Edward's Birding Diary
|27 August 2006|
Night of the Petrels
I’ve long held a fascination for islands. Not palm-fringed tropical paradises with white sandy beaches, but rather storm-lashed, crag-girt islands under a glowering northern sky. On my first trip to Iceland in 1995 I spent a couple of days on the island of Heimaey, the only inhabited island in Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. It was here that I got my first real taste of the North Atlantic, and although it was summer I experienced a combination of wind and weather that I had never had any inkling of growing up in England. The exhilaration I felt at being flattened on the cliff tops by the salty gusts, with a wheel of tens of thousands of Puffins circling overhead, was only slightly tempered by the realisation that I was going to have to sleep in a tent that night, but the seeds of this fascination were sown.
I’ve visited the Vestmannaeyjar many times since, usually in the autumn and have seen some excellent birds there, such as Black-throated Blue Warbler, Hermit Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush, but last weekend’s trip topped them all. No rarities, no life birds, just the opportunity to get to know Iceland’s two most enigmatic species.
The next day was breezy but bright and we went on a tour of the island under the capable guidance of JÓH, who had first visited Elliðaey exactly 20 years ago to the day. It was strange seeing the bird cliffs empty, Common Guillemots had left and only a handful of Kittiwakes, the dominant sound of Icelandic seabird colonies, remained and they were silent. Great Skuas and Gannets patrolled off shore, an Arctic Skua and a juvenile Merlin eyed up different sized prey. It was great to laze away the day but as the sun dipped, it was time to reposition the nets, as the wind had changed and made it impossible to stay in the same area as last night. The same tension-filled wait ensued; the sun set, the Puffins began to come in for the night, and as soon as the last one had gone, the first ‘bats’ began looming in the darkness. I spent most of the night manning a net where European Storm-petrels outnumbered Leach’s Storm-petrel, but there were plenty of both. At one point there was one of each sitting calmly in side by side in the net, the Leach’s dwarfing the European. JÓH was ringing and releasing them next to a pile of stones and it was here that I first heard the purring of the European Storm-petrel and close by we found a downy chick deep in a crevice in the lava. It was then that I noticed the sky moving. Bands of white light shifting across the sky, occasionally tinged red, occasionally green, the first northern lights of the autumn and what a night to choose. Sitting there in the dark surrounded by the noise of thousands of petrels, with the aurora borealis over head was just one of those perfect moments you have when birding. As with the previous night, the action was all over by 4:00, the day birds took over as soon as the last storm-petrels had dispersed to sea. In all we ringed around 600 Leach's Storm-petrels and 350 European Storm-petrels.
Before this weekend these birds were a bit of a mystery to me. I still don't know much about their habits at sea, other than what I've read in the relevant literature. But now I'm intimately familiar with the way they feel in the hand, the faint oily, yet not unpleasant, smell they exude which still clings to your clothes several washes later, the way they vomit an orangey-red oil or partly digested fish over you, the way some bite, whilst others are calm. Not for the first time I felt immensely privileged to have glimpsed a world I had barely known existed. An exhilarating trip had a fitting ending. Whilst waiting in warm sunshine for the zodiacs to pick us up, a juvenile Gyr Falcon appeared and spent the next ten minutes flying back and forth on the look out for a careless Puffin, giving us superb views. We all vowed to return next year, and next time we'll have to find a Swinhoe's.