The Birds of Sark
by Penny Prevel
Our dawn choruses in spring are full of song – in valleys such as Dixcart Valley the warbler species are mainly represented by Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler. Other warblers such as Cetti’s Warbler and Icterine Warbler sometimes make an appearance. The fruity warble of the Blackbird, the loud burst of song from the undergrowth of the Wren, the repeated notes of the Song Thrush, the Chiffchaff’s two note call and the tripping tumbling song of the Chaffinch all swell the avian orchestra in the valleys and the gardens.
Around the coast our sea cliffs and stacks are full of Herring Gulls, Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls and Fulmars. The Fulmars are not really a species of Gull but a mini Albatross – like them they have 'tube-noses' which are designed to drain excess salt from the sea-water that they drink as they cross the oceans. They are easily recognised by their stiff-winged flight which makes them look as if they are rowing against the air.
The Guillemot colony on Les Autelets is the biggest in the Channel Islands. They lay their narrow-ended eggs directly on the rocky ledges – with all those birds crowded onto the available space it is a miracle that eggs and chicks survive. Shags warm up in the early morning sunshine on the rocks near Port du Moulin before flying off in squadrons to bathe and fish. A boat trip around the island will take in the offshore island of L’Etac which is probably the best place to see Puffins when they come ashore to breed in the spring.
On the shoreline the smart black and white Oystercatchers hiccup and bleep as they work the stones and probe the sand with their long red bills. Other waders such as Turnstones, Curlews, Whimbrels and Common Sandpipers join them. Each species has a different bill shape which enables them to get at their preferred food, and helps cut down competition. This specialisation is one of the reasons that shorelines can support many different species of birds.
It is a privilege to have Peregrines. The presence of these top predators is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem which is necessary to support them and Sark is fortunate to have two breeding pairs. They are the cheetahs of the sky, unbelievable fast when they go into their power-dive or “stoop” after an unsuspecting pigeon, their usual quarry. Other raptors that may be seen are Common Buzzards and Common Kestrels. Sometimes a Merlin (looking a little like a beefed-up version of a Blackbird), a Sparrowhawk or Honey Buzzard may be glimpsed. Occasionally the huge wingspan of a White-tailed Sea Eagle is spotted off-shore as the juveniles will go off exploring before finding their own territory.
The wealth of bird life on Sark is boosted by the many Vagrants or Accidentals that find their way here and are recorded. Roderick Dobson was the first to summarise data and compiled it in his book The Birds of the Channel Islands in 1952. This was the starting point for the systematic research into bird life on Sark by the Sark Ornithological Committee (founded by Frank Rountree, Philip Guille and Richard Dewe) in 1966. Julian Langford, a well-known BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) ringer, taught Sarkee Philip Guille to use mist nets and ring birds from 1966 to 1969. 169 species were recorded between 1966 and 1974. In 1970 Philip (affectionately known as the Birdman) started to net and ring birds, under licence from the Channel Islands Bird Ringing Scheme. He set up a treetop catwalk and nets at his home, La Fougeraie, and during the seventeen years that followed he netted 65,000 birds, a phenomenal increase on Sark’s normal ringing of around 6,300. It took eight ringers in Guernsey ten years to achieve 60,000 birds ringed. The sheer numbers of birds he netted in a short space of time, and the wealth of recovery records from those he ringed, made Philip one of the top ten ringers in the U.K. His achievements were such that when a photo of him extracting a bird from the net was shown to a BTO conference of UK bird-ringers, 450 people spontaneously rose in a standing ovation. His unexpected death in August 1987 brought an end to some of Sark’s impressive records. The results of Philip’s ringing and the Group’s work were published in Rountree’s Birds of Sark, 1974 and its Supplement 1991.