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Friday, 7 September 2012

Mother Carey's chickens and Dr Watt's ponies

Before the autumn is out and 'Stormie Season' has officially ended, I want to write a short piece about a mysterious little bird that's found around the island - the European storm petrel Hydrobates pelagicus, Europe's smallest seabird.In fact, the bird measures only 15-16cm in length, and weighs 25 or so grams, so stormies (as they are affectionately known) are about the same size as a house martin to which they superficially resemble because of their white rump.The stormies are in fact one of our 'tubenosed' species which are related to albatrosess, shearwaters and gadfly petrels, and belong to the scientific Order Procellariiformes.They're definitely not a chicken either! Mother Carey is a supernatural figure representing the sea, and as these birds were sometimes thought to be the souls of perished sailors, they were commonly called her chickens in the 19th century (an interesting fact that you may well use in a pub quiz one of these days).

Our smallest 'tubenose'

European storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 

The species is totally marine, feeding mainly on crustaceans and other small marine organisms and nests in colonies close to the sea in burrows or rock crevices.Unfortunately the species is not thought to breed on the island anymore (on the extreme and inaccessible western tip of the island at a place called A' Brideanach) due to brown rat predation.Although saying that, Peter Wormell (Rum's first Warden) was the last to officially investigate the area for petrels way back in 1962, so it's probably time for another look (a future project for next season perhaps?)!

Although thought to be declining, the European population is estimated at at least 1,500,000 individuals with the largest colony situated on Nolsoy in the Faroe Islands.In Scotland the largest colonies are situated on Mousa off mainland Shetland, but the nearest known colonies to Rum are on the Treshnish and Summer Isles, the stacks and islets off North Uist and St Kilda.

The island of Nolsoy in the Faroes has the worlds largest concentration of breeding stormies.The island lies just a few miles from the capital, Torshavn.
Like our familiar Manx shearwater, stormies are nocturnal at their breeding sites and this helps them avoid predation by gulls and skuas; they'll even avoid coming ashore on clear moonlit nights.However, in the autumn when many wandering non-breeders are prospecting potential habitat during their return migration to the waters off South Africa, individuals are flying close to Rum's coastline during the night, and it's here that I take the opportunity to catch and ring as many as possible; something that I've been doing with variable success since 2007.Ringing birds i.e., fitting a uniquely numbered tiny aluminium ring (or band as our colonial cousins call them) to the birds legs, helps build a clearer picture on survival, movements and subsequent health of any given population.The information collated from this activity is now considered THE most important conservation tool that the scientific community has at its disposal for assessing the state of our birds.All this is done under a British Trust for Ornithology license of course, as you have to be trained.Please check out or for more information on bird ringing.Sean Morris who lives and works on Rum also rings on the island, and information on his recent ringing recoveries can be found on the news page of our website at

A tiny light weight A2 sized ring is fitted to the leg.It's the equivalent weight of you or I having a pound coin in our pockets.
Through July and into August, stormies were caught using mist nets which were situated on top of the lower lying sea cliffs.This is professional equipment used by trained field biologists and is usually made from fine nylon mesh suspended between two poles.When erected the whole thing resembles an oversized badminton net.However, unlike a badminton net, a mist-net is shelved along its whole length, usually four or five times.When a bird flies into this wall of invisible netting, it falls straight into one of these shelves or pockets and becomes entangled.But this is the easy part, as you still need to entice them towards the net!This is achieved by playing a tape lure (or CD lure) of a calling stormie, so that any passing bird will get curious and fly towards the noise, and of course the tape is played directly under the net.And stormies make some noise, a strange bubbling mix of squeaks which drives you slightly insane after a while, especially when you're out catching all night.

A mist-net in action (note tape lure in corner by pole).
After processing, these birds were released in one group.Although one bird flew off with my head-torch still on with absolutely no hesitation!I simply left them on the top of a grass covered cliff (pictured below), and walked away with my light off (don't worry, all H&S aspects were considered fully!).This allowed them sufficient time to adjust to the darkness once again.When I came back ten minutes later, all had vanished safely into the darkness.

Adjusting to the darkness 
If you want to experience this for yourself next year, I will be organising some public storm petrel ringing demonstrations (depending on whether insurance matters severely restrict outdoor environmental education for good), so you could get to see these secretive little birds for yourself.I did advertise an event this year, but for too many reasons to go into here, I had to cancel at short notice.

From a cultural perspective, one event that did go ahead this autumn was 'A Pony Insight' on the 28th August, which took an up close and personal look at the island’s favourite four legged friend, the Rum Pony. This was a bit disapponting as only a handfull of locals turned up, and was in all fairness due to the fact that few visitors are actually 'overnighting' on the island at the moment, despite all being open for business at the moment (I suppose we had all better get used to it eh). Thanks to Dr.Lesley Watt (Reserve Officer, SNH) for the overview, and as you weren't there, I'll just recap on some interesting Rum Pony facts.

 Lesley and the group on the day
Did you know that the Rum Pony is the oldest Highland Pony stud in the world and one that had a much wider distribution over the Hebrides and North West Scotland in the past. However, over most of this area the distinctive features of this ‘island type’ have gradually been diluted and lost due to the influence of a strain of grey Clydesdales and other foreign breeds, which were introduced to increase the stature in the Highland Pony for agricultural work. Fortunately, on a few remote islands such as Rum, these small ponies survived much longer in a form closer to their original endemic type which was largely due to Rum’s isolation and lack of agricultural intensification.

Recent research has shown that the silver colouring evident in the Rum breed evolved in pre-historic Northern British ponies, around the end of the last ice age. So the Rum ponies almost certainly originated in their current homeland in the North West of Scotland, and not in Southern Europe or Scandinavia as previously thought. Therefore, the Rum pony is a truly Scottish animal, once wild and now domesticated, but still retaining many original wild characteristics.The abundant silver coloured manes and tails common in the Rum ponies are an evolutionary adaptation to help break up the ponies outline. This feature, along with their coat colouring, served to blend the ponies into the browns and russets of a Northern European landscape – camouflaging them more effectively from predators.

SNH's policy is to maintain the stud true to type by careful breeding, and at the same time to make the ponies work for their living. In this way they will never lose their physique and hardy constitution, which had evolved to cope with the rigours of life on Rum. So SNH introduced a management plan some years ago which includes the regular handling of foals, so that they will become more accustomed to humans. These are wintered around Kinloch village in their first two years so that they are not disadvantaged by the severe Rum climate, and are regularly trained for their use as stalking ponies. 

The latter activity not only keep the ponies fit and active, but is for economic value to the nature reserve as they are currently used to carry deer carcasses from the hills during the stalking season. Using ponies as the method of deer extraction is particularly beneficial on a National Nature Reserve as they make little impact.

Recent sightings

Not much in the way of cetacenas lately as its coming to the end of the season.Plus the waters are invariably chopping during these autumnal days, so it's harder to spot stuff.Ronnie Dyer (skipper of MV Sheerwater) did see a couple of of minke whales in the Sound of Rum on August 29th, and a single Risso's dolphin was spotted off the Uig-Lochmaddy Calmac ferry on September 2nd.Records of this species are mostly confined to September, so it may still be worth venturing to Soay on a Thursday.

Sea eagles have been much in evidence around the island of late, including 2 young birds over the new pier on August 30th.Other notable sightings include a single 1st winter black headed gull in Loch Scresort on September 2nd and a cormorant on the 5th.

Sea eagle, IOR August 30th. 
More on this later, but early indications suggest that our shearwaters have had a good breeding season this year, and chick weights (end of August) are pretty healthy.Some were 800g of so, which is almost twice the weight of adult birds (who ate all the pies!).

As they're less secretive come autumn, European otters have starting to put on more of a show in Loch Scresort lately. Doug spotted one at the mouth of Rockery Burn on August 29th, and even the otter hide is coming up trumps with a single seen there yesterday (Sept 5th).    

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