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Counting sheep and lack of sleep

Just back from four days on Lundy Island (4 – 7 May) as part of a team of 13 carrying out the National Trust’s annual mammal monitoring; counting Soay Sheep, Feral Goats and Sika Deer, and estimating Rabbit numbers by counting droppings in quadrats. This was my fourth visit to Lundy but the first since about 1990.

In the twenty years since, my attitude to alien or feral wildlife has changed. I have no recollection of seeing Soays or goats on any previous visit and I think I just regarded them as beneath contempt. But I was pleased to see them on this visit and admired them for getting on with their lives, thanks to and in spite of humans.

Soay Sheep ewe and lamb

Billy Goat

We had easterly or south-easterly winds throughout which held the promise of some good migrant birds. There wasn’t much time for actual birding but we saw three Pied Flycatchers, 1 Spotted Fly and a Tree Pipit on the first day (Wednesday), as well as a few Willow Warblers, Chiff-chaffs, Whitethroats and a Sedge Warbler. Cloud cover and showers on Thursday morning brought a few more migrants in: a Collared Dove looking lost on the barren north of the island, a couple of Swifts, 1 Yellow Wagtail, 1 White Wagtail and two Cuckoo’s including this exhausted female.

Female Cuckoo sheltering

On Friday in fair weather, there was a smart male Black Redstart at the north end, and pushing up through the tussock sedges in South Combe revealed several warblers: 1 Sedge, 2 Chiff, 2 Whitethroat, 1 Blackcap and a Grasshopper. This is birding Shetland-style! Pausing to shed a layer at the top of the combe I realised I was standing on some Small Adder’s-tongue Ophioglossum azoricum, only the second time I have seen this plant (17+ plants at SS 13320 47236).

Small Adder's-tongue

By mid-afternoon, I’d also seen 1 Whimbrel, a fly-over Hawfinch, 1 Yellow Wagtail, 1 White Wagtail and heard 2 Tree Pipits. And having finished all my mammal monitoring duties, I headed to Millcombe Valley with high expectations. I found nothing unusual in Millcombe but conditions were beautifully calm and sunny and I could see the sea was starting to glass over inshore, so headed to the clifftops near the Castle for a seawatch.

Seawatching was a good move. I concentrated on checking through the assembling rafts of Manx Shearwaters. I was quite impressed to see over 200 birds by 17.00 though up to 700 had been seen recently: still a tiny fraction of the estimated 5,000 breeding pairs that rat-free Lundy now supports. Also a distant Great Northern Diver and at least 5 Porpoises racing along the tidal rip. And then … a big whale, side on. It surfaced three times and each time I saw the arch of its body first, which then flattened out a bit and eventually the sickle-shaped dorsal fin followed through. Now I was half-expecting to see a Minke Whale but with Minkes you don’t have to wait that long for the dorsal fin to roll through. This was a big whale and, despite my own incredulity, it must have been a Fin Whale! I have seen dozens in Biscay and several off California but never expected to see one in British waters. Fin Whale is Britain’s (and the world’s) second largest mammal (after Blue Whale) and from my perch on the clifftops I could also hear Britain’s smallest squeaking in the grass: Pygmy Shrew!

Fin Whale

I dedicated the last day (Saturday 7th) to entomology, sampling the endemic Lundy Cabbage in Millcombe Valley and looking for its specialist beetles. A Wood Warbler sang from the trees all day but I didn’t go and look for it (if I had, I might have seen the male Golden Oriole which I only heard about once we were on the boat!).

And finally, yes I did hear the Little Shearwater. It called for about 15 minutes on the night of Wednesday 4th from 23.04. With the easterlies, the background noise from the wind and surf was very loud and, having been up since 02.00, I hit the sack soon after. Sadly, on the following night, the weather was no better and I didn’t hear the Little Shearwater at all from c. 23.30 to about midnight. And on the last night when I would have been able to stay out into the early hours, the beautiful weather that I’d been whale-watching in earlier broke down into a dramatic thunder storm. I took a drenching for the best part of an hour: the Manxies were still calling but I didn’t hear the Little. I had hoped that with three nights on the island I might be able to repeat Johnny Allan’s lucky sighting. But I’m lucky to have even heard it. Anyway, the experience of listening to the Manxies and seeing the occasional bird flap past in the starlight was really magical.


1 Comment

  1. Mary Stiehl says:

    I was looking for images of sheep to reference for a logo design for my sister’s etsy shop and happened upon your blog. While I’m not an insect lover per se I found it all quite interesting!
    I am taken with the photo of the soay sheep and lamb photo from 2011 and wonder if it would be possible to purchase a copy–to frame and hang in my house!

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