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.
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
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.
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.