A week on the Calf

One of the jewels in the crown of #ManxNature is the Calf of Man – the small island owned by Manx National Heritage (MNH) situated just off the southern tip of the Isle of Man (IOM). This 250 hectare island is uninhabited apart from our seasonal team of Manx Wildlife Trust (MWT) wardens and volunteers who manage the Calf of Man Bird Observatory, which is one of a network of observatories within the Bird Observatories Council (BOC). With its location in the centre of the Irish Sea, the Calf of Man (Calf) observatory is an important bird monitoring station for the whole of the British Isles.

The Calf is an amazingly special place for nature and MWT are delighted to operate the bird observatory for MNH and run other wildlife conservation projects on the island, under the overall direction of Lara (Dr Lara Howe) our MWT Marine Officer. In 2020, my first year at MWT, I made day trips to the Calf, but this year I organised my diary so that I could spend a week there, staying at the observatory and engaging hands-on in all the activities that our team of Bird and Estate Wardens and volunteers carry out. It was a wonderful week and here are some highlights.

The timing of my week on the Calf coincided with the visit of our IOM Governor, Sir Richard Gozney and his wife Lady Gozney. Sir Richard is coming to the end of his role as the Lieutenant Governor for the IOM, and, as keen birders and MWT Patrons, they were both keen to visit the Calf again before departing the IOM. It was excellent to be able to spend time with them at the observatory, and to join them in enjoying the insights from the team’s work on the Calf.

Each morning that week I was up at 4am to help Aron and Rob set up the bird nets and then make the patrols every 20-30 minutes to carefully remove caught birds, which were carefully bagged and taken back to the Observatory for measuring, ringing, and recording. I was delighted to witness some notable birds for the Observatory, including:

  • Subalpine Warbler (Curruca iberiae) – the first of the year and the 25th Calf record ever.
  • Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) – only the 5th ever recorded on the Calf.
  • Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) – none recorded in 2020 and this was the first of 2021.

One of the great conservation success stories on the Calf in recent years has been the eradication programme of ‘Longtails’ (as they are called on the island – known elsewhere as r-a-t-s). This has resulted in Manx Shearwaters (“Manxies” – Puffinus puffinus) once again nesting on the Calf. There are now an estimated 600+ pairs of nesting birds annually on the Calf and our wardens carry out monitoring annually to assess their population growth.

Manxies nest in burrows, which they only leave/enter at night-time to avoid predators. Therefore, to catch, measure and ring birds the team has to be out after dark, and on two of the evenings I was there we headed out after 10pm to the nesting site. Here we looked for birds on the grass that were about to fly, and carefully caught them with nets, before ringing and measuring them. It was surprising to the team that the majority of the birds we caught had not been previously ringed – potentially a positive indicator that younger Manxies are now returning to nest.

It was enjoyable work and wonderful to head back to the Bird Obs at 2.30am, with the sky already lightening in the east, for a couple of hours sleep before being up for netting the next day – a process our dedicated team do several times a week!

In 2020 the Curraghs Wildlife Park agreed to support the Manx Shearwater project with money from their conservation fund, enabling us to purchase a thermal imaging camera, to allow us to better see the birds at night, both on the ground and in flight. The camera works extremely well, and in addition to seeing the Manx Shearwaters, it also allows the wardens to find well-camouflaged nests of Eider Ducks.

Eider duck photographed by thermal imaging camera

Another day we went ringing Shag chicks and Razorbills, and I was intrigued to watch Aron fine tuning the ‘Shag Hooks’ (to pull the birds out of the nests for ringing) before we set out. We walked down into Gibdale Bay on the north side of the Calf, where Aron and Rob caught, measured and ringed several birds in marked nest sites amongst the large boulders. Poor Rob, as almost every bird seemed to leave him a gift on his trousers – one of the requirements of a bird warden is that you don’t object being covered in bird poo!

In addition to our Bird Wardens, we also have two Estate Wardens (Dan and Mollie), assisted by an amazing volunteer this year (Christa). Together they carry out a wide range of tasks ranging from Longtail monitoring, to looking after the paying guests staying overnight in the Observatory. I spent a day with our Estates Team during which we carried out three tasks:

  • Collecting stone from the beach at South Harbour, which was transported and used to maintain some of the tracks.
  • Breaking up and moving large stones in South Harbour at low tide that were catching on the bottom of the supply boat coming in.
  • Cutting bracken alongside one of the tracks leading to the Observatory.

It was interesting to experience and understand some of the day-to-day operational activities of the team. This included the use of a whiteboard and 2-way radios to monitor individual movements around the Calf, and the evening meetings where all the team recite their wildlife sightings for the Calf Observatory Daily Log. These sightings are collected from all the team and it’s brilliant to see that whatever they are doing and wherever they are on the Calf, if they see wildlife (particularly birds) they record it for the log. My notable contribution was finding a freshwater eel in a rockpool at South Harbour.

One thing I was really keen to do during my stay was to walk right around the coastline of the Calf. I did this one evening with Rob, who gave me a fantastic, guided tour and he even spotted a Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in the water off the southeast side at Kione ny Halby.

The week after I was there, puffins were photographed from a kayak on the Calf by Keirron Tastagh from Adventurous Experiences. This is excitingly the first time puffins have been recorded on the actual Calf since 1990, and I like to think that the one Rob and I saw in the water, was one of the ones photographed by Keirron, which Rob later observed taking nesting materials into burrows.

It’s still a long way from us being able to say the Longtail eradication has worked and that puffins are again a nesting species on the Calf. Nonetheless, just seeing the first ones back again this year is fantastic, and another excellent example of the positive conservation impact our bird observatory team and MNH are having.

My week on the Calf of Man was sadly cut short by a day due to a poor weather forecast, which meant I needed to leave a day earlier to avoid rough seas. This also resulted in the visit by the team from the Curraghs Wildlife Park also being postponed, who I had been hoping to have joined on their tour. The impact of the weather on the logistics of getting to and from the Calf highlights what a relatively remote and special place it still is. My week on the Calf with our team was a real education, and as well as enjoying being at the ‘sharp end’ of conservation, I also learnt a great deal about the excellent work they do. Brilliant, and I look forward to my next visit…

@MorrisLeigh

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