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31 Aug 2021

From the edge of the world 2021 – part 3

Written by Craig Nisbet, Seabird and Marine Ranger, St Kilda
An underwater shot of a basking shark, in blue water, swimming with its mouth wide open.
Basking shark photographed by Craig in August 2021
Craig Nisbet is the Seabird and Marine Ranger on St Kilda. Here, he shares some of his highlights of the 2021 season so far.

It’s been a fantastic first season for me here on St Kilda. Together with Sue (Ranger) and Clare (Archaeologist), we’ve established a good team in the Manse and have provided a warm welcome to visitors after what has been a difficult period of time, with restrictions changing over the course of the year.

However, much of my work as the Seabird and Marine Ranger has continued regardless. As autumn approaches, I’m now able to look back at what has been a relatively successful seabird breeding season. Full analysis of monitoring data is underway, but notable news includes the increase in the kittiwake population, after what has been a steady decline for over 20 years. The last kittiwake census in 2016 reported a decline of 88.5%, down to 448 nests from 3,886 recorded in 1999. So, to have counted 655 nests this year suggests the alarming decline has halted, at least for now. There had been genuine concern that, if the rate of decline had continued, kittiwakes may soon no longer be considered a breeding bird of St Kilda. I’m keen to establish a more regular census pattern so that we’re able to more closely monitor future population fluctuations.

In other seabird news, the Manx shearwater population plots, which have been monitored every three years since 2007, continue to show signs of increase. There were 231 responses from 455 burrows across four plots this year, up from 211 responses in 405 burrows in 2018. Puffin productivity also remains high within the Dun plot, with 79% of the 81 monitored burrows successfully fledging a chick. Anecdotal observations of the amount and quality of fish being brought back to St Kilda reflects the breeding success recorded within the plot in recent years. Over 100 diet studies photographs have been collected for submission to the Project Puffin team at the RSPB [1], so that diet analysis can continue on the UK’s largest puffin colony.

Marine sightings have been exceptional so far this season, with killer whales and a humpback whale topping the bill. An impressive supporting cast has included regular minke whales, common and Risso’s dolphins, multiple sunfish and seven basking sharks. The underwater footage of the latest basking shark sighting caused quite a stir in social media channels and eventually even in the national press. Researchers highlighted how rare this footage of such a young basking shark is, suggesting that sightings of youngsters in the water around St Kilda supports the theory that the Western Isles are an important breeding and pupping area for basking sharks internationally.

The killer whales were first spotted from the front of the Manse, when a quick scan of Village Bay revealed the unmistakable dorsal fins of two bulls, with up to five smaller female and young whales swimming alongside. A small group of staff and volunteers enjoyed the spectacle for a few minutes before they were lost from view, but we later learned that the Go to St Kilda boat from Skye had also been lucky enough to spot them on their way into Village Bay from Boreray.

The humpback whale sighting was a personal experience that I shall never forget, despite being unable to document it with any record shots or share the experience with anyone else. While I held my ear close to shearwater burrows, awaiting tape-playback response, on a steep grassy slope on a foggy day in early June, I spotted the unmistakable white pectoral fins of an adult humpback, close to the shore far below me. I saw it surface twice, before swimming around a corner and out of view. I ran around the next grassy buttress to see if I could manage a record shot, but it was gone from view as quickly as I’d spotted it. Sometimes these experiences stick more firmly in the memory as a result of the good fortune or chance that enabled them in the first place!

St Kilda has its fair share of passage migrant birds, mainly involving breeding populations from Iceland or Greenland, with geese and redwings particularly well represented every year. As is the case with most coastal areas though, there is always the chance of more unusual visitors cropping up. So far, two birds have been my highlights of the spring migration: we made only the second island record of a Blyth’s reed warbler on 11 June, likely to have found its way here from Eastern Europe; we also made an early record of a pectoral sandpiper from North America on 29 June.

A close-up view of a hand holding a small grey, very fluffy chick. The chick has a distinctive beak, with a black tube on top.
A Leach’s storm petrel chick

With autumn on the way, and September and October on St Kilda still to come, my hopes are high for a few more unusual vagrants (migrant birds outside of their normal range) turning up before the Leach’s storm petrels fledge from the nest boxes and it’s time for me to depart. At present, I’m continuing with the monitoring of seven chicks in the nest boxes, with another still to hatch. It would be a fantastic way to end this wonderful season if I were able to report that eight chicks fledged from our increasingly successful nest box study site.

Keep an eye on our social media channels for updates on seabird monitoring results, further marine sightings, migrant bird records through the autumn and updates on the fluffy Leach’s storm petrel chicks. I’m sure there’ll be one or two more shots to share from Snedge the snowy owl too!

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[1] Project Puffin asked people (puffarazi) to send them photos of puffins carrying fish in their beaks, so the RSPB (puffineers) can analyse what the puffins are eating.

A snowy owl sits on a grass-covered bank, its head turned 90 degrees towards the camera. It has striking white and black feathers, with bright yellow eyes.
Snedge the snowy owl
From the edge of the world

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