Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The North Ron Diaries: from Veery to OBP

Turner's dying words were allegedly 'the sun is God'. Here it is the wind. The prevailing westerlies have swept up Atlantic showers on us all spring, waterlogging fields. I keep bumping into Anne on census, as she walks her beagle up and down the main road near her croft. She stops me and sucks her teeth, says she's never seen the like of fields like this in all her summers. We look at the silage fields either side of us at ankle height - it should be up to our knees by now she says. The season gets later. The weather has been a topic for conversation all season. Kevin can't plough the observatory crop fields. The birds were late to arrive and late to nest and they don't have much cover due to the lack of growth and the cows are grazing late in the fields in which they nest, trampling nests, eggs, possibly chicks. Cows keep the grass the perfect length for the waders but impact on success and nature doesn't wait for them to leave the fields. Added to that, the skuas seem very obvious, searching the island back and forth. Recently one perched on the west coast and saw me walking towards it - it got up but stayed low and I realised it was flying for me, at head height, before it banked sharply, showed me its feet and called. It did this twice. I backed down and found another route through that field. 

The westerlies had their saving grace though. The Veery was an incredible rarity, impossible to predict and scarcely possible to believe. I may never see another one in Europe again. When I last wrote, it was safe to assume that it had left but after publishing that post it reappeared about half an hour later. It's always an error to try and tie up a narrative too neatly, particularly with a skulking bird that sticks to the shadows. It was still here recently. 

The Veery presaged a change in the winds and life got hectic, draining. An occasionally wise friend of mine has spent a few seasons at an observatory in Sweden and says you can never blog about the good days. I found the same because when the going is good you set yourself a punishing schedule of walking along every wall, in a stinging easterly wind and driving rain. It is exhausting. But what it brings with it is well worth being exhausted about, even if you can't write about it.

The day of the Veery we were up until twenty to one the next morning. The evening was glorious and golden and evenings like that are ideal for ringing the wader chicks. This is best done by cruising the roads in the Land Rover, pulling to a stop by likely fields. When a chick is spotted — a ball of fluff with a head poking out above the grass — Mark and George leap out of the front, over the wall/barbed wire/electric fence with varying levels of balletic grace, and run across the muddy field/shallow pool/iris bed. George, not exactly a graceful mover, being outrun by lapwing chicks, mud splattered all up his back and his trousers slowly falling down, regrets volunteering for this task. The chicks we ringed varied from week old Lapwings, sprouting the adult coiff while still downy and gangly legged, to Redshanks not more than a couple of days old, grey and stripy balls of fluff with dull green legs as thick as an adult's. They'll grow in length and as they mature take on the fluorescent orangey red of the adults. It'll be interesting to see whether they return to breed in the fields they were born in.

We ring the chicks until relative dark at about half eleven. After that, the sky goes from orange to deep blue, and we drive to the island's lochs, listening for singing birds. There is no peace deeper than listening to birds singing in the quiet still of night. It is a night full of unusual noises. The Water Rail squeal. The full variety of ducks that do things other than quack. Numerous rattles and chipping noises that I am totally lost with. I have cloth ears. Sound to me is like water, slippery and impossible to hold on to, no matter how hard I try. Common birds always end up sounding unfamiliar and it's a source of shame. Though I enjoy listening. At night every day noises seem amplified. The creak of car seats. Munching on biscuits. The wind whirling over the bonnet. The gargles from our bodies and the whistling of our breathing. I see several fields away a tractor's headlights moving through the darkness. That farmer had seen the forecast for the next week and was making the most of the last ploughing day. 

When we head off to sleep the sky due north was still light, an echo of the sunset experienced. There's over a month left for it to get lighter at night too. 

The next day was wind and rain again, but a frigid easterly. Perfect. I venture out and find... A Canada goose. This was not expected. The goose was paddling around a puddle with two Shelducks and appearing only slightly bigger than them, as well as having a few plumage and structural features suggesting it was a Todd's Canada goose, or the sort of Canada goose at home in North America and not begging for bread on suburban park lakes. The wind doesn’t settle easterly but spends the next week veering all over the place. It covers the island in Spotted Flycatchers and Garden Warblers, the last of the migrants to pass through. With them comes a sprinkling of Red-backed Shrikes and a couple of Rosefinches. We all manage to see a male Rosefinch up by the lighthouse, perched on a dyke and appearing a dazzling blood red in the evening light.

Work still needs to be done. I push the lawnmower around and see the clumsy first flights of juvenile Starlings, falling off the fence and half-stumbling, half-flying across the grass. I chop onions and watch divers in the bay, see a Sparrowhawk scatter sparrows and Starlings through the tears in my eyes. I still get as much pleasure from the every day nature here, as I did from finding a Dotterel that walked out from behind a mound, or the Lapland Bunting that I found foraging around a couple of lobster pots. After a washed out day with no birds I was moved by the colours and meanings of a Blackbird singing from a pylon — always ordinary and extraordinary.

The island managed one more top quality rarity that week. Mark found an Olive-backed Pipit will walking back down the west coast on a day of easterlies and sporadic showers. Another autumnal bird to turn up in spring, another bird to defy expectation and prediction. This should have been singing somewhere in Siberia, not foraging in the long grass behind a wall near the airfield. I sometimes wonder if they know how lost they are. If it has an awareness of the mistake it made in migrating at the wrong bearing, or if it means anything to the bird at hand other than its unlikeliness to ever find a mate. To us it meant a frantic cycle ride, frantic run across a boggy field and staring at a bright and stripy pipit through rain-sodden binoculars. We watched it until it disappeared through a gap in the dyke at ten pm. The sun not yet below the horizon, the clouds painted purple to the east. We left the pipit to roost in peace and never see it again.