Saturday, 30 May 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 30th May

It begins with darkness. A bang. Light and Mark's head around the bedroom door.

"Get up. Gav's caught a Catharus thrush."

I swim through my head. It doesn't make much sense. George has said enough times this spring that he's going to go out in the grip of a westerly gale and find a Catharus thrush that I started to think he was mad — I went mad telling him it wasn't autumn. In a half awake state I decide that yeah, I really should get up. I swing out of bed. Proceed to put both legs through one trouser legs. Stagger downstairs. Coat over pyjamas. Tumble out the door and into the Land Rover. We tear off up the road.

We find Gav in the ringing hut with a bird bag. Mark heads in and we wait outside. He pulls the bird out and checks the underwing.

"Well it is a Catharus thrush"

I crane my head around the door and it all becomes stunningly real. In mark's hands was a brown bird slightly smaller than a song thrush, white underneath and with no visible spots. Gav looked ashen, slightly shaky, as if he'd just seen a ghost. What he'd found in the bottom panel of the Holland House mist net was better than that. An American passerine brought in by the westerly winds.

Mark sets to work in the shadows of the early morning, with the measuring implements, inspecting the wing feathers and taking down the formula of emarginations and length of feathers in the wing, while Kevin and Alison pour over Pyle, the American book of bird biometrics.

I've spent a large part of my recent history revising American birds and when confronted with one all of my knowledge vanishes. It didn't make much sense. Opinions are bandied around and the identity veers from Grey-cheeked Thrush to Swainson's Thrush to Veery. It lacked the expected features for all of those species: no grey cheeks, no buff tinge to the face, back brown without red tones. It can't be a Veery I say. At this point the atmosphere is confusion and stress. The bird is quite worn, lacking in fat and with no pectoral muscle, the signs of a migrant having finished a very long, strenuous journey. Because of that, we bring the bird out into the light for some quick photos before releasing it. As we do, the bird is moved out of the shadows and into the sun. It lights up. The brown becomes strongly reddish, the white glistens silky like bunched spider webs and the pale brown spots sparkle. Consensus is reached: it must be a Veery. Mark lifts the bird's wing up and we all see the pale long line across the underwing between thin and thick dusky lines.

Gav gets a high five and several hugs. He appears to breathe for the first time since finding the bird.

The bird was released over the road in the sunlit church grave yard, where suitable cover exists for it. It dives from Gav's hand and makes it to the small sycamores along the far wall, where it would spend the rest of the morning showing well amongst the branches, while it fed and recuperated. In the branches the bird's identity seems much more obvious. When it hits a patch of sunlight it dazzles bright white and rich fox-brown. When it's not in the light it scurried through deep in the bush, like an oversized American nightingale.

After two hours of views in the field I left for breakfast with cows twitching the Veery twitch. The sky was rich blue, as blue as the sea. Britain's eleventh record of a Veery sang after I left until half eleven, when it vanished unseen into the bright Saturday noon.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The North Ron diaries: 10th May - 20th May

10th May

6am: Arctic Tern squawk, Snipe drum. Nets opened and we catch willow warbler and chiffchaff in one round, with only 4mm difference in the wing. We’re supposed to be able to see that in the field. We can see Foula, 50 miles due north between the kirk and Purtabreck croft.

The day gathers in. The clarity of morning deteriorates to gales and rain. I spend the afternoon out with Richard, the nurse who rehabilitated crows that kept stealing his cigarettes until he quit. He takes to the island as it frees up his time to explore nature in the way that his job on the mainland doesn’t. I show him around the different ends of the island and various waders. At Ancum we double the Greenshank count to two and four Black-tailed Godwits drop in, preen and head out high north. Richard is drawn to stories as a way into learning about birds. We spot migrating waders and marvel at their feats of migration, the attractiveness of their tundra camouflage plumage. I think I give him a few new stories of nature for him to tap into on his evening walks around the north end of the island. Another interested islander means another pair of eyes, means fewer birds going unseen.

16th May

Settling in again is hard. There are new people, new things and my second week back is difficult as I find all the thing that aren't quite as I left them. I stop thinking in words. Submerged in tiredness again. I find it hard to get anytime alone by myself.

I spend most of Thursday in bed trying to rest enough to feel human and then it starts raining when I brave the outside in the afternoon. It started raining on me today again, on a westerly wind that has made its mark on this spring. It may turn out to be one of the worst springs for migrants from Europe not because of any distressing reasons, but because the wind has been perpetually in the wrong direction. I trailed all over the middle of the island and all I found was a White Wagtail at Westness and some smart summery Dunlin. The disappointment is a feeling that only took a week to settle in. This time last week I was finding birds and getting back into the swing of birding in a migration hotspot. It all came to a halt. The forecast looks better for Tuesday. On it I have pinned most of my hopes.


One of the volunteer shifts is the kitchen in the afternoon. Fleur has me bake because she thinks I'm a good cook because I think I'm not. Baking sends me into paroxysms of anxiety and I spend the afternoon finding problems: I put the butter in the crushed up biscuits not melted, the chocolate doesn't melt quickly enough and then doesn't cool quickly enough, and then I sail past the time I should've put it in the oven by. And when it's done I think it looks terrible until someone takes a slice and points out it's not that bad. Mary Berry keeps her job.


This evening a storm rolled in on a bitter westerly, the strength and chill of which I haven't felt since March. We take our orphan lambs in from the field — where on less milk, more seaweed and the company of other lambs they're visibly growing daily — for the night to make sure that nothing happens to them. Lambs aren't particularly good at following directions. They like digressing, find dandelions diverting and when they do walk in the right direction, they particularly like getting caught under your feet and between your legs. The best way to do it is to run and the most direct route takes you past the observatory bar, full of drinkers in an evening, who suddenly have new entertainment in the form of a Steve being run ragged by the lambs. And when you reach the shed, half run off again, half jump into the shed and back out again. Lambs have their own sort of cunning daft minds. I love them for it and get mocked by the other volunteers for trying be their mum.

17th May

Perpetually April. Or that’s at least what it feels like when I find another Iceland Gull floating around off the top end of the island today. A few migrant Chiffchaff and Wheatears too, though the Wheatears will at least be heading across to Greenland instead of up to Shetland. The daffodils persist but are almost entirely on the turn now, curling at the edges and with holes worn through the petals.

A late Whooper Swan is still present at the lochs on the northern end of the island. The westerly wind has not abated and May's stinging showers still whip in frequently and fiercely. But again, despite the weather it has been a birdy day: as well as the Iceland Gull, Molly flushed a Short-eared Owl and Sara found a Marsh Harrier. Both good birds for the island but neither helping me think that I haven't slipped into a portal and woken up in the East Anglian winter.

18th May

In the early morning murk a Sparrowhawk sat in a sycamore too small and stunted to conceal it. It slipped over the garden wall and out along the cow field, a grey brown bird disappearing in the grey brown morning.

We delayed the nets by an hour this morning due to rain, brought in by a gentle south easterly wind. It tails off and we unfurl them in their well sheltered positions between the bushes and the sycamores and watch the heavy laden rain clouds sail past. From the high ground by Holland house we see a white and silver sea shining towards Fair Isle. They have a Tawny Pipit there still. This morning feels like there should be one lurking around here too, yet all that found its way into the nets was a Collared Dove (fun to ring and release), a Goldcrest (too dainty for me to be allowed near) and a Blackbird that decides to repeatedly bite me on the soft flesh between my fingers as I gently ease it out of the bag. A Blackbird is the right size to fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. They have a reputation with ringers for being fidgety but I am growing in confidence with handling them: reading the tiny letters on the leg ring (for this is a bird that's been ringed before), examining the wings and tail, and not being distracted by the beating heart I can feel through the feathers. I flip it onto its back and — with a slight absence of dignity for both of us — blow on its breast feathers. They're loose and part, revealing wrinkly folds of warm skin with which it has been incubating eggs on a nest nearby. You can see that the bird is storing no fat while doing this, taking only what it needs to survive and nothing more. We release it quickly, none the worse for its quick check. Feeling the heart beat of a bird and the feeling of it leaving your hand is still magical experience. It's easy to see how ringing becomes addictive.

The Sparrowhawk reappeared. The same young male as before, a sweeping scythe through the Swallow flock. But it fails and the Swallows see it off. A fight that never looks fair but which they usually manage to win.

It clouds over by ten am again and the cows are all lying down, disagreeing with the forecast as to whether it will rain for the rest of the afternoon or not at all. The red head of Eday, the giant sandstone cliff looks unreal against the grey backdrop of the rest of Orkney. Mornings like these are special and I hold on to the peace of them throughout the day of slogging around the census route for just one Cuckoo and an afternoon of menial chores. The lambs have picked up the bad habit of their species, pushing their heads through fences to reach the greener grass on the other side. When they develop horns they'll get them stuck and periodically require a push and a pull to get them out. It feels a bit like that when I focus on the birds that Fair Isle is managing to attract. They may have the greener grass at the moment but I don't want to get my head stuck on that.

19th May

It was chucking it down and I had to hassle George into going out in it, promising him that it was a day that smelt rare despite the westerly wind. I pour myself a coffee, then a second. I was covering the lunchtime shift: baking a crumble, showing guests to their rooms, dealing with the shop customers. It gives me enough time to do the census after, and have a lazy morning coming to. I take a sip when Mark's phone rings. I hear the muffled words ‘woodchat', ‘Ancum’ and ‘nice work’ and I'm off my feet, camera in hand and halfway to the door.

The young pretender had found a Woodchat Shrike. We pack ourselves into the back of the Land Rover and head up the road. It rained a lot on us. No shrike was seen again.

20th May

The winds were set straight west and the sky was sunny. Even though I was walking the luckiest stretch of island for me, expectation was low and the reality managed to disappoint even that. The only noteworthy bird was a Common Scoter, a male in first summer plumage, flying in to Linklet bay with a small flock of female eiders, the interloper being easily picked up on shape and smaller size. It's only the second I've seen on the island and they are relatively scarce here but scarce for here and scarce for me are different things. It's a chance to reaffirm in my mind the amount of Orange on the bill and how it looks more extensive head on then side on. I do these things as a dry run for the day a Black Scoter floats past me. With all these westerlies I can only hope in such things.

Walking back I find a Moss Carder Bee on the roadside verge, foraging on dandelions. It's the first of the year for the island in this latest of springs, and only the second I've ever seen. I excitedly tell the other blank-faced volunteers, who don't know what one is and don't care. I tell them it's rare and red and they hope it becomes shrike food.


My afternoon became flapjacks and crumbles, hand picking the rhubarb from the patch by the well a few hours before it gets served after dinner. Rhubarb this fresh is revelatory. It keeps its colour and flavour and doesn't just become a sugared bitter mush. I'd made one slight mistake - an eyebrow raising, lip-pursing lack of sugar - but hadn't realised that yet. I had just made the finishing touches to the topping when my phone vibrated and Mark's name flashed up. 99% of time this is good news.

"Hello mate. I've got a rustic bunting. Adult male at the Ancum pumping station. Tell everyone."

Things go a little crazy. I run around shouting GEORGE GEORGE MOLLY RUSTIC BUNT down several corridors and in no particular direction until I find George. I shout at him. He panics. Molly and Sara poke their heads around the door like meerkats. We're out in the next minute, racing the Land Rover up the main road, stopping to bundle an interested guest in the back.

An adult male Rustic Bunting. Despite the bastard winds mark had magicked one up, a conjuring trick from a man who cannot not find rare birds. He picked up the 'tik tik' call reminiscent of a Song Thrush — which would be unusual in the time and place — and rooted out a bird that you might perhaps expect, but in the prevailing conditions one that almost defied belief.

We pulled up and find Mark looking around. Hearts sink. The sight of the finder watching nothing at Ancum is reminiscent of yesterday's disappearing shrike. This time though Mark finds it again after a nervy fifteen minute wait of forlorn staring and rising doubt. It flew across us, hid in the long grass and then popped up on the fence, not far from us. I don't breathe and I don't quite believe it either. A stripey, red, black and white bird that doesn't belong here. A familiar bunting shape with unfamiliar vivid markings.

And now my world is one bird bigger than it was this morning.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 13th May

Birding: it drags you out of bed at 5am, sticks you in the spin cycle of a north westerly gale on the island’s most exposed headland. It keeps you there, for a shivering hour and a half as the brunt of the weather beats itself out. You dream of warmth, of breakfast, of coffee without the stale tang of thermos flask. You talk to yourself to stay sane. Three of us, Mark, George and myself are tucked behind the dyke but the rain still hits us. We are perched precariously on piles of stones, one eye shut, the other kept to old borrowed telescopes on shaky tripods.

Despite the weather the waves are not as large as they usually are here, which gives us as a chance to see the birds for longer while they fly low between the waves. Arctic and Great Skuas are flying about distantly. We get our eyes in on them as they pass back and forth. Skua migration is the target and these are the common local birds. They are the baseline from which we judge difference to sort out the elusive rarer species that might be passing. When seawatching the birds tend to be distant and quick, disappearing between waves. Skuas are particularly speedy with a 40mph tailwind and you need familiarity with the common birds to have confidence identifying the others.

That cold wet hour and a half is spent doing that. Spirits dwindle and I think about leaving but don’t. We try to find more sheltered spots and we end up either side of the wall, all convinced that we've found the most sheltered spot. The rocks beneath me collapse and dump me on my back, between my legs. Everybody laughs and a Black Guillemot lands on the wall nearby to look down on me. And then Mark picks up a couple of Long-tailed Skuas flying at middle distance. I don’t pick them up, despite a running commentary of shouted instructions because my scope is fogged with raindrops. A rookie error. I wipe it clean and kick myself. Hard. The sea looks black again, the wave crests white instead of varying shades of grey. It’s easy to let that happen when you’re not seeing much, when your thoughts turn to how cold and wet you are and not on how your view is slowly deteriorating. It reawoke my old dislike of seawatching, the worst form of birding.

The wind slackened a little and turned north westerly. The result was almost instant: two Pomarine Skuas shot past, distant and quick. Through the rain it was possible to see bulky wings and wing flashes, their spoon-shaped tails quivering with effort of flight. Then ten Long-tailed Skuas pass. This time we all see them as the flock jostles over the waves, shearing down through the troughs and swinging up above the crests. The wings are long and thin, swept back and they look like a three-pointed bird. Or absurdly, like a bow and arrow.

We turn to celebrate. High fives all round, gibbering stupid excited things when birds appeared behind us. I raise my binoculars and all sense breaks in me. I garble the word skuas. Everyone looks around and nine Long-tailed Skuas took a shortcut between the bays over our heads. At this point George exploded. Mark — seen it all before, level-headed Mark — expressed disbelief. I reached for my camera.

I remembered then that sense of excitement. The thrill and awe of Long-tailed Skuas and a foot-long ribbon extending from their backs and whipping in the wind. I remember seeing my first cutting the corner of Aird an Runair in a Hebridean gale that cancelled the ferry and stranded me on that island. I saw fifty that day, thought they were perfect. Tern-like in flight, the most unlikely of piratical birds passing on their way through to their arctic breeding grounds. In today’s stronger weather they remain a perfect species. In five hours we saw 79 migrating past. Seawatching is the best worst birding.


79 Long-tailed Skuas is an island record. Before 2013 there had been just 33 Long-tailed Skuas seen on 14 occasions. In 2013 Mark and a volunteer called Simon discovered 49 passing off Westness in a bumper year for skua passage in north west Scotland. Now in every north west gale in May, seawatching from Westness has produced Long-tailed Skuas. Looking at the map and the spread of records from today suggests that the open water between Papay and North Ronaldsay is acting like a bay, catching skuas passing the north west coast of Orkney in these gales, before they head north past the west coast of Shetland and around to the north coast of Norway.

The numbers being seen here are not quite like they are from North Uist, where watchers from Aird an Runair have logged several thousand instead of hundreds this spring, prolonged over weeks instead of days. However it appears that skua passage is more widespread in the remoter coastal parts of north west Scotland than previously thought, it just takes several hours sat on a rain-lashed rock to find out.


There is a postscript.

A day like this was never likely to revert to normality. Instead, an hour spent defrosting and drying off before I was back out in the afternoon, clearing old wire off the coastline around Twingness. Halfway around I get a call from Mark — he had a pod of four Killer Whales heading north from West Beach. I ran frantically across boggy fields back to the obs, jumping into the Land Rover. We tore off up island, heading back to Westness to try and intercept them as they headed off around the island. But while we were there, they were being seen around the corner at the lighthouse, where a small group had gathered. It’s the first sighting of Killer Whales from North Ronaldsay in three years and it’s left confused emotions in me: happy they’re back, jealous of Mark for having a photo of four giant dorsal fins sticking out above the waves and dejected that I wasn’t one of the lucky ones. But above all, a primal thrill. To come so close to seeing one is an appetiser for when one will appear in front of me, glistening wet black and bigger than I can imagine, the dolphin that kills whales.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The North Ron Diaries: 4th - 9th May

4th May

The sleeper train is ironically named. I arrived half cut, on the back of long days spent time zone swapping and nights not spent well slept. The carriages are dimly yet warmly lit to stimulate tiredness, the train pulls out of London smoothly, and I watch the suburbs slip past until we find darkness near Watford. I loll back in my seat, slip on the ear plugs and on the eye mask. I nod forward and sit bolt upright. And repeat.

I can't fall asleep on a train. I might miss my stop. It doesn't matter that the train is overnight, my stop twelve hours away at 8am tomorrow and at the end of the line... It's a law of my nature. I can't fake otherwise.

5th May

I roll into Inverness feeling like a zombie, leave on a coach an hour later feeling worse after a coffee. Watching Scotland slide past the window. Ross into Sutherland's dramatic hairpins and cutting across into Caithness's vast moorlands. The view is extraordinary and familiar, so I break the back of the new Melissa Harrison novel instead. These are not ideal roads for a coach and progress is slow — I get off at the ferry terminal with seconds to spare before the boat departs.


Hoy stands proud in the middle of the Firth, twice as tall as the other dimly viewable Orcadian isles. It was a cold crossing but not a rough one, despite the strong wind. Out in Scapa Flow: Guillemots — hundreds of them — where I usually see mostly Razorbills, and Puffins. It amazes me still how these birds, among the least elegant flyers can still frantically out flap the ferry's engines. Further out Great Skuas just seem to hang around, practicing menacing the Gannets and Shags, but not with the real vigour that will come on a calmer day, where fish and terns and gulls will coincide. There are six Arctic terns though and that will do for now, the first I've seen to have returned from their epic migration. Makes my zombie-tiredness seem like nothing, really. They do everything with a buoyant elegance and I'm very happy to have them back. And then a surprise: a Manx Shearwater skimming the sea surface, threading itself between waves on thin stiff wings. I'm not sure why it was a surprise, other than I thought they hadn’t returned yet. In my more lovestruck moments I think they're the final evolution of flight. I find them thrillingly economical, a bird that is all wing. They know how to fly. Seabirds know how to travel.


Several hours later and we taxi down the runway at Kirkwall airport, the half-full island hopper plane buffeted by the rain. On the back of the pilot’s high vis jacket, the letters FAB scrawled in felt tip, like a budget thunderbird. We shake through clouds and wind and rain, passing low over Sanday looking like beach paradise, seeing North Ronaldsay look tiny amongst the rain and waves. The coast by the airfield still looks threatening; the rocks there are the biggest and the waves don't crash gently into them, but we cross them facing the direction of the airfield this time. I enjoyed this flight. Maybe Loganair doesn't always require belief in divine intervention.


I am informed all the chairs I fixed have subsequently all been broken by the volunteers. We also have a new volunteer. George is younger than me and in denial about it, he’s also a trained fishmonger from Somerset with an impressive bird list and, gallingly, found a White-rumped Sandpiper on the island when I was on holiday. I’m a little bit jealous of that.

Two hours in and I discover the biggest change after my two weeks away. Fleur beckoned me to the bike shed. Gave me some glass bottles with rubber teats and opened the door. Restless souls bounded out — and got herded back in. A shed full of seven lambs is a chaotic, pungent place, bouncing with energy. One lamb, eager for its milk, decides to clamber over the backs of two lambs at once. Others rear on their hind legs, place their forelimbs on my thighs like begging puppies. I take one and tip the bottle back and squirt it with milk.

I hate the word cute. Or I thought I did and now I’m not sure. I don’t think I have anything else to describe them with. They are the tragic lambs. The orphans of dead or missing parents from flocks around the island that we’ve taken in, and they made me melt inside. Caddy lambs as they’re known. We give them 175ml of Lamlac each time and warmth, hay and attention. The instinct to protect and nurture life stirs.

6th May

It is entirely possible, on days like this, to come across a redstart on a kelp-covered rock and think it the most beautiful thing in the world at that given moment...

Some mornings you can’t dodge the weather. Easterlies and drizzle dragged me out at grey half-past eight. The Arctic Terns are back here too, squabbling over territory and fish, and hanging around the same field that the Lapwings nest in, who are currently preoccupied with dive-bombing the harmless Fulmars that are still omnipresent, and drifting into every available gust of wind.

I stopped at Nouster. Out amongst the waves a Great Northern Diver lurked, Turnstones picked their way along the shoreline and Wheatears flit between the rocks. It is good to be back here, back by the side of the sandy beach where only birds walk, back in to the teeth of a cold and wet wind — though my stinging fingers disagreed. I should’ve remembered my gloves. That was my thought process when a bird crossed my vision, perched on a rock, shivered its tail. I half knew what it was before I got my binoculars on it. And in the grey of the morning, I welcomed in a Common Redstart. A creature of deep oak or pine forests, places of tranquility, bedraggled and exhausted on the shore. It made sorties through the air above the weed, picking out insects, replenishing itself. The rain did not extinguish the flame of its plumage, the shiver of its tail. It — a male — has three colours on its plumage and each is taken to excess. The red is rich, the black is velvet, the white line dividing those is like lightning.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen many Common Redstarts. As it’s name suggests, it’s a common bird in the right place (and the right place is usually a very nice place to be), and each one stops me in my tracks. It’s not that I forget how beautiful they are — but they stun, like all things of proper beauty should.

I spent the rest of the walk in a sort of sodden daze. Two damp Goldcrests and a gorgeous Pied Flycatcher along the dyke, all heading off in the same direction, to the same sort of Scandinavian wood as the redstart. My year’s first Tree Pipit and a Whinchat freshly arrived in too.

I don’t remember the island having this many birds.

7th May

Polling day. To vote on North Ronaldsay you have to go to Sanday. To get there you have to fly to Kirkwall and fly back out to Sanday, or take the ferry. That's an entire day and a lot of money, just to vote. The attitude here tends to swing between mild interest and trendy apathy. We're too out of the way, too remote, too pragmatic to feel anything too strongly about that. The island would like something centre left though. The loss of EU subsidies up here would be a massive blow to the economy of the archipelago.


One of the jarring things over my past two and a bit weeks spent swapping between Orkney, Suffolk and Hungary, has been the absence and presence of insects. To sit on a sunny afternoon in my garden in Suffolk and have butterflies, bee-flies, hoverflies buzzing around the flower beds and ground ivy in the lawn has been a pleasure. A thousand miles south and east: Camberwell Beauties, damselflies and dragonflies I don't recognise patrolling willow tops, deer ticks in my leg and an overly inquisitive hornet in my rucksack. Back in Orkney: it feels as though any insects would've been blown to Russia by now. The westerly gale kept me up half the night, slamming hail and rain into my window pane. By sunrise, it slackened enough to walk at a right angle into the wind, though the wind was the sort that steals the breath out of your mouth. I watch a Shoveler take off into the wind, a flurry of wing beats and then it just hung in the air. Stasis achieved into the teeth of the wind. I watched this while killing time, fiddling with my coat and wellies and considering the practicalities of riding a bike up island. And checking Twitter one more time. I didn't exactly want to go outside this morning. Westerlies blow migrating birds away from the island, not to it. It's a crude logic but it's basically sound.

And then I get a text from Mark, who had been at the Westness headland for ten minutes: one Long-tailed Skua past in the first ten minutes. I junked my plans for the day and walked up island. Slowly. Pressing against the wind. I note a Great Skua overtakes me — and all the other birds, as it bludgeons its way north. Chaos, naturally. The Lapwings and terns all rise up and get buffeted by the wind. The skua doesn't seem to notice the wind. It is beautiful: because to see a bird built for weather like this, excel in weather like this...

It is more beautiful than the Siskin I find sheltering in the ditch that runs though the kirkyard, looking sad and miserable. That is a surprise, maybe no one saw it yesterday, or its re-orienting itself from drifting on to one of the other islands. It's the first I've seen on the ground here. Beyond the kirkyard: fields of lambs, dandelions and daisies and a male Whinchat — all stark stripes and peach-breasted prettiness. This was definitely not there yesterday and suggests that despite 50mph westerly winds birds are arriving somehow.

I get to Westness and find Mark sheltering behind a wall, the only place in the lee of the wind. To our right, waves rolling into Westness bay and the atmosphere is thick with a grey haze of salt. To the left: spindrift is being flung up the beach. In front of us: the waves are crashing in at such height it's difficult to see the sea behind. Does the sea rage? It's a metaphor and not a great one, but we've looked at the sea and identified emotions in it for aeons, and not just superstitious sailors. On a day like today, rage is the only thing comparable to the energy and unpleasantness of it.

Mark has not had any other skuas past. In the two hours spent there, we find a few Great Skuas, a Manx Shearwater and a summer plunged Snow Bunting flitting along the wall.

By the time I get back to the obs to handle the shop shift, the chopping the vegetables, emptying the bins and general tidying shift, it's clear that birds are moving. I found a Pied Flycatcher perched on the daffodils persisting in the verge of the main road and flushed a Jack Snipe from a roadside ditch on my walk back. Being inside now is the total opposite to how I felt this morning. A curse, a cooping up and there is no feeling worse than being stuck inside when there are migrants birds to be watching.

I get back out at three, taking Sara out to see the male Pied Flycatcher that's been relocated by the pier, with a flock of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs foraging in the shelter of concrete and steel. She thinks I'm madly over keen on the flycatcher's dapper black and white plumage and air of Scandinavian woods. I think that her cooing over the adorable tiny Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers is quite understandable actually, not that I would ever admit that.

We headed up island to the cover of the gardens. Halfway up the hill and a Quail flies up, and over the nearest wall, like a tiny partridge on fizzing wings. At this point I lose my head. A Quail! Unmistakable. And only the second of this hyper-elusive species I have seen. Sara thinks my sanity is further slipping away.

8th May

Half asleep. 6:30am. I roll over, poke my phone and receive the news I don't want to. A Tory win — a majority too — and old liberal England in disarray. I can't sleep on it. I complain instead. George tells me to stop whinging, but he didn't vote so his opinion doesn't count. I don't know what this means for me. The current Conservative politics stands for everything I can't abide: punitive, petty and selfish. I don't like the politics of selling off the state and criticising the weak. I'm not sure what this means for wildlife: the badger cull will presumably carry on, SSSIs will presumably still be built on because you create an ancient woodland elsewhere, apparently (only in planet Tory). I feel the sickening sense of despair that comes from looking at a better future - and relapsing into the old, stale, unprofitable state of affairs.

So I look for small mercies. Alastair Carmichael, a good man and the only candidate to visit the island, becomes the only Scottish Lib Dem MP though by barely 800 votes. The islands carry on as they always did. Truth is, it has been odd election for me. I love the cut and thrust high theatre of elections (and despise the thoughtless, shouty soundbites that comprises most 'politics'). But out here it's very easy to turn the TV off. To skip down the Guardian and read other things. I've felt one step removed from the action, for the action is the 'white noise of modern life' that Mark Cocker wrote about recently from Caithness. As in Caithness on Orkney the very fact of landscape and your place in it, compel you to think of bigger, more essential things than a squabble in London. It really shouldn't be like this, but it is.

I went out to watch the lambs. I didn't expect them to bring me any closure or wisdom. But seven lambs make an excellent distraction. They’re getting bigger by the day.

The lambs are being given seaweed and less milk to wean them onto proper food. They're being left out of the shed for longer and longer to introduce them to the hardship of the weather. Though on an evening like this, the weather is no hardship at all: a gorgeous clean sunset dipping behind Papay and golden light everywhere. The sea seems particularly blue.


Earlier on the east coast of the island a Rough-legged Buzzard drifted inland over my head, dropping in height as it came in and finding all the crows in the area taking off in pursuit. It’s exciting but familiar to me from the East Anglian winter. I later discover it’s only the fifteenth record of one on the island and a lifer for George who, after many stressed phone calls, finally gets onto the bird before it flew high to the north in the early afternoon. It would’ve been a lifer too for the other volunteers who missed it by minutes. 50 minutes later it is reported from Fair Isle.

I settled down to watch Turnstones, Sanderling and Knot arriving on the island from over the sea, in pristine summer plumage. They’re feathered in the rich reds, notched with black — the camouflage of tundra grass and mosses and Orcadian beach. To sit very still and watch them feeding closely, unconcernedly, by sluices the mind of all the angst of the morning.

9th May

I was on a run of two good birds in two consecutive days: Quail and Rough-legged Buzzard. It's natural to want to make that three in three. The day held promise: Mark predicted a White-billed Diver or a Dotterel, the sea looking good for the former, the weather for the latter. It was a still calm morning, hot and clear. Weather to soar in, to migrate in or take one last stop off before Scandinavia — or at least Shetland — in. It felt like summer.

My misfortune was that I was allotted D. The census route that most frequently ends with sore legs and a half-blank notebook. I found my good bird though: an Iceland Gull, bright white as the Glaucous Gulls I was seeing back in March, but merely the size of a Herring Gull, with gentler, more rounded features. It's on it's way back to Greenland to breed, though it is very much a (scarce) bird of the British winter.

I am still looking for the birds of summer, though I'm not sure what they'll be here until I find it. It's not the Whinchat — Stiaccino says Sara — that's just passing through. I'm pretty sure it's not the Sedge Warbler singing in a tiny bush in a garden on the most north westerly croft on the island. I very much hope it's not the Meadow Pipit climbing out of the grass and into the sky, with its piercing song of single syllable whistles that once got so far into my head I could hear it when I shut my eyes to go to sleep. I found a Whimbrel on the rocks, briefly, before it spotted me and flew off with a hail of whistled notes. I learnt today that Whimbrel is the sound of summer in Iceland, and I feel I should let them know that they're on their way. Not our summer yet.


That afternoon: sit in the coolest place inside, door shut to distractions. Plough on proof reading the 2014 bird report and untangling sentences, correcting typos and pretending that inaccurate apostrophes are not a matter of deep grievance to me. Meanwhile a flock of Turnstones swirled outside the window. I bet I missed a raptor migrating due to the work. Not all the work that happens here is of particularly great interest. I don't mind this as it suits my strengths more than trying to fit duvets into duvet covers or baking desserts would. But it's not rewarding like sheep work, or building stiles. Even drystone dyking is preferable, if only because it happens outside.

When work is done at half eight, having cleared up dinner, washed the dishes and laid the breakfast table for tomorrow's guests (I hope they appreciate it), we play. We head up to the community hall, the school's sports hall and play table tennis, pool, badminton and football until the others are tired and content and I'm puce and sweating buckets.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Notes from the Hortobagy

Nagy. In Hungarian it means ‘great’, pronounced with a nasal ‘oi’ sound for the vowel, and with tongue to palette, spitting out the G sound. I can’t pronounce it the same way twice, but the result is surprisingly intelligible to waitresses, bar staff and our guide Tamás. It’s hard to know who is more surprised, me that it works or the locals who seem to be unfamiliar with English tourists trying.



Ahead of me is the puszta. The great Hungarian plain and the westernmost stretch of steppe in Eurasia. In the very distance — unfathomably flat and far — trees shimmer, shake and levitate, a fair distance above the clear sky swimming beneath. Clear spring skies. The air is hot and heavy. The soil says it hasn’t rained in weeks.

I thought I knew Hungary but I didn’t. Like it’s language, it never seems to stay the same. It is not settled, easy to master. I had it as Cambridgeshire on a vast scale: fen and farms. Flat, wet and traditionally kept — grey cattle, Racka sheep, the Mangalica pigs — an East Anglia with a better range of birds. I recently came across the poet C.P. Cavafy in a great piece by Amy Liptrot:

    You shall not find new places; other seas
    you shall not find. The place shall follow you.
    And you shall walk the same familiar streets

I was, the first time I was here, an East Anglian abroad in East Anglia: all wetlands and thin copses, and birds half-familiar. Though I did see a Black Stork and think it was, in that sun-addled moment of it sailing over on effortless wings, the most magnificent thing.

I was wrong. Away from the old fish ponds and reedbeds, there is a vast expanse of even older grassland. The flat sublime. A landscape impossible to take in in its entirety.


The woods here are not of nature’s doing. We drove up to one, firmly attached to the ground, though it probably levitates too if you look from the dusty red-roofed town on the edge of the horizon. Under communism swathes of the Hortobagy was dyked, irrigated and ploughed. Damage that is slowly being repaired. The trees that were planted here were, oddly, American. You can find Aspens with rookeries and Nightingales in them, and it is bizarre, incongruous and not as ecologically useless as you might expect. For although the Hortobagy is a natural grassland, these trees provide nesting grounds for lots of birds that would otherwise struggle, such as the Rooks. The Rooks have to compete with the Red-footed Falcons returning from the very south of Africa, who take over old Rook nests. In this hot, bare wood the Rooks croak. Spring is black and guttural. The falcons perched in the trees shriek like London parakeets. Grey males and orange females seeing the Rooks off their stolen nest-spaces and snatching insects over the grassland.

The grassland here is Sousliks scurrying, worrying amongst the brown waves and white ribbons of chamomile flowers. A Saker — large, so large — hunts overhead. Another of the Souslik’s predators, the Long-legged Buzzard, spirals on the thermals overhead. More of a fawn and orange than the Common Buzzards that sit on every fence and motorway sign here. The Sousliks never settle.

The falcon and the buzzard bear a familial similarity to British birds. It is a subtle exotic, the familiar yet different. It leads to a kind of uncanny birding where slight differences make different species, whilst the wagtail in the long grass has a blue-grey head, long yellow stripe above its an eye and is the same species as our Yellow Wagtail.


That night from the track outside our hotel on the edge of the Hortobagy, we watch a distant storm in the south west horizon. Lightning raking the sky. No rain falls on us, but the warm storm wind blows anyway. When the lightning flashes it lights up the serpent-like sidewinding of dust down the track.

The Nightingales sing regardless.


Two days earlier we were somewhere in eastern Hungary. Somewhere off the map in our hands, navigating by Tamás’s head into the land beyond the plain. If you had unfair stereotypes of Hungary, here is why they are manifest. A landscape of intensively farmed fields, flat and hedgeless. A colourless place and a ferocious sun — we drive past a man strimming the verge while wearing only his pants. For every absolutely gorgeous part of the country, Hungary has these places that feel neglected, run-down and unloved. We take a couple of minor roads and end up in the middle of a desert. A ploughed field that extends all around into a panorama of dust and dirt. There is no cover other than a few meagre, stunted trees by the road. All is arid and brown. A vision of over-farmed hell. An uncared for land.

‘When we discovered this place there were 50 pairs here. Now there are 2.’

It’s hard to imagine what 50 pairs of Short-toed Larks in song, rippling across this barren place would be like.

Tamás pokes the soil with his tripod leg.

‘They need this dry, dusty soil. They used to be a speciality of the Hortobagy but in parts it is under grazed and they don’t breed there now. Same with Kentish Plover and Collared Pratincole’.

The worth of a guide is that he can navigate to places like this. It begins to feel a little like cheating when after five minutes you’re watching half the Hungarian population of Short-toed Larks, crawling between the furrows, a tiny sandy speck in a vast brown plane.


The next evening it spits with rain. Grey clouds rolling in over the steppe, promising future storms. A big sky, bigger than I’m used to. We sought shelter by a ruined farm, riddled with bullet holes. We passed a T34 tank on a plinth by the road: a monument to the Battle of Debrecen, when the Hortobagy was a front for a tank battle between the broken and soon to be defeated nazis and the red army sweeping through eastern Europe. Or perhaps from the Soviet occupation of Hungary — the Hortobagy is just inhospitable enough for forced labour camps.

A Barn Owl detached itself from the farmhouse and slips into the gathering gloom. It is not used to people being there for large parts of the Hortobagy are restricted access and to get onto the plain requires a guide and is strictly policed. I have mixed feelings about this but it indisputably provides Great Bustards with the space to thrive — and all the other open grassland loving wildlife of the area.

The landscape is charged with absence. The bullet holes in the farmhouse chill. The trees have no leaves. There are no people, nobody working, other than lorries thundering past a road just visible on the horizon. It is a haunting, inscrutable place in these overcast moods. Not East Anglian in the slightest. Whilst we are stood there nothing arrives and nothing leaves. A couple of Roe deer bucks leap from patches of long grass to long grass, the only movement, the only thing other than a vast still quietness.

And then we pick out one, three, then six Great Bustards out in the grass. Not too far from the Roe Deer in size, a fabulously eccentric bird with a fanned tail that almost reaches its head, a tigerish mottled orange and black back, whiskers that fan out from its grey, turkey-like face. When it shakes, it ruffles its entire plumage, flashing white like a can-can dancer.

It is an absurd bird. A relic from Europe’s past as a flat and open and remote country; a bird for Europe’s future where places like this remain protected for their self-evident qualities.