The Science of Birds

In 2015 I joined a group of ornithologists during their fieldwork on a small, uninhabited island in Shetland, in the far north of Scotland. The group were surveying the island's breeding population of European storm petrels, small seabirds which nest underneath rocks and in the cracks in dry stone walls. Every wall or pile of rocks on the island might be hiding nesting storm petrels. They are quiet during the day, hiding their presence from humans and animal predators, but when dusk falls the rocks emanate a chorus of chattering calls from the petrels. The pairs of birds take it in turns to go out to sea foraging for food for themselves and their young. While one bird is far out at sea, the other remains at the nest, until the chick grows bigger and both parents need to leave the nest to find food. The adults can be seen returning to their nests in the last few minutes of fading daylight, fluttering around the walls and stony beaches, almost like bats in the night.

The scientists used recordings of storm petrel calls, played through speakers towards cracks in the rocks, in order to elicit responses from the birds nesting underneath. This enabled them to count the numbers of storm petrels nesting across each site. They also equipped a small number of the birds with GPS tracking tags, in order to reveal their movements across the surrounding seas and learn more about their behaviour.

I spent 10 days on this island, which is managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) as a nature reserve, camping through all weathers, walking around the island, photographing the wildlife, the landscapes and the work of the group I was staying with. I had to overcome my fear of dive-bombing skuas and terns defending their territory; I watched otters swimming in the bay in the evening and seals bathing in the midday sun; I learned to love the way fulmars ride the wind along the crest of a clifftop as if they are doing so purely for enjoyment's sake. In many ways, it was an idyllic time.


The scientists who worked on this project carry with them a deep understanding and a natural curiosity towards the ecology of the natural world we inhabit. This ecology is fragile and under pressure from climate change, pollution and human industry. Despite my enjoyment of being there, I was ever conscious of my own human presence on this island. As much as I remained cautious in my navigation of the landscape, the occasional swoops or distressed calls of bonxies, gulls and terns in my direction reminded me that I was not welcome in the birds' world; at least not by the birds themselves.


Unfortunately, humans are ultimately responsible for many of the difficulties and failures faced by seabirds and other animals in surviving and finding food to successfully raise their young. Scientific work such as this can help to enable a greater understanding of the specific pressures which are affecting birds' livelihoods, which in turn can point to harmful policies or practices which must be changed or adapted to ensure their survival.

I am grateful to the RSPB staff who allowed me to stay on the island and photograph their activities.

If you are interested in finding out more about the RSPB's conservation work, please see their website for details of current projects: