Header image: Hilary Brooker-Carey piloting the Coquet Island RIB Credit: RSPB

For more than 30 years, RSPB volunteer warden Hilary Brooker-Carey has devoted countless hours to helping protect the seabirds of Coquet Island, Northumberland – the UK’s last remaining roseate tern breeding colony.

RSPB Coquet Island

Situated off the coast of Northumberland, RSPB Coquet Island is an important site for nesting puffins, and common, Sandwich and Arctic terns. It is also home to the UK’s only roseate tern breeding colony – a species driven close to extinction in the 19th century. Thanks to dedicated conservation their numbers have climbed from 104 breeding pairs in 2016 to 150 pairs in 2021.

Hilary monitoring wildlife using a telescope on Coquet IslandHilary Brooker-Carey is part of the protection and monitoring team charged with keeping watch over Coquet’s seabirds. Since 1991 she has supported wildlife monitoring, worked nightshifts on the island, and helped with everything from vegetation management to admin duties. She also regularly pilots the island’s high-speed rigid inflatable boat (RIB), acting as the team’s ‘reserve taxi driver’. This year alone she has spent more than 900 hours volunteering for the RSPB.

Hilary said: “Anything that needs doing I just help out. The work is so incredibly varied. I started by counting the eider ducks and ducklings along the seafront in Amble, and it just slowly increased from there. When my girls left home I had more and more time, and apart from seeing family and going on holiday, I just wanted to help on the island.

“I can’t ever see myself giving up. Going to Coquet never feels like a chore, even when the weather is foul. As long as it’s safe to take the boat, the cold and the rain don't bother me at all – I just feel lucky to be alive and enjoy every moment of it.”

Another record breading season for roseate terns

The dedication and conservation efforts of the Coquet Island team were rewarded once again this year with another record breading season for roseate terns – the sixth in a row. 2021 was also a record year for breeding pairs of common terns and kittiwakes, the latter of which are on the red list of conservation concern.

Hilary said: “When you think about the distance these birds have flown and all adversity they go through to get here, it's just nice to be able to have the site ready for them. Providing them with a space that’s safe to breed, or as safe as we can make it, and then to see them all go with their young always gives you a nice warm feeling. I know a lot of people feel sad at the end of season because everything has gone, but for me it’s a sense of achievement, and that’s just a lovely feeling.

Hilary lying down next to Sandwich tern chicks awaiting release after ringing.

Image: Hilary with Sandwich tern chicks awaiting release after ringing. Credit: RSPB.

Challenges of working on Coquet Island

Watch Hilary discuss her work protecting the birds of Coquet Island

“It can certainly be challenging work though,” said Hilary. “Even when is it's not too bad a day the wind can kick up and be blowing you around the island. Then you have things to contend with things like slippery rocks, being careful of puffin burrows when you’re walking on the plateau, and watching out for the birds too. The first couple of pecks each season is kind of nerve wracking but then you just get used to it. We don't wear hard hats because you don't want to damage the birds’ bills, so we tend to have soft hats with bubble wrap or padding underneath it. Some of the team use top hats for a bit of extra height above your head, but everybody's different.

“You have to think carefully about everything you do because you're on an island and health and safety is paramount. There's not necessarily somebody that can get to you immediately if anything happens.”

Carrying the Olympic torch

There have been plenty of opportunities to celebrate during Hilary’s 30 years volunteering. In 2001, she was presented with the RSPB's highest volunteer accolade, the President's Award, by journalist David Dimbleby. Earlier this year she was presented with her 30-year pin on Coquet Island by the Duke of Northumberland. Hilary’s efforts were also recognised ahead of the London 2012 Summer Olympics when she was selected as one of only two representatives of the RSPB in the UK to carry the Olympic torch.

A skilled crafter, Hilary produced handmade puffin facemasks for the Coquet team during the pandemic. In November 2019, she began work on a project to produce a display of over 1000 crocheted poppies as part of a moving tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in World War I.

Hilary Brooker-Carey after being presented with her 30-year volunteer pinHilary said: “Receiving the President's Award was a tremendous honour, and being presented with my 30-year badge was a complete surprise because I don't really keep track on the number of years I’ve done. When I was told, I thought ‘am I that old!’. I’ve survived 63 years now but I don't feel my age.

“Everyone should consider volunteering because there's something out there for everybody. We haven't all got the same skill sets and there's always something that you can do. If you can give a little bit of time, even if it's just an hour, it all helps. The sense of well-being you get is a great reward. I'm a great believer in the benefits of working with nature, being outside, and the power that has to make you feel good. It just puts life into perspective when you see there are things other than humans having to struggle and survive. It’s incredibly rewarding.

“It’s also about being a member of a team. Coquet Island has a brilliant team and in many ways it’s like a family, everyone is supportive of each other.”

Discover how you can volunteer with the RSPB and help our threatened wildlife.

"We simply couldn’t operate at the level we do without her expertise and support.” - Paul Morrison, RSPB Coquet Island site manager

Hilary is one of 12,000 volunteers who donate their time, skills and energy to the RSPB, and between them carry out around a million hours of incredible work for the charity.

Paul Morrison, RSPB Coquet Island Site Manager, said: “Hilary is effectively an extra member of staff. Over her 30-plus years of volunteering on Coquet, Hilary can turn her hand to virtually every task that the island presents to us. That could be skippering the boat, strimming, mowing, repairs of all sorts.

Hilary Brooker-Carey pictured with a common tern on Coquet Island“She plays a key part in our monitoring work on Coquet and even undertakes security night watches to guard the birds from disturbance and egg thieves. At other times she’ll support the team by covering the island whilst the Coquet staff are on the mainland for their shower and shop. Hilary has devoted 914 hours to volunteering on Coquet this year alone. We simply couldn’t operate at the level we do without her expertise and support.”

The conservation efforts on Coquet Island have been bolstered by the EU-funded Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project. This five-year partnership project between the RSPB, North Wales Wildlife Trust and BirdWatch Ireland focused on protecting the three remaining roseate tern colonies in the UK and Ireland while restoring five of its historical sites for potential re-colonisation and laid the foundation for further roseate tern recovery.

All images © RSPB