RSPB Grassholm IslandOver the last couple of weeks we’ve been busy counting the seabirds nesting on and around RSPB Cymru’s Pembrokeshire islands. It’s a lot of work so we don’t count every species annually, but we’ll be updating all our population figures this year and next to tie in with the UK wide Seabirds Count. The latest round of survey work is coordinated by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and data collection will run until the end of the breeding season in 2019.

Northern Gannets and Common Guillemots - Grassholm Island

There’s no ignoring the widespread declines seen in many species since the last UK-wide survey, Seabird 2000, making full coverage of the entire coastline in the current one more important than ever.

So it was good to get out on the water at the end of May, circumnavigating the Bishops and Clerks (the string of islands that run out to Ramsey’s north-west.) All but the South Bishop are part of the Ramsey reserve and despite the strong currents that run around the rocks and some intermittent rain we were able to count nesting gulls and shags within a couple of hours. The usual nesting Peregrine was in attendance as were a few passing waders; whimbrel, turnstone and dunlin.

A couple of mornings later we were heading out to count gulls and shags nesting in ‘blind-spots’ around Ramsey and the southern islands of Ynys Bery and Ynys Cantwr. These are all areas that we can’t count from the land with a telescope. It was a little bit lively and wet in places but sadly Lesser black-backed and Herring gull numbers continue to fall and so what might have been a ‘vomit inducing trip’ 10 years ago was completed in just over an hour.

Staff and volunteers onboard the Ocean Ranger

Then this week we were able to do the same trip around Ramsey for kittiwakes and fulmars, again birds nesting on hidden cliffs and inside the caves on the west coast. Fulmar numbers remain constant at 269 pairs, but kittiwakes continue to nose-dive as at other seabird colonies around the UK and we are in serious danger of losing them altogether with just 83 pairs on well-built nests this week, compared with 450 just 20 years ago.

And then finally, our first trip to Grassholm Island of the year. It was an early start but a beautifully calm day with perfect sea conditions. The aim was to get there and back in under three hours, film the whole thing for the BBC2 programme ‘Wild Year’ and count everything with wings that wasn’t a Gannet! You wouldn’t think there was much room on Grassholm with 36,000 pairs of gannets nesting on just nine hectares of land, but it’s amazing how little room a guillemot needs and having a 3kg gannet as a very, very close neighbour seems to be no barrier. After several counts to get an average for each part of the colony we came back with a total of 2,462 individual guillemots up from 1,849 in 2012. My estimate of 3 hours turned out to be slightly optimistic and it was midday, 4 hours later, before we returned to Ramsey harbour for a well-earned cuppa with film crew and boat skipper.

Common Guillemots at Grassholm

All in all we’ve spent over 10 hours counting seabirds from the Thousand Islands Expeditions boat Ocean Ranger and each and every hour was donated by the boat company for free. That’s free boat hire, expert skipper and crew on every trip, enabling RSPB to complete our seabird counts at no cost to Ramsey’s budget. We cannot thank Thousand Islands enough and especially owners Clive and Cindy, super skippers Zamen and Martin and our friends and crew Nia, Liz and Rose.

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