Leach’s petrel is one of my ‘charismatic’ birds. It is in truth a rather drab little thing: it’s about the size of a swallow and a sort of sooty brown in colour, the only markings being a pale band on the upper wing and a narrow white rump. You wouldn’t rush to see one just for its plumage. Its attraction and mystique have quite another source.
There are only four sites in the British Isles where Leach’s petrels regularly breed, all of them isolated, remote and uninhabited islands in the North Atlantic, beyond even the Outer Hebrides: St Kilda, the Flannan Isles, North Rona and Sula Sgeir. The species is actually quite numerous, with many thousand birds in the St Kilda colony, but it remains very hard to encounter (and so is effectively ‘rare’), partly because of the extreme inaccessibility of these wild places and partly because of its elusive nocturnal habits.
The Leach’s is a truly pelagic species and uses the islands only for breeding purposes. Even then it feeds way out in the open ocean all day, up to one hundred miles from its nesting site, returning only late at night; and just to make things more difficult, the nesting burrows are usually on the side of precipitous rocky slopes. So even if you brave the long and uncomfortable journey by small boat to one of these remote locations you still won’t see a Leach’s unless you venture out in the wee hours on to just the right cliff ledge and cling there hopefully in the dark in whatever weather conditions happen to obtain (the odds being heavily in favour of strong winds and rain).
But then your reward may be great. If you are lucky, the returning birds will mill around you on all sides, exchanging an extraordinary range of weird cries with their mates in the nest burrows to guide them home in the dark to just the right hole. The general effect is a hysterical banshee wailing. I had only ever heard these island spirits on tape but they sounded quite ‘other’, even in the reassuring surroundings of my own living room. I wanted to hear the real thing, and at the right time and place.
I had already tried once before in St Kilda, but the weather was just too stormy to let us stay overnight; so back we sailed again through mountainous seas, leaving somewhere in our wake about fifteen thousand Leach’s petrels, unseen and unheard. The next year I determined to try the Flannan Isles instead, where I could be put off for the night in my tent and be right on hand for the 2.00 a.m. performance, if there was one.
The Flannans are just as remote as St Kilda but much less visited and I would hope to have the islands to myself. Moreover, there was an intriguing unsolved mystery there. The Flannans have never been properly inhabited in human memory but there was a manned light there once. In December 1900, after a violent storm, it was noticed by a passing vessel that the Flannan light was dark. A relief boat was duly dispatched to investigate but on arrival the crew could find no sign of the three keepers. A meal was still on the table, the last logbook entry had been neatly completed, and everything seemed to be in working order; but no trace of the men was ever found, then or later.
This Marie Celeste-type story provoked much speculation at the time and one long narrative poem, which ended with the portentous lines:
We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle
Who thought on three men dead.
(Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, ‘Flannan Isle’, 1910)
So even if I miss out on the Leach’s again, there are perhaps other spirits to look for. I am duly landed (and abandoned, since the skipper of our small boat has decided to retreat to the safety of the Isle of Harris). It’s raining hard and I set up my small tent to wait and to listen. It stays light until nearly midnight this far north and west and there is a surprising amount to hear: the resident raven croaks, a deep thudding bass; two whimbrel go past, wittering in flight; then in the dusk a cuckoo calls close by – goodness, Wordsworth was right when he spoke of ‘the cuckoo-bird / Breaking the silence of the seas / Among the farthest Hebrides’.
Even after dark the noise from birds goes on: the oystercatchers break into a nervy piping every so often; there are occasional grunts from puffins and harsh cries from the gull roosts; and once I hear the clear whistling calls of some golden plovers, migrants forced down by the sheeting rain no doubt. Presumably the birds are all disturbing one another since there is no one else to disturb them (is there?). In the background is the continuous roar of surf and in the foreground squalls of rain rattle against my tent. All very atmospheric.
At 1.45 a.m. I put on my boots and rainwear and unzip the tent flap. Immediately I hear a strange, muffled call nearby, something between a chuckle and a gurgle. Can it possibly be . . . ? As soon as I get outside I hear it again more clearly, and then several more, and then a longer sequence of calls in a wild, chattering rhythm, and then the whole devil’s chorus.
I walk in what seems to be the direction of these screaming spirits, just the other side of the lighthouse; and suddenly there they all are, whirling around me in their bat-veering, butterfly-floating flight, even brushing me with their wings, several hundred birds, shrieking like Gaelic goblins on acid, as someone put it – the full Leach’s experience. Each time the beam from the great light comes round I see them briefly illuminated in the air, as if blown in like leaves, and pitching down right by my feet to enter their nesting-holes.
Magic. I stay with them for an hour or so and decide against going to look for the related species, storm petrels, which are also nocturnal and are likely to be nesting in the tumbledown walls of the old cleits at the other end of the island. Storm petrels have class but not charisma, and I don’t want an anticlimax. By about 3.30 a.m. the colony is falling silent. I return to my tent, with light already appearing in the east, and I suddenly realise how wet I’ve got in the rain. I sleep.
In the morning light they are gone, leaving me wondering if it was all just a marvellous dream. As another and better poet put it (Shakespeare in The Tempest):
Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That if I then had waked after a long sleep
Will make me sleep again
I had seen Leach’s a few times before, storm-tossed birds flicking and gliding low over the waves off the East Anglian coast, rare and displaced vagrants driven close inshore by rough weather. But to encounter the Leach’s on the Flannans at two in the morning was to feel as though I was experiencing them very much in their place and at their time. They define these wild landscapes and are in turn defined by them. The Leach’s is the genius loci here.
The above is an excerpt from Birdscapes: birds in our imagination and experience (Princeton University Press, 2009, now in paperback)