It is 05:45 and first light on a cool morning that is my first full day on the 2014 season and fortified by a cup of tea and a banana I am stumbling along to the top of the cliffs to see if we have some guillemots to ring. Mark from CEH who organise the seabird ringing on the island has already been down to the guillemot ledge that we are using to open a preset mist net. The birds themselves, having spent the night on the water head back onto their ledges as soon as there is light and so the plan is that some will get caught in the net. Ten to twenty would be good, the record is 39. A quick glance from the top of the cliff and the sight of a wriggling net is met with a muttered curse. Three of us of scramble down to start extracting the birds as quick as possible. Once out of the net they are kept in a specially made wooden box with compartments until we can process them. Our total focus is getting the wriggling birds out of the net, as soon as one is out we move onto the next and it is only when the last is done that I can look up a drink in the guillemots view of the islands west cliffs. But there is no time to dawdle, we don’t want to hold on to the birds for any longer than neccessary so we must get back up to the cliff top and start ringing.
We quickly organise a factory floor processing area, one person getting a bird out and passing it to the first handler in the chain, someone putting on the colour rings, someone measuring the wing length and putting on a metal numbered ring, someone weighing the bird, someone releasing them and most important of all the scribe who like a conductor keep order on the whole process so the right birds are rung with the right rings. When the last bird is rung and released, just before a breakfast that tastes wonderful we add up the number of birds rung. 39!, we have tied the record!
And why all this fuss? Well the guillemots with an individual colour ring combination on their legs are studied during the season from distance with a scope. It means that the various stages in their lives on the cliffs can be tracked, collated and analysed and this has been done longer on the Isle of May than almost anywhere in the world. And what is the point? An insight in how guillemots are breeding can give us a information on how the surrounding seas are doing and is one piece the puzzle that is gaining an understanding of the effects of climate change. So in the big scheme of things it is important but in the much smaller scheme of things it is a fantastic way to start the season – out of the blocks with a bang!