Welcome to 2017 on Flat Holm! It’s been over 3 years since the last post on here, the island has seen wardens and volunteers come and go but the seasonal cycle of wildlife continues. The Herring Gulls are already building up in numbers, staking out their territories on the cliffs, waiting patiently for their life mate to return so they can reconnect in preparation for breeding come spring.
There are around 300 pairs of Herring Gulls that nest here on Flat Holm, this number however pales in comparison to the 3,500 pairs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls that generally nest inland on the plateau of the island. The majority of the Lesser Blacked-backs are yet to return from their wintering grounds with only a few being sighted daily, but we will be expecting to see the numbers start to swell soon.
From ongoing ringing projects allowing the movements of individual birds to be tracked through re-sightings of uniquely alphanumeric coded PVC colour rings, we know that some Lesser Black-backs will overwinter locally, whilst others will travel south to Spain, Portugal and North West Africa.
Flat Holms only breeding pair of Great Black-backed Gull, Britain’s largest gull, choose Castle Rock to nest upon, bringing a whole new meaning to ‘King of the castle’! An individual has been seen daily since the 4th January and we are hoping to catch sight of their mate soon.
Although Flat Holm is known for its population of breeding gulls it is also an important spot for passerines feeding up over winter. We have been enjoying watching flocks of finches and thrushes gorging on berries, seeds and snails (of which there is no shortage of on Flat Holm!).
Song Thrushes often have favourite rocks that they utilise as an anvil to crack open snail shells and get to the ‘juicy’ bit; if you look closely you see signs of this behaviour dotted all around the island.
The days are definitely getting busier (and noisier!) here on Flat Holm and we’ll be back soon with an update on the spring gull take-over!
“…These birds were daredevilling, taking their flight skills to the edge. I was rooted to the spot. I couldn’t count the birds. There were thirty, forty in front of me, and, when I turned around, just as many behind. They were exalted, falling out of the sky like peregrines, skimming the fields, stooping, spiralling, stalling, their forked tails fine-tuning the wind so effortlessly that it looked as if they were juggling the wind.”
This is a description of Chiltern kites by Richard Mabey in ‘Nature Cure’, but it almost perfectly captures what it’s like to watch Flat Holm’s gulls fill the skies on windy days – their seemingly “wilful, gratuitous relishing of the wind.”
Seeing fluffy gull chicks grow to gawky adolescents, then to successful juveniles is one of the privileges of living here, and it’s hard not to feel some sort of parental pride as, over the summer, the young gulls’ initially clumsy take-offs, landings and mid-air manoeuvrings have become increasingly skilful (though still not without an occasional misjudged, comical near-miss with a less-than impressed adult heading in a different direction).
In the passage quoted and elsewhere in his book, Mabey suggests that some birds seem to enjoy flying for its own sake, and having had front-row seats in a gull colony for over two months, it’s hard not to agree. With most of the gulls now departing Flat Holm and heading to sunnier climes, the island will be quieter without them, but they will be missed on windy days in particular, and we look forward to their return next March.
It’s been a busy week on the Island. We had a grand total of 154 visitors this week with an Island record for the single busiest visitor day: 93 visitors from Weston-Super-Mare.
The Island was a buzz with questions and laughter as everyone enjoyed the summer sun (and summer rain!) as well as the free guided tours that were on offer. These took in the sights, sounds, nature and history of our unique little island giving people a glimpse of the past and a view of the future.
Our bird sightings board recorded a few special visitors such as wheatears and whitethroats as well as the more suspect pterodactyls and phoenix!
A good day was had by all as the geocaches were located, the beer drunk, and the driftwood crafts admired.
Now that the summer holidays have started with earnest we are sure to see many more visitors to the island over the next few weeks. Let’s hope the sunshine sticks around.
Roll on the summer!
We’ve had a number of regular sighting of Oystercatchers during the last few months and we were hopeful that some of them would be breeding pairs.
We had no luck at spotting the nests as oystercatchers are notorious for keeping them well hidden but we knew their favourite haunts.
This week on our regular bird walk we spotted that there were a few more than normal. If you look closely at the photo below you should be able to see the successful parents with their two oyster youngsters. The young at this age have smaller and darker beaks, darker legs and browner back feathers. Well done the oystercatchers and good luck spotting them below.
For the last 30 years the Flat Holm Project has successfully been operating a gull ringing exercise to study the lifespan and the migratory habits of our resident Lesser Black Backed Gull colony, and this year is no different.
Last weekend the island team were delighted to welcome Richard and James (our professional bird ringers) along with their current trainees and several members of the Flat Holm Society. The brief, as normal, was to ring 100 of the young gull chicks before they are ready to depart the island following the breeding season.
Above: Richard and Lynda fitting a ring to one of the chicks
Each chick is fitted with a coloured PVC ring marked with a unique alphanumeric code on their left leg, and a corresponding smaller metal ring on their right leg. Each member of the group was able to sample each stage of the process, from catching the gulls to actually fitting the rings. Other members of the group were also able to spend time searching the colony for gulls that have been ringed in previous years.
Choosing the “correct” chicks to ring was a very important part of the process, as it is in the interests of the exercise as a whole that they are able to survive into adulthood. This ruled out choosing the smaller and weaker chicks despite them being far easier to catch!
Above: Dan with one of the chicks that the team ringed. Its green and white ring reads 4TF.
With everybody having a great time and all 100 rings being applied throughout the colony the weekend can only be regarded as a complete success, and hopefully the gulls that we have ringed will go on to be re-sighted both here and abroad in the years to come.
We’ve known that the Island has reported sightings of common lizards (Lacerta vivipara) in the past, but in the last few years they’ve been so shy that some believed it had been a joke played on the warden with a plastic lizard on a bit of string. Well, we now have photographic proof! Earlier in the year Matt spotted a lizard basking near the lighthouse, so we all began to keep a little eye out and soon enough we spotted it again and asked it to pose for a mug shot. For a few weeks after we kept an eye out but there was no sign of anyone at home. We had begun to wonder whether the Island only had one lizard ?
Then we struck lucky, and got another mug shot in the same spot. When we compared them we could clearly see that not only do we have two separate lizards on the Island but that they are male and female. The male and female common lizard can be separately identified by a number of characteristics. The female is often lighter in colouring with stripes and a larger belly whilst the male is much darker with more spots. Our female is also missing a claw on the front left foot. Common lizards can also be sexed by the colour of their undersides but ours are still a bit shy for this yet.
We can only hope that these two are a breeding pair and that more are hiding in the rocks. We are going to continue to watch this and other favoured spots around the Island so hopefully we can build up a photo portfolio for the common lizard population on the Island.
Its been a quiet week with only one visitor trip this week, another was cancelled due to high wind making the landing difficult. Its given the warden team, the time we needed to get our flock of sheep in and shear them all ready for the ‘hot’ days ahead of us. This was a very tiring job but very satisfying upon completion, it was showers all round afterwards.
It also gave us the time to search for some of the more elusive wildlife that shares Flat Holm with us. We have seen an explosion of caterpillars across the island, particularly on the hawthorn bushes, with Lackey moths and Brown Tailed moth caterpillars putting in an appearance. Caution should be advised around the Brown Tailed moth caterpillars as they can cause allergic reactions in certain people. The Lackey moth caterpillars have a beautiful range of colours across there backs, looking like a 70s rug!!
The beetle highlight is Geotrupes vernalis, a widely distributed species in Britain, commonly seen in sandy, sunny places. It lives in dung, and also in carrion and rotting fungi. This was seen in Johns Plot.
My favourite wildlife spot of the week was the Common Lizard. It is very rarely seen here, with some people not believing me when I said they were living on Flat Holm. They have become a regular sight lately, around the Barracks in at least 3 separate areas, coming out to bask during these wonderful sunny days we are having. They like to come out basking on rocks or wood that has heated up with the morning sun, if you are careful when approaching they won’t run off straight away. They will sometimes sit there long enough to get a wonderful photo as shown.