Sunday, 29 March 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 22nd - 27th of March

22nd of March

I don't know how the Romantics did it. Visionary dreariness? I'm getting cabin fever, looking at the weather and putting off today's census. Dreary rain and dreary southwesterly winds. Visibility? Poor. I catch up on reading instead and watch Fulmars through the window being buffeted about. The fever sinks into my bones.


I venture out in the afternoon at the sight of a brighter horizon but as soon as I cross the dyke it darkens again. It was relatively sheltered by the obs. Here it is brutal. Not the strongest wind or the heaviest rain, but the combination was stinging. My gloves are soaked through in minutes, socks damp despite wellies. The wind whips the rain in under my hood. Gannets are straining into the wind just offshore, circling back high when the wind catches underneath them. They stand out as bright white against the grey Atlantic, like the wind-blown wave crests that crash into shore here. Fulmars hang in the breeze and use it to shoot along the dyke, for no evident reason. A Snow Bunting flits along, seeking shelter amongst the rocks. The rocks: generally not that slippy, even when wet. The two things that make them treacherous here are the sea foam which blankets them in white stuff so thick you can't see where to tread. The other is algae, almost imperceptible on the wet dark rocks and as slippery as black ice. The track between the dyke and the sea thins beyond Gretchen. I first feel my feet go from under me on a big smooth rock, slanting upwards. I catch myself. Carry on up and round the next set of rocks. Catch myself again.

I could turn back but I persevere. I slog and slip and slide my way around and find nothing whatsoever.

23rd and 24th of March

Two days of essentially the same. Bike, sun and sweating up the north end of the island for not much in the way of migrant birds. Yesterday the seas were rough and the tides were high, pushing a mixed flock of Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones — 100 each — right up to the strand line not more than a couple of metres from the gate I stood by. Today the seas were calmer as they always seem to be in Linklet Bay. It’s the North Sea coast and that is usually calm beyond the surf, whereas the Atlantic off the north west coast always seems to be tossing white-topped waves at the shore. Birds are more spread out here. They’re not pinned into the one bay offering refuge but can be found in the nooks and crannies offered up by all the rocks spread out here. A Glaucous Gull flies past and a few decent-sized flock of Skylarks follow just offshore too, reminders of the migrants I saw here last week. On the loch at the top of the island, the Common Gull colony is screeching into life. The kelp flies are still swarming over the beach, surrounding the Turnstones. Rock and Meadow Pipit numbers are up. It does at time feel like I’m taking the pulse of the island’s avian life. This would register as stable. Ticking over but not particularly lively, not particularly well. I return via a couple of Whooper Swans sitting like melting snow in a field in front of a house with a fleet of red vans, red clothes on the washing line. Everywhere on the island has a name but learning them is eluding me. I’m creating my own temporary language to communicate the locations of things. This becomes the Red House (over yonder). I think the Whooper Swans will leave with the next favourable winds.

I have been twice everywhere on the island now. I'm beginning to build up a picture of it, but wouldn't say I know it particularly yet. This is why I'm sceptical of travel writing. For me the ideal is to come to know places rather than merely experience them, pass through as a nomad and pretend to know all about them.

Two afternoons of near enough similar work. They have been gorgeous afternoons of clear blue skies, rippling seas and manual labour. Yesterday: digging holes and breaking rocks in the weak sun, to fit some strainer posts in for a gate in the middle of the sheep dyke. This is to modulate the sheep: for keeping them off the fields most of the year, but for letting the pregnant ewes and castrated rams in during spring, and leaving the uncastrated rams out on the rocks with the kelp. I hope the sorting of the castrated/uncastrated sheep is not my job. Today: helping build a stile over the dyke by the Heligoland trap: further digging but this time just clearing out the wet, damp silty mud that had congregated in the bottom of one of the holes where the legs will be concreted in place. Lots of saw, chiselling, hammering was done. ‘Proper joinery work’ Mark said. It was enjoyable but knackering. I haven’t sawed and hammered and chiselled since DT lessons at school and my body has forgotten how to go through the motions of manually making things. It might not forget the ache that is afflicting me all over.


The sunset was stunning, backlit knots of cloud again. The stars were stunning tonight too: I slipped out and found venus, jupiter, many constellations I don’t know and the shadow of a cat slipping past in the moonlight.

25th of March

The Whooper Swans did leave but not the right Whooper Swans and not in the right direction. The morning started with two adults and juvenile on Gretchen Loch: not yesterday’s two and not the three either that had wintered on the islands with distinctly stained heads. This was the traditional family party of startlingly white birds. Calling like a bugler — or unkindly, like the the bar door hinge in need of oiling — they crescendo, run, flap and take off into the brilliant blue sky, over the sea and head high towards Papay. Almost entirely in the wrong direction for Karelia, where the ghost of Sibelius is ready to ecstatically greet them.

Elsewhere: I flushed a migrant Chaffinch feeding on the Kelp in Nouster Bay, a new arrival to the island. It seemed like a promising morning, with clear sky and correct breeze, but that was the only new arrival I found, though on the east coast Mark had a Black Redstart. Amongst the main fields, which last week were abuzz with Skylarks I heard only a few, in what seem like prime weather for testing the size and stamina of their lungs by hovering and singing simultaneously for several minutes. It may have been a better day for leaving than arriving. I hope this ornithological deficit doesn’t last long. It’s surprising that I haven’t gotten more depressed about this. Usually the lack of birds gets me very down. I think the inherent promise of an island, that one day you will turn the corner onto something extraordinary is keeping me motivated.


Another sunny afternoon, another artisan stile to make. A cold wind sprung up shortly after starting and this made bailing rainwater of the hole, sawing, hammering and chiselling much tougher. Combined with my own ineptitude of course. I’d forgotten that it you saw through a piece of wood with it in the middle of a frame then it will inevitably get extremely difficult towards the end as both pieces press against the saw. Rookie error. I fear I’m no great loss to the construction industry, and it owes its entire structural integrity to Mark. It was still fun and painful to make.

26th of March

The winds have turned easterly, the forecast offers rain. This is the magic formula for migrant birds to appear on the island. It’s all I’ve ever wanted from the Met Office. Slightly contrary approach to today then: dig my final gate strainer post hole while it’s merely spitting with rain, head out in the afternoon to Bridesness in the proper rain and easterlies, to hopefully see the birds coming in off the sea and dropping down onto the beach and walls.

I shouldn’t romanticise the work here. Digging the hole by myself was difficult. I have a distracting audience of sheep. My back hurts, my library-honed arm muscles hurt from breaking rocks with a heavy metal rod and the hole is too thin for particularly effective shovelling. I cleared as much of the rocks and dirt out by hand. And then Mark turned up with a cup of tea, broke the final rock and stole the glory. He’d had a couple of Goldcrests further up the dyke. I had a couple of Robins funnel along it — which bodes well for migrants — and a Great Black-backed Gull eating a gurnard that it robbed from a Shag.


After lunch it rained a little harder. Raindrops dripping off my lenses, I found two Goldcrests in a stunted, lichen-crusted wind-blown little sycamore in the garden at Holland. They were gleaning insects from the bark, for the leaf-cover hasn’t grown and looks at least a month off yet. I don’t know what they were finding but it was miraculous that they were finding anything at all. It’s miraculous that they made it here at all: a six gram, nine centimetre bundle of flesh and muscle and feathers, blown about on a wet easterly wind. There are no trees for them here, we are north of Britain’s natural woodland. They’ll stop for a day and be off on a favourable south westerly, heading to the pine blankets of Scandinavia, or possibly even as far as Russia. In the boughs beneath them, a Song Thrush gently calling to itself. It had a back that was greyer than it was brown, like that found on European birds.

Halfway down the road another Goldcrest flits across in front of me, heading for shelter in the gaps in a dry stone wall. There’s a slight cognitive dissonance at work here: you head to a remote Scottish island and the main habitat for migratory birds is a set of human made things, made for the purpose of hemming in other animals.


The promise of migrant birds doesn’t hold though. I head out to my census area, the exposed Bridesness corner of the island into the teeth of a high tide whipped into vigour. Salt and rain and wind. On the very corner I ducked behind a wall for shelter and found the broch instead: a near 2000 year old round stone building. No one really knows what brochs were built for, but right at that moment it made a very effective umbrella. Scotland has enough of these that isn’t deemed worthy of a sign, or interpretation, or a visitor centre. Not particularly well marked on the map for me to stumble across it by accident. In the absence of finding unexpected wildlife, unexpected history will do.


As I headed back inland from the coast: a female Hen Harrier drifted, unruffled and elegant in the weather, along the side of the loch, causing havoc amongst the wildfowl. It perches up briefly, folding away wet wings and turning into a sort of origami bird: an elegant lightweight dart, before being forcibly escorted by the too too close attentions of a Hooded Crow. Overhead a Snipe drummed, displaying in the dreich.


The blisters have gone. But the tiredness remains. This evening felt like sleepwalking, like wading neck-deep through life.

27th of March

The forecast was worse for birds: the wind had swung to the west again and the rain had disappeared. But still a Goldcrest calls seeped from the bushes and a migrant Rook flapped overhead in the murky morning. It didn’t take me long on my census route today to find the Black Redstart that Mark had found two days earlier, half perched, half hiding in the rocky sea defences beneath a coastal croft. First one of those that I’ve seen in a while. I always think they should be the totem animal of the new nature writers: they like the bleak coastal and post-industrial edges of Britain, they’re rare and best found in unlikely places, and owe their existence here to war and migration. They’re also, as adult males, truly stunning black and bright red. In this female: a little dowdier. More ash and embers than coal and fire.


It took three minutes, according to the times stamped in my photographs, from beginning to end. It is seared into my memory. It came out of blue sky — crows calling — and frantic shapes of panic and aggression. A Buzzard, and two hoodies having a barney. I look again — no, not a Buzzard. It’s barred underneath and the wingtips are deeply fingered. A hawk. Sparrowhawks pass through the island and it must be one of those but it has a Hooded Crow chasing each wing, each wing as long as each crow. My mind goes into overdrive, spinning like a slot machine: it comes up Gos, Gos, Sparrowhawk? In the melee of panic and aggression overhead, it is impossible to pick out the half-remembered ID features. The secondaries don’t appear to bulge much. The tail is moulting and thus useless. And that’s where it ends: this is so far removed from my Goshawk context of displaying birds over distant pine woods that I don’t really know where to begin. So I gawp and take photographs. It has to be both. It can’t be either.


I get home and sort my head out. Sitting in the photos, a pixel-perfect Goshawk. The eleventh ever to appear on the island.


That afternoon I celebrate by mixing cement.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 16th - 21st of March

16th of March

The west side of the island is a paradox: it is in the lee of the easterly yet also incredibly bleak. North of Gretchen Loch — and away from where another Glaucous Gull was flying — the land flattens out. Between the airfield and the bouldered coastline, flat turf of the North Ronaldsay kind. Which means it’s as much waterlogged moss as grass, a thin green layer on top of a nasty sticky mud. The kind that does not like to let go. Deceptively treacherous. I imagine it’s what tundra is like, away from the sphagnum. It is — mostly —  birdless. A couple of flocks of Skylarks (but the numbers are much fewer than in recent days) and a Raven calling from a stile I had to cross. It feels like that should be a modern Orcadian augury, but for what I’m not sure. Maybe it means I’ll get zapped by an electric fence, a fate that still awaits me at some point on the island.
Offshore, scattered large flocks of Black Guillemots floated in the surf. Pre-breeding flocks hanging around the rocks where they will come ashore to lay their eggs, the only auk that breeds on the island and the only one that doesn’t require cliffs. Eider are starting to mass, and to bob their heads in the surf too. I scan them aware that this is the time to find a King Eider. Not yet. I have a lot of hope and little expectation for that one.

At the north end between cattle fields with wild-eyed cows, a pair of Stonechat. There were five elsewhere on the island, pinned down by Mark. Seven is the highest total of Stonechats ever seen on the island at once.

I got lost on the way back, taking a route that led me out of my census area. But this delay, meant I picked up a Merlin, scything through fields in search of Skylarks, and a Woodcock that kicked up from under my feet on the west links. Not bad for an island without trees.

The weather turned in the afternoon for the worse. Drizzly and colder. I spent it folding up leaflets.

I have stopped pretending to read Thoreau and tonight read some of Hardy's poetry instead because the music of his misery is preferable to Thoreau’s waffle.

17th of March

My birthday. 23 years old and I still over eat cake and that will make tomorrow’s bike ride up to the top of the island hell. There should be more birds about tomorrow anyway. It would be hard to be less birdy then today. One Pink-footed Goose with the Greylags (a new bird, and very much the runt), a Woodcock and six Rock Pipits with a variety looking almost Scandinavian were the only things of interest. The Woodcock did a particularly good metamorphosis in my bincoulars, from the Rock Dove that was flying over into a tubby brown long-billed bird. A reminder: double-check everything here.
Tonight my appetite has been repeatedly likened to Rick’s. I don’t know who Rick is, or anything about Rick other than through the size of his stomach and its similarity to mine. I like him. I’d think we’d get on well. The evening was spent checking aurora reports roll in on twitter and seeing nothing but a faint green tinge, a flashing lighthouse and depressingly low, thick and immobile cloud. Oh well.

18th of March

Today’s bike ride up the top of the island was postponed. Not for cake, or over-indulgence, but fog. Instead Mark and I finished off renewing the wire on the Heligoland trap, tacking the chicken-wire panels to the timber poles and sewing the panels together with steel wire. Rebuilding parts of the dry-stone dyke and re-erecting a barbed wire fence around this. That was like a trust exercise in two parts: we don’t trust the cattle that the local crofter puts in the field to not destroy the trap. I trust Mark as he repeatedly brings an 18lb sledgehammer down on the old wooden post that I’m holding to not miss and break both my wrists.

Foghorns sound while we work. A Merlin buzzes about the obs, flies with intent towards the wall and flips up and over the other side of it, low and fast. Being an ambush predator requires excellent aerial skills, which this falcon has. It also requires a sense of place and timing, which it doesn’t. It perches up, while from the other end of the wall a flock of Twite could be heard loudly chattering.

A Stonechat wandered into a different Heligoland trap. It’s a young male, different to the female we had around the obs yesterday. Only the fourth to be rung at the obs, ever. It’s refreshing being in a place where Stonechats are rare and worthy of the attention we bestow on rarities. I can’t really understand why they’re not widely celebrated: strikingly black, orange and white, and not particularly shy either (though these migrants are impossible to get close to) they are one of the perfect birds.

The fog burnt off at lunchtime. The bike ride up the island wasn’t painful at all but utterly gorgeous. The light had a perfect warm clarity and a Kestrel was new to the island. Skylarks continued to dominate with flocks passing along the coastline, betrayed by their distinctive calls. I have a new meaning for them. I always associated them with warm summer days in the wheat and beet fields of central Suffolk, or Ralph Vaughan Williams and their cultural significance. Now I can add to that the first signs of visible migration on bleak Scottish islands. There are further, subtler signs. A single stray Golden Plover in a field, neck-deep in grass. The Barnacle Geese at the very tip of the island that bottled the big push north, last being seen closer in to their normal haunt, around the airfield. The Rock Pipits in bigger numbers than six days ago, when I last did this walk, in similarly gorgeous weather. I take my jumper off and sit down on the beach of boulders. I appreciate that this is an incredible privilege, to be living for a short while on a remote island, without worrying about where the food is coming from, whether I can pay the rent or if fly-strike will hit my sheep. To be in solitude, yet return to an environment of naturalists. It feels like paradise. And it’s my struggle to not be that insufferably smug prick about it. I feel a bit like Thoreau though, surrounded by people making honest livings while I work on my soul and lofty ideals. I wonder how that alters my reading of the island. It’s probably less like paradise if your croft has a leaking roof and your cows are truculent.
I find another Stonechat as I head back to the beginning of the census route at the top of the island, just around from Jimmy’s croft. Jimmy lives in a croft surrounded by car parts, spare wheels and cars raised on jacks. He emerges from underneath one — part way through changing the oil — and stops for a chat about the island, asks me about the birds I’m seeing before saying he doesn’t know them particularly well. He last visited London in 1977. All the while Radio 2 is playing. Jonathan Ross talking about Bruce Springsteen and the world seems particularly strange.

This evening I tried again for the aurora under less cloud. I get a glimpse: a flickering pale shimmering of light, moving in ways unnatural for clouds. It clouds over not long after. I’m not sure that counts as the aurora. An aurora without colour scarcely seems worthy of the name.

19th of March

Back to Gretchen. The census resets itself. After the six day/six part loop of the island, the volunteers do not get the seventh day off. After F, A. We hurried out this morning into the grey drizzle because the forecast showed that it would only get worse. I returned to sliding along the damp, sheep-shit and seaweed covered rocks, but I wasn’t alone. Offshore, the Black Guillemots had returned and had been making the most of the relatively calmer weather to investigate old crevices in the rocks for nesting. All auks share a certain essential spirit with penguins. Black Guillemots — Tysties here as well as in Shetland — stand up right on short red legs, and have a tendencies to waddle, to call and interact. Only that penguin affectation is ruined when something gets too close to one and it flies away as a frantic blur of black and white. I counted over 150. Apparently that’s not many for here.
I wrote last week that you can’t engineer a Hen Harrier. You can, however, pay attention to their early warning system. I didn’t see it coming, but I heard it. I span around on the spot at the Fulmars and screaming gulls and the chocolate orange juvenile Hen Harrier effortlessly drifting quicker than the panicking birds. It makes it to the horizon in the time it takes me to lift camera and focus.

The rain set in. I trudge quickly around the rest of the walk: two Stonechats and a frosty-backed Pink-footed Goose were the only other highlights, the only other thing of note. The rest of the island seems to have shut up shop for the weather. No one moves. Nothing stirs.

The afternoon: I man the shop during its open hours, make lunch, water the plants, clean the kitchen, make dinner for the cook and the warden. Mark and I finish the log, look at each other and agree: crap day.

20th of March

The sun was so bright this morning I woke up wishing someone would turn it off. The moon soon helped. We stood outside the obs watching the not-quite-total eclipse by not watching it. Sneaking sideways glimpses through sunglasses or at an angle through the rear screen of a camera as thin clouds skimmed in front. The light gathers in like an evening. Temperature drops. I don’t see if any birds head to roost because I’m too busy trying to work out how to get my camera to capture it.  It reminds me of an Arcade Fire lyric: ‘we saw the end of the century / compressed on a tiny screen’. Technology is a blessing and a curse in this way. The eclipse is a classic of the genre of natural spectacles. You can’t really look at it, it’s slower than you expect and is utterly extraordinary. I still remember the 1999 total eclipse and being sat playing with my toy cars (I was seven or something at the time) and looking up and out of the window at a black sun.
A second dawn. I went off with a spade to dig two holes and clear a load of rocks away from the wall, in preparation for installing a gate to let sheep into the fields for lambing season. It’s a thankless task but I’m a beast of burden. I need a heavy workload and stupid heavy rocks seems ideal. As toil goes, it has a simple dignity. There is no sophistry in stones and mud. The others collect the weekly shipment of food and a Land Rover from the pier and pack away the mountain of food.

I get annoyed with the news this morning, repeatedly claiming that isolation and loneliness is inextricably linked with unhappiness. I hadn’t noticed that. Isolation suits me just fine. Sometimes the world forgets that introverts exist.

My census area this afternoon was Bridesness. As with the west coast, it is not the most exposed area of the island but it is the bleakest. Jutting out of the east coast, it feels significantly like you are birding on the edge here: the next stop east is Stavanger. As the track rolls past a field of alpacas — looking at me like I’m the one out of my usual habitat —, a broken Curlew lying under a fence and progressively more ruined crofts which Fulmars prospect for nesting sites, it leads you down to the loch and beach of bladderwrack and kelp and boulders. I find a Twite flock — thirty strong — and a small flurry of Fulmars flying into the vigorous wind along a wall. The walls at this end of the island are particularly spectacular. Fulmars nest in them too on the opposite side to the path and can be heard chuckling even when all you can see is the wall. The chuckling walls take some getting used to.
The highlight of this census route is ending up walking down Nouster Beach, an unspoilt white sand bay with the bluest sea. And today: a Glaucous Gull flying one way up it and a Sandwich Tern flying the other. Seasonally this confuses me. It is summer to the west and winter in the east.

I spent my evening at Orkney science festival, under the auspice of which a talk was being given in the community hall. 16 people (a third of the island, basically) turned out and packed into a small hall to learn about light: variously the Northern lights, eclipses and rainbows. Astronomy is endlessly fascinating to me, the intermeshing of random chances on a vast vast scale and what it produces. Same as with birds.

21st of March

Spring tide: the beaches were waves and ducks instead of sand and waders, the waves raking through the rocks with the hiss of hot oil. A fine day though. Blue sky, the sea blue but cloudy with suspended sand. Wind: negligible. Temperature: too hot. I: Goldilocks.

There were no birds of interest today. I trudged around the east links — and trudged is the right word for the lazy feet in loose wellies walk — seeing a hundred or so Wigeon brought in by the stiff tide, Long-tailed Ducks in the surf and a few Scandinavian Rock Pipits. Nothing captures my mind, holds my gaze for longer than the average. These are the occasional bad days. Days of a universal quietness without calmness, and without the latter the former becomes a day of restless searching and not finding. Yesterday’s Sandwich Tern does not reappear. There were no Snow Buntings on the beach. It always feels a shame, after days spent weathering storms to get a nice day and to be able to do nothing with it outside.
This afternoon was spent watching the denouement of the Six Nations. It was monumental: 3 games, 3 team who could win the tournament going all out to score the necessary points. It’s the fine margins, and the inter-linking of events and chances, and the what-could’ve-been that gets me. It’s as closely linked as an old novel and random like birding, astronomy. England miss out on winning by a matter of a few points. Same as it ever was.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 9th - 15th March

Backstory: I quit my job. Ran for an island. Swapped a desk in London for a 12 kilo rucksack, my camera and a small Scottish island. A really really tiny one. You can walk the length of North Ronaldsay in an hour, it has a population of about fifty and is home to a unique type of sheep and a bird observatory, where I will be volunteering for the next four months. The following is extracts from the diary I’m keeping.
 9th of March

I have never seen the Pentland Firth calm. I was travelling up under the yellow cloud of a Met Office severe weather warning for gales and high waves. Today I would take a ferry and then a flight and I was distinctly unhappy about this. The boat left Gills Bay, slowly — motors revving and the boat juddering. I don’t get sea sick but I can’t bear to be inside a boat when I can be on deck, so I stood outside, braving the wind while hanging onto a bench. It was a bright day and stretching all around was mostly white: the foam of waves, and spindrift creating drifting rainbows along the surface of the sea. I was half in the mind that I might find a White-billed Diver. But the only birds braving the raging sea were Guillemots: Common and Black (in breeding plumage already), Kittiwakes, Gannets and Fulmars. Fulmars are one of the world’s greatest and least appreciated birds. They may dress dowdy as seagulls, but its the mind of an albatross inside that sets them apart. The wind that forced me to hold onto a railing just to stand up was a plaything to them. Stiff-winged soaring, carving shapes through air that shouldn’t physically be possible. Elegance in heavy weather. Grace under low pressure weather systems.


Logan Air could have the slogan ‘making people believe in God again’. It was hard at times, cooped up in a tiny metal box with two propellers flickering in the corners of my eyes, to not think that this would require divine intervention at some point. The wind shook the box. It would hit turbulence and drop. For a couple of seconds too longer than comfortable progress would seem to stop: the propellers still circling and the engine still rattling, but no forward motion could be felt, until it jinked its way through the air again. Underneath: the Stronsay Firth and the Sanday Sound were wrinkled white and blue-grey. Sanday island was all peninsula and isthmuses draped across the sea, like a bracket on which North Ronaldsay is suspended. The descent to North Ronaldsay was hairier still. The plane turned on its wing above the sea to face the island and drifted down towards the runway. The wind was side on, turning the plane at an angle. Lights resolve themselves from amongst the gloom. The white horses on the waves whip into the rocky shoreline. Blink. Look again at that rocky shoreline. Suddenly I find myself unable to not look at the overlapping strata of rock as the plane descends, angled across the runway, and drifting in over the rocks. Until — at seemingly the last possible moment — the pilot accelerates, the nose swings back to the runway and we hit the ground, the right way up and in the right direction. My internal organs return to their right places. It was either divine intervention or a well-trained chap called Colin, possibly both. I unfold myself out of the seat and I have arrived. North Ronaldsay: population fiftyish…and one now.


There is currently a dead Great Skua in the porch. A victim of a broken wing from the power lines that cross the island.

10th of March

Last night I didn’t sleep for the gale banging my window frame all night. It’s more than wind. This is air that sounds like it’s ripping through the walls of the buildings and tearing through grass. I expect a scene of devastation when the sun comes up.


It feels real now but I'm still not taking it all in. I don't have an idea of the island as a whole, as an organism or ecosystem. I'm still trying to believe my own eyes and immediate surroundings. Yesterday playing as a film on fast-forward: I watched it but I didn’t see it. I went for a walk after arguing with the toaster — which burnt one slice and left the other untouched — and went over the dyke, along the coast to Gretchen loch. Terminology: dyke here means wall, which is doing semantic somersaults in my mind from the East Anglian meaning of ditch. Further counter intuitiveness: the dyke keeps the sheep off the fields and on the beach where they eat the seaweed and navigate wet rocks with aplomb. Pinned between a fierce wind flinging spindrift and foam at me, I do less well, making sure of anxious deliberate footfall on the wet rocks, acutely aware of the waves flagellating on the rocks. By the time I reach the hide overlooking Gretchen loch a vicious rainstorm soaked my binoculars through and stung my face raw. Shovelers do circuits around the loch despite the weather and Fulmars run along the loch surface and take off into the wind, as if the loch was the sea. Of all the things that take getting used to, that Fulmars are everywhere is one of the most jarring, but also the easiest. It's a bird I want around in my life. I find everything they do to be beautifully elegant, even if they belong at sea and not in or above fields.
Binoculars soaked. I can't see a thing so walk over fields to the main road, up past the Laird's house and up to Ancum loch. Lapwing and Golden Plover, Redshank and Turnstone, and copious feral Greylag Geese make up the birds. By now the sky is brilliant blue. The sun polishes the fields into wet gleaming green.


The obs takes a delivery of food and I help fix the shelves in their new freezer, price up cans of cod roe and meet some locals who want to buy their groceries from us. Mark takes me for a drive around the island mid afternoon, showing me the routes for the daily census counts. Later I create the bonfire. Onto it yesterday's dead Great Skua goes, a Viking cremation for a pirate bird. The evening is still and calm, blue sky and golden sunset dappled with clouds. We retrieve three Twite from the Heligoland trap: two female and one male and the first time I've seen a healthy bird in the hand, having its measurements taken in return for a ring. Twite are fabulous creatures.
11th of March

Sanderlings on the golf course. Turnstones in the fields. Dunlins on the rocks. Sheep on the beach. Skylarks take off and get swept back fields. Fulmars nestled under walls and a Glaucous Gull waddling, the size of a sheepdog. A Long-tailed Duck sits on the flashes morbidly staring at the others out to sea. A male amongst the waves raises its neck, in anticipation of displaying.

This is still a wind harrowed place. Today the winds swung unexpectedly southerly and we headed to the eastern flank of the island, to the golf course that is alleged to be the most northerly in the world. A golf course on an island this tiny seems extremely out of place, though it is Scotland I guess.
The island takes your assumed context for birds and shakes it all up. On the links were Sanderling crawling, a flock as a silvery smudge with black notches marking them out from the grey-green grass. I’m used to seeing them chasing waves on open sandy beaches. Meanwhile Turnstones in fields, Pink-feet, White-front and Tundra Bean Geese amongst the least promising flock of feral Greylags. Passable photos were obtained of the latter. Snipe kick up from most fields. It keeps you awake even when you feel like the tiredest man alive.

The afternoon: bar training, fire-safety training. Imbibe the information, sign the forms. The evening: learn the bird log process. Sleep.

12th of March

Still persevering with Thoreau. Cliche: alert. He understands. He understands why I had to leave the desk and London for something I felt I could grow with. Resignation is committed desperation! These are my more fervoured rebellious thoughts. He reflects my depressed ones too but I'm not sure if I can handle an entire book of me agreeing with him. He suffers terribly from his own pious idealism though. Ultimately I’m reading him on an island, to see how it alters how I read my own solitude. I’m wondering instead about work and toil, because I seem to default to a stoic suffering: I have blisters from the muck boots and wind-burned ears, a perpetual fug of tiredness and half an eye on how this will be worth it in the end. I’ve also been thinking a lot about god: it’s the sort of landscape that makes you irresistibly think of big things.


Today there was a major island funeral and the first time the obs has been full of visitors. Despite the alcohol involved a funeral isn’t an ideal place to meet people, particularly not when you’re nervously handing bowls of soup and platters of cheese and ham sandwiches around emotional people. The only incident on my first bar shift was hearing ‘a box of red wine’ as a bottle, and then searching for the key to open the already unlocked store door. Oh Steve. As with a surprising amount of things in life, it just needed a good shove.


The weather has still been atrocious, still with a hint of easterly. I tried to count the Wigeon on Gretchen loch as part of today’s survey but the wind was such that standing up was best done bent at an angle, half-hiding behind the collapsed sheep dyke. Of course, still no sign of the Green-winged Teal. The waves were spectacular, crashing into the wind and rocks in a meringue of whipped white. A Snow Bunting foraged amongst the sheep grazed rocks. Highlight of the day was the Glaucous Gull of yesterday, battling the wind in Nouster bay. It appeared overhead and out of the sun, and first noticed as a gull where the wingtips didn’t seem to end in the correct edge of black. It moved out of the light and then I could see the sun and sea bleached white features, the missing primary feather and large bulk of the bird. A note on gull ageing: almost any gull born last summer will be in its first winter plumage by now. But Glaucs and Iceland Gulls retain their juvenile feathers throughout the winter until they end up beaten and broken, more shaft than feather and bleached the colour of ivory. I like that about them. A biological stoicism.

13th of March

Tiredness abides. The wind and rain passes. It dawned gorgeously, still and calm. A Skylark singing sort of morning. A Merlin hunting singing Skylarks sort of morning. I take the bike up to Dennis point, the very northeastern tip of the island for today’s census. The kelp flies have hatched this morning and the beach is aswarm with them. They blunder into me, like small hail stones. A flock of Starlings, at least 300 strong counter-swarm and lay waste to them. Rock Pipits take the pickings at the edge, too wary to commit fully to the frenzy. A couple of flies flew into my mouth. I didn’t really see the appeal. Ravens and a Glaucous Gull off the tip of the point. A Water Rail scurrying (the only way they have of moving) between thick weedy margin of the dyke and a rather small pond. I thought this would be good for the island but apparently not.

It is a morning of arrivals. Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails are fresh into the island, a Sparrowhawk dropped in too — pursued by Hooded Crows — and presumably made its way off north again on such a fine clear day. Fair Isle can be seen from here, somedays.


I really can’t express enough how nice a day today was. It was the sort of day when performing a daily census of the island’s birds isn’t just my daily task but what I would be doing anyway, for fun. That can’t be overstated as to how good that feels. I’m reminded of an Andrew O’Hagan essay on his holiday in Bora Bora. He pauses after his lavish descriptions and apologises — because ‘paradise makes pricks of us all’.

Paradise has work as well, and not just in the naming of the beasts. This afternoon we took down the rusty chickenwire that has been half of a Heligoland trap for the past six years, and replaced it with fresh wire. If paradise involves ladders, nails and hammers in one direction, and a marsh in the other with electric lapwing song, a quartering Hen Harrier gingered by the evening sunlight, and
a Green-winged Teal then I am quite ok with this. Tasks in a nice environment aren’t tasks at all. And not a way of killing time either (so as that I don’t injure eternity, thanks Thoreau).

We caught two female Blackbirds in the Heligoland trap and I held and released them both. Nestled calmly between my fingers, they behaved well. You release them simply by letting go, which heart-stoppingly feels like you will drop and the Blackbird will just drop calmly to the ground and injure itself. But this is not so. For a split-second after you release and the bird drops, its wings flick out and it disappears over the pallet fence. That was all I felt. Too nervous to feel any more.

14th of March

Six more blackbirds released. Each a beating heart and keen eye, a bundle of energy and a plumb line from my hand to behind the nearest wall.

Later we switch on the rugby, serve some fisherman in the bar and then watch England v Scotland. England win, naturally. The evening unwinds. Unspooled: stories and reminisces of islanders of old and what it was like, merely 30 years ago. Sunny and full of youth, laced with currents of darkness, anger and regret for people lost and the decline of the island. I want to meet more of the islanders.

15th of March

Tiredness abides. A full stop. The last day of my first full week at the obs and it feels like it's been a year. Ok, I exaggerate. Into the space of a week, it feels like a month of upheaval and weather has been packed and wedged in.

This morning. A fine day to rival Friday but wind ruffled. My blisters stagger around with me, keeping me moving forward. I headed up to the east links, where a low footpath between high cattle fields kicks you out at a gate, opening up at a white sand beach, bands of kelp and boulders and seventy Sanderlings describing the extent of the sea’s waves. The sea still blue. The sky cloudless. Common Seals on the rocks and a flock of Bar-tailed Godwits on the sand. On the links: three Glaucous Gull, all bleached juveniles — one a new arrival on the island — and a Snow Bunting.

Back by the crofts near the loch a Hen Harrier materialised above the bones of a bush, hovering, then quartering on and out of sight behind another croft. I ran up the road to see it again but when I get to where it disappeared… nothing. You can’t engineer a Hen Harrier. Can’t predict where to see one. It’s a matter of it appearing from behind a wall and disappearing in thin air, of its own volition. They are impossibly difficult.

Tiredness increases. The rest of the day spent feeling as if under glass. Strangely devoid of the experience of life.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

I’ve recently been discussing landscape with a good friend and it has reminded me that my taste in landscape is an acquired one. She is excited to be among the baize and bone of chalk downland; I am thrilled by marshes, space and the absence of ‘landscape’. We both grew up in the same part of Suffolk. She turned inland in the search of English hills and I turned outward, looking for the edges. She thinks these marshes are boring. I think I get it from dad, who as a child asked to go on holiday ‘somewhere bleak’. I’ve always felt the same, as if taste in landscape was genetic and not formed from a patchwork of childhood memories involving seawalls and shingle beaches and ever-grey skies.
I mention this in lieu of explanation. It was dad’s fifty-something birthday and we were stood on the selvedge of a seawall, admiring the scimitar curve of Essex. We were stood on an island but it is almost indistinguishable from the mainland. Behind us: a yachting village the other side of the river. The Crouch washes the bank metres from our feet and stretches east, merges with the Roach and dissipates into the shallow muddy expanse of the North Sea. In front of us: Kentish power stations are dark smudges in the murk, the Thames hidden and betrayed only by ships apparently sailing through dry fields. The marsh is essentially a building site. It has yellow cranes and diggers — emblazoned with Hawk — spread across it. Here is where the dirt being dug out from under London by Crossrail is being shipped to and turned into a new island in the river. The island will be an RSPB reserve and the noticeboard has optimistic images of Spoonbills. While they have high hopes for here, politicians bicker over whether to build a Crossrail station over my local park.

If the new nature is that which we can find in the margins of our urban lives, then I guess this is the new old nature. The desolate and remote locations of old nature, but a nature made by diggers and trains instead of fences and signs. We can lose sight that nature is as often man-made as it is man-destroyed. And the wildlife? A Rough-legged Buzzard hung over the marsh, flickering wings and spread tail, showing its patchwork of peat and cream plumage. A Hen Harrier ghosted low along the ditches, terrifying partridges and a Marsh Harrier drifted higher over the wetter areas, worrying the wildfowl. They do not care about the diggers.

But the real highlight was the Corn Bunting. In a crop field by the car park we found one. Dumpy, streaky and very brown, it is what is thought of as a birder’s bird. We found another, and another, until the crop field was alive with birds moving amongst the leaves. The flock was at least 100 strong, which would’ve been unremarkable 100 years ago. Perhaps even 50. But since then they’ve declined by 90% throughout Britain. A bird that used to be so local that populations 30km apart could sing with different dialects, they are the canary in the coal mine of British agriculture. I hadn’t seen this amount of Corn Buntings in my entire life, before today. I wasn’t even aware such gatherings happened in the 21st century.

And I remember when I last saw a Corn Bunting. I was a couple of miles into the Sussex downs with the same friend who is now so excited to be moving there. It had rained all morning and we were on the top of the green escarpment. Around us the landscape seemed like a dream of genteel Englishness, a period fiction of the past. From a manure dump a Corn Bunting sang its tuneless jangle. It looked as though it could’ve been shaped out of a lump of soil and straw, earth magicked to life. I was excited. My friend was bored, irascible, thoroughly uncharmed. Evidently an acquired taste.