Friday, 26 April 2013

Granite and Gannets - The Naturalist Blonde goes to Ailsa Craig

 Well, I had a day in heaven! A few months ago - at the suggestion of Bernie Z - I approached the RSPB with an offer of cleaning up the plastic on Ailsa Craig, and examining the level of plastic in nests on the island.

Nest plastic can increase chick and adult mortality by entangling them in nests, and can make for pretty gruesome sights. I wanted to get an idea of the scale of this problem in the Clyde, particularly on a reserve so important to nesting seabirds.

If you haven't heard about Ailsa before, its a huge hunk of granite, 10 miles off Girvan. Over the years its been a haven for pirates, Roman Catholics and the Northern Lighthouse Board. Until recently it was blasted to provide beautiful blue hone granite for curling stones. But, more importantly, it is home to kittiwakes, shag, fulmar, tysties, the odd pair of puffin, and around 35'000 gannets.

To get there you hire a boat from Girvan or Campbletown (we went from Girvan); its about an hour's crossing, and I imagine it could be pretty miserable in really poor weather. As it was, we were heading out into the wind and chopping waves on our trip. Our skipper, Mark, was in two minds as to whether we should go at all. Thank goodness the RSPB folk on the trip were hardy too!

Due to the conditions, it took about an hour and a half to get to the island. During which time we had a few Tysties, manx shearwater and 3 sandwich terns (a year tick). Standing directly behind the wheelhouse I was out of most of the elements (and my fladden suit has yet to fail me), however, I was very happy when the boat dropped into the lee of the island.

Landing at the old pier (with very reassuring signage), and offloading all the gear we'd need for our hour and a half ashore. As the folk headed off, to look for signs of twite and put out bait stations, I unravelled by tape measure and set about running some speedy plastic transects. It wasn't difficult.

Why is that written on this side too? We're already there...
 Bernie hadn't been exaggerating about the plastic levels. The lack of any foliage higher than scrub height meant that plastics carried in on the waves had been picked up by the wind and blown further inland. I think "strewn" is an excellent description.

It was the usual mix of stuff, but some was clearly beautifully aged. Ropes I attempted to clear were turning to dust as I handled them, their pieces dropping between the boulders, or being carried by the breeze. I had to move pretty carefully to make sure I was collecting as much as I could and not just creating a different problem.

Frayed and fragmenting
After running a quick 3 "look-see" transects I took the camera and went to scope out prospective clearing sites. Moving quickly round from the lighthouse to the south-east foghorn, heading back for a snatched lunch, before we were back on the boat to carry out counts on the colony.

Fog horn and kittiwake cave
As we moved southward round the island the number of birds and levels of activity drastically increased. Everywhere there were birds fishing, following nearby trawlers, bringing in nesting material, squabbling on the cliffs, loathing on the water or just filling the sky above. As the guys trained there eyes inland at the colony, I took the opprtunity to snap a completely unnoticed raft of around 30 kittiwake, then Andrew's sharp eyes on the cliff provided me with another year tick, a pair of puffin.

Gannets were everywhere above, almost impossible to focus on.
Kittiwake raft
Multiply the by about 500 (and add a lot of up) and you're starting to get an idea of the scale of things
My first puffins of the year
A full lap of the island done, and weirdly exhausted, I took as many snaps of the retreating island as we headed back to Girvan. The five 30 start had done me in and I alternately dozed, plotted out potential work sites, and looked out for passing wildlife.
Ailsa Craig Lighthouse
Beach plastic
45 minutes later we were in site of the harbour, and - just as I thought the day was over - a red throated diver (another year tick) flew above the boat, distracting us from the victory flapjacks. Then, all too soon, we were back in the harbour and unloading. 

Crying off the post trip cuppa, I jumped in the car to head for home and a much needed glass of wine.

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