Week One from the Calf

Mollie Kirk, MWT Assistant Calf Warden writes about the first week on the calf and some of the jobs they have to do to get the season started!
Calf team 2021

We arrived on the Calf early evening on Wednesday 21st, after about 6 weeks of anticipation due to the COVID 19 restrictions. Spring had certainly beaten us to it, the familiar sound of meadow pipits, willow warblers and wheatear emerged from the green fields and the Observatory gardens were lined with daffodils.

Loaghtan ewe with lambs

Loaghtan ewe with her Lambs on the Calf.

Around every corner of any track a loaghtan ewe and her little brown lambs, presumably yet to set eyes on a human, were grazing and playing in the heather. Despite the disappointment of missing the gradual build up to spring, the warm sunshine and endless list of jobs to be done was the perfect distraction. Among the first was the emptying of the cesspit.

Mallard on the Millpond with ducklings

Mallard on the Millpond with ducklings.

As the ‘Newbies’ this rather unpleasant start to the season fell under the jurisdiction of myself, and volunteer, Christa Worth, following several mentions of the word ‘initiation’. Peer pressure aside, we both agreed it was better not to dwell on it, and that in terms of Calf estate jobs, it was probably good to ‘jump in the deep end’ as it were. 

On the boat headed to the Calf

On the boat headed to the Calf.

Despite Christa’s recurring nightmares for the following two nights and the disturbing amount of sweetcorn, within 45 minutes of putting on a brave face we had a working loo! The other set up jobs paled in comparison, including removing the layer of mould that had grown, rather remarkably, on every single surface of the house, including the cooker. It’s impressive how much nature takes over when left to its own devices for 5 months. This was certainly the case for Cow Harbour slipway.

Christa on the slipway at Cow Harbour

Christa on the slipway at Cow Harbour.

At the North of the Calf opposite The Sound, Cow Harbour slipway is only accessible at low tide. It presents the perfect intertidal habitat for slippery seaweed and thick green algae making it impossible for day visitors to safely disembark. Usually the slipway is cleared every other week using a chemical that dries out the algae (but is safe for wildlife when diluted by the tide) as well as some heavy duty brushes and some elbow grease! However, after 5 months the algae was impenetrable. Clearing the slipway took us over a week of scrubbing and scraping.

Trip to Chicken Rock

Trip to Chicken Rock on the RIB.

On day two we were treated to a wonderful sunset trip on the RIB "Vagabond" to Chickens Rock, followed by a tour around the Calf thanks to Caroline and Phil from Isle of Man & Calf Boat Trips. It is always a treat to get a full island tour from the water and be able to count all the coastal seabirds for the daily bird log.

Chicken Rock lighthouse

Chicken Rock Lighthouse

We were spoilt with a peek inside a coastal cave where we counted 31 purple sandpipers. The grey seals were also out in force sunbathing or following behind us with curiosity. We counted over 100 across the islands bays and inlets. Unfortunately due to the strong winter storms the bays were a wash with litter. Rope, fishing wire and plastic bottles marked the high tide lines, and beach clearing was added to our list of big jobs to undertake this season. 

Litter Picking at South Harbour

Litter Picking at South Harbour

While we were out enjoying the scenery, Aron and Rob were spending their evening setting up the mist nests for the next morning’s bird ringing at the withy. With daylight starting at 5am the ringers would be up by 4:30am most days to prepare for the incoming migration of spring birds.

Sunset from the RIB

Sunset from the RIB

The first few mornings I was woken by Aron and Rob so I could admire their most exciting catches. Some highlights of this include a grasshopper warbler, a small male sparrowhawk, a female redstart, and a reed Warbler, which made a fantastic start to the season.

Sparrow hawk

Small male Sparrow hawk 

Another exciting birding job was to check on the nesting success of the Shag colonies.  This involved an adventurous scramble down to Gibbdale bay where we worked as a team to locate nests and attempt to catch and ring any adults that were guarding their young.

Common Redstart

Common Redstart

Shags nest in deep crevices and tunnels in rock faces so it took a few of us to block the exits and attempt to reach any birds. Shags are hardy and strong birds, and they have a mean, sharp beak, so it was rather an intimidating prospect to reach in and grab one. Thankfully Rob kindly sacrificed the tip of his thumb to catch this beautiful male. We also found 5 active nests with eggs that will soon become young shags that will need to be ringed. 

Reed Warbler

Reed Warbler being held by MWT Bird Warden, Aron Sapsford

Our next birding job was to test out the new thermal imaging camera kindly funded by the Curraghs Wildlife Park Conservation fund. This new bit of kit lets us see which birds are nesting and where, which will help us understand and research the diversity of nesting birds on the Calf.

Mollie holding a male European Shag

Mollie holding a male European Shag

For example, there has been some evidence to suggest storm petrels have been breeding on the Calf, and we intend to use the thermal imaging camera to test out this theory later in the year. To test out the camera, myself, Christa, Aron and Rob headed out in the dark to South Harbour to see if we could locate or maybe catch some interesting birds.

Shag nest with eggs

Shag nest with eggs

Unfortunately, the moon was very bright, so we were unable to sneak up and catch anything, but Rob did spot a Shelduck nest, so he put out a camera trap to keep an eye on it over the coming days. We clocked lots of gulls around Caiger and Burroo and as well as rabbits.

Mallards on the pond through the thermal imaging camera

Mallards on the pond through the thermal imaging camera

It was good practice to see so many rabbits, and to ensure we didn’t mistake them for birds as they are fast and rather distracting when you’re picking out bright white lights in the pitch black.

Rabbit on the thermal imaging camera

Rabbit on the thermal imaging camera

Another mini Calf success story, albeit a gruesome one… Before we left last year in November, a long tail was spotted on the camera by the compost heap. The long tail monitoring programme started in 2012 after the increasing population killed off the burrow nesting seabird populations, such as Puffins and Manx Shearwaters.

Thermal imaging selfie

Thermal imaging selfie

Since then, there have been very few long tails spotted and the shearwater population has returned. However, efforts have continued in order to ensure the success of the breeding shearwaters. Thankfully on Monday after putting out snap traps around the observatory, what we hope was the same longtail seen in November, was finally caught and more non-toxic bait monitoring around the whole island began again.