Speaker: Steve Stansfield
Reporter: Sue Gale
Our October talk from Steve Stansfield had many of us wanting to rush off and book a trip to Bardsey Island immediately! Steve is Director of Operations on the island and has lived there with his family for 26 seasons. (They live in Norfolk in the winter.) Bardsey is a tiny island in the Irish sea about 2 miles off the end of the Llyn Peninsula. It has farmland, where Welsh Black cattle graze, at the lowland end, and the high side of the island which rises to 167m is covered in gorse and bracken. Not only is this an SSSI, with its protected seabird colonies and special flora and fauna, but it is also one of only 17 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world.
The Observatory is housed in Bardsey Lodge, and besides accommodation for the warden can house up to 16 visitors who share a self-catering kitchen. There is an award-winning education programme, notably offering sponsored week-long visits for young naturalists; guided walks for day visitors, and it monitors the island wildlife. Being a small island, it does not have a huge range of species, but those it does have are often very special and it has these in abundance.
Bardsey is a bird observatory so obviously birds take up a great deal of Steve’s time, assisted by various volunteers and visitors. There is a daily census of passing migrants, entered every day into a log, and plotted to produce graphs showing abundance and trends over time. Sadly, they monitored the decline to local absence of House Sparrows, since the island ceased to cultivate cereal crops. They also monitor breeding birds, producing accurate maps of the nest sites of every species. And then there’s the bird ringing (at this stage I was wondering how so much work can be possible!). Data on recaptured birds has arrived from as far away as Africa, and as well as geographical information they glean estimates of life-expectancy. One recently re-captured Manxie (Manx Shearwater) was over 50 years old – at that time the oldest known bird in the world. Some of the Manxies have been fitted with satellite tags, demonstrating that the birds do not mostly feed in the Bay of Biscay, as previously assumed, but largely travel North to the Irish Sea just South of the Isle of Man.
Steve then took us through a year of birds on Bardsey Island, starting in the winter. They rarely get snow in Bardsey, but it can be cold and extremely rough. The Corvids do well there, including Choughs and Ravens. Divers are seen offshore, including Great Northern, and some may stay around. As might the occasional winter thrush or Black Redstart, even sometimes Waxwings. Grey Phalaropes seek shelter when its rough. But the number of species goes up with the arrival of spring. Many of the species that pass through Bardsey on spring migration will be familiar to most of us. Birds like the Wheatear, Willow Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler etc, but the big difference is in numbers. We count ourselves lucky to see a Grasshopper Warbler at all, even though they breed here, but Steve might count 320 in a single day! Similarly, Willow Warblers are west coast specials and may pass through at the rate of 1500- 2000 in a day. Passage waders en route to Iceland, Greenland or Scandinavia, are seen in numbers more similar to ours, but they see far more Flycatchers and Wagtails. The ones we hear about through our messaging services are the Bluethroats, Golden Orioles and special sparrows like Song Sparrow or White-throated Sparrow, but these are special even on Bardsey. On an exceptional day last year Steve encountered Golden Oriole, Turtle Dove, Bluethroat, Wood Warbler and Thrush Nightingale! By the time summer arrives there are more visitors on the island and more breeding birds. There are 26000 pairs of Manx Shearwater which nest all over the island, but 20000 of them are on the steep slopes on the east of the island. Monitoring these nests is no easy task. Also to be counted and observed are 150 pairs of Storm Petrels, 2000 pairs of Razorbills and 200 pairs of Puffins (these last are on the increase). In the single plantation are found Little Owl and the odd Sparrowhawk and in the lowlands are Meadow Pipits, Wheatears, Swallows, Wagtails and Thrushes. Autumn brings rougher seas, breeding Grey Seals and returning
migrants. This means that effectively Autumn starts in mid-July! Raptors like Peregrines pass through and there will be 3 or 4 Merlins on the island for August. Ortolan Bunting is not unusual and sometimes Icterine Warbler, plus many waders. There can be a big sea passage on rough days with huge numbers (30000 in a day) of Manxies plus Razorbills, Kittiwakes,
Gannets etc. Terns come through in numbers, and Skuas, but sadly since bird flu the scarcest Skua is the Bonxie (Great Skua), which was devastated at its breeding grounds in Shetland. The lighthouse on Bardsey used to attract birds, especially those seeking shelter in rough weather, but since it was modernised and now shows a red light this is no longer the case.
The jury is still out on how good or bad this has been for migrants. As well as the usual passage migrants like Yellow-browed Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatchers (not very usual round here) there are rarities to be seen in autumn. The impressive list given by Steve included Baird’s Sandpiper, Citrine Wagtail, Paddyfield Warblers, Eyebrowed Thrush. Blown across the Atlantic in autumn storms are birds like American Robin – a stunning male last time – Red- eyed Vireo and this year’s stars the three Black and White Warblers. Obviously, rarities attract twitches, the biggest of which so far was the 2016 twitch of a Cretzschmar’s Bunting, which attracted over 600 people during its stay.
It was fascinating to learn about the work of the observatory on Bardsey Island, especially the routine monitoring of those thousands of nesting seabirds. Add to that the impressive lists of species seen and the information always being gathered, Steve certainly made the case for bird observatories. I can’t wait to visit! Many thanks to Steve.
Please feel free to read through our reports from our monthly indoor / online meetings.