Saturday, 6 August 2011

Midnight Fairies

It is past midnight and I'm sitting with Emily and Mark in the pitch black on the south end of the island at Lady's Bed. It's cool, damp from a heavy dew and there is just a faint scattering of stars. It has been a long day, I'm a bit knackered and there is a right racket going on around me. We are after the smallest seabird in the world, we're after stormies.
Storm petrels are the most amazing birds. Tiny, not much bigger than a swallow they spend the winter months roaming the southern hemisphere oceans. In May they return to their breeding colonies and the tunnels where they nest and these in the UK are all scattered in the north and west, the nearest to the isle of May are in the Orkney. They only visit the land after dark to avoid being eaten by gulls so spend most of their lives out of sight by man and this means that there is huge gaps in our knowledge of them. So what are we doing on the Isle of May then. Well firstly there is a large population of non-breeding birds that spend time wandering the oceans. But also breeding birds travel far afield to look for food. They do stints of about 4 days on the nest while the other partner is off feeding. By using a tape machine playing a loop of their strange calls and a mist net these birds can be attracted in to the island as they pass and caught and ringed. And that is why I am sitting in the dark with a blast of stormy calls in my ears. But we didn't have to wait long before a gentle fairy like flitter above my head and a bird is in the net. Once in the hand we get a good look at it and even better smell it. Because storm petrels don't regurgitate their food to their chicks but actually convert it to a musky smelly oily substance that they then feed to their chicks. I can't help but put my nose to the tiny bird in my hand and breath in this unique smell. Handling the birds shows up another mystery. All the birds we caught have brood patches which means they have been sitting on eggs. There could be closer breeding colonies yet undiscovered but it seems like these birds may have flown the hundreds of miles all the way from Orkney or further on a feeding trip. So after putting a ring on the bird I place it on the palm of my hand where it sits in the dark for a few minutes and then stands up and patters on tiny webbed feet across my hand and silently into the dark and back into the unknown.
We catch 4 more, one with a ring on that shows it has been caught before at the Isle of May before we head to bed at 3 in the morning and the last thing I remember is smelling storm petrel on my hand.

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