Final sweep up at Slettnes

The short field season has ended at Slettnes, both practically – because we left the area after two weeks – but sadly also for the birds, because we must conclude that also the 2019 breeding season failed completely. None of the colour-ringed birds we resighted managed to prevent foxes from taking their eggs, but also unknown birds (to us) failed to do so. Because working in the field and approaching nests always carries the risk of leaving traces which might lead potential predators to nests, we also recorded nest fates of nest that we did not visit, but only observed from a distance. Also those nests disappeared within a few days after laying the first egg.

 

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Red fox captured by a camera trap
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Hans holding ‘Spotty’, the dark phase skua with the typical white spots on its wings

So what did we learn from this season? The plans of this final sweep up season for Rob’s PhD project was to try to recapture as many as possible of the loggers that we put out in 2014-2016 and still had not recaptured, read colour rings to see who returned, and to get a general impression of the success of the breeding season. Well the breeding season was (again) quite dramatic, due to low food (fish), not only near Slettnes, but also in the Varangerfjord, where the arctic terns and kittiwakes apparently left their colonies due to food shortage (as we heard from Tomas Aarvak of Birdlife Norway). Our birds laid relatively small eggs and apart from two pairs, all clutches consisted of one egg only. Either because they were not able to produce more than one egg, or their nests were already predated before they managed to lay the second one. In combination with the high fox activity, not a single chick was produced this year. With a lot of effort we managed to recapture six birds and relieve them from their loggers, and we identified 37 other individuals by their colour rings, that will contribute to estimates of annual adult survival rates. Survival in these skuas is high; a typical adult life span is about eight years. As to replace itself each bird has to produce only one son or daughter in this period that becomes a breeding adult. This means that even a few lost breeding years in a row may not be a problem for the population. However, every once in a while the birds should be successful and in such a year all things should come together: enough food, low predation rates and enough birds in the colony to enable a successful defence against predators. With the declining number of breeding pairs at Slettnes such a window of opportunity is urgently needed. Here the last truly good year is now as long ago as 2014. Indeed, this season we encountered several skuas ringed as chicks in 2014 for the first time as adults in the colony. Fingers crossed that these may breed successfully in the years to come…

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ZA, ringed as a chick in 2014 and now returned to the colony
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