Peck off: Why this bird warden endures bird attacks and living on a deserted Dublin island
Would you like to spend 100 days on a deserted island off the coast of north Dublin? Probably not!
For some people, the idea of leaving civilisation behind to spend the summer on an isolated island sounds nightmarish, but for Brian Burke, it’s the ideal job.
From 2014 to 2016, Burke worked as a bird warden with BirdWatch Ireland on Rockabill Island which lies about 7km off the coast of Skerries.
The island is small, measuring just 0.9 hectares; it’s roughly the size of a football pitch. On site there are a few houses, some walled gardens, a lighthouse and a whole colony of roseate terns.
The birds are what make this place special. Over 80pc of the European population of roseate terns live on the island.
‘’It’s hugely important,’’ explains Burke. ‘’It’s the rarest breeding seabird in Europe. Over 80pc of them are all on this tiny little island off the coast of Dublin. If anything happened to this island, if there was an oil spill or if people brought their dogs out and they harmed the nests, it could completely wipe out this species. It’s so important that we protect it.’’
Life as a warden
The success of the conservation efforts is largely down to the wardens that live on the island each summer. While there is electricity (for two hours per day) thanks to a diesel generator there is no running water so they must rely on the ocean or wait for barrels of fresh water to be delivered.
‘’We would get supplies every two to three weeks,’’ explains Burke. ‘’Someone would come out and they would bring you fresh bread, fresh milk, fresh fruit. If you were running short on anything they would bring it out then. You had to be prepared in case the weather was bad and boats couldn’t land.’’
The life of a warden is not easy but Burke is adamant that it is still better than any desk job. Even if the birds would often attack them at every given opportunity.
‘’It’s not glamourous,’’ Burke acknowledges. ‘’When you’re out there, the birds are nesting so they’re trying to protect themselves. They will peck you and they will crap on you as well. That’s how they deal with any predators that come into the colony so they treat you the same.’’
Thankfully the wardens always have backup as there are at least two people stationed on Rockabill during the summer months.
An average day consists of counting nests and eggs, recording chicks and monitoring feeding habits from specially constructed ‘hides’ where wardens can birdwatch without being seen.
‘’You’re kept busy the whole time. You’ve been following hundreds of nests from the day the adults laid their first egg until the day the chicks were hatching,’’ he explains. “You’re getting to see those chicks getting bigger and bigger and getting ready to fly off to Africa. You’re really invested, you don’t want to miss a moment of it.’’
Roseate terns conservation
In order to protect this rare species, Burke gathered scientific data on nesting roseate terns as part of an EU-funded Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project, which began in 2016.
This project is a partnership between a number of organisations under the EU’s Life Programme, which supports environmental, nature conservation and climate action initiatives. Last year, just over 1,500 roseate pairs were counted nesting on Rockabill, a huge improvement on previous years.
Burke believes that Rockabill is now one of the most successful conservation programmes in Ireland.
‘’We have 10 times as many pairs now than when we started working on Rockabill. There have been a few dips but more or less the numbers have been going up and up. Usually, for conservation projects in Ireland, the graph tends to go the other way. It’s quite hard to turn things around for a species that’s under pressure but Rockabill has been hugely successful and we’re so proud of it.’’
Recognising a job well done
It’s this passion that lead to Burke being named as an ‘ordinary hero’ by the ‘’EU Together We Protect’’ campaign. The campaign promotes the people who protect EU citizens through EU funded mechanisms. The campaign celebrates ‘the chain of ordinary heroes’ from all EU countries who work together every day across Europe to protect EU citizens and their environment, safety, health and society.
Burke was thrilled to be given the accolade.
‘’I was delighted,’’ he explains. ‘’I was a warden for three years; very few people do it for that long. It’s great to be able to highlight the project. I also want to highlight the work of the other 40 or 50 people who have worked out on Rockabill over the last 30 years. I’m an ambassador; it’s not just about me it’s about all of them too.’’
Visit the EU Protects homepage and read about other Irish and European local heroes who are working on your behalf to provide a safer, more secure European Union.