Category Archives: Wardening


Today is LGBTQ+ Stem Day. I’m not sure if I am actually someone who works in STEM, because I don’t study and I don’t have anything academic other than a BSc and a Lantra PA1/PA6 (that’s a little joke there for the fellow conservation workers) I saw “STEM supporting” and thought that might be more appropriate for my job?

I might not actually science science, but I do a fair bit of bits of science and I read a lot of sciencey science. I collect data, and write reports, read journal articles, and I assist actual scientists who are working on my reserve.

I also identify as lesbian, although I’m not massively open about it where I live, I don’t think anyone would mind too much. As a LGBTQ+ person, I thought I would write about what I did today, on LGBTSTEM Day.

Last night, myself, two colleagues, a scientist and a friend went to sit in a bog in the middle of the night to listen for nightjars.

We didn’t hear any, but it was still a very pleasant evening. This morning, I drove my colleague, who had stayed at mine after the nightjar expedition, back to her island.

But first we filled up some water butts, because her island doesn’t have any running water, and put them in the truck to drive to the island. Wait! How can you drive to an island? Well, we can because we have a truck, and it’s low tide, and also I have the key to the gate. My colleague protects a breeding colony of Little terns, an incredibly rare seabird in Ireland and the UK. So on the drive we talked a lot about how her colony are doing, issues she’s been having with the public, general chat.

Sea lavender flowering in the salt marsh along the track to the island

On the way back, I stopped off at the Cash & Carry to pick up some household supplies for the reserve, cleaning stuff, bog roll etc.

I had twenty minutes for lunch, then phone and email discussions about whether or not I was going to join some researchers on Saturday, studying a gull colony in the hills about 2 hours drive from here. They wanted to start at 7, so I’d have to leave the house at 5am, mainly so they wouldn’t disturb the birds in the heat of the day, but really so they could get home in time to watch the football. I ended up declining because Saturday is my one day off this week. I’m not going to get up at 430am on my day off, gulls or no gulls.

I then had about 45 minutes to catch up with emails. This includes queries from the public, general work admin, and updating various people about the current state of the bird colony on my reserve. We are coming to the end of the breeding season, and everything should either be fledged or failed, and in my case (as last year) the gull colony is a complete failure.

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A really sad image – many hundreds of dead chicks in a large gull colony

Yesterday we had collected about a dozen dead chicks, and our resident scientist, researching the health and fitness of urban vs rural gulls, and myself drove 2 hours to the government labs to get these autopsied. We had a really good and detailed chat with the Government Veterinary Investigation Officer about what might be causing these die-offs, about other colonies that are also failing, and he brought out stomach contents from a dozen dead chicks we dropped off last week to look at. Is this die-off widespread? Are colonies across the country experiencing the same problems? Is it a Northern Europe issue?

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Equipment round the back of the vet lab

The drive back was even longer due to an accident ahead of us. Once back at the reserve, we went into the colony to check on his study chicks (sadly, all are now deceased or MIA) and change the battery in a gull relay – this is for a separate study, it receives the data from gull GPS tags.

Finally, I had planned on spending a couple of hours rolling bracken, but I was too tired. So I spent half an hour preparing a presentation for a careers talk at the local high school I had been invited to, then myself and our scientist put out a moth trap for the evening. Because moths are cool.

What is happening to the gulls?

It’s World Seabird Day today, so let’s see what is happening at our gull colony.

Back in the late 60s, the colony of Lesser black-backed and herring gulls at South Walney was the biggest in Europe, with about 45,000 pairs of these gorgeous characterful birds nesting. When my colleague and I completed this year’s transect back at the end of May, there were just over 3,500 pairs. This is a huge decline, but actually a slight improvement on last year, however that could just be stats as we count quadrats and multiply up, and I had readjusted some of the quadrat locations.

Still, we would like to not get any smaller, and I hope through predator deterrence we could increase and be stable at about 5,000 pairs, possibly recruiting urban gulls driven out from nearby towns.

Ideally, gulls lay 3 eggs, and most can usually get at least one fledged, if all goes well; sometimes if all goes very well they get two away, I don’t think they ever manage to raise all three. When the colony was at its height, it was estimated to have a productivity rate of 0.7 chicks fledged for each pair. When predation became a problem (I am told foxes only arrived on Walney in the 1990s) this fell to about 0.2 or 0.3 chicks fledged per pair.

We have electric fences, which now are mains powered and can be maintained at over 7,000 volts – a nasty shock to deter even hungry foxes. The colony was also incredibly dense, with nests at the centre only a foot away from each other, and this density of gulls in a colony can easily drive away aerial predators, such as magpies or kestrels.

So we were confident that we might have an exceptionally good year – except by mid June, it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong. Instead of thousands of fluffy gull chicks, there just didn’t seem to be any at all. As the end of June was reached, the BTO and Natural England arrived hoping to ring several hundred chicks; they found only 9 big enough to ring. It was devastating but seemed that the colony had failed.

We found 9 fresh dead chicks and one dead adult, and took them to the Animal & Plant Health Agency’s lab for a post-mortem. I had seen a colony collapse like this before, working a few years ago at a gull colony in the north of Cumbria, also managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust, which has failed for nearly ten years running. Post-mortem there revealed that the chicks were being pecked to death by adults, who were presumably stressed, although it’s difficult to say why. The gulls nesting on a nearby industrial estate had no problem fledging young.

At that site, it was difficult getting any further. Here at South Walney, however, we are very lucky that we have hosted gull research for decades, and despite the dwindling numbers, it’s still a nationally important site for these birds.

The post-mortem of the gull chicks showed that all 9 had starved; their stomachs were empty. Conversely, the adult bird was in good condition and had actually eaten itself to death gorging on earthworms. I emailed these results to the BTO researchers working at South Walney this year, and also to our regional Natural England contact, expecting just commiseration. Instead, a proper investigation into what has happened is being driven forward – why have none of the gulls gotten enough food? Has a food source collapsed somewhere?

This really highlights how our noisy neighbours can act as an “early warning” for a marine ecosystem that’s so often out of sight. Has a mussel bank disappeared? Has a fish population crashed? This morning myself and two colleagues went back to the colony, to count chicks and collect food pellets.

After a walk through of the whole colony, we counted just 53 chicks, all about the same age – 3ish weeks – and no fresh corpses, which suggests that all the other chicks died at roughly the same time, but that the chicks alive now should hopefully make it as the parent birds were clearly finding food somewhere.

Like owls and other birds of prey, gulls eat food whole and then regurgitate anything they can’t digest in a tightly packed pellet. We collected 38 pellets this morning, and dissected them to see what the gulls had been eating.

This isn’t a robust method, because the gulls will eat lots of soft things that won’t be represented in a pellet. But it gives us some idea. By far, the majority of pellets contained a fair bit of vegetable matter, and plastic, sadly typical. There was a low percentage of mussels, but that’s because mussel shells don’t form into pellets (they just sort of scatter everywhere) so I hadn’t collected many. We found the remains of a small rodent, and beetles, but what we didn’t find were very many fish bones or scales.

Next, I want to go back and collect more pellets, and make more note of how many piles of mussel shells there are. Because the BTO have been tagging birds at South Walney with GPS trackers, we know where they are going to feed – the next step would be physically going there ourselves and see what is going on.

Gull Chick Day 9

Gullward is still going strong! I’ve been weighing him a couple of times a day, and this graph shows just how much he’s growing.

I’m feeding him on cheap tinned fish, and scrambled egg, but he seems oddly picky – making begging calls but not wanting to eat anything. Now he’s up to 225g he is being particularly noisy, but again, despite lots of stinky food, he isn’t interested. When he does eat, he’s much more keen to eat it out of my hand than off the floor.

Gullward a few days ago

Speaking of stinky.. very stinky! he craps a LOT. He’s also going to be big enough to get out of this crate soon; once his juvenile (the non-fluffy) feathers come through and he is waterproof, he might go and live outside, we don’t have any foxes about at the minute and he might be a bit happier than stuck in a box.

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Gullward today

Gull Chick Day 3

Wee gull chick! still peeping and putting on weight. However, it started to lose interest in the white fish fillet, so I tried it some cat food and it gulped it down – I wonder if gull chicks demand a naturally varied diet, or mines just super fussy?

Also lovely to see it play with the pebbles and strands of straw, it’s still adorably clumsy, but with some encouragement is drinking out of a saucer and eating on it’s own. Plus, it’s now up to 90g – double what it was on Saturday.

Gull Chick 1

On Saturday, a member of the public brought us a very small gull chick, still fluffy and tiny, so not more than a day old. It is very difficult to know what to do, they had phoned the RSPCA and not been happy with the response, so left it with me (this is the 4th gull I’ve been given over the past fortnight). All I can do here is call the RSPCA, but as I have plenty of time and energy I thought I’d give hand rearing it a go instead.

I left it in the shoebox it had been brought in, but it was soon desperately trying to escape. I put it into a paper-lined fish crate, with a hot water bottle, covered half the box with a towel and left in a dark room. I found some good resources online that suggested what to feed it, so hand fed tuna. I was also pleased to see it attempt to feed itself from dropped pieces, as well as drink freely from a shallow dish of water.

However, it peeped and peeped and peeped! Resources from a wildlife rehab website I found suggested that they don’t beg for food, but instead just beg whenever they think an adult is nearby. It was very persistent.

I weigh it twice a day, it was 46g when it arrived, by the end of the first day it weighed 53g.

The next day one of our volunteers brought me some freshly caught and filleted whitefish. I snipped it into tiny strips, and the chick happily gobbled all of these up, and even stopped peeping! Definitely preferred it to the tuna.

By teatime of the second day, the chick was up to a whopping 70g!

The reserve I live on and manage was at the forefront of gull research in the 1940s to the 1970s, with a Dr Nikko Tinbergen writing his piece “The Herring Gull’s World” on the reserve, which at the time had the biggest Herring & lesser black-backed gull colony in the British Isles. Although the work has some flaws, and his later pursuits were questionable, it remains one of the great works of biology and animal behaviour research. From this and other research he completed with along with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973 “for discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns”



The local cultural heritage people were over visiting the nature reserve to document our crumbling WW2 structures, using a drone with a camera that enabled a 360 degree, 3D digital record of the concrete bunkers before the next storm reduces them to ruins.

That in itself was exciting, but while we watched them fly a drone about, I scanned the shore with my bins and, way out at low tide, about half a mile away, spotted a dark shape with curved bits sticking up. Is that a shipwreck? I asked my colleagues who’d come along for a neb. Let’s go see! we decided.

It was a suprisingly long way out, of course, and the sands here are terrible and scary, with the tide turning fast and easily cutting off the unwary. So we jogged across the sandflats, and found that yes it was a shipwreck – incredible! an old wooden ship, the hull full of shingle.




We were all very aware that the tide had turned half an hour ago, so literally just grabbed a few pictures and the jogged back up the beach.

A web search, and although there’s been many wrecks on this side of the island, the only one i can find that names this particular sandbar – Hilpsford – is the 1825 wreck of a brig called Susan. Would something from nearly 200 years ago have survived this well?

Navigational Buoy

Today we spotted a Navigational Buoy washed up on one of our beaches, a cardinal direction buoy that tells ships which side to pass as they approach a large port.

What do you do with a 6 tonne navigational buoy? I phoned Trinity House, who are responsible for all the lighthouses and navigational aids in British Waters, and informed them it was there.
“Yes that one is reported thanks” and hung up.

Are you going to come and get it then? I wrote an email, politely informing Trinity House that the buoy lay within the nature reserve, and more importantly, well within a SSSI.

Unsurprisingly this got me a callback straight away from a very polite man who insisted the gps reading the buoy was reporting was not within the SSSI, but we soon cleared that up (it is within the SSSI).

Buoys are removed by either digging a channel and towing them back out to sea, or by heavy lifting machinery landward (nautical term, it means “on the land”), both of which will damage the ground and therefore need special permission from Natural England to take place in a SSSI.

I’m quite excited to see what sort of kit they use to drag it back out to sea!

Shed Hibernator

Here on the reserve we have several old World War II buildings, in various states of decay, some so perilously close to collapse we are absolutely not to go into them under any circumstances.

So I was having a nose through that one, a concrete shell we used to use as a fencing post storage but during the war was a massive searchlight post. Moving aside some mouldy cardboard I spotted several spiders and insects hibernating, including some lepidoptera! hooray!

This Herald moth is absolutely stunning! I don’t think I’ve seen one before.

Nearby were these two small tortoishell (cheers Sean for IDing, go #teammoth):

I look forward to seeing them in the Spring!

I was in the vicinity as I searched for a badger sett in the dunes. I had heard rumour there was one, and seen tracks here, so I spent a good twenty minutes following reasonably fresh badger tracks – always a fun thing to do! Badger prints are broad, with the toes in a row, and with clear claw marks:

There’s plenty of rabbit holes and digging in the dunes, but the entrance to a badger sett is a more sideways “D” shaped – rabbit burrows are taller than they are wide. And badgers tend to keep their sett entrances clean and tidy, while rabbits like a big mess.

Another nice sign of an active badger sett, rather than a big rabbit hole, is nice clear badger footprints leading straight out of it! (on the right of the picture)

White Curlew

I’ve started wardening a Nature Reserve on the Cumbrian Coast, which is very exciting. Until moth season starts up again I’ll just have to bore you with pictures of scenery and birds and stuff.

There’s plenty of wintering birds here, oystercatcher, redshank, curlew, dunlin, sanderling, turnstone and grey plover, mostly. I had heard rumour of a leucistic curlew that had been seen for a few years now. Leucistic is when the bird doesn’t have a dark pigmentation, not albino as there might still be some colour, but pale. I found an actual photograph of one in a drawer (along with thousands of other, undated, unlabeled photographs), so set out on a mission to find what I decided was now called Luke. Moby Luke, because it was white, I kept searching for it and wasn’t sure it even existed.

I spotted it a few times, way out on the flats, hanging with some little egrets. After a few weeks, this was the best picture I’d managed of it:


On Friday evening, I set off to work’s Christmas Lunch as the tide was coming in and – wow! there was Moby Luke right by the track. I did a 5-point turn and sped back to get my camera, resulting in these great pictures:


Next week I’ll compare it to the old photo and see if it’s the same bird.

Also: how great are Curlew bills?