So it all started when Lesley asked Mel if we would like to "go up and see the shearwater chicks." Thinking this was a kind offer of a private viewing of the burrows and chicks before the actual official Shearwater Events, we said "yes please!" "So we'll meet at 9 then," she said. At 9.00 am we were outside the White House rather tired from the previous evening's hard work on the village hall, and learnt that our job was to help the researchers identify burrows, bring out the chicks (and parents), measure same and record our findings in a little book. "Ok," we breathlessly assented (breathlessly as we were now scrambling up a steep hill a long way behind Lesley and Gordon). Some time later, we finally made it up to the Shearwater Hut, very red in the face and panting for breath in an embarrassing manner. Three tall and evidently super-fit researchers, who had just got up and had their breakfast and were - to Mel's dismay - brushing their teeth outdoors using an old Thermo mug, looked at us scornfully as we fumbled for our emergency chocolate and giggled at them. They didn't need to say it - it was obvious what they were thinking: "Who on earth are these short-legged, unfit, giggly girls that you've brought us, Lesley?" Well, we can't help having short legs...
|Ah! There it is...|
|Where's it gone now?|
|Finally made it! The Shearwater Hut|
Once they were ready and we had regained our breath somewhat, we followed them up the hill. After a while, as no word had been spoken, I ventured to shout in their general direction,"Where exactly are we heading for?" Chris and The Other One (whose name I never managed to find out), shouted back, "We're going up to Askival South. They'll be on Askival North." "Oh," I replied, not wanting to admit that I didn't know where either of these places were, "so are we actually going...you know...up Askival?" "Oh no, no, no," responded Chris, "we won't be actually going up a mountain, don't worry." I did not point out that we were already on a mountain but continued to scramble, at one point losing sight of their rugged outdoor-clad legs entirely (I was just following the legs...my view didn't really go any higher at this point). Every so often, they would take a cigarette break and gaze down upon us as we made our slow way up the hill. "Do tell us if we're going too fast," they begged. I could not help feeling this was meant ironically but I was too worried about how to get back down again to start an argument and risk being left behind completely...
|Quite high up now! Where have the researchers gone?|
Eventually, however, we reached a point where the researchers began to get down to business. Consulting their GPS they discussed burrows and told us that the nearest one was probably "about 155 metres south-west of here". Wherever that was, it was definitely upwards. We were now on the rocks somewhat below the Askival summit and looking down felt rather dangerous. So we looked for burrows instead. Mel and I managed to regain some self-respect when, having all searched fruitlessly for some time, we actually spotted the little metal tags that mark the burrows. At this point, a slightly friendlier atmosphere set in - which became even warmer once the researchers saw us melt into soppy civilians at the sight of a shearwater chick, just a few days old, pulled from its burrow...and we got to hold it! Some time later, Mel was brave enough to attempt to actually pull a shearwater out - one muddy arm and a bitten finger later, she had succeeded...
|I'm never doing that...or am I?|
|Yes I am! Ouch...|
The shearwater research project has been going for nearly forty years now. Rum has the largest population of Manx shearwaters anywhere in the world, and to help this continue, it's essential for researchers to understand what affects their breeding, survival and return to our island. Hence every year, as far as possible, the same burrows are sought out, the parents (or would-be parents) weighed and ringed, and the chicks, if any, weighed and their wing-span measured. As the chicks are very tiny at this point, the parent birds are understandably concerned when they see their offspring dangled in a cotton bag from a portable scale, but the researchers do an amazing job - they are able to plunge their arms into a burrow, bring out a shearwater and its chick (or egg), measure both and take the records within about three minutes for each burrow. Finding the burrows themselves is the hard bit. Deer and goats often kick the tags away, and you have to remember that the burrows are dug high up on the mountain where the incline is pretty steep, so you're walking along a stony, exposed, near-vertical mountain face to find them. Looking down is scary, but the views are immense...
|Eigg with mainland behind (this wasn't even the highest bit!)|
After a while though, we realised we'd have to get going even though we'd only "helped" with about ten burrows. It had taken us ages to climb up and we'd need hours to get back. "Will you be ok?" our now friendly researchers asked us, concerned. "We'll be fine...we've got an OS map!" we reassured them. And we still had chocolate. So we set out on our journey...
We soon noticed several things: (1) that all rocks look very similar to non-geologists, (2) that a path that is obvious on the way up when you are following someone, magically becomes invisible when you are on your way down on your own and (3) that the bottom of the mountain was a long way down. Luckily (4) also held good: An OS map is a miraculous thing. With its help, we were able to identify the burn we needed to climb down to meet the Dibidil trail - quicker and possibly easier than making our way down the long way via the shearwater hut again. So we set off. The route was arduous, but to our surprise, both of us managed to remain calm, non-cranky and excited about how far we'd walked that day. Also, of course, it was beautiful. If it had been raining I think we might have cried.
|...rocks...(that's Hallival behind, and Skye behind that)|
|The river valley we climbed down. Note coastline quite a way below...|
|We did it!|
So we finally made it, with that special happiness that comes as a combination of having averted disaster and feeling smug: "We cuddled a shearwater chick!" But I shivered too as I thought of how easily people can get lost, or if you don't have the right gear, get chilled, fall and have to be airlifted away or worse...So I was left with two final thoughts:
1. Never wear trainers on a mountain;
2. When pulling a shearwater from its burrow, always hold it by the beak.
|(3. And if going up a mountain...it's best to be a goat.)|