The second in a series of blogs written while marooned with a teenager on an island inhabited only by bird researchers and 180,000 seabirds. You can read the first here.
For a week I have had the immense indulgence of returning to my long-lost seabird fieldworker past in the most sublime surroundings of the Shiant Islands. Three pieces of rock rising out of the Minch and covered with a dense layer of puffins and other seabirds.
I’ve brought my husband, a proper seabird researcher who should be useful, and our thirteen-year old, who may be less useful. And we are trying to immerse ourselves in the life of the field camp.
Over the past week I have observed that many of the typical activities of a field worker on a seabird island should to be familiar to a thirteen year-old. It doesn’t mean they are activities that a thirteen year-old would deign to partake in, they’re not Fortnight, or the Floss, Snapchat or watching endless episodes of Modern Families, for goodness sake. In fact they are activities from the good-old pre-teenage years but, given we are miles from wifi and the means to charge devices, (not to mention running water and conventional toilet facilities) there isn’t much competition. So, for the benefit of those who have been in this situation, or are planning to take a teenager to a seabird island, here are our observations.
We trek over to the other side of the island with clipboards. We have a laminated black and white photo of the kittiwake cliff with all the nest sites marked and numbered, a telescope and a packed lunch. The task is to find all the nests marked on the map and record whether they have chicks or eggs and how many. This is far from simple where there are over 100 potential nesting sites that were recorded at the beginning of the season. It turns out that, due to a misspent youth of kids comic spot the difference, Naomi is excellent at matching the faint lines on the photo of the cliff to the actual nests. ‘spot the similarity’ with100 of them to find rather than just the usual six.
The ‘Where’s Wally’ skills come in when we are looking for chicks. It seems that it has been a very poor year for the Kittiwakes and we see only 9 chicks between the nearly 60 active nests. You need a bit more patience for this game though – chicks are often behind a parent Kittiwake, or underneath, and we need to wait until the adult moves. “Can’t we just throw a rock at them” asks Naomi.
Instead we play a whole round of ‘The Minister’s Bird Species’* and still two stubborn kittiwakes stay rooted to their nests, moving after a further 20 minute’s wait.
* an ornithological variation on The Minister’s Cat * (“The Minister’s bird species is an albatross”, “The Minister’s bird species is a Bullfinch” etc…)
Activity 2: Puffin productivity surveys: Feely box Russian roulette
This activity involves a high level of jeopardy, half of the nests are burrows on vertiginous and slightly damp grass slopes and you are wearing waterproof trousers, and the other half are in cavities between stacked boulders on equally vertiginous slopes. The idea is to find the bamboo cane markers and then lie down on your tummy and insert your arm as far into the burrow or cavity as you can. You are not permitted to wear gloves and your task is to feel for the fluff of a baby chick, or an empty cavity. We found that the teenager loved the excitement of reaching through a poo-encrusted burrow to see what she would find, especially when it is the fluff of a baby puffin.
The other element of jeopardy comes in if an adult puffin is in the burrow. If this is the case it is likely to take great exception to your hand invading their nest cavity. And as everyone knows – Puffins have very big beaks….
Activity 3: Checking Rat Monitoring Stations: Geocaching
This activity is for all intents and purposes identical to Geocaching. You get a geolocation for a number of rat monitoring stations in an area and then use a GPS to find them. The monitoring stations are either plastic boxes with two holes, one at each end, for rats to enter by and baited by a puck of chocolate flavoured wax. The task is to find the box and check the wax block for signs that it had been chewed by a rat. You take away the old wax block and put in a new one.
On the Shiants there are now permanent rat monitoring stations around the island where rats could make landfall if they reinvade, we checked those in two areas, an old settlement which was reletiveky straightforward and the top of the boulder field colony on steep grass and cliffs, which was rather nerve racking and we were glad that Naomi hadn’t want to join us for that.
Activity 4: Ringing bonxie chicks: Capture the flag
This is one of the most exciting games on the bird island. We didn’t play it in the full version on the Shiants, we just walked through the bonxie territories keeping a look out for chicks to see if we could find any. However we had previously played the full version, nine years previously, taking our 6 year old to help us find all the bonxie nests on Mingulay so we could ring the chicks.
The idea behind this game is you need to seek out a well-hidden and extremely fiercely defended great skua chick in a boggy grassland with cliffs on all sides. The chick will be motionless, hiding behind a clump of grass or within the heather and the parents will fly sorties around your head, menacing you with their deep and blood-chilling “karr-karr”. The close passes and terrifying dives increase in intensity as you reach your target.
The final activity is the best, according to the daughter. And this is the ride back on the RIB, back to civilization and wifi, back to phone chargers and sullen teenagers. I’m not sure we’ve made a seabird ecologist of Naomi quite yet….