Seabirds on National Trust coastal places

We take a look at four of the key seadbird species found on National Trust land across England, Wales and Northern Ireland:

Sandwich tern

The report reveals that National Trust land is hugely important for Sandwich terns, with nationally significant colonies at Blakeney Point in Norfolk, Farne Islands, Cemlyn Lagoon, Green Island and Brownsea Island Lagoon.

Sandwich tern in flight at Blakeney Point in Norfolk

Sandwich tern in flight at Blakeney Point in Norfolk

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Stormy weather and a blooming spring: a review of the year so far

Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s National Specialist on Nature, looks back at the year’s weather so far and asks what’s in store for us this summer:

“This winter was one of the stormiest on record, with a succession of powerful storms hitting our shores from 23 December right through until 24 February. So much so, in fact, that in England and Wales it was the wettest winter since 1766.

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Puffins return early to Farne Islands

Puffins have started to return to their breeding grounds two weeks early thanks to the milder spring temperatures.

Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Rangers on the Farne Islands reported sightings of over 500 puffins on the island just yesterday. It is thought this could be one of the earliest sightings on record.

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Recovery of the Manx shearwater on Lundy. Have the Welsh invaded?

Lundy

Lundy

We are celebrating the recovery of the Manx shearwater on Lundy Island. Owned by the National Trust and leased to the Landmark Trust, Lundy has always been famous for its seabirds. Lundy, in Norse, means Puffin Island and there are puffins there today. But the real gem is the Manx shearwater.  Most of these birds (over 90 %) breed on islands off the British and Irish coasts. Until a decade ago it was doing badly, almost certainly because of predation by rats. With just a few hundred pairs left on the island and their eggs and chicks eaten by rats, there was real prospect of losing them completely, as happened on the island of Canna (Inner Hebrides).

Back in 2002, the Seabird Recovery Project partnership of National Trust, RSPB, English Nature (now Natural England) and Landmark Trust was formed to try to save Manx shearwaters on Lundy. Our priority, removing the brown rats (common) and black rats (ship). Globally both are widespread and abundant. In Britain and Ireland the black rat is only found on a few islands and dockland warehouses – it is really rare.  How could we remove one of Britain’s rarest mammals from one of its few refuges? Our priority – indeed our global responsibility – was to rescue the dwindling population of Manx shearwaters on Lundy.

By 2013, nearly a decade after rat removal, there are now thousands of shearwaters breeding on Lundy, and their burrows are in many more parts of the island than when the rats were present. The speed of recovery has been remarkable. Manx shearwaters spend the first five or six years of life at sea, in the south Atlantic. The contribution of these home-bred birds to the increase must have been small  - it must have involved birds from other colonies. I reckon that shearwaters from the massive colony on the islands off Pembrokeshire have always visited Lundy, and they may have tried to breed. But until the rats went they were always deterred or their eggs and chicks were eaten.

Manx Shearwater (Omarrun)

Manx Shearwater (Omarrun)

Removing rats from islands with shearwater colonies does not always result in a quick recovery of the shearwaters. It did on Ramsey off Pembrokeshire, but it has not happened on Canna where rats were also removed about a decade ago. This is curious. Canna is next door to the huge shearwater colony on the island of Rum. Does Rum have enough birds to export to, and recolonise, Canna? We have high hopes rats will be removed from the Calf of Man (where there really should be lots of Manx shearwaters), and also on Scilly, to allow the recovery of this amazing bird. My hunch is that if  and when the rats are removed from the Calf, the shearwater population will recover quickly. We already know that Welsh island birds spend the later part of the summer in the northern half of the Irish Sea, so are in the area for some of the year. But where would immigrant shearwaters to recolonise Scilly come from? Recovery there may take some time. In the meantime, on islands where rats have been removed you seem to get a recovery of ground-nesting and other birds and large insects such as big beetles, so rat eradication from seabird island – however unpleasant – is an ecological win win.

Stop press – Great to see that the puffins on the National Trust’s Farne Islands have recovered from their low count in 2008. A stonking 40,000 pairs!

Granite stacks on the west coast of Lundy.

Granite stacks on the west coast of Lundy.

  • Dr David Bullock- Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust

Puffin numbers rally after 2008 crash

Results from a three-month survey of puffins on the world famous National Trust Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast, have shown an eight per cent increase in the number of breeding puffin pairs since 2008 when the last census showed a dramatic fall in numbers.

A team of eleven National Trust rangers carried out a full census of the population, which happens once every five years, across eight islands with the final figures showing that there are just under 40,000 (39,962) pairs of nesting puffins.

2003 was the peak year for puffins on the Farne Islands with over 55,000 (55,674) nesting pairs recorded and numbers had been steadily increasing since the 1960s. However the 2008 survey revealed a dramatic crash in numbers by nearly one third to just 36,835 pairs.

 David Steel, Head Ranger on the National Trust Farne Islands, commented,

“The results of the puffin census come as a real relief following some difficult years for them – with the flooding of burrows last year and a very challenging winter.  We had feared that the numbers of puffins would be down again as has happened on other colonies, including those on the Shetland Islands.

 “The bad weather during recent seasons has had some impact on numbers, but with a good nesting habitat secured by us and a plentiful supply of food in the area, numbers have been recovering pretty strongly, which is great news for the puffins and other seabirds.”

 Extreme weather has had a major impact on puffins in the north-sea in the last couple of years.  The 2012 breeding season was hit hard with the second wettest summer on record flooding many burrows, where puffins live.

Earlier this year, just as puffins were returning to the colonies in March, storms resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds along the coasts of north-east England and Scotland. Over 3,500 bodies were collected and ringing recoveries suggested that many of the birds involved were breeding adults from local colonies.

 Professor Mike Harris from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology added,

“The wreck was unusual in that it occurred when puffins were returning to their colonies and were close to land.  It’s likely that a very high proportion of the total number of birds that died were found, therefore exaggerating the severity of the mortality.

 “The Isle of May puffin population, 100 km to the north of the Farnes, has also shown no sign of a decline in numbers following the winter puffin disaster. Puffin survival over the last winter was not exceptionally low, despite fears after the wreck.”

The unmistakeable puffin with its bright beak and slightly comical walk is a much loved symbol of the British coastline. During the survey, which began in May, the rangers put their arms into holes to make sure that the nests are occupied.

Puffin census_infographic

 David Steel concluded,

“The poor spring weather affected the timing of the breeding season, with the birds that did survive, breeding late”.

“However this late start may result in puffins remaining at the colonies until later in the summer than normal, giving people even more opportunity to enjoy watching them.”

 For the first time, nest cameras have been inserted into puffin burrows to record the birds’ behaviour in intimate detail. The footage, along with details on how the rangers are progressing with the 2013 puffin census, can be seen at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/puffins or follow progress on twitter at #puffincensus.

What makes the Farne Islands so magical in the spring?

Yesterday in a live Q&A on the BBC Website Sir David Attenborough was asked what was the best place in the UK to see magnificent wildlife.  His answer: the Farne Islands in the spring during the breeding season. 

Head Ranger and long term resident on the Farne Islands, David Steel, sheds some light on their wonder and why once you’ve visited you’re hooked.

What makes the Farne Islands so special? If you have visited during the nesting season you will know the answer, if you haven’t – why not? These islands provide one of the greatest wildlife experiences that you can imagine.  This north-eastern archipelago is ‘home’ for over 80,000 pairs of seabirds including over 37,000 pairs of Puffins. These islands are not large so we’re not talking giants amongst colonies, we’re taking small but action packed.

National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

From early April though to July, the islands are one of the most outstanding seabird cities Europe has to offer. The sights, sounds, and smells are unforgettable with every inch of rock, occupied, every tussock of vegetation used, and it really is wall-to-wall seabirds. They even make use of the few buildings we have, with Eiders nesting in the monastic courtyard and Puffins nesting under the foundations of the garden shed. Every inch is fair game.    

Some birds travel thousands of miles to nest on the Islands, others are more stay-at-home types. From the Arctic Terns, which spend the winter off the pack ice of the Antarctic to the prehistoric looking Shags who remain around this north-eastern outcrop the year round.  It’s not just the variety of nesting species, over 20, but the sheer numbers. Where else could you find so many pairs of birds in such a compact area? Inner Farne, at 16 acres, is the ‘largest’ island and supports 19,000 pairs of birds; incredible by any standards. The islands are also a re-fuelling stop for vast numbers of migratory birds – ‘bed and breakfast’ for the weary travellers.

It’s not just the stunning wildlife which make the Farnes appealing, but its accessibility. The islands are only a thirty minute boat trip off the north Northumberland coast – not in some far flung reaches of the North Sea or Atlantic involving hours, even days, of travel. The Farnes are a seabird colony made easy, where the seabirds come to you:  Puffins within five feet, Arctic Terns pecking your head; Eiders within touching distance. The Farne Islands are simply stunning, and will both amaze and delight.

Oh, and did I mention the fact the Islands are home to the largest breeding population of Grey seal on the east coast of England? But that’s a tale for later in the year…………………   

You can follow David Steel on twitter at http://twitter.com/NTsteely

Time for slugging it out

Last year was a difficult year for much of our wildlife, especially winged insects which struggle in wet summers.  It set 2012 up poorly.

This year, a dry winter and sunny March ushered in widespread hose pipe bans – the only effective rain dance yet devised by mankind.  Sure enough, we endured the wettest April to June period on record, and the first half of July has been equally dire.  A nine day hot spell in late May brought some respite.

The bird-nesting season has at best been poor, though individual birds live long enough to be able to miss the odd breeding season.  On the Farne Islands, many puffin burrows have been drowned, and nests of other sea birds have been swept off cliffs.  At Strangford Lough, in Northern Ireland, arctic, common and sandwich terns may fail to raise any young this year.  On swollen rivers, nests of moorhens and swans have been swept away, and kingfisher and sand martin holes flooded.

It hasn’t been much better for our garden birds, with parents abandoning nests due to bad weather or failing to find enough food for nestlings.  Bats and insect-feeding birds have been particularly badly affected, due to shortages of caterpillars and winged insects.

Butterflies, bees, hoverflies and other beautiful or beneficial insects have all been scarce.  Small isolated colonies of such weather-sensitive insects are likely to die out this year, and recolonisation may take one or two good summers.  Few insects are visiting the garden buddleia bushes at present.

There are always winners and losers though, and this summer the main winners seem to be slugs, and nettles, and surprising, some of the orchids.  It has been a particularly good summer for the exquisite bee orchid.  Plagues of midges and mosquitoes may appear if the weather warms up.

The great hope now, of course, is that the Olympics will generate lovely weather – when people are indoors glued to their TV sets.

By Matthew Oates, a naturalist for the National Trust