Nine things I (quickly) learned while volunteering on Handa

Living and working on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve is an exciting challenge. In this blog Ellie Berry shares a few of the things she has learned about the island, and herself, during the season so far.

1. Fridges are (largely) unnecessary

When I arrived on Handa, one of the first things that struck me in the bothy was that the milk was out in the open. I found myself compulsively moving to put it in the fridge – but of course, with limited solar-powered electricity, there is no fridge on Handa. Having now been here almost two months, I have almost forgotten why fridges are even necessary – the cold patch of floor that we keep our fresh goods on performs its role perfectly (pretty much).

We perhaps have to think through meals more carefully than others, and hot weather can cause issues, but in all honesty oat milk really doesn’t need to be kept strictly cool. Aside from a block of cheese that ended up smelling suspiciously of feet, none of my food has gone off (not to the point of it being inedible, anyway).

Puffins are understandably a favourite with visitors © Ellie Berry

2. Preparation is key, forgetting to buy enough biscuits is costly

When you’ve spent a full day chatting to the public, counting and recounting people onto boats, and running back and forth between the sand dunes, you don’t necessarily feel like thinking through what you want to eat for the next two weeks. The Ranger picks up an online food delivery roughly every fortnight, and I made the crucial error of randomly clicking on items in a haze on my phone rather than planning my meals.

Intense dark chocolate digestives cravings led me to a seven mile hike to Scourie Stores carrying an empty bag, which consequently became laden with biscuits, chocolate, cheese, oat milk, popcorn, sweets, and other items to keep me and the team healthy until the next food delivery.

This came with the added advantage of some time off-island, but not so far that I got withdrawal symptoms; the coastal path from Tarbet to Scourie frames Handa beautifully between rugged, heathery hillocks, giving a new appreciation of our tilted lump of Torridonian sandstone in the shining blue sea.

3. Swimming with your boss is normal

Living on a small island island means that the sea is never far from you. The Ranger this year has made a personal goal of swimming every day, and it wasn’t long before I was swimming with her. Living and working together in such an isolated spot has quickly turned us into a family, particularly as we share so much – including a love of birds, adventurousness and a ridiculous sense of humour.

A ‘kind’ common gull on Handa Island © Ellie Berry

4. Gulls don’t actually look that alike

Before coming to Handa, my birding knowledge was limited to perhaps a marginally-higher-than-average knowledge of British birds. I must admit that I was a little intimidated by my colleagues’ impressive ability to glance at a gull and immediately distinguish it from another, telling me the obvious features that differentiate a kittiwake from a common gull and a common gull from a herring gull.

Perhaps the most alarming was a common gull being described as ‘kinder-looking’ than a herring gull – how does one establish how kind a gull looks? Nevertheless, with time I’ve found it easier and easier to remember which gull has which colour legs, and have even trained myself to recognise a gull’s sympathies. I’ve been surprised at how I’ve got my eye in, helped along by my fellow islanders being wonderful, patient teachers.

It’s remarkable what the brain can automate with a little time and effort, and it’s extremely satisfying to now point out one gull from another to visitors and impart the knowledge that’s been imparted upon me.

5. The spectrum of the general public’s knowledge of the natural world is wild

Although Handa brings in a lot of birders from Britain, the range of visitors from other countries that we get is quite wide. We’ve met a huge amount of Dutch people – Handa must be famous in the Netherlands. We’ve also met visitors from France, Belgium, Austria, Sudan and Uganda. Amusingly, I’ve chatted to more people who’ve heard of the tiny Cotswolds village that I grew up in here on Handa than anywhere else in the world.

From people who can describe the minutiae of lichen and pond invertebrates to you, to those who have only really heard of puffins, the general public have such a range of experience in nature. It’s a pleasure to speak to such a spectrum of folks, and to see that everyone seems to enjoy the island, no matter their understanding of what they’re seeing. Human beings truly are wired to thrive in the great outdoors, and Handa provides a spectacular backdrop for it.

6. Hearing about people’s sightings is almost as painful as not seeing the animal yourself

There are some species that get recognised by pretty much anyone – one particularly notorious creature being the orca. On one memorable day, myself and Annie were on boats (hence at the landing beaches all day), when a visitor approached us and casually mentioned he’d seen an orca fin. Sure enough, his photo showed the characteristic massive black dorsal with a white-ish saddle patch behind.

Orcas haven’t been seen here since 2018, which is obviously massive news and fantastic for the visitors and the two other lucky team members who were at the right spots at the right times, but rather heart-wrenching for Annie and I. We only became greener with envy as the pod cruelly multiplied and our friends told us they’d seen them again, now three adults and two juveniles. Of course it’s lovely to see visitors having once-in-a-lifetime days, and it’s part of the parcel – no one can see everything on the island. It doesn’t make dozens of visitors coming back and telling you about it any easier, but the privilege of living on the island helps you to keep humble, especially when visitors get to experience the island at its most generous and enchanting.

7. Low tide has no mercy

’Orca Day’ was made extra special by an unusually low spring tide and beautiful, sunny weather. This meant that crowds of people made it onto the island and then couldn’t make it back off for two hours in the afternoon (the jetty in Tarbet doesn’t reach the boat at low tide).

Annie and I entertained orca-enchanted visitors from 1-3pm, their numbers eventually reaching about 100. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing humans can do to change the tides; happily, the visitors were all very patient and we enjoyed the extra challenge of ensuring they made it onto the return ferry in a fair order. It was an adrenaline fuelled day, and a valuable reminder that humans simply can’t control everything in the natural world.

The view of Handa from the coastal walk © Ellie Berry

8. A cuckoo’s call is less romantic at 4am

Speaking of things out of your control – the arrival of spring, while rainy and windy, brought with it a cuckoo that has set up camp in the woods next to the bothy. When it was first heard, we all strained our ears to hear those familiar and nostalgic up-down ‘coo-coo’ noise. A few days in, and I am now cursing that cuckoo as it sits on the roof at four in the morning and drums out the same two notes for hours at a time. I’m partially joking – I love being surrounded by the nature that at one time would have been much wider spread around the UK. It just wouldn’t hurt for the bird to schedule his calls a little later in the day!

9. Oystercatchers aren’t actually that cute

When I originally arrived on Handa, I mentioned to my new colleagues that I loved the sound of oystercatchers as they reminded me of my childhood. I received some side-eyes, and it wasn’t long until I realised why – oystercatchers are noisy little birds, and their squeaking and peeping can be rather insistent at times.

They form part of the backdrop to life on the island though, and it’s particularly impressive to watch them seeing off much larger birds, such as bonxies or great black-backed gulls, when they get too close to their nests. A host of other birds complete the Handa scene and have become ‘part of the furniture’.

This doesn’t make them any less impressive though, and it gives me just as much joy to go and observe the thousands of razorbills and guillemots as it does to spot something rarer up here, such as the red kite we had a few weeks ago. I’ve learned heaps of new bird calls, which myself and my fellow islanders enjoy imitating incessantly around the bothy. I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of living in such a vibrant, alive place.


Ellie Berry, Assistant Ranger and Skua Monitoring Assistant





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Living and working on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve is an exciting challenge. In this blog Ellie Berry shares a few of the things she has learned about the island, and …

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