By Jenni Godber, Ramsar Officer for the Alderney Wildlife Trust (with a note by Cris Sellarés)
On the weekend of 17-19th July the Channel Island ringers (including Cris and Harriet from Birds On The Edge – see their notes below), led by Chris Mourant, joined forces with our small team from the Alderney Wildlife Trust for a weekend of storm petrel ringing on our small islet of Burhou. Until a few years ago Burhou was thought to home only 20+ breeding pairs of European storm petrel; however, these days the numbers are estimated to be over 1,000 breeding pairs! The European storm petrel is included in Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive.
Once we had set up camp, in and around the small hut (which was built by the warden in the late 1980’s), the eight-strong team headed out to the eastern end of the 1km long island to set up the mist-nets. We used four 18m long mist-nets which we set up and furled in the early evening. It wasn’t until it was completely dark that we walked back to the nets to attempt our first catch of birds. Everyone had made ‘guestimates’ of when we would catch out first bird but nobody got it spot on as we landed our first bird at 22.25.
We had organised the group into extractors, runners and ringers to make sure there was a fast turnaround of the birds, a system that worked extremely well. As part of the extracting team, and having never seen a storm petrel in the hand, nothing could have prepared me for how tiny they were, especially their webbed feet, which just about covered the area of my index finger nail! Before we all knew it, it was 2am and we had caught close to 200 new birds and over 80 re-traps – most of which were birds caught and ringed last year as adults. This means we can use the re-trap data to confirm that the birds caught last year were most likely breeding adults and not wandering birds that had strayed off course! We all headed back to the hut elated and ready for another stint the following night.
After a busy day working our way through the lesser black-backed gull colony looking for rogue chicks missed on the previous weekend’s ringing trip, and after a much needed nap, the group headed out to set up nets for another night of storm petrel ringing. This time the decision was made to try the nets on the north-eastern end of the island, something that hadn’t been attempted since before 2008. The risk was worth taking as the birds started streaming in gradually from about 22.15. It was a lot steadier than the previous night where all the birds seemed to land within the first couple of hours! At 3am we decided to call it a night as we were all beginning to get tired and we wanted to give the birds a chance to get back to their chicks. It wasn’t until the morning and the numbers were calculated that we realised we had caught another 175+ new birds and over 60 re-traps.
Cris and Harriet from Birds On The Edge, and also Channel Island ringers, joined the Burhou expedition this year. Cris says: “We welcomed this opportunity to practice our trapping, extracting and ringing skills, and to see how this kind of seabird research is organized. We eagerly set off to Guernsey to meet with Chris Mourant and his team. A small boat took us to Alderney, where AWT’s boat, Sula, was ready to carry us to Burhou. Once we landed and set camp, we started working under the instructions of Chris, during petrel ringing nights, and Paul Veron during the day on the gull chick colour-ringing project that he manages (see Paul’s project here).”
“As expected, we learnt a great deal that we take back with us, having seen how ringing is organized to study petrel and gull colonies. This will help our work in Jersey as we study our own colonies and carry out night ringing sessions at Plémont, where we often encounter storm petrels and Manx shearwaters.”
“With the puffin colony right next to our basecamp, the seals keeping a vigilant eye on us, and the great company of fellow researchers, it was difficult to think of leaving. At times, we might have even been overcome with enthusiasm, as we had to be dragged out of the bracken during the day, and again at 4am back to the hut, as we couldn’t see the time to stop looking for gull chicks, or to stop catching storm petrels. Apparently, rest is important on such intense operations – good thing the others were looking out for us”!
A huge thanks to the Channel Island ringers involved and to the Channel Island Ringing Scheme for giving permission for us to ring the storm petrels on Burhou. It was an experience the team certainly won’t be forgetting anytime soon!