Today was a proper dark, gloomy and chilly winter day and it was perfect for a walk around Wybunbury Moss. The wander was given an eerie and slightly spooky feel with the fog hanging heavy in the dormant trees and over the open, silent bogland.
Yesterday we headed up to north Lancashire for an afternoon at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve. After what has seemed like a never ending streak of gloomy days (or have I just spent too long in the office, far from natural light), it was a relief to be outside on a fabulously sunny day, even if there was a distinct chill in the air.
The reserve, nestled on a floodplain between the low hills of the Arnside & Silverdale AONB, is a patchwork of large lakes and reedbeds close to the shores of Morecambe Bay. The network of trails and hides puts you right in the middle of the reserve, giving great chances to see a whole range of wildlife from many different vantage points. Since my last visit, a new tower has been installed, giving visitors a view across the whole reserve.
Being a wetland reserve in winter, the lakes were the home to a large number of water birds with a good variety of ducks, geese and egrets. The tree-lined edges to the reserve were also good for woodland species with a good range of tits in particular seen during our five hours.
The day ended with a dusk spectacular with a murmuration of tens of thousands of starlings swirling above the reserve. We started to think it wouldn’t happen as the darkness descended and no birds had been seen. However, what began with a single bird, then a group of five, eventually became great rivers of starlings passing over our heads as they came in from spending the day foraging inland. Before they made their funnelling plummet to their nocturnal roosts, there was a mass of life swirling and waving over the reedbeds. It was just a pity the main body of the murmuration was a good few hundred metres away, but I still managed to get a bit of video…
I spent New Year with my girlfriend and her close friends in South Devon and on the last full day, the two of use headed up to Dartmoor on what was a dark and damp day. We took a wet walk out to Wistman’s Wood which lived up to its spooky reputation.
The old gnarly trees and moss-covered rocks really do give the place a brooding atmosphere which was made all the more sinister by the dark winter day on which we visited.
With four days already gone in the new year, I’m a little late in looking forward to 2020. What’s more, I’ve already had my first nights away and done my first bird survey.
In my last post, I said that 2019 was very probably the best year of my life but I didn’t intend for it to be a high-water mark. To ensure that is the case, I’ve already got loads planned for the year ahead.
Like last year, there will be a long weekend in Norfolk this month to kick off my wildlife watching year but it won’t be until May that I have my first proper holiday of 2020. We will be heading up to the Isle of Harris for a week, returning to Luskentyre Beach where I spent a lovely week in 2018, although this time there will be the two of us and we’ll be in a different cottage. Up there, we hope, in particular, to visit some of the outlying islands; possibly St Kilda and/or the Shiants.
In July, I will return to Ramsey Island where I spent three months last year. Sadly, it will be for just two weeks this time and it may be a little odd to be the short-term volunteer again. Hopefully, this will be followed by a short stay in Sweden in late July or August. At the end of the year, we’re also hoping to see in 2021 in Devon, from where I have just returned from doing the same for 2020.
The biggest trip of the year will be back to Africa, in September, this time to Zambia, where we will be camping in the South Luangwa National Park in search of all the usual beasts and birds on safari.
I’m hoping these highlights will also be mixed in with plenty of conservation volunteering, as usual, with osprey and peregrine nest protection shifts, bird surveys and local practical conservation tasks. I also need, urgently, to get back into regular and intense exercise; walking, cycling, running and swimming, in fact I’m making a start on that in a minute with a long cycle out into the countryside. Work, illness and time away from home, as well as plentiful festive eating, has left me heavier than I have been in many years and I need to get it shifted or I’ll struggle to fit into my clothes!
For me conservation volunteering is becoming even more important in the face of such catastrophic news about the climate and species. Even someone working full-time can find space in their lives to contribute. I also want to look at my life more broadly and see how I can reduce my carbon emissions and wider use of resources – a challenge it will be but it’s one we all need to face if the battle against climate change and species extinction is going to be won.
In the past, I may not have been alone in meeting a new year with a certain amount of dread; a whole new 12 months in which bad things could happen. However, my outlook on life, and on new years, has gradually changed, and for the last decade or so I have looked on each new year with expectation and excitement of great experiences to come. I now just need to make sure I put the effort in to make sure those experiences are delivered.
What a year!!! It’s been 12-months of great experiences and unexpected changes.
The year started with an award – one of my photographs from my 2018 trip to Poland won the Naturetrek image of the year. This was followed by a chilly January weekend in Norfolk helping to ensure I got a bit of wildness into the beginning of the year.
The first big trip of the year was to Botswana, camping in the Kalahari Desert. The wildlife and scenery was great and, among many other things, I won’t forget the race to see painted wolves, a day spent with lions and a huge overnight thunderstorm. It all further whetted my appetite for more African adventures.
Next came the biggest adventure of the year, and one of the biggest of my entire life, three whole months on RSPB Ramsey Island. I took a three-month sabbatical from work to be the long-term volunteer supporting the wardens with species monitoring, visitor management and practical tasks. I could write many paragraphs here about the stay and I’ve blogged a lot about it already (including a summary here). In summary, it was a absolute joy – the people, the island, the work, everything really and it was very, very difficult to leave. It wasn’t until two months later that I felt settled back into my normal life again although even now, five months on, I still feel odd working in a city centre and not living close to the sea. The experience has had a very deep impact on my life and I really don’t want that to diminish too much over time.
Between my return home at the end of July and the final days of the year, I had a short stay with family in Sweden, several trips to London, a long weekend on the Suffolk coast at Aldeburgh and a New Year trip down to Devon with a day in Cornwall. However, the biggest post-Ramsey trip was a week on the Isle of Mull spending the time travelling around watching wildlife and looking at the spectacular scenery.
This really has been a year of creating great memories including the funniest birthday ever, spending the evening swimming around with a giant inflatable flamingo in one of Ramsey Island’s bays. This reveals another great experience for the year, swimming. Before my stay on Ramsey, I hadn’t been swimming in over 25 years and couldn’t actually do it really. However, after sitting out of swims a couple of times, I was persuaded to enter the water and haven’t looked back since. I’m quite proud that, in just a few weeks, I went from not being able to swim to doing 50 lengths of the Nantwich outdoor pool.
Here is my year in numbers:
- 1 photography award
- 1 osprey protection shift
- 1 Michelin-starred restaurant
- 1 week on a Scottish island – Isle of Mull
- 1 clip of film in a BBC documentary
- 2 magazines containing my photographs
- 2 stays on Ramsey Island (kind of)
- 2 trips abroad – Botswana and Sweden
- 2 beer festivals
- 4 holidays – Botswana, Sweden, Mull and Devon
- 4 ferry journeys
- 7 weekends away – Norfolk, Aldeburgh, London/Salisbury and London x4
- 8 local bird surveys
- 9 counties stayed in
- 33 swims
- 38 species of mammal including 14 new ones
- 48 blog posts
- 56 walks
- 74 runs
- 66 cycles
- 94 days volunteering – Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers, Glaslyn Ospreys and RSPB
- 139 nights away from home
- 230 miles run
- 240 species of bid including 36 new ones
- 331 sessions of exercise
- 954 miles cycled
- 5,600+ blog views
…and here are some photo highlights…
Not everything was wonderful in 2019, however. It seemed to be a year of illness and injury with only my three months on Ramsey Island being a period of prolonged healthiness. Early in the year I had a bad allergic reaction to a household cleaning product which left me with quite bad asthma and I hurt myself coming off my bike at around the same time. I then felt rubbish using the antimalarials associated with my trip to Botswana and had a reaction to antibiotics following some dental work. Following my return from Ramsey I’ve generally been feeling run down and had a virus which left me with dizzy spells. I’m certainly hoping I have a healthy start to 2020.
The year ended on a sad and reflective note. My grandmother, Nanna, passed away in early December, one month short of her 101st birthday and her funeral was just after Christmas. She was the last of my grandparents to pass and for my family this almost marks the end of a truly remarkable generation that lived through remarkable times. I will miss her enormously.
Despite this sadness, the year ended on a hopeful and positive note too as there was another big change for me in 2019. I’ve lived a bachelor life for quite a while, living alone in my house for the best part of 20 years, although the bikes were banished from my kitchen a while ago. This way of life has seemingly enabled me to do so many of the things I have blogged about over the past few years. However, I met someone on my trip to Botswana and she has transformed my life. Sarah has brought a new dimension to everything I do and we share a love for wildlife, photography and travel. We now do together so many of the things I’ve blogged about; I just need to ensure I put ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in more of my posts!
On reflection, I can truly say that 2019 was very probably the best year of my life. However, I don’t intend it to be a high-water mark…see my next post!
It’s taken me an age to get around to writing this post – must try harder! Towards the end of October I returned to the scene of some of my happiest times during my year off in 2011/12; the Isle of Mull. It wasn’t the first Scottish Island I’d visited, Islay and Jura came first, but this really was the place that kicked off my long, interrupted, odyssey around the Hebrides and Northern Isles.
I had promised myself not to return to previously visited islands until I’d been to all the larger islands or archipelagos but I had a choice – Shetland in October or a return trip to a previous spot. Of those I’d been to before, Mull was an easy choice; it’s relatively easy to get to, it’s less exposed than others to those autumn storms, and it’s just that little bit more cosy than some of the others.
I’ll stop talk about ‘I’ now as there were two of us on this trip, and that was another reason for choosing Mull. One of us hadn’t been there before and it was somewhere I had a good chance of playing the ‘Wildlife Guide’ for a week having previously spent a fortnight getting to know the place very well, or at least some of the best wildlife-watching spots.
The route to Mull was quite simple for us, up the M6 to the Border, past Glasgow and over the Erskine Bridge and then alongside the lovely Loch Lomond. Just past the northern shoreline, we turned left and headed west to Oban, where was found a lovely bright autumnal day. Having arrived early for our booked ferry we tried to get on an earlier one but in the end we were grateful that we didn’t. The short crossing to Craignure, only an hour, was spent up on the deck and we were given a spectacular view towards the setting sun with light shining between the heavy, brooding, rain-laden clouds.
Another reason for deciding on Mull was the cottage we found. I can very honestly say that it was the best holiday cottage I’ve stayed in and by quite some margin. That’s no reflection on some of the other great places I’ve stayed, rather it’s just that the Old Little Theatre at Dervaig is unique. We arrived as dark was descending so we didn’t get a great view of the outside but on opening the front door and walking in, it was even better than the photos had shown. It was once the smallest professional theatre in the world and, essentially, just a small stone garage-type building. Now it has been extended with the addition of several modern rooms at the front and sides, to make a stylish but quirky holiday home. Whilst it is in many ways very modern, it still has little touches of its old use with theatrical flourishes and artefacts dotted around the inside. The single bedroom has a huge floor to ceiling picture window which enables you to lie in bed looking out across a lovely wide, flat-bottomed river valley. The place is just about perfect!
With six full days on the island, we spent them looking for wildlife and at the scenery, despite the mixed weather. The rain and wind with some occasional sunnier weather were not exactly unexpected conditions for the Hebrides in the autumn. Our first full day was our only really perfect one, weatherwise, and our visit to the main town, Tobermory, included a sit on a quayside bench in the surprisingly warm autumn sun. We then did a big loop of the island driving around clockwise on the main road down towards the Ross of Mull before turning right onto the north side of Loch Scridain. There are actually two loops, a northern and a southern, which intersect at a short cut-through from Salen on the east coast to Gruline on Loch Na Keal on the west coast. On that first day, we did both loops, driving almost the entire road around the island but missing out the Ross. This then became a familiar route with parts of the loops done most days in amongst other activities.
For much of the route around the island, the road picks its way along the edge of sounds and lochs, sometimes coming inland to rise up through mountain passes. The road is often just a single track with passing places but there are sections of standard single carriageway along the east and southern sides of the island, making journeys a little quicker than along the west and north coasts. The scenery is dominated by hills and mountains as well as the hugely indented coastline. There is a mixture of green pasture and high grassy hillsides with many of the valley bottoms swathed in damp oak woodland. The autumn had brought an orange and yellow tinge to the views with the oaks and larches vibrant amongst the rusty-turned grasses and bracken.
For me, the most memorable moment of our rambling journeys around the island was on the last day. We were getting a bit desperate in our searching for an otter; we’d looked in all the places I’d had success before but without even a momentary glimpse. My otter-sense, which has worked very well on Mull and Skye preciously, was letting me down. We’d stopped at a pull-in to the north of Salen quite a few times, or so it seemed, but we had to give it one last chance. The conditions were just about perfect for otter spotting; a low tide and still, calm waters. We spent a little while scanning the water and were just about to give up when I spotted some movement in between some little, seaweed topped islets. I thought it would probably be just a rock, again, or another sea-going Mallard but after blinking a couple of times I was sure. The three little blobs in a row were unmistakable; an ottery head, back and tail. It didn’t take long for it to roll head first/tail last down under the surface and disappear. We thought that might have been it but we spotted it again a minute or two later coming around the far side of the larger of the islets. There we watched it for what must have been at least an hour; otters seem to have some kind of time-bending capabilities. It spent a lot of time climbing on and off the seaweed covered rocks and fishing in the shallows. At one stage a group of Brent geese approached but were soon paddling off when they spotted the otter close by. Eventually, we had to leave and we moved on as the otter disappeared below the surface and behind the islets again.
That spot north of Salen was like looking at one of those nature reserve information boards that has the view painted behind a selection of all the creatures you had even a slight chance of seeing but usually don’t. In this case, we were blessed with a view of so many of those creatures actually out there where they are supposed to be. In addition to the otter was a wide selection of birdlife. From the waders feeding at the water’s edge, curlew and redshank, and the range ducks, including mallard, widgeon and a solitary eider, to a few gulls and the ever-present herons. The corvids were there too with quite a few hooded crows picking amongst the seaweed and a raven cronking overhead. A few more water birds were dotted about with red-breasted mergansers in the outfall from the river into the sea and that small group of Brent geese passing through on migration. In the trees around where we were standing were newly arrived winter thrushes, with the redwings ‘seeping’ and fieldfares cackling. I have to admit, I do keep a record of the wildlife I see, not just birds but mammals, butterflies and amphibians too. I do so, not simply to have a ever-growing list of ticks, but to note just how rich, or otherwise, an area’s wildlife is. At that particular spot, I could see from all the species, just how rich in wildlife a place Mull really is. All the scene really needed was an eagle or two to fly across above us, and it would have been complete; if we’d stayed a bit longer, maybe we’d have see one!
The other memorable mammalian moment was on the second full day on the island when we went on a three hour boat trip from Tobermory Harbour out into the Sound of Mull and and beyond towards and past Coll. We spent quite some time looking for groups of feeding seabirds and finding many, with large groups of gulls and auks feeding on fish at and below the surface. Suddenly there appeared a minke whale amongst them and we watched for quite a few minutes while it surfaced and dived. The scene of the whale and the feeding birds was made even more wild by the sense of being surrounded by so many of the Scottish islands; Jura, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South Uist, Eigg, Muck, Rum and Skye as well as the Ardnamuchan Peninsula.
Our trip was slightly hampered by me being ill throughout the stay and we didn’t do much walking at all because of that but it was lovely just to drive around the island stopping at familiar spots to look at the scenery and watch the wildlife. Eventually, our time on the island had to come to an end and it was with heavy hearts that on a dark morning we closed the door to the Little Old Theatre behind us. I usually avoid talking about the journey home from holidays but this one was particularly memorable. The sun rose just as we got to the ferry terminal and the light revealed glassy still waters and snowy mountain tops. As we pulled out of Craignure, Mull looked fabulous in its autumn finery. Once on the mainland, the scenery was just as spectacular with deep valleys swathed in rusty yellows and oranges with snow scattered over the peaks. It was hard not to want to stop every mile or so to get out and stare at the views but it was a long journey home and we had to press on.
I don’t like to pick favourites amongst the Scottish islands, they are all beautiful in their different ways. However, Mull was an easy choice to return to and it turned out just about a perfect decision.
I’ve been channeling my inner town planning geek today after a meeting in Saltaire…
Sitting on the doorstep of the Bungalow, the silence washes over me. Not a total silence but an absence of manmade sound. Nature is here, all around, and the calls of the birds fill the landscape, from the sheep-clipped pastures to the hazy sky. It is so quiet at this spot, that I hear a swallow’s wingbeats as it urgently flies past gathering food in preparation for its long journey south. Behind me, above the rocky hillside, comes the harsh bullet-ricochet cry of a chough, eventually it descends past down to the drystone wall and further to forage in the grass.
The busy meadow pipits scurry amongst the other chough, feeding around the tussocks while family groups of linnet chatter on their way above them. Two crows harshly call to each other from opposing sides of a field while an autumn robins sings a soft melody from a wall-top perch. A raven on the wing cronks and croaks as floats its way towards the peak and a gull yelps in amongst a flock gliding above the bay. Deep below from amongst the rocks and boulders, the cries of seal pups rises up the cliff face and spreads out across the island, with their mothers bickering as the tide rises around them.
In the distance, the rolling breakers rumble into the shallow-sloping beach as my focus is sharply brought closer as bee bumbles past my eyes, after the last flowers of the slowly fading summer. The peace is abruptly broken by the sudden burst of rabbits boxing in front of the narrow field gate and now I notice the only human sounds; the passing of a high-level airliner to the new world and a conversation drifting across the still waters from the mainland.
The bright September sun is burning off the cloud and reddening my skin. The landscape of the St Davis’s Peninsula laid out in front of me has the first hints of autumn. The heathland heather is losing its purple haze, the patchwork of fields have been stripped of their crops and are now dotted with bales, and the banks of bracken are starting to rust as their stands dry and slowly topple.
I could sit in the spot forever but time has come and I need to make steps down to the harbour and return to the human cacophony of the outside world.
Last weekend I popped back to the island for just one more night, to take part in the annual Ramsey Island 3 Peaks Race. It was my first ever competitive run and I came third of the normal people who only did three peaks. I did for a moment, not far from the end, consider joining the nutters and doing another lap but my body decided against it.
After a late night to follow, in the morning while Alys, who took over from me as long term volunteer, and the three shorter termers left the Bungalow to start their day’s work, I stayed behind to sit and contemplate on the Bungalow doorstep.
Sitting there for half an hour, I immersed myself in the surroundings; my favourite view laid out in front of me and almost only natural sounds around me, save for a plane or two. My home life isn’t exactly noisy but it’s impossible to get away from manmade sounds and my worklife, in the centre of Manchester, is by comparison surrounded by a loud medley of urban intrusions into my hearing.
Oddly, maybe, I find absolute silence slightly unnerving, especially when accompanied by the pitch blackness of a remote night-time hour. I sleep with a window open at home and the distant hiss of road noise is in some ways comforting.
However, sitting on that doorstep for those few minutes, I came to the realisation of one of the things I miss the most about the island; that silence from manmade sounds.
Sitting in the caravan, it rocks, shakes and creaks as the wind rushes past and barges into its thin, slab-like walls. The two old oak trees above are tormented by the gusts and their leaves are bent back, together forming sails against which their branches fight to keep their form. In the sodden meadows, the long grasses are buffeted with the movement of waves at sea. The river is rising and the flow has more purpose, sliding with weight past the muddy banks. The pillars of the narrow concrete footbridge catch the passing debris, building up as the water is momentarily obstructed in its path. A surge of large-dropped rain clatters onto the roof of the my little haven, immediately turning the windows into a myriad of streams. It’s not cold but the clinging dampness keeps my jumper on but my shorts might have been a bit of a mistake. The sparrows don’t mind the weather, chattering in their little parliaments on the ivy-topped stone walls. The cows shelter beneath the bows of oaks while the swallows skip low across the fields, avoiding the worst of the gusts. At the top of the fir tree in the little copse across the wet grass, the nest sits empty, swaying as the storm. The ospreys, both adults and young, have retreated to the lower limbs of neighbouring trees. Has autumn come early to the Glaslyn valley?
My first and probably only shift of the osprey summer was met with very unseasonal wind and heavy rain, more like autumn or late winter. I had just a peak into the osprey world this year, with only a month or so before they leave for Africa. I’ve missed the adults arriving and the eggs being laid, I’ve missed the night shifts during incubation and the hatching of the chicks, and I’ve missed them growing and finally fledging. After the loss of one chick, it was good to see the remaining two looking so healthy, if a little damp and windblown. With the exception of the weather, the shift was rather unremarkable, with fish delivered later in my stay and the birds spending most of time away from the nest, sheltering under the trees.
My summer has been very different this year, spending three months away, but it’s nice to return to some of my usual haunts before the autumn really arrives. The summer has gone so quickly after seeming to take such a long time to arrive. Hopefully there will be some more warmth and sunshine to come.
Well, that’s it, my stay on Ramsey Island is over and I’ve returned home. How can I possibly sum up my 13 weeks on the island? There was so much to it, it’s very difficult to know where to start.
I have to start with the island itself, of course. Before I arrived I had already stayed on the island in previous years during the months of April, May, June and July and had seen the landscape of the islands in those months. However, staying for so long, I saw the island transition from mid-spring to high summer and all the changes to the landscapes that this brings. The island at the end of April is a very different one to that of the end of July. At the beginning of the period, life was just returning and the first flowers were starting to appear while at the end, many different flowers have bloomed and died back with only the last major display to come. In May came the vast swathes of blue bells, huge carpets on the eastern valleys south of the farmhouse but also dominating the slopes of the two larger hills, Carn Ysgubor and Carn Llundain. These were joined by the smaller, more delicate spring squill carpets and then by the thrift on the cliff tops. These are then taken over by the dominance of the bracken which, in many places, grows with so much energy that is shades out the blue bells before they have finished. Finally, just as I was concluding my stay, the heathland started to turn a bright pink with the flowering of the heather.
The weather was relatively benign with no major storms, but there was plenty of wind and some rain, particularly during the middle third of my stay. More than anything, the temperature was the dominant aspect of the weather, with the island only really starting to warm up in the second half of June. The first few weeks were often spent wearing thermals and at night curling up in bed with extra blankets, hot water bottles, socks and a hat; seeing my breath while in bed wasn’t uncommon, particularly if there was a northernly wind, blowing against my bedroom window. During the last week of May and the first half of June, I did start to wonder whether I would see any summer weather while on the island as it was so cold, windy and sometimes wet. However, for the final few weeks I had fantastic weather and shorts were standard wear. Whilst this was lovely for me, by the end of my stay, the island was looking very dry. Last years’ drought followed by a relatively dry year so far had left the ground parched with the dark green bracken almost disguising wider brown tinge of the island.
One aspect of the island that always strikes me is the great variation between the east and the west and the north and the south. If days are spent purely in the north and east, on the sheep fields between the Bungalow and the farmhouse, it’s almost possible to forget how very different the other side of the island is. The high sea cliffs facing west out to the forces of the Irish Sea and the Atlantic are much more rugged and dramatic than the and gently sloping fields to the east, facing the low rolling patchwork landscape of the St David’s Peninsula. The west feels disconnected from the mainland while the east reaches out and almost seems to touch the rest of Wales. The other contract is between the agricultural north and the wilder south. The north is very much a working farm with short-clipped pasture and drystone walls whilst the south is open maritime heathland with fewer signs of human interaction. I tried as much as I could to give all areas of the island equal attention and I even found a new hidden spot in the north, away from public areas where it’s possible to get down to the sea.
The main purpose of volunteering, and in fact the RSPB’s existence on the island, is to support the wildlife; and that wildlife can be pretty spectacular. As might be expected, the birds dominate and two species in particular; chough and manx shearwaters. The island is a strong hold for chough with nine pairs successfully breeding (of around 400 pairs in the British Isles) this year and by the end of the my stay, the family groups were splitting and larger flocks forming, especially in evenings, as the following video shows:
It would be hard not to see the joy in how they fly and I’m sure they play in the air for fun. Their calls ring out across the island throughout the year and during the day time are the dominant bird species out on the sheep fields. The shearwaters, however, dominate the night-time and their nocturnal calls are a memory many volunteers take away from the island. I had plenty of involvement with both these birds during my stay but perhaps the most memorable wildlife spectacle of the entire 13 weeks was seeing vast rafts of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of shearwaters on a flat calm sea as they waited for night to fall so they could make their landing onto islands of Skomer and Skokholm to the south of Ramsey. As the birds lifted, they appeared like swarms above the water, streaming south in great waves of life. I’ve never seen such a mass of wild life in one place and I’ll not be forgetting that evening quickly.
Another great spectacle I witnessed on the island for the first time was the fledging of the young auks (guillemots and razorbills) from those high sea cliffs on the west coast. The chicks make a ‘willocking’ call in response to the adults calling up from the water at the base of the cliffs. Eventually with enough encouragement, the flightless chicks fledge by leaping off the narrow ledges and into the water, hopefully not hitting too many rocks on the way down. I spent an evening watching the splashing of the fledging, with an eye kept on the passing shearwaters too. It was so strange that after seeing the cliffs full of life for so long that, after a few days of not going to the west coast, I found the cliffs empty of life, except for the small colonies kittiwakes.
The final spectacle came with a free trip out to Grassholm, which is home to 36,000 pairs of Gannets and around 80,000 individuals altogether. I had seen the white-topped island from afar many times standing on Ramsey but getting up close was something else. The sound of all the birds was incredible and the mass of birds moving to and from the island really has to be seen. I was just sad that I didn’t, in the end, get to go out again and land on the island; hopefully another time!
In all, I saw 69 species of birds during my stay, way more than I normally would over two weeks but I did miss a few that others saw. However, I did get great views of the one species that some people made long trips to see. The myrtle warbler, an American vagrant, appeared on the island for 24 hours and I managed to get some good photographs of it. Photos have now appeared in Birdwatch Magazine and will do in the Dutch equivalent. On news spreading that the bird was on the island, some die-hard twitchers booked on the first boat across the next morning; some travelling from Manchester and London just to see it. Unfortunately, despite the bird being seen at 9:30 that following morning, by the time the twitchers got up from the boat to the farm buildings at around 10:15, the bird had gone.
The island and the surrounding waters are not just home to birds, however, and I had great views of the seals, with the first pups of the year being born just before I left, and many sightings of harbour porpoise on both sides of the island. The most memorable mammal sighting was of somewhere between 50 and 100 common dolphin one lunchtime. From outside the farmhouse, we watched the dolphins for around an hour as they fished in a number of groups out in St. Bride’s Bay, with some pods coming quite close to the island. In amongst them was at least one minke whale, which passed through Ramsey Sound, but unfortunately, despite seeing the visitor boats watching it, I didn’t see the animal itself.
The smaller land mammals also made regular appearances with the rabbit numbers being particularly high at the beginning of my stay. With such high numbers, the variation in colours really stood out with many more white, black and ginger versions around than I think I have seen before. The island voles also made their presence known quite often in the Bungalow by running around the rooms and behind the walls. However, I didn’t have the experience that others have had when sleeping in the ensuite room; having a vole curl up in bed with you!
Overall, it was just special to spend so much time being in amongst so much wildlife and so frequently stopping for a moment to observe nature. Having a pair of binoculars around my neck was the norm and it feels odd not to have them there anymore.
I do have to highlight to some that this wasn’t just a three-month holiday, it wasn’t equivalent to going travelling for thirteen weeks either. Even my usual short-term volunteering for two weeks each year is a working holiday but this time I had the opportunity to get more deeply involved in the running of the island and supporting the conservation activities. This list summarises all the work I did (probably forgotten something):
- Helping visitors alight from and board the boats each day
- Introductory talks to each boat-load of visitors
- Staffing the island shop for each boat arrival and before the last departure
- Leading guided walks
- Weekly chough nest observations (up to one hour watches at nests during breeding season to record activity e.g. incubating, feeding or fledging)
- Breeding bird surveys
- Chough transect surveys
- Wheatear transect surveys
- Manx shearwater nest burrow response surveys
- Manx shearwater chick weekly weight surveys
- Supporting Manx shearwater leg ringing
- Casual bird observations
- Building maintenance and decorating
- Maintaining and cleaning visitor facilities
- Fence and stile maintenance
- Bracken and thistle control – scything and bruising with the quad bike
- Path maintenance
- Helping to lead the short-term volunteers
- Using the quad bike to move luggage and goods around the island
- Cake baking, pizza making and pancake frying
I loved all the work and the great variation made sure each day was different and I took away more experience and more skills than I had before. There were, however, a few tasks that I particularly enjoyed. Driving the quad bike and using it to bruise bracken, which was just plain fun, but I probably enjoyed the work with the manx shearwaters the most including helping with ringing, the response surveys and the weekly chick weighing. I also enjoyed leading the guided walks; spending three hours showing the island and its wildlife to a group of 16 interested visitors was a joy. However, I have to say that there is something very lovely about lying at the top of a cliff in the sun watching the activities of a breeding pair of chough around their nest site – tough work but someone has to do it!
It probably doesn’t need to be said that life on the island is very different from my norm, living on the edge of the Cheshire countryside and commuting daily either to Manchester city centre or across to Lincolnshire. Spending three months as an islander is very special and not something the vast majority of people get to do. It is very much a simpler life, with a much slower tempo. Now that I have returned home, I keep noticing odd little luxuries such my electric kettle, not sharing my food cupboards with a range of invertebrates or an oven that stays in one place when you try opening the door. However, my life at home doesn’t necessarily seem improved by these things and in some ways my life feels a little diminished by them.
When the visitor boats are running to the island, there is a very fixed routine, seven days a week. Whilst I had a day off a week, I didn’t always feel I needed it but it was good to get off the island every two or three weeks to make sure my food stayed interesting and that I didn’t go completely feral!
With a shorter working day and a much shorter commute than usual, there was much more time on the island for pleasure and leisure; whether that was going for a walk, photography, meditation, going in search of wildlife, reading, or just sitting and looking at the world around. When the better arrived, so did a new pass time – swimming in the sea. I have to admit, before my stay on the island, the last time I swam was over 25 years ago and at that point I could barely swim. So after sitting out two sessions, I was finally persuaded to enter the water (thank you, Nia!) and I haven’t looked back. I’m sitting writing this post at Stockholm Airport on the return from a short stay out in the Swedish countryside and I swam in a nearby lake every day, eventually swimming over 50 metres in one go – thanks to my friends on Ramsey, this is a fairly dramatic change!
The biggest difference between the island and being at home is living communally and it is perhaps the aspect of my stay I will miss the most. I really enjoyed living with people, all of them, and it was always sad to see each short-term volunteer leave but great when each new one arrived. It took some getting used to, particularly the change over periods; having settled into one little Bungalow community, the patterns of life always altered slightly when volunteers left and new ones arrived. The Bungalow felt even more like home than it usually does and it was sometimes hard not to be a bit grumpy when things were not done in the ways that had become the norm – something I never have to get used to at home. However, when I now get home and shut the door, shut out the outside world, the house will be silent, save for the ticking clock; I will miss sharing the Bungalow with others.
Another key aspect that is so great about staying on Ramsey is spending time with like-minded people and those who also love the island. In my normal life, away from the island, I have less connection to people who are so passionate about nature, the environment and conservation, and some people see such interests as odd or out of the norm. Being on the island means being with people who share interests and a common cause, and in for a very intensive period of time.
It would be a little risky to list all the people that made such a positive impact on my stay on the island, I would be bound to forget someone. However, there are some who must be mentioned. I have to thank Greg, the Site Manager, and Lisa, the Warden, for asking me to come for three months in the first place, but then for putting up with me for all that time! I owe them so very much and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay them (except in pancakes and pizza). I also have to mention Alys, the other long term volunteer who took over from me for the second half of the season. She put up with my grumpiness but also share great times in the Bungalow with other volunteers – although I did have to listen to far too much talk about Love Island!
All my fellow volunteers should be mentioned too; John, Sylvia, Steve, Chris, Dave, Sonia, Peter, Linda, Gwyneth, Julianne, Ali and Vicky. They all made living in the Bungalow a joy and life would have been emptier and less interesting and fun without them!
There is also a wider community beyond the island itself that volunteers are part of, no matter how long they stay. This community includes Derek, the farmer who supports the island, the lovely boat skippers and crew, the slipmasters and the booking office team plus a whole range of others who visit or work on or around the island and the neighbouring mainland.
There also needs to be a mention of the visitors who make the short trip across Ramsey Sound each day. Looking after and talking to visitors is a big part of what the volunteers do, from helping them get on or off the boats, giving introductory talks, serving them in the shop, guiding them on walks, answering questions and queries, to just having a chat. Over the years I’ve met and talked to some very nice people and now even recognise some regulars as they get off the boat. They have also been very nice to me including giving me a enthusiastically sung rendition of Happy Birthday as they arrived on the second boat on my ‘big day’ and giving me a round of applause at the end of my last introductory talk.
I think my birthday also needs a special mention. The only previous time I had a birthday on the island was a day I left, so it wasn’t exactly a good one! However, my birthday this year was a couple of weekends before I vacated the Bungalow. I have to say that it was one of the best, and certainly the funniest, I’ve had. With Greg, Lisa, Alys plus Julianne (short-term volunteer) and Nia (former Reserve Assistant), my birthday was made most memorable by being presented with my present from Alys; a giant, inflatable pink flamingo/swan, later named Penny. We inflated it and then launched it on the water in the bay behind the harbour, tethered to the land by a very long rope. At one point we had all six of us on it and there are plenty of photos which should probably not be made public! I’m not sure I’ve laughed so much in years!
There is a final person who can never go unmentioned. Well, not a person in the truest sense, but he’s just as important as anyone else to the island; Dewi the sheepdog. In fact, he’s so much part of the island life, he’s now been immortalised in paint on the walls of the Bungalow. Love you, Dewi!!!
I suppose all the above paragraphs are talking about me anyway but there are a few extra points. Whilst I’ve gained more skills and experience in conservation which I can take forward into future volunteering, I’ve also gained more personal insight.
I have recognised again that I need to make each day count, live in the moment and say ‘yes’ to opportunities more often. I also really need to stop looking too far ahead; I couldn’t stop continuously counting down the weeks and days I had left on the island – always annoying but it’s just me. I have also recognised again that the simplest of things can give the greatest pleasure – the first sunny day after weeks of wind and rain, the taste of freshly baked bread, picking up a manx shearwater chick. We surround ourselves with so much in modern life that the simple things so often get missed.
I’ve already said this wasn’t a holiday, not even a working holiday this time, it was in many ways living a different life for three whole months, just as my blog post before I arrived stated. However, in some ways that was misleading. In reality, it was almost a fantasy as I didn’t have the usual day-to-day concerns that everyone else has when doing this for real. When I’m on the island, those concerns are shut off in the life I have left behind and paused, when I’m there I’m free of them, most of the time at least.
I also very much have a feeling of a job not completed. My stint spanned the first half of the open season on the island and there will be so much happening in the second half. Life, obviously, continues on the island without me and I would have loved to have seen the rest of the season through.
All the paragraphs above are why it is has been an absolute privilege to stay for so long on the island having experiences you can’t pay for and making memories I won’t forget. Each time I leave, there is a sense of loss and this time it has been so much harder. I managed to keep my composure as I left the island, just, and it would have been easier not to have done. This sense of loss comes from a love for the island and a love for that life. It is, however, a shared love, a shared love for the island and all that it gives us. Like many, the island has given me far more than I have given in return.
Now that my time on the island has come to an end, I feel the need to break free from the grasp the island has on me. It feels like cutting off my nose to spite my face but I have a strong urge to leave the island behind to reduce the hurt of leaving. I have no doubt that I will be back to stay again on the island but when, I’m not sure, and when I do return, for how long. Without doubt I will be back to visit for a day or so, maybe even later this year, but when will I be back for another stay? I don’t know; I know what I would like but we can’t always have those things.
Thank you Ramsey Island!