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  • A Far North Naturalist

You want to see Puffins? Join me!

Seabirds have featured highly in my life. It’s all because I was born and raised in east London, of course! I was lucky in having parents who loved to escape the dreary Monday to Friday 9-5 — and even drearier weekends on the housing estate -- and we’d frequently spend time at the seaside! Not so much the pleasure-beach and promenade ‘Southend-on-Sea’ kind of thing. More like those with a bit more wild about them, and preferably sandy beaches rather than muddy ones. I did enjoy visiting those beach-ball, lilo-infested places, for sure, but I was never one for hours of sunbathing - I had birdwatching to do.

I’d had an interest in birds from a young age, apparently brought on by one of my grandfathers, who’d frequently push me in my pram/buggy to the lake in the local park, where we’d feed the ducks. I was soon a member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists’ Club (YOC !) and loved digesting the information in the bimonthly (six each year) Bird Life magazines (many of which I still have, along with the annuals of 1975 and 1976!). As soon as I was old enough, I naturally became a full member of the parent organisation. My ‘go to’ bird book was the huge Book of British Birds, by Reader’s Digest and the Automobile Association, which included a gazetteer of birdwatching sites, maps included, and I’d spend hours poring over these, making ‘plans’. In my sights were the places furthest away, of course, to the west and north.

One spring break, my mum and dad took us (my sister and I) to Carmarthen Bay. My aim was to visit the ‘seabird-paradise’ of Skomer island, situated way further west at the very tip of south Pembrokeshire. It was May 1977, I was 12 years old and i was about to discover exactly where my future lay. It wasn’t at all straightforward though. The day we went to the little harbour, the queue was extremely long and we didn’t get on a boat! I was forlorn to say the least and it took some arm-twisting to encourage my dad to repeat the drive the following day, very early in the morning too! But he did and we got on the first boat. Well, I found myself in exactly what I’d pictured as paradise and the memories of that day are still vivid. For a start, there were auks flying this way and that past the boat. As we neared the island cliffs I was shocked at the number of Guillemots, perched somewhat precariously on tiny rock ledges. The sounds they were making was exhilarating to me. How it beat looking at pictures in a book! There were masses of Puffins on the sea all around the boat as we entered Skomer’s North Haven and, unlike the water at Southend, it was completely transparent and I could clearly see the Puffins’ brilliant orange feet as they paddled frantically to get out of our way. We were met by the Warden, who probably gave us an introduction about what to see, where to go, but I certainly didn’t hear a word, I just wanted to be free to explore!

Up on the plateau there was a carpet of bluebells as far as the eye could see! There were thousands of Lesser Black-backed Gulls nesting among the bluebells; Oystercatchers piping loudly from every rock outcrop, clearly alarmed at our presence; Ravens ‘cronking’ overhead, relentlessly chasing off a Buzzard; tiny Meadow Pipits calling from bracken perches all around us, then flying almost vertically upward before parachuting down on half-open wings — their display flight! The sights and sounds were almost overwhelming and I was completely smitten. It was birdwatching at its VERY best, like I’d never experienced before, and with a picnic lunch too! But there was something that caught my eye during a walk around the island’s perimeter that brought me back down to Earth. To the south and silhouetted in a sparkling sea, I spotted another, smaller, way more remote island… Skokholm. Suddenly I had a new ambition - to get out there!

I finally achieved my ambition in April of 1982, when I was 17, and had convinced my parents to let me go on a holiday of my own, with a school pal who, as it turns out, didn’t really share my enthusiasm for the adventure. We journeyed by train from London to Haverfordwest, took a taxi from there to Marloes, and stayed in a B&B owned by, I think, a Mrs Llewelyn. When we got there, our first surprise was no one in sight, an unlocked front door and a note saying ‘welcome, go on in’. Absolutely mind-blowing!

We got to Skokholm the following day. It was all so wonderful. I actually recall that I had a nightmare on the first night and was eventually awoken by the cause of the disturbed sleep — the most terrifying screeching and wailing…

The following morning, the other visitors were discussing what a fabulous night they had! I knew that the island was famous for having the most incredible night life imaginable, in the form of nocturnal seabirds, but I hadn’t prepared myself for what I did experience. Skokholm is home to large numbers of Manx shearwaters and storm petrels, with the former being birds of legend as far as evil spirits went! Apparently Norse sailors thought that the Scottish island of Rùm - with its huge Manx shearwater colony - was inhabited by trolls! It was them that I’d heard in the night — shearwaters, not trolls!

That was the start of my fascination with seabirds. I went on to become the Warden of Skokholm, where I spent 9 (mostly) happy years. But that’s a story or two for another day. Now, on the north coast of Sutherland, I have ‘rediscovered’ seabirds on a splendid section of coastline and I’m planning to visit it at least once weekly. There are thousands of birds here, of a dozen or so species, all on this length of rock for one purpose - to raise a family. There might not be trolls, but there will be predators that many will regard as monstrous, that’s for sure, in the form of the mighty Great Skua (‘Bonxie’) and Great Black-backed Gull. I thought you might like to hear the fascinating tales of the drama, thrills and spills that I know I’m going to witness. If you do, then please watch this airspace. Better still, join me on a walk and see it for yourself!

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