Help save albatross (quickly and easily) by Jerry Gillham

I'm backing and promoting this appeal from my friend who is working hard to save albatrosses  through cheap, innovative technology that is simple to use and will benefit everyone involved.

Wandering albatross

Wandering albatross

In her words:

"I've recently started working for the Albatross Task Force, which is part of the RPSB and acts to stop albatrosses and other seabirds being killed in fisheries around the world. There are approximately 300,000 seabirds killed every year by fisheries! It’s a MASSIVE problem, and many species are becoming endangered, especially albatross. It would be so sad if these amazing birds went extinct because of this. After spending 2 years with them on South Georgia they became so close to my heart. I think they are incredible creatures. They have the biggest wing span in the world, they circumnavigate the globe, they can stay at sea for years on end, and can live for over 60 years. Most of them mate for life and it is heartbreaking to see them waiting for a mate that doesn’t come back because it’s probably been killed in a fishery. I’ve seen birds waiting for months, just hoping for their partner to return. Some birds won’t breed for years with another partner in the hope their mate will return. It would be an absolute tragedy if we lost them, especially for a reason we can do something about!

Black=browed albatross.

The Albatross Task Force has been working for 10 years to stop albatross dying and have had some huge success, but we still have a lot to do. We want to test out some new technology called a Hookpod, which basically encloses the hook as it goes into the water, stopping the birds grabbing it and then being pulled under the water, and drowned. It’s a really cool piece of technology and if we can prove it cuts down on bird deaths, and it’s a benefit to fishermen, then we hope to see the fleets adopt it. It would make such a difference to these birds.
The other part of the project is testing reusable LED lights to replace disposable light sticks. Fishermen use these to attract fish to the hooks, and we estimate that 6 MILLION are thrown into the ocean every year just in Brazil!!!!! It makes me feel ill to think of that amount of plastic and batteries ending up in the ocean. It would be amazing if we could prove to the fishermen that reusable LED lights are just as effective at attracting fish, better for the environment and in the long run cheaper.

Grey-headed albatross chick.

Grey-headed albatross chick.

To start this project we need funds to buy the Hookpods and lights and ship them to Brazil. We already have £15,000 but we need another £5000. We have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise this money. If we don’t hit the target then we receive nothing and the backers don’t get charged anything. We are determined to get this project going, as it could save so many albatrosses lives. I would be so grateful if you could donate anything towards this project, and share the word about it. We only have three weeks to do it in. As a backer you will get updates of how the project is going and lots of pictures of lovely albatross.
Thanks for reading this (I know it’s a bit long) and I hope you’ll be able to help either through donating or by spreading the word. See the link for the project and a video I made to explain it all a bit better.

I hope you can help me save albatrosses from extinction!"

Courting wandering albatross.

Courting wandering albatross.

The Shiants by Jerry

Arrival on the Shiant Isles
The welcoming sign on the bothy door.

I arrived on the Shiant Isles on 5th June, after a long journey up from Cambridge via Flamborough Head, Inverness, Ullapool and Stornoway. Early that morning we did a last-minute shop for fresh food and loaded our provisions onto the boat; six big plastic boxes full of camping gear, tagging technology and office supplies, three large barrels of food, four big water tanks, two rucksacks loaded with rope access equipment, a portable generator and large quantities of personal gear, all tightly dry-bagged.

As we sped across the Minch the excitement levels were rising as we were finally getting out to the real fieldwork. The chance to spend some time on the Shiants was one of the main reasons I went for this job. Flocks of seabirds sat on the water and watched us pass, while porpoise and a minke whale surfaced close by. It was a calm day but dominated by mist and drizzle that had steadily increased to a persistent rain by the time the Shiants loomed out of the grey; the tall, imposing, sheer cliffs surrounded by puffins, razorbills and guillemots filling the sea and the sky.

My first view of the Shiants.

It was a wet arrival (partly the rain, partly ending up thigh-deep in the sea while loading and unloading) but before long we were drinking tea in the bothy with the LIFE monitoring team and by early afternoon the sun was out, giving us time to set up our tents before the storms of that evening drew in.

What would become a familiar sight; thermals on the washing line.

The Islands

The Shiants are owned by the Nicholson family and a passionate biography of the islands can be found in Adam's book. They are located roughly half way between Stornoway and the Isle of Skye, in the middle of the turbulent Minch. They consist of three main islands and an assortment of smaller outcrops and rocks. We have been working on Eilean an Tighe (House Island) and the larger, steeper Garbh Eilean (Rough Island), joined at all but the highest tide by a narrow shingle isthmus, crossing of which can dictate time spent in the field.

Looking south across House Island; the smaller, lower and boggier of the two main islands. On the near right side you can just make out the bothy. 
Looking north to Rough Island across the isthmus, boulder field and arch.
The imposing Rough Island. The zigzag route up this steep edge takes you from sea level to 135m without much mercy. Down on the causeway the LIFE team are returning late to find a challenging dash across between the waves.

Our base is beside the bothy on Eilean an Tighe. A small but comfortable, dry building with a lovely open fire and nearby water source, we were extremely grateful for its presence in the poor weather that dominated our stay.

The bothy. Due for a re-roof, it did keep us dry and warm.
Sitting round the table for food, drink, warmth and conversation in the evening.
The west-facing bothy catching a superb sunset. Our tents are off on the right and the small spring where we got our fresh water is just behind me.

Around the camp are nesting oystercatchers, pied wagtails and meadow pipits while a small crèche of eider ducks was regularly seen around the isthmus. 

Female eider ducks and ducklings.

Further up the slope, defending their nests with the aggression one would expect, are the bonxies, the great skuas, often competing with the large gulls and ravens for territorial dominance. 

Bonxie calling out a warning.
You get too close to the nest you're going to know about it.

The cliffs are teeming with kittiwakes and auks, fulmars cackle loudly from patches among them and puffins cover the grassy slopes like discarded confetti.

Slopes full of puffins.
More obligatory puffin photos.
Carrying fresh nesting material. With such a wet summer this was a common sight, as were filthy, muddy birds.

The mixture of upland, marshland and coastal plants and flowers means there is quite a diversity of colour amongst the well-grazed grasses, with bright yellow irises and pink/purple orchids the showpieces.

Common spotted orchid, I believe.
Flag iris.

A highlight for me has been regular sightings of eagles; a pair of golden eagles can regularly seen circling the nearest peak of Garbh Eilean, while the mighty white tailed eagles dominate the other side.

A poor photo of a rather tatty golden eagle. Still, you can see that amazing eagle face.

The real star of the Shiants though is the boulder field, Carnach Mhor, surely one of the most amazing places in the world for sheer density of seabirds. 

Looking down at the boulder field. I'm sure it was never this sunny.

It really is like a crowded city as every square meter is packed with birds, eggs, chicks, noise and smell. In little pockets on flat rocks the guillemots huddle together. Down in the cracks and gaps the razorbills make their home while further down still, in the smaller crevices, puffins peer out at you in their inimitable way. Every so often a loud honking reverberates around the enclosed rocks as a shag makes its presence felt.

Shag on the nest among the boulders.

The sky above is filled with thousands of birds wheeling around, wings beating rapidly as they circle their landing sites. At times, such as when a predator flies over or when large numbers are returning with food at dusk, the sky looks so full it feels like a biblical swarm.

Looking upwards from within the boulder field, there's lookouts on every rock and more coming in all the time.

STAR work

See my previous blog for the background to the work I was doing on the Shiants. We were focussing on gathering track data from the larger auks; razorbills and guillemots. 


After a few initial teething problems with the devices we are very happy with the data we got back. The tracks are to be properly analysed and published but I’ll try and get an example of the sort of thing we found.

Working late into the evening sealing tags in their waterproof cases.

Additional work

It’s been a busy time on the normally isolated islands as work gears up towards the rat eradication project. The Shiants have been identified as one of the most important sites for seabirds and for seabird potential should the black rats, accidentally introduced years ago through shipwrecks, be removed. This is a large scale project that will commence over winter, though we had a few traps around our camp to keep our food and bedding safe and rodent-free.

The warning sign within the bothy.
A poor, unfortunate, extremely cute eco-terrorist who came too close to our food. That long tail they have is amazing.

One of the key hopes is that the removal of rats will see the return of Manx shearwaters and storm petrels; vulnerable burrow-nesting species who have increased in numbers on other islands (such as Ramsey) where rodents have been eradicated. Happily on our journey back to the mainland I spotted a couple of shearwaters cutting the waves of the Minch, so they are around.


Along with the RSPB’s LIFE team, who are attempting to record all the vegetation, vertebrate and invertebrate life present on the island, we have been joined at times by a small film crew documenting human-seabird interactions and by Scottish Natural Heritage, carrying out additional monitoring. In particular they have been counting the huge numbers of seabirds, something we got involved with, marking out areas of known active burrows on the puffin slopes then retiring and counting the hundreds of individuals standing out beside them.


The above is a lightly edited version of a blog I wrote for the RSPB’s own website (hence the confused tenses) but with better photos. We left the Shiants on 28th June, heading off through rough seas on a nice big boat after helping the large ringing group unload their huge amounts of kit onto the shore.

Though we had reduced the size and weight of our kit, mainly by eating the food but also by losing a few things, I had an extra two bin bags full of plastic bottles, all collected from a short stretch of beach near the bothy. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last few years somewhere truly remote where I collected and recorded any debris found, but I was shocked by the amount of rubbish along the shore. Mostly marine debris and fishing gear – buoys, ropes, nets and crates – but so many bottles, lumps of polystyrene and assorted broken plastics. These are a huge problem, not just aesthetically but in terms of being ingested by marine life. It was so depressing to see a remote, isolated, beautiful, wild island so obviously polluted by sheer human laziness.

I just didn't have enough time to build a huge sculpture / wicker man out of it all.

I was sad to leave the islands but looking forward to comforts like a comfy bed, shower (rather than the cold sea) and a toilet (rather than a wave-bashed rock). Time there had been tougher than I imagined, largely the result of a) continual damp, especially boots, and b) a constantly whistling companion. Still, when it was good it was magnificent. I’ve fond memories of sitting round the fire in the bothy in the evenings, chatting with the others who generously shared their wine, whisky and food.

Razorbill preparing to depart.

The afternoons when the sun was out brought out the blue of the sky and sea, the green of the hills and the yellow lichen on the rocks. When it was clear enough you could see all along the Outer Hebrides and down to Skye. Having time to observe the seabirds in such huge numbers, behaving naturally, oblivious to my presence was always a joy and long may it continue to be.

A glorious sunset over the western isles.


A new job by Jerry

Just 36 hours after landing back at Brize Norton Jess and I boarded the sleeper train up to Inverness, ready to start work for the RSPB. That hectic weekend took in a day of first aid revision and a nice day on the Aberdeenshire coast expanding our rope work skills as well as all the contract signing and paperwork. This was all as part of our new jobs as research assistants for the Seabird Tracking And Research (STAR) project. This is the final year of work that has been ongoing for a few summers now, formerly known as Future of Atlantic Marine Environment (FAME), that a number of my friends and colleagues have participated in.

While not indulging in any climbing or abseiling, we will be working on the edges of some cliffs and steep slopes. Places where you'd much rather be properly roped up.


The aim of STAR, if the title didn’t make clear, is researching seabird behavior - specifically through tracking individuals during the breeding season. The study focuses on five main species (fulmar, guillemot, kittiwake, razorbill and shag) at a large number of sites around the UK and Ireland. A range of lightweight devices that can record a birds global position, dive depth and movement have been deployed and a huge amount of data recovered.

The first view of this data shows where the birds are spending the majority of their time away from the nest during egg incubation and chick rearing. We can see key feeding areas at different times of year, stages of development and between years. Already this has shown how some birds travel much further than was previously thought common or even possible. Further analysis can link this to weather and marine conditions and how these link to poor or successful breeding seasons. Perhaps the most important reason for identifying the key feeding areas is for conservation and protection. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a big issue at the moment and this data will hopefully mean they can be sited in the best places. Similarly offshore windfarms have a large potential for supplying clean, green energy, but they can cause problems for wildlife if built in the wrong location.

In the office

While Jess and Jodie headed up to Fair Isle to start their summer work, Emily and I drove back down to Cambridge, from where we could work in the RSPB office at The Lodge. The journey back was interesting, lets just say that after nearly three years without driving I wouldn't have chosen a 10 hour journey in a van with no rear view mirror and very sensitive brakes.

Most of my time down here was spent getting to grips with the new Mataki tags. Unlike those that have been used previously, the key advantage of these cutting-edge new tags is that the gps data they collect is downloaded remotely to a base station, rather than having to recapture the bird to collect the device back. This means significantly less disturbance to the individual and the colony. Depending on how often you want to record gps points the batteries can last from two days to a week, while a combination of immersion in the sea and picking at it by the bird means tag will fall off in 10 days or so.

Mataki tag (top) and base station (bottom). The only real difference is the size of the battery. As it's vital to keep these devices as light as possible they are often just a circuit board attached to a battery, sealed in heat-shrink. The tag here is under 20g, less than 3% of the birds body-weight.
As with any new technology this required a fair amount of testing; learning how the programming works, checking battery life and downloading range. The best way to do this is to set the tags up and attach them to the back of your rucksack when cycling to and from home each day.

Cambridgeshire: flat. You don't need a bike with a large number of gears.

After my time on Bird Island, getting used to spending every day in an office was a strange adjustment. Although I often had office work there I would generally do it first thing in the morning or late afternoon, saving the best part of the day to head out and do my monitoring work. At The Lodge I usually broke up the day by heading out into the reserve over lunchtime. Being among woodland made a nice change as I reacquainted myself with species I’d not seen in years (butterflies, tits and finches) and a few new ones (hobby).

Peacock butterfly.

Distant hobby.

Flamborough Head

At the end of May we got our first real taste of field work, heading up to the reserves at Bempton and Flamborough on the Yorkshire coast. The huge, seabird-covered cliffs are spectacular. Seeing gannets at such close range was fantastic, though it wasn’t them we were there for.

Cliffs packed with auks and kittiwakes. Bempton and Flamborough looking busy.

Early in the morning (extremely early in the morning, like 3am early) we awoke and headed to the cliffs. To reduce disturbance we wanted to complete our work before the coast path got busy. When handling the birds we try and stay as quiet as possible and aim to release them in within 6 minutes, studies have shown when these conditions are met the impact on the birds are minimal. 

Sunrise on the white cliffs at Flamborough.

Roped up and sat on the edge of the cliffs at that time in the morning was great. I saw a barn owl casually hunting back and forth along the edge, at one point swooping past me with an unfortunate rodent in its beak. With the full moon dropping over the horizon to my right as a deep orange sun rose on my left I felt like was in the perfect location for something dramatic to happen. You know when you look up at a star-filled sky sometimes you feel a small and insignificant part of the universe? Well at that time and place I felt the opposite. Like Zaphod beating the total perspective vortex.