Storm Petrel: A Magical Night on Dream Island
Many of the day visitors to Skomer Island will one day consider staying overnight. They hear about one of wildlife’s true spectacles and want to come back and see it for themselves. I am, of course, talking about the world’s largest colony of Manx Shearwaters that only come to the island after dark. And what a spectacle it is! One that you can read about in our blog (September).
The same spectacle takes place on nearby Skokholm Island and we all stay up late to watch it.
But there is another iconic seabird nesting on both islands. Far harder to see or hear. Much smaller and equally breathtaking in its chosen lifestyle. That bird is the Storm Petrel and the best chance of seeing it is to stay overnight on Skokholm island.
They only come to land to breed. They are present on the Pembrokeshire islands from May to September and leave then for their journey south to waters off South Africa. Little bigger than a Sparrow, the bird appears all black with a white rump. In flight, it flutters over the water, feeding with its wings held up in a “V”, with feet pattering across the waves. At sea it often feeds in flocks and will follow the wake of ships, especially trawlers. Their food includes fish, plankton and crustaceans.
In days gone by, it was believed by sailors that their arrival heralded a storm. That led them to be ill-omened “Mother Carey’s chickens”. Or worse still, “Satanites”, “Water Witches”, and “birds of the devil”.
There are lots of species of Storm Petrel. The Pembrokeshire ones are European and just as welcome after Brexit!
They are impressive birds. The size of a songbird but with the lifestyle of an albatross. Their life at sea only interrupted by the need to breed on remote islands. They are vulnerable to predation by mammals like rats but are safe on Skomer and Skokholm where there are no such predators. Like all petrels they have an excellent sense of smell which helps them find food over great distances of the open ocean. I am also told that they give off a pleasant, musky scent that makes them a favourite amongst seabird ringers.
A Magical Night.
“We are ringing Storm Petrels tonight” announced Richard. “You are very welcome to come and watch and help if you would like to.” “Wowww, yes please” Bobby enthused. “Be down at the Lime Kiln around 11.30 pm.”
Richard sets up mist nets down the bottom to catch the birds flying in. He untangles them and puts each bird in a small ringing bag. Another volunteer brings the bags to the Lime Kiln to be processed. Each bird was then given to a visitor, after being shown how to hold them properly. Carefully in the dark you walked down to the wall to release them.
Mist nets are regularly used to catch birds for research. It is a harmless procedure when carried out by experts like Richard and Giselle.
The moon disappeared earlier to leave a night sky of the deepest black velvet. The more you looked, the more stars you saw. If you have never seen a true night sky, undiluted by light pollution, make sure it is on your bucket list.
But first the job in hand.
For Richard and Giselle, this is their chosen lifestyle. Living in a lighthouse from late February to November. Rarely, if at all, leaving the island during that time. When winter comes and they leave, putting their feet up in front of the telly is not an option. Richard tells me that this winter they are off to La Palma to see more Manx Shearwaters and Chough colonies. In the past, it has been the Chatham Islands – way out in the Pacific Ocean. Miles from anywhere. True adventurers.
For Will, Jodie and Alice, this will have been an unforgettable experience. Spending a summer long term volunteering on Dream Island. Learning skills, but also helping the Wildlife Trust maintain the island for the benefit of visitors like us. We are indebted to all of you. Thank you.
This is front line research and an enormous privilege to share and even take part. Can you imagine being taught how to hold the bird safely and with just a red light or no light at all creeping slowly down to that wall. Placing your hand carefully on it. Aware of a little wriggling underneath. Lifting your fingers and silently feeling this little bird disappear into the night sky. Bobby is still in awe as I write this.
Now and again there was a lull and the four of us lay on the ground and looked at the night sky. Millions of stars. Quite a few shooting stars. Even the International Space Station passed overhead. And you could clearly see the Milky Way.
“Where’s Mark?” Mark had very impressive camera gear and had disappeared for a very special reason. We are enormously grateful to him for giving us permission to reproduce a few of the pictures he had taken of the night sky. 25-second time exposures, we were told. I hope these do him justice reproduced in a blog.
You need to expand these pictures to get the true beauty of the sky and the buildings. The green light is a moth trap.
Mark’s pictures need to be viewed as big as you can get them to see the true majesty of the heavens. Thank you Mark.
And we close with a library picture of the truly wonderful Storm Petrels in their natural habitat.
The call of the Storm Petrel:
Bobby: “At probably one o’clock in the morning, we slowly walked back to the cottage. The amazing Manx Shearwaters calling overhead taken for granted on such a night. There was Eamonn, looking out of the window. How lucky was he?
These last two blogs show that you don’t have to be a birdwatcher to love the natural world and take your part in it. That it all ended as it did landing on the mainland is a tribute to those who can and do. Rather than those who would like to but don’t. In Swansea Hospital, it seemed impossible that I could ever contemplate setting foot on the islands again. Now, a few weeks later, I am not so sure. The Friends of the Islands have their reunion in February near Cheltenham. I will be there. My challenge now is to get back to Skokholm Island and stay in Lockley’s Cottage.
If any of this has inspired you to see for yourself how life can be away from the mad world most of us live in, consider this:”
Lighting a Candle for Diddley.
Eamonn: “Oi loved going to the Islands, Bobby. Can oi go again when the puffins are tere?”
Bobby: “Yes. Ireland too. But don’t forget Bertie. Do you want to come on the train when we go to get him?”
Eamonn: “Yes please.”
Bobby: “All the people on Skokholm Island loved you. Particularly looking out of the window on that rainy night.”
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