By Anna Iltnere
We pushed our boat onto Kaņieris Lake, near my home in Jūrmala, and rowed towards a tiny island, one of the rare places you come across cormorants nesting in Latvia. As we approached, white ghost trees materialised along the verdant shores, poking at the sky like skeletal fingers, ringed with white nests.
I tried to imagine John Milton’s cormorant, sitting on the Tree of Life, but I couldn’t. Cormorant shit is rich in ammonia and lethal to trees. Birds perched on the dead branches like big black commas. American artist Pat de Groot spent hours in her kayak, tethered to lobster buoys, sketching Cape Cod’s cormorants drying their wings on a Provincetown breakwater. I have a crush on cormorants.
“No seabird is anchored to land; only its shores or its islands mean anything to them,” writes Philip Hoare in RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR. There’s something alien about being on an island inhabited only by birds. Sea birds are “at home on the sea, in the sea, in the air and on land,” writes Adam Nicolson in The Seabird’s Cry. No other creatures are that free. Or, because of us, that endangered. Their paradise is already being lost.
I decided to ask a handful of writers, a photographer, an artist and a marine biologist to choose an island of birds and tell me something about it, and to name their favorite bird.
Michael Brooke Ilhéu Raso, Cape Verde Islands
Favorite bird: Murphy’s petrel British writer Michael Brooke is the author of Far from Land; The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds, published this year, and Albatrosses and Petrels across the World (2004), and isthe coeditor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology. He is the Strickland Curator of Ornithology at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.
As I write I am still tanned and tawny from my most recent, and eighteenth, visit to the seven km² islet of Raso in the Cape Verdes. The island is waterless, treeless, a barren desert of brown amid a blue sea. I love it. There is dried clay, the colour of milky coffee. There are slopes of burnt sienna volcanic scoria. There are black cliffs where tropicbirds cavort of an afternoon, their long white tails flexing under the combined influence of the birds’ flight and the relentless north-east wind. How the ospreys struggle to make headway against that wind when they return to the island after catching a too-heavy fish offshore! And it is that wind that fills my tent with a fine tawny dust as I carry out research on something else brown, the island’s endemic lark, the Raso lark.
Island of Surtsey, Iceland
Favourite bird: redstart British writer Tim Dee is the author of Landfill, published this autumn, Four Fields (2013), and The Running Sky (2009). He is the editor of Ground Work, and with Simon Armitage, The Poetry of Birds (2009). His next book will be about spring and have lots of redstarts in it.
On 1st December 1963, just two weeks after it had first appeared from beneath the sea off southern Iceland, gulls were seen to land on the cooling volcanic waste that was accumulating into the new island of Surtsey. They were the first life form to set foot on the newest addition to the land surface of the Earth. Thereafter, they continued to visit the bad black tooth that the eruption became. Now they have turned it, in part at least, green. Five species have bred on Surtsey. A count in 2003 noted 301 pairs, mostly lesser black-backeds.
All these gulls make nests, and on Surtsey they tore up the pioneer plant life in order to do so. But they also planted their own place; they fertilize the ground: they defecate, they regurgitate, and they drop food remains that they have found elsewhere, and after use their nests compost back into the deepening soil. They are landfilling.
I had a day on Surtsey in 2003 to mark the island’s fortieth birthday. The raw material of the Earth, the coughed up guts of our planet, was still much in evidence. But the sea was eating at the island’s friable edges; it was half the size when I saw it that it had been in 1967 when the eruption stopped. Now it is a cinder mountain. Its burning was its life and everything after seems posthumous.
Except for the gulls and the meadow they have made.
I tried to trek the length of the island. I felt like I was walking an autopsy. My boots were shredded by the rough climb; I cut my hand on a lava snag. On the bald summit the sea-wind’s harsh blow met foul air smoking from the hot cracks that riddle the rock. My head spun; my lips chapped. There were no birds. I slid and skittered towards the south.
There is an utterly different place there. In a sheltered bowl, wind baffled and out of earshot of the sea, a garden is growing. It is this that the gulls have made. A dozen lifted from their nests and ugg-ed at me. They had downy young hidden in the long tangle of meadow grasses and plants. It is an extraordinarily green sanctuary. The gulls’ agitated grunts stopped after I sat on the soft growing bed the birds had made up for me. I could smell the nearby chicks, the warm dust from the cracking cases of their new feathers, the cooked greens that they shat, and the ozone-chlorine tang that their parents gave off close-to. The sky came blue above and the birds returning to their nests planed silently over me. And there, in the gulls’ home, I fell asleep.
The Bass Rock, the Firth of Forth, Scotland
Favourite bird: curlew British artist Kittie Jones is a winner of the the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Award at the Natural Eye 2018, an annual exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists. Her work is on view in a group exhibition Natural Living at Artichoke Gallery in Sussex until December 22; also in an exhibition dedicated to water, Deluge, at Edinburgh Printmakers until December 22; and in Winter Exhibition at Gallery Heinzel in Aberdeen until March 2, 2019.
My first time on the Bass Rock set in motion a significant change in my drawing practice. That day, on a long-dead volcano in the Firth of Forth, I found myself surrounded by thousands of benign, goose-sized white seabirds going about the important business of breeding. I was struck by the power of the gannet colony. Ripples of sound ran through the layers of movement across the island; birds taking off and landing noisily, others squabbling viciously over territory or performing elaborate bonding rituals with their partners. A vast column of cronking gannets circled slowly around the rock and above my head.
I worked with a chunky graphite stick, putting down vigorous marks and barely stopping for breath. Starting in my sketchbook I soon felt a need to capture these birds on a bigger scale, working on loose sheets of paper and looking for compositions that aimed to capture bird, upon bird, upon bird. Out of my scribbled, silvery lines began to emerge the soft ovular heads and heavy geometric bodies of these enigmatic sea-geese.
Working on the Bass gave me a taste of the particular energy necessary to make drawings in a dynamic environment where everything is changing all the time. It helped me to understand the importance of capturing the sound, smell and movement of a place in my work. The Bass is both beautiful and brutal; enigmatic yet palpable; in summer it vibrates with life, in winter it is a desolate bulk. And its presence continues to inform my work.
Middle Island, Recherche Archipelago, Australia
Favourite bird: flesh-footed shearwater
Canadian marine biologist Dr Jennifer Lavers is a research scientist at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia. She is involved in the long term monitoring of sea bird colonies. She completed her PhD at Memorial University of Newfoundland, on a tiny island in south-east Canada, and previously has worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on remote islands in Hawaii.
I’m a self-confessed ‘island addict’ (but only uninhabited islands). Thankfully, as a marine biologist, I’m fortunate to travel to some of the remotest islands on the planet. It’s incredibly hard to pick a favourite island or bird. So many jump to mind right now but I’m going to go with one that most people will never have heard of — because we can’t care about what we don’t know about.
The Recherche Archipelago off south-west Western Australia is a remarkable collection of 105 islands. Viewing a satellite image of the Western Australian coastline from space, the Archipelago’s islands seem to arise almost out of nowhere. We know very little about these islands, all of which are uninhabited except by death adder snakes and native bush rats. There’s little evidence of human activity, save for the occasional ship wreck marked on a map or herd of abandoned goats on Cull Island. But, on one island, everything changes. Home to pirate Black Jack Anderson in the 1820s and one of only two pink lakes in Australia (Lake Hillier), Middle Island has been the focal point for great suffering, intrigue, and research. I spent a night camping among the ant nests on the northern beach in January 2012, listening to the tammar wallabies thump past in the dark forest behind me.
I travelled to Middle in search of the flesh-footed shearwater (also known as the ‘muttonbird’ or ‘yolla’) which breeds throughout the Recherche Archipelago, but as it turns out, not on the northern end of Middle Island. As we sail back to Albany, these remarkable birds soar past the ship taking full advantage of the strong winds. Soon they will leave Western Australia and begin their northward migration more than 5000 km to the productive waters off Sri Lanka. In centuries past, when muttonbird numbers were much greater, Australian Indigenous peoples referred to large flocks moving quickly over the ocean — some flocks so large they blackened the sky — as ‘a living wind’. But those days are gone.
Sule Skerry, Scotland
Favourite bird: gannet
British writer Amy Liptrot grew up in Orkney and her debut non-fiction book, The Outrun (2016), was partly set there. Winner of Wainwright Prize 2016, the book has been translated in over a dozen languages. She is now working on her second book.
The island is one I’ve never visited, although I’ve glimpsed it. On a clear day, from the farm where I grew up on the west coast of Orkney, it might just be possible to see the silhouette of Sule Skerry on the horizon. Sule Skerry lies 60km out into the North Atlantic, and I’ve always felt it at the fringes of my imagination. A skerry is barely an island, somewhere between an island and a rock, and Sule Skerry is just 800m long. There is just one building on Sule Skerry: the lighthouse, which was the most remote manned lighthouse in the UK until its automation in 1982. No one lives there now. Nearby is Sule Stack, an even smaller islet, home to a gannetry and we see the gannets along the shore at the farm — white flashes from faroff. My adventurous friend Martin has visited twice and says “it’s a very busy island, the thin soil honeycombed with rabbit burrows”. Thousands of seabirds nest there, including puffins and the rare Leach’s petrel. Landing a boat is tricky and visitors will have a cliff scramble.
Yesterday I woke up thinking about the Sule Skerry, I’m not sure why. I like its name, I like the idea of it out there just over the horizon, the lonely romance. It has its own ballad: ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’, covered by many folk musicians. Maybe I’ll manage to get there one day, hitching a ride with some bird surveyors or lighthouse engineers, but perhaps it’s enough just to know it’s out there, Atlantic-battered, coated in puffin shit and sea salt.
The Shiant Isles in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Favourite bird: Manx shearwater
British writer Adam Nicolson has published more than twenty books, including The Seabird’s Cry, winner of the Wainwright Prize 2018, The Mighty Dead (2014), Seamanship (2004) and Sea Room (2001). His new book, The Making of Poetry, about the year Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth spent together in Somerset from 1797 to 1798, will be published next summer.
It is an odd thing to say that you love an island, a piece of rock and grass and its surrounding seas and tides, but I love and have always loved and will always love the Shiants in the Hebrides, three small basaltic islands between Skye and Lewis, which have belonged to my family since my father bought them in the 1930s. They are a heart-place and touchstone for me. I think of them many times every day, their crowding, shouting clouds of seabirds, 300,000 of them at the end of the breeding season, the treasured puffins, razorbills, guillemots, skuas and kittiwakes, tysties and shags, the caves and cliffs. The islands are discontinuous from the rest of the world and richer for that, a sealed vessel. Everything that has ever poured into them stays there. Everything I have known there, everything anyone has known there, remains to enrich the liquid in them. No diminution, no withering, only memories now as thick as tar.
Skokholm Island, Wales
Favourite bird: black redstart Marianne Taylor is a British writer and photographer. Her oeuvre on the natural world includes photography books for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds — British Birds of Prey and British Naturefinder, both published this year — as well as Dragonflight (2013) and The Way of the Hare (2016).
This little green blob of land, just one mile from end to end, sits a couple of miles off the Pembrokeshire coast, in west Wales. No-one lives here but wardens and, in summer, countless seabirds. We’re staying for just three days, living off-grid and wandering at will — it's a laid-back way to get to know an island.
On the sheer cliffs on the north coast, you'll see guillemots packed like sardines along the narrowest ledges, razorbills tucked into the crannies, and shags drying their wings on low promontories. It's quiet up top — just the croak of a raven, the wheeze of a chough. But far offshore, thousands of Manx shearwaters flicker over Atlantic swell, waiting for dusk.
Hours later, we venture out with torches. An uproar of voices surrounds us as we make our faltering way along the trails — the wild cackles of demons. Caught in the beams, the shearwaters are fluttering ghosts. They wheel lower, crashland. Then they are stumbling, blundering and tumbling into their nesting burrows. Effortless in air and on water, they are nearly helpless now and only under darkness will they come to land. This is the secret magic of Skokholm — safe haven for the truest of seabirds.
Anna Iltnere, based in Jūrmala, Latvia, is a regular contributor to The Island Review. She has opened a Sea Library by the Baltic Sea, focused on books about the sea. Coming from a family of artists, architects and actors, and formally a journalist covering the Baltic, Russian and Scandinavian contemporary art scenes, she now follows her passion, the sea.