This article by Michael McCarthy in the Independent newspaper describes a sad and worrying consequence of the exceptionally frequent and severe storms that we have experienced this winter….
“Tens of thousands of birds – particularly auks such as puffins, guillemots (pictured) and razorbills – have died as a result of the seemingly endless gales of the last two months. Their remains are now being washed up on the coasts of Wales, Cornwall and the Channel Islands, and even more so on the Atlantic coast of France – that is, the beaches of the Bay of Biscay, which is where large numbers of British puffins and their auk cousins spend the winter”.
“It is one of the largest “wrecks” of seabirds ever witnessed and bears comparison with the huge bird mortalities caused by the oil spills from tanker disasters of recent years, such as the Amoco Cadiz in 1978 and the Erika in 1999, both off the coast of Brittany, as well as the 1993 spill of the tanker Braer off Shetland and the 1996 spill of the Sea Empress off south Wales.
And counter-intuitive though it may be, it is indeed the sea that’s killing them. The birds are dying because this winter, they have had to expend too much energy fighting big waves and big winds over a long period at a time, when food is harder than ever to find, since fish shoals are broken up in the storms. Latest estimates from the Wildlife Trusts partnership suggest a confirmed death toll of around 25,000, which is expected to rise steadily as more corpses are washed ashore”.
“This natural disaster only serves to underline how vulnerable our seabirds are to other threats, such as the oil spills, and increasingly to two more dangers – climate change, and overfishing. Seabird colonies in northern Britain, in areas such as Orkney and Shetland, are doing increasingly badly – in some, only a fifth of the breeding birds are raising chicks – and this has happened because their food, largely small fish called sandeels, has disappeared. It may be because of too much trawling, or it may be because in rising water temperatures the sandeels have moved north – but they’re no longer available, and fears are growing that all British seabird colonies may similarly suffer”.
Last week I was supposed to be visiting Skomer Island for the day with a number of colleagues and friends to discuss management issues. Skomer (Welsh: Ynys Sgomer) is an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in southwestern Wales and you get to it by boat at the end of the road that passes our house.
It is well known for its wildlife: a third of the world population of Manx Shearwaters nest on the island, and the Atlantic Puffin colony is the largest in southern Britain. These birds spend the autumn and winter months at sea in the South Atlantic and return to Skomer each year to breed in dis-used rabbit burrows (rabbits were introduced to the island as a food source in the 14th century). There are numerous archaeological remains on the island, from stone circles, standing stones and prehistoric houses.
Unfortunately on the day of departure we were being battered by storm force south-westerly winds, and as a result the boat, the “Dale Princess”, was unable to make the crossing safely, so we couldn’t go.
Fortunately my friend Mike Alexander, who gives me all these wonderful photographs to show to you, was the warden on the island from 1976 to 1986, and so he has given me more photos of Skomer to share. I think you’ll agree it is a pretty lovely looking place. I’ll wait for better weather and sea conditions and get over there later in the year.
After 6 months of perpetual grey skies and torrential rain, spring has finally arrived on the Pembrokeshire Coast, and today our local beach looks like this. It’s so nice to finally feel some warm sunshine, although admittedly there is still a chilly north-easterly wind coming down from the arctic.
The sea birds have arrived back from the South Atlantic to breed on the offshore islands of Skomer, Skokholm, Grassholm and Ramsey. These puffins nest in dis-used rabbit burrows on the islands, which are free of predators like rats and foxes, although the threat from the Great Black-backed Gull is still very real for the offspring of these little fellas.
The gannets have returned from their winter feeding grounds in the south to breed in huge numbers (32,000 nesting pairs) on Grassholm Island, and can be seen diving into the sea wherever they spot shoals of fish on which to feed.
In the next few weeks all of the spring flowers will emerge as the land awakens from its winter slumber. The most familiar birds to be seen from the cliff tops are razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and various species of gull, as well as shags, cormorants and the rarer choughs and peregrine falcons.