So as you may know I'm currently halfway through a stint as an "Assistant Ranger" at the National Trust for Scotland's utterly fantastic St. Abbs Head National Nature Reserve. I wanted to put together a post detailing the various perks of working in such a place with the ultimate aim of persuading more to people to head out and volunteer for positions such as mine! Yes my post is voluntary, but we all have to start somewhere and truth be told the job pretty much pays for itself with beautiful scenery, outstanding wildlife and for the birders among use stacks upon stacks of fantastic seabirds.
The first and perhaps the most obvious benefit of taking on such a role is the obvious boost to your CV, especially if, like me, you're seeking a career in conservation, ecology or some like minded pursuit.
Secondly, we all like to do something good for others once in a while? Volunteering for organisations such as the RSPB, National Trust and so forth is a sure fire way to make yourself feel all warm inside by contributing towards what is undeniably a very importance cause! These almost certainly are the main reasons people choose the volunteer and for me at least were in the forefront of my mind when applying for my current role.
If you need more motivation to undertake a spell as a volunteer warden, ranger or so forth then imagine having some of the most beautiful and pristine places in the country on your doorstep, all of the time. For me the real perk of the jobs here at St. Abbs is exploring the reserve after hours once the visitors, dogs, noisy children and grumpy photographers have left. The phrase "kid in a sweet shop" springs to mind.
Having the reserve to myself means I see a lot of things other visitors simply miss with the mammals here at St. Abbs a perfect testament to this. Sure many visitors may catch the odd glimpse of a Rabbit, Hare of if they're lucky a Stoat or Weasel but I doubt many of them have been lucky enough to enjoy the more secretive residents of the site. I have! The last few months have provided innumerable encounters with Roe Deer, Badgers, Foxes, Stoats, Bats, Shrews and Hares often down to within a few metres at times. This goes without mentioning the excellent views of Grey Seal, Harbor Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin and Minke Whale obtained from my favourite seawatching rock!
Of course it's not just mammals that show better outside of working hours and as every birder knows mornings and evenings often toss up the best views and in the case of St. Abbs at least the best birds. Some highlights of my placement so far include Green-Winged Teal, Red-Backed Shrike, Ring Ouzel, Mandarin (2), Spotted Flycatcher and lots of raptors! Even if you don't find the birds yourself you're pretty well situated to be "next on the scene" as soon as the news comes out. Sadly I was just two days late to see both the Collared Flycatcher and Subalpine Warbler that turned up here in May *weeps*!
It's not just the rarities and secretive mammals that make volunteering at St. Abbs the amazing affair that is it. Equally important is the chance to immerse yourself in surroundings totally different to those you're used to. For me the awe inspiring cliffs of St. Abbs and the 40,000+ sea birds that adorn them like jewelry are a gigantic change from the fields and inland water bodies I'm used to birding/lurking about on a regular basis. Not only do you find yourself learning a lot more, broadening your identification skills and having a genuinely amazing time you simply end up seeing things you're not at all used to!
For me a few examples are Common Scoter and Manxie, both of which I'd seen before but never so close. Peregrine and Kestrel on the nest and in the case of the latter feeding chicks. Heck, even the Gulls have surprised me, obviously I've seen photos and videos of Great Black-Backs hunting other seabirds but before St. Abbs never had I witnessed the act myself. Until last week that is when I watched a monstrous individual drowning and consuming an almost fully grown Guillemot chick; one of the ones I'd been monitoring on my plots no less! I couldn't possibly recite all of the interesting and in some cases surprising events witnessed over the past months without turning this post into more of a bird based, excited rant than it already is but what I can say is that the past months (and hopefully those to come) have been some of the best of my life and have resulted in me not only learning a lot and bettering my chances of one day getting paid for this sort of thing but also meeting stacks of interesting and knowledgeable people, all of whom I'll no doubt keep in touch with come September when I leave.
If you ever find yourself with the time to up sticks and do something spontaneous like undertake a long term residential placement or similar role, do it! You really won't regret and the organisations you donate your time to really are grateful to have you. Sure I'm not being paid here at St. Abbs but I do have free access to all National Trust reserves nationwide for a whole year and if that wasn't enough I'm heading out free of charge to the Isle of May tomorrow for a day of puffins, terns and other treats. Just another incentive to get out and start volunteering! Who knows where it will take you..
James is a 20 year old birder/conservation nut and wannabe naturalist based along the North-East coast near the reserves of NWT East Chevington and Druridge Bay. The last few years he has spent studying BHs Animal Conservation Science at the university of Cumbria from which he has now graduated.