January 2023 monthly talk - Seabirds of the Outer Hebrides
with Bob Medland

At our January talk, Bob Medland took us on a fascinating journey to three very isolated but most interesting island locations east, west and north of the Isle of Lewis.

The three locations were the Shiant Islands which lie four miles east of the Isle of Lewis and twelve miles away from the Isle of Skye, the Flannan Islands (Also known as the Seven Hunters) which lie twenty-five miles west of the Isle of Lewis and finally North Rona which was once the most isolated permanently populated island in the British Isles.

Bob was introduced to bird ringing when living in Malawi. A friend asked if he could put a mist net in his garden. Seeing birds close up, Bob became hooked and started his bird ringing training when he returned to Great Britain.

Photo: Garbh Eilean and Lewis from Eilean an Taighe

Bob made his first trip to the uninhabited Shiant Islands, which have many large scree slopes (where a lot of bird ringing was done) and steep cliffs. They have the third largest UK colony of puffins after St Kilda and the Isle of May. The puffins start breeding at around four years of age and can live for over 40 years! They nest in disused rabbit burrows on the less steep parts of the islands.
Photo: Sky full of puffins over A irghean a' Bhàigh

Nowadays there are far more ground nesting birds than when he first arrived on the islands. In the initial visit there were only two pairs of skylarks. The problem was the islands were infested with black rats. Eventually with the help of the EU these rats were removed and skylarks can be seen all over these islands. With the rats gone the islands can be a whirling mass of seabirds including razorbills, great skuas, guillemots, and shags which have three colonies on the islands.

Many birds have been hit by avian ‘flu but the great skua (bonxie) being at the top of the food chain has been most badly affected. There is a fear that the great skua will become extinct in this area.

Photo: Bonxie (Mike Pennington)

Living on the islands allowed Bob to see and ring the birds like the storm petrel that land at night. They spend ninety percent of their life at sea and the body has adapted to siphon out drinkable water from the sea water. Something the Ancient Mariner could not do. 

Bird ringing has been going on the Shiant Islands since the 1970s. The birds are captured, weighed, checked and ringed then released all within two minutes. Some of the birds are recaptures, ringed elsewhere.

Photos: Bob catches and handles puffins for checks and ringing

His next stop was the Flannan Islands, next land mass, Canada! Species found here include the rare and endangered Leach’s petrel, puffins, fulmars and gannets (also badly affected by avian ‘flu). 

Bob also told us of the strange sad story of the ‘Marie Celeste’ like abandoned lighthouse. The three experience lighthouse keepers simply disappeared in 1900. Nowadays the lighthouse is unmanned.

Photo Abandoned lighthouse on the Flannan Isles

Despite being so far out into the Atlantic the islands these do not escape the discarded debris of the modern world (mostly plastic). This discarded debris has had an effect on the bird populations. Bob has needed to come to the rescue of entangled birds.

Photo: Gannets using plastic rope as nesting material

To finish, Bob said he was humbled to go to North Rona. It took a 6 hour boat journey to get there. The island is named after a Celtic Saint. The last permanent residents were two men excommunicated from the Isle of Lewis. They lived on the island tending to the sheep till 1885. Fulmars & kittiwakes can be seen on North Rona, which is also a major breeding ground for the Leach’s petrel, although these have drastically declined since the 1930s.

Photo: Kittiwakes squabbling on the nest site

We felt privileged to share Bob’s incredible experiences, though not envious of the 6 hour boat journeys!

Andrew Harrison

Protecting wildlife for the future
Keynsham Group
Avon Wildlife Trust
Registered charity 280422

Email: keynshamawt@gmail.com