Island Insomnia

Do Contribute | Environment

This is an account of a trip I took with my husband a few years ago to the west coast of Scotland. After loading our campervan with sea kayaks and extra camping gear we headed north from our home in Pembrokeshire to a place even more wild and beautiful than the Pembrokeshire coast. Loading our kayaks with overnight gear, we aimed to fling out to the offshore islands for a few days at a time, so that we could immerse ourselves in the spirit of the place. We were not disappointed…

I awake convinced that the bird responsible for the loud whistling that roused me must have entered the tent during the night and be standing on my pillow. And so began day one of our island insomnia tour of west Scotland. We had set off from the mainland in our seas kayaks the previous evening bound for an overnight stop on one of a scattering of islands just beyond the famous Grey Dogs tidal narrows. Spoilt for choice we settled on a small fragment of land, watched by the bobbing heads of curious common seals. Our home for the night had an easy, shingle-beach landing and a particularly spongy- looking spot for wild camping with a sunset-facing aspect. As we set up camp our senses began to soak in the golden light and the dramatic surroundings. The sun set soon after 11pm in a truly spectacular fashion; alone on our island we felt like it was meant just for us. We were humbled to experience the magic of the Scottish west coast that is often so elusive. As I dozed off on my natural mattress of thick grass I felt blissfully happy and excited about the next day of paddling.

Communing with nature can have its downsides and on this particular occasion noisy neighbours keeping anti-social hours were the main issue. During mid-summer in the Scottish western isles darkness is brief or non-existent and happens just a few hours before first light. Sunrise occurs at 2am around the summer solstice and a few of the feathered male inhabitants on our island took full advantage of the extended daylight hours. The first offender was the Common Sandpiper. About the size of a thrush and rather camouflaged if it weren’t for the habitual bobbing of the tail and 3-note whistling call. Their persistent calls are used to simultaneously proclaim their prowess to mates and see off other males. On this small island, they favoured rock outcrops to call from, several of which surrounded our chosen tent spot. Delivered at dawn at very close quarters, we had our very own island cockerel.

Up early we had time to explore the island to the natural sound track of the sandpipers, before setting off on the second leg of the trip and returning to the mainland at the end of the day.

After a quick re-pack and re-stock, and a passenger ferry to Barra, the second night of island wakefulness began with another evening launch. We arrived at our chosen island in the darkness by torch light. As the bow of my boat nudged on to the sand, I began to tune in to an unfamiliar distant sound. It reminded me of a guiro, those wooden ribbed percussion instruments you get to play in school music lessons. As we heaved our boats up the soft sand and stranded them above the tide line the auditory essence of this new island began to wash over me. With my senses enhanced by the darkness the rasping metronome sound set a hypnotic beat to our arrival. I knew this to be the call of the Corncrake, or Crex crex to give it the scientific name which aptly describes the sound. One ‘crex’ is uttered per second producing a monotonous, mechanical tone. We headed inland to find the camp spot and towards the source of the rasping.

Corncrakes are predominantly nocturnal, wetland birds favouring long, dense vegetation where they remain invisible to the observer; their presence is betrayed only by their voice. They thrive on some of the Scottish islands where they can nest on the ground undisturbed. Our chosen island was Pabbay in the Outer Hebrides and just happened to be a favourite haunt of this bird. As with most other birds their call serves to signal ‘no thanks, go away’ to other males and ‘yes please, this way’ to females. And because they hang out in thick vegetation it needs to be loud! The corncrake call is a wonderful sound, but it registers about 100 decibels at close quarters.

As I lay in my tent I was hoping the corncrakes call would lull me in to a deep, trance-like slumber. Instead it had more of a dripping tap effect which coupled with the anticipation of the next day’s paddling meant another disturbed night.

The next morning I lay in the tent feeling groggy and pondering Corncrakes for breakfast, but emerged to find an island paradise; white sand, gin-clear water and only our foot prints on the sand. Had the Crex crex hypnotised me in to thinking I was in the tropics? Was I in a Corncrake-induced dream? Thankfully it was all real and with no wind, a cloudless sky and an island more bountiful with wildlife than I’d ever seen before just round the corner, I was about to have one of my most memorable days ever out sea kayaking. Mingulay beckoned.

After a truly magical eight hours afloat exploring bounty island, I felt overwhelmed by the bonanza of wildlife that had filled my day. Basking sharks galore, thousands of nesting sea birds crammed on to 200m high cliffs and swimming all around us, big groups of seals lounging on wave washed ledges and the most spectacular through-caves and arches. I was exhausted and in need of some quality sleep. We pitched our tents above the perfect white sands of Mingulay’s east flank and settled in. But as darkness fell the islands nocturnal sounds began. We were serenaded through the night by the eerie vocalisations of seals and intrigued by the loud humming tail feathers of courting Snipe, marking the end of a perfect day of adventure.

The next day the pattern of repeatedly disturbed sleep began to take effect and paddling was hard work. My spirits waned as we paddled away from this island of such intoxicating abundance. I didn’t want to leave but our weather window was closing and reality beckoned. We needed to move on to the next island and a new cacophony of sounds.

Landing on our fourth wildlife island for a final night of insomnia we were greeted by oyster catchers who appeared to be in a constant state of vocal panic. Wherever we went they piped and we could see no sign of a nest or chicks. They piped until sunset and gradually went quiet as darkness fell. They allowed us a few hours of blissful peace until the early hours and then at sunrise the piping began again.

My restless nights on the islands served to blur the boundaries between dreams and wakefulness and left me with some profound memories. Each island had its own unique compliment of hypnotic wildlife and accompanying sound track. And although it didn’t amount to much quality sleep I wouldn’t have changed a moment, except for maybe trying those Corncrakes for breakfast…

Environment

Dr Lou Luddington

Marine biologist, sea kayak guide and surf coach. Happiest immersed in the sea, breathing clean air under the open sky and has a life mission to inspire awe for marine life in others.