Lundy Ornithology

Manx Shearwaters by Mike Langman from The Birds of Lundy

Manx Shearwaters by Mike Langman from The Birds of Lundy

Situated ten miles off the North Devon coast and lying across the entrance to the Bristol Channel, Lundy rivals Fair Isle and the Isles of Scilly as one of the places to watch spring and autumn migrant birds in Britain. Famed for its Puffins, which still breed there in small numbers, Lundy is a magnet for migrating birds and birdwatchers alike, as well as one of the most important seabird islands in English waters.

Lundy's resident birds - Shag, Peregrine, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, House Sparrow, Rock Pipit, Chaffinch, Starling, Raven and Crow - are joined in the spring by breeding visitors that include Oystercatcher, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Linnet and two long- distance migrants: Swallow and Wheatear. From April to late July the island is home to nesting seabirds in the shape of auks (Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots), Fulmars, gulls (Kittiwakes and Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed Gulls) and, following the eradication of rats between 2002 and 2004, growing numbers of Manx Shearwaters. Lundy's shearwaters are currently the subject of satellite-tracking studies to find out not only how far and where the birds fly from the island to gather food for their chicks, but also details of their movements across the Atlantic to wintering grounds off South America.

In addition to resident birds and summer visitors, thousands of migrants pass through Lundy every year, heading north in spring and south in autumn, while vagrants from as far afield as North America and Siberia occur on the island from time to time, providing that extra bit of magic that makes Lundy so special.

Documenting Lundy's birds

The means of documenting and authenticating bird sightings on Lundy has changed over the years. Until 1947, responsibility depended entirely on the thoroughness of individual observers - for example:

Between 1947 and 1967 and again in 1972-1973, the LFS employed seasonal wardens who were responsible for maintaining ornithological records that were published in the LFS Annual Report. At these times there was no formal system for integrating Lundy records into the Devon Bird Report. With the establishment of the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) in 1958, a new standard was set for the recording of nationally rare bird species and for the first time it became necessary to submit a detailed written description (supported by photographic evidence if possible) for review and authentication by the BBRC. Consequently, records of rare birds on Lundy since 1958 must have been accepted by the BBRC to be included in the Devon or Lundy lists.

As identification techniques, optical equipment and observer skills have become ever more sophisticated, so the system of recording has been refined. Today, the BBRC continues to assess reports of national rarities, while the Devon Birds Records Committee considers records of nationally scarce migrants and the LFS deals with other Lundy vagrants. The latter include birds such as Magpie or Jay that are commonplace on the mainland but which are extremely rare on Lundy and which therefore require acceptance of a written description if they are to be included in the island annals. Most descriptions are entered in the LFS Logbook which is kept in the Marisco Tavern and in which all wildlife observations may be recorded.

Bird ringing

Bird ringing on Lundy began in 1947 following the founding a year earlier of the LFS and the setting up of an "observatory" in the Old Light. The new observatory quickly joined the network of bird observatories around the coast of Britain and Ireland, coordinated by the Bird Observatories Committee of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the organisation responsible for running the British Ringing Scheme. In these early years, ringing - largely carried out by the LFS warden and concentrating on nestlings and cliff-nesting seabirds - was combined with a daily "cruise", a walk of a little under four miles each morning around the southern half of the island, covering in particular the south-eastern slopes which support most of the vegetative cover on the island. Its aim was to provide numerical records of resident and migrant birds for comparative use year on year.

Various methods of catching birds have been employed on Lundy over the years. These have ranged from large, immobile Heligoland traps (the largest still exists today on the Terrace) and smaller, portable versions, to mist-nets, drag-nets (useful for catching grassland species like Skylark and Meadow Pipit), fleyg nets (mesh nets akin to a butterfly net), chardonneret traps (small mesh cages for catching passerines), wader traps, clap-nets, dazzling (using a torch at night to catch birds at roost), and ringing of pulli (nestlings). Keepers at the North and South Lighthouses also contributed to the yearly ringing totals, catching birds attracted to the lights at night.

Seabirds were the early focus of ornithological work for the LFS wardens during the late 1940s and through the 1950s, and considerable effort went into ringing nestling Shags, gulls and auks. Later, in 1973 and 1974, Kittiwakes were the subject of a concerted ringing effort, with 714 nestlings ringed. Later still, a week of seabird ringing at the end of June in both 1995 and 1996 resulted in 204 Lesser Black-backed Gulls being ringed, more than doubling the grand total for this species over the previous 47 years. Another week in June 1999 saw a further 131 Lesser Black-backed Gulls ringed.

Mist-nets were first used on Lundy in 1958. Their impact was immediately noticeable, just two nets contributing 358 of the year's 1234 captures. By this time the constant repairs needed to the Heligoland traps were straining the LFS's limited finances, such that mist-nets soon became the prime means of catching birds. Light, easily portable and simple to erect, their use gradually led to the focus of the ringing effort moving away from breeding seabirds to migratory landbirds.

Since the LFS warden's position was discontinued at the end of 1973, bird ringing on Lundy has relied entirely on volunteers, albeit trained and qualified ringers in their own right, holding the requisite BTO ringing permit. The spring and autumn migration seasons are naturally the time of most interest, so ringing coverage has largely been restricted to these periods. While the recently repaired Heligoland trap on the Terrace is still used from time to time, most of the ringing effort is nowadays concentrated in St John's Valley and Millcombe, and it is here that you are most likely to see mist-nets being operated, usually for a few weeks in spring and for slightly longer in autumn. In total almost 100,000 birds have been ringed on Lundy since 1947, contributing a considerable amount of knowledge about the island's birds and to migration studies generally.

Among many fascinating, and sometimes astonishing, controls and recoveries of birds ringed on the island are a Woodcock almost 3000 kilometres away in Russia and two Sedge Warblers trapped 4000 kilometres from Lundy in Djoudj National Park, Senegal in West Africa. Travelling in the other direction, a Chiffchaff ringed in that same Senegalese National Park was caught on Lundy two months later during its spring migration. Among the resident birds, a Raven ringed as a chick on the island in 1965 was still going strong 13 years later.

When to visit Lundy for birdwatching

Birds move in relation to the seasons and, within those seasons, the prevailing weather conditions. Thus Lundy can deliver the unexpected at any time. Freezing winter weather on the mainland, for instance, can mean scores, sometimes hundreds of hungry thrushes, Lapwings, Golden Plovers and other birds arriving on Lundy. However, it is the spring and autumn migration periods that are of most interest, when thousands of birds pass the island, many stopping off to roost, feed or find shelter in poor weather.

In spring nesting resident birds are joined by breeding Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails, as well as long-distance migrants like Swallow, Wheatear and the occasional pair of nesting Spotted Flycatchers. Breeding seabirds add vibrant sound and colour from April to July, when time spent sitting on West Side cliffs can bring spectacular views of wheeling Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and, if you're lucky, Puffins. Gannets too pass close by the island on their fishing patrols. Separating Shags, which nest on the island, from the passing Cormorants, which don't breed there, can be challenging. Take a walk at night between March and July and chances are you will hear the eerie calls of Manx Shearwaters as they fly in to their nesting burrows after days spent feeding at sea.

Throughout the spring migration period, but particularly from the second half of April to the beginning of June, there is always the chance of seeing something out of the ordinary. Among the nationally scarce migrants that have occurred at this time of year are Purple Heron, Hoopoe, Wryneck, Bluethroat and Golden Oriole, while rarer species have included Britain's fourth Eastern Bonelli's Warbler and second Rüppell's Warbler.

While for some birds the autumn migration begins in late July or August - good numbers of Sand Martins and Willow Warblers pass through at this time, and most of the seabirds have departed - passage really gets under way in September and runs through October. Warblers, chats and flycatchers are among the first waves, followed in late October by finches and thrushes, numbers of which in some years can be spectacular.

The winter months - apart from influxes during cold weather - are the quietist for birds, but there is still much to enjoy. Resident birds like Wren, Dunnock, Blackbird, House Sparrow and Chaffinch are sometimes joined by a Chiffchaff or Blackcap. Water Rails, which have bred on Lundy since 2007, are also present in well-vegetated combes. Settled weather late in the season may see the first returning seabirds visiting the nesting cliffs. And it is well worth keeping an eye on the sheltered inshore waters for a diver or a seaduck, perhaps even a Little Auk.

Record your wildlife sightings

On your visits to Lundy do take the opportunity to enter all your wildlife sightings - of birds, plants, insects and mammals - in the LFS logbook, which is available to everyone in the Marisco Tavern. The logbook is also a good place to find out what has been seen recently. You may also send your bird records, from a day-trip or longer stay, to the Lundy Bird Recorders, Tim Davis and Tim Jones

For more information about Lundy's birdlife visit www.birdsoflundy.co.uk, where details of the 2007 publication The Birds of Lundy, which provides a detailed account of all the species recorded on the island, can also be found.

For news and photographs of recent bird sightings on the island visit www.lundybirds.co.uk