Northern Wheatear - A Crowder

Guest Blog by Andrew Crowder

When I was in my teens thinking about my future I knew I wanted to work somewhere within the field of biology. My wildest dreams were of animal research on the African plains or the jungles of South America. Real life didn’t quite deliver that opportunity although I did enjoy virtually my whole career within the NHS diagnostic science services. So when I retired I set out to experience just a little of those early romantic notions.

As a life long birder and RSPB member it seemed natural to look in that direction and I was really taken by the offer of residential volunteering on RSPB reserves. As I live in Wales and love Pembrokeshire, Ramsey Island was the obvious choice and I was lucky enough to be accepted for a fortnight in early June. With a little trepidation and two weeks worth of food (!) and clothes I arrived a few hours later than planned as the normal boat from St Justinians had broken down. This was my first encounter with the complications of ‘island life’ and it was not be the last. Travelling across with me was Geoff who was in his eleventh spell on Ramsey. We were met by the wardens, Greg & Lisa, then settled into our accommodation in the north of the island. I had no expectations of luxury and I wasn’t let down - for example the gas cooker was one my nana would probably have described as ‘a bit dated’ when she was alive! That said all the basic necessities for life were on hand and the views back across Ramsey Sound and south to Skomer Island were to die for.

Little Owl - A Crowder

The next day the daily routine began - welcoming the visitors off the morning boats and make sure they had all they needed to make their brief stay safe and enjoyable, including tea, coffee and information about what they could find on the island. We would then usually disperse to carry out wildlife surveys, which was just a joy for me. Logging Northern Wheatear breeding territories, monitoring Chough nests and counting nesting sea birds on the cliffs, etc - what a gift to this avid birder - and all in a rugged, fantastic setting with other fabulous wildlife encounters all around you. I was even more lucky - the weather for almost my whole stay was sunny and warm which really helps for this kind of work. Then it was back to the reserve centre to serve more refreshments and down to the harbour to see everyone off safely.

One particular visitor encounter stands out in my memory. I’d set off to do a Wheatear survey in the north but ran into a young couple who were desperate to see some of our Little Owls and Choughs. As I approached I had already picked an up an owl on top of a nearby wall and was able to point it out to their delight, which seemed to attract others (visitors, not owls…) who were equally as charmed. As if on cue, a flock of 14-15 non breeding Chough magically started circling and calling just above our heads. And that wasn’t the end - as we watched I heard a Peregrine Falcon calling nearby and saw the male bird land on a nearby cliff. One of the visitors had a telescope and everyone was able to get stunning close up views. By this time, it seemed like half the day’s visitors had joined us and I felt a bit like the pied piper but it was very rewarding to be able to share my knowledge and help make their day. Needless to say, I didn’t get much surveying done that afternoon.

Peregrine falcon - A Crowder

After the visitors had left, the island was entirely ours and I was able to explore, bird and photograph to my hearts content. Perhaps the best perk for me of being a volunteer was the freedom to have unrestricted access to the whole reserve, getting up close and personal with the fabulous wildlife.

Of course, that freedom was partly because we were on an island. That separation brings a different way of thinking and being - ‘island life’. For example, you can’t just pop round the corner for a pint of milk, energy is limited and even the naturally sourced tap water has to be boiled before use. This means you have to plan further ahead all the time but keep options open. Despite the sunny weather no visitor boats could land on one day because of the combination of a unseasonal north winds and low tide times. And just as my arrival was late, my departure came 24 hours early because of the possibly unfavourable winds the following day. That morning I was undertaking a survey on a Chough nest but two hours later I was on the boat home - although not before I was privileged to record the first fledging of the island’s most iconic bird.

What a way to end my time as a volunteer, summing up what life can be like on Ramsey. I’d come looking for a unique life event and left having experienced the genuine article.

Andrew Crowder