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.

1 comment:

  1. Something doesn't seem right about the concept of a chaffinch by the sea!