Fair Isle trip: Midnight storm

During my two weeks on Fair Isle, I was volunteering at the Bird Observatory bar. This meant that I could cover my accommodation costs by working in the evenings and go birding during the day. It was very enjoyable and worked out well. I was able to chat to those stopping at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO) and Islanders, meaning I learnt even more about the island community and how the island functions.

Not only this, but it meant that I didn’t miss any birding during the day, or at night. On three different occasions, after my shift had finished, at 12 midnight I made my way down to South Harbour and the boat house to watch and experience storm petrels being rung.

This was a superb experience for myself, mainly because I’d never seen a storm petrel before. However, I had seen many photographs and heard plenty of stories about how much of a fantastic bird they are. Standing outside at 1am in the morning, especially in such a remote location, you would expect it to be pitch black. In fact, it was almost light and felt more like sunrise. With a pink sky in the distance and the faint, washed out silhouette of Shetland.

The process of catching and ringing storm petrels included setting up mist nets in the shape of an ‘L’ then placing a speaker in the centre, which played the call of a storm petrel. Only one or two ringers sat close to the net whilst others (non-ringers and ringers) stood further back to avoid any overcrowding and so that the birds weren’t discouraged from the area. Once a bird flew into the net, it was quickly extracted and taken to ringers in the boat house who recorded measurements and rung the bird before it was released again.

The storm petrels that were caught were European Storm Petrels, which are the most common petrel species to the UK. However, at Fair Isle, they have recorded rarer species including Leach’s Storm Petrels and in the last few years, Swinhoe’s Petrel, which have only been recorded a hand full of times in the UK.

On my first evening, I stood well back from the nets with a group of others who were also keen to see a stormie. We attempted to focus our eyes on the nets to distinguish when a bird flew in, despite it not being pitch black, the nets (known as mist nets) can be difficult to see. However, it was obvious when a bird had entered the net as one of the ringers, those sat by the net, would suddenly run over to the bird. It was almost like watching a tennis match, but instead of the ball boys/girls retrieving tennis balls, they were retrieving storm petrels!

When the first bird was brought into the boat house to be rung, I almost couldn’t contain myself! The ringer held the petrel in a cloth bag, which I could see slightly moving as the bird inside wriggled about. In the bag, was my first storm petrel! As they brought the bird out of the bag, I had to bite down on my hand to prevent myself from making a noise so that I didn’t frighten the bird, but I was so excited! It was a bit smaller then I imagined, but the first thing I noticed was the smell. An incredibly distinctive smell which I wish I could capture and describe in some way. It was an almost pleasant scent though. By the end of the night, after letting a few birds go from the palms of my hands, my hands stunk of them! I really didn’t want to wash my hands. It just reminded me of how exciting the evening was and how much of a superb bird they are!

Stormies are hardy little things that spend most of their life out at sea in all kinds of conditions. Which is hard to believe when you see how delicate they look. Two of the birds I saw in the hand were in fact missing feet. This is due to them skimming their feet along the surface of the sea to collect one of their staple foods, plankton. However, this can prove dangerous, as sometimes a predatory fish may just take a nibble. Nonetheless, such deformities don’t seem to affect the bird’s chances. Spending most of their lives at sea, you can’t help but look at them in awe and wonder what they’ve seen and experienced. Thus, they have a great deal of character. The smell was definitely the best, along with the little bit of chattering they did whilst being handled. It is possible that Stormies can locate each other by smell whilst at sea. There have, in fact, been some dubious, controlled indoor experiments done of Leach’s to test whether, in make-shift mazes, they head towards the smell of their mate more than towards either no smell at all or other smells. It turns out, they head towards the smell of their mate. As they return to their nests during the night when it is likely pitch black, their use of smell is obviously important. They are incredible birds, and I really enjoyed learning about them from those at the observatory.


Fair Isle trip: Killer experience

The population of Fair Isle is around 55. On the day that I arrived on Fair Isle, two guests stopping at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory accommodation were getting married. The whole island was invited to their wedding. The turnout was good, but not half as many as those who appeared when a pod of eight killer whales were sighted off the coast of Fair Isle on Wednesday afternoon.

They were first spotted in an area known as North Haven at around 14.20. At this time, I had just finished my lunch and was sat in the Observatory lounge drinking a cup of tea and contemplating what to do with my afternoon. All of a sudden, around the waters’ edge at North Haven, a couple of folk started running back and forth and making a fuss. We knew that something was up. At this point I had no idea what was going on, until someone shouted through the Observatory building ‘Killer Whales, North Haven’.

I had never been in such a panic in all my life. I grabbed the necessaries, my binoculars and coat, and fled down to North Haven. In doing so I tripped over multiple times, there was no time to do laces! The rush was surreal. Trying to describe the excitement at this point is impossible, I was about to see my first killer whale! Not only this, but the pod was only around 100 metres from where I stood. ‘Where I stood’ is a bit of an exaggeration. I could barely stand up, keep still or shut up.

We observed the pod in North Haven from 14.30 until 14.35. In swimming out of view, they left behind a bunch of giddy and breathless observers. Along with an injured seal, which towed itself across the bay before dunking out of view.

15 minutes later, we were treated to a second experience. The pod swam around the headland and into South Haven. There they displayed around the perimeter of the bay before carrying on south. Here, me and my friend Sarah watched from the headland above, meaning we got a bird’s eye view of the whales moving through the water. Flat areas appeared on the surface of the sea, we knew that an appearance was looming. The suspense was unbearable. You knew at any moment one would come into view.

In South Haven, we watched them for around 20 minutes before they continued moving south. This time around, we drove to the south point of the island, where it was highly likely they were going to pass. And there they were. We scrambled down the cliff and across the rocks to get as close as possible to the waters’ edge. Again, they were a matter of metres offshore. Here we had the privilege of watching them for 25 minutes until they disappeared.

The excitement and hysteria of seeing such a fantastic species, and so close, was incredible! Perhaps one of my greatest wildlife experiences.

You can view photos of the pod, taken by FIBO staff, by clicking here.

A video recorded by the FIBO.

Back from the text books

On Thursday morning, I had my last A Level exam. Meaning that I have officially finished school. After spending the last two years pushing and shoving myself through lessons and to commit to my A Levels, this is a huge relief and incredibly exciting. I’m now looking forward to not only what the next few months will hold, but what I’ll be doing post-school.

Over the last few months, I’ve felt as though I’ve been very quiet. Thus, I’ve felt quite guilty about this. Very few and no regular blog posts or writing elsewhere, spending fewer and fewer hours a week on my local patch as the weeks went by and the constant pressure to give up doing the things I love doing to stick my head in text books for hours on end instead. Although this was the ‘necessary’ thing to do so that I could succeed in my revision, pressure so bad that you have to give up what you enjoy doing altogether has its toll. However, it’s all over and hopefully the struggle will have paid off.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that exam results don’t represent anyone’s true intelligence or what they’re capable of achieving. This is a key lesson that I’ve learnt over the last two years. All the information that I retained in my lessons will never match what I’ve learnt when I’ve been out birding, using trail cameras or out walking. If you ask me a question related to what was in my English exam on Thursday in a month’s time, I could almost guarantee that I won’t have a clue what the answer is. Something that reflects this is my predicted grades. In English, I’ll be lucky if I get a C grade, however in a project I completed as part of an AS level (known as an Extended Project Qualification) about the impacts of Nature Deficit Disorder, I’m predicted to get an A grade. The difference being, although I enjoyed English as a subject, I was forced to retain information that may appear in my exam but for my EPQ, I wrote about something that really interests me.

However, I couldn’t keep myself completely absent from everything over the last few months. For a starter, I’ve been practising for my 191-mile trek that I’m doing next month to raise some cash for the BTO’s swift project. Practising has been a great excuse to take a break from my revision, get some exercise and spend some quality time outdoors. From cycling the lanes close to where I live in Staffordshire to long distance practise walks every few weekends. And since the beginning of May, these outings were made even more delightful by the accompaniment of swifts.

So far, I’ve raised over £1000, which I’m thrilled about. This cash will go towards funding the BTO’s swift project, which includes tagging and monitoring them to find out the reasons for the decline that we’ve seen in recent years. It’s incredibly important work. You can read more or support my walk by clicking here.

A momentary moment for me in the last few months, which I didn’t get the chance to blog about at the time, was voting for the first time! Some may remember my multiple blog posts around the time of the EU referendum last year and the 2015 General Election. I wrote about how the way in which the country voted was important when it came to future protection of the natural environment. I also wrote about my disappointment in not having a voice due to not being able to vote. The argument to be able to vote at 16 is a very valid one. Although many believe that young people are either not educated enough about politics or simply don’t care enough to make the right decision, I think after the results of the recent General Election, young people are beginning to prove those who doubted them wrong.

I was pleased with the result too. It was a rare occasion as I felt positive. After losing her majority, Theresa May’s attempt to repeal the Hunting Act has now been torn apart and with rising popularity of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, it gives a glimmer of hope as the end of the Tory government and chaos might be within reach. This could spell the end to the badger cull, bring better protection for the environment post-Brexit and bring in a government that understands and realises the importance of the natural world. Unlike last week’s events when Michael Gove was made secretary for the environment. A man who believes that environmental protection is a nuisance, attempted to remove climate change education from the curriculum whilst he was secretary for education and doesn’t see a problem with pesticides.

In the run up to the General Election, I did manage to attend a few rallies and demonstrations. A few weeks before the General Election, there was a debate on the badger cull following the success of Simon King’s petition that reached over 100,000 signatures. Although it was certain that the result of the debate was unlikely to bring any positive change, I was desperate to make it down to London so that I could join others outside the Houses of Parliament before the debate began. Unfortunately, the attendance of ministers and MPs was as it was expected to be, very poor. As was any ‘debating’ or any outcome. Following the overall uncertainty in the UK and for the government over the last few months, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the cull this year. A few months back, it looked as though it was going to be the worst cull yet with further cull zones across the UK and more freedom for land owners. However, recent events and challenges facing the government could force them to change their minds.

Another interesting march I went on was one of the ‘March for Science’ events that were taking place across the world. The one I attended was in Bristol. It was another excellent day and I was surrounded by passionate individuals fighting for the sake of science and in response to recent actions and comments made by certain individuals, in particular, Donald Trump.

After the success of my peregrine watch at Lichfield Cathedral last year, I decided that it would be wrong not to repeat the events this year. Thus, I put a poster together, sorted some dates and managed to get hold of some optics. This was all with the help of some lovely local birders. We organised three mornings in total, all of which were very successful with many coming to have a look. We were also treated with some brilliant views of the birds. I absolutely loved being out doing these watches. It was brilliant to engage with people who had no idea about the birds being there. But when we told them what they were and after they had a look through the scope, the look on their faces was the best!

Unfortunately, I won’t be in Lichfield to do the watch events at the cathedral next year but I’m sure that they will be taken over by others. This is because I’ll be a student at Hull University from September. Those who know me fairly well will be aware that a reason why I’m so excited to go to Hull is because I’ll be within stones throwing distance of one of my favourite places in the world, Spurn. Whilst taking my exams and during times of intense studying, I spent a lot of time at Spurn. I could revise, take very effective breaks and enjoy decent bouts of birding. On my last trip, a week before my exams started, I had one of the craziest days ever. From sat at a desk revising for my English exam, I walked a matter of steps and saw my first Honey Buzzard! My reward for a mornings hard work.

Now my exams are all over, I have a lot planned over the summer. In fact, whilst writing this post I was on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Shetland on the way to my first stop: Fair Isle. Where I was supposed to arrive this afternoon but due to weather conditions, I won’t be able to get there until Monday at the earliest. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring Shetland, where I’m currently ‘stranded’, tomorrow.