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Seabirding Without the Pills

Roger Riddington

When Bob Flood first suggested an article for the new seabird website www.scillypelagics.com, I thought he was taking the mick. Nothing dampens my enthusiasm to see good birds more effectively than the prospect of a heaving boat+stomach combo, and a reluctance to gamble on the effectiveness of the humble kwell has cost me at least one terrific bird (the Fair Isle Rufous-tailed Robin). It is unlikely in the extreme that I will ever join one of the mouthwatering pelagic trips off Scilly (unless, like hayfever, seasickness is something you grow out of?), and I am resigned to the fact that I will probably never see Wilson’s Storm-petrel in Britain. Most landlubbers have an obvious alternative to get their seabird fix of course. But seawatching in Shetland, where I live, is (with the exception of the mid May skua passage, which can be breathtaking) a taste acquired only by the masochistic. There is, however, a third way…

Beached bird surveys used to be carried out all around the UK coastline on a regular basis. Nowadays, all that happens along the majority of our coasts is a single, measly, co-ordinated count in late winter. In Shetland, however, things are different. The Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group (SOTEAG) boasts just one full-time employee. But that man is Martin Heubeck, living legend and seabirder extraordinaire. Big Mart eats, drinks, sleeps and LIVES seabirds. Anything without webbed feet is simply not a real bird. Something as trivial as a Siberian Rubythroat couldn’t hold a candle to a Fulmar gizzard. This is a man that has found two live Brunnich’s Guillemots, and might well have a couple more left in him. And Big Mart organises beached bird surveys.

The Shetland beached bird survey has run continuously since March 1979. Martin and around 15 stalwart volunteers count the same 70 or so beaches every month, which translates into almost 600 km of beach counted every year. The survey was set up to monitor the potential impact of oil spills on Shetland’s internationally important breeding seabirds, given the proximity of the Sullom Voe terminal. In fact, the vast majority of the corpses picked up are free from oil (in the past 10 years, less than 3% of corpses were oiled), which just goes to show that the oil industry, properly run, need not have an impact on marine wildlife. But there are many other things that the survey tells us. It is effectively an extra seabird monitoring tool, and the frequency with which our beaches give us a ‘heads-up’ to a wider phenomenon – such as the recent wreck of ‘blue’ Fulmars – makes it all the more surprising that co-ordinated beached bird surveys are overlooked by the major conservation bodies.

I started my beached bird surveys when I moved to Shetland mainland in 1998, after my stint on Fair Isle. After cutting my teeth at Easter Quarff, I was soon moved to somewhere closer to home, and the trio of Rerwick, Scousburgh and Peerie Voe, on the west side of the peninsula that is Shetland’s South Mainland. Rerwick and Scousburgh are impressive stretches of white sand that would be crawling with sun-worshippers if the sea was less frigid, while Peerie Voe is a tiny sand+pebble stretch with a terrific view out to the west, to Foula and beyond.

So, to come back to the seabirding third way, it’s a given that sooner or later you find a good bird for your troubles, right? That was my theory, although initially I did think I was more likely to find a Desert Wheatear or something equally nice shuffling around a deserted car park or along a remote stretch of dune grassland where birders seldom tread. And failing that, an albatross or a tropicbird, on the tideline, surely? At the start of my tenth season, I had accomplished neither of those things, and continued the survey for the good of my health, for the reassurance of contributing worthwhile data and, let’s face it, because Big Mart wouldn’t let me stop doing them.

Sunday 25th March 2007, two months short of my tenth anniversary, I finally cracked it. As usual, there was nothing on Peerie Voe and I was soon at nearby Scousburgh, enjoying a smart first-winter Iceland Gull cruising up and down above the surf. The strandline at Scousburgh was full of rubbish, presumably a reflection of the previous weekend’s storm, and there were a few birds to collect as well: a Fulmar, a Shag and a Kittiwake, all fairly typical finds. Having finished the entire beach, I was heading back to the car with my handful of stinking corpses, and roughly scanning the bruck from the other direction. A wingtip poking up looked particularly obvious – how did I miss that? Actually, it’s all too easy to miss something going one way, only to pick it up on the way back. I toe-ended it neatly out of a tiny dune of sand and nylon: a guillemot. At this point, I would like to pretend it was the distinctively less sigmoidal trailing edge of the wing that first flashed ‘holy grail’, but in truth, the distinctive tomium stripe was much less subtle and hit me straight between the eyes! Brunnich’s! Most of the innards were missing, but the wings, head, feet etc were in good nick, as the photographs show. The state of the corpse was consistent with it coming ashore during the hurricane-force north-westerly winds on 17th/18th March, which seemed the most likely cause of its death. I laid it reverentially in the back of the car and took it home to wash and photograph, having (of course) stopped to show it off proudly to Big Mart on the way!

Brunnich's Guillemot corpse  Roger Riddington

That was, probably, enough to keep me going for another ten years, but just six months later another memorable find completed my beached bird annus mirabilis. 29th/30th September 2007 was one of those magically calm, clear spells that come to Shetland all too rarely; horizontal sleet is much more typical for a ‘beaches weekend’. That weekend, however, I wasn’t enjoying the weather. I had been out on a small boat first thing on Saturday morning, which was remarkably pleasant (the weather was that good); except that the trip was to Foula, to (not) see a Siberian Thrush that was never going to have stayed overnight in such weather. I was still in a mighty grump for my beaches the following day, when the weather remained glorious and it was one of those rare occasions when I had to dodge round the ‘more normal’ beach-goers. Even on sunny days I usually have Rerwick to myself, however, since getting there demands shinning down a cliff or a long walk and a load of fences. That day, a solitary pair of wings on Rerwick was the only score on my BBS sheet (and one of those was pretty mangled), but it was enough to be interested in. Back home, as I washed them under the tap and looked at them properly, it was fairly easy to confirm that it was a long-dead Great Shearwater – a rarity in Shetland and only my second for the island.

Great Shearwater corpse showing upperwing  Roger Riddington

Of course, finding a rare on the tideline doesn’t quite match up to the living thing – but take it from me it’s still a good feeling. So, at this rate, roll on 2017 and my next good year! What’s on your nearest tideline?

Brunnich’s Guillemot description

Bare parts: Bill blackish, with extreme tip of upper mandible horn-coloured. Culmen steeply decirved, as photos show. Tomium stripe obvious, and strikingly yellow-brown. Legs/feet blackish, but front and inside of tarsi yellow-brown; ditto upperside of toes.

The shafts of the outer primaries on the upperwing were dark (unlike those of Common Guillemot, which are strikingly pale).

The following biometrics were taken from the corpse:

Bill length (tip to feathering): 36.0 mm [range in BWP 35–44, both sexes; Common Guillemot 44–50]

Bill length (tip to gonys): 20.3 mm [range 20.0–22.9; Common Guillemot 27.5–33.5]

Bill depth (at gonys): 12.0 mm [range 12.9–15.2; Common Guillemot 12–14]

(the bill appears to be both short and not quite as deep as most, but the measurements in BWP are for breeding-plumaged birds, which presumably have a slightly larger bill)

Brunnich's Guillemot corpse showing head & bill  Roger Riddington

Winglenth: 221 mm [range 208–223; Common Guillemot 190–203]

Tail: 47.5 mm [range 43–53; Common Guillemot 38–50]

Tarsus: 35.5 mm [range 35–40; Common Guillemot 37–39]

Wing formula. Tenth primary longest. Rest of primaries shorter by following measurements: P9 -6; P8 -11.5; P7 -22.5; P6 -35; P5 -47; P4 -57.5; P3 -69.5; P2 -81; P1 -97.5.

Brunnich's Guillemot corpse showing underwing  Roger Riddington

Age

In Shetland, we routinely age Common Guillemots as first-winters if they have obvious white tips to otherwise dark grey underwing greater-coverts. This bird also had obvious white tips to the grey underwing greater-coverts, with broad, well-defined white edge to tip of outer web, with a more diffuse white edge at the tip of the inner web. In addition, this bird seems to be in full winter plumage which, assuming that it died in mid March, might also suggest that it is a first-winter rather than an adult.

Great Shearwater description

Winglength 329 (one wing only measured). Min tarsus 57 and 58 (two measured). Longest toes approx 75–76. Wing formula: P10 = WP, P9 (tip missing), P8 -20, P7 -41, P6 -65, P5 -91, P4 -116, P3 -141, P2 -163, P1 -188. All measurements in mm.

Primaries evenly tapered, but P10 with v narrow outer web. Ten long primaries – couldn’t find the vestigial outermost. Feet/legs with markedly flattened tarsus – outer dark horn, inner pale/fleshy horn. Outer toe dark horn, middle & inner pale/fleshy horn; outer & middle of equal length, innermost c. 8 mm shorter. Vestigial hind toe/claw. 

Remiges blackish brown, coverts sooty brown, the darker primary coverts with v indistinct pale brown fringe (mainly at the tip). Secondary coverts paler with broader, pale grey/buff fringes. Underwing white, with broad dark trailing edge to remiges. Underwing primary coverts with dark grey streaks and spotting along leading edge of the wing. Most of axillaries and underwing coverts missing, so the underwing effectively looked all-white.

Great Sheatwater corpse showing underwing  Roger Riddington