The Women of Operation Osprey: Part 1

In preparing the exhibition to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Operation Osprey, one of the most rewarding things has been uncovering the stories of the women involved. Women were in camp from the very beginning but their voices are, more or less, absent in the archive and accounts of the early days.

The first thing I read to get acquainted with the story of Operation Osprey was the 1971 account of the return of the Osprey to the UK by Philip Brown.  Two names emerged immediately as important: Betty Garden, a camp stalwart, and Isabella MacDonald, to whom the book is so charmingly dedicated.

“Miss MacDonald was a remarkable lady who foster-mothered scores of lucky children, yet still found the time to welcome so many of us who watched over the ospreys, with apparently inexhaustible kindness and a quiet encouragement that gave many of us renewed faith, strength and enthusiasm when the fates were against us”

I was intrigued, especially by Isabella as, despite this dedication, she doesn’t appear within the pages of the book apart from a passing mention. Isabella was the crofter of Inchdryne who gave Operation Osprey Base camp its home in 1959, hosting them until the mid 1980s, and her hospitality is a central part of the story.

My partner in crime in researching the stories for the exhibition, Alice Shaell, who kindly gave a great deal of her professional time in a voluntary capacity, found some correspondence relating to the constant battle to persuade Miss MacDonald to accept some payment for her hospitality.  The letters show how much respect and affection those at Operation Osprey held her in, and how grateful they were of the kindness she showed towards them.

Miss Macdonald letter

Alice and I went to visit Isabella’s niece, who now crofts the land at Inchdryne, and was still a teenager when George Waterston set up Operation Osprey. Marina Dennis is an impressive woman, having a lifetime in crofting, journalism and public service behind her, including twelve years as a Commissioner at the Crofters Commission. Still an active crofter, and young for her age, she writes a column for the local paper and is still involved in an advisory capacity in a myriad of things. Marina welcomed us into her warm, spacious bungalow and we sat by large windows looking over her croft, towards Abernethy Forest.

Marina told us that this land had been crofted by her family since they were cleared from the Braes of Castle Grant in 1809. What is now a patchwork of fields set within birch woodland and Caledonian pine was, back then, a boggy forest where Marina’s forebears would have had to clear the land, build a house, and start to create a new life for themselves.

We started by referring to her aunt as Isabel, as she is named in Brown’s book, and were immediately corrected.  “She was Bella. Everyone knew her as Bella” said Marina.  Isabella [pronounced Eye-sa-bella] had been a common name in the area, there was an Isa, an Isabella and she was Bella.  Marina took down a photo of her Aunt from the wall to show us. Bella, white hair swept back into in a black beret and wearing a navy dungarees was sitting on a grey Fergie tractor. A boy of around 15 sits on the plough behind.  Marina explained to us that was Billy, one of Bella’s foster children.

isobel-macdonald-col-tractor.jpg

Miss MacDonald fostered around 40 children over the years, most of which came from Edinburgh and Glasgow. “She always took boys, as she thought girls were too much of a handful” said Marina; and, as the mother of two teenage girls, I nodded vigorously in agreement.  Almost all of the children stayed with Bella until they had finished their schooling and many stayed on in the area, including Billy.

She went on to tell us about how her aunt and George had hit it off as soon as they met, “The osprey nest that first year was on the common grazings” she said waving her hand towards the wet grassland dotted with trees a few hundred metres behind her home. The team had set up watches in a rough hessian tent on the common grazings in 1958. The account of the nest-raid from the logbook inventively describes the ground as, “a bog that was very boggy”.

“George was very good with local people” said Marina, “he really understood indigenous communities, and people round here liked him.  It was the same on Fair Isle” she added. George had set up Fair Isle Bird Observatory after the war, a decade before he started Operation Osprey.

When George was looking for a spot for Operation Osprey base-camp Bella offered a site not far  from her house at Inchdryne “It really was the spark between George and Bella that ignited Operation Osprey” said Marina. George had asked whether she could host base-camp and she said yes. “It was Highland hospitality, she didn’t do it for payment or any gain. It’s just how Highlanders are.”  And it seems from all the accounts of Bella from the archive that this hospitality was far more than offering a place to pitch camp, park caravans, and the all-important water supply; it was hospitality in the fullest sense of the word, offering volunteers and staff at Operation Osprey a kindness and open-hearted welcome that came from her extraordinary generosity of spirit.

When we left, Marina directed us to the spot Bella had allowed Operation Osprey to use for all those years.  In that quiet glade among the pines I imagined the bustle of base camp; caravans, canvas tents, phone lines and George’s famous Dormobile, and I thought of Bella MacDonald’s immeasurable contribution to the project and what a truly remarkable woman she must have been.

 

 

60 Years of Operation Osprey

Why would I be packing my car on a Sunday evening with a glass display cabinet bought from the Salvation Army shop for £25 packed with 4 large slabs of foam and 2 second hand pale pink textured curtains? And why have I crammed every nook and cranny of the car with junk shop finds? Inside a 1940s leather suitcase, belted into the passenger seat, is an expanding jewellery box lined with crimson velvet, six books on birds from the 1950s, four metres of curtain wire and a battered stove-top kettle.  An aluminium bucket jammed behind the driver’s seat holds a tea set of four flowery cups and saucers, and a rolled poster print of a pale green canvas frame tent in a pine wood clearing, a young man is lying on the ground by the tent looking up at the sky.

osprey basecamp from slide at SWSRO

This last item gives a clue as to what all these items have in common. The pine wood is at Loch Garten in Speyside, and the tent is part of the camp set up in 1958 to protect the Ospreys that returned to Scotland to breed following their extinction.  This year is the 60th Anniversary of their successful breeding season in 1959 and the assorted items of bric-a-brac in my car are going to become part of an exhibition at Loch Garten to celebrate this very special occasion.

 

The temporary exhibition will reflect the original camp that early Operation Osprey volunteers would have experienced; the caravans and the canvas tents, the eternal stewpot and the discomfort of the forward hide.    A document from 1959 shows that the camp had 3 kettles, two tin openers, four cups and saucers, but only two spoons, three forks and two knives.  Somewhere among the stash of goodies in my car is a full set of cutlery as listed in the stores inventory, found by sorting through trays and buckets of silverware and utensils in one of Glasgow’s fabulous treasure troves of junk and vintage.

stores list 1959 jpeg

We want to celebrate the Operation Osprey heroes from the early days, and also those of today, with this exhibition. The main hero is, of course George Waterston, who conceived, and led Operation Osprey (and, according to the stores list, lent the project 4 egg-cups, 4 dish cloths and a billycan outfit). However, all the way through Operation Osprey, to the present day, the RSPB, has relied on dedicated volunteers, supporters and of course our members to keep the show on the road.  The debt of gratitude that Operation Osprey owes to these ordinary and extraordinary people is represented in this document found in the archive. Along with this note, to Isabella MacDonald, who hosted Operation Osprey Basecamp and its many wardens, volunteers and cook-caterers from 1959, was a sheaf of correspondence discussing rent, with Operation osprey suggesting she raise the rent and she refusing.

Miss Macdonald letter

The exhibition will be in place from the start of May, and will showcase some of the original documents from the early days to give a candid and contemporaneous insight into the very early days of Operation Osprey.

forward hide from SWSRO slides

Buckets, Biosecurity and Bags of poo 

In the Shiant Islands, it’s nearly time for the fledging of the razorbill chicks and I have the amazing good fortune to be spending a week here as part of a sabbatical from my usual work place of Glasgow. I’m swapping a basement office with bars on the windows for a small archipelago of islands in the Minch with spectacular basalt cliffs and boulder fields crammed with nesting razorbills and puffins.
My two previous blogs on the island stay are Marooned with a Teenager and Geocaching for Rats .

My week begins in the rather less picturesque surroundings of the forecourt of a petrol station on the outskirts of Stornaway. I am here in a large shipping container with Charlie Main, the Shiants project manager, so that she can give me the most essential piece of island expedition equipment, the white plastic bucket.

 

Charlie gave me three buckets whose lids were labelled ‘carrots’, ‘eggs’ and ‘FRAGILE: horn speaker’. Each snapped closed with an extremely satisfying ‘clack’. Charlie explained the importance of packing all our food into the buckets to ensure no rats could sneak into our bags before the boat left the next day. I looked at the buckets and tried to imagine the mountain of shopping I had done earlier that day fitting into them, let alone the shopping list of food I needed to buy for the current project team in the middle of a 25 day shift on the islands.

I looked around the container, it was almost half filled with plastic buckets remarkably similar to those I’d taken, some piles reaching right to the ceiling. “They’re all the spare rat poison” said Charlie. I made a mental note to line my buckets with bin liners just in case.

 

Once in camp on the Shiants, the white plastic buckets are ubiquitous. There is no running water on the islands so we use one for handwashing, and one to catch the drips from the water container on the worktop, they are full of field equipment, food, bits and pieces. “The first winter of the project buckets were propping up the shelves in the cabin and we made a whole bed base out of them” says Jonny. Between the Bothy (the Nicholson’s house on the island, where we are staying) and the RSPB camp, directly behind, was a pile of 9 buckets wrapped in duck tape.

 

 I get my induction on the ways of island life from John, a veteran of one Shiants winter and three summers. Biosecurity is everything – preventing a rat re-infestation – and so we need to ensure that nothing edible remains behind that the rats could eat. It is vital that, were a rat were to make landfall, their presence could be picked up by the monitoring stations left around the island. Back in Stornaway Charlie had shown me the thick brown pucks, shiny and smelling strongly of chocolate, which are used to monitor rats, the early warning system for a new colonisation. Rats find the chocolaty smell irresistible and will leave their gnaw marks on the wax but alternative food on the island distracts the rats from the bait stations. This means that all compostable waste needs to be taken off island in yet more white plastic buckets.

 

John finishes my induction into island life by introducing the toilet facilities. It turns out that human solid waste can, rather unspeakably, also distract the rats from the bait stations so that needs to be taken off island too. This means that we will be pooing into bags for the duration of our trip. The setup is relatively sophisticated, the system was developed by a charity for their work in developing countries. John takes me into the small gap between the two portacabins where a little tent is pitched. A toilet seat that clips over the biodegradable bag suspended over a bucket. When you’re done you just remove the bag, tie a knot in it and put it in a white plastic bucket. “It’s important to remove as much of the air as possible” says John helpfully.

 

 I ask about how many white plastic buckets of poo they had removed from the island so far on their mission but, to my surprise, they haven’t been keeping a tally. “At one time we were trying to do a calculation of the weight of food we were bringing onto the island versus the weight of poo going off, but I don’t think we managed” said Jack, another of the Shiants team.

 

John nods towards the pile of duck-tape wrapped white plastic buckets behind the cottage. The Shiants Auk Ringing Group have just left and they filled an awful lot of buckets” says John. “We’re just going to have to start packing the poo down a bit tighter as we’re almost out of buckets.”

And suddenly I feel extremely glad that we have those extra multipurpose white plastic buckets.  We’ll all be able to avoid the squishing of poo bags into buckets.

—————————————————-

* I later asked John whether the poo buckets are the same buckets you used for the rat poison” . “No, no,” he said “They don’t allow us to put anything in the buckets that had the rat poison in, not even poo”.

 

Marooned with a Teenager 

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.

 This week is part of a quinquennial sabbatical (we only get four weeks…. don’t get too excited) and I am here to help out my RSPB colleagues while doing a bit of writing.

 

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.

 Activity 1: Kittiwake productivity studies: Spot the difference with a bit of where’s Wally

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….

 

John and Jack, two of the RSPB team, locating the puffin burrows in the study plots.

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….

Geocaching for Rats

This is one of a series of blogs from a stay of a week on the Shiants with a teenager, helping out (inexpertly) with some of the RSPB’s work in the islands and falling in love with a magical place. 

Today’s task was checking rat bait stations around Garbh Eilean (Rough Island). The island was declared officially rat free in February 2018 after the requisite 2 years since a rat was last detected. But the monitoring effort continues and a number of permanent monitoring stations have been set up on the islands. These consist of a cosy sheltered box with small openings to let the rat in and a round puck of chocolate-flavoured wax with a wire through its middle secured inside.


The rats find the chocolate smell irresistible and if they arrive on the island again will make their presence known through characteristic tooth marks left on the wax. Jonny shows us some examples of rat-gnawed wax blocks from their winter on the island spent with (initially) around 3000 rats. “We had these bait stations laid out in a 50m grid all over the island” he says “but now they are only there to monitor rats in places that they are likely to show up first.”

 

The team took DNA samples from some of the rats from the Shiants during the eradication. This is so, if rats are picked up by the monitoring stations, they can test whether they are a new invasion or come from a remnant of the original population that managed to hide out somewhere.

 

Jonny shows us photos of marks made by birds, shrews and mice and then we are issued with our GPS loaded up with the coordinates of each monitoring station and head off.

 

I’ve never done geocaching but it strikes me that this is a more socially useful version of that popular pastime. We are walking around,GPS in hand, looking for a box within which is an object. (In our case a wax block) and we need to take out that object and replace it with another object (in our case a fresh wax block)

  We are trying our novice geocaching skills on a complex slope of steep boulders, cliffs and slippy, dropping-slicked grass. The footholds in the grassy bits consist of tufts that have become regular perches for puffins and have become flattened and covered with poo. Every now and again a disused burrow makes a secure handhold if you jam your arm right into it up to the armpit. The boulders feel slightly more secure having good sharp edges to hold onto but every now and again a boulder shifts and you are keenly aware that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of boulders are balanced at an angle of 30degrees against a cliff that is still adding boulders to the pile each winter.

 

Fortunately the teenager refuses to come into the colony again (“the smellllllll. It’s just so discussssting”) so I only need to worry about my own wellbeing. We start up the GPS just before the scamble in to the colony. The GPS tells me our first monitoring station is only 2m away but there is nothing in the short cropped grass and crags despite a good search. After a while looking around we head down the scramble and, there it is, vertically below where we were searching.

This theme continues through the morning in the complex topography of the Boulder field. Several times we reach an impassable grassy slope or cliff face and have to back track precariously to find another route to get to our quarry. Eventually I declare this three dimensional maze to be too challenging for a pair of novices who don’t know the route and we retreat from the boulder field and head to the old ruined settlement at the other side of the island for another set of monitoring stations which the teenager romps through like she was born to be a rat station geocacher.

We had been tasked with checking around 20 stations, a fraction of the 300 bait stations the eradication team had in the boulder field alone. In perfect conditions we had found the steep slippery grass utterly treacherous and I wondered how the team had made their way across it in winter to check and replenish their bait stations during the eradication.  

Jack and Jonny, who were both there on the project since the beginning, are quietly understated about the privations of a winter on the Shiants. They would spend a week at base camp covering the rat stations on Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Taighe (House Island) and then a week across the kilometer of water stirred by fierce tidal currents on Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island). There they would stay in a single cabin secured down with straps to concrete blocks. “We went out most days” said Jack. “But when it was blowing more than a force 8 the rope access team couldn’t work as it was too dangerous”.

 

The rope access team were working on bait stations placed across the cliffs of the islands which involved one person abseiling down to them. “It was worse for the one left at the top” said Jack “they just had to be there in case anything happened and it was often very wet and freezing cold. At least the one on the rope was keeping active”

 

After two weeks on the Shiants the team would have a week in Harris with access to hot water on tap, central heating, flush toilets and Internet access. The teenager perks her head up at the mention of Internet access “where can I get Internet access?” She asks.

It turns out that she could possibly get a 3G signal at the very top of Rough island, around a half hour’s walk. “If you’re lucky” says Jonny.


Do you know that I actually took this photo with my phone while clambering around between looking for bait stations? I was pretty amazed when I saw the result. 

The Corncrake Survey

There was still enough light to read a book as I packed up a few essentials for the night ahead, tagging along on an RSPB Scotland corncrake survey. I would be picked up just before midnight and wouldn’t be back until the light returned again at around 330am. The last rays from the sun, which was skimming just under the rim of the horizon, cast a purple and pink glow, silhouetting three distant croft houses and painting the lochan beside my tent with colour. Behind me, to the south-east, the full mokoon hung over the distant mountains of Beinn Mhor, Beinn Choradail and Hecla. It would be a good night for it.  
South Uist is a land of water and sky, her thousands of pools and lochans range from those a few metres across to Loch Bi, a large brackish loch that divides the island almost in two and across which a causeway carries the main road northward. Looking at a map, there seems more water than land in South Uist, and the arrangement of islands and pools looks, for all the world, as though the divine had cut the intricate shapes of the lochans into the rock and then flung the cut pieces into the sea to form the vast archipelago of low lying islands East of Uist and Benbecular.

 On the west of South Uist, and all along the Atlantic coastline of Eilean Siar, the Western Isles, from Barra to the Butt of Lewis, are long white beaches, mile upon mile of fine white sand. Were the swimmer to turn and head straight out, the first landfall they would make (if they missed the islands of St Kilda and Rockall) would be Newfoundland. Look closely and you’ll see that the sand is not made of angled grains of silca, but tiny flakes of unimaginable billions of sea-shells, crushed by the fierce Atlantic and washed up on these shores over thousands of years. It is this shell sand, which covers not only the beaches but the whole of the west side of the island, which creates the machair (pronounced with a soft ch a bit like in ‘loch’) a unique, wildlflower-rich meadow habitat, which is now the last remaining sanctuary of the corncrake. This is where we would be tonight – counting corncrakes for the second of two annual surveys.

 

At 1145pm Ben was at the door wearing beige overalls and a beanie hat topped off with head-torch. We made our introductions and I hoisted myself inexpertly into the passenger seat of his Landrover Defender. “She’s 21 this year,” he said tapping the steering wheel affectionately. We set off slowly into the gloaming with our windows open and I leaned out, straining to hear the characteristic krkkkkk krkkkk call of the male corncrake, setting out his territory and shouting out to females to come and get him. This sound was once familiar in every county in Britain and Ireland, but with rapid farm mechanisation and a change to early harvesting crops, corncrakes have been the collateral damage and by the 1930s were absent from most of England and Wales and much of Scotland. The stark reality of modern farming with a summer harvest and machinery driven from the outside of the field into the centre in a decreasing spiral is that any corncrakes and their chicks are herded towards the centre where they inevitably meet their end.

 

“Crofting offers a much more corncrake friendly system of farming which is why the last corncrakes remained in these machair habitats” Heather Beaton, the conservation officer on South Uist, had explained to me earlier in the day. “Corncrakes love the machair which is sewn in a rotation, with two years of rye or oats for cattle food – and then two years left fallow.” The soil on these coastal crofts is very sandy and delicate so ploughing is very shallow and is very low input, with seaweed being used for fertilizer. In the fallow years wildflowers immediately spring up as the seed bank remains near to the surface and you get lots of clovers and vetches that enrich the soil for the next crop. It’s the vegetation of the machair that is so popular with corncrakes and they generally choose higher cover to call in which means they are seldom seen.

 

 We stop in a layby on the single track road at the first point Ben expects to hear a corncrake, he gets out a sheaf of large scale maps with annotations showing where corncrakes were seen on the first survey this year and in previous survey years. “We do two surveys a year as corncrakes will stop calling once they have paired up, but as soon as the females is sitting on eggs, he will start calling again in the hope of getting a second female, or even a third” he says. The period they are out of action for egg laying is about two weeks and so the surveys take place two weeks apart to make sure they catch corncrakes that were not calling during the first survey. We strain our ears to listen, I hear the contented sound of roosting geese on loch Bi, and the keeek keeek of an alarming oystercatcher but don’t hear a corncrake.

 

We move on, stopping every few hundred yards, switching off the engine to listen. Snipe are everywhere, their “chip chip” call rising above the bugle of the island’s few resident whooper swans. Every now and again the low vibration of a drumming snipe drifts over. One of nature’s strangest sounds, it’s made by their tail feathers rubbing together as they perform their airborne dance of climbs and dives. But still no corncrake.

We pass Ben’s own croft and he points out his fields which are home to his three cows and his sheep. In his yard are parked another two landrover defenders, a VW camper and two cars. “You can never have too many landrover defenders” says Ben “and anyway, they stopped making them so their value is going up really fast”. I ask if he’s planning to do them up and sell them and he says “I might do in a few years, they’ll be worth so much by then. Either that, or they’ll be a couple of piles of rust in a field” he laughs. He has a calling male on his croft but it is uncharacteristically silent tonight. We move on.

A few hundred meters later we hear our first corncrake of the evening – it sounds loud to me but Ben assures me it is still a couple of fields away and we drive on. We get out of the landrover just down the road and listen, it is definitely louder, and we pinpoint it roughly on the map, we will need to check it again when we drive down the parallel road and can hear it from the other side . This stop, start, listen, continues for the next three hours, getting a little too exciting when we stop on the main road and Ben shuts off the engine, which also cuts the lights. As we sit dark and unpowered on the main road I look anxiously in the wing mirror, checking for approaching traffic from the rear.

At one croft the corncrake has positioned itself between the croft house and a barn and had managed to create a natural amplifier by reflecting its voice off both buildings. We stand between, listening to the twin echos and feeling grateful that we aren’t the people trying to sleep in the house. By this time it was 2am, Sauchihall Street in Glasgow would just be getting busy.

Just past this house Ben shows me another field that is part of his croft. “These two fields came as part of my croft because the previous owner had bought these off an uncle,” crofts were originally designed to be too small to support a family, meaning that they would need to take paid work on the estate, often harvesting kelp, to subsidise their income so some crofters join crofts together for some economies of scale. But crofting is still only part of an income today: Ben works a couple of days a week for RSPB but also does work off-island from time to time.

 

We head down onto the MOD land, this land is shared by all the crofters in the township and use of it is decided by the grazing committee. There are agreements about what date cows can go on, what date for sheep and how many of each. This ensures the sustainability of crofting in such a fragile soil. When rockets are being fired into near-space from their common grazings, the crofters are paid a daily rate for their loss of use of the land.

“Oh no that’s the exhaust gone – did you hear it” says Ben suddenly. “I told you that you can’t have too many landrovers, I’ll need to use one of the others on tomorrow’s survey”. The lights blaze from all the MOD buildings but no one seems to be in. There’s some headlights coming towards us, and I look around the landrover at the pairs of binoculars, notebooks and detailed, large scale maps of the area. This could look a little suspicious. But the headlamps turned out to be two floodlights positioned by chance at exactly the right spot.

 

After mapping several more corncrakes, we are done and Ben drops me back at the tent. The sun hasn’t quite risen above the horizon, but it is almost light. A short-eared owl flits across the bog behind the lochan and the snipe join the other waders in their dawn flights. It’s looking like this is going to be a very short night.

Balranald 

The abundance of birds here is evident even before I’ve unpacked my things into my homely little camping pod in the corner of the Balranald campsite. My arrival is heralded by a duo of corncrakes scratching out their calls in the wildflower meadow, one on either side of the pod. A swallow repeatedly swoops past as I settle myself on the step at the front door, to watch a corn bunting perched only a few feet away on the stalk of a seeding doc, singing its jangling song while being harassed by a couple of house sparrows. The campsite is right on Balranald RSPB reserve and I’m utterly transfixed by the wildlife that is so evident all around me. After a few minutes in my trance I come to and realise that the swallow is desperately trying to get to its nest, which is directly above my head, built on top of the light fitting in the apex of the little hut.
I shift inside the threshold and watch them as they flutter in every minute or so feeding their nearly-grown chicks. Hopefully they will fledge while I am here. I lay on my back on the floor, head just inside the threshold, looking up at the nest from underneath.
The corncrake starts up again. And the second, and then a third. I’m surrounded. The camping pod overlooks the marsh – an exceptionally rich area of the reserve teeming with waders and full of wildflowers. Above me I hear the quiver of a drumming snipe and look up to see it frantically beating its wings as it climbs upwards and then plummets down as its tail feathers make that remarkable noise. I get the feeling it might take me a while to get unpacked.


I’m here to spend a few days of a Sabbatical from RSPB – every five years we are fortunate enough to have the chance to work somewhere else in the society or for a BirdLife partner for four weeks to use our skills, or gain new ones, in the service of the wider nature conservation family. I am here in the Uists to look at how we interpret our visitor reserves, especially a new reserve we have in partnership with the community of South Uist at Druidibeg. But I also have a few days at Balranald to speak to visitors and learn about our work in the Uists and the special interaction of crofting and nature conservation which creates the most species rich agricultural landscape in Britain.

…………………………

Later I get a chance to explore the reserve, a patchwork of croft land and common machair grazings with the most exquisite wildflowers covering every square inch of land. As I start the walk around the peninsular on the dune above a beautiful sandy bay (taking note that a swim in the incoming tide would be warmed by the hot sand) I look down and see a dead bumblebee. This is the Great Yellow bumblebee, probably the rarest animal on this peninsular – they are highly dependent on machair, the incredibly species rich meadow habitat that grows on the shell sand of the Hebrides, and Orkney. I take it back to show a few people on the campsite and then set aside to pass to the site manager. Everywhere on the walk are redshank, oystercatcher, lapwing. All these species have been fast declining in the rest of Britain but are still common on the extensive grazing systems supported by crofting.

 As I come over a rise a kidney shaped pool comes into sight, shallow and rocky-edged. There is a piercing shriek of a diving Arctic tern and I duck, but it wasn’t going for me, it’s after a small brown shape on the path ahead of me. The otter, slick with water from the pool, lifts its head to the tern, turns on itself and starts up the path towards me. Distracted by the tern dropping again and again almost onto its back, it isn’t paying attention to me and I lower myself quickly onto the ground hoping that it will walk right past me. But when it is 5 metres from me the otter suddenly turns and heads towards the sea, the tern still dangling, as if on elastic, directly above it.

After I had passed the Arctic tern colony, ducking frequently, stopping only for a good look at a fine Dunlin on a rock only a few metres away from me with beautiful black belly and rich brown scallop, edged wing plumage, I stop on a rock just off the path to watch the sea crashing on the rocks of the headland. All around me the grassland is short, and deep purple orchids, the Northern Marsh Orchid, grows in profusion. In the distance out to sea a black shape is moving towards me purposefully and, as it gets closer, I see that it is surrounded by a halo of mobbing terns and gulls. They have good reason to fear, the black shape resolves into that of a great skua, or bonxie. This large, dark brown bird is a little like a gigantic gull with sharper wing tips, and white crescents on each wing. They live less by piracy like other skuas, and more by predation. On a visit to Orkney a few years before I had seen the fearful remains of a puffin that had come into close contact with a bonxie. The little body had been turned inside out, its beautiful beak wrapped in its own skin and the breast muscle neatly cut away. But this bonxie had no intention of lingering at Balranald, it continued its course due North East, the gang of terns still in pursuit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day at Springwatch 

After a run of three years at RSPB Minsmere, it’s the last week of the last Springwatch at the reserve and I’ve had a chance, with some of my colleagues at the RSPB, to visit the set and find out some more about how the phenomenon, which is Springwatch is made.

 

To Springwatch’s millions of devoted fans it may seem like a relaxed and casual event, kicking back in those chesterfield sofas, but Springwatch is anything but. The presenters may exude the calm of the proverbial swan, gliding along on the surface, but beneath the water, a massive and well-oiled and expert machine is frantically paddling away.

 

 

There’s a village of people on site at RSPB Minsmere, 120 people decamp to the site for the three weeks of transmission, and take up most of the local accommodation. Four massive trucks housing the outside broadcast equipment jostle for space with tents, marquees, truck diners and gazebos.

 “It costs me a million pounds to rent those outside transmission trucks for the month of Springwatch” says Tim Scoones, executive producer, and the man behind the show, who is showing us around the site.

 

He takes us into one of the monster trucks which will hotfoot to Glasto after they are finished with Springwatch, then Wimbledon, and every must-see sporting and cultural event after that (it’s the very truck that makes ‘Strictly’ for goodness sake!)

 Before us is a bank of screens pulsating with action: nests and eggs and, of course spineless Si (and Stephen Fry). It’s like a control centre for …. well ….like a control center for the biggest outside live broadcast the BBC does.

“Springwatch is different from all those other shows” says Tim, explaining the ambitions and the sheer brass neck of Springwatch.
  “There are thirty live feeds coming into the main truck, with six at any one time recording”. Tim has story developers watching those screens intently 24 hours a day, ready to catch anything exciting, new or unusual. “we take our inspiration from Big Brother and from the news. These guys are making the stories as they happen”.
I ask what happens if they can’t switch one of the live cameras to record in time. “We have to be ready all the time” says one of the story developers. “If we don’t we can miss something spectacular”. They give an example from the previous day where they had an adder predating on one nest box and, at the same time, a stoat coming into another. They simply couldn’t get to the record buttons in time.
There’s a live broadcast about to start “we like to think of it as Test Match Special meets rolling news” jokes Tim as he ushers us out of the truck to continue the chat.
Tim explains more about quite how innovative and seat-of-the-pants Springwatch is. “There’s no autocue” he says, “This is what makes springwatch different. There’s no script, we are remaking the show as it goes out”. The presenters have a cacophony of voices going on in their ear-pieces as they speak; someone telling them countdowns to items cutting in or out, another person telling them what item is next, or that they need to cut straight to a hatching, or some other exciting happening on one of the cameras “When something happens live like that nightingale singing last night, we just cut straight to the camera and the presenters just have to carry on”.

  They are constantly changing items, cutting items and lengthening items as the show goes out. It’s a wonder that Michaela, Chris and Martin sound as relaxed and unruffled as they do with all that happening around them.
Suddenly a producer appears at the door of the truck. “Breaking news!” he says “those sparrowhawk eggs are hatching”. He pops back into the truck only to appear seconds later with more breaking news.
There is simply never a dull moment on the set of Springwatch.

 

Later that day we get a chance to see Chris Packham in action. We are part of the audience in Unsprung, standing rather self-consciously around the set trying to ignore the cameras getting thrust right into our faces and hoping that a close up of our faces won’t make it into live TV.


The show is funny, slick, and a bit tongue in cheek. We clap, we cheer, we groan at the rubbish jokes, we boo (when Chris Packham criticizes a fantastic photo of a swimming adder), and before we know it we are shuffling off-set and back into the evening sun of RSPB Minsmere.

 

We leave awestruck by the energy, the devotion, the skills and the teamwork of everyone working on Springwatch. Our day may be over but Chris, Martin, Michaela and the whole oiled machine of BBC staff still has a run though of the show and Springwatch itself to go before they finish up for the day.
I’ll certainly be watching Springwatch with new eyes, and a large helping of awe and admiration when it goes out from RSPB Minsmere for the last time later this week.


Fun Projects: artists and architecture  

Every now and again work is just amazing. And this week was one of those times – quite a few projects are coming to fruition and things are generally getting exciting.
This morning I was meeting with some Strathclyde Product design students at RSPB Scotland’s reserve at Lochwinnoch. They’ve been working for their forth year project on a structure for a new viewpoint which was created during some recent habitat works. It was so exciting to see how their designs have progressed from our first discussions. 

 The priorities for the designs are that it is an interactive space for families to use, but could also be used to quietly view wildlife and also could be a sheltered meeting point for walks and for school groups.
They had some great ideas that will work really well. Love the rope screens to look through and the modular slottable screens. And the living willow wall.



My budget is somewhat frugal for the construction work so the idea is that some of our talented Lochwinnoch volunteers put the structure together so the students are thinking carefully about design and materials. We also have a lot of larch trees to come down on our Wood of Cree reserve in Dumfries and Galloway which will do really well for the in-the-round posts to hold the interchangeable screens. We’ll look at whether we can also use it for the timber for the structure too. 

Then, this afternoon, I received some photos from the reserve manger at Loch Lomond. Oyster Eco are refurbishing a trailer we were given by SNH, an exhibition trailer rather like those they’d try and recruit you to the army in on Buchannan street. It was a bit of a catch actually. And I’m pretty pleased I bagsied it for Loch Lomond before anyone else did.  

It’s going to be clad in timber and set in the new car park at the reserve. There will be a wee kitchen inside where volunteers and visitors can get a cup of coffee, and there will be interpretation about the reserve. However bagsying the trailer, getting it to the reserve and generally waving my arms about what we’d like it to be for is pretty much all I’ve done. (Apart from a bit of input on the interpretation for inside). But when I got sent the pictures I felt very proud. It feels like my baby despite me not putting in much of the work. Perhaps it’s what being a Dad feels like.

 

Then we’ve got a team of four Strathclyde architecture students working on another project at Loch Lomond. A look out point a very short walk from the new car park where people can sit and contemplate, picnic or play. And it will be the start of the new pathway we’re planning around the bluebell wood. It is nearing the end of the design stage and it will be built and in place by May to complement the wee visitor facility. Again, most of the actual work, apart from having the initial conversation and getting them involved, and giving them my ample opinion, has been done by Paula and the reserve team.

 

Then there are the artists in residence about to start at our Mersehead  reserve near Dumfries.

 I have two PhD students from the Scottish graduate school of the arts and humanities taking part in a funded internship project as part of their PhDs and will spend a month living in the volunteer accommodation at the reserve.  My colleague Fiona will also have an artist in residence  working between Glasgow and our Inversnaid reserve, a spectacular piece of western Atlantic woodland and mountain along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond 

At Meresehead we have Roseanne Watt, a poet and filmmaker with a special  interest in cultural history and peoples stories. Her PhD is based in Shetland , where she is from.
Catherine Weir is a digital artist especially interested in stars and unnatural light and landscapes. Studying for a PhD at Glasgow School of Art.
And in Inversnaid we have Luca Nascutti , a sound artist.  He has who created electronic sound prices incorporating natural sounds which he performs in specific places with dancers.

 

This project started as a conversation around a giant fire of pallets on a beach in Canna (see blog about the trip) where I had gone to see Hanna Tuulikki’s work ‘away with the birds’. It turned out most of the people there were artists themselves and that’s where I made contact with Dee Heddon, who was involved in the graduate programme at SGSAH. And yet again, I may have made the first contact, but again it was Fiona who did the work to set up the project.
I took ‘my’ artists to Mersehead for a recee in December. The weather was stunning and the reserve enchanting. I am ridiculously excited about what will come out of these collaborations, despite a certain level of rather dyed-in-the-wood scepticism from some of my colleagues.    

We had a meeting at the end of last week about what will emerge from the artist in residence programme and how to distribute and promote it. A germ of an idea formed. A pod with audio visual equipment to immerse you in another world, that we could transport from city center location to out of town shopping mall to leisure centre, inviting people in to view and to hear the artworks produces at our reserves, to bring the essence of RSPB nature reserves to people, where they are in our cities and to inspire them to visit or to pique their interest in finding out more.
So where will I get this pod from, that will need to go on the back of a small trailer, or fold down into something we can put in the back of  a van?

 

Well, in the absence of SNH getting rid of any more trailers, in the near future, I think I’m going to need to call, very nicely, on Strathclyde university again to lend me some of their very fine students for a project next year.

 

Dates for the diary: 

Loch Lomond Reserve visitor gateway open from mid April 2016

Sound Artwork performance by Luca Nascutti, Inversnaid,  September 2016

Exhibition by Cathrine Weir and Rosanne Watt, Mersehead October 2016

Day 3 – Going home

We packed up in a hurry, there were moths from the trap to be Identified, the thermal imaging equipment to be taken down from the hill, and our bags and bags of kit to be transported down to the pier.  We didn’t pour away the water we hadn’t used. Just in case we didn’t get picked up – the supply of freshwater is a shallow sink-sized reservoir half way up the hill, on a seepage line. And it’s a favourite haunt of the gulls who have adorned it with  poo and feathers. 

 

  

The weather had changed to perfect blue skies and gentle winds and we headed out to survey the nests on the bird cliffs.

As we circled the island the cliffs rose up covered with gannets. Birds were everywhere. Gannets hanging like saltires in the air twisted briefly and then dropped from the blue sky, hitting the surface of the sea like an torpedo. We saw an immature one, a dark cross folding to an arrow and then a line and I wondered what it feels like to dive out of the sky at 100 Kmph for the very first time.  

  

Small stacks beneath were crowded with guillemots, stock upright with white tummies and chocolate backs, like miniature penguins on an iceberg. Then suddenly they launched into the water all at once towards the boat rowing their wings like a frantic oarsman in an attempt to take off.  When a couple realized that they wouldn’t make it before the boat passed them, they dived suddenly into the smooth oily water.

All to soon it was all over and we were heading back to Girvan, and real work: computers, meeting rooms, and hundreds of emails. 

 

 

 

 

 

  Bye Ailsa.  See you next year. I hope.

 

Ailsa Craig – evening day 2

Waiting for dark and the arrival of the storm petrels. It’s after eleven but the sky is still bright in the west. As the sky changes from deep blue to paler blue the moon appears, full and round, and the wind blows steadily. It isn’t going to be a dark night.

 

 ‘Everything is conspiring against us’ said Bernie, as he adjusts the mist net. ‘and to make things worse, they never come until the first week of July’ 

Bernie Zonfrillo is a veteran of 35 seasons of Ailsa bird research. He spent a wild winter on the rock in 1991 while leading the work to exterminate the rats and sleeps in a cottage slightly less derelict than the other island wrecks. 

 

We are sitting in the gloom along makeshift benches of driftwood balanced on granite blocks that had been cored for curling stones and then left as waste. Before us the sea shimmers silver in the moon and from the loudspeaker beside us comes a loud whirring sound punctuated by the odd Donald duck-like ‘ahh’.  The sound of a storm petrel calling from a colony. Every storm petrel on the west coast of Scotland will be able to hear us, I think, as the super-charged petrel blares out of the speakers.

 

And despite the bright moon, and despite the wind billowing the mist net so it looked like the black and tattered sails of a ghost ship, they came. Little black birds flitting like bats around the net and then, suddenly caught in a fold in the fine black mesh. Bernie’s deft fingers release a bird and she is in the hand.

Small and delicate with a steep quiffed forehead rising up from its little beak, the storm petrel may be small but it is a relation of the mighty albatrosses.  Petrels and albatrosses are ‘tube noses’, a name coming from the tube above the beak.

After the ringing I turn to Bernie to say that he was too pessimistic about the prospects for the night. 

‘Actually I was right about one thing’ he said. ‘We didn’t catch any in June.’  We’d  caught the first at quarter past midnight on the first day of July.  

  

Image courtesy of Portlandbirdobservatory.org

 

Ailsa Craig – Morning Day 2

I’m perched on an angular boulder at the base of a scree slope, binoculars raised, scanning the cliffs above for a peregrine nest.  My shoulders are tensed uncomfortably and there’s a crick in my neck. The air is full of gannets and the cries of gulls.

 

I was just thinking that a deck chair would give me the optimum angle for this kind of work, when the female peregrine launches from the cliff-face into the clouds of soaring gannets beating short sharp wings and calling furiously.  

 

  

Round and round she flies until she nearly alights on the cliff, wheels round once more and settles on the highest tip of rock to survey us suspiciously.

 

The clouds surrounding the steep summit mean we cant climb the rock to survey the colony of gulls at the peak and so, this morning, we have walked along the shoreline – past gull chicks, heads thrust into clumps of ragwort or under rocks, furry bottoms peaking out, and piles of boulders containing hissing, snake-headed young shags.

 

 

From where we sit, under the gannet colony, the rock rises precipitously from sharp grey boulders. On every ledge a shining white gannet sits and, up at the cliff’s rim, hundreds of birds balancing on the wind sway, black wingtips almost touching each other, and the rock.

 

They hang on invisible wires gently swaying while we are buffeted by the fierce winds and struggle to keep our balance on the boulders.  Every now and again one dives down past us, heading out to sea and is gone.

   

Ailsa Craig – Day one

History is strewn across Ailsa Craig in the twisted rails and rusted cogs winches and cables, and in the ruins of smithy, gas house, and lighthouse keeper’s cottage.  Rusting sheets of corrugated iron lie in the base of the huge gas storage tanks and across the heather. The lighthouse cottages are ghostly shells with beds turned over, broken cupboards and some 1940s easy chairs we borrow to make our camp more comfortable 

 I am on Ailsa Craig as party of an RSPB Scotland group surveying the islands bird, plant and invertebrate life. We make camp in the midst of the industrial decay then set off for our first task. 

The route of the old railway bringing stone from the North quarry to the pier makes a rather unsafe footpath to the cliff we want to survey.   Rusted iron and rotten wood bridges over rocky chasms give us visions of a Hobbit-style chase across crumbling stonework and we retreat to walk along the shore. We pass a cave strewn with dead rabbits, broken eggs and limpet shells where JM Barrie had once stopped to carve his name into the wall. 

  

My task, when we reached the seabird colony on the steep cliffs that run from the north foghorn, round the west, and almost to the south foghorn, was to look for bridled guillemots. This part of the cliff is the only one that can be seen from the shore, and it is where the regular detailed counts take place.  Bridled guillemots are the rarer form and they have a delicate white monocle around each eye. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack – but harder.

And then I find one.  A beautiful creature to seek in my ornithological Where’s Wally? My colleagues count kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars razorbills and then we get started on puffins. I used a little silver clicker that ticked satisfyingly in my hand with every count.  


Canna, Gaelic birdcalls and a lost car key

20140901-215643-79003568.jpgWell it was slightly annoying to loose the car keys. But the train journey back to Glasgow from Mallaig has been wonderful. It is one of the world’s great journeys and I can see why. As I yelled ‘wow look at the amazing view’ ‘it’s the Harry Potter viaduct’ and ‘Britain’s highest mountain’ the kids sat and read the magazines I had bought them as the necessity of the five hour train journey ahead started to sink in.

It’s not the first time that I’ve lost a car-key, or indeed all sorts of other important items like wallet and house keys, but it’s the first time for a while it has necessitated drastic action. I’ll be on the 820am train back to Mallaig in the morning with the spare.

However perhaps it’s a fitting ending to a weekend visit to see a piece of music which has encompassed the whole experience, especially the journey.

The concept of a piece of music exploring the imitation of birdcalls in Gaelic song fascinated me since I heard about it last spring. Being an ornithologist (or a lapsed one at least) I was captivated when I first heard Gaelic songs for bird calls on a soundpost at Kilmartin museum, and the thought of a piece of music written for performance on Canna seemed irresistible.

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Now, as I said, the peripheral stuff – travel, accommodation, feeding – were an integral part of the event. And if I were organising an ideal weekend trip away it would look pretty much exactly like this did: a remote and exquisite island teeming with wildlife, camping by a beach black with basalt sand and overlooked by an ancient and crumbing bastion on a tower of basalt columns; a start to the event in a marquee filled with scones and cakes of all kinds; and choice of tea coffee or whiskey (I admit to scrounging a second dram); and ending with the camaraderie of a bonfire on the beach until the early hours. It also included a rousing sing-along to ‘the rattlin’ bog’, but I think that was entirely spontaneous….

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But of course these were just the bookends to the work itself. We sat on folding chairs or cushions on the dirt road by the old pier and waited in silence (yes even my children) for the performers in dark tweed dresses and scarlet neoprene to begin. I used to be quite good at bird song ID but this really challenged my knowledge. The programme, containing a reproduction of the hand written scores and translations of the Gaelic which could have helped me was buried deep beneath waterproofs, plastic bags and other russtley things in a very rusttley bag. This was the kind of silent expectant audience where a single creak from a buttock moving on a chair would draw looks like daggers from those about. I decided to forgo the cheat-sheet.20140901-214240-78160454.jpg
Each movement was preceded by a sound recording evoking a habitat and bird assemblage: a machair with calling waders and skylarks, a seabird colony with guillemots, shags and fulmars, and mountain slopes ringing with the haunting and bubbling calls of manx shearwaters.

20140901-224152-81712946.jpgAs the sound of a gull in full defensive mode swooped across the loudspeakers my husband and I instinctively ducked; two field seasons in a colony of 50,000 pairs of gulls makes you wary like that. I was excitedly elbowed in the arm when he realised that the next movement was on a theme of gulls (we met in a gull colony). The sound of the guillemots took me back to a summer spent in the arctic below an enormous colony of auks. Happy days

The singing beautifully imitated bird calls as the singers placed themselves about the shallows, rocks, or up behind us, depending on the habitat they were evoking. The sound soothed, washing over in waves, the feeling akin to lying on a real machair looking up at the sky and hearing the waders display above, or laying belly-down peering over at a seabird colony, smelling that ammonia smell of dried guilimot poo (I love that smell). When I recognised a call in the music I felt elated. The kittiwake ‘Hu-ru rui’ was a recurring theme as was the cry of the oystercatcher, an ululating ‘Pil- il-il il il il il’. I feel I would have so much more to gain on another listen.

Later around the fire we shared experiences of the piece, among other things (including an artist’s response to the killing of the first sea eagle to fledge from the East Scotland reintroduction). Everyone I spoke to had connections to the arts, most had been to art school and were practicing artists. They seemed to have a very different experience of the piece to me, none seemed to feel the need to know what sounds were representing which birds. When I met one of the performers on the ferry homeward and enquired as to whether I might have heard a curlew in the piece (which on inspection of the programme I think was a gull’s laughing cry), she confided that she didn’t actually know which sounds were which birds, she had learned the music and read from the score.

There were evidently far fewer ornithologists in the audience than musicians and artists and, as I walked through the woods and up to the heathered escarpments above with the family later, listening out for the birds we could hear, as we always do, I pondered on a theme I have pondered before. I wondered whether there is more enjoyment in being able to name the species we share our surroundings with, than in simply enjoying a natural sounds for their own sake. Does being able to know how many species are singing, what they are and why their sing, and how they live their lives enrich ones enjoyment of the chatter of a seabird cliff, or the uplifting sounds of a woodland in spring?*

I do go along to arty things when I can, but I often feel that I don’t quite ‘get it’, the time I went along to see Hertzog’s ‘Antarctica’ at the GFT leaps to mind: I sat utterly bewildered as I saw, around me, the knowing nods and of a generation of students from the Glasgow School of Art oozing understanding. But this time I did feel that I got it, in fact surely this was a piece where ornithologists could enjoy it just as much as the art people. (And, presumably to a Gaelic-speaking ornithologist it would be even more enlightening). Perhaps I’m just always seeking understanding, because that’s what I like, I’m a scientist after all and finding out how the world works makes me happy.

The work was perfect, just as it was, of course, but I just couldn’t help wanting to take all those artists there on a walk to see and hear the real thing: the oystercatchers, the gulls, perhaps a night walk to hear the manxies. Probably because it’s my job and passion to get people excited about nature and because, for me, a performance like that drives me, at least, to want to find out more about the birds and about the Gaelic.

Canna, for example, is a real conservation success story. In a superhuman and vast effort, the NTS has freed the island from rats, while conserving the endemic Canna mouse, and Manx Shearwaters and other ground and hole nesters are starting to recolonise. A tremendous good news story in the midst of so much bad news for nature.
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I am starting to see the advantage of losing my car key, we have been forced us to throw ourselves further into the experience of the journey as part of the piece, returning on the train via the wild landscapes of Morar, Lochaber and the vastness of Rannoch Moor and then gradually decompressing through the oak and birch woodlands of Loch Lomond and Loch Long until we started to enter the towns of West Dumbartonshire, and, only when we were ready for it, arriving back in the city. A far more enriched experience, especially with a glass of prosecco, than driving through the landscapes focussed on the road, head down….

Now I just need to get that train back to Mallaig with the spare key….

For information about the performance and a video click here
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* (however any metaphor with art breaks down irretrievably on a cursory interrogation….)
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Wildlife Watching with Gadgets and Gizmos

20140706-081554-29754555.jpgIt certainly seemed like a good idea a few months ago: Let’s get more people engaged with nature using equipment and gadgets more often used for science and let’s train up my fellow people engagement staff at RSPB in the South and West of Scotland.

It seemed less clever as I travelled down to RSPB Mersehead reserve contemplating the inescapable fact that technology seems to sense my anxiety and ignorance and immediately stops working, that vital pieces of gadgets go missing when I am anywhere near them, and that even having to set up a projector and laptop to give presentation can leave me feeling sick with fear.

However we had a boot full of gadgets: go-pros, camera traps, a digital microscope, and some bat detectors; as well as some of the more traditional scientific kit of an ecologist: moth traps, small mammal traps and butterfly nets. We also had a few experimental things: a variety of recipes for treacling for moths, some ink footprint traps and a drone.

The participants came from across the RSPB’s South of Scotland region, all working in face-to-face roles with the public and the idea was a kind of do-it-yourself training. We would all contribute our experience on using the gadgets and also the kind of activities you could use to create an event, or activity to get people ereally excited about nature.

I managed to secure the help of a couple of our RSPB ecologists who could give us the low-down on things such as camera trapping, moth trapping and mammal trapping. All the rest was down to us.

The idea of the training had been born in an evening, night and morning spend in a tent with the family near to RSPB’s Loch Lomond reserve where we were partaking in the Big Wild Sleep Out. I had been involved in planning and arranging the event but wasn’t due to be helping deliver it and so I went along with the family to take part as it sounded like just about the most fun one could possibly hope to find. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was like being in an episode of spring watch, nay, it was like being Chris Packham himself.20140706-081406-29646519.jpg

We went bug hunting, set moth traps and camera traps, heard bats through our bat detectors, baited our mammal traps then finished the evening with a campfire, stories and marshmallows. In the morning we rose early for some bird ringing following by checking the traps. It was so exciting seeing what you had caught in your mammal trap and with the camera trap. My younger daughter’s camera, set under some bird feeders, discovered a hungry hedgehog snuffling around the peanut butter bait. We were hooked.

I wanted the training to recreate the feeling and excitement for people and so those who could be persuaded, camped out in the garden of beautiful RSPB Mersehead. Although, with all the distractions of teeming wildlife, there wasn’t a lot of time for sleeping.

The first night, clear and deathly still, we walked down to the shore, the air still so warm we were still in t-shirts at 11pm. There was no need for torches, the sky to the north was still bright. We were thrilled to see a barn owl quartering the wet grasslands in search of food. Later on, however, while asleep, I was less thrilled to be shocked awake and bolt upright, by the bloodcurdling shriek of the owl who appeared to be resident in the tree right by my tent.20140706-074724-28044051.jpg

We set the camera traps, the small mammal traps and an embarrassment of moth-traps (no fewer than three mercury vapour lamps within a few yards of the tents) and then we started on the moth treacling/sugaring. Everyone you ask seems to have their own secret recipe for attracting moths. So I decided that what we needed was a battle of the moth mixtures.

Everyone brought their own in jars or made them up on the stove, the heady fragrance of red wine, sugar, ale and banana wafting through the centre. They were delicious (the ones I tried) even the one that had been sitting around at RSPB Loch Lomond for a few weeks – apparently it had improved as it matured. If the moths had any sense they would be starting to queue for a taste of this moth ambrosia.20140706-073856-27536503.jpg

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While we waited for the moths to gather we headed down to the dunes to look for Natterjacks toads. Natterjacks are our rarest amphibian and you need a licence even to go looking for them, touch them or photograph them. So we were incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in an official natterjack survey with our ecologists. They only come out at night and so, in midsummer, it has to be pretty late to see them and it wasn’t until past 1130pm that we found our first animal, a female, and one, according to the individual dorsal wart pattern, that had been caught by the team before.

It was an incredibly brief night before we were all up again on a (not quite) dawn walk, chatting through games and ideas to engage children with listening to and learning birdsong. What struck me was how differently people hear birdsong. The chiff-chaff which, for me, is a simple ‘chiff-chaff-chaff-chiff’ was, to one colleague, ‘a little girl skipping along with pigtails’ and another ‘a bouncing ball’

I got everyone to listen to the skylark and describe exactly what they heard and there was an amazing variety of descriptions, the best of which was ‘a video game shoot-out killing the aliens’

We picked up the camera traps as we passed; a couple by a badger set in the woods, and one on a gate post past which everything bigger than a rabbit would have to move to get from the field into the woods.

20140706-074005-27605795.jpgBack at base we opened moth traps, and mammal traps, looked at camera trap footage and ink print traps. We had deer, a badger, a fox and a tiny mouse that dashed into a badger sett entrance only to bounce out a few seconds later carrying a stick three-times it’s own length in its mouth.20140706-081406-29646850.jpg

The excitement of seeing what the results of your own camera trapping had brought was really palpable. The camera which was only few yards from the tents captured some great footage of a fox and some stills of a badger.

Later we played with a digital microscope which projects highly magnified images to a laptop screen, the go-pro cameras and our area reserves manager demonstrated the drone, a quadcopter, which creates incredibly stable ariel images and video.

When I arrived back in Glasgow that evening, utterly exhausted, a fox passed me in the street. Unconcerned, and in broad daylight, It hopped off the pavement to let me past and then eyeballed me when I briefly stopped. I pretty much ignored it and went on my way. Perhaps I should set up a camera trap here to rekindle the excitement of having wildlife so close in the city.

PS. The moth treacling mixtures might have tasted delicious to me, but the moths didn’t seem to like them. All we found, when we came back after the natterjack survey, was a red tailed bumblebee slurping the mixture off a tree. 20140706-074000-27600771.jpg

 

 

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Eight Steps to Wild Thing Nirvana

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In a couple of weeks ‘Project Wild Thing‘ will be launched. It’s a film documenting one man’s attempt to get his kids to play outside and thus inspire a nation that would rather be on their X-boxes than out in the woods getting muddy.

So it’s fitting that we’ve had a weekend of living the Wild Thing dream.

I’ve written before of the challenges I’ve had getting my own offspring to venture forth into the wide and wild open. So it is with great joy that I can document here, with delighted smugness, the kind of weekend that would make a Guardian lifestyle features editor drool.

So here are my very own 8 steps to Wild Thing Nirvana.

Step One: Find your spot
Obviously this can be anywhere – park, woodland or wild place, but we happened to be on a raised beach surrounded by hazel and birch woodland on the shore of a Scottish loch. And the weather was OK.

Step Two: A wild swim.
After a long, hot walk-in, the sea was startlingly cold. Daughter managed a few strokes then stood waist-deep looking for sealife in the weed. Ignoring the pain of constricting capillaries in the extremities I paddled frantically until a warm glow started to spread over my body. Slowing to a more stately neck-out breast stroke, I parted the seaweed clad in an invincible tingling aura. Anyway I think the aura was from the cold water, it could have been from the smugness.

Step Three: A wild swing
A sure-fire way of warming up, the kids sailed out over the 20ft drop and nearly into the branches of the (hopefully sturdy) oak tree. Fighting over whose turn it was must have been warming too.

Step Four: Make a den and have a picnic
Absolutely standard fare for being a Wild Thing. Our den was built with the help of a length of blue fishing rope found on the beach and some twigs from the woods. It was a pretty good lunch spot and we plucked a few trefoils of wood sorrel to have in our sandwiches.

Step Five: Watch the sunset.
Sitting still and watching anything for more than one minute is not something that myself and my older daughter have ever managed before. Sitting on the beach together, listening to the sea and watching the colours of the sky change was actually a very special experience. However soon the urge to shout out bizarre names for the cloud formations became overwhelming and the spell was broken. ‘half chicken half worm!’
‘A horse wearing deely-boppers’
‘Pig’s head on a skeleton’

Step Six: Star gazing
In the uncharacteristically warm late September evening we sat outside and watched the constellations gradually appear. We also happened to be listening to radio 3 and a performance of Tintagel by Arnold Bax, which is obviously too pretentious for words but daughter wanted a soundtrack and this was the only one we could agree on. In any case, it suited the occasion, the lapping of the waves on the beach and the wind in the grass.

This is where a bit of that evil screen-time hugely increased our enjoyment of the experience. The wonderful Night Sky app showed us the names of the constellations and significant stars and satellites. We even saw a few shooting stars.

Step Seven: Phosphorescence

I’ve only experienced phosphorescence once before and it was under similar conditions: a warm autumn night after a long hot summer. We wandered down to the water’s edge, splashed our hands and, sure enough, a few sparks of phosphorescence shot into the dark and disappeared. It took a lot of splashing for a couple of sparks but, what magic sparks they were.

Step Eight: Sleep out under the stars.
This is obviously the absolute pinnacle of Wild Thing achievement. It wasn’t really something we intended but the idea had started germinating last week when I received an email telling me that someone had sponsored me to sleep out in my garden.

This wasn’t a phishing scam from a criminal gang-turned environmental education collective. It was related to a test page I set up on JustGiving while organising the RSPB Big Wild Sleepout in August. Somehow, someone had tracked down my page and felt moved to sponsor me, but they hadn’t left any contact details, leaving me in a bit of a dilemma.

I was fretting about the morality of being unable to contact my benefactor to tell them I was a fraud when the inevitability of a night out au naturel dawned.

We dragged camp beds and sleeping bags down to the beach – daughter categorically banned me from taking an actual bed and mattress down. I had planned to just lie and look at the stars and listen to the waves for a while but almost immediately we were both asleep.

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We didn’t manage a whole night though. The night sky had rotated around the North Star by about 60 degrees when I was awoken by a frozen cold daughter and we sprinted back into relative warmth.

So, I hope that puts my sponsorship dilemma to bed so I can sleep at night again (sorry couldn’t resist). Next year I think I’ll go the whole hog and get properly sponsored for a proper sleepout.

Naming the animals: the key to happiness and saving the planet

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mini cuttlefish love

I’ve just spent a very happy evening with a couple of field guides to the seashore and the internet. I’d forgotten how fun a spot of low water fishing is. It’s something we were always taken to do on our childhood summer holidays on the costa del English Channel but it’s an activity I have sorely neglected over the past quarter century (unless you include a freezing cold undergrad field trip from which I retain my only remaining knowledge of littoral ecology: Ascophillim nodosum, and Fucus serratus – seaweed to the likes of you and me)

But now I’m back walking miles out on the exposed shore, next stop France, making childhood memories with my own children. Despite considering myself a zoologist (of sorts) I was all at sea with this task of identification. Here were creatures (some probably aren’t strictly even creatures ) with a bewildering variety of body plans and phylogenetic weirdness, in contrast to the rather conventional stuff that I’m used to (ie vertebrates, namely birds).

We caught all the usual stuff: prawns, crabs, and fish of all kinds: baby pollack, gobies and little tiny flatfish, invisible against the sand, but which flapped tickling around our feet as we walked through the shallows.20130728-134649.jpg

But my favorite was a darling cuttlefish in miniature (Sepiola  atlantica) caught by my daughter in a limpet shell. There it sat with enormous eyes and sporting a lovely leopard print design which rapidly changed to a deep purple when rudely prodded by its captor. When we put it back in the sandy pool it shoogled itself down into the sand and left nothing but a pair of eyes showing.

We also caught a straight-nosed pipefish (Nerophis ophidion) – that cross between a sea-horse and a bootlace, hanging out among the long brown strands of Chorda filum seaweed.

A brown blob covered with exquisitely beautiful yellow stars caused some consternation during my battle with the field guides and I have, at last, identified it as an Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri), a colony of tiny sea-squirts. Improbably the larvae of this colonial blob, which resemble little tadpoles, are thought to be what gave rise to the very first vertebrates. I unfortunately couldn’t take a photo of this distant relative for the family album as it was lost in the excitement of clearing a bucket for the cuttlefish.

We also found a pale hairy lozenge, around 10cm long which must have been a long dead and bleached sea mouse – Aphrodite aculeata – a seriously weird kind of worm

And an orange spongy thing with a structure a bit like a brain, or a tightly wrapped intestine, remains completely unidentified as it, too, was lost in the scramble to contain the cuttlefish.

The weirdest was a blob of transparent jelly, roughly cylindrical and attached to the sand with a kind of stalk. It appeared to have absolutely no internal structure at all so I ruled out the usual IDs the Internet offers for blobs of jelly on a beach – comb jellies, jellyfish or sea squirts. However I did read a passing reference in a website about bait digging, that there is a ragworm which catches its prey using a transparent jelly-like net….. I wonder.

All this is grist to the mill of my recent ponderings about people’s connection with the natural world around them. I have been asking myself whether the ability to name a species (or in this case find out their names with a great deal of effort), adds to the pleasure of experiencing nature. Do people who can name the trees they pass on the way to work, or the weeds growing from a wall, or the birds they hear in the morning gain more pleasure than those who pass them in blissful ignorance. If you don’t know the name of something are you less likely to even notice it is there?

I am wondering whether knowledge of the unconventional domestic arrangements of the dunnock, or that swift chicks go into torpor as their parents search for food for up to three days at a time adds to the experience of seeing another brown bird in the big city. I certainly believe that it adds a huge richness to my own experience of my immediate environment, whether in the city or at the seaside.

While I was scurrying about at low water looking under fronds of seaweed, my colleagues have been doing a bioblitz at a brand new reserve purchased as an extension to RSPB Inch marshes. Scores of them, with partners from BugLife and other NGOs were finding as many species as they could on the site from mushrooms to mites and from mammals to moths. This is both serious conservation, and training for staff, but it is also pleasure.

As Bob Dylan sang, quoting from its origin in Genesis, ‘man gave names to all the animals‘. It seems to me that humans really do have a drive to name the living things we share our planet with. And that, by knowing their names, and something about them, we increase our pleasure in our everyday encounters with nature and find a connection with it.

And if we start to notice more of nature around us, and take pleasure in it, won’t it be that little bit harder for it to be lost?

Postscript: if anyone out there knows what the orange spongy thing was, or the cylindrical jelly blob, please do put me out of my misery.

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I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know what this is. Could it be a rock goby?

Surprised by Nature in West Dunbartonshire

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What a picturesque place. Can you believe that it is directly under the carriageway of the Erskine Bridge?

With the summer holidays round the corner, the shackles of cubs, choir and other after school activities are being gradually loosened and I am starting to breathe a little easier.

One day last week I had no commitments to get the kids to and the sun was shining. We decided to have a bicycle adventure; a magical mystery tour. Continue reading

Enjoying the peace and quiet of Colonsay

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Colonsay might be touted as a place of quiet; peaceful and relaxing but we’ve been camping and I can testify that it is anything but.

Our tent has been pitched at the hostel, a stone lodge and a couple of bothies with the woodlands of Colonsay House to the north and sweeping views to Loch Fada over meadows of flowers to the south. At midnight, with a sky still bright enough to see, the incessant croak of the corncrake was accompanied by the ghostly kee-wick of the lapwing.

Continue reading

Making playing wild in nature natural

kids on beach 2Lately there seems to be more awareness of the need for children to have freedom, especially to play in nature, and the growing disconnect between children and nature. There was the Natural Childhood Report, and I’ve come across loads of articles, policy papers and the odd book aimed at showing the malaises that result from this generation’s separation from their environment.

I don’t need articles in colour supplements and reports by consortia of NGOs to have angst about my kids getting out to play – I already have it in spades.

Today I am fretting over a magazine article in the Guardian. Continue reading