So.....another day, another adventure! This time I was lucky to gain a seat on the boat going out as a volunteer to a little island just off shore of North Berwick - Craigleith - to be a part of SOS Puffin. SOS Puffin is the Scottish Seabird Centre's award-winning project to save the puffins on the islands in the Firth of Forth. One of the UK's largest puffin colonies, numbers on the island of Craigleith had crashed from over 10,000 pairs to less than a thousand, due to a giant plant called tree mallow which grows to 3 metres in height. Tree mallow is thought to have been introduced to the Bass Rock over 300 years ago by soldiers manning the fortress there because of the medicinal value of its leaves. It has spread rapidly in recent years, helped by mild winters (linked to climate change), taking over the other islands and preventing the puffins from nesting and rearing their pufflings. Over 280 work parties have made regular trips out to Craigleith and neighbouring Fidra island over the last 10 years to cut down the tree mallow, with the project being run and supported entirely by more than 1,100 volunteers. Thanks to this tremendous support, excellent progress has been made and monitoring is showing that the natural vegetation is recovering and the puffins are now able to nest without interference from tree mallow. Other nesting birds such as eider ducks and fulmars have also benefited. The project needs to continue for some time as tree mallow continues to regenerate from the large seed bank in the soil.
I've had a dream over the last couple of years to be able to go to one of the islands around Scotland to photograph the puffins, and if I can help make sure that they will be here for awhile longer, well, that's what I want to do. How can you NOT fall in love with these little guys???
(The above photos are grabbed off google, they are not mine. I could find no one to credit for these images)
When I found out about the project I got in touch with it's coordinator, John Hunt, and signed up to help. How could I be so lucky that the first day that I was able to volunteer to help out, the weather was brilliant!? After the winter we've had, that's saying a lot!
We met at the harbour mid morning, got organised, and then set about loading our transport boat with all the equipment needed to do our task. The trip over was very short (and just a little wet!). Once there, our able skipper nosed the boat into the rocks, and John hopped out to tie ropes to a few metal eyes that were in the rocks for just this purpose. We then made a human chain to get the equipment up onto the island, which was not an easy task considering the steep, very slippery rocks. Once that was accomplished, we ourselves headed up to our site for the day. We were handed our tools for the day - shears and long handled snippers - and those of us who had not done this before were given instructions, then off we went.
The work was hard - we were mostly on steep terrain, either on our knees (next time I will be sure to get knee pads!), or leaning over and hacking away! Everyone there were real troopers, and worked steadily. John reminded us to "stop and smell the roses" - that as important as this project is, we needed to enjoy ourselves as well. But, how could we really call it work - the scenery was magnificent....azure waters, blue skies, puffy clouds, gulls, fulmers, cormorants, and shags all calling and flying around us? The wind was up a bit, but once I started doing my job, off came the down coat and gloves, and on with the vest.
We broke for lunch, after which a few of us were treated to a tour of the island by John. He took us to the other side of the island where the cormorants were starting to nest (along with gulls), and where we were "caught" on one of the live cameras that the SeaBird Centre has sprinkled around the islands. There has never (that anyone knows of) been any inhabitants on the island, but we saw some signs of human activity from long ago with possible walls and structures. We also found a dead shag (a large, black sea bird) that John had taken a leg band of off. The next day I found out from John that this particular bird was 20 years old (!) and during that time it had raised 34 chicks (!) on the Isle of May! I just find this kind of stuff fascinating!
Back to work for awhile longer, then a short break for "Tea Time" (I'm still getting used to this - it's not something we have in the states). We were all getting pretty pooped by then, but everyone rallied and we set to whacking away at the noxious mallow trees for awhile longer. At about 5:00 John gave us the "we're done" cue, and I think we were all relieved to hear that. However, I wasn't really ready to leave the island - it was a magical experience for me to be out there, and especially to be helping the puffins (and other birds as well). We were all happy, though, to see our "skipper" arrive to take us back to the harbour. We made our human chain again to get all the equipment back on the boat, then off we went back home.
I think a lot of credit goes not only to John for all his work and leadership on this project, but to all the volunteers as well, since, as I said before, this is strictly a volunteer run project. It was a joy for me to do my little bit to be a part of this project, and I truly hope to be able to participate again sometime.
I have just this week booked a seat on a boat going out the the Isle of May, in May, to photograph the puffins there. We will be able to spend over 2 hours on the island, right in amongst these amazing little creatures - ooooooh! I can hardly wait! Just yesterday the live camera on this island showed that the puffins are starting to arrive - yay!