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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.