Ramsey Island: Missing the silence

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.

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 – My First Week

After arriving a day late due to the weather, my first week on the island was a little short and certainly went quickly. However, as I’ve come to expect, each day has been different and never dull. 

Unusually for me, I’ve been finding it difficult to get out of bed – in my other life I get up at 5:30 each morning . We don’t have to leave the Bungalow until about 9:15 and it doesn’t take long to get ready but I’d like to get up earlier than 7:30 – that’s a full two hours later than usual for me. However, a significant reason for my reluctance to leave my snug and warm bed is that it has been freeeeeezing each morning and it’s not an immediately enticing thought to leave my bed behind. The temptation of making a nice bowl of porridge (or gruel) has each morning eventually got me out of my pit. Food has been a constant in my mind for most of the week, whether it be trying to make lunch more exciting, increasing my evening repertoire (as of today now including a decent pizza!) or just settling down at the end of the night with a slice (or two) of my fruit cake and a wee dram.

The weather has been quite variable. We have only had visitor boats on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday due to strong winds and as I write this, on Saturday evening, the winds are strong again and blowing straight into the end of the Bungalow where my room is, making it even more of an icebox. Despite the wind, today has been gloriously sunny and in shelter it has been quite warm under the strong sun and I may have caught a bit of it. This has been the case for a few of the days; when the cloud clears it could almost be summer.

I didn’t feel that my stay had really got going until I did my first introductory talk. A primary role for all volunteers on the island is to help with the visitors, assisting them on and off the boat, Gower Ranger, as she arrives at 10am and 12pm and takes the remaining visitors off at 4pm. Volunteers also run the small shop in the farmhouse selling drinks and snacks at each boat arrival and for a longer period prior to the 4pm departure. A key part of my role over the three months will be doing the introductory talks when each boat arrives. The visitors are shown into the boat shed and they get a 15 minute talk about the island, where they can walk and what they can see. I love doing them and it’s a great opportunity to promote the work of the RSPB and enthuse about the island in general and the nature it supports.

In addition to the visitor tasks, John, the other volunteer, and I have been doing a range of monitoring and practical work. Our first tasks were to do watches at eight of the nine chough nests around the island. We spent up to an hour at each, noting down the activity to see if a pair is actively using the nest – three of my four definitely appear to be being used, while the fourth was a little inconclusive. We will repeat these watches over the coming weeks and I’ll do other bird survey work to support monitoring of breeding bird populations.

The practical work was varied and fun, including:

  • My first practical use of the quad bike after my course a few weeks ago
  • Altering some path signs and reinstalling them
  • Setting some more marker stones along the visitor path 
  • Repairing the chicken shed and run (they deserved it as they lay great eggs!)
  • Tidying up around the farms buildings and cutting kindling for the Bungalow stove
  • Tidying up the back of the Bungalow and installing a new compost bin
  • Trying, and failing, to take a gate apart to salvage the wood
  • Cutting back some gorse above one of the bays

After our work for the day is finished, at about 4:30ish, the evenings are our own. I’ve been running a few times so far; I have never run anywhere as spectacular as the Island and it sure beats pounding the streets at home or going to the gym! I’ve also been out for evening walks, photographing the wildlife, and have sat in the sea-watching hide looking for the passing wildlife.

One evening, however, our work started again at 10pm as John and I headed out to the eastern side of the island of help the wardens, Greg and Lisa, to catch and ring Manx Shearwaters. We spent a couple of hours using large pond cleaning nets to catch the birds as they landed on the ground. We gathered them up carefully, trying to avoid being bitten and scratched too much, and put them into cloth bags, handing them to Greg to ring. We ringed 20 birds over the course of the evening and had a number of re-captures of previously ringed birds – quite a successful night’s work. Hopefully more of these evening tasks to come!

The Manx Shearwaters are highlight of a volunteer’s stay on the Island, even if they aren’t involved in ringing them. A night on Ramsey at this time of year is accompanied by the weird chuckling-gurgling calls of the ‘Manxies’ and I love going to bed listening to them come in to their breeding burrows all around the Bungalow – I’m fortunate that I have so many more nights to come on the Island to listen out for them.

Taking a break from one life to live another

I’ve barely been able to contain my excitement for the past seven months. I’m just about to do something that I’ve wanted to do for many years and something that is well up towards the top of my bucket list; in fact it probably sits in the number one position these days.

Looking back at my working life and my career, I can say, very honestly, that I am where I set out to be. Sometime during the middle years of secondary school, while in my form teacher’s classroom, I picked up a copy of the Local Plan; I was fascinated – odd, I know. Possibly coming from a liking for maps, a natural tendency for order, a bit of creativity and an interest in geography, planning seemed like the ideal profession for me. 

My GCSEs seemed to fit well and my A-Levels were perfect, so I went on to study for a degree, and then a post-grad, in Town Planning (with a focus on transport). I then had a lucky break and got a job after only my first ever interview with a smallish consulting engineers, working as a Transport Planner. Over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve learned, grown and developed in the profession and now I’m an Associate Director in a large, multi-national consultancy. If I had seen where I am now from the eyes of that teenager holding that Local Plan, I think I would have been very happy.

However, what time has for so long led me to forget is that I had another dream job in mind way before I picked up that Local Plan. From my early childhood I’ve had an interest in wildlife and nature, despite a family tendency for all things trains and engineering, and that interest has burned long and deep in me. There was a key moment in my primary school years that sparked my interest further. If I remember correctly, on the way to catch a ferry from Newcastle, my parents, my brother and I stopped to meet my Mum’s cousin Steve at a nature reserve where he was warden. He showed us around and, as a nine year old, the experience was a defining moment in what would become a lifelong interest.

Over time however the interest slipped more into my subconscious and when I joined the world of work, it was well hidden behind all things that normally interest someone in their early 20s. As time moved on, work became more important and most other things became secondary and poorly prioritised. By my early thirties, my work/life balance was pretty bad and my love of wildlife and nature a mere cooling ember.

This all changed when, ten years ago, I finally decided to take a proper holiday and booked a wildlife trip to Sweden. It was the spark that re-ignited the flame and it has slowly but strongly grown ever since. Things still weren’t quite in balance between work and home, and it finally came to a head in the summer of 2011, when I decided to take a break from work and spend a year exploring my newly fanned interests. I spent a large part of that year volunteering for conservation organisations, both locally and at various locations around the UK. The experience that stood out the most from that year was the two weeks I spent with the RSPB on Ramsey Island off the Pembrokeshire Coast.

Every year since, I have gone back to the Island for more fortnights volunteering, and sometimes, if I’ve been well behaved, I’ve had have the odd additional week too. I adore being there and it would be a huge loss in my life if I couldn’t go back again. It’s usually one of the saddest days of the year when I leave and I think about place almost every day (triggered by the two paintings I have in my house). I always long to return and I usually make the booking to go back as soon as I get home from a stay.

So, imagine my reaction when I was there in September last year and Greg, the Site Manager, offered me the chance to stay for three whole months!!! Well, I couldn’t refuse. So, after seven months of containing my excitement, I’m taking May, June and July off work and heading down to South Wales to spend 13 weeks on the loveliest of islands doing something my childhood self could have dreamt of. I’m sure this stay will be the same as my usual shorter stays; it won’t be a holiday, I will actually be living a different life for a few weeks,

I have to say that my company and colleagues have been both extremely understanding and helpful in enabling me to do this – many wouldn’t have been so. It’s a sign of a brilliant company and great colleagues that staff can take time out and give the other half of their lives some real focus – thank you WSP!!!


A first trip of the year

On the 2nd January I had my first trip out of the year and visited the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Martin Mere Reserve. I’ve been visiting the reserve for many years and usually make a trip in the autumn to see the large flicks of pink-footed geese that pass through on the way to their main wintering grounds in north Norfolk. However, largely due to the amount of weekend working I did over the autumn, I missed that chance and this was the first time I’ve been for well over a year.

The weather was cold but very bright and a big change from the recent mild but gloomy stuff we’ve been having and it made the visit all the better for it. There was plenty of wildlife on show as I walked between the various hides from one end of the reserve to the other. I saw over 40 different species; perhaps not the most comprehensive list for the site and I’m sure I would have seen more had I stuck around longer. However, the best sights of the day were a barn owl hunting in daylight and three distant marsh harriers.

Of particular note was the relatively low number of whooper swans. It might just have been the particular day but there were only around 800 present when at this time of year previously I might have seen double that figure. I also learnt that the number of Pink-footed geese that passed through in the autumn was lower than usual. I suspect this may simply be down to the mild weather we have had over the autumn and winter so far and the birds are staying further north. However, there is a bread in me that there is more to this.

Towards the end of the day, I made a quick visit to RSPB Hesketh Outmarsh to see if there was much about. Whilst is was quiet I did get a nice sunset…

Seals pups – born into a harsh world

It has to be said that the pupping beaches of Ramsey Island aren’t places of peace and quiet where the seals live in harmony with each other. They are actually places of sex and violence, right in full view of the pups (and often the visitors too!).

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The pups arrive in a blood-stained gush straight onto the stony beaches, gasping for breath and open to the often harsh weather conditions and surging tides. They struggle towards their mothers to get their first feed of rich milk, using their weak flippers to push themselves across the hard ground. Some of the pups find themselves in amongst bolder fields while others right on the water’s edge; either blocked in by rocks or at risk of being washed away by a surging wave.

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The gulls take a keen interest in the spectacle, waiting for the afterbirth to appear, a fine meal for them, which they sometimes tug at whilst it’s still attached to the female, eliciting an irritated response. They also look out for those pups struggling into life, those too weak to survive or taken away by the sea only later to be deposited lifeless high up on the strand line. This is a time of plenty for the gulls especially when the weather turns for the worse.

Storms take their toll on the seal pups, last year was particularly hard, but even a short-lived storm in late September this year took a number from the largest beach on the Island. With a  westerly wind, the waves rolled in to Aber Mawr bay, crashing up the shingle beach and against the base of the cliffs, leaving little room for the pups to resist the sea.

It’s not only the angry seas that the pups have to look out for. The adults are a risk to them too. The females are intolerant of others, whether they be adults or pups. Much of the sound coming up the cliffs from the beaches below is from quarrelling females arguing over space and proximity to each other’s pups. The aggression increases with the arrival of the males, it’s not only pupping season but the time for mating too. The males make claims for territories on the beaches and will fight each other to keep control of their patch and to mate with the females within it. I thought that grey seals had relatively tame fights compared to the elephant seals I’ve seen in the Falklands but I saw two really going for it at Aber Mawr with plenty of blood flowing from gashes on their necks.

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The females give as good as they get too, warding off unwanted advanced from males with growling and biting, with fights breaking out at times. Even when they are in the process of mating, there’s plenty of aggression between the pairs.

However, there are times of relative quiet, with the females nursing their pups and others, whether large or small, relaxing on the shore, basking, stretched out in the sun. The only sounds being the water breaking on the beach, the gulls calling from the wing and a pup calling out towards the sea waiting for its mother to return from feeding.

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Pupping time for Grey Seals on Ramsey Island

September on Ramsey Island is right in the middle of grey seal pupping season. I have to say that, despite views to the contrary, my real wildlife interests are in mammals rather than birds, so a couple of weeks on the Island at this time of year gives me an opportunity to take a look at some of the UK’s biggest.

Ramsey is the largest pupping location in south-west Britain and around 500 to 700 born on its beaches each year between August and November. Walking around the island, the calls of the adults and pups can be heard coming up from the shoreline in most places and I could even hear them whilst I was lying in bed this morning.

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My time on Ramsey this year hasn’t just been spent looking at them for fun, I have also been helping with the ongoing monitoring work that the RSPB do. I have been helping out with two sets of work. The first involves taking photographs of the adults; the images are then uploaded onto a database which has pattern recognition software and can identify individual seals. This enables the seals to be tracked between different locations on Ramsey and much further afield.

The second monitoring task has been surveying the pupping beaches every three days. The surveys involve counting all pups, all females on the beaches, females in the water, all males and any dead pups (old or recent). The pups are also categorised according to a set of aged-related parameters:

  • Class I – new born – very loose baggy skin, wet/red umbilicus – 14kg
  • Class II – 6 to 10 days old – starting to fill out but still an obvious neck, no loose skin folds on the body
  • Class III – 11 to 15 days old – Outline rounded to barrel shaped, no wrinkles, no neck
  • Class IV – 16 to 20 days old – Patches of white natal fur moulted to reveal first-year pelage underneath
  • Class V – 21 days + – Fully moulted, independent and weaned – 45kg

It’s quite amazing just how fast the pups grow and that in just three weeks they are weaned and independent. Growing at an average rate of 1.5kg a day on the rich milk of their mothers, they soon turn from yellowy-white wrinkly bags of wet fur, through to miniatures of their parents.

Aber Mawr, just south of the Bungalow where the volunteers stay, is the largest bay on the Island and also the largest pupping beach. The first count I did there revealed 91 pups but a few days later, following a storm, there had been a drop of nine. Compared to some of the storms last year, however, the pups got off quite lightly. Storm Orphelia, in October 2017, washed away many pups with the count across the Island dropping from 120 to 31. We’ll have to wait and see what further storms come their way this year.

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More to come on the seals…

Orkney: The wildlife

One of the main reasons I went to Orkney was to see the wildlife and I wasn’t disappointed. I heard a long time ago how the Northern Isles are pretty spectacular for birdlife and they truly are; with the breeding season well underway, the sheer quantity of birds is simply breathtaking.

The greatest spectacle is all around as you travel through the islands in the early summer. The quantity of breeding waders is like nothing I have seen anyway else in the UK. It seems as if every field has its own resident pair of curlew and their calls ring out constantly. I loved going to sleep and waking up to those spiritful cries and, for me, there are fewer more evocative sounds of wild Britain. There are other waders, however, with oystercatchers seemingly as plentiful, constantly in a state of alarm or sheer panic, and redshanks, golden plover and lapwing are in good numbers too. I also saw some migrants still on their way north including lovely summer plumage dunlin, black-tailed godwit and sanderling.

The other big spectacle are the seabird cliffs, of which there are many and on a number of the islands. One my first day I had a good walk around Mull Head Nature Reserve on the north-east corner of the Deerness Peninsula. All along the coastal cliffs there are good numbers of guillemots (common and black), razorbills, fulmar and shags. I thought I heard the calls of kittiwakes there too but I believe their numbers reduced significantly at this site. This was also where I had my first head-to-head meeting with bonxies; the infamous harassing great skuas.

Out on Westray are the greatest seabird cliffs in the archipelago, at the RSPB’s Noup Head reserve. The huge towering cliffs have all the birds listed above but it is also Orkney’s only gannetry. This was the first gannetry I’ve seen and I spent a lovely lunchtime watching these iconic birds noisily come and go beneath me.

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One really interesting observation was the location of fulmar nests on some of the more remote locations. I’m used to seeing fulmar, like those on my favourite island, Ramsey, nesting high up on cliffs. On Sanday, however, I found them nesting at the back of beaches under the first tussocks of grass beyond the sand; surely a sign of the lack of predators and human interference.

I also spent a while at a puffin colony on Westray trying to get some shots of these most-photogenic of birds and I wasn’t disappointed…

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Elsewhere away from the cliffs there are good chances of seeing terns, and I had views, and close passes, of both arctic and little terns. There are arctic terns in a number of spots in Orkney but little terns can only be found breeding by the fourth Churchill Barrier between Barray and North Ronaldsay. This was the first time I’ve seen these lovely little birds but I made sure I didn’t approach too close to their small breeding colony.

I was also hoping to see a few birds of prey and I took two great memories from Orkney and both came from within a few hundred metres of each other on the southern island of Hoy. I had my first ever (albeit distant) view of a white-tailed eagle chick on a nest, which also happened to be the first to hatch in Orkney in over 140 years. Just a short distance away as I was walking down the public road back to the foot ferry at Moaness, I saw a pair of hen harrier mobbing a bonxie. As the intruder moved away, the male harrier spotted me and came over to check me out and move me on as I continued on my way. Normally, getting this close to a pair of hen harriers would be seen as interfering with them but there was little I could do given this was the only road in northern Hoy and there were plenty of other pedestrians and cyclists using that route.

Over the course of my stay on Orkney, I recorded 71 species of bird, which isn’t a bad total. This included a number of other northern specialities including red-throated diver, hooded crow, eider, twite and arctic skua. The relative of the bonxie, arctic skuas are a slimmer and more falcon-like bird and much less of a general menace, in fact they’re rather a nice looking bird.

I wasn’t expecting to see great numbers of hirundines but I saw good numbers of swallow and sand martin, as well as the unrelated swift. I don’t recall ever seeing so many sand martins and came across two nice sized colonies in beach-side sand walls.

There is, however, a sad element of a visit to Orkney and that is concerned with the changes in seabird populations. Only the week before I was reading in a national newspaper how numbers of many seabird species have plummeted over recent decades in the islands all around Scotland, probably as a result of losses in their food supply through over-fishing and climate change. It might be that my visit to Orkney was a last chance to see large numbers of cliff-nesting seabirds as, if their numbers continue to decline, there may not be many left when I next manage a visit to this lovely bird-rich group of islands.

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On my first day, I had an evening tour with Tim Dean, a local expert on all things Orkney wildlife including birds and plants. This really set me up for the week and he told me of some great locations to go looking for wildlife. He also introduced me to the only mammal I saw on the trip, a Cuvier’s beaked whale. Unfortunately, it had been washed up on the beach at Marwick Bay and had been deceased for quite a while. I have to say that Tim was one of the best local wildlife guides I’ve had a trip with in the UK and he really put in great effort before and during the trip to ensure I saw what I wanted. His contact details can be found here and I would certainly recommend him.

Back again…

I feel privileged enough as it is to spend a fortnight each year volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but this year I’m luckier still – I’ve just landed for an extra week! It might be a short stay as I’ve arrived a day late, due to strong winds yesterday preventing the boat from running and I may have to leave as early as Thursday for the same reason. However, it’s just great to be back and to see the Island in its autumn colours.

With a day to spare in Pembrokeshire yesterday I spent a few hours touring around parts that I have only previous seen from a distance while on the Island. It was a dark and foreboding kind of day for the most part so the photos below are all in black and white.