Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 13

My final week on Ramsey was a short one. This was intentional but was also eventually shorter than planned. I would have usually left on the Saturday but I planned a trip to Sweden to stay with family and also to have enough time at home on my return to settle in properly before going back to work. My plan was to leave on the Thursday but the weather for that day looked poor so I left on the Wednesday evening instead; this gave me a night in St. David’s, softening the blow slightly of leaving the island.

The tasks this week were limited to introductory talks to the arrivals on the visitor boats, more bruising bracken and my final weighing session for the Manx shearwater chicks – all tasks I really enjoy for my last week. We also went swimming again a few times and attracted some interest from the grey seals; I even had one come right up to me, which inspected my fins – a pretty special experience.

My hope that the heathland flowers would be out in full bloom before I left was not met – well much of the heather was out but the sunsets and sunrises weren’t sufficiently nice to provide the light I needed for good photography – maybe next time! ‘Maybe next time’ was a thought that passed through my head a lot this last week across a whole range of activities – and I concluded that there certainly would be more ‘next times’! At the beginning of a stay on Ramsey, I often this that each stay would be my last, at least for a while, but usually during the course of a stay this changes to coming back for a shorter than usual period, and eventually, changes to returning properly. This happened again this time, despite the much longer stay.

Leaving the island was quite painful really. After 13 weeks on Ramsey it felt like home even more than usual and I had totally settled into the way of life. I was given a lovely send off with even a round of applause for my last introductory talk and being waved off by Greg and Alys, as well as the two current short-term volunteers., Ali and Vicky. Lisa, and her friends who were visiting the island for the day, helped me with all my kit but at least it was all a little lighter than on my arrival with all the food gone (or left behind).

After a night in St David’s, I couldn’t help myself but head down to St Justinian’s, the quay from which the boats to Ramsey sail, for one last look at the island before making my long, hot drive home.


Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 12

This was the week when my stay on the island really began to draw to a close with only a partial week remaining. It was also when it dawned on me that I’m actually going to have to leave very soon. It was one of the most eventful weeks too with whole range of experiences to look back on.

The week started with the St David’s Music and Arts festival. The sloping ground outside the farmhouse with its benches makes a perfect amphitheatre with a great backdrop of the harbour, Ramsey Sound and the Bitches. We had a good turnout of visitors and lovely warm, sunny weather, with five solo artists singing with acoustic guitars. The afternoon seemed to last forever and has to have been one of the most memorable of my stay. We had a barbecue after all the visitors and musicians had gone – slightly interrupted for a couple of us watching the Cricket World Cup Final – and the evening concluded with the first of several night walks back up the island to the Bungalow. The moon was so bright that we didn’t need head torches to find our way home.

One day this past week, when it had been an exceptionally still and warm day, I headed out to the west coast of the island to see the shearwaters flying past and watch the sunset. I was treated to a true wildlife spectacle. With the sea almost glassy smooth, I could not only see the usual mass passing of the birds on their way south to Skomer, I could also see them rafting off the coast of Ramsey. There were tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of birds passing or sitting on the water. When the rafts took to the air, the shearwaters looked almost like swarms of insects and I don’t think I have ever seen so many birds in one place. There have been many spectacular wildlife moments in my life over the past few years and this one must rank with some of the best. 

While I was out for that walk I had a look across the seabird cliffs on the west coast of the island; they were almost empty. Save for the kittiwakes, virtually all of the other birds, the guillemots and razorbills had left. The chicks of these birds have been leaping off the cliffs into the water for the past few weeks and I have been looking at the cliffs full of birds ever since I arrived at the end of April, but now they are almost completely deserted. This is another sign that my time on the island is coming to a close as I knew with would happen shortly before I was due to leave.

The other wildlife spectacle of this week was one lunchtime when we overheard radio chatter from the visitor boats that there were common dolphins in St Bride’s Bay, just south of the island. We rushed to the vantage point by the farmhouse and watched somewhere between 50 and 100 dolphins, in a number of different pods, moving around the bay. We usually see porpoise each day but I think this was only the second time I’ve seen dolphin from the island.

Another sign of the changing seasons and part of the yearly cycle of Ramsey was the birth of the first grey seal of the year. This was a little early as the usual peak pupping period is September and October. My previous stay on Ramsey was in September last year and coincided with that peak, enabling me to see many pups across the island during the two weeks.

A professional photographer, Alex Ingram, came across for a couple of days to continue his ‘Gatekeepers’ project to photograph wardens on remote islands. We showed him around the island and he took shots of us doing ‘wardeny-type’ things and I might even get into his collection, when he publishes it – it’s a long-term project so it might be a while!

The work to control the spread of bracken on the island took a bigger step this week with the ‘Bruiser’ being brought out from the tractor shed. The Bruiser looks like a larger version of the cutting blades from a cylinder lawnmower with a towbar attached to be pulled behind the quad bike. This heavy contraption breaks and crushes the stems of the bracken and over several years of doing this over the same locations will hopefully reduce the coverage of the plant. To be honest, I love driving the quad bike and this was immense fun – although you do have to be careful not to damage either the bike or the Bruiser by running over rocks or mounds. The task seemed a bit like driving a mini-combine harvester – maybe I should retrain as a combine driver!

With this post written, there’s only one more weekly update left, and that will be a short one!

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 11

The weather continued to be lovely and my eleventh week was a quiet one really. We did quite a lot of bracken and thistle scything, and did the weekly weighing of shearwater chicks in the nest boxes on the east coast of the island.

There were a couple highlights. The first was jumping on one of the evening shearwater and puffin boat trips out to the Bishops and Clarks. It’s always nice to get a trip on the boat and the evening sailings give a chance to get closer to the shearwaters which we normally only see in the daytime from a distance. The following evening, on the same trip, the boat, Gower Ranger, made front page news after she struck a submerged tree and started taking on water. Fortunately all the safety procedures went to plan and everyone returned safely to the land, with Gower Ranger now out of service awaiting repairs.

This week I also continued my new hobby of sea swimming! I had several evening and one morning swim, in my newly purchased shorty swimsuit. On Saturday we all went in after the last boat and were joined by my birthday present; a huge inflatable pink flamingo. Tethered to the beach, all six of us managed to get on it in one go! It was the funniest birthday I’ve had in a long time!

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 10

This was the first entire week of my stay when we had all scheduled boats running. The weather has been lovely and even hot at times, giving even more excuses to go swimming in the sea, either before or after our day visitors have been and gone.

The work to control the spread of bracken across the island is now well under way and we spent time scything patches in some of the sheep fields. This is quite hot work in the heat of the day but just the sort of exercise I like.

Whilst bird surveys have largely come to an end, that isn’t the end of the bird-related work or interest on the island. One of the main ongoing tasks for the next few weeks will be weighing the Manx shearwater chicks in the nest boxes. Whilst this task will continue well after I have left the island, and therefore isn’t really my task, I was there for the first weekly weighing and will hopefully pop along for the next few.

Another bird related activity this week was going to the seabird cliffs on the west coast of the island in the evening and watching the guillemot chicks fledging from the narrow ledges upon which they have been reared. They make a ‘willocking’ call as they are about to jump; their parents below encouraging them to make that first leap. They can’t fly when they go and simply fall to the water, hopefully missing the rocks on the way down. We drew a blank on the first visit but had some success on the second with quite a few plopping into the water as we watched from a distance.

Lastly, I had a day off the island on Friday and spent it walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path from St Non’s to St Justinian’s. It wasn’t the longest of walks but given the summer temperatures, it seemed long enough. I stopped for some time on the path opposite Ramsey Island, watching the harbour porpoise in the ebbing tide as it flows into St Bride’s Bay. 

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 9

This was another weather interrupted week with only the full timetable of boats on three days and most disappointing of all, there were no boats on Thursday meaning my final guided tour was cancelled. This being said, we also had the first properly hot day of my stay; we didn’t get the very hot temperatures of the rest of the UK but it was enough to make life a little more lethargic. I also think for the first time the inside of the Bungalow was actually very warm, with a hot wind blowing in through the door; I haven’t been able to say that before. All this warm weather meant that I could do one of my very favourite things; sitting on the doorstep in the evening simply looking at the view. I was even accompanied by some bats which flitted above my head.

With the vast majority of survey work finished, the workload is quieter at the moment, especially when the boats don’t run. I gathered up all the marker pegs from my shearwater plots but that’s not the end of the shearwater work. The birds are now hatching their eggs and we went down to the nest boxes on the north-eastern side of the island and to check on the progress of the 11 occupied boxes. Of those, two had already hatched chicks and they were the first very small shearwater chicks I’ve seen. Over the next few weeks, someone will have the job of visiting the chicks to see how they develop. There are around 100 nest boxes dug into the sloping side of the island just above the sea and I put together and dug in a few of them, so it’s good to see them being used.

One of the major farming events on the island happened this week – the sheep shearing. I’ve seen and helped out with the shearing before but this time I had little to do. It’s quite a fascinating operation and I’m always amazed at how quickly the shearers get through the nearly 100 sheep. A few years ago when I was here for a two-week period in June, I made this short video of the shearing.

Whilst young birds have been popping up all over the island for some time, this week saw the fledging from two bird of prey nests; buzzards and peregrines. We’ve been keeping an eye on both nests as the season has progressed. We have been particularly watching the peregrines as they are a Schedule 1 species and it is illegal to disturb them on their nests. After looking at them one evening, by the following afternoon the nest was empty and the fledglings could be heard calling from the nearby cliffs. The buzzard chicks have looked ready to fledge for some time but we only found them out of the nest when we went to do some shearwater work. The local bird and rabbit populations will now be getting a lot more trouble from the birds of prey as this lot learn their trade. 

My biggest surprise of the week was finally being persuaded to go for a swim in the waters around the island. I’m not afraid of swimming or water and have done quite a lot of canoeing over the years as well as a very small amount of water-skiing. However, swimming has never really appealed to me, particularly as I live in a very landlocked area, albeit with canals and rivers nearby. So, after two refusals, I couldn’t really decline a third time and took the plunge, metaphorically and actually. There are two good spots for swimming on the island, the harbour and the little bay on the other side of the track to the farmhouse. The latter was more sheltered from the waves and wind, so we went in there. To my surprise, I found I could actually swim, despite it being over 25 years since I last tried. Okay, I’m not going to swim around the island or across Ramsey Sound any time soon but it was a start and, maybe, I might even try it a bit more when I finally get home (after a bit more practice here!).

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 8

This week has been the most action-packed so far and there has been some stunningly bright and lovely weather.

The week saw the end of a range of surveys including my shearwater response survey and possibly the end of the chough watches although there are still one or two nest sites where we still don’t quite know what has been happening. For the past few weeks there has been an ongoing survey of the auks (razorbills, guillemots and puffins) around the island itself and the offshore Bishops and Clerks. Most of the work has been done from the land by Greg (the Site Manager) and Lisa (the Warden) but this week several of us were able to help when the survey went nautical! There are a number of locations where the breeding sites of the auks can’t be seen from the land so Thousand Island Adventures kindly lends us Ocean Ranger, a skipper and crew, to take us to the hidden spots. I had two trips out, the first at the end of one day which took us to the Bishops and Clerks, and the second early in the morning taking us to the cliffs of Ramsey and the islands immediately to the south. The latter trip was particularly nice given the lovely weather but we did end up getting a bit wet when a large wave his us side on. It has to be said, doing bird surveys by jet boat is much more exciting than my usual sedate wanderings around my own survey sites at home.

I was also given an additional treat this week with another trip on Ocean Ranger when I tagged along on a sailing out to Grassholm. This island is seven miles off the coast of Ramsey and part of the same RSPB reserve. It is home to 36,000 breeding pairs of northern gannets and is the fourth largest gannetary in UK waters. It took a while to get out there but the sights, sounds and smells of the 11 hectare island need to be experienced to be believed. It was unfortunately a very dull day so my photos are quite limited but I wouldn’t have missed it – hopefully not the only trip out I will have.

I also did my penultimate guided walk this week, ably assisted by Alys, the other long-term volunteer on the island this year. She arrived on Sunday and will be carrying on and taking over from me when I leave at the end of July and she will stay until September. I really enjoyed the walk again and the great weather and visible wildlife helped make for a great even.

The week finished with a some unusual visitors to the island when a group of singers turned up for a couple of hours on Saturday. The Hay Shantymen are doing a short tour in the St David’s area and came across to give us a few songs. They are raising money for both he RSPB and the RNLI. I have to admit that shanty music isn’t normally my thing and I was quite sceptical but one of the songs in particular  (Leave her, Johnny) was quite moving – particularly as it won’t be too long until I leave Ramsey. I even got a bit of video…

What I really like about this video is that there are house martins flying around the singers as they come in and out of their nests under the eaves of the farmhouse.

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 7

Another week passes and the weather is starting to annoy me now. After the amazing heat and sunshine of last summer I was hoping for a repeat but my hopes appear to be being dashed at the moment. This was another mixed week for boats with several days in a row when they didn’t run. There was much rain and wind, and it really doesn’t feel like summer has arrived at all yet. My first four weeks were quite nice with some warm sunshine, when out of the wind, but the past three weeks have been really quite bad.

The survey and monitoring work continues with the completion breeding bird survey, my Manx shearwater response survey and watching the chough nests. This week saw the first chough fledge and I saw the first one of the lot; it was perched outside the cave at Briw calling to its parents while at least one more sibling was still inside. Since then chicks have fledged from five other nests with more to come, hopefully.

I also started one of my favourite tasks – scything bracken. My first task wasn’t essential to bracken control on the island, but good for us walking around – I cut a path from the Bungalow down to the sheep fields and than out around the base of the hill. I look forward to more!

I had a day off the island, the first in three weeks, to do some food shopping, including buying some crabs – my first spider crab since I was about five or six. It was lovely to see that the verge flowers down the Pembrokeshire county lanes are still in full bloom.

The highlight of the week was jumping on an evening boat trip out to the Bishops and Clerks, the string of islands off Ramsey’s west coast. The sea was quite rough but we had good views of passing Manxies and of puffins and other birds on the islands. Hopefully, more trips out to come!