Not so grim! Studying guillemots on Grimsey Island

16 July, 2019

As part of the Project LOMVIA, a small team of researchers headed to Grimsey Island, 40 kilometres off the north coast of Iceland. Fabrice Le Bouard tells us more about the site and the beginnings of the fieldwork.

The small island of Grimsey is the only part of Iceland within the Arctic Circle! During the summer, approximately 70 people occupy the five square kilometres of land.

The island itself is free of mammals, making it a paradise for hundreds of thousands of seabirds and waders. Myself and Aude Boutet are here for a month studying how and where Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots gather food to feed their chicks.

Our first priority was to set up our accommodation for the next month. Fortunately, the weather was on our side, remaining sunny throughout the day. We knew it was important to make the most of the rare sunshine, so took opportunity to explore some of the cliffs identified during the 2018 reconnaissance mission (Read more in this blog).

We observed guillemots sitting tightly on their eggs either on narrow ledges or in clusters on the cliffs where space permitted. To identify the best places to observe the two species, we walked around the island to see if there were other areas where both birds were present, that was also easy to access. As well as the location of the birds we had to consider the potential travel times between sites and out accommodation. With no car to get us from A to B, we are reliant on our feet.

In the end, the most suitable place was found to be on the north point of Grimsey.

The first few days were not as we expected. The birds were very skittish and they flew away when we try to catch them for tagging with lightweight tracking devices.

After the initial snagging problems, we got into the swing of things and fitted several incubating guillemots with miniaturised GPS loggers and depth and temperature recorders.

Soon the two of us settled into a daily routine. In the morning, we would programme the tags and walk to the colonies at the north point of the island. Then it was time to observe and record which birds are present, and recapture the tags from birds who had been out at sea searching for food. Finally, we deployed more tags to a new set of guillemots.

With every routine, there is a chance of disruption and for us this came in the form of the weather. There have been a few wet and windy days which hampered our chances to deploy and recover tags.

Luckily, the guillemots tended to co-operate with us and we have gathered data that will help to understand the behaviours and interactions between these two species and with their environment.