Monday, 13 October 2014

Coast To Coast - The Island Beach Clean

Friday 10th of October was an important day in the calendar of my month's volunteering with the Isles of Scilly Widlife Trust. I ventured from the office to join the rest of the team of volunteers, Rangers to help the Seabird Recovery project with a big task - a full island beach clean on St Agnes and Gugh. St Agnes and its sister Gugh which are joined by a tidal sand bar, have been the focus of the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project which has been working to protect the internationally important breeding seabird populations. 
The biggest part of the work the project has been doing has been a concerted effort to eradicate Brown Rats from the island. Brown Rats were accidentally introduced to the island and have been destroying the breeding chances of ground and burrow nesting seabirds by eating the eggs and chicks. Although we will have to wait a while longer to hear if the islands have official rat free status, indications are hugely positive that the eradication has been successful. This summer the successful fledging of healthy Manx Shearwater chicks was seen for the first time in living memory. 
Aside from monitoring the seabird nests and working with the island inhabitants to remove the destructive rats, the project has taken on other work such as habitat management, environmental education and beach cleans. 

Much of the work has required technical training or experience, but the beach cleaning is a fantastic way for the local people, and indeed anyone on any coastline and make a real difference to coastal wildlife. 
The volume of rubbish in our seas is hard to believe, and it ranges from plastic pellets no more than a few millimetres in diameter, to containers leaking corrosive chemicals. The thought of the damage this rubbish is doing every day to wildlife is sickening. Plastic bags look remarkably similar to a jellyfish when floating in shimmering water, and this can cause an uncomfortable end for turtles and other jelly-eaters (several Leather Back Turtles were recorded around Scilly this summer, not for the first time!). Small plastic pieces, bottle tops, or rubber bands, pieces of foam and polystyrene can be ingested by seabirds when mistaken for fish and other food. Viciously sharp fishing line, plus discarded nets and rope, becomes entangled around seabirds and cetaceans (dolphins etc); the plastic rings that hold together multipack cans should always be cut apart when put in the bin - imagine that around your neck or dolphin-beak! When washed up on the coast, glass bottles not only pose a hazard when smashed, but act as an effective trap for small mammals such as the Scilly Shrews here on the Isles of Scilly. 

We met on the quay on St Mary's at 8.30 and took a 15 min journey across to St Agnes. Under the guidance of Jaclyn, the project manager, the assembled crowd of willing volunteers split into teams, each designated a section of coast to work along. After various health and safety issues were highlighted regarding tides and hazardous waste, we donned our gloves, collected our rubbish sacks and got to work. 

View across the sand bar to Gugh from St Agnes

The orange hats help make Seabird recovery project volunteers recognisable

We weren't the only ones visiting the island - we stopped here to chat to a group of birders. Scilly is popular with birders in October, as many migratory bird and rare species can turn up on the island's shores.  - Photo by Abbie 
Before long we were shedding coats and jumpers under the sun, remarkably strong for near-mid October. We followed trails through bracken, bramble and gorse, slithered and scrambled over rocks and scrunched over sandy beaches, gathering every piece of metal, plastic, rope or other rubbish to be found. Odd flip-flops were a common find, whilst plastic water bottles were by far the most frequent. Fishing line and nets were pulled from where they had wrapped around rocks, lumps of foam were retrieved from thick beds of tide-line seaweed. 

Curlews called and Oystercatchers flickered over the rocks. A seal surveyed us down her long nose briefly from the sheltered water of a bay. Small brown ball-shaped Wrens jittered between the rocks and boulders, or rattled grumpily at us from the thick brambles. I have never know a place where my favourite bird is quite so plentiful as here in the Isles of Scilly. 

The rock to the left is dotted with Shags, a coastal bird that is most common in the south west, favouring the rocky coastline of the Isles of Scilly and mainland Cornwall.

A break for lunch was a time for laughter and camaraderie (and sharing of chocolate flapjacks!) before we returned to complete our relevant sections of the St Agnes coast. 

We faced some tough terrain - but it was great fun and not all this hard going!

Late afternoon arrived, and we returned to the quay for the boat back to St Mary's, exhausted and aching, but satisfied, proud of a job well done, and closer for a shared experience. 
We knew we had made a difference, and it felt good. Tired smiles all round - and we all knew that we would be back again as soon as needed, if not before. 

Diving gannets and cruising gulls accompanied us on our return sailing to home, it was almost tempting to give them a brief salute. 

Three volunteers (thats me in the centre) and just a small haul from one bay, a quantity we repeated and bettered, several times over during the course of the day! - photo by Jaclyn

Scilly Days

Variety. That is, I think, the word to sum up my first full week on Scilly. 
The early part of the week was spent mostly in the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust office at Trenoweth, and exploring the Higher and Lower Moors nature trails, whist the evenings took me to the Scillonian Club and the nightly Bird Log. The Bird Log is a social gathering each evening in the upstairs bar of the club, where birders gather to discuss the days sightings. At 9pm the Log is called, which consists of a well known and reliable birder being entrusted with calling a list of species and recording the responses from the gathered crowd as to numbers and locations of sightings that day. It is a serious occasion it would seem, judging by the hush, and muttered discussions and the tension when a contentious identification of a rare species is made. and yet, the calls for bird species and resulting responses are interspersed with laughter and witty remarks, making it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. There was no Bird Log on Thursday due to the club showing football on their big screen, but during the day there was some potential for good birding. 
October has started quiet, with only a handful of unusual birds being spotted. None-the-less I am quite satisfied with how my 'Scilly list' is developing. A Scilly list is, as the name suggests, a list of all the bird or other wildlife species the holder of the list has seen on or within the islands. My current total stand at 49 birds, 3.5 mammals, and 6 butterflies.

Blackcap, Carrion Crow, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Cormorant, Curlew, Dunnock, Greenfinch, Greenshank, Grey Wagtail, House Sparrow, Starling, Swallow, Collard Dove, Herring Gull, Great Black-Backed Gull, Pheasant, Rock Pipit, Linnet, Robin, Wren, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Reed Bunting, Kingfisher, Oystercatcher, Wood Pigeon, Gannet, Stonechat, Cormorant, Great Tit, Goldcrest, Goldfinch, Wheatear, Snow Bunting, Meadow Pipit, Moorhen, Pied Wagtail, Shag, Snipe, Water Rail, Yellow Browed Warbler, Kestrel, Purple Sandpiper, Spoonbill, Peregrine, House Martin, Sanderling, Turnstone 
Scilly Shrew (Lesser White Toothed Shrew), Grey Seal, Brown Rat, and a (sadly dead) Hedgehog
Speckled Wood, Small Copper, Red Admiral, Peacock, Clouded Yellow, Monarch

The challenge is on for that elusive 50th bird. A radio, kindly loaned to me by a fellow birder, sits on the desk beside my laptop, occasionally cracking with reports of Yellow Browed Warblers or Reed Bunting. Across the Islands other birders are listening to the same crackles and static, hoping to hear the name of a new rarity that will see them racing to join their fellow enthusiasts to peer into a hedge or field. So far, all is quiet. 

Island of Sampson, late afternoon

Later in the week, I joined the other volunteers at the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project on a full-island beach clean of St Agnes and Gugh. 
Saturday saw more trips to Higher Moors/Porth Hellick and Lower Moors. During my wandering I came across a lovely little gallery/studio and a kind gentleman, who's artwork was simply beautiful and I couldn't resist purchasing a print of Old Town Church. 

Christopher Perry's Elm Studio gallery, Old Town Road

Leaving the birdwatching to others for a short while, I took a visit to Old Town Church for a tick of a different kind. No avian visitor this, but a rather unusual resident that lives unseen in the brambles of the church yard. The Prickly Stick Insect. Interestingly all the individuals in this location are female, and yet still reproduce successfully. Bright green is the most common colour, but impressive specimens such as this brown one can also be found. 

A short wander on a beach close to town filled my jacket pocket with trinkets; tiny shells and frosted sea-glass. 
Rock Pipits and Turnstones chase sand-hoppers that spring from the seaweed on the tideline, whilst Oystercatchers whistle, swirling over the craggy rocks where Shags sit like black bowling pins above the waves. 
Dark Green of pine trees, the autumn brown of bracken and the lighter green of the yellow dotted gorse contrasts strongly with the deep, Mediterranean-blue of the sea, the white arcs of sheltered beaches, and the huge lichen shaded granite outcrops on the rocky headlands. 
Tiny fields sheltered by high hedges of Pittosporum, are ridged with deep furrows from which green spikes of daffodils and other bulbs seek the October sunshine, months earlier than on the mainland. Those fields currently uncropped, are filled with the summer-spent heads of red clover, or the yellow field-suns of corn marigold, a testament to the lack of herbicides or other poisons here; few if any farmers pour such chemicals on their land, and so the wildlife thrives and it too would seem, do the flower crops. 

Lichens, hundreds of years old, drape the branches of ancient trees with soft grey rag-rugs. The blind stone doorways of burial mounds from island occupants long past, gaze out towards the sea. 
Strong winds and heavy rain has been interspersed with sunshine and rainbows, butterflies and bumblebees can be seen all along the lane-side Elm hedges who's stone wall bases grow thick with ferns. 

When the day is done, a full moon has pulled in high tides, as the sinking sun hits the sea, gilding the horizon clouds. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Slow Sunday - The Calm Before the Storm

5th of October, and my fifth day on the Isles of Scilly. It has been a quiet week so far,with a few overnight showers, and a running total of 25 bird species on my 'Scilly List'. The latest addition was Snow Bunting, a new life 'tick' for me as I have missed these delightful little characters when they have dropped in at home in Sussex before. 
But all that may be about to change...
Outside, above the shelter of the stone build battery that is my home for the month, the wind is picking up, toying with the dried grass and seed heads on the cliff top and buffeting the gulls on their grey rocks. 

The weather forecast is predicting more rain tonight, and winds. Strong winds potentially gusting up to 60mph and gradually shifting from southerly to more westerly directions. Birder's are gathering on the islands, a few more arrive with each docking of the Scillonian. The quiet weekend has left them kicking their heels around Hugh Town, wandering the hedgerows of St Mary's or checking the times of boats to the other islands wondering if theres something out there no-one else has spotted. The strong winds may keep us holed up in the shelter of our homes for the night, but it is likely to blow in many birds, exhausted from their long flight over the oceans, and confused to find themselves in an unplanned location. 
I went for a wander into Hugh Town this morning, and pottered around on the beach, picking up frosted sea glass and gleaming shells. A few gulls mewed, church bells pealed, dark windows of sunday-closed shops gazed at a quiet street, the wind sighed in the palm trees. 
Siting here on the sofa with thoughts turning to lunch, it is easy to not feel the passing of time, almost disconnected from the world above ground. I have just heard a report of a Barred Warbler near the Hospital. 
Perhaps I'll go to see it later...

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Just an average day at the office...

...but when your 'office' is a group of islands, 28 miles off the end of Cornwall, under sapphire-blue skies or ever changing cloud-shapes, and with these kind of views... well, who's complaining?! 


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Welcome to Paradise on Earth

It rained heavily last night, and clouds still loomed beyond St Michaels Mount as I made my way along the harbour edge to the Quay where the Scillonian III waited this morning, the sky slowly lightening and town of Penzance awakening. Gulls, in their unglamorous brown-mottled juvenile plumage, pottered around the mostly empty car park. By 8.30 I was on board, the boat rocking gently each time the small crane lifted on another container of luggage. 
The crossing was, thankfully, a smooth one. Around the boat the ocean seethed at our passing, edged white, deep black blue, the colour of freshly knapped flint. Two small brown birds, meadow birds, land birds, strangers to the sea, dared not stop flapping as they flew overhead, in contrast to the torpedo shaped gannets with their yellow-shaded heads and black wingtips that look as though they have been dipped in the dark ink-pot of the sea. Cornwall sank to a hazy distance, more cloud bank than land as we drew ever closer to the fortunate isles. First sight was a shadow in farthest distance, a smudge as-though someone's ruler slipped as they drew the straight line of the horizon. Slowly the islands emerged from the haze, all white beaches and sparkling sea and rocky outcrops topped with bracken and pine trees. The two hills of Sampson, the wooded slopes of Tresco, and the welcoming harbour of St Mary's.

Home for the next few weeks. Settling in. A sunset walk. Not sure it will sink in 'till I wake in the morning: welcome to Scilly, welcome to Paradise on Earth.

Thursday, 25 September 2014


Conkering is one of my most favoured joys of autumn. 
The simple act of wandering casually down the street, where leaves are beginning to gather in the gutters, to that remembered spot, where the horse chestnut tree is tinted bronze in the afternoon sun. To discover beneath the shade of its branches and great hand-like leaves, the sought-for treasure. 
Some years, a dry season means the conkers do not swell or ripen, or strong winds will rip the branches and send the nuts crashing to ground prematurely. But sometimes, when weather and fortune collide, nestled in the damp grass that soaks through your shoes, beneath those breeze blown brown-blotched hand-leaves that stroke your hair, mahogany jewels will gleam. 
The light reflects off their fresh, perfect surface; a deep rich shade like polished brown furniture. Turn it over and over in your hands, relish the smooth coolness, checking for blemishes or splits that would render the prize imperfect. Upon finding any, that conker is unceremoniously tossed aside in search of a larger, shinier more impressive specimen. 
Soon pockets bulge with lumpy loot, a collection to be laid out on the garden or kitchen table upon the return home, to be counted like gold coins. The largest, the smallest, the one with the flat side where it grew together with its twin, the one with the blotch that looks like an eye, the one you broke free from its case with the heel of your boot, the one you rescued from where it had fallen in the road. 
But always, that largest, shiniest, most polished, deepest tigers-eye rippled brown conker, the best of them all, winks at you teasingly from the branches. Beyond outstretched fingers it dances just out of reach, waving in the wind yet never falling. Sometimes it is tempting to launch a stout stick into the branches to dislodge the prize, but invariably it stays, unmoved, hanging there safely, secure within its green spiky, velvet-lined case.  

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Seeking my Fortune

The Isles of Scilly, known as the Fortunate Isles, lie 28 miles off the western tip of Cornwall and these mysterious islands, thought by some to be the lost lands or Lyonesse or even the final resting place of the legendary King Arthur, form Britain’s only archipelago. A strong maritime climate means relatively mild winters and early springs, whilst in summer the soft sandy beaches and the gardens of Scilly become a sub-tropical paradise, a world away from their mainland cousins. 
The wildlife is particularly rich, splendid and unusual, and this plus the geographical and historical features of the islands make the Scillies unique, their special qualities recognised by a number of international designations and protections. 
Each end of the year, in spring and particularly in autumn, the Isles of Scilly play host to a huge migration of birds, some expected and many others blown far off course, making landfall on these islands in the middle of the ocean, under the watchful eyes of thousands of enthusiastic bird watchers that flock to the islands for the "Scilly Season". A bonanza of rare and exotic species, sightings of which are only dreamt about on the mainland.

Living alongside the birds and the seals, the Scilly Shrews and the red squirrels, are the people of Scilly. A life of contrasts; tending to the varied needs of Islands full of tourists in the summer and the annual influx of birdwatchers, whilst facing the brunt of Atlantic storms through the lonelier winter months, and being the first to pick the nodding yellow daffodils each spring. 
And for just four weeks this October, the population of the Isles of Scilly will be increased by one more: Me.

The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust (who manage a large proportion of the land across the island, including many of the uninhabited islands, and provide a valuable service to birdwatchers and other visiting wildlife enthusiasts) and A Focus On Nature (a network for young conservationists) are offering a unique opportunity for a 18-30 year old with a passion for conservation to volunteer alongside the wildlife trust, on the islands, for 4 weeks in October 2014. 
The ‘Ornithology Internship’ will include interacting with visiting birdwatchers, writing up daily experiences, using blogs and social media, contributing to the evening Bird Log Meeting, and building communication skills whilst representing the organisation.

I am very excited to announce that I have been chosen for this opportunity!

It is taking a little while to truly sink in, but I cannot wait to step off the Scillonian III ferry and explore all that the islands have to offer.

I am very fortunate in the fact that this trip of a lifetime will be part funded: AFON will contribute to travel costs to get too (and home from) the Isles of Scilly, and the Wildlife Trust providing accommodation for the duration of the 4 weeks. 

I will however have to raise the funds to cover the remaining costs of the trip, including food/drink and living costs for the 4 weeks, accommodation for one night between home in Sussex and the harbour at Penzance in Cornwall, and purchasing clothing and equipment that I have recently been coping without. This will include base-layer-clothing, waterproof outerwear, and extra memory cards for my cameras to mention a few items.

The experience itself will be a fabulous opportunity to put into practice and hone the communication and engagement skills that I have developed over the past 18 months during my Visitor Services Traineeship with the RSPB.

So I look forward to seeing any of you who may be making your own trip to the Isles of Scilly this autumn, and for those of you not able to journey across the sea, please keep an eye on the blog here, and I hope you will enjoy sharing in my experiences through the photos and stories I plan to share.

As a final note, if anybody would be interested in helping me raise the funds that I need/sponsor me, or donate specific equipment, you would be most welcome. Please don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss your ideas!