A Focus On Nature

A Focus On Nature, Nature Reserves

Wild Images of Scilly. By Ed Marshall

 

Born and raised in Birmingham, until moving to Tamworth Ed was always surrounded by a bit of a concrete jungle. This is one of the main reasons why he has always taken such an interest in the natural world. He studied a BSc (Hons) degree in Zoology at the University of Nottingham, which saw him travel to Portugal, Ireland, and (more exotically) to Bolivia. His love of watching wildlife is what led him to pick up a camera roughly 5 years ago and to start taking pictures of the various natural wonders that he experienced, and his scientific background allowed him to further understand the images that he captured. He went on to hone his knowledge and passion for wildlife photography by gaining a Distinction in the MSc course in Biological Photography & Imaging, also from the University of Nottingham.

 

 

It’s been a short while since my return from my time on the Isles of Scilly, working alongside the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust (IoSWT) and Seabird Recovery Project as their photography intern, and now I’m back it’s about time I told you all a bit about my time on the islands. I’ll be sharing with you some of the tales of what went on, what is going on, and what will be happening in the future, as well as illustrating these stories with some of the images that I captured during my stay there. With a little under eight thousand images to choose from, I should hope I got at least a couple that are OK!

 

A panoramic image looking back towards Penzance Quay as the Scillonian III ferry heads towards the Isles of Scilly.

A panoramic image looking back towards Penzance Quay as the Scillonian III ferry heads towards the Isles of Scilly.

 

I left mainland UK on the 27th of May. I’d travelled down the night before, getting the overnight sleeper train from London to Penzance (not that I slept all that much), and arrived ready to catch the nine o’clock ferry. The weather was on my side, with the open waters being flat calm and the sun shining above, I spent the entire trip up on the deck with my camera at the ready. It was a good job too because to top things off there were sightings of dolphins, both near the mainland and the Isles themselves, as well as huge barrel jelly fish feeding just below the surface. It was shaping up to be an unforgettable experience. I arrived at around lunchtime on St Mary’s, the main island of the archipelago, where I was met by Sarah Mason, head of the IoSWT here on Scilly, who gave me a quick tour of the island. The streets of Hugh Town, the main town of the isles, were narrow and worn with the buildings full of character and the residents friendly; I could tell I would love it here.

 

One of the main streets of Hugh Town, St Mary’s.

One of the main streets of Hugh Town, St Mary’s.

 

I was shown where I would be calling home for the next six weeks, which was an old war time bunker known locally as the Woolpack. The views from the roof were breath-taking, looking out towards St. Agnes and the Western Rocks to the West, and nothing but ocean surrounding it, it was almost a shame that my bedroom would be down in the bunker itself. A living space that didn’t quite allow for the use of windows through which I could enjoy the views. No, my room was what everyone lovingly referred to as “the cell”. A single bed, hole in the wall, lacking any windows to let natural light break through, and even a small entry hallway meaning any light coming through the first door were completely removed before it had chance to reach my actual bedroom. No matter what time I woke up, my room would be pitch black….it was brilliant!

 

The woolpack bunker, home of the volunteers for the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

The woolpack bunker, home of the volunteers for the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

My cosy cell. Don’t let that hole in the wall fool you, that’s just a place for a light to go. No natural light to be found here…

My cosy cell. Don’t let that hole in the wall fool you, that’s just a place for a light to go. No natural light to be found here…

 

Once I was shown the essentials around the Woolpack, it was time to get a bike, something that would prove to be my main means of transport on St. Mary’s. The main bike hire shop on the island, St Mary’s Bicycle hire, helped provide all of the volunteers of the trust with a means of getting around the island. Once I had mine, I set off to spend the rest of the day exploring the island, generally finding my feet, figuring out where things were, and of course the tedious task of unpacking had to be done at some point!

 

The landscape of the Scilly Isles is incredible, and has given me amazing opportunities to capture some great scenes. The wildlife is fantastic, with my first sighting of a cuckoo thanks to my mimicking call, watching it being mobbed by the resident swallows. The plant life is like that of a land far more exotic than the UK, and I was able to really indulge myself in my macro photography by getting stuck in with finding invertebrates, photographing them both in situ, and in a make-shift studio set up, something that would prove to become a long-term project for myself. On the whole it proved very difficult to concentrate on any one subject in a day as there was always so much to see and photograph.

 

Penninis quickly became one of my favourite locations, with its dramatic rocky coastline it proved to be a great location to capture some coastal landscapes.

Penninis quickly became one of my favourite locations, with its dramatic rocky coastline it proved to be a great location to capture some coastal landscapes.

 

From Monday to Friday most weeks I’m either left to my own devices to explore and photograph around the islands, or I’m out with the volunteers who all live here on the Isles much the same as myself. The Wildlife Trust, with thanks to the hard work of its volunteers, manages roughly 60% of the Scilly Isles. This involves maintaining paths for walkers, managing livestock to graze areas of land, and helping to carry out survey work (associated with the Seabird Recovery Project) such as invertebrate surveys using pit fall traps.

 

Brush cutting the overgrown paths.

Brush cutting the overgrown paths.

 

As well as the Wildlife Trust I worked closely with RSPB staff who carry out a great deal of survey work as part of the Seabird Recovery Project. The common Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus) is the key source of egg predation, and it is hoped that the breeding success of the seabirds here will vastly improve as rats are removed from the islands. As of November 2013, the islands of St Agnes and Gugh were unofficially declared rat free, and the project entered the next stage of the process, a two year monitoring period. Only after this time would the islands be officially declared rat free, and any incursions (sightings of rats) would have to be thoroughly investigated and followed up with intense monitoring to either confirm or deny their presence.

 

The staff and volunteers of the Seabird Recovery Project check a rat monitoring station for any signs of the rats presence.

The staff and volunteers of the Seabird Recovery Project check a rat monitoring station for any signs of the rats presence.

 

A great deal of the work that is carried out for the project involves going to the uninhabited, off-shore islands. The island of Annet is the most important in terms of the nesting sea bird populations, and is home to a number of the species that call this archipelago home such as Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus), Storm Petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus), and Puffins (Fratercula arctica). With their population numbers showing signs of decline over the past 14 years, it is of absolute importance that this project succeeds, and with promising signs that the rats are potentially absent from St. Agnes and Gugh, this year could prove to be a turning point in their population decline. It is both sad, yet exciting to think that this year could be the first year in near-living memory that Manx Shearwater chicks will be successfully hatched on the islands of St. Agnes and Gugh, and that is what this project is all about.

 

Thrift fields on the uninhabited island of Annet

Thrift fields on the uninhabited island of Annet

 

As Manx Shearwaters are one of the more “famous” species on the islands, being the species that is most talked about to locals and visitors over the summer months in order to educate people about the efforts of the project, it was on the top of my photographic to-do list; more importantly, it was top of my priority list to capture both images and video footage of this bird as it came to and from a burrow with the use of a Bushnell camera trap. I accompanied the staff and volunteers of the project on a weeks’ camping trip to the island of St. Agnes. They were there to carry out important eco-monitoring work, recording data relating to invertebrate population numbers, shrew population health and nesting bird surveys, all in order to get an idea as to how the absence of the rats was impacting upon not only the seabird populations, but the other organisms that lived on the islands as well. I went to capture images of not only this work, but to put my efforts into obtaining footage and images of Manx Shearwaters coming and going from the nesting sites that were located on Wingletang, a fantastically named and beautiful area of St. Agnes.

 

Occupied nests are located via “call back” surveys, which involve playing a recording of a Manx Shearwater to a burrow entrance, and listening for a reply. A reply, along with bringing a huge smile to anyone’s face, lets the project know that that particular burrow is occupied, and hopefully also means that the adult is incubating an egg or chick. Once I’d located an ideal nest, I set up a camera trap and left it for a few days to increase my chances of capturing a ‘Manxie’ on camera, and as you can see here, it worked! That is of course after a little hiccup every now and again thanks to some nosey cows…

 

Hearing a Manx Shearwater call back from inside its burrown is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!

Hearing a Manx Shearwater call back from inside its burrown is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!

A Manx Shearwater around its burrow on St. Agnes.

A Manx Shearwater around its burrow on St. Agnes.

An inquisitive cow checking out the camera trap

An inquisitive cow checking out the camera trap

 

With images and footage of the Manxies coming and going from their nest site, the next challenge was to capture them out at sea. Tricky when they fish miles off of the coast, and only come in to land at night! What I needed was someone with a boat who knew where to find them, and luckily I had exactly that, in the form of a man called Joe Pender, and his boat the Sapphire.

 

Now the Sapphire will be infamous amongst many birders throughout the UK, with the Isles of Scilly being a twitcher’s paradise during the migration season, and so some of you may be familiar with the fantastic sight of a gull flock hanging in the air off the back of the boat as the water is chummed for Blue Sharks. Then the long awaited cry of “Manxie!” will break the air, to be followed by numerous birders tracking it with their binoculars, revelling at the sight of its name-sake flight, shearing low across the waves at speed. For me, simply seeing it wasn’t enough. The photo of it was key, and having never really had to take an image of one in flight before, whilst on a boat in what I would like to describe as uncomfortably rough seas, as it whipped past, disappearing occasionally behind a high wave, I felt like the bar was set quite high. The skipper, Joe, is an accomplished photographer himself, and having grown up practically on a boat, his legs were a little steadier than mine, and it wasn’t until the Manxie came a little closer to the boat did I get that all important shot. One to be proud of!

 

A Manx Shearwater flies low over the water.

A Manx Shearwater flies low over the water.

 

As for the future, I am happy to say that I will be returning to the islands as of September 2014, to begin a 6 month placement with the Wildlife Trust. I will be aiming to increase the Wildlife Trusts presence on the islands, through the use of my images both as they are, and in larger poster designs, as well as using my images to communicate with locals and visitors about the work that goes on there. There will be a lot going on as well, the Wildlife Trust will be hard at work over the winter months maintaining the land for the good of the wildlife and the people, and the Seabird Recovery Project will be gearing up for 2015 which will be the year in which the next seabird population count will be conducted, allowing them to see how the population has been impacted both by the rats presence (on infested islands), and their absence (on St. Agnes and Gugh). It promises to be a fantastically busy time, and I can’t wait to begin.

 

Having spent two months on the islands learning about the conservation work that goes on out there, I have grown a substantial soft spot for both the place and the people. I hope to continue the little projects I have begun over these initial months, such as my moth ID portfolio, and start many more. I must end by saying thanks again to all those involved from A Focus On Nature and the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust for providing me with such an amazing opportunity. If ever you find yourself on the islands in that time, then by all means ask around for me and we’ll have a meet up. It’s a small community, and you will definitely find that not before too long, someone will know where you can find me.