19 Aug 2021


When Chris told me a few weeks ago that he was going to Bardsey for a week to install their new solar energy system I casually mentioned that if he needed a hand I'd go with him for the week. He took me up on the offer and so on a Sunday afternoon we found ourselves on the boat from Porth Meudwy for the short trip across the sound to Bardsey. I knew Steve Stansfield and his wife, Emma, from Bird Observatory Council (BOC) meetings but I'd never been to Bardsey before! Steve had promised us a night ringing Storm Petrels and Manx Shearwaters if we had time and if the weather was good. Sold! 

We were met from the boat by Connor who helped us load all the tools Chris had brought with him for the installation work and out rucksacks. Walking back to the Obs with Steve and Emma we chatted and caught up on news as Covid had prevented us attending the annual BOC meeting in February this year.

What a fabulous setting for a bird Observatory! After being shown to our rooms and being introduced to Louis, Megan and Stewart went with Steve to take a look at the equipment we'd come to install and the installation site. Gulp! 

Solar field after installation of one of the 24 panels! 

Completed solar field - now for the wiring! 

True to his word Steve organised a couple of nights Storm Petrel ringing at the north end of the island with the bonus of Manx Shearwaters thrown in. I'd ringed Storm Petrels before but never Manx Shearwaters so I was pretty keen, even after 12 hours working on the solar installation each day. 

Storm Petrel are amazing little birds. They spend most of their time at sea and are highly pelagic. They only come ashore to breed and nest in loose colonies - see here for my experience ringing them on Nan Ron. Non breeders wander around our coastlines exploring breeding sites and readily come to a sound recording of their calls so the standard practice is to set up a mist net on a suitable headland or cliff top, at night, and set up a sound system broadcasting their calls. Consequently we didn't get to bed until 2-3 am ! 

Just the experience of being out at night on an island with no street lights or light pollution and experiencing the majesty of the milkyway way was fabulous. Throw in shooting stars and Storm petrels and it was truly magical. 

We caught a few Storm Petrels which were duly ringed and processed in front of an appreciative audience of families staying at the Observatory and the visiting grandchildren of island residents. A big part of a bird observatory's work is education and Steve & Emma do this in spades. A few years ago they instigated a 'young birders week' and I know quite a few youngsters who attended these and have now gone on to work in the field of conservation or research

After a couple of hours ringing Storm petrel we turned our attention to catching Manx Shearwaters. Basically this involves walking up to them and picking them up off the ground! 

Manx Shearwaters are another pelagic species with an amazing lifestyle and life span. The oldest recorded Manx Shearwater was ringed on Bardsey in 1957 and re-trapped in 2008 with almost 51 years between the two dates. Given that Manx Shearwaters don't breed until they're 4 years old this makes this particular one around 54 years old! Given that they migrate to the southern hemisphere, after breeding, and don't come ashore, the amount of airmiles they must rack up in a lifetime will rival even the most battle hardened American Airlines flight attendant (thats another story!).

Manx Shearwaters tarsi are very flat and require the re-shaping and fitting of a standard Fc ring to an elliptical shape. Steve is an expert on this having ringed thousands of Manx Shearwaters during his long career on Bardsey. I found it difficult, being left handed, as the rings need to be closed with the right hand to ensure they're closed in such away that the numbers are the right way up and that they're not partially obscured. Over the years Steve has developed a technique using a special pair of pliers and not the usual ringing pliers. In his words, 'you're engineering a ring to fit the bird'.
Me learning from the master

Fitting my 1st Manx Shearwater ring

It was gone 2 am before we started our return walk back to the Obs but there was one more surprise in store for us when Steve pointed out a Manx Shearwater that had made its nest in a drain and was calling as we walked past. An amazing sound and one we got used to hearing every evening as the shearwaters came ashore after spending the day foraging for food for their youngsters.

Despite the late nights we were up early cracking on with the installation week and despite set backs with missing parts we completed the installation by the end of the week. Island life is difficult and any missing parts had to be ordered by Steve and sent on the boat the next day. Sometimes the wrong parts arrived or they didn't arrive at all! We'd originally hoped we'd finish by Friday but we ended up staying an extra day. Unfortunately the commissioning engineer couldn't come on the designated day so the system couldn't be started although Chris was confident it would work as we were getting voltage back at the inverters that were taking their feed from the solar field.
Solar battery installation

A well earned beer whilst helping Chris cook a dinner fit for kings. 

By Friday afternoon we were 99% finished but still waiting for some parts to arrive Saturday morning. With the weather closing in we were unsure if we'd be able to get off Saturday and having run out of clean clothes we put a wash on expecting to have to stay until Monday or Tuesday. 

Steve had another treat in store for us and suggested we spend a couple of hours ringing Manx Shearwater chicks. These are impossibly cute and fluffy and in keeping with their parents amazing lifestyle they have a pretty unconventional upbringing before fledging.

Once they've reached a certain age the parents desert them and they remain in their burrows until they've lost sufficient weight to be able to fly. They then fly off to the southern oceans and return to breed at 4 years old. Catching them involves sticking your arm down a burrow until you can feel one and then trying to manoeuvre it out.

These adults were both in the same burrow and were probably non-breeders.

A great experience and as Saturday dawned it became apparent we would get off on the afternoon boat so were frantically finishing off the installation work with parts that had arrived on the morning boat and packing our bags - including bags of wet laundry! 

Plans were made to commission the installation on Tuesday and I'd hoped to go back with Chris and the commissioning engineer but unfortunately there was no room on the boat! The plant is now fully commissioned and Bardsey Bird Observatory is now fully self sufficient in electricity and shouldn't need to resort to using the diesel generator except in emergencies. 

It was a great experience. I learned a lot more about solar installations than I did before we started, visited an island I'd never been to before, got to ring Manxies and Storm Petrels & got fed by Chris who did most of the cooking. It was great to meet up with Emma and Steve again who made us welcome in their home and supplied us with freshly dressed crabs! I'll certainly be back again - even if its just to get more practice closing Manxie rings with my right hand!  

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