Conservationists armed with a microphone and “decoy” calls of an adult bird have recorded a storm petrel chick calling on the Shiant Isles in the Outer Hebrides for the very first time, it has been announced today.
The chick’s “tiny, vulnerable piping” is said to be an important milestone for the Shiants – a remote archipelago five miles east of Lewis and Harris.
The islands’ European storm petrel population had been driven to extinction by a plague of non-native black rats, which reached the islands in the holds of ships, and which ate their eggs and chicks. Local populations of Manx shearwaters also fell victim to the predatory rodents, but earlier this year the islands were declared rat-free, thanks to a four-year project to restore them as a secure haven for nesting seabirds. The EU LIFE+ funded project played the artificial call of an adult storm petrel outside the suspected burrow nest site to record the chick’s reply call and confirm its presence.
After the eradication, the project has been working to attract storm petrels to breed on the islands as it has ideal habitat for their nests in the many areas of boulders around the islands. These birds are little bigger than sparrows and only come to land in summer to breed. Scotland’s internationally important population currently nests at only a few offshore islands because of the presence of ground predators at other potential sites.
The operation to eradicate the rats from the Shiants was carried out over the winter of 2015-16, led by a New Zealand-based company Wildlife Management International Limited (WMIL), with the help of 15 volunteers. This task was described as “incredibly challenging” due to the rugged terrain and steep cliffs that make up the islands, and the Hebridean weather conditions including severe storms.
Since then regular monitoring for signs of rats has been carried out with none sighted. During the summer of 2017, the calls of adult storm petrels were recorded on the Shiants for the first time. Their distinctive “churring” call was heard from burrows giving a strong indication that the birds were attempting to breed. However, no chicks were recorded so it was unclear whether they had been successful in hatching a chick. The new recording underlines that they were.
Adam Nicolson, whose family have owned the islands for three generations, said: “The tiny, vulnerable peeping of the storm petrel chick was one of the most optimistic sounds to have been heard on the Shiants in living memory. In one sound, and extraordinarily quickly, all the effort, skill and organisation of the Shiant Isles Recovery Project has already begun to find its reward.”