Thursday, 23 April 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 12th April - 19th April

12th April

Since I arrived on the island:

My phone has broken
Two pairs of trousers have broken
My camera is malfunctioning
My laptop has picked up an irritating quirk
My two-week blisters healed
It has rained a lot, hailed a little less and snowed twice
I saw two Swallows flying over an eagle
I have seen a hawk in the hand and the panic they cause in the air
I have seen Gannets spear into rough waves
I have seen rainbows in the spindrift and foam covered shores
I have had to clean my binoculars daily
I have seen what an island covered in Redwings is like
I danced at a ceilidh for the first time
I fell on my face at a ceilidh
Old ladies laugh at me at the ceilidh
I have not got very far with Thoreau at all

In isolation I feel less alone. The adverts on TV and the news seem more absurd than before. Living without a phone has been a mixed blessing. I still feel the vibrations in my pocket from texts while my phone is off being fixed in England. An iPhone feels like a crutch, essential for a modern existence but a modern existence that comes bundled in with a stream of distractions. It’s noticeable who you fall out of contact with. I confess: I am balding, I have a taste for poetry and being alone in bleak places but despite this I am young. I confess: I have taken a selfie (though it was terrible), can work technology and don’t read printed news. Stream has at least three meanings to me: the literal, the metaphorical and the technological. I read a lot about how technology is the enemy of nature and how we’re supposedly spending our time staring at screens instead of going outside but I don’t recognise it from my own life. The ability to carry a device that enables me to share an experience has, I’ve found, sharpened the experience in the past. Without it, I don’t look any longer or deeper than I did before, I just wander around not knowing what the time is and wondering if Mark has found a rarity at the other end of the island.


The weather has been erratic today, the only constant has been a cutting cold wind. A fair reflection on what isn’t, but what feels like the halfway point. A day for taking stock in between the rain showers. Five days after the first Wheatear arrived, today I find eight on my count. 95 Oystercatchers too, which is higher than in recent counts. They’ll double in numbers, maybe more when they’re at their peak.

13th April

Today: cleaning the conservatory windows with a bottle of Mr Muscle, an ice cream tub of warm water and a ripped up thermal vest for a cloth. This is work I do diligently, fully aware that: a) nobody notices a clean window, b) the wind and rain are dousing the outside with salty grime on a daily basis. Do people notice half-cleaned windows?

Yesterday: Malta’s referendum on whether to allow its illegal spring hunt season passed by a laughably small margin. This is too horrible for me to contemplate fully. I now have the absolute privilege to work with migrating birds, quite possibly those that unwittingly risk their lives migrating through Malta. Malta is a death sentence. Their spring hunting season is an open season on anything that flies — storks, raptors, warblers, swifts — all gets shot at, some injured and most killed. To hunt in spring is to cut a swathe out of the breeding population of some of Europe’s fastest declining birds. To look after our migratory bird populations is also a Europe-wide duty. These birds are not any country’s property to use and abuse as they wish, but continent spanning miracles, that tell us about the state of nature where they live. And when you remove one from a net, gingerly take its particular details and attach a ring to its needle-thin leg you forget about all that. All you have in mind is the ten-centimetre, ten-gram green wonder that made it here, that exists of its own accord, and the magical feeling that is letting it fly from your hand to the nearest bush. At that point, to look at that bird in that bush and feel the need to shoot it… I can’t comprehend that. Each migratory arrival is now joy — and relief.

14th April

One of the joys of obs life is the other volunteers. Some of them are hardened birders and some are itinerant biologists, who ended up at the beyond of beyond to gain more experience at identification and bird-handling skills. It’s the camaraderie we share that keeps the chill of loneliness at the door. Sara is one such volunteer: a half-Italian, half-Nepalese biology graduate, who spent a year in the Kalahari working with meerkats. She came up from London on a fractured, flight-delayed, ferry-delayed journey and was shocked to find the wilderness she was expecting to be on Shetland, not here. But the wildness — the not wilderness — of here is working its charms. We went out on census together today with the aim of helping her wader identification. I also managed to find her the Barnacle Geese that she wanted to see, have multiple thrilling views of a Hen Harrier and the Snow Buntings that melted her. They make me go a little gooey too.

There is a joy in this one-on-one teaching. Deconstructing each bird as it flies past to build it up again in another person’s memory makes you look again and look closely at common species. It sharpens your appreciation for the variability of all species and what makes them unique. The biggest joy though, is seeing your passion click with someone else. Seeing the spark in their mind catch about birds, about the island, and seeing Sara’s eyes light up when she realises that she can tell two tricky birds apart and enjoy it.


Spring is still creeping in: Northern White-tailed Bumblebees have appeared. Primroses, daisies and colt’s-foot have emerged, wide-eyed, surprised and blinking with flowers. Yesterday: invisible stems in grass. Today: flowers, everywhere.

15th April

A blizzard of gulls. A skua bombs through in a blur of brown and white, waging havoc and fear. It is the signal amidst the noise. Everyday it makes it into my notebook with a little exclamation mark. I came recently across this Annie Dillard quote on Twitter: 'the real and proper question is: why is it beautiful?’…

This morning was standard. Blue skies and sharp showers, a wind from Greenland carving the waves crashing up the west coast. It was my turn to do the west coast today and it's a nice walk along the rocky coast, hopping the boggy fields and with the faint hope that the eagle is still lurking somewhere around here, though faint hopes are always slight disappointments. The coast curves around to the north of the island and I drift off with the humdrum… Then chaos. And a bonxie interrupts.

A bonxie both is brute beauty, built like a seagull on steroids and with the habit of piracy towards fish bearing gulls and terns. Humans are a species that anthropomorphises and these are birds that violate our standard moral code. Yet bonxies are beautiful things — an interruption to the norm — a bird of chaos and energy. Bonxies take you out of the humdrum.


I was accused of being Bob the Builder and of feeling too much like a real man. That bit was undeniable. It’s possible to believe the yardstick of being a man is one’s ability at building things, fixing things, and drinking tea while holding power tools. The latter is something I’m an expert at, while the former things I’m a little hazier about. Island pragmatism means everything can and will be fixed. The obs chairs are fourteen years old and creaking under the weight of weary birders. I pulled out the power tools, screws and drilled offcuts of wood to the bottom to keep them holding together for another year at least. It was a sweltering afternoon in the conservatory, a day of fierce sunlight and rattling winds. I drilled with the sheepdog's assistance and apparently a daft grin on my face. The rest of the team made hay with gleeful mockery.


Ten pm and the spring evenings are already so long that it isn't dark enough for proper star gazing. I took a shower instead and have a staring competition with a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle across the small tiled space. A small, thin and all black beetle, bucking its abdomen and raising its jaws at me like a (very) miniature scorpion. It is not immediately apparent to me how they are associated with the devil. They’re all black and, being a species of rove beetle, voracious predators of other insect-life, but this doesn’t seem nearly enough to me earn the association. What I do know is that they’re supposed to be capable of delivering a nasty bite, so I encourage it back under the shower door frame where it lives, with gloves of toilet paper. I’m all for erasing boundaries between people and nature: I draw the line at showering with the devil.

16th April

A morning of disquiet. Ragged black clouds and no light and the threat of a rain that never fell. The threat though makes the sky feel on edge, the unease seemingly filtering through to the birds: Redshanks and Oystercatchers jumpy and shrieking through the gloom. It felt as if a falcon had been through here before me, transmitting anxiety. It felt as if there had been a recent trauma. Skylarks sang though, rising into the gloom and hanging, shivering with song. That felt out of joint: I’ve walked down here in perfectly sunny weather and not heard any. And I note a bull and chickens in a field where they’ve not been before. Or had they, and I just hadn’t noticed?

A Snipe displayed overhead, too. I learnt last night that their old Orcadian name is horse gowk, meaning horse-deceiver or horse-fool. A name that reveals a half similarity I hadn't noticed to the braying of horses. Deception seems unlikely.

The sun comes out by the rocky northern shore of the island. Purple Sandpipers cling to the rocks, asleep, heads tucked under a wing. They look like a crust of giant barnacles.

17th April

I was half in the mind that nothing good ever happens at 5am. It is a time for alarm clocks, confusion and the gasping realisation that the day begins several hours earlier than you’d wish for. I recently read this, by Thoreau:

    Morning brings back the heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint hum of a         mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn,     when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang     of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own         wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement,     till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world. The morning, which is the         most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.

And I have no real idea what that means. But this awakening hour was a sunrise flaring pink and rosy through heavy purple clouds and the windscreen of the Land Rover, as we drove to the lighthouse. This time of the morning, once you get over the mucky feeling of being awake, is special. Cleaner and clearer. The air is different (apparently birdsong transmits 20% more effectively in it). I stagger with Mark down to the foghorn and we split: he heads east and I head west. The Black Guillemot (Tystie) count is an island staple for the early spring volunteers. It is a simple things: two of us start from the same place at the top and bottom of the island. We count all the Tysties we can see until we meet the counter coming the other way up the coast. It is not a simple thing: you need a coinciding of high tides and high pressure, low wind and low swell and a clear morning. Conditions that only happen once or twice between March and May.

It is eerie this morning. Eerier than yesterday’s dark disquiet. The absence of wind settles the sea to flat, quiet and shining silver in the early sun. Fair Isle, under red light looked close at hand. The sort of morning where you feel like Foula — fifty miles away — should be easy to spot, but apparently not. This morning the Tysties were tucked away in low down ledges, amongst rocks where I never see them later in the day. Rafting flocks congregate off the bigger headlands, all clearly visible until they pass over fish and dive as an avian rolling wave. It takes two hours before I bump into Sara, halfway down the west coast. She feels the eerie lack of wind too, feels that she’s not on the island but somewhere placeless, somewhere other. And the Tysties (which she endearingly pronounces as toasties) — so many.

We total it up later. Sara had the most by far. We open Mark’s sealed envelope of his predictions made last night. He guessed we would see 650. We counted 653.


Over late breakfast Molly appears at the door — a Merlin had been trapped, do we want to go see? I was out the door in socks, half a slice of buttered toast in hand. A bird in the hand has presence. Mark had a blue-billed, brown and grey falcon with gravitas. It is gorgeously fierce; attractively plumaged and the dead black eyes of a bird that will snatch a lark in mid-flight. It was a retrap, interestingly. Apparently they are ringed in the nest as chicks throughout the Northern Isles and northern Britain. I can’t wait to find out where from.


After 5am Tystie counting, Merlin excitement and a late morning sheep round up on a loose stope shore, I felt fit to collapse in bed and sleep for a fortnight. No such luck. Census always needs to be done. I took the new volunteer, Molly, up to the northern end of the island to introduce her to the census count snd the local waders. She’s been here a few days already — a few hectic days — but already her and Sara and I feel like old friends.

Back at the lighthouse the sea was still flat and calm, with red trawlers towing flocks of up to thirty Great Black-backed Gulls. I help Molly get to grips with distant divers (endlessly confusing), the local waders (a common problem), and my math problems (apparently hilarious).


Yesterday an aurora was seen. We tried again tonight though we were all swimming through our own tirednesses. On nights where there is a minor alert of aurora activity the horizon often appears paler, tinged greenish, but I’m never convinced if it’s genuine aurora or over optimism. We get no luck with the aurora: but jupiter and venus and tentative attempts at working out cassiopeia. Two shooting stars streak through the night. No wishes made.

19th April

One of the things that comes with being a birder in a place like this is that you tend to look up a lot. It’s partly why my notes are full of skies and hardly any rocks. Around Stromness Point — an old Norse word for a headland in a strong current — the rocks mark the eastern confluence of the Atlantic and the North Sea. The east coast is generally calm but bracketed by corners like these where the Shags always sit on the rocks that through binoculars seem to be just out of the reach of the waves. A long dead first-winter Shag the length of my forearm has been washed ashore and cast high up the beach. When the weather turns for a week or so in winter, the weak succumb to starvation and end up crumpled and with salt-stuck feathers. There are still fifty — bottle green and enviably coiffed — out on those rocks. Some of the boulders on the beach here have a Shag-like iridescence of green and purple, veined with a rough diamond pattern, like a crude attempt at feathers. I notice these as I gingerly pick my way over the wet, weed-straddled rocks. I don’t have a language for them beyond curiosity and awe. My geographical interest stops short of geology and I regret that.

Other findings: limpets, like small pale Purple Sandpipers, clinging immovable to the rocks. Pink shells and large white shells, inhabited by things I have no knowledge of, and birch bark. On North Ronaldsay we’re several islands north of natural woodland, and I only learned about how it gets here earlier today, from Sal. Birch bark, proven to be from the east coast forests of North America, washes up here, curled up from its several thousand mile journey across the ocean. The thickness of it indicates that it grew in predominantly frozen conditions, most unlike the tracing paper thin, flakey bark on our British birches. In the Northern Isles it has a wealth of cultural names. I wonder then, if it does on the Hebrides, or in Ireland? I had never considered arboreal vagrancy before.


Heraclitus said that you couldn’t step twice into the same river. These hectic days feel a bit like that: it is not that I don’t go out twice into the same island, but that I can’t. The speed of change is ratcheting up and spring is clattering into chaotic life. At the morning ringing we catch one Chiffchaff — hold it between two fingers, nestled into my palm while the measurements are taken — and release it into the impenetrable tangle of fuchsia, that flickers with green-leaves breaking through their buds. Up close its plumage was a dull green and off white, stained with pollen-bright yellow smudges in the breast. That evening I walk through the trapping area on my way back to the obs and find four more, in varying shades of fresh leaf green. The sycamore budding with birds.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The North Ron Diairies 7th - 10th April

7th April

About midday the rain set in, not torrentially but in visible grey sheets drifting from the west across the island. It has the tang of Atlantic salt. The island is where the Atlantic meets the North Sea with the decorum of a drunken punch up at a funeral and in this wind-raked place, you have to give some days over to the weather.

The chronic cabin fever returns. The essence of being trapped indoors is being able to see the waves lapping through the mist with one eye, other eye trying to fix my broken phone, or trained on my computer, watching spring roll in throughout England on twitter.

The rain cleared up this evening; the wind died off and through the murky grey light, a chink of blue in the sky. It’s dinner time. Mark and I cling film ours up and head up the road to the nets. The ringing site is the well-vegetated garden at Holland, the highest ground on the island and the best cover for birds. This evening it was crawling with Redwings and Twite. We caught a few of each; the Redwing a handful, nipping my fingers, the Twite a small surprise, if you were dexterous enough you could fit three in your hand and have space to spare. The other revelation: as the sky cleared the evening chilled, my hands grew cold. Twite are little bundles of warmth, energy and life. They call quietly as they leave my hand, bounding up into the bushes.

As the evening turns dark, a skein appears above the western horizon. As they descend, they resolve out of dark shapes, into defined light and dark. They honk: a double hiccup like squeaking gate. Pink-feet. I am transported by my ears out of a field in cold wet Scotland and back to a marsh where the horizon seems to encompass half the world and Pink-footed Geese are the most important things. It is instant East Anglia. You can always find yourself at home with birds.

 8th April

A politician visited the island. Alistair Carmichael is the local MP — though he was at pains to point out that he was a mere candidate, as you can’t be a member of a dissolved parliament — out canvassing on the small islands. I was told he was a councillor and had a pleasant chat with him before the penny dropped and he introduced himself. It was probably a missed opportunity to grill him on the coalition’s record in power, and the Lib Dem role in propping it up. But ach. I am not on trend with being cynical about politicians. I believe many of them are in it for genuine public good and not just for the expenses. I also believe that being expected to talk politics every minute of every day, as well as weekly flights from Kirkwall to London and back, must be a truly exhausting schedule. He is a man of easy charm, perfect affability and I spare him an evening off politics, and the obs unwinds with him and a glass of whisky, talking standard Orcadian fare: terrifying flights, the ideal dog and the time a brogue-shod Vince Cable went to Marwick Head and looked over the edge.

I have great respect for Alastair for actually coming out here and chapping on doors. With a population of under 50 and a distinct downward trend, North Ronaldsay is about as far away from the political circus in Britain as it’s possible to be. It would be very easy to not come out at all. This seat has been Alistair’s since 2001; and since 1837 has been Liberal/Lib Dem for all but 17 of those 178 years. I wonder if any other political candidates will come out here? I wonder how the SNP will do, and if they’ll take the seat. It would be an outrageous political scalp to get. I look forward to seeing what happens.


I had just settled down when a call came. They've run out of rings at the ringing station and trapped a Sparrowhawk. Could Steve grab the spare ringing box and would he like to see the Sparrowhawk? I was there in five minutes.

Dusk. We crowded into the tiny ringing station hut, lit by a weak light from a dying car battery. Mark held a bird bag very deliberately, feeling for the feet and bill from the outside. He gets his hands safely around the bird, I remove the bag from around it and time stopped.

The first thing I see are its feet. Yellow. Feet too big for their thin legs, hanging half-cocked. Black talons, hooked like a crook, hanging as if half-poised to grip relentlessly. Remorselessly.

A hawk moves at different speeds to humans. It operates at a much faster frame rate and at unbelievable clarity and detail. It transfixed me with its eye. A luminous yellow, flickering. A brighter, deeper yellow than should be naturally possible. I saw the tiny adjustments it was making to its iris, to its direction and looking at us who had temporarily taken it hostage. I saw it thinking — no not thinking — I saw its instinct to bloodlust in that eye. The bright heat of action and coldness of a killer. It gazed at every pore in my skin and the awe in my eye.

We take the length of the wing from the chord to the tip of the primary feathers (241 mm) and its weight, after it bottoms out our first pair of scales. 345 grams. It had been feeding well for a migrant and confirms our suspicions that it felt and looked like a brute, a bruiser of a hawk.

I am reminded of H is for Hawk, again. Sparrowhawks get described as pet cats to the Goshawk's leopard nature. It's true in that context, but even a Sparrowhawk can fill a room with fearsome presence. The eye is set in, under a furrowed white brow of intent and set just back from the lethally hooked bill. Made to rip and tear and cut through feathers and skin and warm blood. It was a young female: a chocolate brown plumages on the black, with creamy fringes to the feathers.  A male Sparrowhawk was trapped earlier that was significantly smaller and lighter. There is talk that the male is prettier: blue in top and orange-barred underneath. But I'm not sure what the point of a pretty hawk is. It is not meant to be so.

Mark releases it into the night. It slips away, black against the indigo night sky, to the north. I remember to breathe.

That eye might be the wildest thing I've ever seen.

9th April

Auguries of the season: sunshine and Wheatears falling out of the clear sky. Five on the fence posts, two on a ruined outbuilding. One in song. Wheatear song is something I rarely hear and it always catches me out: a quiet crunching burble of notes, from a bill that barely seems to open. It is entirely appropriate that these birds should mean the coming of spring. Their backs are grey and their fronts are the warm peach colour of dawn. They’ve made it back from Africa. Not the first migrant to arrive, but the first of the great migrations here, to what is likely the field in which they hatched last year — or years before. I feel like we should hang out the flags. Deck the fences in bunting.


The surf still battles the rocks in great sound and fury. It is a relatively calm day but the swell in the Atlantic is still stiff and blowing spindrift rainbows about. It would be a clear day too were it not for the swell and surf: the thrashing of the waves releases salt, that you can see drifting across the bay and hazing the distant headland. A different sort of sea fret. One that you can taste and tell is going to make every bird seen through your binoculars fainter and greyer until you relent and clean the sea from your lenses again. I love almost everything about this island but the salt.

10th April

10pm. I settle down to write my diary. I can only remember one thing from today.

We were making the finishing touches to the gate when I look up and see Gavin sprinting towards us. Between snatched breaths: ‘your phones aren’t working… Fleur rang… Mark’s had a White-tailed Eagle over Bridesness’.

Tools dropped. Gate slammed shut. We bundle into the Land Rover, shred grass and mud and head to the middle of the island, stopping by the airfield. Gavin notes the gulls going crazy, half the island away: I find the eagle flying powerfully south, low over the edge of the east beach. A dark giant of a bird. It dropped out of sight. The gulls swing up, wheel around and plunge, and repeat. We jump back into the car, bail out as close as the road will take us and scurry like snipe across a field towards the dyke. Gingerly we poked our heads over and come face to face to a started cow. A flock of sheep. Beyond that, a single brown one? No, eagle. The single brown sheep flapped a wing at a gull that passed too close.

To clarify the size of an eagle: it stands as tall and as long as a sheep. The wings are not just long but thick. They appear ungainly, like it must paddle through the air when it flies. A Hooded Crow drops in next to it, waddles over, tweaks its tail and flies off. It sits under an aerial bombardment for about half an hour. Seemingly unconcerned by the gulls, losing their cool in close proximity. Neither do the sheep, incidentally. People would have you believe that White-tailed Eagles and livestock can’t coexist: it’s a belief that has torpedoed one reintroduction scheme and is a belief that is frequently aired on the west coast. But they grazed oblivious to their new near neighbour, the eagle.

Then it flew. And those paddle wings turn into eight-foot of grace and power: lifting up and into the haze, trailing gulls, crows and a raven as it headed south.

Shivers down my spine. I moved to an island without breeding birds of prey but find myself repeatedly being stopped and thrilled by its birds of prey.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 30th March - 4th April

30th March

The Goshawk spent three days here; only being seen three times with the final sighting being it drifting off high to the south, beyond where the crows would go to mob. I didn’t see it that third time. I had gone inside to make lunch and was merely happy that at the third time of asking someone other than me had seen it. I saw a swirl of Hooded Crows from the kitchen window, and the clear blue skies; a departing on migration sort of sky. I piece these things together after the event.

Without it here the island seems less. Smaller and safer. The miracle of megafauna is that they alter everything. The crows seem jumpier. The geese more hidden. The atmosphere is electrified and it transmits that charge to the watcher. Everything gets triple checked. The sky is keenly scanned. I flushed it the day before it disappeared with a clatter from a sycamore in the garden at Holland and get a heart attack from the shock and defibrillated from the excitement. Its presence as it flew around in its own raincloud of Redshank and Oystercatchers is its own vivid surreal excitement. As Helen MacDonald says, it’s like having a dinosaur appear in front of you.

The next day we find a dead duck.


This morning was a bit like being on the summit of a mountain in the sheer variety of weather. Blue sky. Then cold grey hail on the next glance. Fraying clouds. Winds of varying speeds and degrees of bitterness. I sit it out and proofread the 2014 island bird report instead until my eyes can’t take close-reading from a screen anymore.

I headed out after lunch on the bike that’s a bit too small and rode the short miles to the other end of the island. I had a theory that the weather here worked on six day cycles. Census route D: torrential rain. E: overcast. F: glorious sunshine. Today the wheels came off that particular cycle. F laid under a cold sun, cut through by the wind. After an hour the sun disappeared and the stinging hail reappeared. I ducked behind a wall, watched a Raven harass a Fulmar (for no apparent reason) and revived myself with ginger nut biscuits. Into the growing storm I watched the wind ruffle the surf and Gannets dive through spindrift. Fulmars arcing through the waves like shearwaters. A Merlin drifted along the shoreline.

This is supposedly spring but not a spring I find familiar. Less birds today: a total of one Skylark as opposed to the hundreds from my second week here. Five Whooper Swans and two Glaucous Gulls: these are the big white birds of winter. I’m hoping for the small green ones of spring and song.

It’s been good departing conditions for northbound migrants in fairness, and it doesn’t look to improve for inbound migrants until Thursday night at the latest. Ho hum.

31st March

Yesterday, redux. Toast eaten while watching the hail roll in and out and in from the west. Ten minutes later and I was watching it while hiding behind the waiting room at Nouster pier, as the hail battered the sea and Purple Sandpipers fluffed up like coconuts shyly on the rocks just out of the throw of the waves. Eiders and Shags bob like corks. The sheep stay where they are while I walk past. Apparently not a morning for moving once you find a sheltered spot. I concur about ten minutes later, pinned between the dyke and the rocks, back turned against a vicious hail storm, hearing booming waves but not being able to see them.

A break in the weather. On the rocks sit Black Guillemots, squeaking like pipits. It’s an odd song: it sounds like they have a small passerine within their plump black breasts, so much so that I hadn’t placed it as being theirs until I saw their bills move at the same time. Last week when I was digging holes I heard this and assumed it was the wind whistling through the wiring in the fence. These guillemots seem to do more than their other auk relatives. They’re more animated, more lively. I wasn’t expecting that: I always considered them to be a bird that rather dully swims just beyond the range of my lens while on holiday and surrounded by more interesting things. Just around the corner, a larger flock of them sat on the sea. Surfing waves that don’t break: diving through those that do to avoid being washed into rocks. Hardy souls: I witnessed a few sat on rocks get hit by waves. They don’t even blink. No fear of being washed away.


When it comes to the log at the end of the day, we collate our counts from our notebooks, carefully checking that we haven’t double-counted birds from each other’s allotted corner of the island. It causes me deeper angst than it should. Most people here I meet tend to be good at maths because they played a lot of darts. The only thing I was worse at than hitting a dart board is basic addition. But the maths isn’t my only problem. Sometimes I struggle to decode my own handwriting, particularly on cold days when the Greenland wind disregards my gloves and numbs my fingertips. My Gannet count looks like I saw 6 Camels.


The obs cat has a cardboard box, which it sits in consistently through the daylight hours. It is apparently the perfect size for a cat, curled up with a millimetre of space either side. I wonder if anyone has tried to give it a bigger box? I hope it rejected it if so. I’ll chose to think it did so I can envy the simplicity of its life lived half-asleep, satisfied with the minimum it needs.

1st April

I remember listening to a local telling me that the heaviest snowfall he could remember on the island was on the first of April. It was a sunny afternoon by one of the lochs, thick with irises and the sounds of displaying Lapwings and Redshanks defending territories from passing waders and corvids. I expressed surprise and said it wouldn’t snow while I was here. Of that I was certain. It was spring, my forehead reddened from the sun and I was looking forward to many more days like that. Hazy days by the lochs, warm through and listening to the sounds of breeding birds.

I woke up in the night to hail and wind. I woke up this morning to snow filling up the window ledge. This wasn’t forecast — an April Fool’s from the met office, I guess. It doesn’t settle because — as well as the island being mostly salt — it wasn’t actually that cold out. Today’s route was Bridesness and I wasn’t looking forward to it because it always manages to be a little bit too bleak, a bit too long and a bit too windy for me. Today it was in the lee of the westerly and other than one stinging hail shower halfway through, the weather wasn’t as bad it looked. Against the sullen black clouds, broken ribbons of Golden Plovers circling the fields around the abandoned croft while the Ravens wheeled about. No birds of prey breed here and there are only two pairs of Ravens here but they strut around the island as if self-aware enough to know they’re the biggest, baddest birds on the island until the skuas turn up. But that’s weeks off yet.

There’s another Greenland White-fronted Goose out here: a large and dark bird, with minimal white on its front and hardly any dark barring underneath. It makes a nice contrast to the other two on the island, and is nice to see and not just because it’s flown from over the Atlantic.


I returned to finish painting the hostel in the afternoon, a shade of yellow I would call ‘weak Orkney sunshine’. Painter and decorator. Time for a football analogy: Phil Jones was born less than a month before me but unlike me he is a professional football player. It’s widely reported that his versatility is his downside. He can’t keep a consistent position in the team because he can play in three different roles, and this stops him from being the best at his favoured position. A jack of all, master of none situation. Since leaving uni I’ve been an archivist, an assistant producer, an editor, an author, a cameraman, an assistant warden, a barman and waiter, a painter decorator, artisan stile maker and gate post hole digger. Am I making a Phil Jones of my career?

2nd April

I had been put in the place where I could do least harm. I felt like a goalkeeper. It was a penalty shootout. I was on the line but behind a fence and the round white object coming for me wasn’t a ball but a sheep that I had to stop from coming over. None passed. I managed to psyche them out — or descend into psychosis myself — by putting them off from jumping in the first place. It was my best Bruce Grobbelaar.

It was time to sort the sheep out — 20 to be taken to the abattoir to provide a season of mutton meals for the guests. The old castrated rams, preferably the loopers (ones with particular talent at jumping the dyke) were to be taken. At four this afternoon we headed out on a gorgeous calm afternoon, golden sunlight and deepest blue skies. Six of us, two dogs and 100ish sheep in the field the wrong side of the pund. We had let them in from the coast through the gate we made last week. Sheep are like obstreperous children. They’re capable of behaving with utmost cunning and being extremely daft simultaneously. We walk in a ragged diagonal line intended to drive them towards the other field. They decide to mass by the other gate in the opposite corner of the field. The sheepdogs sprint off to encourage them towards the other field.

They lined up there: 100 or so expressionless faces staring back at our six before bolting for the other gate. No dice. The dogs sweep around, we line up away from the pund and watch them run in and come to a confused halt in front of the gate that wasn’t shut when they came through thirty seconds ago. We ran across to shut the gate to get them in the pen, but the dog got in first and chased half of them out — one looper jumping over the dog —  before we got the gate shut. It’s all such a frantic whirl of activity from there on and I mill around watching the experienced get on with sorting sheep. I fetch the strings then get put on fence duties. Meanwhile the rest are hauling sheep: holding them by their devilish curled horns and teasing their mouths open to check their teeth. If they’re even, they’re old enough. If they’re big enough, they get picked up and placed in pens. When we have enough they get taken up in a trailer to a communal holding pen for all the island’s sheep. Tomorrow they get taken down the road to the pier, loaded onto the boat and taken to the mainland abattoir tomorrow.

It is work made easy by the place. Travelling in the Land Rover with the sheep I see a Peregrine Falcon drift across and a broken ribbon of Golden Plovers fluttering across the sky, a murmuration in gold.

This is the most involved I have ever been in food production, despite living in bread baskets and industrial sugar beet fields all my life, and still my hands are clean. I have only facilitated food. While faced with flying sheep and lifting them in and out of trailers, I don’t consider that this is effectively a death sentence for them. It’s an odd sort of cognitive dissonance. I’m sorry for them — they’re daft creatures but I’ve come to love them, loved working with them and have pulled trapped ones out of fences — but I’m not tearing myself up about it. I’m a meat eater, though trying to reduce my consumption. It is also the most free range, the most organic, the lowest carbon footprint meal I think I will ever have. It’s a meal that is keeping these tidal sheep, the seaweed eating breed unique to this island, here. Without demand, they would disappear and the dyke would crumble into the rocky shoreline. The cultural animal and the cultural landscape of the island would change beyond recognition and beyond repair.

Above all, I guess, it’s a fact of island life that it forces you into absolute pragmatism. A facet that is also manifest in the landscape of the island. You find electric fences wired up to verge-side car batteries, roads lined with lobster pots and rusting vans propped up on old metal boxes to be raided for parts. When the parts have all been recycled into other uses they become sheds on wheels. Pragmatism has a unique aesthetic, but rust and decay and homespun fixes doesn’t have to be ugly. It has an atmosphere under leaden clouds and murky rain that can be quiet irresistible.


Today: auxiliary sheepdog, apprentice shepherd, thinker about food ethics and landscape, waiter and barman. Versatility unbound. There is a German staying here tonight, not a birder but a seeker of out of the way places, beyond the back of the beyond. That’s his story for coming here, everyone has one. This is a place you end up at either on purpose or by complete chance, but everyone has a story about it. He thinks it has been ‘Caribbean’ today, and is amazed at the weather here and the rainy forecast back in Germany. He thinks it’s a sort of paradise beyond the bad weather. Elysium, I guess.

3rd April

The island reverts to mean. Grey sky, cold breeze. The threat of rain and an easterly… and no great arrival of birds. The Black Guillemot flock offshore numbers just under 200, Puffins have started to appear from the northeast headland and Meadow Pipit numbers are distinctly up, and moving along the coasts. In a boggy field by the coast a Great Skua sits, loafing after making its way back from the middle of the Atlantic to where they nest every year. Even tired and sat on a hummock, they can still exude the air of being the avian approximation of a gangster. A pirate at sea: on land, ungainly, bulky and a faint air of menace. The old Norse name — Bonxie — captures that perfectly. It’s still used here, as well as on those other formerly Norse islands, Shetland. I think I said a few days ago that these were a few weeks off yet, leaving the Ravens as the bolshiest bird on the island. I was wrong. I’m terrible at forecasting nature.

4th April

The wind is cold, the air is wet and the sun has died. The birds are migrating back to Africa. The local word for spring here is winter and I fear the weather in Germany is more pleasant than it is here. Of the birds still present: the adult female of the wintering Hen Harriers parted the dreich and cleaved a panicking Lapwing flock. It accelerates after a Starling but misses — they always seem to miss. It is a spark in the darkness. A fine feathered thing. Offshore the Shags line up on the rocks like tin can targets on a wall.

Back at the obs a Snipe displayed over the track by the marsh. An inky dark spot on the plain white sheet sky. It displays with its outer tail feathers askew, set at a right angle to its body, while doing a flight that loops. From several shallow circuits above the marsh, it kicks up, gets enough height to dive steeply, pulls up into a shallow circuit and repeats. All the while the askew tail feathers create a haunting, rattling, whistling sound, a sort of bush-cricket stridulation but deeper and slower. Some people call it drumming, but it doesn’t sound like any drum I’ve heard. For a bird that looks like earth brought to life, it is a most unearthly sound, and it makes a little moment of magic in the gloom. It’s a reminder that I’m a very long way from home.