It was July 2018 and I had just finished my first evening of catching storm-petrels on Sule Skerry. As dawn had broken, lightening the sky from dark velvet black to deep blue, rain had moved in and the dark rocks, capped white with the guano of seabirds, had become slippery and treacherous under foot. The nets had been closed and we had rolled into sleeping bags for some well-earned rest. Having stayed up ringing petrels through the hours of darkness we did not emerge from our tent at the usual early hour to open nets for the thousands of puffins that continually swirled about the island. We left that to the rest of the ringing team. But when we did emerge grey clouds still hung low over the island, the steady patter of rain drops continued on canvas and the nets were still closed. The island was damp. The Mayweed gleamed dark green in the wet, rocks remained slippery and the team was confined, for now, to the communal tents until the rain eased. The seabirds that lived on the island were non-plussed, continuing on with their never ending task of foraging and feeding the hungry mouths of the next generation.
I made my way along the muddy path between tents heading to the small wooden hut that housed the expedition team’s kitchen. Behind this was the washing up station, a wooden bench, bowls for water and drying racks. A field kitchen with usually one of the best views of a rocky island, a colony of puffins and an ocean that stretches to a distant horizon where on a good day the faint outline of the Scottish mainland and its mountains could be seen. Today the grey sea merged with a grey sky. I had gone to wash my hands prior to getting some breakfast. Walking up to the bench and something made me look down. Huddled beneath the bench I saw a very wet and bedraggled looking storm-petrel. I picked up the little bird who shivered in my grasp. What it was doing out of a burrow or not out at sea I would never know. The little bird had a metal ring on its leg and my initial concern was that this was a bird we had ringed the night before and so through that process had perhaps become disorientated. A quick check of the ring number however confirmed it had not been ringed or handled last night.
For now, I put the wet little bird into a dry bird bag and I hung it up in the warmest place on the island, in the kitchen hut where the steady supply of tea and food meant a warm room. Throughout the day I checked in on my little patient, and by the evening I could see he was almost fully dried out. That night another team were planning to do a session catching storm-petrels and so I asked the team leader if he would release this little petrel once it was dark. Retiring to my tent I was soon lulled to sleep, serenaded by the final fluttering wings of puffins returning to burrows and the calls of guillemots and razorbills as they settled to sleep on the rocks.
Next morning and the team reassured me that the little petrel had flown off fine. I could then only hope it found its way back to its burrow.
I didn’t really think much more of the little petrel. The rest of my short time on Sule Skerry raced by in a blur of puffins, auks, gannets and even more petrels. Soon I was on the boat waving goodbye and heading back to the mainland and the long drive home.
It was not until a month or so later when Lee was entering the data for the petrels caught during the expedition that the little storm-petrels number came up again. Turns out that this little bird had originally been ringed on Sule Skerry in 2009. And the original ringer?
A certain Lee Barber!
Sometimes things just seem to fall into place, perhaps its fate, destiny or just pure luck. But what are the chances that of all the people on the island that week (there were about 15 of us by then) it was me who walked round the corner of the hut at that time and happened across this little bird? What are the chances that of all the storm-petrels that have been ringed on Sule Skerry over the years it was one ringed in 2009, the last time Lee and I were on the island…? And what are the chances that of all the people on that ringing expedition in 2009 – perhaps up to 20 or so over the period of three weeks – it was Lee who ringed this little bird who would turn up in such soggy fashion 9 years later…