Friday, 31 October 2014

The Days of Samhain

There is a time of year so the myths and legends say, when all may be not what it seems.
Early risers may catch an eerie mist hanging, shifting in the weak morning sun –is this the inter-world veil the stories tell of?
Leaves blaze in golden hues, and wither and fall as if shaken from the branch by an unseen hand. Magical looking toadstools spring up across the woodland floor.

Last evening dog walk; Rover whines, unnerved by a threat unperceived. Rooks, far from their treetop citadels, wheel above the open fields against a pale sky, swirling like enchanted coal dust.

Trick-or-treaters and costume-wearers will all come a-calling, excited by the thrill of pumpkin carving and caterwauling. They wear masks that once disguised those who wished to hide their face, from any who may step through the veil on this thinnest of nights. They seek to create a thrill and a scare to distract them from the sixth-sense, the urge to turn and to look when there’s no one there.

A creak on the stair, a tap on the door, a candle flame gutters and dust-lights dance in the draft of air. Pull up an empty chair; lay an extra place at the table. Out the corner of your eye you catch a flicker of movement in the old photo on the wall.

Now the harvest is done, the growing season has completed its course, and the seeds are set for the birth of the New Year, I wish you all a safe and mysterious All Hallows Eve.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

All good things must come to an end

Waving Goodbye to Scilly

Well here we are, nearing the end of a fabulous Scilly Adventure. After just over 3 weeks it is almost time for me to be heading home, back across the sea, through the West Country, the Southern Counties of England and into dear old Sussex again.

I wonder if the woodlands have yet to turn their autumn hues, and if any late flowers in my garden still bloom. I bet the badgers have churned up the fallen leaves along the grass verge more than once, and the jays will have polished off the acorns from the big old oak behind the house by now.

Soon all the other visiting birders, those that still remain, will leave the islands, and the Scillonians will be left in peace to face the winter storms, braced like the sun-gold-flowered gorse on the granite headlands against the wind.

The storms may rage, but they will each pass, and on bright days pale shy narcissus flowers will bloom under the winter sun. On the salt-sprayed rocks, shags will balance and seals slumber.
In the summer the night air will reverberate with the magical calls of returning Storm Petrels, and Manx Shearwater chicks will totter from their burrows to stare transfixed at the stars. Boats will sail too and from St Mary's and the off islands, and the church will ring with the sound of hymns. Autumn will return when the bracken curls and crisps to russet hue. Such is the nature of Scilly.

I know I'll be back - this may be the end of my stay on Scillonian soil, but its by no means our last hurrah.

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.