My season volunteering on Handa Island

Dora Hamilton volunteered on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve as a Seabird Fieldworker in 2021. We asked her to share some of the special moments and experiences from the placement. 

Our staff and volunteer team on Handa in 2021. Dora is second from the right.

What was challenging about living on Handa?

I’m used to living in the Central Belt and it took me about three weeks to adjust to living on Handa. I learned that you constantly need to compromise and you don’t have any personal space – except when you are in your bunk with the curtain closed!  The island is extremely remote and it is an intense experience. The midges were bad at times!

What do you notice about ordinary life now you have left the island?

At first, it was difficult to re-adjust after the intensity and the joy of being on Handa. Life on the mainland is so noisy with all the cars and people. Everyone has so many possessions and things, and there is a different mindset. The wildlife and the landscapes are different too! On Handa you feel like you have your own private beaches on your own island.

How has your placement on Handa helped your job prospects?

Since leaving Handa I’ve have successfully applied for a post as a Field Guide at Aigas Field Station near Beauly. The experience I gained on the island has been instrumental in securing this job.

My placement on Handa has been so important in my career development. It is great for your CV because you can demonstrate real experience of working in a remote environment. The ability to live with others is an important aspect of a number of conservation jobs, as is experience of interacting with the public.

Home sweet home © Dora Hamilton

What did you miss while you were on Handa?

Not much! Dry shoes, yoghurt and ice cream! I do have to say that while you can’t just walk to the corner shop, you are able to stock up on supplies regularly during the season.

How has the experience changed you?

I have a better appreciation of wild places and to be able to observe the changing seasons. It was great to meet new people especially during a period of lockdown for many people. I enjoyed ‘being in the present’ and appreciating the experience while it was still happening.

What was it like to be with the other staff and volunteers on Handa?

It was a great experience. Everyone bonded quickly and formed a strong team. Everyone was supportive and you could speak out if there were any issues. The whole team was on the same wavelength and we were all on Handa for the same reasons.

If you needed time to yourself, you could escape to a corner of the island and drop out for a while. In terms of getting to know each other we probably crammed in five years of friendship into six months! We were so comfortable with each other and could simply be ourselves. It was great to be surrounded by people who shared a love of nature.

A group of puffins on Handa Island © Dora Hamilton

What were some of your wildlife highlights on Handa?

There were so many highlights. Carrying out seabird monitoring from the sea was a special experience. You can truly appreciate the huge height of the sea wall from a unique position.

But even seeing the birds from land was special – I’d never been to a seabird colony before and there were such a large number of birds for such a small island. Monitoring the skua nests was a real privilege – particularly seeing nests with warm eggs!

We were lucky to get multiple sightings of white tailed eagles, sometimes close up. One day I stumbled across an otter and was able to spend 20 minutes watching it.

Seeing Risso’s dolphins from the island was another amazing sight.

Fishing on Handa Island © Dora Hamilton

What sort of social activities did you have?

We went wild swimming most days and sometimes at night. We camped out over midsummer evening and enjoyed starry nights. We had an occasional beach bonfire. We organised a scavenger hunt with clues & limericks placed around the island. We even set up a Reggae Bar on a beach and invited ourselves to our own party!

We held a ceilidh evening and we made sure we celebrated birthdays by decorating the bothy with bunting, making cards and baking cakes.

To coincide with the Olympics Games and not wanting to be left out, we organised our own Bothy Olympics. Events included book balancing over an obstacle course, picking up objects without using your hands and navigating around a chair without touching the ground. Obviously we held medal ceremonies after each event!

How would you sum up your experience?

It was brilliant, a fantastic experience filled with unique moments. The difficulty I had re-adjusting to normal life afterwards demonstrates just how good the experience was.

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Dora Hamilton volunteered on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve as a Seabird Fieldworker in 2021. We asked her to share some of the special moments and experiences from the placement.  What …

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