Saturday, 21 August 2010

A 'Stormie' Night

  Returning home on Thursday 12th August, I was looking forward to a few quiet days getting back in to island life. I'd already sent out several texts to birding friends that I was home and if anything turned up to let me know. The following morning I got a call from Rory to say that he and a bird ringing friend of his were going out that night to tape lure petrels.

  I met Rory and Will at a headland in the north of Unst at just after 11pm. It was a very dark, cloudy night with a breezy on-shore wind. Will had only recently finished doing his PhD on Leach's Petrels and had spent the last four summers on St Kilda studying them. It was on St Kilda many years ago that I saw my first Leach's and is a memory still vivid in my memory. The sound of them flying around us on Carn Mor and even the occasional movement of air across the face as they brushed past is one I'll never forget.

The principal behind tape-luring is to play a recording of the species you are after and the call lures the bird(s) - hopefully into a carefully placed mist net. For those that have never come across one, a mist net is a fine meshed net strung up between two poles - a bit like a badminton net - and on it are a number of pockets or 'shelves' that the bird drops into when it hits the net. The bird can then be fairly easily removed for ringing.

  I must emphasize here, that I was only there as an observer as all tape luring and ringing is strictly controlled and licensed by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). It can take years to get a full ringing license and only then after many many hours of working with a qualified ringer. During the first night, I lay on the ground in the dark, straining my eyes looking up at the net for a shape the size of a large House Martin to fly in to the net. The main species that was hoped for was Leach's Storm Petrel as there isn't a huge amount of data on their distribution here on Shetland.The sound that Leach's make is a bit like the cartoon character 'Woody Woodpecker' makes, just add a bit of helium ! - Link here to the  Call .

  The first evening there were a least 26 Storm Petrels ringed but no Leach's, one 'bounced' out of the net and flew away unfortunately.

Ringing a Storm Petrel

  The following evening I went out with them again, this time with Sula my 10 year old. I was feeling rather tired but thought it was an experience for Sula not to miss - and we also may get to see a Leach's ! When we arrived a just after eleven pm, besides Will and Rory, there were 3 others from Unst - Alastair, Wendy and Mike, quite a party ! Due to the nets being close to the cliff edge, it was suggested that only two ringers at any one time should be by the nets and we should stay where the birds were ringed. Unlike the previous night, birds seemed to be coming in fairly frequently. For Sula it was a real bonus as once ringed, some of the birds were carefully handed to her to be released. After an hour or so, Sula was getting tired so I took her back up to the car for her to have a sleep in her sleeping bag. Finally around 12.45am, a Leach's was caught and brought down for ringing. Leach's are much bigger than 'Stormies' and also have a forked tail which gives them their alternative name of 'Leach's Forktailed Petrel'. It was here that things went pear shaped - for me at least ! I now know it was a wrong decision (how much wiser we are after the event !) in that I decided to used my 90mm macro lens as the subject was controlled and I could move in or out to get the best composition etc. What I hadn't checked was the lens working with the flash, or rather the lens auto focusing in the dark with the flash. It didn't !. I then had to try and manual focus using the available light from the head torches which wasn't a success. Almost all of the pictures from that evening were out of focus, it was my own fault and I may never get another chance to do it again - fingers crossed I do.

Leach's Petrel (taken using phone camera)

  Sula and I decided to leave around 3.15am as there was now a very faint glow on the horizon and the team would be packing up soon anyway. I believe that just after we left, another Leach's was ringed, making a total for this season on Shetland to 10 birds (9 on Unst and 1 on Fetlar) - they also went out the following evening, but we were away on West Mainland. Despite the camera problems, it was a great experience for both Sula and me so a big thank you goes out to Will and Rory for phoning in the first place.


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