2001 – Isle of May
18th to 25th August 2001
It was July and John and I were discussing where we could go birding or ringing in the not too distant future. John as usual dreamed of India, Costa Rica, Mexico, I picked up a bundle of Ringers’ Bulletins and perused the Notice Board section. There in Spring 2000, Vol 10, No 4, was an ad:-
“Isle of May Bird Observatory. This year there are still some weeks left……..”
This was enough, even if it was the wrong year. We had never been there. I sat and wrote a letter to the man in the ad, Mike Martin, which simply stated:-
“I have just been looking through some old Ringers Bulletins and found an old ad for the Isle of May. We are two ringers who might be interested in a week of ringing and solitude in August.”
A phone call followed when Mike stated he had two weeks when there was no one on the island. A quick call to John and we booked the week beginning 18th August.
In conversations with Mike over the following weeks, he left us with the impression that it might be “a bit quiet” regarding birds. We didn’t mind this as John and I both enjoy island life, and besides there would be “stormies” to tape lure, gulls, Shag and Puffin to chase at night, something that we don’t do very often in land-locked Hertfordshire. We were bound to enjoy ourselves.
The 18th came, and armed only with enough food to feed an army, beer, binoculars, nets, fishing tackle, more beer and a few shirts, we set off. We arrived at Pittenween at 11:00 after a ten hour journey and only four hours sleep in the last 48. Why is everything a last minute rush? The boat wasn’t due until 14:00, so we took ourselves off to Fife Ness only to be greeted by a sea mist and light easterlies. Nothing else to do but go back to that pub by the harbour and wait.
In the pub I had a bet with myself how long it would be before I heard John utter those immortal words of his, “these are classic fall conditions, easterly wind, fog, all we need now is rain”. He was right of course, but he said this every trip. The birds had never obliged to date. We sat and discussed old times and wondered just what the island would be like.
The appointed hour came, we boarded “Aspire” and off to the island. Just in case we didn’t have enough food, John managed to scrounge a couple of mackerel from Iain on route. Very nice they were too!
We alighted at Alterstanes to be greeted by Jared and Ian who were accompanied by David and Margaret Thorne who were just about to depart after their stint on the island.
“How was your stay” was the first obvious question to David.
“ Well on stormies, but only one Robin and a few Willow Warblers” came the reply. Disappointing if not unexpected.
Still, there were always the Puffins. “All gone” came the unwanted reply. OK, gulls and Shag for a week then I thought.
We were chaperoned to the Low Light by Jared who politely answered our many questions and then gave us a guided tour of the traps and facilities. First impressions were of a big net round with a great deal of walking. We were not wrong. We continued to badger and pester Jared regarding best places for nets, poles, rings. We were ceaseless in our quest for information. Jared must have been relieved when we turned our attentions to unpacking and food.
We only got as far as unpacking the food and discovered just how many flies you can get on one flypaper before John’s enthusiasm kicked in. “Lets drive the heligolands”. It was by now early evening.
Off we went armed only with bird bags. First round yielded a lone Willow Warbler. While we were discovering the layout and format of the ringing hut, where all the rings were hidden and what species went in what book, plus trying to process our first captive, Jared appeared. “Barred Warbler in the Arnott”.
He just managed to avoid being trampled and came to help us drive the trap. At the end of the drive, there it was in the box. A real “gripper”, and we had it! It was duly processed and photographed. John ringed it, but I was allowed “to fondle it”. You sometimes have to be very Californian with rarities and just share the experience if you don’t get the ringing tick. When it was released, we both thought – Wow! that has made our week. Our further endeavours resulted in one more Willow Warbler before dark and dinner.
After dinner we reflected on our day and discussed netting possibilities. A Barred Warbler for our first bird can’t be bad. We were both tired but John had to go and lamp a gull, just because they were there.
The morning of the 19th saw me alone in the early morning. It was foggy and wet. Not my favourite conditions, but we still had those easterlies. “Bloody fall conditions” could be heard being mumbled under my breath. A drive of all the traps confirmed my suspicions. Not a bird to be seen! I returned to the Low Light by 07:00 to tell John and went back to bed. It was now raining very hard.
We had breakfast with the flies at 10:00 and set out armed with nets and renewed enthusiasm. The rain had eased into a drizzle, but still enough to make us very, very wet. By 11:30 we were soaked, but had nets up in areas which Jared had recommended, but not many birds – none in fact, but those winds were still easterly.
It was now midday, the drizzle and mist continued. We could not have been more wet. A further round and a drive of the traps and – birds. Pied Flycatchers, Garden Warblers and Willow Warblers were the first. Excitement mounted as did the number of birds which were by now appearing everywhere. Back to the ringing hut, all thoughts of dampness banished, birds at last.
While processing the first batch Jared appeared again. “Aquatic Warbler near the tennis court. Iain’s watching it”. Off we dashed. A UK tick for me. Good views were had by all and we discussed net positioning with Jared.
On our way back to drive the traps Jared appeared again.” Wryneck at the entrance to the Arnott”. A drive produced not only the target bird, several more Pied Flys, Willow Warblers Garden Warblers, but also the first “Ickie”. A drive of the Low now pushed many many birds towards the catching box. This produced another Icterine Warbler but not the numbers. To our disappointment, many of the smaller birds were escaping through the mesh of the traps. A real bummer.
Not to worry, look what we had. The Wryneck and “Ickies” were duly confirmed, processed and photographed. Quite time consuming. Jared by now had become our eyes and ears. Reports coming in thick and fast, too fast to keep up.
Red-backed Shrike here, more Barred and Icterine Warblers, Gropper there, another Wryneck, Aquatic still showing. All too much. We continued to work the traps, check nets and process birds. We just hoped the Grockles wouldn’t show. I suppose that there’s a selfish streak in us all.
It was another two hours before John appeared with the biggest smile at the door holding a bag high, one of my finest with red embroidery. “We have an Aquatic Warbler”. The bird was duly identified, processed and photographed. You guessed, I had another “fondle” of a rarity. It’s a real privilege to have such birds in the hand. That bird bag will also get special treatment from now on. (Note from YB on editing this article – and still does to this day!! “oh be careful with that bag it’s the one that had the Aquatic Warbler in”)
The day continued at a frantic pace in the mist and occasional drizzle with no breaks and more and more birds. Every round and drive produced new species and more rarities, all of which were photographed. The final ringing total for the day was only 120 birds, not large numbers, but we were processing well into the night, and what a list, Aquatic, 3 Barred, 5 Icterine, 2 Wrynecks, Red-backed Shrike, Grasshopper Warbler, 47 Pied Flys, 2 Whitethroats, 19 Garden Warbler, 3 Tree Pipits, Rock Pipit, Wheatear, Pied Wag, 28 Willow Warbler, 3 Whinchat, 2 Robin. What a day! It was difficult to estimate actual numbers of birds on the island as we were so focused on the job in hand, but we had a crack with Jared who was so much calmer than us. What a great guy.
By the time we had dinner and completed the logs, it was late, very late and we were knackered. We both knew it would be an early start in the morning, so John left the gulls in peace, even though they were there.
The morning of the 20th saw us up early for breakfast with the flies. The weather had improved, clear skies, a westerly wind, but there were still birds around, but not so many. We had to be quick to mop up. With nets open and a few drives of the traps produced mainly Willow and Garden Warblers, but in amongst these were Reed Warblers. Where did they come from? I was surprised to notice so few retraps, only one “Ickie” that stayed for a couple of days and the Shrike. I remember seeing it again in the catching box. It looked as if it was relishing another opportunity to lacerate our fingers. Having fondled it yesterday, I left it for John.
Our endeavours did produce 4 Reed Warblers, another Icterine and Grasshopper Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, and a sprinkling of Pied Flys. We knew that there was another Barred and Icterine Warbler present, but they didn’t fall to our charms.
At 14:00 Jared announced that the Grockles would be on the island later which meant we had to interrupt our activities. What could we do. “Let’s put up the nets by the Low Light so we can tape stormies tonight” came the immediate response from John.
Two 60’s were selected for the job and we started together. It wasn’t long before I became acutely aware that the body at the other end of the net was missing and I was now struggling alone. Where had he gone? I looked around to see John fly through the air with all the grace of a thrashing machine, only to lie face down on the floor clutching a black object shouting “Yes, Yes, Yes”. He looked at me with the smile and excitement of an English cricketer who had just taken a slip catch to dismiss the final Aussie batsman to win the Ashes. The object he was clutching was later identified as a Puffin, the only one we saw all week. It was treated with due reverence, ringed and released later.
With the Grockles gone, we continued our endeavours but it was very quiet and very few birds were caught. Very few being two.
Dinner and the completion of the logs brought the time to midnight. I was going to get a couple of hours sleep, so John took my “ghetto blaster” out and played the tape. He was looking forward to his stormies. I was awoken at approximately 03:30 to be told that my tape recorder was rather inefficient for the job at hand – or words to that effect. How was I to know that you needed a piece of disco equipment that could be clearly heard in Trondhiem. It works fine in the woods back home. Still, all that this setback meant was that we would turn our night time activities towards gulls and things, because at least they were there.
Next morning was a late start. The weather had much improved so shorts were the order of the day in the bright sunshine. The downside was that the flies were more active. Fortunately John had found the fly swats. Running around Low Light like a manic windmill soon had the numbers flying down to a minimum. It made a pleasant change to eat without the continual buzzing of flies and having to avoid the flailing knifes and forks.
The lack of birds gave us the opportunity to explore the island. We had been there three days and not really seen much more than the heligoland traps. After a morning walk of discovery we soon saw that there were waders, pipits and Wheatears to be had. There were also some small passerines around including a Stonechat and several sightings of “acros” that we could not turn into another Aquatic no matter how hard we tried. “Sedgie” was always the response from Jared after seeing it for only a few milliseconds. What a killjoy.
Our day was spent moving nets to new positions. Three Tarn Nick was an obvious choice, lots of fresh water, muddy margins and rocks, and 2 x 18’s on the jetty on the Loch, several more over other ponds and some good looking gullies. All we had to do now was wait for the Grockles to go, although their time of departure was now approaching 18:30. Not a great deal of time really. Still a few more drives of the traps produced Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, and a Whinchat. Only seventeen birds for the day. Still, we were now ready for anything with our nets and those gulls were still there. A night expedition was definitely on the cards.
Logs completed, full of food and burping from all the beer, we set off at midnight armed with lamps, my large net and a travelling ringing kit we had put together. I could tell by John’s attire that he was still in holiday mode, shorts and sandals. Still, he hardly wears anything else.
Our search area was East Tarbet and Tarbet Hole because we had seen Shag there during the day. Why do Shag choose inaccessible places to sleep? After performing Olympic standard gymnastics keeping lights on the quarry before it flew, we managed a Shag each, which was a ringing tick for us both, and, at the very least, sounds extremely satisfying! After that we decided that the gulls were easier. We spent the entire night “rock hopping” under the most beautiful of night skies. No star stealing here. The milky way plus a whole host of stars and galaxies were clearly visible. Absolutely stunning. The night produced 20 gulls, Herring and Lessers as well as the Shag. A good tally we thought for 5 hours work. As we walked back to Low Light at dawn we had to drive the Heligoland Traps, because they were there.
I awoke next morning to clear skies, John had already been round with the swat. Oh, and the sun was shining. After a fly free breakfast we opened all the nets and waited, and waited, and waited. A tape lure for Mipit produced one and a Whinchat. A couple of Whitethroats and only 3 Willow Warbler succumbed to our efforts. When the Grockles arrived is wasn’t too difficult to take a break.
“Lets go fishing” said John. A trip to Altarstanes lasted ten minutes before we lost all our tackle. They were monsters! Must have weighed 100 pounds and more. Shame that they were rocks. But every situation has a silver lining, in this case in the form of Fulmars. “We’ll try for them tomorrow” said John. I know I thought, because they’re there.
With the Grockles gone by early evening some nets were unfurled and we looked at the traps, not a great deal around. Walking back to the Low Light, we checked the nets in the Nick. The first wasn’t blowing as usual and had several creases falling down to the bottom right. Another bloody pigeon? We went to take a look and to our surprise this particular species of pigeon was brown with head stripes and a long bill. We had a Whimbrel. All the efforts of the day now seemed worth it. It was duly ringed, fondled and the official photographer was summoned. A great end to the day, well daylight hours at least.
By now the ritual evening routine was well established. Beer, at least 30 minutes fly swatting, beer, dinner, beer, logs, beer and off to disturb those gulls. We set off for South Ness this time, but only “for a few hours”. In John’s dictionary this means all night. Things were going very well. We had obviously learnt from our previous night’s work.
In the dark I could see John returning with a gull under his arm just as I was about to pop the net over my latest dazzled specimen. I knew I was in trouble when it wouldn’t fit . My net was big, but this bird was bigger. It raised its wings, which didn’t help so I grabbed it. It was plainly upset about being disturbed from its slumbers. It was also very big and heavy. Could it be a Christmas turkey? No, just a Great Black-backed Gull. What a mean individual. It had that mad look in its eye. I was for letting it go when we found we didn’t have the correct ring size in our travelling kit. “You can carry it back to the ringing hut” came the voice from the night. Thanks a bundle I thought.
Off I went struggling on my journey looking like Rod Hull with Emu. Not an easy trip. It didn’t bite me because I think it could smell my fear and took pity, but every time John got in striking distance, it lashed out with its bill. It must have been the sight of his bare legs. My requests for silence went completely unnoticed as he was disturbing everything with his screaming. I guess it must have hurt. On the up-side, he still has the scars and these are now his new conversation piece at the local.
Back at the ringing hut things didn’t improve, nor did its disposition. It filled the hut with its very impressive wingspan. With a ring in place, a couple more chunks out of John and it was on its way. To this day, I swear it winked at me as it flew off into the night. Perhaps he wasn’t all bad after all. Even with this diversion we still managed to ring ten other individuals, and another Shag that night. We were very satisfied with our night’s pursuits and happy to be back at the Low Light for a few hours sleep.
A couple of hours later on the morning of the 23rd. I left John “breathing musically” (he doesn’t snore) to open nets and see what was around. Driving the traps is impossible on your own and so frustrating. There were birds around on this bright and sunny morning but they easily slipped past me or escaped through the mesh. Giving in to hunger and the urge to get John to help, I decided to return to the Low Light and get him out of his bed. Besides, it was his job to clear the place of flies, something he seemed to gain a great deal of pleasure from.
Out of habit, I checked all nets on my way back. Everything looked clear through the bins but this particular net looked as if it could be tightened now the wind had dropped a little. The 200 yard walk hurt as the terrain was taking its toll on our feet. It was worth it. The net was hanging slightly because of its occupants. I bagged them and returned to the Low Light.
“Anything about?” said John from his bed.
“Only caught 2 birds but there are some around,” I replied.
“What you got?” John said with a disinterested tone in his voice.
“Green Sand,” I said.
With that he was up, at attention, and dressed in one movement, All thoughts of food gone, we marched to the ringing hut, summoned the official photographer, Jared, on the way, and duly processed a ringing tick each. I only catch ringing ticks in pairs. It saves all the arguing. The day continued with a lone Song Thrush, another Mipit and a couple of Pied Flys and Willow Warblers. We decided food was in order and had breakfast at about 14:00.
“Time to catch a Fulmar,” John said. We searched with binoculars and telescope for likely suspects and found some in the remotest part of the island, above the Loch. Armed with net and rings, John still in shorts and sandals, off we went.
Two things I learnt about Fulmars:-
i) don’t look for tongue spots
ii) all the easy ones are born with rings on
After a long walk we reached the appointed cliff. John, armed with net and sandals that must have a grip akin to a limpet, disappeared over the edge.
“Ringed”, “Ringed”, “Ringed”, were the only words at first that came back from the abyss. I dare not look. What would his mum have said? How did he manage to avoid all that oil?
A couple of hours search and a few heart stopping moments we had managed to find three unringed individuals, all in places where sane men would not dare go, but John did.
Fulmars done, a bite to eat and the Grockles gone. It must be time to unfurl. The evening produced only one bird, but it was a Greenshank. In the nets at Three Tarn Nick again. What a great way to end the day.
That evening was tinged with some sadness as we had to turn our thoughts to returning to the mainland. A ‘phone call to Iain confirmed our greatest fear, an early morning departure. Tomorrow would be our last day. The fact that we had added two new species to the island ringing list in one day didn’t stop us turning to the beer for solace.
Friday 24th. Our last full day. Bright sunny and warm, but we were still here. John set about the task of clearing the rooms of flies with his usual gusto, breakfast and off. A very quiet day but it did bring its surprises. First a Lesser Black-backed Gull in the third panel of a net, another Whimbrel and the net on the jetty finally produced a Common Sandpiper, the 30th species of the trip. With another 8 Willow Warblers, that evening saw us packed and ready to leave at 08:00 the following morning. We were too tired to disturb the gulls that night, especially with the prospect of a ten hour drive, even though they were there.
The final morning and our taxi arrived on time at 07:30. Jared on his quad bike with the newly repaired trailer. With all our gear loaded and on its way Kirk Haven, it was time for a little reflection.
Will we ever have such a week again. I doubt it. To experience a fall such as we had was very special. For it to happen on such a beautiful island was a bonus. 248 birds of 30 species ringed. Not great numbers but what a list.
Human nature is to also dwell a little on the down side. The “ones that got away”. The Merlin and Kestrel that bounced out of the net, the Sparrowhawk that was in the trap but gone when we got there. Why didn’t we catch the 5th Barred and 7th Ickie? What would we have caught if the mesh was smaller? Why do Pigeons in the net look like rarities from a distance? Why couldn’t the Puffins have stayed another week? All great memories.
For me personally, it is the memories that surround such events that make the trips. Meeting Jared, our guide, eyes, ears, and official photographer. He also happens to be an excellent birder. The swish of fly swats, the night sky, the stinging nettles, the aching feet; we must have walked the equivalent of Lands End to John O’Groats.
And of course there is John. His antics, boundless energies and enthusiasm never cease to amaze me, even after all this time. At Kirk Haven, even as the new arrivals were disembarking from the boat there was still time for one final drive of Arnott, because it was there.
Will we be back? Silly question.