Following a recommendation, I ordered a copy of The Lighthouse Notebook by Norman McCanch. It arrived from an American bookseller this morning and when I opened the package and started flicking through the pages, I came across a number of pressed leaves – all American by the look of them. A lovely little bonus!
The pencil-sketch foundation to the painting of the seasons has now long been covered by layers of watercolour, although those layers are in danger of being swept away by the unseasonal weather. Summer is here although no one would know looking outside. The strong wind is putting force behind the rain as it comes down for a seemingly endless day. The saturated ground can hold no more water and the rain is running straight off the meadows into the swelling river, rising by the minute. As the day wears on those meadows start to shrink as the water begins to breach the high banks and spill out over the low, sheep-clipped grass. The bridge across the small Glaslyn tributary began the day high above the waterline but as time moves on, the flow comes up to meet it and starts to wash at the underside of its grey-painted steel joists.
But summer it is; the seasons have moved on at pace since my last visit. The trees are out in full leaf, their various shades of green giving a mottling to the hillsides. The rain-bringing cloud hangs low over the valley, no mountains to be seen and even the lower hilltops are out of sight. Under the woodland cover the first blooms have faded and dried but the bracken and ferns have grown strong and the fox gloves bring a shock of lightning pink to the sides of the narrow track. The brambles are reaching out their clawing branches, now white topped with flowers, promising a good crop of blackberries for the autumn. Out in the open, the grass and rush have grown strong, now topped with ripening seeds; in their midst stands of irises, yellow-crowned, have reached their peak, fighting to stay upright against the wind.
Our winter visitors are now settled in their summer breeding grounds. The whooper swans have their grey downy young fresh from the nest on Icelandic valley floors and the fieldfares and redwings are feeding their chicks in amongst the pine woodlands of Scandinavia. Closer to the Glaslyn, high up on the moorland plateau, the curlew is leading out her young in the long grass while the male hen harrier is passing fresh prey to the female to feed to the chicks hidden away below a large stand of heather.
Down in the valley, the mammal youngsters are continuing to grow. The badger and fox cubs adventure further away from their homes under the oak tree and old rabbit warren, and the otter family has moved from the natal halt to another further up river, away from the rising water. The bats now have young, but they have yet to leave the darkness of the old barn.
There are fledglings all around, feeding on the seed and nuts left out for them – coal tits, chaffinches and house sparrows – a large mixed flock bursts from the ground as a squirrel approaches along the moss-topped drystone wall. A young woodpecker shouts alarm at it from the tree above but the squirrel continues on its way. A family of crows wanders around the fields, an occasional squabble between siblings and there’s a fleeting glimpse of a solitary swallow as it skims over their heads. In a distant tree, a song thrush still sings its spring song, a jewel of sound amongst the tapping of rain, rushing of the breeze and scratching of the branches on the rooftop.
Replacing three speckled eggs are three growing chicks, high up in the nest at the top of the stand of pines. Growing fast on meals of flounder, mullet and trout, they are beginning to gain strength and sit more purposefully upright while they are fed piece by piece by their parents as the rain finally relents.
I was hunkered down in the protection site caravan for most of my shift; there’s not a lot of fun in wandering around in the drenching rain. When I arrived, the river was already high after the overnight rain but with the downpours continuing on and off all day, the water levels continued to rise throughout my shift. Below are photos taken at the start of my shift and seven hours later – the water noticeably higher in the second. I couldn’t get to the bridge at the end of my stay as the water was above my wellies and fingers of water had reached all the way from the river, along the path and past the protection site caravan, lapping at the bottom of its steps – the water was then washing over the top of the bridge.
I often seem to get bad weather when I do a shift but in June, I would normally expect to get something better than I did today – it seemed more like an autumnal October day. However, I can’t complain, I had the nice, dry shelter of a caravan while the ospreys were exposed to the full force of the weather; well at least the parents were. With the rain lasting most of the day, it was a very quiet shift, only one fish delivered and fed to the chicks. The chicks spent the vast majority of my shift nestled together under the protective wings of their mother; she was taking brunt of the elements for them. Despite the rain and wind, it wasn’t cold and it was just nice to be back in the valley, to see how the life had moved on so much in the five weeks since my last visit.
The year seems to be passing so quickly – but at least we still have most of summer yet to come!
One of the great things about volunteering on Ramsey Island is the chance to get involved (even in a small way) in the running of the farm, and in particular looking after the sheep. During my last two stays shearing took place, and last year I helped to round the sheep up and separate the ewes from their lambs ready for the shearers to do their stuff. Today, the ewes were given their anti-fly treatment and had to be rounded up with their lambs from the nursery fields and taken into the barn. Dewi, the island sheepdog (and without doubt the best dog in the world!), did most of the rounding up, although I did play the role of sheepdog in one field and ‘expertly’ drove a few ewes and their lambs to join the rest (and without as much as a ‘come by’ or ‘away’ having to be shouted at me!).
Here’s a few pictures…
Ramsey Island is home to a wide range of wildlife; small and large, rare and common. At present, however, significant efforts are going into, literally, making homes for one particular species; Manx Shearwaters.
When Ramsey was bought by the RSPB in 1992, there were only around 500 pairs of Shearwaters nesting on the island. The presence of rats had reduced the numbers of this species, and of other ground nesting birds, to levels far below those on the nearby rat-free islands of Skomer and Skokholm.
Back in the winter of the turning millennium, a successful rat eradication exercise was undertaken on the island. Since then, the benefits of doing so have shown in the increasing numbers of ground and burrow nesting birds. The last survey of Shearwaters, undertaken last year, and ‘helped’ by me, revealled that the upward trend was continuing with nearly 5,000 pairs recorded.
Whilst the increasing numbers of Shearwaters is very positive news, there’s still much work to do. Monitoring the population remains a key activity for the RSPB on Ramsey and this task is made easier by constructing nest boxes through which easier access can be gained to the birds while they are breeding. The birds usually nest at the far end of rabbit burrows and this makes them tricky to get of off but the nest boxes, with a door in the roof, make the job very simple. The monitoring includes checking on the health of the birds as well as ringing them.
One of my first jobs on the island this time was to help make nest boxes, some of the 100 to be installed on the island’s sheltered east coast. They’re relatively simple wooden boxes to build, with three of the four sides enclosed, one of the longer sides having a round hole cut into it, no bottom, and a thick roof, one half of which is hinged to give access for monitoring. Once installed, the round hole is fitted with a three-foot long tube through which the Shearwaters reach the nest chamber. In total, I put together 11 boxes and they’re now waiting to be installed.
During the last couple of afternoons, we’ve spent a while out on that east coast and installed more than a dozen boxes. The installation is also quite straightforward but requires a bit of hard graft. A hole just large enough to ‘plant’ the box is dug in the sloping side of the island, deep enough for the front of the box to be nearly flush with ground level. With the box in place, a channel is dug from the hole in the side and the is tube installed. All that is required then is for the back half of the box and the tube to be covered with soil and the job is nearly done. The last touches are to put some soft nesting material on the bare earth beneath the box and put up a small piece of bracken at the box end of the entrance tube; if this gets knocked over, it’s a tell-tale that the box has been visited by a Shearwater (or one of those pesky rabbits).
I’ve installed four boxes so far, and they’re more to be done.
One of the aspects of a stay on Ramsey that makes it so special is lying in bed on a dark night and listening to the odd chuckling and gurgling sounds of the Shearwaters as they come back from the sea and head to the burrows. Hopefully, making homes for them will help to play a role in further increasing their numbers and make the nocturnal sounds on the island even more special.
Well, it’s now my third whole day back on Ramsey Island and the time seems to be going very fast (as usual). Steve (the other short term volunteer on at the same time as me) and I were brought across the Sound by jet boat on Saturday as it was too rough for the normal passenger boat (Gower Ranger). After catching up with the wardens (Greg and Lisa) and the long term intern (Sarah), we unpacked and settled back into island life.
We were immediately put to work and each did a chough watch. Essentially, this entailed me lying in the sun for an hour at the top of the cliffs (it’s a tough life here!) looking across towards a chough nest and recording what activity I saw. The choughs will most likely have chicks in the nests now and it seemed to be the case where I was watching with the parents going in and out several times over the hour. I then went for a wander and reacquainted myself with the island – not that it takes a lot of reacquaintance as this is my seventh stay in six years.
On the first full day, the Gower Ranger was running again and we had the usual 10am and 12pm arrivals with 21 visitors in total. After helping them get onto the island and serving in the little shop until the visitors went on their ways around the island, most of us went down to the south. We spent the afternoon clearing the paths up the little, but steep, hill of Foel Fawr. We then had to be back at the shop for the 45 minutes before the Gower Ranger picked up the visitors at 4pm. In the evening, I had a wander around the north of the island and went to the sea watching hide but being an idiot I forgot my binoculars so couldn’t really see much.
Unlike the first day when the weather was lovely, yesterday was pretty awful and it hasn’t got much better today. Yesterday was quiet with no visitors but we spent some time in the workshop making Manx Shearwater nest boxes. It’s unusual for me to actually make something – I seem to spend much of my volunteering either sitting down watching things or chopping stuff down and setting fire to it! Well, after some initial guidance, I made ten boxes altogether and none have fallen apart yet!
Yesterday evening was the annual Wardens Dinner; the now traditional highlight of the island’s social calendar when Steve cooks the wardens (and other hangers on) a great feast, all accompanied by his usual great choice of wines. The evening also turned into an awards night as Steve was presented with his 15 year long service award for volunteering – I’ve got some catching up to do! This morning is a little fuzzy.
Unfortunately my laptop has stopped working but I can still blog using my phone, so hopefully there will be a few more posts over the next two weeks.