Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Breeding Season is Upon Us

The remote offshore location of the Farne Islands provide a home to over 87,000 pairs of seabirds, and passerines, with 24 nesting species. The islands are famed for their Puffins and Arctic Terns but many more species live alongside the main attractions making the Farnes one of the most significant seabird reserves in the country. Though some species live on the islands all year round, most are migratory, flying in for the summer months to breed and raise their young. Some birds return year on year, flying huge distances from the Antarctic and Africa to raise a new brood.

Each year one of the key tasks for the Rangers on the islands is to survey the thousands of breeding birds. The information gathered each year adds to a knowledge base of seabird population health, movement and well-being within the bird and scientific community.

Why do we monitor bird populations?
Watchers / wardens / rangers have monitored the bird life on the islands since the 1880's, but it was only in 1970 that systematic recording really started. Management of the site relies upon accurate information - are the measures we put in place for nesting birds having the desired effect? Is there a plentiful food supply? What part does the weather play in breeding success? What we do know is that bird numbers have increased from 27,000 pairs in 1970 to the 87,000 pairs we see today.

How do we do it?

Counting ever changing colonies of seabirds is not easy. They don't stay still for long. The cliff-nesters, such as Kittiwakes and Guillemot, require an early morning start, a relatively flat sea, and a number of Rangers in their Zodiac inflatable boat. All the cliff-nesters are counted ten times, over ten mornings, from both the boat and the land, and the figures averaged out. Some species which have a prolonged nesting season, such as Eiders, are mapped, while Terns are counted in one day - the Rangers judge the optimal time for this.

Numbered, painted stones you will see around the islands marking monitored nests

The team follow a standard methodology which is used at all seabird colonies in Britain. This means that when comparing figures, for information, between colonies, we can be confident that everyone has counted in the same way.

Our data is shared with other bodies for example, the BTO, RSPB and critically, The Joint Nature Conservancy Council. The JNCC collates all seabird records, from every colony in Britain, and presents an annual "snapshot" of the health of our seabirds. From this report it is easy to judge the real importance of the Farnes in the national, and international, picture.

How will this coming year compare to last year?

Last year the mild summer weather combined with good food availability led to an excellent breeding season on the Farne Islands. The majority of seabirds showed welcome population increases with some species bouncing back from recent poor seasons. Some of the most notable highlights included:

Shag up 37% to 795 pairs (from 582)
Kittiwake up 21% to 4,175 pairs (from 3,442)
Eider up 16% to 639 pairs (from 552)
Sandwich Tern up 16% to 959 pairs (from 824)
Arctic Tern up 15% to 2,212 pairs (from 1,921)
Guillemot up 4% to Farnes record of 51,883 individuals (increase of 1,835)

The year also gave a welcome boost for the Shag population following heavy mortality during the winter of 2012-13 which halved the Farnes breeding population the following year. There was also welcome news for Kittiwakes as the population increased by 21% and good numbers of young fledged; a positive step forward following recent poor breeding seasons.

As has been the case in recent years, it was also another good year for the islands' breeding auks with Guillemots at record levels, Puffins producing huge numbers of fledglings and the Razorbill population maintaining itself. Other birds to show increases included both the Arctic and Sandwich Terns, whilst Eiders (also known as Cuddy Ducks) made a welcome increase. Other highlights included the Farnes' first ever confirmed breeding of Shoveler whilst Northumberland's only breeding pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers nested again.

In general, it was an excellent breeding season. Strong population numbers, a plentiful food supply and the summer's settled weather contributed to high numbers of young fledging the islands. Encouragingly this success story was mirrored along other east coast seabird colonies; halting the well documented declines witnessed in recent years.

So how will this year compare?

We will have to wait and see. Birds are now nesting, Puffins are burrowing, Guillemots and Shags have started laying, and still more birds have yet to arrive. Our Ranger team are busy monitoring activity again, geared up as the main season approaches. We will post regular updates across the year on the blog and on our website

Our website also contains all the information you need to help plan a visit in the coming months to see the birds for yourself. Our Rangers are always on hand to chat about the work they are undertaking and update on latest sightings. We highly recommend a visit in May and June to see the breeding season at its peak. At this time it is always advisable to bring a hat! For the National Trust, a charity, every visit we get to the islands directly helps support the continuation of this vital conservation work.

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