Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Big Jump

An adult guillemot brooding a chick under its wing.

A young chick not ready to jump.

Another one not ready to jump.

Gathering at the cliff top.

One of the lower ledges down to the sea.

It is tough on the spectators.

The next 2 pictures are of chicks about to make the jump.

Some people ask me what do we do for entertainment in the evenings after work especially as we don't have a television. For starters there is a sort of grey area between work and spare time on the island.
But last night we watch a real life drama as exciting, exhilarating, stress-inducing as any think you might so on the TV. The guilli chicks were jumping.
Guillemot chicks spend their first 3 weeks on the ledge where they were hatched being stuffed with large fish, often packed shoulder to shoulder with other families and buffeted by arguments, predators and weather. Their whole world is a few inches of rock ledge and a view down to the sea. At 21 or so days old with stubby wings with no flight feathers, covered in down and half the size of an adult this all changes because this is when they jump. Rather than stay on the ledges and get fed by the parents until they can fly guillemots and their close relatives the razorbills do things differently. The chicks are taken out to sea where it is safer from all the predatory gulls and they can be easily fed by a parent while they finish their growing. But first they have to get from their ledge down to the sea. It is literally a big step and it takes the chicks a long time to pluck up courage to make it. They pick windless evenings and you can usually tell if chicks will start jumping because in the whole colony there is a building air of excitement with the noise getting louder and loader. The chicks have a piercing call that carries through the braying and bickering of the adults and they stand on their ledge calling to their parent. This is a Dad thing as the mother takes a step back and leaves the Dad to persuade the chicks to jump and the Dads do this either next to them on the ledge or from down on the sea. Some chicks work their way down from ledge to ledge slowly and gradually but this has the disadvantage of bringing them into the middle of highly stressed adults who often give the chick a good pecking. But some just go for it and move from their natal ledge to the sea in one move. Of course having wings that don't work means that they drop like a stone, the lucky ones hit the water with a splash, the less lucky ones smack onto the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. They are so feather light that this usually only stuns them briefly and after a shake of the head they are able to wobble into the sea. But the jump is only one hurdle, they then have to find their Dads in all the bedlam and then paddle hard to get as far away from the island and the gulls under the protective cover of dark. Gathered at the bottom of the cliffs like undertakers with a tape measure ready are the gulls and any youngster that isn't reunited with their Dad immediately after they have made it into the water usually ends up as gull supper. But those that survive the jump and the gulls now have several weeks at sea being fed by their Dads and growing to adulthood in a world so different to what they were born into.
So we gathered at one of the cliff faces and for over an hour watched the chicks, one by one leap. One did a fine swallow dive and made it cleanly to the water while another cart wheeled down bouncing off a ledge as it went. Another spent so long that when it finally made it to the water there seemed to be no parent to meet it and the last we saw of it was paddling off into the gloom with no chance of survival. The finally dram of the evening was a small guillemot chick at the very top of cornerstone cliff face. for this chick things were not normal because somehow it had been raised by a pair of razorbills. Maybe a guillemot egg had rolled down and knocked their egg off, we can only guess but however it had started this chick had been feed the razorbill way, that is on lots of small fish rather than the big single fish that guillemots feed their young. So it was very small for its age and also 5 days older than the other jumpers. But it had decided it was going so it set off down a switch back of ledges, being hammered by stroppy adults as it went. Several times it changed its mind and tried to go back up but finally it could walk down no more and jumping was the only option. In the gathering dusk after much calling it went, missing the rocks at the bottom. Immediately instinct made it dive and then swim out to sea as soon as it surfaced. We wondered whether its razorbill foster parents would continue its upbringing but our last sight was this tiny chick meeting up with 2 razorbills and immediately setting off out to sea. No film would ever give such a dramatic, draining, roller coaster ride as this real life spectacle and the only way to mark it was to head back to the cottages through the fading light and drizzle, passed the dancing ghost moths and to celebrate the jumping with a whisky.

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