Perched on the headland at Rocken End, at St Catherine’s Point, is possibly one of the best places in Britain to see migrating birds heading back to their summer breeding grounds. But this promontory above Watershoot Bay is very exposed.
Sometimes you may only be able to see the birds far out to sea as they fly past, but when the wind is from the East or south the birds often come in, and stop to feed before resuming their flight.
“You ideally need a south easterly wind for sea bird migration,” said Ian Ridett, one of the National Trust wardens responsible for St Catherine’s Point. “And you may see birds like the Bar Tailed Godwit on their way to Arctic Russia in May, Arctic Skua and the Great Skua or Bonxie.
“Sea watching to the West of the lighthouse, by the rock you can see Sandwich and Common Terns, Arctic Terns, Common Scoter, Shelduck, Red and Black Throated Divers, Long Tailed Ducks and Manx Shearwaters.
“Wheatears drop by from mid march to mid May. Later in May Greenland Wheatears come up from sub Saharan Africa, through the UK and Ireland on their way to Greenland. Whinchats also pass by on their way to northerly breeding sites.
“We have Yellow Wagtails, that you’ll find around the feet of the cattle. They’re bright yellow and may be feeding amongst Wildebeest and Zebra in Africa during the winter.
“Occasionally we get grey Wagtails but that would generally be in the autumn. We also get the odd Hoopoe here – these are usually continental birds that have flown off course.”
The area also attracts migrant birds of prey. “We had three red kites together here last spring and I’ve seen two in Niton already this spring,” said Ian. “Osprey and Marsh Harrier pass through here and the Common Buzzard nests nearby
“We also have nesting Peregrines and Ravens. In recent years Fulmars have arrived – their population has increased due to the increase in fishing discards possibly due to changing fishing quotas. They used to only nest on St Kilda in the UK.”
St Catherine’s Lighthouse sits at the most southerly point of the Island, standing sentinel over the treacherous rocks that lurk under the water here. But the land behind the lighthouse beneath the imposing sandstone and greensand cliffs can be just as dangerous, with regular landslides altering the landscape.
“The Undercliff has many sheltered pockets between the tumbling rocks and mudslides which provide many niches for a variety of wildlife,” explained Ian.
Clearing the bramble and bracken from the tumbling pastureland has improved the habitat for nesting birds. “Stonechats bred here last year, and they haven’t bred here for a long time,” said Ian.
The National Trust owns Knowles Farm, next to the lighthouse, and there is a holiday cottage available to rent. This site is famous for being one of the first places that Marconi managed to send a message across the Atlantic by telegraph. The base of the mast that sent the messages can be seen in the seaward field next to the farmhouse.
At the top of the road, take a turn right over a stile, just before the road falls away down to the lighthouse, and you can explore the higher chalk upland, but beware of adders sunning themselves.
Walk further to the west and you will come across the end of what was once the Blackgang Road, now a dead end known as Windy Corner. In the trees bordering the road and the fields behind you will hear all of the usual woodland birds such as Great Tits, Robins, Blackbirds, Wrens, Hedge Sparrows/Dunnocks and Green Woodpeckers.
Make your way down the pathway through the undergrowth of trees and you will find still more – but make sure you have plenty of hours of daylight or a guide as these pathways can be confusing. You will find lush undergrowth, gorse brush and grassy knolls. You may also end up on the naturist beach at the bottom.
Ian is taking an organised walk from Windy Corner as part of the IW Walking Festival – hopefully to see some migratory birds. St. Catherine’s Point Spring Bird Watch: Date: May 7- Time: 08:00 – Location: Windy Corner car park.