Monday, 31 March 2014

Razorbills in the 2014 Seabird Wreck

In a post here on 19th February attention was drawn to the major Seabird Wreck happening on the Welsh coast due to the persistent series of winter storms. The annual RSPB Beached Bird monitoring survey seemed likely to record numbers of bird bodies in orders of magnitude greater than typically found in recent decades. Also noted were early indications that disproportionate numbers of Razorbills were among the casualties in Wales. This indeed has turned out to be the case in North Wales with many more Razorbills being found than Guillemots, in spite of  having a breeding population only a fifth the size. Just a few Puffins were found here in contrast to the thousands found on the French coast, an event which inevitably attracted most of the news headlines about this seabird wreck.

Razorbill showing bill with white line and two grooves
beyond it of an adult
The enlarged and colourful beak of the Puffin in the breeding season will be familiar to all. Razorbills also have beaks that change to a lesser extent seasonally and grooves develop on the sides of the bill as the birds mature. Much of the work to clarify the sequence of bill development in Razorbills was done in the 1980s by eminent Welsh ornithologist, Peter Hope Jones. Careful examination of ringed birds of known age or breeding status as well as post-mortems on large numbers of birds killed in some major oil pollution incidents, enabled Peter to show that the characteristic vertical white line on the bill did not form until the bird’s second summer. In Britain Razorbills have only one white line, but a very small proportion of mature birds at some Norwegian colonies, as well as a few of those examined from fishery by-catches off Newfoundland had double white lines. Like many long-lived seabirds, Razorbills take several years to reach sexual maturity. Normally this is age 4, by which time most have the obvious white line and two other bill grooves beyond it. For simplicity this is referred to as W + 2, but some birds seen at the breeding colonies are W +1. The change in bill size and ornament occurs in late winter, so some February casualties may be expected with partly formed second grooves (W + 1.5).

During the seabird wreck of February 2014 I looked sufficiently closely at over 50 of the Razorbills washed up in Anglesey to have seen if they had white lines on their bills. As all did, none would have been first or second winter birds. This fits with ringing recovery data from British and Irish colonies, showing the young birds mainly disperse further to the south than the adults. Moreover, on fine winter mornings adult Guillemots and Razorbills sometimes come ashore at the breeding colonies for just a few hours. To do this it must be assumed that they would have been at sea within a few hours flying time of the colonies.
Peter Hope Jones surveying for Razorbills
and Guillemots accompanied by dependant
young in the Irish Sea, August 1981

As information on bill grooves might be of further interest in determining which segments of the Razorbill population succumbed off different parts of NE Atlantic coasts, photos were taken showing the bills of 25 birds on Anglesey beaches. Of these, 14 had the white line plus two grooves (W+2). Five more would be classified as W + 1.5 and five had W + 1. Only one bird was W + 0.5 and was thus probably over age 2 but still immature.

Whether In a few weeks time it may or may not be possible to detect if there are fewer Razorbills ashore in any of the South Irish Sea colonies remains to be seen. Guillemots stand on open ledges where sample sections of whole colonies can be monitored to determine breeding success.  This is somewhat more difficult with Razorbills as most lay in crevices or partly hidden under boulders, so estimates of productivity variability are less reliable in this species. Individual long-lived seabirds are known to sometimes skip a year in attempting to breed. Whether more Razorbills will enter this breeding season in poor condition and skip a year is possible and worth looking out for. The proportion of adult Razorbills accompanied by chicks at sea during the immediate post-breeding period in July-August might be an alternative indicator of productivity. The chicks leave the cliffs when half grown and are looked after at sea for about another 6+ weeks by one parent. At sea each small juvenile stays close to the parent, while making frequent high pitched contact calls. Experience from seabird at sea surveys in the 1980s showed that Ad+juv couples are relatively easy to distinguish. They were not scattered thinly all over the whole Irish Sea, but the young had been shepherded to a few favourable areas. Would this be another way to gather supporting evidence for relative breeding success?

This blogpost was written by Ivor Rees, a regular contributor to the Natur Cymru magazine.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Mother’s Day - Mother Nature - Natur Cymru!

Mother Nature C17th Wiki
I just received a wonderful phone call from a daughter buying a Natur Cymru subscription for her Mum to arrive by Mother’s Day. What a thoughtful and enduring gift. Maybe for this time next year we should commission a Mother Nature work of art for the front cover?


Monday, 24 March 2014

After the Storm

During the coastal flood events of December 2013 to February 2014, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) staff were in the front line helping to keep the people of Wales safe from flooding. The peak sea level experienced in December 2013 was the highest recorded in Liverpool Bay during the 21 years since the tidal gauge was established, and the peak levels on January 3rd 2014 were the highest on the south and west coast of Wales for at least 16 years. The impacts on the coastline and defences have been compounded by the successive and sustained nature of the storm conditions and powerful waves over a number of tides and days.
Morfa Madryn by John Ratcliffe
At the same time as working to help affected communities, we have begun to assess the wider environmental implications of the storms. In particular we decided to carry out a simple audit of the impact on wildlife and Wales’s nature conservation sites, and to compare our findings with reports from England.

It quickly became evident that a wide range of coastal habitats were impacted by the storms, especially beaches, sand dunes, vegetated shingle and to a lesser extent saltmarsh and soft cliff. In a conservation context they included habitats of principal importance for conservation in Wales (under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006). Huge amounts of sand were removed or moved around on our beaches, shingle ridges were driven inshore, and dunes, saltmarsh and cliff were eroded. However, our findings suggest that coastal grazing marsh in Wales was not seriously inundated, with only three reports submitted. This contrasts with the experience in England where extensive areas were submerged in the tidal surge event of 5th and 6th December 2013.
Sea Cucumber at Dinas Dinlle by D Bryn Jones

Nationally and internationally important conservation sites and their features have been affected. Records to date have identified change at 37 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and 10 Special Areas of Conservation.

A quarter of Wales’s nationally important geodiversity sites include sections of coast. Features include active processes, static landforms and stratigraphical or fossil interest exposed in coastal cliffs. The recent storms have led to large scale changes to the morphology of the coastline in some areas, and have also cleaned or ‘freshened’ many of the coastal cliffs through the removal of debris and vegetation. These fresh exposures, and new archaeological discoveries such as ancient submerged forest and peat cuttings, will require longer term scientific recording and monitoring.
Borth exposed forest by Ian Medcalf
Fortunately important coastal freshwater habitats (such as the Bosherston Lakes, Pembs) were not impacted by saltwater intrusions which could alter their ecosystems. In contrast, natural coastal lagoon environments have evolved to cope with increases in salinity. The damage to the infrastructure of the Wales Coast Path highlights the challenge of maintaining the route in dynamic environments.

The true extent of the wildlife impact will become apparent when surveys are carried out later in the year. Dormant animals may have been drowned in their hibernation sites, while amphibians could be extremely vulnerable to physiological shock from seawater. In particular, NRW staff have concerns about some rare coastal invertebrate species.

Dead Palmate Newts at Rhosneigr by Rachel Stroud
Our exposed coastal areas tend to accumulate relatively large amounts of marine litter, due to topography, and prevailing winds and currents. The storm and nature have done us a favour by collecting this material on to the land but the challenge will be to find a way to remove this litter from the marine ecosystem.

It is predicted that extreme weather events will become more frequent in future. We need to appreciate the degree of change which can occur during these events, both for people and their environment. In particular, the significant morphological change highlights the importance of ongoing coastal monitoring to inform management of not just built assets but also our natural biodiversity and geodiversity resources.

We are very grateful to all the Natural Resources Wales staff and our partner organisations who contributed to this environmental audit. Catherine Duigan, Nicola Rimington, Paul Brazier and Raymond Roberts, Natural Resources Wales. (This article appeared in edition 50 of Natur Cymru but there was not enough space for the photos.)

At Pembrey by Anne Bunker
Litter at Dwyfor by Paul Brazier
Starfish by Rhodri Dafydd
A Pearlside Maurolicus muelleri by Rowland Sharp.
Only the second record in Wales?
Glamorgan heritage coast - fall at Summerhouse Point by Paul Dunn
Aberystwyth by Paul Brazier
Peat cuttings at Fairbourne by Dave Thorpe

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Rejoice! Twin kids

For the first time in many years our gang of goats below the railway line has had kids. In 2005 there were 6 adults and 1 kid – I don’t recall them having a kid since then, certainly not one that survived.

In 2011 there were 3 males and 3 females but this year we started with just 1 male and 2 females. On Monday, as I drove up the drive, there was just the male and the older female. Had something bad happened? Or something very good? 

Driving up on Wednesday I could hardly believe my eyes, not 1 but 2 kids. Here’s hoping they survive the next few weeks and get our family back on its feet. For the moment their home is Pen y Clogwyn, the cliff top residence by the bottom hairpin bend.

This time last year there were 2 kids born to the gang above the railway line. Every evening they could be seen in the steep bank of gorse. But then came the late and harsh winter. I remember seeing the 2 adult females, bleating as they searched for their lost babes. A while later I found the body of one of the kids; had it been separated in a blizzard and pounced on by a fox? Or was it the Moelwyn Mountain Lion?

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Conger snatched from grey seal

Point Lynas - a hotspot for cetaceans
This week I joined a group of volunteers organised by Katrin for the Sea Watch Foundation. Our arduous task was to sit in the warm spring sunshine at Point Lynas to watch and record any porpoise, dolphins or whales. There was hardly a breath of wind with visibility up to 10Km.

We’d only been there a minute when the first harbour porpoise was spotted. Later on we saw a further three and watched them as they dived for a few minutes then rose several times in quick succession to fill their lungs before diving down again; must be something tasty for them to eat off Lynas Point.

Harbour porpoise photo by Laurence
A couple of grey seals, bobbing up and down like bottles, watched us watching them. One surfaced right by the rocks with an enormous conger eel in its mouth, wriggling but with no chance of escape. I ran down to the rocks to see if I could film it but by the time I arrived there was a sad looking seal without any conger; the others think the conger might have been pinched by the other seal.
Seal with conger - photo by Laurence

Amongst our group was Laurence Clark from Castle Vision with an impressive lens – the photos of the eel with conger and the porpoise fin were taken by him.

Sea Watch is looking for more volunteers, so if you would like to get involved, please make contact with Katrin via the website. Lots of events planned.

You will be able to hear Katrin on the Country Focus programme on Sunday 16th March.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Natur Cymru 50th edition - a freshwater theme

'Standing in it' by Gerald Dewsbury.
Trapped in Tre'r Ddol by floodwater, Gerald took
  the chance to sketch the effects of the floods on wildlife.
His work can be seen at Ffin y Parc, Betws y Coed;
the Royal Cambrian Academy, Conwy;
the Kooywood Gallery, Cardiff; and the
Twenty Twenty Gallery, Much Wenlock.
Natural history – Marilyn Lewis. Bridging the gap between the historic and natural environment

Hydro-electric schemes – Kyle Young. Producing renewable energy without destroying ecosystems

Weather extremes in Wales – an historical perspective. Sarah Davies and Cerys Jones. What can we learn from the weather of the past?

Pearls in Peril – Elain Gwilym.  
Afon Eden and the ongoing battle to save the freshwater pearl mussel

Monitoring Wales's only Marine Nature Reserve – Blaise Bullimore. The value of long term monitoring

Y Tywyddiadur – Duncan Brown a Twm Elias. Yn cofnodi tywydd a ffenoleg yng Nghymru

"The Professionals" – the rise of the modern ecologist. Fred Slater. The journey from the eccentric amateur to the Chartered Ecologist

People and pine martens – David Bavin. The feasibility of reintroduction

In pine marten footsteps – gathering the evidence. Tom Fairfield. Tunnels and tracking boards, papers and prints

Woods and forests – Rebecca Good and Kylie Jones. Bryophytes in ancient woodland

Nature at large – Ivy Denham. Habitat management at Pistyll Gwyn

Discoveries in science – Cindy Howells. New species of fossil crinoid discovered in south Wales

Plants at large – Simon Goodenough. Daffodils

Teyrnged i Morgan Parry/Tribute to Morgan Parry – Duncan Brown a Jane Davidson

Islands round-up – Geoff Gibbs. News from Flat Holm, Ramsey, Skokholm and Skomer

Life lines - Catherine Duigan, Nicola Rimington, Paul Brazier and Raymond Roberts.
After the storm – counting the wildlife cost