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.

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