There is something very special about visiting seabird islands: the effort of getting there, the isolation, the spectacular sights and sounds, the ever-present acrid whiff of guano.
For many years I’ve lived not far from the wonderful Farne Islands, but now I rarely visit, and certainly not for sound recording. My last visit to Seahouses resembled a scene from ‘Dunkirk’ – a host of olive-clad, equipment-laden people gathered on the harbour wall, waiting to board lots of little boats. Long gone are the days of crossing in one half-empty boat in the company of the late great Billy Shiel – the ‘Countryfile Effect’ has resulted in the Farnes becoming a very noisy place, the talking and the clicking of DSLRs almost drowning out the voices of thousands of terns and auks. I’ve been lucky to travel further afield in search of seabirds, including memorable visits to the gannets of St Kilda, a week in the company of WSRS and thousands of Manx shearwaters on Skokholm, and several days on Wilson Island in the Great Barrier Reef trying to sleep accompanied by the wailing of thousands of Wedge-tailed shearwaters. But what about an opportunity to capture the sounds not of thousands, but MILLIONS of seabirds?
When my wife decided to achieve one of her own ambitions – we would be spending a month on the white-sand beaches and turquoise seas of the Seychelles – getting to Bird Island was top of my list, and sod the expense! Ninety hectares of coral cay, just 3 degrees south of the equator, ‘Bird’ is a short 100km flight north from Mahe in a Twin Otter.Your exciting landing is greeted by clouds of Lesser and Brown noddies, which nest in the many trees and bushes, but are equally at home sitting on the back of your chair or feeding their fledglings in the bar.
Gorgeous White (or Fairy) terns are everywhere, making their rasping calls and a deep ‘twang’ of alarm, reminding me of a pluck on a very loose guitar string.
White (Fairy) Terns
Equally gorgeous White-tailed tropicbirds nest at the base of the larger trees, so tame that they don’t seem to resent a gentle stroke of their 40cm long tail streamers.
Hanging in the air above you, especially in the late afternoon, is a sight that always tells you that you are in a good place – Frigatebirds by the score – they like hot tropical seas, and so do we. Bumping into one of the Giant Tortoises outside your back door makes an interesting change from our hedgehogs back home, but bumping into feeding Turnstones everywhere was a curious reminder of the wintry Northumberland coast, so far away.
But it was to the north of the island that I headed as soon as we were unpacked. The Sooty tern colony here is world famous, and having seen it in many photos and films, I thought I knew what to expect, but no…I was overwhelmed by the sight and the incredible sound, genuinely moved to tears as I sat on the sand, entranced, experiencing one of earth’s wonders, and praying that all my recording equipment would function – it did, day and night, the whole trip, no problem – a rarity in itself!
The dawn sky full of Sooty Terns
I don’t think anyone knows exactly how big this colony is; a few years ago I believe it was estimated at 700,000 pairs, though that has almost certainly increased, and at the time of our visit they mostly had well-grown young, so certainly 1 to 2 million individuals at least. The sound is incredible, especially at dawn and dusk when tens of thousands of birds are simultaneously airborne. Indeed measurement has shown that 1 metre above ground, the noise levels exceed safety limits for industrial exposure. Yet some of you will know that even in such a situation, I’m still interested in close-up recordings of individual bird vocabulary, so naturally I got my mics down among the birds to get some intimate calls. Only then are you aware of something that I’ve found common to all large bird colonies, particularly from my work with Kittiwakes: although the colony appears to be constantly busy and deafening, at the local level (say, a radius of a metre) for most of the time not much happens and it’s relatively quiet. Each bird settles one beak stab apart, and so there are a few local territorial squabbles or courtship encounters with their ‘wideawake’ calls, mostly when a bird lands, and there may be some close-begging from the young, but other than that, mostly silent preening or sleeping. After an hour or so of such recording, it was always a shock to take off the headphones and hear the cacophony continuing above and around me.
Sooty Tern – an elegant ocean wanderer
However one of the biggest surprises meant great news for me. There weren’t many visitors to the island while we were there, I reckon a maximum of eight couples at any one time, but in all the many hours that I spent with the Sooty terns, I never saw anyone. What were these people doing? Did they know what they were missing? Anyway, their loss and I didn’t care.
I was alone. I had paradise to myself. Well, me and more than a million birds.