More seabirds returning to Shiant Isles

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Lochaber Natural History Society opened their winter season of talks with a first-hand insight into the seabird colonies of the Shiant Isles.

The islands are one of the most important breeding colonies for seabirds in Europe and have the second largest puffin colony in the UK, after St Kilda.

Seabird enthusiast Alister Clunas gave the talk to more than 40 people last week.

He visited the islands each summer between 2008 and 2017, carrying out bird-ringing exercises that are essential to the ongoing monitoring of the health of these colonies.

The ringing can help to show adult and chick survival rates, and age at first breeding, as well as telling more about post-breeding dispersal, migration routes, and wintering grounds.

The birds are caught using pegged nets, then ringed and released.

Puffins are very site-faithful, coming back to the same islands every year, and by moving the nets the volunteers discovered that the birds also come back to the very same burrows.

A Shiant Isles puffin. NO F44 Shiant Isles Puffin
A Shiant Isles puffin.

Mr Clunas said: ‘There is not much movement between colonies, this means that if the population is impacted it will decline.’

He also took part in two winter expeditions that sought to eradicate the persistent threat of rats as part of the Seabird Recovery Project.

The native puffins, razorbills, shags, and storm petrels have existed under the threat of predation from ship rats, thought to have been brought to the islands when the sailing ship Neda wrecked on Eilean An Taighe in 1876.  The rats that plagued the islands for years were removed during the Seabird Recovery Project from 2014-2018.

Mr Clunas continued: ‘En route to the Shiants we stopped at Fladda-chùain, just north of Skye.  It has no rats so it gives you an idea of what the Shiants could be like without them.’

It is now almost two years since the eradication project was completed.  Mr Clunas says the birds are coming back, with hopes of the return of Manx shearwater and ringed plover, and he highlighted the importance of biosecurity for their future.

There were many questions put to Mr Clunas during the evening, with discussions sparked around methods of poisoning the rats, the winter territorial habits of the white-tailed sea eagle, and the concept of ownership around these islands.

The next talk of the season will be delivered by Jon Mercer, on the subject of dragonflies in Lochaber, on Monday November 11, at the Ben Nevis Hotel.