairies....uh........vomiting". You know, rrrretch, rrretch, rrretch, eugh, eugh !!!

Happy hunting -- Niall

The storm petrel nest site at Mousa Broch, Shetland

...and the stormies are here!

Monday, June 12, 2006

For the man (or woman) who has everything

Q: What do you get for the man who has everything?

A: Something to put it in
B: Penicillin
C: Their very own sponsored storm petrel!

To sponsor a storm petrel for the man or woman in your life who has everything -or to sponsor your own favourite stormie- just follow the link below

Sponsors receive a certificate of sponsorship, a glossy storm petrel poster, and information on any recaptures of your sponsored bird in Portugal or around the world.

Welcome to stormies-online!

Hello from sunny Portugal!

This Blog is to keep all you Earthwatch vetrans updated on current events on the cliffs of the Algarve, and on new results as they emerge. Do feel free to add your own comments, suggestions and questions, by clicking on the "comments" tab.

Just to get the blog started, heres a photo of a small bird on a big ocean -Wilson's storm petrel- photographed by Mark Bolton on our latest boat trip. I'm still feeling slightly queasy at the thought of it...

Photo copyright Mark Bolton