Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 5

I am now well into my sixth week of my stay on Ramsey Island and I’ve only just got round to writing this post about the fifth. As usual it was a mixture of routine and new things to do with more chough nest watches, wheatear surveys and practical tasks. We missed boats for three days in a row and also didn’t have both boats on other days due to the tides. However, there were three very notable things for me this past week…

Firstly, I’ve been given my own ongoing task for the next three weeks in the form of a Manx shearwater response rate survey. Since the island became rat-free in the winter of the Millennium, shearwater numbers have made a significant recovery. In 1999, there were around 800 pairs and this grew to nearly 4,800 pairs by the last full island count in 2016, and there is likely to have been further significant growth since. The next full count is programmed for the spring/summer of 2020 and my response rate survey is the start of the preparations for next year.

Initial survey work is being undertaken on two plots of shearwater burrows, one in the north-east of the island and the other on the western side. The work involves visiting pre-identified active burrows in which the birds nest every other day over three weeks and noting how often a response is received to a recording of dueting shearwaters. This initial work partly replicates the full survey, but on a smaller scale, and provides a basis for generating a total island figure for shearwaters with an understanding of how often a response is received from an active burrow. 

So I’ll have my arm down forty or so burrows every other day until late June – a little odd but good fun!

Secondly, I led my first guided walk around the island; the one of five that will be held while I’m on the island. I have assisted guided walks on previous stays on the island, acting as a back marker, but this was the first time I was front and centre leading one. The group of 12 (up to 16 can attend) arrived at 9:30 and I led them first up to the farmhouse and then around the south of the island telling the visitors about the rat eradication programme, little owls, porpoise, chough, Grassholm and its gannets, grey seals, and, of course, Manx shearwaters. I really enjoyed leading the walk despite ‘presenting’ for over three hours, I love telling people about the island and its wildlife. The walk was made all the more fun by having one young boy attending who was very enthusiastic and knew so much about the wildlife. He even took part in my attempts to get shearwaters to reply to playing their calls down the burrows – fortunately we did get a response, eventually. 

The last really notable event of the week was the finding of a Myrtle warbler around the farm buildings by a visitor. This was a vagrant from North America blown across the Atlantic by strong westerly winds, possibly last autumn. First spotted around lunch time on my day off, I rushed down to see this rarity and grabbed my camera to take some photos. We spent most of the afternoon watching the bird and it even came within four or five metres, and I got some good photos. Social media went a bit mad and the boat booking office started to get enquiries within minutes. The following morning we had more than 20 people come on the island just to ‘twitch’ the bird; some coming from as far as north Manchester, Oxford and London. Unfortunately, despite it being seen just before the first boat arrived, it didn’t make an appearance for the twitchers and they went home having ‘dipped’ (the term of not seeing a bird when twitching for it) this bird. My photos from the previous day are set to appear in Bird Watch Magazine as part of an article written about the event by Lisa (the Warden) and we have even raised some money for the island by being paid for both the article and the photos. 

As the images in a previous post show (one repeated above), the Myrtle warbler is a lovely little thing and when looked at closely is a distinctive bird with quite complicated patterning. This was only third record of one in Wales with the two previous sightings being on Skomer and Ramsey.

Myrtle Warbler

On Ramsey Island today we had my first ever major rarity and everyone got rather excited about it. Today was actually my day off and I was spending the morning baking and listening to back episodes of Desert Island Discs when I got a call from Lisa, the Warden, to rush down to the farmyard with my camera.

After a bit of searching, we found the male Myrtle Warbler by the chicken coop but he soon disappeared only to reappear in the farmyard. He came within three or four metres of us as we sat against a wall and I managed to get the following photos.

This is only the third time one of these cracking little American vagrants has been found in Wales and two of those times have been in Ramsey!

We’ll have to see how many twitchers we get coming across on the boats tomorrow.

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 4

This week we’ve had some fantastic weather with Tuesday being particularly wonderful. I woke up early to go out to take some more dawn photos and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and barely any noticeable wind. This lasted much of the day and we had a lovely sunset to finish it off. I woke yesterday morning to rain and we need some more of the wet stuff, the Island’s grass is looking very dry compared to the fields across the Sound on the mainland.

I did all my usual tasks this week including helping with the boats and doing most of the introductory talks. I also finished off the oystercatcher survey and we started another round of chough watches. Now is the time for the chough chicks to hatch and we spent an hour at each of the nine chough nest locations monitoring and recording the activity. With both adults coming and going, and wiping their bills after leaving the nests, it was clear that many of the nests had chicks within them. However, there always seem to be one or two locations where more than one visit is required to check exactly what is happening.

Later in the week, I spent two afternoon’s supporting an exhibition in St David’s of paintings of Ramsey Island by David Cowdry to mark 25 years since the RSPB bought the island. The exhibition did very well, with at least half of the paintings sold and a significant sum raised for projects on the island.

I spent my day off visiting locations further up the coast from St David’s and had walks to St David’s Head and Aber Mawr. I can see St David’s Head from my bedroom and it was great to get another angle from which to look at the island. Aber Mawr was a bit of a revelation; it has a lovely pebbley beach with a fabulous old woodland behind. The woods were full of bird song and wildflowers, and I don’t think I have ever seen so many big ferns growing in a British woodland setting. I also saw my first sand martins of the year and the beach has a colony on its sandy cliff. After the visit to Aber Mawr, I went up to Strumble Head to do a spot of sea watching. There were loads of gannets flying around the area with many making their dramatic dives into the sea. Breaching the surface constantly were groups of both porpoise and bottle-nosed dolphin. The three stops during the day were interspersed with drives down high-banked country lanes with wild flowers in numbers I haven’t seen any where else. All-in-all, I had a great day exploring the North Pembrokeshire coast.

As the week came to an end, the volunteers changed again with both Steve and Chris leaving and four new ones coming on; Peter and Linda, and Dave and Sonia. It suddenly struck me that I really am here for quite some time and that for long term volunteers the Bungalow feels different to how it does for a short term volunteer (which I usually am). Being here for three months, routines are more developed, ways of doing things more set in and, generally, the place feels even more like ‘home’; my home, rather than everyone’s. So when new people come in, this all gets a little disrupted, and one could feel a little put out, no matter how lovely and well-intentioned the other volunteers all are. So, next time I come as a short-term volunteer, I will try a little harder to be more considerate to the long-term residents, especially if is their first stay here. 

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 3

Another week has gone by on Ramsey Island and this week the flowers have been putting on a great display. There are large swathes of both spring squill and blue bells across much of the island, particularly on the east coast and on the slopes of the highest hill, Carn Llundain. 

Since I arrived, I had been having difficulty getting out of bed, or at least in comparison to my usual time when I’m at home. However, the flowers have given me an extra incentive to get out of my pit early and venture outside. For three mornings this week, I have been up and out before 5:30am visiting various parts of the island which face east and receive each day’s first rays of sun. I’ve been quite pleased with some of the outcomes, shown in previous posts, but my favourites are below…

With the sun out, the Island really does look in its prime. 

My work this week has been focussed on my main daily task, the introductory talks for visitors arriving on the two boat each day, and on undertaking a survey of oystercatchers (oiks) around the full circumference of the Island’s coast. I can’t remember whether I have ever walked the entire coast of the island in such detail. Often later in the year, the bracken is so thick that it’s unwise to get so close to the edge of the island but with little bracken growth so far, I could get good views of most of the shoreline. Where I couldn’t see the water’s edge, I may need to hop on an around island boat trip to double check for oiks. 

In addition to the talks, I also supported Lisa, the warden, when she did a guided tour for a large group from the Friends of Pembrokeshire National Park. We spent around four hours showing the group the southern part of the Island and talking to them about the flowers, Manx Shearwaters, rat eradication, Grassholm, and many other things, including how I managed to wangle three months off work! The programme of weekly guided walks starts soon, and it may be my turn to do the tour-leading.

This week, saw the arrival of another volunteer, Steve, so we had three in total, including myself. With Steve comes the major social event of the Ramsey Island calendar, the Warden’s Dinner. He has been cooking a special meal for the wardens for many years and I’ve been lucky to have been present at a few of them. This year, I actually contributed to the cooking and did the amuse bouche (mini-pizzas and garlic breads), sun-dried tomato bread rolls to accompany the main course, the sweet (chocolate torte) and contributed some of the cheese. As ever, it was a long evening of good food, great wine and even better company!

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 2

Now at the end of my second week on the Island, I’m now fully settled into the life and routines. It’s still sinking in that I’m here for three months and at this point in my usual stays on the island, I would already have headed home (something I’m trying very hard not to think too much about yet – the thought is already quite painful!).

The change of week brought a change in short-term volunteers, with John, an old hand on the Island, leaving and Sylvia, a first time volunteer at Ramsey, arriving. I spent some time showing her the ropes (not literally) and on her first full day she got straight into action.

This week was the usual mix of boats, bird surveys and practical tasks. We had boats for five of the seven days and we had some lovely weather to make the visitors particularly happy. We spent a couple of days redecorating one of the bedrooms in the Bungalow after it was repaired following a leaky roof over the course of the winter. I quite like painting and it kept us out of the the wind for a few hours each day.

On the wildlife front, I did the first of several breeding bird survey visits to the north-west of the island, and I’ll do some more over coming weeks. I also did a chough transect around the central and southern part of the island, noting all the chough seen feeding or flying.

I also had my first day off the island since I arrived. I normally don’t bother leaving the island when I’m only here for two weeks and usually don’t want to. However, this time, after just under two weeks, I was really looking forward to the day off, to do some shopping and, more importantly, have fish & chips in Portgain and an ice cream in St. David’s.

Time seems to be moving very quickly and I can’t believe that I’m already at the end of my second week. The routine of each day seems to make the time fly and I want to get up earlier to make more of the time here. I want to do more reading but the evenings don’t seem long enough, especially as I’m trying to do more proper cooking and I’m going for runs most days. As for the cooking, I’ve started making my own bread now and made my first batch of rolls, which turned out quite well and I’m trying to be more imaginative with my food – three months of my usual island food would get pretty boring.

My main thought from this week has been that life is so much simpler on the island without many of the normal trappings of modern urban life and being outside much of the time; conversations often focus on the weather, food, wildlife and the scenery, and particularly at present the temperature of the Bungalow at night! Yes, I do have access to the internet and a smart phone, but the day-to-day here is more basic and more in tune with the natural world. This isn’t really related to staying on a nature reserve, it is much more to do with the simpler way of living that we have here.