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.


  1. That raven, throat bulging as it calls...

  2. Those Ravens. Always extraordinary.

  3. Some awesome photos - especially the Raven (but even the sheep). Amazed you managed to get both twite in focus - an optical illusion of a pic.

  4. Thanks David. Twite are absolutely brilliant, so brilliant that I couldn't face cropping one of them out. So the annoying fence post stays but it makes me wince every time I see it!