The Zoologist/4th series, vol 4 (1900)/Issue 710/A Visit to Lundy, Blathwayt 1900

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A Visit to Lundy (1900)
by Francis Linley Blathwayt
3721293A Visit to Lundy1900Francis Linley Blathwayt


By F.L. Blathwayt.

Lundy has from time to time been visited by several eminent ornithologists, who have published accounts of the birds they noticed; but, with the exception of the pages relating to birds in Mr. J.R. Chanter's monograph on the island, published in 1877, I have not been able to find any attempt at a complete list of the avifauna of Lundy. A notice therefore with regard to the birds I came across during a recent visit may be useful to anyone contemplating the formation of a full list of the birds of Lundy, and may also interest some of the readers of 'The Zoologist.'

After being detained two days at Instow by the stormy weather, I was at last able to cross to Lundy on May 5th of the present year, in the sailing vessel 'Gannet,' which takes the mail from Instow to the island every week.

Lundy, which, with the exception of the south-east corner, consists almost entirely of granite, rises from 300 to 500 ft. out of the sea, and lies in the entrance to the Bristol Channel, about twelve miles north-west of Hartland Point, its nearest point on the mainland. It is about three miles in length, and less than a mile in width in its broadest part. The southern portion of the top is under cultivation, but the greater part is moorland, and covered with heath, furze, and coarse grass, with large granite boulders protruding in many places, especially at the northern end. On the eastern side the land slopes towards the sea, and is covered in many places with tangled masses of bramble and bracken, out of which rise here and there huge piles of granite, some of them taking very fantastic forms. There are very few landing-places, the best being at the south-east corner, where there is a shingly beach in a natural harbour; but even here it is difficult to get ashore with dry feet, if the wind happens to be in the east.

The cliffs on the western side are for the most part higher and steeper than on the eastern, and consequently these are the favourite haunts of the cliff-birds for which Lundy is famous. When I arrived, on May 5th, I was told that all the birds had not yet come in from the sea, but during my short stay they arrived daily in large numbers, and by May 11th, the date on which I left, most of the sea birds must, I think, have settled down in their summer quarters. On May 7th particularly, which was a fine warm day, I noticed the Puffins coming in from the sea to the island in a continuous stream.

I was most anxious to find out whether the Gannet (Sula bassana) still nested on Lundy, and was pleased to find a few on the island, though I fear they are in great danger of extermination. Three pairs were building near the lighthouse at the northern end, and, if they are not disturbed, their numbers will no doubt increase. From what I hear, however, it is very seldom that they manage to take away any young, as the eggs have a market value of one shilling apiece. The history of the Gannets on Lundy is not pleasant reading for a lover of birds. In former times they inhabited an island off the north-east end, still called after them "the Gannet Rock." They were so persecuted, however, that they deserted this rock, and tried to establish themselves on the island itself; while some are thought to have migrated to Grassholm, an island off Pembrokeshire, where there is at present a small colony. The Gannets which remained on Lundy unfortunately did not escape persecution by their change of quarters; but in spite of this they persevered, and, from what I can gather from the islanders, there were about thirty pairs of breeding birds as lately as six or seven years ago. Unfortunately for the birds, the very spot they had chosen on which to build their nests was selected for the erection of the new lighthouse at the northern extremiy, which, I believe, was opened towards the end of 1897. The quarrying and blasting operations which attended the building of this lighthouse necessarily disturbed the Gannets, though some few pairs seem to have clung to their old haunts, even while the work was in progress. Their numbers seem now to have dwindled down to the three or four pairs which I saw this year, and it is earnestly to be hoped that they will not be driven from this their only known nesting-place on English ground. The few remaining pairs seem to have learnt wisdom by experience, and have selected a place where only bold climbers could reach their nests. Formerly, I am told, they built their nests in places where any child could take their eggs without danger.

The building of the lighthouse and the noise of the fog-horns seem to have disturbed all the sea-fowl at the northern end of the island, and their numbers are said to be far smaller than in former years. Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, and Kittiwakes, however, still breed on the island in enormous numbers.

The Guillemots (Uria troile) have their colonies chiefly on the northern half of the western face of Lundy, where, in company with Razorbills (Alca torda), and Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), they may be seen standing in rows, or packed closely together in bunches, wherever they can find a foothold on the cliffs. I noticed in particular one tall rock which was flat at the top, and on this the Guillemots were packed almost as closely as they are on the famous "Pinnacles" at the Fames during the breeding season.

The chief colony of the Puffins (Fratercula arctica) is at the northern end, where the birds burrow in the soft soil among a débris of huge granite boulders scattered about in wild confusion. The number of the birds must be enormous, as, when one approaches the colony, all the rocks and the sea beneath appear to be covered with Puffins and Razorbills; while hundreds more are swinging round and round in a large circle, which extends some distance over the water. I was much struck by the remarkable tameness of the birds. As long as I kept fairly still they appeared to have no fear at all, and in a few minutes I had Puffins and Razorbills all round me, and some almost within arm's length. One Razorbill perched on the very stone which I had selected as a seat.

The Kittiwake is by far the most numerous of the Gulls on the island, and their chief quarters are on the north-west side in company with the Guillemots, and in two clefts at the north end. Their nests appear to be stuck against the faces of the cliffs, and on some of the most precipitous rocks it seems wonderful how the birds manage to get any hold at all.

Besides the Kittiwake, three species of Gulls breed on Lundy—the Herring-Gull (Larus argentatus), and the Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls (L.fuscus and L. marinus). There are colonies of the two former species in suitable places all round the island, but in numbers the Herring-Gulls are superior, though to no very great extent. At the time of my visit the birds had just commenced laying. The Greater Black-backed Gull is much rarer, and I never saw more than four or five together. There are probably not more than six or seven pairs of these fine birds on Lundy, where, I am told, they usually select one of the rocky islets on which to place their nests.

I frequently saw one or two Common Buzzards (Buteo vulgaris), but could not be sure that there were more than one pair on the island. From the behaviour of the birds, I was convinced that there was a nest on the face of a certain cliff, though I was unable to locate it exactly. This species is happily still fairly common in North Devon, and early in April last year I saw no fewer than eleven during a day's ramble along the cliffs. On more than one occasion three could be seen on the wing at the same time.

But to return to Lundy. I noticed that Kestrels were fairly common, and I discovered the eyrie of a pair of Peregrines (Falco peregrinus) by accidentally startling the Falcon from the face of a steep cliff. She was quickly joined by her mate, and the two birds circled above my head, keeping up a continuous chattering cry as long as I remained in the neighbourhood of their stronghold. Another pair had, I think, established themselves at the opposite end of the island near the Shutter Rock. This Falcon may often be seen on the Devon coast opposite Lundy, and a pair can frequently be observed on Baggy Point.

A pair or two of Ravens (Corvus corax) are said to nest on Lundy, but by the time of my visit (early in May) they would probably have taken off their young, and I only noticed a single bird. This bird still nests on many of the bold rocky headlands of the North Devon coast.

Some years ago, it is said, a feud broke out between the Peregrines and Ravens on Lundy, and one of the aerial conflicts which were continually taking place ended in disaster to one of the Ravens, which, failing to elude the Falcon's fatal "stoop," was struck down into the sea and drowned. I have noticed that wherever these two species nest in close proximity, duels in midair are of continual occurrence, but, as a rule, they do not appear to be attended with much bloodshed.

The Carrion-Crow (Corvus corone) breeds on the island, and is not uncommon. After the young have left the nest, twelve or more of these birds may be seen together. The Rev. H.G. Heaven, proprietor of the island, told me that a few years ago one or two Hooded Crows (C. cornix), usually only autumn and winter visitors, remained during the summer, and he thought that they interbred with the Carrion-Crows. This supposition is in a measure confirmed by the fact that I saw several birds on the island which to all appearance were hybrids between the Carrion and Hooded Crows.

The Jackdaw (C. monedula) is only a visitor, as is also the Rook (C. frugilegus), and neither species has been known to breed on the island; while the Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus), formerly common, has now been quite exterminated. Their final disappearance is said to be due to the persecution they received from the men who some years ago were engaged in quarrying granite on the eastern side of the island. One of the islanders told me that in former years he often saw small flocks of Choughs flying about the fields, but that they no longer nested on the island. The price which may be obtained for the skins and eggs of these birds has done much towards banishing them from many of their former haunts, but I believe a few pairs may still be found on some parts of the Devonshire coasts.

Of the smaller land birds, the commonest, during my visit, were perhaps the Linnet (Linota cannabina), Wheatear, Skylark, and Meadow Pipit; while the House-Sparrow, formerly only a visitor, has now established a flourishing colony on the buildings of the Manor Farm.

The following birds I also identified on Lundy during my short stay:—Song-Thrush, Blackbird, Whinchat, Stonechat, Greater Whitethroat, Willow-Wren, Hedge-Sparrow, Wren, Yellow Wagtail, Rock-Pipit, Swallow, House-Martin, Sand-Martin, Goldfinch, Yellow Bunting, Cirl Bunting, Starling, Swift, Cuckoo, Cormorant, Shag, Corn-Crake, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Dunlin (the last two birds both in breeding plumage), and Oystercatcher.

The Manx Shearwater (Puffinus anglorum) is also well known on Lundy, where it probably breeds, and the same remark very possibly may be applied to the Storm Petrel (Procellaria pelagica). These two species often escape notice owing to their nocturnal habits, but the weird cries of the former are said to be often heard by the islanders during the night.

Mr. Heaven told me of a tradition which still exists on the island relating to the former occurrence of a bird which, if not simply mythical, could be none other than the Great Auk. The story is, I think, worth repeating, but must, however, as Mr. Heaven impressed upon me, be taken for what it is worth. As far as I can remember it runs as follows:—About the year 1839 one of the men on the island brought in a large egg (which was kept by Mr. Heaven's family for some time until unfortunately broken), which he declared belonged to a "King Murr" (on Lundy Guillemots and Razorbills are both known as "Murrs"). The "King Murrs," the man said, were birds like "Razorbilled Murrs," only much larger; he did not think they could fly, as they were only seen near the water, into which they scrambled from the rocks when disturbed. There were only one or two pairs ever seen, but they had long been known on the island. A fuller account of this same story is, I believe, to be found in 'The Zoologist' for 1866,[1] though I have not the means of looking up the exact reference. The story is interesting, though it cannot be said to prove that the Great Auk was ever an inhabitant of Lundy.

I would advise anyone interested in birds, who may chance to visit Lundy by excursion steamer, to spend the two or three hours allowed on land in exploring the coast-line of the northern half of the island. It will have to be done hurriedly in the limited time at the tourist's disposal, as it takes about an hour to walk from the landing-place to the North Lighthouse. If time does not allow a visit to all the cliffs on the north-west side, where the Guillemots and Kittiwakes chiefly congregate, the visitor would do well to follow the rough track on the top of the island to the north end, where he may see the large colony of Puffins and Razorbills, which to the bird-lover is perhaps the most interesting sight which can be obtained on this picturesque island.

  1. At page 100, written by the Rev. Murray A. Mathew.—Ed.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

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