The newest member of Team Gannet

Sadly this will be the last summer I get to spend working with the Bass Rock gannets. But fear not, the blogs will be continuing as Ruth Jeavons, and from October Chris Pollock, will be continuing the research in pursuit of their PhD’s. So for this post I’m handing over to Ruth to introduce herself and her research.

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I am currently spending a hot, but windy, afternoon looking out to sea at the white crests preventing us from landing on Bass Rock today. What better excuse to sit down with an excellent cup of coffee, piece of carrot cake, and introduce myself?!

I’m Ruth, a 1st year NERC DTP PhD student at the University of Leeds, studying the foraging effort and behaviour of breeding gannets. Despite officially being half way through the field season, it’s only just beginning for me in terms of getting my hands on some actual data…

Very excited to be retrieving a GPS logger from one of the birds tagged in April (Photo – Emily Thornton)

Like Jude, I am attaching data-logging devices to the birds to see what’s going on whilst they’re out at sea. In addition to GPS loggers to see where they go, I’m using accelerometers. These measure movement, in the form of acceleration, in three directions (see below!) From this it’s possible to work out body postures and behaviours that we simply wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. For example, the angle of a dive, or individual wingbeats during flight and underwater. As movement is associated with using energy, accelerometry data can also be used as an indication of how energetically costly some activities are to gannets. These are some of the things I hope to look at during my PhD… But for now, it’s all about getting that data!

I have always been a big fan of fieldwork and have been lucky enough to work in some amazing places, but Bass Rock fieldwork is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced! As everyone says, the senses are utterly assaulted one way or another by the 150,000 birds. From getting to know the ideal distance to stay away from a path side nest to avoid a jab to the calf, to the ever constant ‘is it raining? Oh, nope, that’s not rain’, it’s a one of a kind experience!

One of the more vocal and feisty path side birds – one to avoid getting too close to! (Photo – Ruth Jeavons)

I am attaching accelerometers to the backs of the gannets rather than the tail, which involves the fiddly task of manoeuvring small feathers, positioning tape under them at the base and then laying the device on top before wrapping it up nice and securely… Sounds simple? I didn’t so! To be on the safe side I made some dummy devices out of fimo (basically playdough that hardens in the oven for anyone not familiar!) and attached them to some pioneering participants. Two out of three birds were seen 6 days later with their dummy devices still attached, so I went ahead and deployed 4 of the real things on our next trip, with a clear conscience!

Accelerometer attached to the back and GPS logger to the tail (Photo – Ruth Jeavons)

As the newbie in the team, I’ve had a lot of firsts this field season; First trip to Bass in April, first bird caught (B262 you trooper), first dummy device attached and re-sighted (B066 you star), first real device attached (B295 you legend)… The list (and excitement!!) is endless, but I’m still waiting on the biggest first… Which leads back to hoping for a calm day to be able to retrieve some devices and download the first of my data!

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Season so far

We are now four weeks in to our eight week gannet tracking season, so how have we been getting on?

A quagmire

It’s been an interesting summer so far, after such a promising May, June, as you may have seen in the last blog, brought wind, rain and stormy seas. The wild weather has been a bit of a disaster for many seabirds, this blog from Isle of May describes the conditions their seabirds have been experiencing.

The storm over the 29/30th June certainly caused gannet nests to fail on the Bass. Many of the nests on the flatter areas of the rock succumbed to the quagmire of mud and guano which is created during heavy rain, however those on the steeper ledges, the prime locations, have fared much better.

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Tough year for gannets and researchers

So the gannets have been having a tough year and as a result so are we! You would think on a colony of 150,000 gannets it would be easy to catch and tag a few of them, but unfortunately for us it isn’t quite the case. The first limitation we face is that it is only possible to access a very small area within the breeding population (many of the gannets below the chapel are non-breeders), secondly we can then only catch birds we can reach with a 6 m pole, thirdly we need to know the sex of the birds we catch [see this blog on why sexing gannets is a tricky business] and fourthly they need to be feeding chicks. Because we work on one of the flatter areas of the colony, many of the nests have failed this year, making it much harder than usual to meet all the criteria.

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Interesting tracks

It hasn’t all been stormy seas and rain though. The chicks that survived are now a good size with many now standing tall next to their parents tentatively flapping their newly discovered wings. The birds we have managed to track so far have given us some interesting foraging tracks, with lots of activity close in to the coastline, so we’re just keeping our fingers crossed that we get some more calm seas and light winds over the next few weeks to allow us to track a few more.

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