Saturday, 18 July 2015

The North Ron Diaries: June

1st June

Oh June. The start of summer. Blue skies and a bitter westerly, tiny pink stumps of orchids pushing out of the grass, some half submerged under yesterday's rain water. It is odd, of course. Everything here is. But the fields feel like March as I squelch through and flush a Snipe, yet when I get to Holland I find the fuschia bushes have suddenly become a dense wall of green. The jarring shock of leaves in summer time.

3rd June

I pass an islander who mutters darkly at seeing waterlogged fields in June — did you ever see that before? — and that the ankle height fields should be up to our knees in silage growth by now. She mutters it like its some dangerous gossip to speak out against the weather, and not an island wide activity this year. Worst spring for — 20, 25, 40 years — depending on who you ask.

A short while later it begins raining again and a Lapland Bunting flies past in a blur of red and black. It stops raining and the landscape is edged in silver, its own wet filigree.

Did you ever see a Robin on North Ronaldsay in June before? Or a Pink-footed Goose on a coastal lochan, drift migrants while Shetland and Sanday are covered in Greenish Warblers? Today has been one of those days where wet weather and winds promise arrivals of exciting migrants and delivers everyday birds, in bizarre places at unexpected times of year

4th June

For all the seasonal anxiety you could have spent most of today basking. Apparently you do get summer here and it feels like today: an open blue sky, sea without waves shining like velvet, wind turbines redundant. Could have basked, but the obs was catering for a party of people training at the airfield, doing lunches for twenty. I’m not sure where else is called upon to do soup, sandwiches and tea for almost half of their local population.


I’m not sure if seasons are a concept worth having up here. I set off up island on my bike, covered in sun cream and sweating. An hour later it was like April again, an easterly wind having sprung up and chilled the day off. I thought today might have been quite good for migrants but it deceives slightly. I find the first Whinchat to pass through in three weeks, a singing Willow Warbler (from a wall, naturally) and a Spotted Flycatcher on the beach, whilst the Whooper Swan still faithfully tours a few small lochs, its plaintive bugle of a call reminding me of winter back home.

It seems pointless to suggest it might be summer yet when spring hasn’t finished, or winter hasn’t fully left. Talk has gone from it being the worst spring for migrant numbers in memory, to ‘they’ll come, they’re just a month late’. Yesterday’s count of 7 Garden Warblers from the gardens suggests this is so.


There is not much birdsong on this bare island that doesn’t belong to displaying waders. When I hear a Blackbird I experience it deeply, vividly, and feel the need to stop and stand by it. I hear colours in the sound. The first broods have fledged. The nest I found in the garden when I followed a bee into a fuschia and saw a female Blackbird staring back at me from deep in the bush, has been vacated. I’m suddenly seeing them again, everywhere, this time with brown, speckled additions. The fledglings are a pleasure, but the song is the deepest, ordinary, profound beauty.

11th June

Iris beds are thin knotted mats of roots and stems, thick with silty sludge and laced with channels and pools you could disappear up to your waist in — or worse. Every third or so step plunges you between roots and up to your calf in stinking loch, splashing with your other leg in the search for a better toe hold on roots. It becomes another skill learnt: walking on the knotted roots and avoiding the wading, and not thinking about the water below, or that seeping in through the split in my wellies.

Finding Black-headed Gull chicks to ring is harder than expected. The water level in the loch is roughly four inches higher than in past years and we begin to find washed out nests from the rain, a sodden pile of rushes and a drowned chick or two. Completed nests too: plinths of irises with four cracked goose eggs and a failed egg lying cold. But then the gulls begin to mob us, diving low above us and screeching. It's a good sign of us being amongst the gull nests, and we find old nests, guano stained irises and a couple of young chicks. The size of the palm of your hand, speckled and brown with oversized bills, they have the beady eyed look of a gull from birth.

We then begin to find old enough gulls. Three times the size of the young chicks still in the nest, independent enough to scurry amongst the irises but not yet ready to fly. Still the downy brown but with feathers growing. The White of the wing and the black primary feathers poking through in miniature, with the little white tips that form a unique pattern in adults. Crucially they have fully grown legs — legs that kick but lack the power to do anything.

I begin to enjoy myself, strutting heron-like from root perch to root perch, searching amongst the thick growth for chicks. I walk through mint, around marsh orchids and find tiny cuckoo flowers, familiar from home but in the most incongruous of places. I find a curious nest, a small dome impressed into the vegetation, made entirely of leaves. I forget the fear of water entirely, and even ring a gosling and an adult Greylag Goose — the gosling does kick and rakes a vicious surprising claw down my arm. I suppose I'm the first human it's likely to have seen.

In one gull nest of three eggs, I saw the shell trembling with the strain of one forcing its beak through the shell, struggling with the strain of the instinctive drive that makes a cosy, well nourished chick break its boundaries and changing its universe forever. I don't hang around - it feels like an intrusion to stay, to witness something that I shouldn’t.

We don't spend too long in the colony to minimise disturbance and we only ringed eight chicks. Down on ten last year, down on fifty in years past. There is not too much concern, but a general sadness at the state of the loch this year. The irises should be up to waist or shoulder height and dense with insect life and a profusion of forget-me-knots and spikes of orchids instead of the half grown stumps we have instead. I'm told it looks sterile by comparison. It's just that sort of spring.


That evening at the nets we trap a Red-backed Shrike and I get to ring it. A handful of a bird, with a genuinely vicious bill that bloodies Gav's hands but not mine. It is a special thing to (be)hold. It comes with its own sad tale of poor springs past. Formerly they used to breed throughout Britain. I remember showing my granddad a photo of one of the first I saw, an autumn migrant and he told me of how they were common when he was doing national service in Wiltshire. By the 90s they had fizzled out. The final British breeding pair were in a car park in Thetford Forest. Now only about a hundred pass through Britain every year. I usually see autumn juveniles, and spring males with deep red backs and a soft pink breast, a black mask across the eyes and a tail too long, are an almost completely different bird. A special beauty for a butcher.

15th June

Whisper it — I shouldn’t say it but summer appears to be here. The morning is bright, warm even, with a Nightjar still floating around the nets and a Red-backed Shrike dealing death from the kirkyard gravestones. A Robin turns up in the nets. There’s been a few recently but we’ve ringed more this month than we have in the rest of the spring. In a typical year they all pass through between March and April and then none get seen until August, but this is most definitely not a typical year. It’s hard to tell in which direction it’s heading. It is autumn already for the flock of 8 Lapwings in the next field over which are failed breeders, the ten Curlews at the north end and the Golden Plover I saw the other day. The dandelions have turned white and fluffy and disintegrate in the breeze. The fields are white where they were yellow just a few weeks ago, but dotted with pink daisies and the growing orchids.

At this time of year chick ringing takes precedence over other ornithological work. At midday we entered iris fields, visited two gull colonies and a field of tussocks and rich sinking mud where the waders nest. There’s an art to finding chicks, which as a person prone to looking at his feet a lot, I think I’ve mastered. You look for the crap splattered tussocks, then look for the young gull tucked away inside. The black-heads are brown, just bigger than palm size and ghosted with plumage features on tiny feathers. The Common Gull chicks are downy still but a decent size, speckled on grey like a stone hiding in the marsh marigolds. Now that my eye is on them, I keep seeing them in marshy corners where I never noticed nesting pairs. In the wader fields I sink calf-deep, walk down dried up channels and get outpaced by a Lapwing a few days short of its first flight, that runs slightly faster than I can over the terrain.

18th June

Summer: we paid for it, paid for it, paid for it. Two and a half days of rain and now an overcast morning with rain palpable, the air hanging heavily over us.

Death is about us this morning. We checked a Swallow brood — reaching in to find four lifeless chicks, with rubbery flesh and closed eyes swollen in a tiny head. They hadn’t even had the time to grow down, let alone the pin-like shafts of feathers before succumbing. Life for young birds is a roulette and some get the bullet of bad weather and no food. Elsewhere: a Black-headed Gull lay crumpled by the roadside, head bent so far back as to almost touch its tail. A Shag lay limply across two rocks. A Gannet straddled the beach, wings outstretched, lifelessly hugging the beach.

In death you can get closer to a Gannet than you ever should in life. You can see up close the two black lines, and grooves which make up the point that spears into water and snaps fish. The neck thick and muscular. The feet, black and webbed with leathery skin, hooked claws, and veins of colour — deep blue but becoming green at the ankle — along the major bones. I’d never known before that they had such extraordinary feet.

In life, a Swift flew over Brides Loch. An unpredictable migrant here. Summer isn't the same without them regularly scoring the sky. Instead on a day as cold as this, it joins a knot of Swallows shooting low across the iris beds and water in a desperate search for any insects.

20th June

I've taken to setting up a moth trap overnight, though night feels like a tenuous concept here. Long after the official sunset at half ten the northern sky glows orange with a cowl of high clouds. The sun rises again before 4am and there's only a couple of hours of actual darkness in the meantime. Moth trapping is natural history as ritual. At dusk you take out a flimsy plywood box, trail cables under doors and arrange egg boxes under a light with practiced efficiency. I make tiny adjustments hoping for improved results despite knowing it's a futile game of chance. At morning you switch the light off and slowly take it apart, checking the egg boxes for what you've attracted.

Early morning. It is eerie before the wind, turbines paused as if asleep, a flat calm shining sea and the scent of seaweed filling the air. I take apart the moth trap that this morning has been more effective for tiny black, buzzing flies, though it offers up three Flame Shoulders — a pretty little dark red and blonde moth —, an Angle Shades, and some large caddis flies. I sit for a minute because it's too early to process thoughts or feelings. Just sitting dumbly watching a sea that does nothing. It felt like I'd caught the morning unaware, as if that early the island hadn't put up its defences of wind and waves. It takes a while for the salty, sulphur tang of the seaweed to dissipate.

'Green was the silence, wet was the light; the month of June trembled like a butterfly.’

I keep the moths and the caddis in pots for a closer look, before releasing them. Moths tremble on release, a fully-body shiver to warm themselves up, before flicking off in erratic flight, or walking into the nearest patch of sheltered darkness. The Angle Shades — a folded origami attempt at crumpled leaf — crawls all over me, feeling and feeding from me with its proboscis before making its way into the long grass to sleep the day disguised as a dead leaf.

Yesterday we caught a Shears in the moth trap. This is a sentence that hides the fact that when we caught it we had no clue about what it was and tried to fit it to half the Noctuids in the field guide. Noctuids are the largest British family of moths, the majority of which all appear the same: small, brown with grey markings. They are mostly common and usually unremarkable. The book is filled with the painstaking work of paintings of each species, life-size, with every individual marking present. The book is a testament of a naturalist's knowledge, and how it is shared. I would like to become on first name terms with the moths inside.


Gav caught an Acrocephalus warbler at the nets. Acro warblers are small, brown and lacking in markings — my kind of bird. There’s a book by Lars Svensson, The Identification Guide to European Passerines, (known as just Svensson) which breaks down European birds by feather tracts and wing structures, the unique combination of feather lengths, wear and minute markings which make each species of bird distinctive in the hand from others. With this book I am learning birds again, from the very beginning. Starting again with focus on the individual feathers that make the bird, rather than on the bird wearing the feathers. It reminds me of linguistic analysis and breaking apart sentences to examine the grammatical pieces. Then with knowledge of how the words are working — their meaning, role and location — in the sentence, reassembling it with new meanings gathered. I had been doing this with Marsh and Reed Warbler wing diagrams, looking at the relative lengths of feathers for just this reason. Although they have very different songs, they are otherwise almost identical in plumage, one being only slightly richer red-brown than the more olive-brown other. The grammar of their wings can, with careful measurements, separate the two species. I could peer over Gav’s shoulder as he manipulated its wings with absolute precision, to check the length of the notch on the second primary — it is both science and artistry, precision and technical skill. The measurements called it a Marsh Warbler: the cold-coloured plumage, and bright yellow soles of its feet agreed.

Small brown birds and technical guides have a bad reputation. They’re boring and opaque. I’ve heard it said that it’s pointless to try and see a Nightingale, when you can hear one. These arguments have never done anything for me. A Nightingale is only half-experienced if you haven’t found one moving unobtrusively at the bottom of a thicket. Similarly with Acrocephalus warblers. They require extremely careful observation, a patient and under appreciated skill, along with an appreciation for the subtleties of a species. It’s the same with being able to put a name to it. I hear frequently a specious argument that putting a name to a bird stops us from looking at it, and from learning from it, as if natural history was a museum where all the animals are hiding behind labels. I’ve never found it so. The act of putting a name to Reed and Marsh Warblers makes you appreciate differences that would be very easy to overlook. These differences that allow you to give them a name can be only be seen by the sort of careful, deep observation that the act of naming is supposed to obscure. Technical guides let us do this. Svensson is a work of deep knowledge and experience, that requires a lot of effort to read properly and learn from. But when you do, the shared knowledge helps explain the world around us. What more could you want?

Friday, 10 July 2015

The North Ron diaries: 24th - 29th May

24th May

George discovered eight-pint hubris ends with him lying on the toilet floor, vomiting. I was a little shaky, my voice an octave lower and brain working a little slower. I hadn't realised but Eurovision is perfect party fuel because you have to drink to make it bearable and once you've started it doesn't really matter anymore that you’re cooped up in a tiny room around a small TV with skittish reception. Mornings and the never defeated pile of dishes to wash up seem like a bad joke. And then the phone rings through the fug. Fleur answers. 'Orcas off the lighthouse? We'll be on our way.'

I run upstairs, find the girls and tell them. I find George and shout at him and he groans like its the worst news he's ever received yet still manages to stagger out in two minutes to the car, lacking socks and other essential items of clothing.

A Killer Whale twitch is an essential hangover cure. The presence of beasts sharpens the mind better than bacon or eggs. The Land Rover shakes us awake.

A nervous wait in a keen cold wind, guests strung out along the lighthouse watchpoint. From here: Fair Isle to the north and Sanday south, hints of Atlantic rollers colliding with the North Sea and the rocks where the seals pup and the Shags stand with wings held out wide. And then the cry. Heads snap right in time to see six foot or so of wet black dorsal fin slowly rise itself out and lower itself back in the glistening grey sea.

Nonchalance. Arrogance? For fifteen cold minutes we watched the pod of five dark dolphins slip their dorsal fins out of the sea and into our world. Never for very long at a time. They swim past the headland, out into the bay and down towards the light house on Sanday. They are effortless grace and murderous intent. The fins just appear and disappear without fluster or fanfare or panicked prey items. They just are.

It’s all I can manage to think about for the rest of the day.

25th May

We caught no birds at the nets this evening and it was absolutely not a surprise. We tried regardless, sitting out from 5:30 until hungry and cold and the sunlight dissipated into the evening clouds. Mark tried because — well if you can then why wouldn't you? I tried because despite being a mere trainee who hates skipping dinner, I love the peace of ringing even more. The peace is this: you sit outside for several hours at either end of the day, watching the gardens. Every 15-20 minutes you walk around and check all of the nets. Sit down again, and repeat. In purposefully sitting down and doing nothing you become part of the scenery and the Swallows that nest in three of the outbuildings near the shed run rings through the sky just feet from my head. A Chiffchaff checks both sides of a leaf in the rose bush for insects. The sycamores have finally got their leaves in the past few days, a surprise because when I last passed I'm certain it was just bare branches and buds still. And we chat about everything because the peace makes reflection not just easy but natural.

It is no hardship to go ringing and not catch a thing.

26th May

There are days when nothing happens. There are days like today when you count 272 Ringed Plovers, find the Glaucous Gull that's been walking about the golf course for the last few days and still feel like nothing has happened. One of those is expected: the Ringed Plover numbers have been building for days and will either explode or disappear, while the Glaucous Gull surprised us a few days ago by turning up as an adult with a head wound and ragged wings. The main surprise is that when you walk towards it, it prefers to walk away from you instead of fly. I doubt that it will last for long on an island with a feral cat problem, with survival skills like that.  It certainly won’t walk the rest of its migration to the Arctic.

On the same beach I find a Puffin skull, the clown's bill fading in the sun like a rictus grin in a posed old photograph. It has three groves running down the bright bulbous sheath, indicating it to be four year old bird, a year or two short of becoming a fully breeding bird. The mystery is what killed it and devoid of a body I guess it was a good meal for a gull or a skua.

The bitter west wind that keeps blowing is pinning birds down in their place. The Rustic Bunting is still being seen, apparently unwilling to carry on until we get a better wind and in the same vein, nothing seems very keen on arriving. Places like this thrive on arrivals: they flicker with life and unexpected birds in unusual places. They should be watched with a sense of the uncertainty of things. Currently you could walk around and I could tell you exactly what you would see and where and that's depressing.

27th May

I woke up to Gannets as brilliant white sparks from an anvil sky. I didn't envy their outsideness for the first time in a long time. It was a morning for watching through a rain-spattered window pane, curled up warm with a coffee as a defence against the shrieks of wind outside. I wasn’t the only one. Through the window I see sparrows and Meadow Pipits still flitting and foraging in the wind. The rain passes but the sky still threatens more.

I chop onions. See three Great Northern Divers in the bay beyond the kitchen window.  Watch as a Sparrowhawk shoots across the compost heap and stirs a hundred or so Starlings into panicked flight. I have tears in my eyes.

29th May

I battle the bike up hill — and pray downhill that the brakes hold. Everything rusts here and the volunteer bikes, taped up and disintegrating, take the brunt of it. I discovered that the brakes didn’t work when I needed them to avoid running over Fleur and the dogs and I’ve never been more grateful for a large flat verge, evasive action and emergency fixes. It doesn’t pay to run over the chef.


It was a sunny day. Not particularly hot and quite windy yet I wore only a shirt in a sort of defiance, imagining the warmth. A good morning: brake failure only twice, the Rustic Bunting seen again and a Bee-eater, as well as two Curlew Sandpipers that coaxed me into the stinking seaweed in search of a good photograph.

Sunny afternoons are best spent outside. I had a shovel under foot, cutting through the matted grass and bringing up rich, dark mud, heaving with worms. In my hands a flax plant, and a flexing pot, easing its matted roots out of the crevices. They sit shallow in the soil and I pile the dark mud up either side to help them take root and to get myself utterly filthy. If there was any doubt as to how well I was settling in again, in a place that changed dramatically over my fortnight holiday, getting soil ingrained into my hands and fingernails helped me forget that.

I was planting the New Zealand flaxes that had spent the winter in the conservatory after the poly-tunnel was shredded by winter storms. These are young plants, a few thin iris-like stems, barely a foot high. But they are ready for the Orkney summer. It is a plant thats becoming a new traditional one here, and can be found in most of the better kept gardens. Kevin had the idea to plant it while travelling on New Zealand’s south island, where he noticed it growing at the edges of beaches battered by southern ocean gales — the sort that propel albatrosses and wreck naive explorers. If its hardy enough there, it would surely be hardy enough here, and so it proved.

It is an ideal plant here because it grows quite densely and forms a natural shelter belt. I was carrying on a line planted by Molly, joining it to a bracket of higher ground. Inside: a pond, and marshy ground, grassland with a spread of violets and the first Northern Marsh Orchid of the year. Future trees. The flax is planned to spend the next five years growing up to create cover, before the inside of the field can be propagated with willow, fuschia and rosa, plants to provide shelter and food for migrating birds.

And I love that too — not just the mucky fingernails that take me back to rooting around the garden as a child, but that the work I’d done is something that we won’t see the fruits of for at least another five years. That’s work to an island timetable, glacial and deeply concerned with the future.