A mammalogist goes birding

Puffin 1
A puffin. Is a puffin. Is a puffin. This one was screaming at The Wick.

What had started out as a clear autumn dawn was turning into a blustery, rainy morning. There was drizzle on my lens and the sound of wind was fighting through the leaves of the trees around us. Only there wasn’t a cloud around and I was stood at the edge of a shingle beach. That light shower was sea water, falling off thousands of knots’ legs as they slid above and past me, pushing the air off their wings with the sound of a gust cutting through a forest.

I grew up in a house with a pair of binoculars never out of reach. From as early as I can remember my parents had hung bird feeders from the apple trees in our suburban back-garden and the now almost forgotten sight of fifty-or-so starlings descending onto the grass always meant a call away from my megadrive and a trip to the kitchen window. Every motorway journey would include either my mum or dad pointing out a kestrel or a kite, and Slimbridge was such a part of my childhood that that’s where I chose to spend my 22nd birthday. But all of this never instilled in me a desire to actively go out and birdwatch. I was never a twitcher. I think I liked cities too much. 

It was laziness that had constrained me. In addition to early mornings, almost 600 species of birds are out there, swirling about and above us, calling out to be identified by fleece wearers grasping copies of the Collins Bird Guide. The number of indigenous British mammals, on the other hand, is far more manageable and, although my undergraduate project was on the dynamics of flight in early birds, my PhD is on the insectivores that wear fur rather than feathers; the pin badges that adorn my coats are of bats and otters, not bitterns and oystercatchers.

However, last October I set my alarm for four o’clock in the morning, walked from one side of Cambridge to the other and drove with my friends from the Department of Zoology to the RSPB’s reserve at Snettisham. With that first flock that tore overhead I realised that the early alarm, the thermos-stewed tea and the old boy smoking a pipe next to me was all worth it. That giddy, goofy smile of complete wonder the girl in boat at the end of the murmuration video smiles – that was me.

So when my friend and wildlife photographer Jamie Gundry suggested we go to Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast I though let’s give this another go. Three months later and during the beginning of the end of my graduate studies, I packed my boots, my camera, borrowed a lens and folded up a fleece.

Skomer lies off the western most point of the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, beyond the marine nature reserve of Jack Sound (which has its fair share of shipwrecks) and has been lived on by humans in some capacity since the Iron Age – the island is sparsely dotted with standing stones and stone circles whose provenance is sadly mysterious. However, since the 1950s the site has been managed by what is now the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and is both a National Nature Reserve and a SSSI, as well as being a Special Protection Area.

It’s also a little over a five and a half hours drive away from Cambridge. As it had been more than a while since I’d tried to photograph wildlife and as I thought I might need a little practice with the EF 100-400mm classic lens I’d managed to borrow, we decided to increase the journey a little by detouring north to Gigrin Farm in Rhayader, Mid-Wales. 

Gigrin Farm is still a working sheep farm, but since 1993 it has also been an official red kite feeding station thanks to the owner at the time welcoming a proposal from the RSPB. Since then the number of red kites feeding has increased from less than ten to over 400 daily. It’s also a red kite rehabilitation centre: as kites don’t have as powerful jaws as other raptors, they generally survive by exploiting a scavenger lifestyle but this can lead to all sorts of trouble such as swallowing lead shot in the carcasses of culled wildlife and ingesting lethal pesticides. However, Gigrin farm acts as a safe haven with food left out in the afternoon, allowing the birds to retain their natural scavenging lifestyles in the morning.

Sitting in the hide, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d seen a few of the birds circling on the horizon as we’d trekked up to the wooden walls, but this was no different to how I’d seen them in the past – in the distance whilst my Dad had pointed them out. But as we heard the tractor approaching at around three o’clock the sky became full of dark brown Ws, and in an instant they were diving down onto the green in front of us, skimming over the grass to pluck a piece of beef off the ground with their talons and flying up, nibbling at their morsel. I started to get a little better at snapping them as their 1.8m wingspan meant it wasn’t to difficult to estimate their trajectory as they soared. But on deciding which scrap they wanted, their tail would snap to the side, their wings would rotate 90 degrees and they’d speed towards the Earth, showing off flashes of white on the top of their wings.IMG_7142 IMG_6998 IMG_7214 IMG_6997

I put my SLR down for a while and took some pictures on my iPhone, but these couldn’t really capture the scene. Here were birds I was used to seeing fleetingly over a field, all tumbling out of the sky together filling the skyscape. I counted how many I could see in one of these photographs. I could make out one hundred and twenty eight.

At 8:30 the following morning we were at Marloes Peninsula, packing all the food we’d need for the week into a sealed bag (carrying this down the quay, it became obvious we’d brought far too much). Skomer is rat free and any introduction of vermin onto the island would decimate the bird populations its so famous for, so this preparatory chore was a must. As it’s been separate from the mainland for so long, Skomer doesn’t have any large terrestrial mammalian predators: no foxes, no rats. In fact, the apex predators seem to be the greater black-backed gulls that turn the Manx shearwaters inside out and leave their heads, spine and wings to the elements during the dawn. But more on that later.

Crossing Jack Sound was an easy journey but the twenty minute commute can be less than accommodating and the often big seas can mask the beauty of the reserve, hiding the porpoises, dolphins and nudibranchs under the surface. As a fairly photogenic mist rolled away in front of the boat I packed my old OM40 away, lamenting that I hadn’t brought any spare film.

Although we were there to photograph the zoology, it was the flora that had the first impact on me. As the only large mammals on the island are rabbits, the treeless landscape is dominated by brackens – any other saplings would soon be cropped by their incisors. However, the variation from one area of the island to another was stark. As soon as the ground was sheltered away from the sea breeze, entire fields of red campion bloomed as far as I could make out, a damp, saturated pink of carpet. But as soon as you stepped over the brow of an incline, suddenly everything became green, or a pale yellow. My Nintendo starved mind couldn’t help making the connection between these botanical zones and moving from one area of Koholint Island to another. All that was missing was a change in theme music.

Red campion which, when the mist didn't get in the way, blankets the ground.
Red campion which, when the mist didn’t get in the way, blankets the ground.

At the end of one of these fields lay The Wick, a cut into the southern coast where razorbills, guillemots and puffins sat, perched and burrowed into the cliff face. On saturdays, the area would be crammed with upwards of two hundred tourists and school groups, whereas today we were alone with a BBC cameraman and a handful of ‘guests.’ It had been ten years since I’d been an AS-level biology student trying to photograph puffins as they crossed the path in front of me and the panorama hadn’t changed at all. But what had changed was my patience. The ability to take not-bad looking photographs of the clowns of the sea increases exponentially with a decent camera and a grands-worth of lens attached to the front of it, and with it came a desire to capture something special.IMG_7489 IMG_7922 IMG_7931 IMG_7447

Although Skomer during daylight is a delight, it’s during the night that you realise how lucky you are to be staying there. After assisting in completing the bird log (now running unbroken for 50 years describing the prevalence and activity of wildlife on the island) at the warden’s office, we waited until quarter to midnight and then walked into the mist, wearing hats and head torches. After we passed the glow worms and avoided the hundreds of frogs and toads who refused to move out of the way of our walking boots, we started to hear what the BBC describes as a ‘cackling call’ that may have had an influence on british folk law.

Skomer boasts a third of the world population of Manx shearwaters, with over half a million of the birds momentarily staying on the island at night, when the breeding pairs meet and swap over parenting duties. Although astonishingly well accomplished in the air above the ocean, shearwaters are utterly, embarrassingly clumsy on the ground. There, their slick, aerodynamic bodies and skinny wings can’t help them. Instead, their hind legs, which are positioned extremely far back on their bodies, show themselves to be fantastically maladapted for life on the floor and as we made our way across the island, countless birds fell straight into us, shook themselves off, and then fell haphazardly towards their burrows. It’s exactly this inability to fend for themselves well on the ground that leaves those that can’t get to the sea in time after dawn at the mercy of the gulls, who discard their prey all over the few paths. But these shortcomings can’t take away from their mind-boggling feats of migration. Each year they travel from Skomer to South America, some 10,000km, and only a few days after the young first pluck up the courage to fly by hurling themselves off any ground slightly higher than the landscape. On top of this, each day the parents spend hours on the wing feeding in order to present their young with an easily digestible fish-supper. As some of the birds are over 50 years old, they’ve tallied up an astonishing number of air miles.

The final day arrived too soon, but proved to be the finest for photography, and afforded me the opportunity to see the incredibly well camouflaged daytime little owl and two of the few seals still hunting around the waters. Later in the year, hundreds of pinnepeds line the coast, continuing their never-ending search for the perfect napping position.IMG_8089 IMG_8041

Spot the little owl.
Spot the little owl.

What I hadn’t banked on was how difficult it was to take an image that stood out. In terms of the birds, both the razorbills and the puffins were wonderful at posing, but each image I took looked like everyone else’s. As a zoologist, I balk at the idea of anthropomorphism, but razorbills really are puffins’ cooler, motorcycle-owning older brothers. But capturing the ‘personality’ of a species that can be identified by so many people is the bread and butter of the wildlife photographer. And it’s a frustrating business. I take my hat off to any of the photographers that manage it. At best, my shots were adequately framed, but hardly ground-breaking.IMG_7955

Discussing this with a friend after I returned to Cambridge, he talked about the similarities between wildlife and sport photography. Both require patience and an ability to estimate the future movement of your subject and both need fast reflexes and nimble fingers over the controls of your camera. But whereas any sports fixture carries some sort of historical value (so-and-so’s tenth game playing for so-and-so, when blah-blah happened in the something quarter), a puffin is, for all intents and purposes, a puffin, is a puffin.

Around the second morning I realised that wildlife photography wasn’t for me. Watching the animals through binoculars and taking a record of the behaviour I was privy to was one thing, but the frustration at not being able to capture that personality in a photograph was quite another. Readying myself for my post-PhD adventure later this year, I’ll bring my 600D, but I’m also packing a bag full of velvia.

Skomer was an incredible experience for a naturalist, but in terms of photography, it underlined what had been my opinion for a long time; that I’d much rather use photographs as imperfect aids to memory, rather than as tools for precisely capturing the dynamic action of life onto circuit boards. I’d rather watch through binoculars than track with autofocus.

Which makes me sound like a lomography advert. For which I am truly sorry.

A few of the photographs from my OM40, which I’ll probably look at more than the thousand or so I took with my Canon.

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