Monday, 17 September 2012


Somewhere in the East Midlands a Red Kite spirals over a slip road. It’s rusty red tail burns bright against the late summer sky. At the same time, the same somewhere, in the back seat of a passing car I can see the kite: turning over the road, head down, tail splayed out; until a lorry wipes out my view, and it’s gone. Just wispy white clouds and the faint left hand side of the moon and motorway anonymity. I’m heading north.

Later, in Yorkshire, the kites come more regularly: spiralling over verges, capping a kettle of Buzzards, drifting high over the A1. The route is one that is familiar to me, the birds are familiar too, but I’ve never seen so many of them. More than Kestrels in fact. Increasing populations? Increase in me paying attention? Sheer coincidence of the right kite in the right place at the right time? Take your pick.

Along the verges the dying embers of Rosebay Willowherb add colour to the late summer green.


Oh Stirling. You see the English summer and take it just one notch further. My highland friend says coming south to here is like returning to summer. To me it’s like being fast tracked to autumn. A particularly wet, miserable autumn.

This is, I think, why people are surprised to find I go to university in Scotland. It’s no surprise to me. Too much of England is blind to it and sees it (very wrongly) as the land that culture forgot. That bloody place responsible for filling the TV news with the irresolvable certainties of the yes and no campaigns that passes for the independence debate. Too many of my friends have set off to travel the world without seeing beyond their own corner of England. Sometimes I feel if my wanderlust is warped and only works for the four gorgeous corners of wild Britain. I think I bleed Irn Bru and breathe Iain Crichton Smith.

Almost everywhere in Stirling is within sight of a mountain range. From campus, on a clear day, you can see six different mountain ranges: from the Lammermuirs to the Trossachs. It’s a textured landscape. The peaty soil preserves the history, the battles fought (and thought), the ridges and furrows where the moor was once farmed. The contrast to Suffolk, flat Suffolk, couldn’t be greater. There’s no birds here though, or so it seems from regular walks up and down and through the land here. I don’t mind that sometimes. My abiding childhood memory are holidays in the hills of the Lake District. Sometimes I revert to childishness and use the land here as my own adventure play park.


The problem with writing anything with any degree of certainty is that sooner or later you end up looking like an idiot. Notice earlier, I said there were no birds in Stirling…

Scotland has a habit of starting raining the second you leave a building. I have a habit of not taking a waterproof jacket, and the correlation between these two occurrences is strongly positive. With my head down in my sodden hoody I walk up the stone streets of Bridge of Allan. It’s 12 o’clock. I glance up: the weather shows no sign of clearing. And then, in the uncanny way that this happens, a bird flew through my life. Or, more accurately, it flew just over house height, west along Bridge of Allan high street, barely comprehending I was there. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing: the long, thin, swept-back wings; long neck and wedge of a tail of a Gannet; the dusky plumage of a juvenile.

You feel very far away from the sea here, though the Forth is apparently tidal as far as Stirling bridge. A 6 foot wide, 3 kilo seabird looks very out of place here. It’s dreich, and it gets dreicher the further west you go: this Gannet was due to hit the lochs of the Trossachs before possibly making its way down to the Firth of Clyde, I guess. As unlikely as it seems, it actually fits into recent patterns of Gannet movement quite nicely: later that day forty (40!) were seen over Andy Murray’s victory parade in Dunblane; a somewhat more eco-friendly flypast than the RAF could’ve managed. Further up the Forth, at Bo’ness, Kinneil and Skinflats, three figure flocks of Gannets were reported from the 10th of September; though the first in land wasn’t seen until yesterday, with two over Doune (8 miles away), 4 over Thornhill and 1 flying along Loch Lubnaig.

I have no idea why this mini exodus of Gannets up the Forth has happened. It’s unpredictable, inexplicable and part of the incongruous fun of birding. As I stood by the Forth in a residential area, just east of the main city, a man proffered his opinion: no fish left in the sea. Or maybe it’s the weather. Maybe there’s a storm on the way, he said, straightening his cap before walking off. I waited for my friend. It wasn’t just Gannets. Also floating in the Forth were nine Guillemots; black and white and slightly disheveled. All facing up stream into the flow, vigorously paddling with clockwork feet: seven lost, drifting slowly downstream; two were winning and moving slowly up stream. All from a low bridge, the sort of view of a Guillemot you should never really get. You should never really be close enough to a Guillemot to see its feet paddling, to discern minute plumage differences in the head, body, wings. My friend arrived, a German this time, and keen to try birding. I started her with these, showing her how to use binoculars. She solemnly nodded as I explained that they shouldn’t be here. Then she burst out laughing at their feet. Sometimes you have to laugh. I just hope they don’t become Guillemorts.

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