It’s midnight on the south coast of Lundy (the island at the mouth of the Bristol Channel). From the cliff face below, weird sounds are emanating, creating an eerie and ghostly soundscape. These gurgles, squawks and cackles are from manx shearwaters, as they cruise back to their burrows, their highly individual calls helping them to locate their mates and nest-holes.
I’d come to Devon with a few friends (John, Dave, Jesse and Jono), so it seemed a good opportunity to see and hear these amazing birds. There’s a famous story about manx shearwaters from the early studies of bird migration around 1950. One was taken from a burrow on the isle of Skomer, put in a crate and flown to New York, where it was released. Five days later it was back in its burrow on Skomer, arriving before the postcard to say that it had been released!
I first saw them while I was on the boat from Ilfracombe, skimming low over the water. They only return to the nest at night, and are capable of travelling hundreds of miles during the daytime. When the young have fledged, they will fly down to the south-west Atlantic, off the coast of Argentina – a journey which will take about ten days. Most will return to the same burrrows on Lundy year after year – one bird has done so for half a century.
Lundy itself is wilder than I’d expected – a narrow, three-mile strip of windswept moorland on the edge of the Atlantic. I’d arrived with Dave, and we’d wandered up the west side as far as the Quarter Wall: we managed to spot the last few puffins remaining on the island before they left for the ocean. He returned to the mainland in the evening while I camped overnight. Rain swept in around half past midnight, prematurely ending my witnessing the shearwater soundscape – and the following morning thick fog blanketed the island. It lifted around midday, allowing me to do a quick walk of the length of the island.
The rest of the time in Devon was most enjoyable. We ended up eating out more than usual, which nearly got us in trouble on the final night. Arriving in Woolacombe at 8.45, several venues told us we were too late for an evening meal. Thus when we were welcomed in to the Noel Corston restaurant, we were most relieved – and then found we’d discovered a real gem. The whole place had a warm and friendly ambience, and the food and service were both exceptionally good. Our late arrival meant that we were particularly impressed by all this!