Monday, 2 November 2015

On Orford Beach (after Sebald)

The lighthouse edges closer to the North Sea. It will go the way of Slaughden, five miles north of here and sixty two years a relic under the sea. Or perhaps like Orford harbour, suffocated by shingle. Nothing lasts forever on the shifting stones of Orford Ness. The waves made this sculpted shingle spit, the waves remake it and the waves take from it too. Underfoot it crunches like the waves that break upon the shore. Rain. Leaves, miles from the nearest tree, are blown on the wind. A hare skims over the shingle crests like tumbleweed. Tumbleweed, that is, that hunkers down to the stones behind the sickly green sea kale and disappears completely.

To disappear completely in a landscape that could be drawn like an architect’s plan, a landscape of regular lines and flat horizons would seem difficult. Even with the weather settling in, when either end of the spit disappears into the greyness of distance, the in-between space seems impossibly open. But the repetition of shingle and its undulations played a trick on me. The dappled colour, the pointillism of the land warped my eyes. I felt the shingle rising, floating around me, a disorientation in the way that no shingle beach had done to me before.

The walk around Orford Ness takes you back to the military huts across the salt marsh channel on a bridge with no sides, along a ribbon of broken concrete.

I am beckoned into the dark. Laboratory four. My eyes adjust to the green and the dust and the dirt. A bone lies in the corner, dully shining. I pick up a hard hat from the pile. On one wall paint is cracking and peeling, like a layer of lichen; the ceiling camouflaged by the creep of algae across the concrete. With the guide I descend down a crumbling, darkened set of stairs, handrail flaking rust, to the bottom.

He explains. They call these the pagodas. The overlapping concrete roof, raised on columns with a dome of wind-sculpted shingle on top gives them the look of a religious building. The reason for this is because the roof is designed to break apart. The high windows blow out, the columns give way, the concrete breaks in the middle and the shingle pours in like a waterfall, sealing the building and whatever remains inside.

An instant tomb. A shingle sepulchre.

Everything else is, apparently, a mystery. Geiger counters suggest that nuclear material was not tested on site, though the evidence that does exist says that the explosive triggers that cause the nuclear reactions in atom bombs were. It's hard to tell anything from the evidence left inside laboratory four: the walls are as high as a church, clad with metal panels with crucifixes cut out of them. Rusting veins of pipes still run. Of the numbers stencilled on the walls, the number 23 is the least faded.

23 years ago W. G. Sebald walked on the shingle here, feeling like he was passing through an undiscovered country, and though the feeling remains it is no long the same. The year after he came the National Trust bought the site and set about discovering it. Paths were made safe, cleared of the ordinance that still crops up, unearthed by the progress of shingle. Buildings were surveyed. Archives were explored, information collected, former soldiers spoken too. Truth is relative here. Story proliferates. I was told that the radar warehouse halfway up the Ness contains the wreck of a UFO found at Rendlesham and that the sea between here and Shingle Street was one day set ablaze — and charred uniformed bodies washed ashore. Allegedly.

This is not the same National Trust that does tea rooms in manor halls. The manners here are decay and entropy, its spirit not tamed, its truth still elusive. A progressive preservation of a place that -- without celebration or judgement -- has become a museum to Suffolk's small part in mutually assured destruction. A museum to the apocalypse that it nearly caused. 

23 years ago, knowing only that it was once the site of military testing, Sebald felt that he was 'amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe'. A place that eluded him and his all knowing voice. It eludes still. 

I come over clammy, claustrophobic in the dark of laboratory four. The weight of shingle on the roof oppresses, the certainty of a building designed to smother and suffocate completely. Back out in the bright light of the cloudy day, amongst the ruined outbuildings, wire shells and sprawl of brambles, I can breathe again.

In the shelter of one of the buildings sits the casing from an old nuclear missile, a collection of military signs, and photographs of soldiers. In the doorway a garden cross spider trailing silk, manipulates its back legs and weaves its web from the outside in. From the brambles strewn among the huts a goldcrest forages, gleaning invisible insects from the thick clumps of leaves and thorns, its crown of gold glowing in the late afternoon gloom. It is the most alive thing on this almost island of the dead.

What will survive of us is not love but brambles, rocks and concrete.

Friday, 2 October 2015

The North Ron Diaries: Reckonings

‘It was a fortunate wind
that blew me here. I leave
half-ready to believe
that a crippled trust might

and the half-true rhyme is

(Seamus Heaney)
Sanderling: from the high Arctic to west Africa
I’ve never experienced seasonal changes so sudden and dramatic as they are here. The diffuse process by which the earth tilts to and from the sun, the growth, death and movement of things seem amplified this far north. Winter lasted through to the end of June — then summer suddenly in July. August baked, then the sky washed the migrating birds out of it and made late summer a humid, bird-filled affair. The first of September was when the warmth went and the Arctic wind brought autumn in. Autumn is not a mellow season here. There is no hint in the wind, no first falling leaves. The wind is cutting and cold. The leaves on the few sheltered sycamores, that have grown for two hundred years to barely twelve foot, are shrivelling, withered at the edges and snatched at by the wind. From the fields Snipe spring up like a jack in the boxes that carry on climbing through the sky. Fieldfares rattle down the walls, earlier than I have ever seen them before.

For birds these seasons are vague and personal. August was the month when we had an arrival, when birds converged on the island en masse as an oasis from the wind and rain. Wrynecks and Icterine Warblers perched beside the locally bred Linnets and Blackbirds — autumn meeting summer. September is the month when it is autumn for all creatures. September is the month when everything begins to move. 

It is clearest out to sea. The Arctic Terns have left, heading for Australia then onto Antarctica, a journey that can take a bird from fledging to arrival a mere three months to complete. Instead Sooty Shearwaters stream past the island for several weeks as a metronomic presence — consistently ten per hour — on their way south for spring. An island bird throughout the world, they breed in the extremes of the Southern Hemisphere, spending their winter sweeping across oceans in the northern summer. The rougher weather of autumn in this end of the Atlantic suits them well. In calm conditions they dawdle, unsuitably stiff-winged. Into a strong wind the long thin wings shear up and down, echoing the crashing waves that threaten to, but never quite, wash them out of the sky.

Sooty Shearwater by George Gay
As the month progresses the change in birds reflects distances travelled and distances left to go. The Willow Warblers of August fade — in numbers and colour — until the last of the paler birds from the far north have passed through. Mid-month is when the Yellow-browed Warblers turn up, having come from the forests of Siberia to flit down dykes, fences and lurk in the weedy corners of the island. It was my privilege to ring one that turned up in our nets, taking it snugly between four fingers, and feeling it's weightlessness, the thrum of its heart and the delicacy of the wings that can take the bird over enormous distances. The scales said 5.9 grams. 

When I see them I see them mostly in thistle fields. Scurrying between the purple heads that are softened and just about turning to seed, feeding on barely perceptible insects. It is typically the dreich days that brings the warblers in and under glowering skies, a bird not much bigger than my index finger and bright vivid green and white with butter yellow stripes seems impossible — too small, too bright, too fragile in a place so harsh. It's a marvel that they make it here at all. The wonder is that they're a relatively modern phenomenon, and turning up in numbers that suggests their occurrence isn't the result of freak errant migrations. Despite being thousands of miles off course, they have been discovered spending the winter in the Canary Islands instead of South East Asia. Not all those that are lost succumb. Some become the pioneers of a new range, a new distribution. The survivors that return to Siberia to breed pass on their new migration routes. We still don't know how birds do it, where the impulse to migrate and the mechanics behind how they navigate lies. We don’t know why distribution changes like this.


I have an interest in lives lived in geographical extremes, whether human or animal, up mountain, island or deep in the country. I read an article recently on life in an Alaskan cabin that rang true to me. The author was living out the Thoreauvian desire to live deliberately but found herself wrestling with the boredom of freedom and the question of how to fill a day, when not swatting insects or walking seven miles to the local shop. What she remembered from amongst the mundane days are the moments of unexpected beauty that punctuate life in remote places. It’s the same on an island like this. The days off are boring, the days on are menial, full of mucking in (or out), and then you’d have a close encounter with a bird, or the first clarity after fog, or still evenings when the setting sun burns up through the salted air. Life on islands fills you with close encounters. Island life is a leveller. It is only the tourists who care that you’re not half Viking with a family tree traceable to St Magnus. Instead — though rife with enough politics to fill a soap opera — I found a place full of the warmth of five minute conversations with everyone you pass up the main road. A mutual agreement that if you’re living on a tiny island with a population of less than fifty, you share a smile and a wave, and it just makes things work better. I was lucky in what I did. Most islanders don’t get a day off and life is hard when your livelihood relies upon cows and the fields are waterlogged and the grass doesn’t grow. They don’t get much time to sit and look but the unexpected beauty of the place still finds its way into their lives.

Like the author in Alaska, I have seen the northern lights. Despite an obsession with checking every clear night, and every cloudy night when my phone pinged an aurora alert at me, I only saw it three times: a green flickering, like lit gas under a hob, but taking up the northern horizon of the night sky. I saw it best at 3 am, ripped from my sleep and hardly awake, an uncomprehending, shivering, staring at the sky. I have a crisis of imagination when confronted by it. No words for it, no language with which to process it. I wonder if in the past it was taken for a supernatural event because when words come to me they come as surreal and technicolour. I almost feel the same way about the night sky. The milky way, the shooting stars, the constellations I don’t know the name of. Growing up under light pollution the reaction is to regard this night sky as somehow fake, as if it were the product of some digital trickery.

Aurora over Lurand by George Gay


There are some other things I have no language for. Grey hairs, a creased face. Crashing waves and a bit lip. A nervous scratch until it bleeds.

I have never been good at goodbyes.

When I arrived on the back of a March gale I was fairly broken. Chewed up by a London life that I didn’t want to live, nerve-endings frayed to the point where I couldn’t be sure if I could last a journey on the tube, the walk to the park, a conversation. I retreated to North Ronaldsay for a different work. I was soft-handed then, now I can shear and worm sheep, care for lambs and dig holes in stony ground to put up gates and bake cheesecakes and bread. In the process I made myself again, until I felt fully human again — and I carried on working until the concept of home meant a small island as much as it did the open fields of East Anglia.

September is the month when it is autumn for all creatures.

Now it is time to leave for another not-yet-home, the other east of Essex. I am not looking forward to leaving here. Over six months I forged a relationship with this place that feels like love, and it is possible in the pain of parting to feel that it was better to have never loved at all than to have loved and left. But it couldn’t be any other way. As Anne Sexton wrote, ‘[to love...] is like a prayer and can’t be planned… you just fall / into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief’. And I had no idea from my first walk out, along the sea spume covered rocks and across the dykes I would learn to jump, that this wind-raked, salt-harrowed place would undo my disbelief, my culture shock, in the way that it did. And it won't feature in the end of year reckonings: a reasonable year for arctic terns, a record year for tystie nests, a disastrous year for spring migrants. So I shall write it now: I believed in this place.

And September is the month when everything moves.


All that’s left is for me to say thank you: to Kevin and Alison for seeing my CV and asking me to be here until April, then June, then September; to Mark and Fleur for teaching me more than I think they realise; to June for the sheep help and to Molly, Heather, Laura, Gav, George, Pete, Jonny, Sam and Espen for being there — it’s the teamwork that makes the...

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The North Ron Diaries: June

1st June

Oh June. The start of summer. Blue skies and a bitter westerly, tiny pink stumps of orchids pushing out of the grass, some half submerged under yesterday's rain water. It is odd, of course. Everything here is. But the fields feel like March as I squelch through and flush a Snipe, yet when I get to Holland I find the fuschia bushes have suddenly become a dense wall of green. The jarring shock of leaves in summer time.

3rd June

I pass an islander who mutters darkly at seeing waterlogged fields in June — did you ever see that before? — and that the ankle height fields should be up to our knees in silage growth by now. She mutters it like its some dangerous gossip to speak out against the weather, and not an island wide activity this year. Worst spring for — 20, 25, 40 years — depending on who you ask.

A short while later it begins raining again and a Lapland Bunting flies past in a blur of red and black. It stops raining and the landscape is edged in silver, its own wet filigree.

Did you ever see a Robin on North Ronaldsay in June before? Or a Pink-footed Goose on a coastal lochan, drift migrants while Shetland and Sanday are covered in Greenish Warblers? Today has been one of those days where wet weather and winds promise arrivals of exciting migrants and delivers everyday birds, in bizarre places at unexpected times of year

4th June

For all the seasonal anxiety you could have spent most of today basking. Apparently you do get summer here and it feels like today: an open blue sky, sea without waves shining like velvet, wind turbines redundant. Could have basked, but the obs was catering for a party of people training at the airfield, doing lunches for twenty. I’m not sure where else is called upon to do soup, sandwiches and tea for almost half of their local population.


I’m not sure if seasons are a concept worth having up here. I set off up island on my bike, covered in sun cream and sweating. An hour later it was like April again, an easterly wind having sprung up and chilled the day off. I thought today might have been quite good for migrants but it deceives slightly. I find the first Whinchat to pass through in three weeks, a singing Willow Warbler (from a wall, naturally) and a Spotted Flycatcher on the beach, whilst the Whooper Swan still faithfully tours a few small lochs, its plaintive bugle of a call reminding me of winter back home.

It seems pointless to suggest it might be summer yet when spring hasn’t finished, or winter hasn’t fully left. Talk has gone from it being the worst spring for migrant numbers in memory, to ‘they’ll come, they’re just a month late’. Yesterday’s count of 7 Garden Warblers from the gardens suggests this is so.


There is not much birdsong on this bare island that doesn’t belong to displaying waders. When I hear a Blackbird I experience it deeply, vividly, and feel the need to stop and stand by it. I hear colours in the sound. The first broods have fledged. The nest I found in the garden when I followed a bee into a fuschia and saw a female Blackbird staring back at me from deep in the bush, has been vacated. I’m suddenly seeing them again, everywhere, this time with brown, speckled additions. The fledglings are a pleasure, but the song is the deepest, ordinary, profound beauty.

11th June

Iris beds are thin knotted mats of roots and stems, thick with silty sludge and laced with channels and pools you could disappear up to your waist in — or worse. Every third or so step plunges you between roots and up to your calf in stinking loch, splashing with your other leg in the search for a better toe hold on roots. It becomes another skill learnt: walking on the knotted roots and avoiding the wading, and not thinking about the water below, or that seeping in through the split in my wellies.

Finding Black-headed Gull chicks to ring is harder than expected. The water level in the loch is roughly four inches higher than in past years and we begin to find washed out nests from the rain, a sodden pile of rushes and a drowned chick or two. Completed nests too: plinths of irises with four cracked goose eggs and a failed egg lying cold. But then the gulls begin to mob us, diving low above us and screeching. It's a good sign of us being amongst the gull nests, and we find old nests, guano stained irises and a couple of young chicks. The size of the palm of your hand, speckled and brown with oversized bills, they have the beady eyed look of a gull from birth.

We then begin to find old enough gulls. Three times the size of the young chicks still in the nest, independent enough to scurry amongst the irises but not yet ready to fly. Still the downy brown but with feathers growing. The White of the wing and the black primary feathers poking through in miniature, with the little white tips that form a unique pattern in adults. Crucially they have fully grown legs — legs that kick but lack the power to do anything.

I begin to enjoy myself, strutting heron-like from root perch to root perch, searching amongst the thick growth for chicks. I walk through mint, around marsh orchids and find tiny cuckoo flowers, familiar from home but in the most incongruous of places. I find a curious nest, a small dome impressed into the vegetation, made entirely of leaves. I forget the fear of water entirely, and even ring a gosling and an adult Greylag Goose — the gosling does kick and rakes a vicious surprising claw down my arm. I suppose I'm the first human it's likely to have seen.

In one gull nest of three eggs, I saw the shell trembling with the strain of one forcing its beak through the shell, struggling with the strain of the instinctive drive that makes a cosy, well nourished chick break its boundaries and changing its universe forever. I don't hang around - it feels like an intrusion to stay, to witness something that I shouldn’t.

We don't spend too long in the colony to minimise disturbance and we only ringed eight chicks. Down on ten last year, down on fifty in years past. There is not too much concern, but a general sadness at the state of the loch this year. The irises should be up to waist or shoulder height and dense with insect life and a profusion of forget-me-knots and spikes of orchids instead of the half grown stumps we have instead. I'm told it looks sterile by comparison. It's just that sort of spring.


That evening at the nets we trap a Red-backed Shrike and I get to ring it. A handful of a bird, with a genuinely vicious bill that bloodies Gav's hands but not mine. It is a special thing to (be)hold. It comes with its own sad tale of poor springs past. Formerly they used to breed throughout Britain. I remember showing my granddad a photo of one of the first I saw, an autumn migrant and he told me of how they were common when he was doing national service in Wiltshire. By the 90s they had fizzled out. The final British breeding pair were in a car park in Thetford Forest. Now only about a hundred pass through Britain every year. I usually see autumn juveniles, and spring males with deep red backs and a soft pink breast, a black mask across the eyes and a tail too long, are an almost completely different bird. A special beauty for a butcher.

15th June

Whisper it — I shouldn’t say it but summer appears to be here. The morning is bright, warm even, with a Nightjar still floating around the nets and a Red-backed Shrike dealing death from the kirkyard gravestones. A Robin turns up in the nets. There’s been a few recently but we’ve ringed more this month than we have in the rest of the spring. In a typical year they all pass through between March and April and then none get seen until August, but this is most definitely not a typical year. It’s hard to tell in which direction it’s heading. It is autumn already for the flock of 8 Lapwings in the next field over which are failed breeders, the ten Curlews at the north end and the Golden Plover I saw the other day. The dandelions have turned white and fluffy and disintegrate in the breeze. The fields are white where they were yellow just a few weeks ago, but dotted with pink daisies and the growing orchids.

At this time of year chick ringing takes precedence over other ornithological work. At midday we entered iris fields, visited two gull colonies and a field of tussocks and rich sinking mud where the waders nest. There’s an art to finding chicks, which as a person prone to looking at his feet a lot, I think I’ve mastered. You look for the crap splattered tussocks, then look for the young gull tucked away inside. The black-heads are brown, just bigger than palm size and ghosted with plumage features on tiny feathers. The Common Gull chicks are downy still but a decent size, speckled on grey like a stone hiding in the marsh marigolds. Now that my eye is on them, I keep seeing them in marshy corners where I never noticed nesting pairs. In the wader fields I sink calf-deep, walk down dried up channels and get outpaced by a Lapwing a few days short of its first flight, that runs slightly faster than I can over the terrain.

18th June

Summer: we paid for it, paid for it, paid for it. Two and a half days of rain and now an overcast morning with rain palpable, the air hanging heavily over us.

Death is about us this morning. We checked a Swallow brood — reaching in to find four lifeless chicks, with rubbery flesh and closed eyes swollen in a tiny head. They hadn’t even had the time to grow down, let alone the pin-like shafts of feathers before succumbing. Life for young birds is a roulette and some get the bullet of bad weather and no food. Elsewhere: a Black-headed Gull lay crumpled by the roadside, head bent so far back as to almost touch its tail. A Shag lay limply across two rocks. A Gannet straddled the beach, wings outstretched, lifelessly hugging the beach.

In death you can get closer to a Gannet than you ever should in life. You can see up close the two black lines, and grooves which make up the point that spears into water and snaps fish. The neck thick and muscular. The feet, black and webbed with leathery skin, hooked claws, and veins of colour — deep blue but becoming green at the ankle — along the major bones. I’d never known before that they had such extraordinary feet.

In life, a Swift flew over Brides Loch. An unpredictable migrant here. Summer isn't the same without them regularly scoring the sky. Instead on a day as cold as this, it joins a knot of Swallows shooting low across the iris beds and water in a desperate search for any insects.

20th June

I've taken to setting up a moth trap overnight, though night feels like a tenuous concept here. Long after the official sunset at half ten the northern sky glows orange with a cowl of high clouds. The sun rises again before 4am and there's only a couple of hours of actual darkness in the meantime. Moth trapping is natural history as ritual. At dusk you take out a flimsy plywood box, trail cables under doors and arrange egg boxes under a light with practiced efficiency. I make tiny adjustments hoping for improved results despite knowing it's a futile game of chance. At morning you switch the light off and slowly take it apart, checking the egg boxes for what you've attracted.

Early morning. It is eerie before the wind, turbines paused as if asleep, a flat calm shining sea and the scent of seaweed filling the air. I take apart the moth trap that this morning has been more effective for tiny black, buzzing flies, though it offers up three Flame Shoulders — a pretty little dark red and blonde moth —, an Angle Shades, and some large caddis flies. I sit for a minute because it's too early to process thoughts or feelings. Just sitting dumbly watching a sea that does nothing. It felt like I'd caught the morning unaware, as if that early the island hadn't put up its defences of wind and waves. It takes a while for the salty, sulphur tang of the seaweed to dissipate.

'Green was the silence, wet was the light; the month of June trembled like a butterfly.’

I keep the moths and the caddis in pots for a closer look, before releasing them. Moths tremble on release, a fully-body shiver to warm themselves up, before flicking off in erratic flight, or walking into the nearest patch of sheltered darkness. The Angle Shades — a folded origami attempt at crumpled leaf — crawls all over me, feeling and feeding from me with its proboscis before making its way into the long grass to sleep the day disguised as a dead leaf.

Yesterday we caught a Shears in the moth trap. This is a sentence that hides the fact that when we caught it we had no clue about what it was and tried to fit it to half the Noctuids in the field guide. Noctuids are the largest British family of moths, the majority of which all appear the same: small, brown with grey markings. They are mostly common and usually unremarkable. The book is filled with the painstaking work of paintings of each species, life-size, with every individual marking present. The book is a testament of a naturalist's knowledge, and how it is shared. I would like to become on first name terms with the moths inside.


Gav caught an Acrocephalus warbler at the nets. Acro warblers are small, brown and lacking in markings — my kind of bird. There’s a book by Lars Svensson, The Identification Guide to European Passerines, (known as just Svensson) which breaks down European birds by feather tracts and wing structures, the unique combination of feather lengths, wear and minute markings which make each species of bird distinctive in the hand from others. With this book I am learning birds again, from the very beginning. Starting again with focus on the individual feathers that make the bird, rather than on the bird wearing the feathers. It reminds me of linguistic analysis and breaking apart sentences to examine the grammatical pieces. Then with knowledge of how the words are working — their meaning, role and location — in the sentence, reassembling it with new meanings gathered. I had been doing this with Marsh and Reed Warbler wing diagrams, looking at the relative lengths of feathers for just this reason. Although they have very different songs, they are otherwise almost identical in plumage, one being only slightly richer red-brown than the more olive-brown other. The grammar of their wings can, with careful measurements, separate the two species. I could peer over Gav’s shoulder as he manipulated its wings with absolute precision, to check the length of the notch on the second primary — it is both science and artistry, precision and technical skill. The measurements called it a Marsh Warbler: the cold-coloured plumage, and bright yellow soles of its feet agreed.

Small brown birds and technical guides have a bad reputation. They’re boring and opaque. I’ve heard it said that it’s pointless to try and see a Nightingale, when you can hear one. These arguments have never done anything for me. A Nightingale is only half-experienced if you haven’t found one moving unobtrusively at the bottom of a thicket. Similarly with Acrocephalus warblers. They require extremely careful observation, a patient and under appreciated skill, along with an appreciation for the subtleties of a species. It’s the same with being able to put a name to it. I hear frequently a specious argument that putting a name to a bird stops us from looking at it, and from learning from it, as if natural history was a museum where all the animals are hiding behind labels. I’ve never found it so. The act of putting a name to Reed and Marsh Warblers makes you appreciate differences that would be very easy to overlook. These differences that allow you to give them a name can be only be seen by the sort of careful, deep observation that the act of naming is supposed to obscure. Technical guides let us do this. Svensson is a work of deep knowledge and experience, that requires a lot of effort to read properly and learn from. But when you do, the shared knowledge helps explain the world around us. What more could you want?

Friday, 10 July 2015

The North Ron diaries: 24th - 29th May

24th May

George discovered eight-pint hubris ends with him lying on the toilet floor, vomiting. I was a little shaky, my voice an octave lower and brain working a little slower. I hadn't realised but Eurovision is perfect party fuel because you have to drink to make it bearable and once you've started it doesn't really matter anymore that you’re cooped up in a tiny room around a small TV with skittish reception. Mornings and the never defeated pile of dishes to wash up seem like a bad joke. And then the phone rings through the fug. Fleur answers. 'Orcas off the lighthouse? We'll be on our way.'

I run upstairs, find the girls and tell them. I find George and shout at him and he groans like its the worst news he's ever received yet still manages to stagger out in two minutes to the car, lacking socks and other essential items of clothing.

A Killer Whale twitch is an essential hangover cure. The presence of beasts sharpens the mind better than bacon or eggs. The Land Rover shakes us awake.

A nervous wait in a keen cold wind, guests strung out along the lighthouse watchpoint. From here: Fair Isle to the north and Sanday south, hints of Atlantic rollers colliding with the North Sea and the rocks where the seals pup and the Shags stand with wings held out wide. And then the cry. Heads snap right in time to see six foot or so of wet black dorsal fin slowly rise itself out and lower itself back in the glistening grey sea.

Nonchalance. Arrogance? For fifteen cold minutes we watched the pod of five dark dolphins slip their dorsal fins out of the sea and into our world. Never for very long at a time. They swim past the headland, out into the bay and down towards the light house on Sanday. They are effortless grace and murderous intent. The fins just appear and disappear without fluster or fanfare or panicked prey items. They just are.

It’s all I can manage to think about for the rest of the day.

25th May

We caught no birds at the nets this evening and it was absolutely not a surprise. We tried regardless, sitting out from 5:30 until hungry and cold and the sunlight dissipated into the evening clouds. Mark tried because — well if you can then why wouldn't you? I tried because despite being a mere trainee who hates skipping dinner, I love the peace of ringing even more. The peace is this: you sit outside for several hours at either end of the day, watching the gardens. Every 15-20 minutes you walk around and check all of the nets. Sit down again, and repeat. In purposefully sitting down and doing nothing you become part of the scenery and the Swallows that nest in three of the outbuildings near the shed run rings through the sky just feet from my head. A Chiffchaff checks both sides of a leaf in the rose bush for insects. The sycamores have finally got their leaves in the past few days, a surprise because when I last passed I'm certain it was just bare branches and buds still. And we chat about everything because the peace makes reflection not just easy but natural.

It is no hardship to go ringing and not catch a thing.

26th May

There are days when nothing happens. There are days like today when you count 272 Ringed Plovers, find the Glaucous Gull that's been walking about the golf course for the last few days and still feel like nothing has happened. One of those is expected: the Ringed Plover numbers have been building for days and will either explode or disappear, while the Glaucous Gull surprised us a few days ago by turning up as an adult with a head wound and ragged wings. The main surprise is that when you walk towards it, it prefers to walk away from you instead of fly. I doubt that it will last for long on an island with a feral cat problem, with survival skills like that.  It certainly won’t walk the rest of its migration to the Arctic.

On the same beach I find a Puffin skull, the clown's bill fading in the sun like a rictus grin in a posed old photograph. It has three groves running down the bright bulbous sheath, indicating it to be four year old bird, a year or two short of becoming a fully breeding bird. The mystery is what killed it and devoid of a body I guess it was a good meal for a gull or a skua.

The bitter west wind that keeps blowing is pinning birds down in their place. The Rustic Bunting is still being seen, apparently unwilling to carry on until we get a better wind and in the same vein, nothing seems very keen on arriving. Places like this thrive on arrivals: they flicker with life and unexpected birds in unusual places. They should be watched with a sense of the uncertainty of things. Currently you could walk around and I could tell you exactly what you would see and where and that's depressing.

27th May

I woke up to Gannets as brilliant white sparks from an anvil sky. I didn't envy their outsideness for the first time in a long time. It was a morning for watching through a rain-spattered window pane, curled up warm with a coffee as a defence against the shrieks of wind outside. I wasn’t the only one. Through the window I see sparrows and Meadow Pipits still flitting and foraging in the wind. The rain passes but the sky still threatens more.

I chop onions. See three Great Northern Divers in the bay beyond the kitchen window.  Watch as a Sparrowhawk shoots across the compost heap and stirs a hundred or so Starlings into panicked flight. I have tears in my eyes.

29th May

I battle the bike up hill — and pray downhill that the brakes hold. Everything rusts here and the volunteer bikes, taped up and disintegrating, take the brunt of it. I discovered that the brakes didn’t work when I needed them to avoid running over Fleur and the dogs and I’ve never been more grateful for a large flat verge, evasive action and emergency fixes. It doesn’t pay to run over the chef.


It was a sunny day. Not particularly hot and quite windy yet I wore only a shirt in a sort of defiance, imagining the warmth. A good morning: brake failure only twice, the Rustic Bunting seen again and a Bee-eater, as well as two Curlew Sandpipers that coaxed me into the stinking seaweed in search of a good photograph.

Sunny afternoons are best spent outside. I had a shovel under foot, cutting through the matted grass and bringing up rich, dark mud, heaving with worms. In my hands a flax plant, and a flexing pot, easing its matted roots out of the crevices. They sit shallow in the soil and I pile the dark mud up either side to help them take root and to get myself utterly filthy. If there was any doubt as to how well I was settling in again, in a place that changed dramatically over my fortnight holiday, getting soil ingrained into my hands and fingernails helped me forget that.

I was planting the New Zealand flaxes that had spent the winter in the conservatory after the poly-tunnel was shredded by winter storms. These are young plants, a few thin iris-like stems, barely a foot high. But they are ready for the Orkney summer. It is a plant thats becoming a new traditional one here, and can be found in most of the better kept gardens. Kevin had the idea to plant it while travelling on New Zealand’s south island, where he noticed it growing at the edges of beaches battered by southern ocean gales — the sort that propel albatrosses and wreck naive explorers. If its hardy enough there, it would surely be hardy enough here, and so it proved.

It is an ideal plant here because it grows quite densely and forms a natural shelter belt. I was carrying on a line planted by Molly, joining it to a bracket of higher ground. Inside: a pond, and marshy ground, grassland with a spread of violets and the first Northern Marsh Orchid of the year. Future trees. The flax is planned to spend the next five years growing up to create cover, before the inside of the field can be propagated with willow, fuschia and rosa, plants to provide shelter and food for migrating birds.

And I love that too — not just the mucky fingernails that take me back to rooting around the garden as a child, but that the work I’d done is something that we won’t see the fruits of for at least another five years. That’s work to an island timetable, glacial and deeply concerned with the future.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The North Ron Diaries: from Veery to OBP

Turner's dying words were allegedly 'the sun is God'. Here it is the wind. The prevailing westerlies have swept up Atlantic showers on us all spring, waterlogging fields. I keep bumping into Anne on census, as she walks her beagle up and down the main road near her croft. She stops me and sucks her teeth, says she's never seen the like of fields like this in all her summers. We look at the silage fields either side of us at ankle height - it should be up to our knees by now she says. The season gets later. The weather has been a topic for conversation all season. Kevin can't plough the observatory crop fields. The birds were late to arrive and late to nest and they don't have much cover due to the lack of growth and the cows are grazing late in the fields in which they nest, trampling nests, eggs, possibly chicks. Cows keep the grass the perfect length for the waders but impact on success and nature doesn't wait for them to leave the fields. Added to that, the skuas seem very obvious, searching the island back and forth. Recently one perched on the west coast and saw me walking towards it - it got up but stayed low and I realised it was flying for me, at head height, before it banked sharply, showed me its feet and called. It did this twice. I backed down and found another route through that field. 

The westerlies had their saving grace though. The Veery was an incredible rarity, impossible to predict and scarcely possible to believe. I may never see another one in Europe again. When I last wrote, it was safe to assume that it had left but after publishing that post it reappeared about half an hour later. It's always an error to try and tie up a narrative too neatly, particularly with a skulking bird that sticks to the shadows. It was still here recently. 

The Veery presaged a change in the winds and life got hectic, draining. An occasionally wise friend of mine has spent a few seasons at an observatory in Sweden and says you can never blog about the good days. I found the same because when the going is good you set yourself a punishing schedule of walking along every wall, in a stinging easterly wind and driving rain. It is exhausting. But what it brings with it is well worth being exhausted about, even if you can't write about it.

The day of the Veery we were up until twenty to one the next morning. The evening was glorious and golden and evenings like that are ideal for ringing the wader chicks. This is best done by cruising the roads in the Land Rover, pulling to a stop by likely fields. When a chick is spotted — a ball of fluff with a head poking out above the grass — Mark and George leap out of the front, over the wall/barbed wire/electric fence with varying levels of balletic grace, and run across the muddy field/shallow pool/iris bed. George, not exactly a graceful mover, being outrun by lapwing chicks, mud splattered all up his back and his trousers slowly falling down, regrets volunteering for this task. The chicks we ringed varied from week old Lapwings, sprouting the adult coiff while still downy and gangly legged, to Redshanks not more than a couple of days old, grey and stripy balls of fluff with dull green legs as thick as an adult's. They'll grow in length and as they mature take on the fluorescent orangey red of the adults. It'll be interesting to see whether they return to breed in the fields they were born in.

We ring the chicks until relative dark at about half eleven. After that, the sky goes from orange to deep blue, and we drive to the island's lochs, listening for singing birds. There is no peace deeper than listening to birds singing in the quiet still of night. It is a night full of unusual noises. The Water Rail squeal. The full variety of ducks that do things other than quack. Numerous rattles and chipping noises that I am totally lost with. I have cloth ears. Sound to me is like water, slippery and impossible to hold on to, no matter how hard I try. Common birds always end up sounding unfamiliar and it's a source of shame. Though I enjoy listening. At night every day noises seem amplified. The creak of car seats. Munching on biscuits. The wind whirling over the bonnet. The gargles from our bodies and the whistling of our breathing. I see several fields away a tractor's headlights moving through the darkness. That farmer had seen the forecast for the next week and was making the most of the last ploughing day. 

When we head off to sleep the sky due north was still light, an echo of the sunset experienced. There's over a month left for it to get lighter at night too. 

The next day was wind and rain again, but a frigid easterly. Perfect. I venture out and find... A Canada goose. This was not expected. The goose was paddling around a puddle with two Shelducks and appearing only slightly bigger than them, as well as having a few plumage and structural features suggesting it was a Todd's Canada goose, or the sort of Canada goose at home in North America and not begging for bread on suburban park lakes. The wind doesn’t settle easterly but spends the next week veering all over the place. It covers the island in Spotted Flycatchers and Garden Warblers, the last of the migrants to pass through. With them comes a sprinkling of Red-backed Shrikes and a couple of Rosefinches. We all manage to see a male Rosefinch up by the lighthouse, perched on a dyke and appearing a dazzling blood red in the evening light.

Work still needs to be done. I push the lawnmower around and see the clumsy first flights of juvenile Starlings, falling off the fence and half-stumbling, half-flying across the grass. I chop onions and watch divers in the bay, see a Sparrowhawk scatter sparrows and Starlings through the tears in my eyes. I still get as much pleasure from the every day nature here, as I did from finding a Dotterel that walked out from behind a mound, or the Lapland Bunting that I found foraging around a couple of lobster pots. After a washed out day with no birds I was moved by the colours and meanings of a Blackbird singing from a pylon — always ordinary and extraordinary.

The island managed one more top quality rarity that week. Mark found an Olive-backed Pipit will walking back down the west coast on a day of easterlies and sporadic showers. Another autumnal bird to turn up in spring, another bird to defy expectation and prediction. This should have been singing somewhere in Siberia, not foraging in the long grass behind a wall near the airfield. I sometimes wonder if they know how lost they are. If it has an awareness of the mistake it made in migrating at the wrong bearing, or if it means anything to the bird at hand other than its unlikeliness to ever find a mate. To us it meant a frantic cycle ride, frantic run across a boggy field and staring at a bright and stripy pipit through rain-sodden binoculars. We watched it until it disappeared through a gap in the dyke at ten pm. The sun not yet below the horizon, the clouds painted purple to the east. We left the pipit to roost in peace and never see it again.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 30th May

It begins with darkness. A bang. Light and Mark's head around the bedroom door.

"Get up. Gav's caught a Catharus thrush."

I swim through my head. It doesn't make much sense. George has said enough times this spring that he's going to go out in the grip of a westerly gale and find a Catharus thrush that I started to think he was mad — I went mad telling him it wasn't autumn. In a half awake state I decide that yeah, I really should get up. I swing out of bed. Proceed to put both legs through one trouser legs. Stagger downstairs. Coat over pyjamas. Tumble out the door and into the Land Rover. We tear off up the road.

We find Gav in the ringing hut with a bird bag. Mark heads in and we wait outside. He pulls the bird out and checks the underwing.

"Well it is a Catharus thrush"

I crane my head around the door and it all becomes stunningly real. In mark's hands was a brown bird slightly smaller than a song thrush, white underneath and with no visible spots. Gav looked ashen, slightly shaky, as if he'd just seen a ghost. What he'd found in the bottom panel of the Holland House mist net was better than that. An American passerine brought in by the westerly winds.

Mark sets to work in the shadows of the early morning, with the measuring implements, inspecting the wing feathers and taking down the formula of emarginations and length of feathers in the wing, while Kevin and Alison pour over Pyle, the American book of bird biometrics.

I've spent a large part of my recent history revising American birds and when confronted with one all of my knowledge vanishes. It didn't make much sense. Opinions are bandied around and the identity veers from Grey-cheeked Thrush to Swainson's Thrush to Veery. It lacked the expected features for all of those species: no grey cheeks, no buff tinge to the face, back brown without red tones. It can't be a Veery I say. At this point the atmosphere is confusion and stress. The bird is quite worn, lacking in fat and with no pectoral muscle, the signs of a migrant having finished a very long, strenuous journey. Because of that, we bring the bird out into the light for some quick photos before releasing it. As we do, the bird is moved out of the shadows and into the sun. It lights up. The brown becomes strongly reddish, the white glistens silky like bunched spider webs and the pale brown spots sparkle. Consensus is reached: it must be a Veery. Mark lifts the bird's wing up and we all see the pale long line across the underwing between thin and thick dusky lines.

Gav gets a high five and several hugs. He appears to breathe for the first time since finding the bird.

The bird was released over the road in the sunlit church grave yard, where suitable cover exists for it. It dives from Gav's hand and makes it to the small sycamores along the far wall, where it would spend the rest of the morning showing well amongst the branches, while it fed and recuperated. In the branches the bird's identity seems much more obvious. When it hits a patch of sunlight it dazzles bright white and rich fox-brown. When it's not in the light it scurried through deep in the bush, like an oversized American nightingale.

After two hours of views in the field I left for breakfast with cows twitching the Veery twitch. The sky was rich blue, as blue as the sea. Britain's eleventh record of a Veery sang after I left until half eleven, when it vanished unseen into the bright Saturday noon.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The North Ron diaries: 10th May - 20th May

10th May

6am: Arctic Tern squawk, Snipe drum. Nets opened and we catch willow warbler and chiffchaff in one round, with only 4mm difference in the wing. We’re supposed to be able to see that in the field. We can see Foula, 50 miles due north between the kirk and Purtabreck croft.

The day gathers in. The clarity of morning deteriorates to gales and rain. I spend the afternoon out with Richard, the nurse who rehabilitated crows that kept stealing his cigarettes until he quit. He takes to the island as it frees up his time to explore nature in the way that his job on the mainland doesn’t. I show him around the different ends of the island and various waders. At Ancum we double the Greenshank count to two and four Black-tailed Godwits drop in, preen and head out high north. Richard is drawn to stories as a way into learning about birds. We spot migrating waders and marvel at their feats of migration, the attractiveness of their tundra camouflage plumage. I think I give him a few new stories of nature for him to tap into on his evening walks around the north end of the island. Another interested islander means another pair of eyes, means fewer birds going unseen.

16th May

Settling in again is hard. There are new people, new things and my second week back is difficult as I find all the thing that aren't quite as I left them. I stop thinking in words. Submerged in tiredness again. I find it hard to get anytime alone by myself.

I spend most of Thursday in bed trying to rest enough to feel human and then it starts raining when I brave the outside in the afternoon. It started raining on me today again, on a westerly wind that has made its mark on this spring. It may turn out to be one of the worst springs for migrants from Europe not because of any distressing reasons, but because the wind has been perpetually in the wrong direction. I trailed all over the middle of the island and all I found was a White Wagtail at Westness and some smart summery Dunlin. The disappointment is a feeling that only took a week to settle in. This time last week I was finding birds and getting back into the swing of birding in a migration hotspot. It all came to a halt. The forecast looks better for Tuesday. On it I have pinned most of my hopes.


One of the volunteer shifts is the kitchen in the afternoon. Fleur has me bake because she thinks I'm a good cook because I think I'm not. Baking sends me into paroxysms of anxiety and I spend the afternoon finding problems: I put the butter in the crushed up biscuits not melted, the chocolate doesn't melt quickly enough and then doesn't cool quickly enough, and then I sail past the time I should've put it in the oven by. And when it's done I think it looks terrible until someone takes a slice and points out it's not that bad. Mary Berry keeps her job.


This evening a storm rolled in on a bitter westerly, the strength and chill of which I haven't felt since March. We take our orphan lambs in from the field — where on less milk, more seaweed and the company of other lambs they're visibly growing daily — for the night to make sure that nothing happens to them. Lambs aren't particularly good at following directions. They like digressing, find dandelions diverting and when they do walk in the right direction, they particularly like getting caught under your feet and between your legs. The best way to do it is to run and the most direct route takes you past the observatory bar, full of drinkers in an evening, who suddenly have new entertainment in the form of a Steve being run ragged by the lambs. And when you reach the shed, half run off again, half jump into the shed and back out again. Lambs have their own sort of cunning daft minds. I love them for it and get mocked by the other volunteers for trying be their mum.

17th May

Perpetually April. Or that’s at least what it feels like when I find another Iceland Gull floating around off the top end of the island today. A few migrant Chiffchaff and Wheatears too, though the Wheatears will at least be heading across to Greenland instead of up to Shetland. The daffodils persist but are almost entirely on the turn now, curling at the edges and with holes worn through the petals.

A late Whooper Swan is still present at the lochs on the northern end of the island. The westerly wind has not abated and May's stinging showers still whip in frequently and fiercely. But again, despite the weather it has been a birdy day: as well as the Iceland Gull, Molly flushed a Short-eared Owl and Sara found a Marsh Harrier. Both good birds for the island but neither helping me think that I haven't slipped into a portal and woken up in the East Anglian winter.

18th May

In the early morning murk a Sparrowhawk sat in a sycamore too small and stunted to conceal it. It slipped over the garden wall and out along the cow field, a grey brown bird disappearing in the grey brown morning.

We delayed the nets by an hour this morning due to rain, brought in by a gentle south easterly wind. It tails off and we unfurl them in their well sheltered positions between the bushes and the sycamores and watch the heavy laden rain clouds sail past. From the high ground by Holland house we see a white and silver sea shining towards Fair Isle. They have a Tawny Pipit there still. This morning feels like there should be one lurking around here too, yet all that found its way into the nets was a Collared Dove (fun to ring and release), a Goldcrest (too dainty for me to be allowed near) and a Blackbird that decides to repeatedly bite me on the soft flesh between my fingers as I gently ease it out of the bag. A Blackbird is the right size to fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. They have a reputation with ringers for being fidgety but I am growing in confidence with handling them: reading the tiny letters on the leg ring (for this is a bird that's been ringed before), examining the wings and tail, and not being distracted by the beating heart I can feel through the feathers. I flip it onto its back and — with a slight absence of dignity for both of us — blow on its breast feathers. They're loose and part, revealing wrinkly folds of warm skin with which it has been incubating eggs on a nest nearby. You can see that the bird is storing no fat while doing this, taking only what it needs to survive and nothing more. We release it quickly, none the worse for its quick check. Feeling the heart beat of a bird and the feeling of it leaving your hand is still magical experience. It's easy to see how ringing becomes addictive.

The Sparrowhawk reappeared. The same young male as before, a sweeping scythe through the Swallow flock. But it fails and the Swallows see it off. A fight that never looks fair but which they usually manage to win.

It clouds over by ten am again and the cows are all lying down, disagreeing with the forecast as to whether it will rain for the rest of the afternoon or not at all. The red head of Eday, the giant sandstone cliff looks unreal against the grey backdrop of the rest of Orkney. Mornings like these are special and I hold on to the peace of them throughout the day of slogging around the census route for just one Cuckoo and an afternoon of menial chores. The lambs have picked up the bad habit of their species, pushing their heads through fences to reach the greener grass on the other side. When they develop horns they'll get them stuck and periodically require a push and a pull to get them out. It feels a bit like that when I focus on the birds that Fair Isle is managing to attract. They may have the greener grass at the moment but I don't want to get my head stuck on that.

19th May

It was chucking it down and I had to hassle George into going out in it, promising him that it was a day that smelt rare despite the westerly wind. I pour myself a coffee, then a second. I was covering the lunchtime shift: baking a crumble, showing guests to their rooms, dealing with the shop customers. It gives me enough time to do the census after, and have a lazy morning coming to. I take a sip when Mark's phone rings. I hear the muffled words ‘woodchat', ‘Ancum’ and ‘nice work’ and I'm off my feet, camera in hand and halfway to the door.

The young pretender had found a Woodchat Shrike. We pack ourselves into the back of the Land Rover and head up the road. It rained a lot on us. No shrike was seen again.

20th May

The winds were set straight west and the sky was sunny. Even though I was walking the luckiest stretch of island for me, expectation was low and the reality managed to disappoint even that. The only noteworthy bird was a Common Scoter, a male in first summer plumage, flying in to Linklet bay with a small flock of female eiders, the interloper being easily picked up on shape and smaller size. It's only the second I've seen on the island and they are relatively scarce here but scarce for here and scarce for me are different things. It's a chance to reaffirm in my mind the amount of Orange on the bill and how it looks more extensive head on then side on. I do these things as a dry run for the day a Black Scoter floats past me. With all these westerlies I can only hope in such things.

Walking back I find a Moss Carder Bee on the roadside verge, foraging on dandelions. It's the first of the year for the island in this latest of springs, and only the second I've ever seen. I excitedly tell the other blank-faced volunteers, who don't know what one is and don't care. I tell them it's rare and red and they hope it becomes shrike food.


My afternoon became flapjacks and crumbles, hand picking the rhubarb from the patch by the well a few hours before it gets served after dinner. Rhubarb this fresh is revelatory. It keeps its colour and flavour and doesn't just become a sugared bitter mush. I'd made one slight mistake - an eyebrow raising, lip-pursing lack of sugar - but hadn't realised that yet. I had just made the finishing touches to the topping when my phone vibrated and Mark's name flashed up. 99% of time this is good news.

"Hello mate. I've got a rustic bunting. Adult male at the Ancum pumping station. Tell everyone."

Things go a little crazy. I run around shouting GEORGE GEORGE MOLLY RUSTIC BUNT down several corridors and in no particular direction until I find George. I shout at him. He panics. Molly and Sara poke their heads around the door like meerkats. We're out in the next minute, racing the Land Rover up the main road, stopping to bundle an interested guest in the back.

An adult male Rustic Bunting. Despite the bastard winds mark had magicked one up, a conjuring trick from a man who cannot not find rare birds. He picked up the 'tik tik' call reminiscent of a Song Thrush — which would be unusual in the time and place — and rooted out a bird that you might perhaps expect, but in the prevailing conditions one that almost defied belief.

We pulled up and find Mark looking around. Hearts sink. The sight of the finder watching nothing at Ancum is reminiscent of yesterday's disappearing shrike. This time though Mark finds it again after a nervy fifteen minute wait of forlorn staring and rising doubt. It flew across us, hid in the long grass and then popped up on the fence, not far from us. I don't breathe and I don't quite believe it either. A stripey, red, black and white bird that doesn't belong here. A familiar bunting shape with unfamiliar vivid markings.

And now my world is one bird bigger than it was this morning.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 13th May

Birding: it drags you out of bed at 5am, sticks you in the spin cycle of a north westerly gale on the island’s most exposed headland. It keeps you there, for a shivering hour and a half as the brunt of the weather beats itself out. You dream of warmth, of breakfast, of coffee without the stale tang of thermos flask. You talk to yourself to stay sane. Three of us, Mark, George and myself are tucked behind the dyke but the rain still hits us. We are perched precariously on piles of stones, one eye shut, the other kept to old borrowed telescopes on shaky tripods.

Despite the weather the waves are not as large as they usually are here, which gives us as a chance to see the birds for longer while they fly low between the waves. Arctic and Great Skuas are flying about distantly. We get our eyes in on them as they pass back and forth. Skua migration is the target and these are the common local birds. They are the baseline from which we judge difference to sort out the elusive rarer species that might be passing. When seawatching the birds tend to be distant and quick, disappearing between waves. Skuas are particularly speedy with a 40mph tailwind and you need familiarity with the common birds to have confidence identifying the others.

That cold wet hour and a half is spent doing that. Spirits dwindle and I think about leaving but don’t. We try to find more sheltered spots and we end up either side of the wall, all convinced that we've found the most sheltered spot. The rocks beneath me collapse and dump me on my back, between my legs. Everybody laughs and a Black Guillemot lands on the wall nearby to look down on me. And then Mark picks up a couple of Long-tailed Skuas flying at middle distance. I don’t pick them up, despite a running commentary of shouted instructions because my scope is fogged with raindrops. A rookie error. I wipe it clean and kick myself. Hard. The sea looks black again, the wave crests white instead of varying shades of grey. It’s easy to let that happen when you’re not seeing much, when your thoughts turn to how cold and wet you are and not on how your view is slowly deteriorating. It reawoke my old dislike of seawatching, the worst form of birding.

The wind slackened a little and turned north westerly. The result was almost instant: two Pomarine Skuas shot past, distant and quick. Through the rain it was possible to see bulky wings and wing flashes, their spoon-shaped tails quivering with effort of flight. Then ten Long-tailed Skuas pass. This time we all see them as the flock jostles over the waves, shearing down through the troughs and swinging up above the crests. The wings are long and thin, swept back and they look like a three-pointed bird. Or absurdly, like a bow and arrow.

We turn to celebrate. High fives all round, gibbering stupid excited things when birds appeared behind us. I raise my binoculars and all sense breaks in me. I garble the word skuas. Everyone looks around and nine Long-tailed Skuas took a shortcut between the bays over our heads. At this point George exploded. Mark — seen it all before, level-headed Mark — expressed disbelief. I reached for my camera.

I remembered then that sense of excitement. The thrill and awe of Long-tailed Skuas and a foot-long ribbon extending from their backs and whipping in the wind. I remember seeing my first cutting the corner of Aird an Runair in a Hebridean gale that cancelled the ferry and stranded me on that island. I saw fifty that day, thought they were perfect. Tern-like in flight, the most unlikely of piratical birds passing on their way through to their arctic breeding grounds. In today’s stronger weather they remain a perfect species. In five hours we saw 79 migrating past. Seawatching is the best worst birding.


79 Long-tailed Skuas is an island record. Before 2013 there had been just 33 Long-tailed Skuas seen on 14 occasions. In 2013 Mark and a volunteer called Simon discovered 49 passing off Westness in a bumper year for skua passage in north west Scotland. Now in every north west gale in May, seawatching from Westness has produced Long-tailed Skuas. Looking at the map and the spread of records from today suggests that the open water between Papay and North Ronaldsay is acting like a bay, catching skuas passing the north west coast of Orkney in these gales, before they head north past the west coast of Shetland and around to the north coast of Norway.

The numbers being seen here are not quite like they are from North Uist, where watchers from Aird an Runair have logged several thousand instead of hundreds this spring, prolonged over weeks instead of days. However it appears that skua passage is more widespread in the remoter coastal parts of north west Scotland than previously thought, it just takes several hours sat on a rain-lashed rock to find out.


There is a postscript.

A day like this was never likely to revert to normality. Instead, an hour spent defrosting and drying off before I was back out in the afternoon, clearing old wire off the coastline around Twingness. Halfway around I get a call from Mark — he had a pod of four Killer Whales heading north from West Beach. I ran frantically across boggy fields back to the obs, jumping into the Land Rover. We tore off up island, heading back to Westness to try and intercept them as they headed off around the island. But while we were there, they were being seen around the corner at the lighthouse, where a small group had gathered. It’s the first sighting of Killer Whales from North Ronaldsay in three years and it’s left confused emotions in me: happy they’re back, jealous of Mark for having a photo of four giant dorsal fins sticking out above the waves and dejected that I wasn’t one of the lucky ones. But above all, a primal thrill. To come so close to seeing one is an appetiser for when one will appear in front of me, glistening wet black and bigger than I can imagine, the dolphin that kills whales.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 4th - 9th May

4th May

The sleeper train is ironically named. I arrived half cut, on the back of long days spent time zone swapping and nights not spent well slept. The carriages are dimly yet warmly lit to stimulate tiredness, the train pulls out of London smoothly, and I watch the suburbs slip past until we find darkness near Watford. I loll back in my seat, slip on the ear plugs and on the eye mask. I nod forward and sit bolt upright. And repeat.

I can't fall asleep on a train. I might miss my stop. It doesn't matter that the train is overnight, my stop twelve hours away at 8am tomorrow and at the end of the line... It's a law of my nature. I can't fake otherwise.

5th May

I roll into Inverness feeling like a zombie, leave on a coach an hour later feeling worse after a coffee. Watching Scotland slide past the window. Ross into Sutherland's dramatic hairpins and cutting across into Caithness's vast moorlands. The view is extraordinary and familiar, so I break the back of the new Melissa Harrison novel instead. These are not ideal roads for a coach and progress is slow — I get off at the ferry terminal with seconds to spare before the boat departs.


Hoy stands proud in the middle of the Firth, twice as tall as the other dimly viewable Orcadian isles. It was a cold crossing but not a rough one, despite the strong wind. Out in Scapa Flow: Guillemots — hundreds of them — where I usually see mostly Razorbills, and Puffins. It amazes me still how these birds, among the least elegant flyers can still frantically out flap the ferry's engines. Further out Great Skuas just seem to hang around, practicing menacing the Gannets and Shags, but not with the real vigour that will come on a calmer day, where fish and terns and gulls will coincide. There are six Arctic terns though and that will do for now, the first I've seen to have returned from their epic migration. Makes my zombie-tiredness seem like nothing, really. They do everything with a buoyant elegance and I'm very happy to have them back. And then a surprise: a Manx Shearwater skimming the sea surface, threading itself between waves on thin stiff wings. I'm not sure why it was a surprise, other than I thought they hadn’t returned yet. In my more lovestruck moments I think they're the final evolution of flight. I find them thrillingly economical, a bird that is all wing. They know how to fly. Seabirds know how to travel.


Several hours later and we taxi down the runway at Kirkwall airport, the half-full island hopper plane buffeted by the rain. On the back of the pilot’s high vis jacket, the letters FAB scrawled in felt tip, like a budget thunderbird. We shake through clouds and wind and rain, passing low over Sanday looking like beach paradise, seeing North Ronaldsay look tiny amongst the rain and waves. The coast by the airfield still looks threatening; the rocks there are the biggest and the waves don't crash gently into them, but we cross them facing the direction of the airfield this time. I enjoyed this flight. Maybe Loganair doesn't always require belief in divine intervention.


I am informed all the chairs I fixed have subsequently all been broken by the volunteers. We also have a new volunteer. George is younger than me and in denial about it, he’s also a trained fishmonger from Somerset with an impressive bird list and, gallingly, found a White-rumped Sandpiper on the island when I was on holiday. I’m a little bit jealous of that.

Two hours in and I discover the biggest change after my two weeks away. Fleur beckoned me to the bike shed. Gave me some glass bottles with rubber teats and opened the door. Restless souls bounded out — and got herded back in. A shed full of seven lambs is a chaotic, pungent place, bouncing with energy. One lamb, eager for its milk, decides to clamber over the backs of two lambs at once. Others rear on their hind legs, place their forelimbs on my thighs like begging puppies. I take one and tip the bottle back and squirt it with milk.

I hate the word cute. Or I thought I did and now I’m not sure. I don’t think I have anything else to describe them with. They are the tragic lambs. The orphans of dead or missing parents from flocks around the island that we’ve taken in, and they made me melt inside. Caddy lambs as they’re known. We give them 175ml of Lamlac each time and warmth, hay and attention. The instinct to protect and nurture life stirs.

6th May

It is entirely possible, on days like this, to come across a redstart on a kelp-covered rock and think it the most beautiful thing in the world at that given moment...

Some mornings you can’t dodge the weather. Easterlies and drizzle dragged me out at grey half-past eight. The Arctic Terns are back here too, squabbling over territory and fish, and hanging around the same field that the Lapwings nest in, who are currently preoccupied with dive-bombing the harmless Fulmars that are still omnipresent, and drifting into every available gust of wind.

I stopped at Nouster. Out amongst the waves a Great Northern Diver lurked, Turnstones picked their way along the shoreline and Wheatears flit between the rocks. It is good to be back here, back by the side of the sandy beach where only birds walk, back in to the teeth of a cold and wet wind — though my stinging fingers disagreed. I should’ve remembered my gloves. That was my thought process when a bird crossed my vision, perched on a rock, shivered its tail. I half knew what it was before I got my binoculars on it. And in the grey of the morning, I welcomed in a Common Redstart. A creature of deep oak or pine forests, places of tranquility, bedraggled and exhausted on the shore. It made sorties through the air above the weed, picking out insects, replenishing itself. The rain did not extinguish the flame of its plumage, the shiver of its tail. It — a male — has three colours on its plumage and each is taken to excess. The red is rich, the black is velvet, the white line dividing those is like lightning.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen many Common Redstarts. As it’s name suggests, it’s a common bird in the right place (and the right place is usually a very nice place to be), and each one stops me in my tracks. It’s not that I forget how beautiful they are — but they stun, like all things of proper beauty should.

I spent the rest of the walk in a sort of sodden daze. Two damp Goldcrests and a gorgeous Pied Flycatcher along the dyke, all heading off in the same direction, to the same sort of Scandinavian wood as the redstart. My year’s first Tree Pipit and a Whinchat freshly arrived in too.

I don’t remember the island having this many birds.

7th May

Polling day. To vote on North Ronaldsay you have to go to Sanday. To get there you have to fly to Kirkwall and fly back out to Sanday, or take the ferry. That's an entire day and a lot of money, just to vote. The attitude here tends to swing between mild interest and trendy apathy. We're too out of the way, too remote, too pragmatic to feel anything too strongly about that. The island would like something centre left though. The loss of EU subsidies up here would be a massive blow to the economy of the archipelago.


One of the jarring things over my past two and a bit weeks spent swapping between Orkney, Suffolk and Hungary, has been the absence and presence of insects. To sit on a sunny afternoon in my garden in Suffolk and have butterflies, bee-flies, hoverflies buzzing around the flower beds and ground ivy in the lawn has been a pleasure. A thousand miles south and east: Camberwell Beauties, damselflies and dragonflies I don't recognise patrolling willow tops, deer ticks in my leg and an overly inquisitive hornet in my rucksack. Back in Orkney: it feels as though any insects would've been blown to Russia by now. The westerly gale kept me up half the night, slamming hail and rain into my window pane. By sunrise, it slackened enough to walk at a right angle into the wind, though the wind was the sort that steals the breath out of your mouth. I watch a Shoveler take off into the wind, a flurry of wing beats and then it just hung in the air. Stasis achieved into the teeth of the wind. I watched this while killing time, fiddling with my coat and wellies and considering the practicalities of riding a bike up island. And checking Twitter one more time. I didn't exactly want to go outside this morning. Westerlies blow migrating birds away from the island, not to it. It's a crude logic but it's basically sound.

And then I get a text from Mark, who had been at the Westness headland for ten minutes: one Long-tailed Skua past in the first ten minutes. I junked my plans for the day and walked up island. Slowly. Pressing against the wind. I note a Great Skua overtakes me — and all the other birds, as it bludgeons its way north. Chaos, naturally. The Lapwings and terns all rise up and get buffeted by the wind. The skua doesn't seem to notice the wind. It is beautiful: because to see a bird built for weather like this, excel in weather like this...

It is more beautiful than the Siskin I find sheltering in the ditch that runs though the kirkyard, looking sad and miserable. That is a surprise, maybe no one saw it yesterday, or its re-orienting itself from drifting on to one of the other islands. It's the first I've seen on the ground here. Beyond the kirkyard: fields of lambs, dandelions and daisies and a male Whinchat — all stark stripes and peach-breasted prettiness. This was definitely not there yesterday and suggests that despite 50mph westerly winds birds are arriving somehow.

I get to Westness and find Mark sheltering behind a wall, the only place in the lee of the wind. To our right, waves rolling into Westness bay and the atmosphere is thick with a grey haze of salt. To the left: spindrift is being flung up the beach. In front of us: the waves are crashing in at such height it's difficult to see the sea behind. Does the sea rage? It's a metaphor and not a great one, but we've looked at the sea and identified emotions in it for aeons, and not just superstitious sailors. On a day like today, rage is the only thing comparable to the energy and unpleasantness of it.

Mark has not had any other skuas past. In the two hours spent there, we find a few Great Skuas, a Manx Shearwater and a summer plunged Snow Bunting flitting along the wall.

By the time I get back to the obs to handle the shop shift, the chopping the vegetables, emptying the bins and general tidying shift, it's clear that birds are moving. I found a Pied Flycatcher perched on the daffodils persisting in the verge of the main road and flushed a Jack Snipe from a roadside ditch on my walk back. Being inside now is the total opposite to how I felt this morning. A curse, a cooping up and there is no feeling worse than being stuck inside when there are migrants birds to be watching.

I get back out at three, taking Sara out to see the male Pied Flycatcher that's been relocated by the pier, with a flock of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs foraging in the shelter of concrete and steel. She thinks I'm madly over keen on the flycatcher's dapper black and white plumage and air of Scandinavian woods. I think that her cooing over the adorable tiny Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers is quite understandable actually, not that I would ever admit that.

We headed up island to the cover of the gardens. Halfway up the hill and a Quail flies up, and over the nearest wall, like a tiny partridge on fizzing wings. At this point I lose my head. A Quail! Unmistakable. And only the second of this hyper-elusive species I have seen. Sara thinks my sanity is further slipping away.

8th May

Half asleep. 6:30am. I roll over, poke my phone and receive the news I don't want to. A Tory win — a majority too — and old liberal England in disarray. I can't sleep on it. I complain instead. George tells me to stop whinging, but he didn't vote so his opinion doesn't count. I don't know what this means for me. The current Conservative politics stands for everything I can't abide: punitive, petty and selfish. I don't like the politics of selling off the state and criticising the weak. I'm not sure what this means for wildlife: the badger cull will presumably carry on, SSSIs will presumably still be built on because you create an ancient woodland elsewhere, apparently (only in planet Tory). I feel the sickening sense of despair that comes from looking at a better future - and relapsing into the old, stale, unprofitable state of affairs.

So I look for small mercies. Alastair Carmichael, a good man and the only candidate to visit the island, becomes the only Scottish Lib Dem MP though by barely 800 votes. The islands carry on as they always did. Truth is, it has been odd election for me. I love the cut and thrust high theatre of elections (and despise the thoughtless, shouty soundbites that comprises most 'politics'). But out here it's very easy to turn the TV off. To skip down the Guardian and read other things. I've felt one step removed from the action, for the action is the 'white noise of modern life' that Mark Cocker wrote about recently from Caithness. As in Caithness on Orkney the very fact of landscape and your place in it, compel you to think of bigger, more essential things than a squabble in London. It really shouldn't be like this, but it is.

I went out to watch the lambs. I didn't expect them to bring me any closure or wisdom. But seven lambs make an excellent distraction. They’re getting bigger by the day.

The lambs are being given seaweed and less milk to wean them onto proper food. They're being left out of the shed for longer and longer to introduce them to the hardship of the weather. Though on an evening like this, the weather is no hardship at all: a gorgeous clean sunset dipping behind Papay and golden light everywhere. The sea seems particularly blue.


Earlier on the east coast of the island a Rough-legged Buzzard drifted inland over my head, dropping in height as it came in and finding all the crows in the area taking off in pursuit. It’s exciting but familiar to me from the East Anglian winter. I later discover it’s only the fifteenth record of one on the island and a lifer for George who, after many stressed phone calls, finally gets onto the bird before it flew high to the north in the early afternoon. It would’ve been a lifer too for the other volunteers who missed it by minutes. 50 minutes later it is reported from Fair Isle.

I settled down to watch Turnstones, Sanderling and Knot arriving on the island from over the sea, in pristine summer plumage. They’re feathered in the rich reds, notched with black — the camouflage of tundra grass and mosses and Orcadian beach. To sit very still and watch them feeding closely, unconcernedly, by sluices the mind of all the angst of the morning.

9th May

I was on a run of two good birds in two consecutive days: Quail and Rough-legged Buzzard. It's natural to want to make that three in three. The day held promise: Mark predicted a White-billed Diver or a Dotterel, the sea looking good for the former, the weather for the latter. It was a still calm morning, hot and clear. Weather to soar in, to migrate in or take one last stop off before Scandinavia — or at least Shetland — in. It felt like summer.

My misfortune was that I was allotted D. The census route that most frequently ends with sore legs and a half-blank notebook. I found my good bird though: an Iceland Gull, bright white as the Glaucous Gulls I was seeing back in March, but merely the size of a Herring Gull, with gentler, more rounded features. It's on it's way back to Greenland to breed, though it is very much a (scarce) bird of the British winter.

I am still looking for the birds of summer, though I'm not sure what they'll be here until I find it. It's not the Whinchat — Stiaccino says Sara — that's just passing through. I'm pretty sure it's not the Sedge Warbler singing in a tiny bush in a garden on the most north westerly croft on the island. I very much hope it's not the Meadow Pipit climbing out of the grass and into the sky, with its piercing song of single syllable whistles that once got so far into my head I could hear it when I shut my eyes to go to sleep. I found a Whimbrel on the rocks, briefly, before it spotted me and flew off with a hail of whistled notes. I learnt today that Whimbrel is the sound of summer in Iceland, and I feel I should let them know that they're on their way. Not our summer yet.


That afternoon: sit in the coolest place inside, door shut to distractions. Plough on proof reading the 2014 bird report and untangling sentences, correcting typos and pretending that inaccurate apostrophes are not a matter of deep grievance to me. Meanwhile a flock of Turnstones swirled outside the window. I bet I missed a raptor migrating due to the work. Not all the work that happens here is of particularly great interest. I don't mind this as it suits my strengths more than trying to fit duvets into duvet covers or baking desserts would. But it's not rewarding like sheep work, or building stiles. Even drystone dyking is preferable, if only because it happens outside.

When work is done at half eight, having cleared up dinner, washed the dishes and laid the breakfast table for tomorrow's guests (I hope they appreciate it), we play. We head up to the community hall, the school's sports hall and play table tennis, pool, badminton and football until the others are tired and content and I'm puce and sweating buckets.