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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.