The Zoologist/4th series, vol 6 (1902)/Issue 727/The Birds of Bardsey Island, Aplin

The Birds of Bardsey Island, with additional notes on the Birds of Lleyn
by Oliver Vernon Aplin

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 6, issue 727, January 1902, p. 8–17


By O.V. Aplin, F.L.S.

There are few inhabited places in Southern Britain more inaccessible than Bardsey. This arises rather from the difficulties which frequently attend the passage to or from the island than from its remoteness. For its northern extremity is less than two miles from Trwyn-y-Gwyddel, the nearest point of the mainland of Lleyn, while the passage from Aberdaron, where you take boat, to the landing-place, Cefn Enlli, extends over only about five miles. But Bardsey derives its ancient Welsh name, Enlli, from the fierce current which rages between it and the mainland, and it is only at certain states of the tide that a crossing can be made. Moreover, if it blows hard, as it so often does on this windy coast, winter and summer, it is altogether impossible to cross the sound in an open boat, in one direction or the other, and most likely in both; so that it is commonly said that no one should go to Bardsey who is not prepared to stay a week. I started about noon on the 23rd May, 1901, to cross to the island, in calm weather. But as in my hurry to set foot on the famous isle (having been baulked of my desire the year before) I had persuaded the boatmen to start too early, we were caught under Bardsey cliffs by the last of the tide, and our boat was tossed about somewhat like a cork in a pot of boiling water—and this in a dead and stifling calm. I intended to get away again on the morning tide the following day. But at night it came on to blow; at daybreak, I was told, no boat could cross, and, true to its character, Bardsey kept me a prisoner until the next tide. This did not matter, and I had so much more time with the birds. We got off finally about half-past one, with the wind nearly ahead, light to moderate, and coming rather squally off the land. We had borrowed an extra sail and taken in a small cartload of big stones for additional ballast. We rowed under the cliffs to the north end of the island, then sailed rapidly across the sound and in under the cliffs of Pen-y-Cil, whence we slowly made our way along under the land to Aberdaron. The passage took two hours, a fact worth the attention of anyone visiting Bardsey and hoping to catch the daily mailcart which connects Aberdaron with the outer world.

Bardsey is naturally divided into two parts. Nearly two-thirds of the larger, northern portion—over a mile long and nearly three-quarters of a mile wide—consists of cultivated ground and poor pasture land; and the other third or more is occupied by the mountain (548 feet). The steep, grassy slopes of this (then very slippery from the long-continued dry weather, and a little dangerous on the seaward side) are dotted on the west side with hard clumps of sheep-bitten gorse, and varied by stretches of fern towards the sea. Rocks and crags rise out of the turf at the top and on the north and east sides especially, and sometimes form small cliffs. To lose one's footing on the seaward side would in many places mean falling on to the rocks below or going over the cliffs into the sea. The southern portion of the island, where the lighthouse stands, does not rise more than about fifty feet above the sea. It is connected with the other part by a very narrow neck, and although three-quarters of a mile long is only about a quarter of a mile wide anywhere. It affords only some pasture, poor everywhere, and consisting in places of little more than heather, an inch high, scilla, armeria, and lotus. The only trees on Bardsey are two or three sycamores and a few ashes (really not worth calling trees) which grow at the foot of the mountain, just where the farms lie and shelter them a little with their buildings. Here, too, are some wind-seared elder-bushes. In the little gardens gooseberries and currants grow well to the height of the wall, and there are a few "tea-shrubs," fuchsias, and tamarisks, etc. The banks of earth and stone which form the fences on the low ground are capped with bramble, gorse, fern, and occasionally with a foot of scrubby hawthorn, and one or two larger bushes of the latter may be seen. In one sheltered part of the mountain, at Pen Cristin, there is some taller gorse, not bitten down by sheep into a hard cushion. Two wettish places, fenced in, about ten yards square, where the waste of springs has been utilized to grow a kind of willow for bands, present a greater growth of elder, bramble, and tall weeds. And there, and along a bank near one of them, I found many of the small birds I noticed. The banks are gay with thrift, vernal squill, the sweetly-scented burnet-rose, gorse, sea-campion, and a few foxgloves; and I saw some dwarf bluebells and the lady's-fingers (Anthyllis). Excellent samphire (Crithmum maritimum) grows in abundance on the low rocks, and has been gathered for a hundred years at least.

On the east side the coast of Bardsey presents a front of dark coloured rock to the restless sea. Here on the sloping rockfaces, and the ledges, the Herring-Gulls, which breed there in considerable numbers, are conspicuous. The steep shelving rocks are varied with more precipitous faces, overhung ledges, hollows, and chasms. Along the coast of the lower lying parts of the island there is a broad breastwork of broken jagged rock, high enough sometimes to form low cliffs, and indented with yawning chasms, whose sides are high and steep enough in some cases to accommodate the Chough. Where these rocks merge into the short weedy turf the Oystercatchers breed, the pairs flying on to the outer rocks as one approaches, where they sit and cry "feet," or "fic" or "pic," an unlimited number of times, and sometimes "my feet." Rock-Pipits flit about too; I hesitate to say breed, for I think of the hours I have spent in an always unsuccessful search for this bird's nest. Where the one little inlet affords a harbour and safe lying for the boats, a stretch of sand and seaweedy rocks is uncovered at low tide. Bardsey is included in Willughby's 'Ornithology' (1678), among the list "Of some remarkable Isles, Cliffs, and Rocks about England, where Sea-fowl do yearly build and breed in great numbers," but no particulars relating to it are given. I do not, however, think that Bardsey could have been a great sea-fowl station within the period of modern history. The then Vicar of Aberdaron (in whose parish Bardsey lies), in the account of the island with which he furnished Bingley in 1798, asserts, it is true, that "among these precipices the intrepid inhabitants, in the spring of the year, employ themselves in collecting the eggs of the various species of sea-fowl that frequent them"; and he describes the manner of climbing pursued in collecting the eggs and the samphire. The Bardsey men gather eggs now, but these are all, or nearly all, Herring-Gulls' eggs. Pennant, who visited the island on one of his Tours (about the year 1774–75), said it was "well cultivated and productive of everything which the mainland affords";[1] but he does not mention the birds at all, though his visit was evidently made in the summer; and he would surely have done so had there been any remarkable gathering of them. He mentions the Puffins at St. Tudwal's. There are no Puffins on Bardsey now, and, although it is distinctly stated in Book III. of the 'Ornithology' that the Puffins bred yearly in Bardsey in great numbers, I think this is a little doubtful. The author, or his editor, may have seen the Puffins belonging to Ynys Gwylan, which are scattered over the sea near Bardsey in the summer, and concluded that they bred on the latter island. The low part of the island is, indeed, suitable for Puffins, but the greater part of it has long been under cultivation. In 1798 Bardsey had seventy inhabitants, engaged in fishing and agriculture. In more remote days it was apparently even more thickly populated, and it was visited by a great many pilgrims. It was called by the Welsh poets the Sanctuary of Saints, and the Isle of Refuge. The reputed sanctity of the island induced the religious to resort to it from many very distant parts of the kingdom. The monastery (of which the ruins remain) is said to have been founded in the eighth century, but there is evidence that there was a religious house in the island at a much more early date. The odour of sanctity clung to the place down to Pennant's time. When the foundations of one of the new farms was laid, old gold coins, "each worth two guineas," were found; and it is said that one could not dig deeply in one part without finding them. This means pilgrims, and a well-found monastery; for, though many would come empty, the full paid for all. The coming and going of so many people must have made Bardsey anything but a "lonely resort of sea-fowl," and the demands upon the eggs of those that bred there must have been large. This state of things can hardly have co-existed with a large Puffin-warren on the lower part of Bardsey, where the farms lie. The mountain could never have accommodated them, I should think. The soil is shallow, and there are not sufficient holes and crevices under and in the rocks to house a large Puffin population. Willughby, and his editor Ray, gathered a good deal from hearsay. They relate that "a certain Fisherman told us, that in the middle of Winter he once found a Puffin under water, torpid, among the Rocks not far from Bardsey Island, which being again cast into the Sea streightway sank to the bottom. Believe it that will." But Bardsey has always been a strange place, and is so still, as will presently appear from what a man told me about the Frogs. Twenty thousand saints, too, are buried here, albeit one writer sagely remarks: "It would be much more facile to find graves in Bardsey for so many saints, than saints for so many graves." There are no Kittiwakes on Bardsey, and only a few Guillemots and Razorbills.

A head-wind on our return journey necessitated our hugging the cliffs from Pen Cristin nearly to the northern extremity of the island, and I could see no high cliff sheer from the sea with ledges extensive enough to form a breeding station of the Alcidæ of any importance. There are ledges which would do for Cormorants, and hollows for Shags, but I saw no large cave. Starlings, too, breed in the rocks, and, higher up, Jackdaws and a pair of Peregrine Falcons. A large number of Herring-Gulls inhabit the shelving—and, to some extent, sloping—cliffs immediately above the sea; but, with the exception of the Shearwaters and a few other species, these are the only sea-fowl for which Bardsey is now remarkable.

There are, I was told, no "great snakes" on Bardsey; only "little small ones" (? Blindworms). The Vicar of Aberdaron, in 1798, stated that "none of the inhabitants ever saw in it Frog, Toad or snake of any kind." I inquired if there were any Frogs now. "No," said my informant; "and if any Frogs are brought to the island they die—ay, and if you take of the earth of Bardsey, and put it into where there are Frogs on the mainland, the Frogs all die." "That," said I, "is what you have been told." "That is what I have seen," he replied. "You have tried it yourself?" I asked. "Yes, I have done it myself," said he. "And the Frogs died?" "Die they did," said he.[2] After that I said no more; and I merely add now, with the author of the 'Ornithology,' "believe it that will." There are Rabbits about the low grounds, and some on the mountain, the latter having their habitations chiefly among the stony rocks. Those that I saw appeared to be rather warmly coloured, but this may have been caused by the contrast with the sad colour of their surroundings, caused by the severe drought then prevailing, which told terribly on the shallow soil of this outlying spot.

The most noticeable land-birds were the Corn-Bunting, Blackbird, Starling, Corn-Crake, and Jackdaw. There are some common birds found in Lleyn which I could not find on Bardsey; and, as the birds there are rather tame and conspicuous, it is not likely that I should overlook them if they were to be found on the island at all commonly. The Robin and Stonechat, both common on the adjoining part of the mainland, are among them. Both may have been temporarily exterminated by the long continuance of heavy storms from the sea which battered Lleyn in the previous winter. I think if there had been any Sky-Larks on the island they would surely have been singing over the fields at five o'clock on a fine May morning. I saw no Swifts or Yellow Buntings; I may have overlooked the Wren. I saw thirty-nine (or forty) species of birds in all, and the list, although doubtless incomplete, may be worth printing, as it gives, at all events, a fair idea of the bird-life of this outlying bit of North Wales.

1. Blackbird (Turdus merula).—Very common, conspicuous, and tame. For want of a better place, the males sang from the top of the stone gate-posts, and from big stones.

2. Wheatear (Saxicola œnanthe).—Fairly common.

3. Whitethroat (Sylvia cinerea).—Fairly numerous about the taller gorse.

4. Willow-Wren (Phylloscopus trochilus).—A few about the lowlying parts.

5. Sedge-Warbler (Acrocephalus phragmitis).—One or two about the willow-beds.

6. Hedge-Sparrow (Accentor modularis).—Pretty common in the lower parts; carrying food.

7. Meadow-Pipit (Anthus pratensis).—Some about the mountain and lower pastures.

8. Rock-Pipit (A. obscurus).—Fairly common.

9. Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa grisola).—Several about the farm-gardens.

10. Swallow (Hirundo rustica).—A good many.

11. House-Martin (Chelidon urbica).—Several seen: one flying about the top of the mountain.

12. Sand-Martin (Cotile riparia).—A few seen.

[Pied Wagtail.—I believe I remember seeing one about one of the farms, but as it is not put down in the pocket-list I made up as I saw each species, I have not numbered it here.]

13. Goldfinch (Carduelis elegans).—At least one pair, and, I believe, more.

14. Linnet (Linota cannabina).—Several seen.

15. House-Sparrow (Passer domesticus).—A fair number about the farms. The males were very bright and clean-looking. In the account of Bardsey furnished to Bingley in 1789 by Mr. Jones, Vicar of Aberdaron, it is stated that, "till about four years ago, no sparrows had been known to breed here; three nests were, however, built during the same spring, and the produce have since completely colonized the place."

16. Chaffinch (Fringilla cœlebs).—Fairly common; in fine song.

17. Corn-Bunting (Emberiza miliaria).—Common; its skirling, jingling song was to be heard all about the cultivated parts of the island.

18. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).—Abundant. Some breed about the cliffs, but many breed in shallow holes in the turf and stone banks which divide the fields. The holes are about two feet (and sometimes less) from the ground, and so shallow that the noisy gaping young were only two or three inches from the surface. Some of the banks were quite musical with the cries of the young birds. Some pairs were breeding in shallow hollows inside an old lime-kiln, and one brood of young could be seen by an observer standing at a distance of a yard or two from the hole.

19. Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus).—In the evening three birds looked very pretty soaring, and wheeling about in curves and circles over the hill-side, evidently at play. They were rather tame, and came so close that their red feet could be seen tucked closely up to their bodies. As they wheeled in the air they spread their tails occasionally. Later on I saw a rather noisy and angry pair at a spot where they were probably breeding. The local name is "Bran pig coch."

20. Jackdaw (Corvus monedula).—Common.

21. Carrion-Crow (C. corone).—One pair seen.

22. Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus).—Several; one beating about near the willows.

23. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).—"Gwalch glas." There was evidently a pair breeding somewhere on the most cliff-like crag on the mountain; but we did not move the female, which must have been sitting on a late clutch of eggs. During the time we were in the vicinity of the crag, the male—a beautiful old blue bird—continued to circle round, occasionally coming overhead, and comparatively close to us. He cried incessantly his harsh grating "quayk quayk quayk quayk." The next morning, when I went up by myself, he behaved in the same way.

24. Kestrel (F. tinnunculus).—Only one seen.

25. Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo).—Seen near Bardsey.

26. Shag (P. graculus).—A few along the east side, where I think they breed.

27. Stock-Dove (Columba œnas).—One on the mountain side.

28. Turtle-Dove (Turtur communis).—To my great surprise, I saw one feeding in one of the little fields. I had never previously met with it in Lleyn, nor, indeed, in any part of the counties of Carnarvon and Merioneth. This individual was probably a wanderer; and the species may be extending its range in North Wales. A friend of mine saw one this year near Dolgelly in May; the only previous occurrence in that neighbourhood known to me was in a past September, when two were seen (and, I think, shot) close to Barmouth.

29. Corn-Crake (Crex pratensis).—Common. I could hear three calling at one time.

30. Peewit (Vanellus vulgaris).—A few; chiefly about the lighthouse end.

31. Oystercatcher (Hæmatopus ostralegus).—"Saer"=the artificer. Fairly common, especially round the rocks of the south point, and along the west side. I think they were breeding where the turf merged into the rocks. But I only looked for one nest; this was among some jagged whitish rocks at the edge of the turf. It was lined with angular stones half an inch to an inch in length, and contained two eggs, the finest Oystercatcher's eggs I ever saw. The one I took was partly incubated. It is a long, rather pointed egg, well marked with large dark markings chiefly round the big end, where the blotches and streaks form a broken zone. The birds mobbed me savagely, flying within ten yards or less of my head, with loud shrieks of "pic." When they settled at a little distance this cry was uttered so rapidly that it developed into a trill.

32. Dunlin (Tringa alpina).—One or two immature birds about the landing-place.

33. Common Sandpiper (Totanus hypoleucus).—One there. It is quite posssble that this species may breed on the island.

34. Curlew (Numenius arquata).—One or two seen.

35. Herring-Gull (Larus argentatus).—Breeding in considerable numbers at the foot of the mountain, on the shelving rocks over the sea. I think a few pairs breed in the breastwork of rock about the south point and the south-west side.

36. Great Black-backed Gull (L. marinus).—One pair had a nest and three eggs near the Herring-Gulls.

37. Razorbill (Alca torda).—I only saw two or three at the foot of the cliffs. They are said to breed in one inaccessible spot.

38. Guillemot (Uria troile).—About a score or more with the Razorbills. Probably the breeding-place is somewhere about the north-east corner. I do not think there can be many birds of either species there; for, although Razorbills began laying in another breeding-place in Lleyn at this date, no Guillemot's egg was seen until a day or two later, although the birds were sitting about the ledges. The proportion of Bardsey birds presumably on the cliff, and not seen by me, to those on the water would probably not have been large.

39. Manx Shearwater (Puffinus anglorum).—There is a considerable colony at the north-east end of the island, on the side of the mountain. When I left the breeding-place, about 9.30 p.m., all was quiet; but about midnight I could hear numbers crying incessantly "cock-cock-go-grow," or "cock-go-grow," over the fields in front of the house I was sleeping in. And one of my boatmen, who was coming along the road about that time, said that, although it was too dark to see them, they appeared to be flying about over the fields, low down. They breed chiefly on a steep grassy cliff varied by patches of fern, and large rocks which project from the turf. Some of the Shearwaters breed in holes under these rocks where they emerge from the turf; others in long clefts in, and winding passages among, the rocks. Most of the birds and eggs are quite inaccessible, but certain marks at the entrance denoted an occupied hole. Some of the birds were indignantly noisy when a stick was gently pushed into the easier holes. We extracted two birds and an egg from burrows. The birds are very savage, and bite everything within reach, and they inflict a painful bite. Another egg we could see in a cleft in the rocks, but could not reach. In one place there was a little cave under some rocks, and in it on the bare earth floor we could see an egg. The entrance of the cave was large enough, when a sod had been pulled away, for a young boatman to wriggle in on his stomach and fetch the egg; inside the cave was large enough for him to turn in. The bird must have retired to some inner fastness. Both the other eggs lay on the bare soil. As far as I have seen the ground immediately in front of holes selected by Shearwaters to breed in always falls very sharply; indeed, in some cases there is a nearly perpendicular rock face or turf slope; this enables the birds to get on the wing readily. I tried to find out if the Shearwater stands on its foot (toes and webs) alone, or on its foot and tarsus, but without coming to a perfectly satisfactory conclusion. But my impression is that when a Shearwater is standing still, on land, it rests on the foot and tarsus; but when it runs forward a few steps to get on the wing, it rises on to its feet. Birds which I held by the tips of the extended wings moved in this way, but declined to remain still. And two that were sent to me once in an open box (from which they could not rise) were always squatted down, until I liberated them.

The avifauna of Bardsey is not unlike that of Lambay Island, off the opposite coast of Ireland, but further north (vide Zool. 1882, p. 155). Of the forty-four species in Mr. Hart's list, I have seen twenty-seven in Bardsey, and all the others (except the Twite, Hooded Crow, Rock-Dove, Black Guillemot, and perhaps the Ring-Dove) very probably occur. In respect of the last named allowance must be made for the different character of the respective mainlands. The Carrion-Crow is naturally replaced on Lambay by the Hooded Crow, although the latter is stated to have been very rarely seen in that part of Ireland at that date. The Black Guillemot formerly bred on Lambay; indeed, a few pairs are said to breed still, as well as on Ireland's Eye, and perhaps at Howth and Wicklow Head, still nearer Bardsey ('Birds of Ireland'). Yet we have no record of it breeding on Bardsey, or in any part of Lleyn.

Of the forty species seen on Bardsey, twenty-seven occur in the Lambay list; and of the other thirteen, one (the Chough) formerly bred there, and the rest (save the Carrion-Crow, Turtle-Dove, and Stock-Dove) are all common Irish birds. The Turtle-Dove is as rare in Lleyn as in Ireland. Part of the (limited) breeding range of the Stock-Dove in Ireland (Wicklow) lies just opposite Bardsey.

  1. Thomas Pennant (1883)—Tours in Whales. Caernarvon : H. Humphreys. Vol II, Part II, p. 369. See also this page (Wikisource-Ed.).
  2. Cf. Giraldus, of the Irish soil.

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