Yesterday we were lucky enough to head out to the Treshnish Isles aboard the Lady Jayne of Mull Charters to celebrate Zara’s birthday with some wildlife and “puffin therapy”. The weather was brilliant and the islands looked beautiful, surrounded by clear waters, grey seals and seabirds. We heard the rasping call of a corncrake on a smaller, nearby island and found the camouflaged egg of an oystercatcher as we landed among the pebbles and boulders.
Puffins are always a favourite and it’s hard not too love them with their comical behaviours and colourful bills. The island of Lunga, along with other small islands and islets, boasts large numbers of breeding puffins, along with a whole host of seabirds and is of national importance for many of these declining species. Often there are between 2,500 and 3,000 occupied puffin burrows, with yearly fluctuations. The puffins are extremely tolerant of humans, maybe benefitting as we deter predatory species like raven and skua. Unfortunately some humans take this tolerance too far and offer the puffins food or encroach too far by peering down nest burrows – encouraged by a well known “wildlife cameraman” on TV recently.
If you manage to get past the initial puffin burrows without becoming engrossed you’ll navigate the coastal pathway to Harp Rock – the main seabird breeding colony, with vast numbers of guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake and fulmar. You’ll also pass some angry shags, repelling you from their nest sites which are tucked into tiny rocky crevices.
Great black-backed gulls are herring gulls are also in the area, with a handful of territories. Yesterday we spotted three large great black-backed chicks, with adults nearby. Debris of prey items littered the ground and included puffin and rabbit. Further on a little more and you’d enter a great skua territory and risk being pummelled by these irate birds! The islands are well worth the visit, it’s a brilliant day out, but please remember they’re wild species, avoid taking dogs and have some respect!
Today at school we spent the afternoon completing another Wildlife Action Award activity. We went out in the rain to snap photos of the wildflowers in the school garden to later ID. We found lots around the edges of the garden (the areas the council aren’t so against) and checked some flowers out up close with hand lenses. We found foxgloves, self-heal, red campion, tutsan, cuckoo flower, stickyjacks, daisies, bramble, flag iris and more. The children looked up information and the gaelic names for the species before drawing and labelling some of their favourites. We chatted about Charles Darwin and ensured our curiosity was up to his standards whilst enjoying the sound of lapwing and skylark overhead. It’s important that children appreciate our native wildflowers and learn some of their names, after many common species names were removed from the English dictionary!
No matter how much we plan our outdoor experiences and encounters with wildlife it still falls to chance.
In many circumstances, naturalists are now species focused, twitcher like and not just with regard to birds! We’ve all done it and do so regularly – we head out into the wilds with a species in mind, an imaginary checklist and a success rating. How many of us have travelled to Scotland and stayed in a cottage that boasts the good likelihood of seeing pine marten? Just pop out some sweet snacks and await their arrival. Mull each year is flooded with tourists with white-tailed eagle, golden eagle and otter on the brain. Our favourite seasonal shows, Springwatch and Autumnwatch encourage us to visit reserves and locations across the country to spot particular species.
This is partly due to human influence on habitat and distributions of species, gone are the days you could wander out to chance upon pine marten, red squirrel, white-tailed eagle, adder or osprey, along with many more. We’ve shrunken and fragmented their suitable habitat, or persecuted them so heavily that we now need to travel to find them and the success of our journey hinges on seeing them.
This is fine, we all do it and often to see some species we have to head out with them in mind. But it’s still all down to chance, fate or luck. We can try extremely hard to be in the right place at the right time but nature does its own thing, no guarantees! As adults we can just about handle the disappointment of not encountering the desired species, but we should be careful when our younger generations are involved. Aiming high can be a real excitement, but if the species isn’t seen we’re disheartening kids and swaying their feelings towards natural history.
Instead head out with an open mind and a positive attitude and let chance take the lead. Without that imaginary checklist every encounter becomes exciting because it’s the unexpected. Enjoy the common and regular species, become more acquainted with their behaviours and be ready to be surprised. Just two days ago I spent a few hours searching hard for reptiles in what appeared to be a great spot and left for home with a little tinge of disappointment. But by chance I pulled into a passing place and from the windscreen I spotted a lizard basking right by the road. After taking a couple of photos I took a few more steps and spotted an adder, slow-worm and another lizard, all within inches of each other – mere feet from the road! This was a chance connection to nature in a very unexpected location. I was elated and drove home with a big smile on my face.
That was a great chance connection with reptiles and we had another yesterday when wandering in one of Mull’s wilder parts, away from footpaths and tracks. First we encountered a colony of yellow meadow ants, making their busy home under a very small scrap of corrugated sheeting. We watched a pair of grey wagtails bobbing about a burn and found the perfectly preserved breast bone and wings of a kestrel – a great natural keepsake. Then, just when we weren’t expecting it, an adder was curled up among grasses in a tiny pocket of bracken. What a thrill to bump into our only venomous snake! We continued on and shortly encountered another adder, again in the tiniest pockets of bracken habitat amid boggy surroundings. We also delighted in the speed of common lizards, taking to cover at the vibrations our footsteps create – how amazing that raptors like kestrel and buzzard are agile and acute enough to catch them as prey.
We should make time for chance connections with nature, let the wildlife surprise you and minimise any chance of disappointment. Children relish all connections with the natural world when allowed to do so. Don’t make their childhood about the top species and tick boxes, let nature do its thing and inspire them. If you visit the Isle of Mull don’t make it all about the eagles and otters, if you chance upon them brilliant, if you don’t that’s okay. With young people so disconnected from nature in this modern world, we need those happenstance connections more than ever, especially the local ones, the ones on your doorstep – children need to know nature is out there and easily accessible and so do adults. We can get disheartened with the current state of nature but finding chance connections close to home can cheer our thoughts. It doesn’t always have to be a far flung adventure with drawcard species as the make or break.
We’re all eagerly awaiting the sight and sound of Spring. No matter where your home is in the United Kingdom, adults and children alike look to the skies for the dainty, bluish black bodies of the swallow. No other bird can conjure up the essence of childhood and springtime. The remarkable lifestyle of this small Hirundae is known to all. We rejoice in the return of this tiny traveller, come all the way from the tropics of Africa. Along with the bright yellow of daffodils and the creeping green of hedgerows the swallow heralds the start of warmer weather, plenitude and enjoyment.
For me the swallow and its close relative, the house martin both carry me back to sunny childhood days. April 19th was a date scrawled in jotters and the back of bird books. Later it would be pencilled onto the windowsill of our summerhouse. Each year the swallows seemed to trickle into our sky, and perch on our telephone wires on April 19th. They quickly got right down to business, fixing up old nests with water and mud from a regular puddle on the drive. Swallows took over the eaves of tool sheds, the dog kennel and the coal room. We had to leave doors open and adults had to duck as birds whizzed by their heads. Unlike some, we didn’t mind the mess that built under the little mud cup nests, we liked animals and were always happy to see the nest filled again. I remember shocked horror when I realised people actually prevent these intrepid travellers nesting after such an incredible journey.
The sound of swallows is perfection. The chatter of the birds as they line up side by side on a wire waving in the wind brings such enjoyment to me. They are the conversationalists of summer. The blackbird or song thrush may be music to the ears in early spring but the real sound of the year for me is awarded to the swallow.
The house martins came into focus for me later. A new house with a large open fronted barn gave hours of neck craning. All the way along the eave were little mud circles, maybe up to thirty nests. Some had small faces and gaping beaks peaking out, some had whole heads popping into the fresh air, space fast becoming a rare commodity. The busy parents flew over the hazy fields filled with neatly turned hay bails. Sometimes the harsh realities of life became apparent. Under the nests you’d find tiny pink bodies, or eggs that had fallen, never to hatch. This, among many other wildlife lessons, gave me an understanding that life is difficult, precious and rather fragile, but natural all the same.
These birds are of my childhood, they remind me that I’m a grown up now. When I do see them, I’m a little saddened, we lose something as we get older. Inadvertently, our sense of freedom and adventure dwindle. Our imaginations are much more limited and we gain responsibility. I’m also sad because these birds are dwindling too, they’re declining- especially the house martin and we don’t yet know why. We’re lucky to have 10 house martin nests on our barn now, each summer we welcome fewer birds back. Our future children may not have joy in the returning swallows, swifts, house and sand martins. Without those birds, my childhood would have been much duller, less special.
While we still have these birds, inspire the little people to look to the skies and await their return. Revert back to your childhood, lie in the grass and listen to their tittering talk. Children need connections with nature and the small, less obvious links may be the ones that make a lasting impression. A swallow is a small impression that stuck with me.