A tale of two islands

25 July, 2019

Zoological field assistant Tim Morely, discusses life studying guillemots on two remote islands in South East Iceland as part of Project LOMVIA

Reaching our destination

Travelling to South East Iceland in early June, myself and seabird ecologist Norman Ratcliffe were about to spend the summer at not one but three field sites observing and tagging two species of guillemot – the common and Brunnich’s.

This fieldwork is part of a wider research project know as Project LOMVIA. The aim is to study common and Brunnich’s guillemots around the coast of Iceland, to establish differences in food sources and any potential competition between the species as a result of climate change. This required data from multiple sites around the island (Read blogs from Látrabjarg and Grimsey Island).

Papey and Skrudur Island

Norman and I were bound for Papey Island and Skrudur Island. These two islands are about 40km apart off  the South-Eastern coastline of Iceland.

Studying seabirds on two islands, relatively close by, is important for this research. It allows us to examine  the differences between the species on each island,  and whether similar behaviour is observed between the islands, to establish if they could be considered as one site. Two islands, two unique experiences

Before obtaining any results, we needed to collect data from  both islands. Although they hosted some of the same species the islands were very different from one another, which brought about a very different experience in data collection.

The low-lying terrain of Papey is ideal for breeding waders

Papey Island is largely low-lying with the coastlines gently rising up to provide the perfect cliff habitat for breeding common guillemots. Unfortuantely,  the few Brunnich’s guillemots present on the island were in an inaccessible location. Traversing the island was a pleasant affair with the area hosting breeding snow bunting, red-throated diver and many waders: red-necked phalarope, snipe, redshank, whimbrel, golden plover and black-tailed godwit.

Snow bunting

Our Papey fieldwork sites had secure anchor points readily available for our important safety equipment. We were lucky thatledges of guillemots that were not only nicely accessible but could be viewed from another angle so as to study the birds’ behaviour and diet provisioning.

An excellent ledge for working with guillemots
Individuals with devices deployed were easily seen on the ledge
Diet could be studied by seeing the fish brought in by the adults, like this capelin

Both Papey and Skrudur were covered in fulmar and puffin (although Papey was much more active for puffin) but that is where the similarities ended. Skrudur was more of a challenge to work on. The island had steep ground and eroded soil which made getting around relatively difficult and the access to colonies being much steeper and more precarious underfoot. No waders or divers were present on the terrain but there were many more Brunnich’s guillemots ideally situated for study in the project.


The steepness of Skrudur made movement about the island more challenging

Safety is paramount in this type of work and so finding secure anchor points from which to work on ropes is a vital necessity. This was more difficult on Skrudur, with the soil being eroded and the bedrock being just below the surface the use of ground anchors was near-impossible and so we had to use natural anchors in the form of large boulders. These are just as safe, but did usually require longer areas of rope use.

Nothing shows the differences in the islands more than the gannet colony – the terrain of Skrudur is ideal for a growing gannet population whereas there is no ideal habitat for them on Papey – and the accommodation. We were lucky enough to be able to stay in a nice farmhouse on Papey but on Skrudur were we were situated in a small shack under a large overhang!

Gannetry on Skrudur
Accommodation on Skrudur was interesting!

Ultimately we had 12 days of work on Papey but only 4 days, later in the season, on Skrudur so that we were able to collect much more data on Papey but we were successful in obtaining enough information from Skrudur to ascertain that the two islands’ populations seem to be operating independently of one-another. The more detailed analysis of what they are eating, where they are catching it and what this all means for the two sites and the two species will be released in due course as part of the wider LOMVIA project, but it was a pleasure and an excellent experience to be able to work on two such contrasting sites with two similar but equally different species.

The two guillemot species side-by-side