Wednesday, 28 September 2016


My favourite sentence in JA Baker’s The Peregrine is “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”.[1] It comes at the start of chapter two, where Baker turns his attention towards a discussion of what a peregrine is and the data of his observations. The methodology, if you like, behind the book’s slow unhinging from the human world, to that of the falcon’s. It is my favourite sentence not because it encapsulates the bird or the book in its entirety but because it encapsulates the writing. You can read The Peregrine many times and it will change and shift. You will notice new things, new sentences, overlooked details. It is like going birding, repeatedly in the same spot, and seeing different birds every time.

I spent the summer working with The Peregrine exploring the archive of pollution in its writing, within the toxic context of writing about polluted places. As usual at the end of a long project I can’t retreat back into books. Instead on holiday with my girlfriend and her family in Cornwall, at the wet, salt-glazed selvedge of England, we retreated into wildlife and the basic elements. Sea breeze, salt air, granite and heather again. We found three peregrines. A big adult female skimming the fields between Cape Cornwall and St Just. A bulky swarthy juvenile bludgeoned through a rainbow off the Lands End cliffs. The most spectacular was another juvenile, a small tiercel, tussling with a raven: stooping at a bird it couldn’t possibly catch, flashing its talons, carving up the air every side of it. The raven rolled over, raised its claws and barked. The falcon thought again and circled through the air, tucked its wings in and fell to earth like a dead weight.

I never saw if it was a successful stoop. I think it probably wasn’t – it is not the first time I have seen a young peregrine repeatedly circling, hassling and stooping over prey it has no hope of catching, as if it was playing, practicing, sharpening its reactions on the whetstone of actual living prey. At the same time, if I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Peregrines playing with ravens? Yeah right. Once a birder, always an incorrigible sceptic.

When I first read The Peregrine I regarded it as the ornithological gospel truth. The second time I read The Peregrine I thought it was an extraordinarily written piece of fiction, unavoidably stringy (string: the birding slang for made up, hoax observations). Ever since then, every time I read it, I change my opinion about it. My inkling is that its more contentious observations will eventually be proven true, or at least possible. In the past few years urban peregrines have been recorded hunting woodcock after dark, which Baker mentions. I recently came across a short paper about a peregrine hovering – again behaviour mentioned by Baker that I had in the past regarded as being impossible. These behaviours might be really there, but the hardest thing to see. Baker is, in the terms of Immanuel Kant, an “enlightened” observer – committed to the truth of his own impressions, observations and thought, without relying on received wisdom – or myth.

Yet the question of authenticity and Baker never goes away, though I dearly wish it would. Nothing is gained or taken away by pronouncing on the veracity of a text with a rubber stamp of truthful authenticity or fiction. That is as bad as people who would reduce the text to being about one thing, confidently pronouncing on the meaning of The Peregrine as if it was a fixed, easily pigeonholed story.

Having spent the summer exploring it as a depiction of its time and place, I still think it’s a pre-eminent example of a portrayal of a landscape poisoned by “the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” (15), a place where for the falcons “foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was a lonely death, and would not be renewed” (118). Derek Ratcliffe, the naturalist who discovered the eggshell-thinning effect of DDT, wrote in his monograph The Peregrine Falcon, that had the decline of the peregrine in the 1950s and early 60s continued unabated, “extinction of the Peregrine in Britain could have occurred by 1967”[2] — the year when The Peregrine was first published. It is important not to forget this, or forget about the persistence of chemicals in the environment. Due to DDT’s chemical stability it remains present in the environment to the point where in 2002 still “No living organism may be considered DDT-free”.[3]

Baker’s writing persists due to its potency. In its synthesis of science and poetry it is, I think, unparalleled – a pre-eminent example of how to write about nature. Six years ago when I first read of his aim to follow the peregrines of Essex “till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye” (41). I thought, for six years, that deep fovea was just a poetic expression of the materials of vision, one with a nice tang of Romantic mystery about it. It wasn’t until a week ago, reading Tim Birkhead’s excellent Bird Sense that I discovered falcons have two foveae. The fovea is the part of the retina where the visual image is sharpest. Where a bird has two, one works for close up and one does distant vision. In Birkhead’s words, “the deep fovea… acts like a convex lens in a telephoto lens, effectively increasing the length of the eye and magnifying the image to provide very high resolution”.[4]

The hardest thing of all to see… Baker attracts light. Writers Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker and the academic David Farrier have all discussed Baker’s prose in terms of light – as luminous, or flaring – as well as his use of light. Where we have light, vision follows. Macfarlane also describes Baker as having “an obsession (ocular, oracular) with the eyeball”,[5] adding that “One of the many exhilarations of reading The Peregrine is that we acquire some version of the vision of a peregrine” (154). The more I learn about peregrines the more I realize the extent to which Baker’s writing embodies them. Further and deeper than just the aerial perspective Macfarlane talks about. Baker’s writing is like the magnified, high-resolution vision of the peregrine’s own deep fovea.

[1] J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 19.
[2] Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T&AD Poyser, 1993), 324.
[3] Vladimir Turosov, Valery Rakitsky, Lorenzo Tomatis, ‘Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): Ubiquity, Persistence, and Risks’, Environmental Health Perspectives, V. 110, No.2 (February 2002), 125-128 (125).
[4] Tim Birkhead, Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (London, Bloomsbury, 2012), 17.
[5] Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 141.

Monday, 27 June 2016

25/6, Norfolk: nature writing and brexit

A marsh harrier calls from a storm-cloud strewn sky. A cat-like mewing from high, so high up it took me longer than usual to spot its grey wings disappearing in clouds. It called again, tucked its wings in and dived. At the bottom of its dive, it swung up — somersaulted through the air — and dived again. Skydancing in June. It disappeared over the far side of the reeds that rippled like water in the breeze. Two juveniles took the male’s place in the sky, one with food, the other tussling for it. Presumably the offspring of the male; I can’t explain the skydancing. Raising young takes the whole season and raptors usually only have one brood a year. BWP later tells me that they will display if an unpaired female ventures into the male’s territory.

Underfoot, a grazing marsh which after a week of torrential rain was sodden. The peat is springy and sprouting purple marsh orchids. Damselflies flickering into life from reeds beside the ditch — sudden sparks of blue that disappear on rest. Norfolk hawker dragonflies patrol these ditches, their beat a constant, rhythmic back-and-forth just above the levels of the reeds.  They hover at the end, wings too fast for the eye to see, bulbous green eyes glistening. And I wonder if they can see me and know I’m something other than the highland cows at the far side of the marsh, clinging to the drier ground.

Retreat is not defeat.

The consolation of nature is a phoenix — every time it is killed off as an idea it comes back again, re-emerging as something new. Ever since nature became something to enjoy, instead of something to fear, fight, tame or cultivate, it has been used to echo human feelings. Hence we have pastoral literature and elegy depending on whether you were celebrating or grieving. Darwin posed a problem, but only once Tennyson had ‘faltered where he firmly trod’, writing roughly a decade before evolutionary theory: ‘Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law — / Tho’ Nature red in tooth and claw / With ravine shrieked against his creed’ (I.M. LV-LVI). But nature is bigger and more complex than that. The war poets invoked English landscape, in part to remember what they were fighting for, in part for escapism from a world breaking apart around them. In the mid-twentieth century things got melancholy and angry. Nowadays we know that nature is more beneficial for mental health than anyone could have guessed. This is a general gloss, of course. But there is another way that retreating into nature is beneficial.

On Thursday Britain voted to leave the EU. The pound plummeted to its lowest rate in my lifetime. I was born in recession, left school in recession and now my future, at my glummest moments, looks like it will be one long recession too. I fear for my ecologist friends whose jobs depend on EU money and EU environmental law. I fear for the Thames estuary, for which European environmental law stopped it from being turned into an airport.

It is often said that we live in a post-truth age. Post-truth politics and post-truth media. These phrases imply there was a time when this wasn’t the case; when everything was something other than rival, competing narratives. Beauty is not truth – not necessarily anyway – but beauty is a reminder of the fundamental importance of the world around us. I don’t think we live yet in a post-beauty world.

On Thursday as the news of the vote was sinking in, I was miserable beyond belief. I was tapping into my inner Tennyson. All was woe, despair, and plotting dream emigrations. I’d head off to Sweden, Iceland, Canada, anywhere but here. Then I walked out into an unbearably hot afternoon, muggy to the point you could wade through the thick air, and by a shallow fast flowing river I found a colony of banded demoiselle damselflies. I watched them for what felt like hours, flitting from reed to reed, four wings flapping slowly, uncannily like how you’d imagine a fairy would fly. I watched them change colour: blue to green, dark to bright depending on the light, and angle and action. I was reminded that there was beauty in the world, and the importance of it — and not just for the state of my mind. And that the environmental protection that EU law afforded protects not just them but the farmland surrounding the stream, and the mid-Suffolk arable aesthetic ideal. I was reminded that everything is political. 

Nature writing can feel like an ineffectual response at times. A luxury. Rhapsodising while the turtle doves vanish and the economy sinks. But it is also fundamental and in the light of our vote for isolation, I think we need it more than ever: a close focus on ‘nature’ (howsoever you wish to define and use that word), beauty and the often hidden, often elusive, stories behind it. The difference one person behind a desk can make to the existence of a species is an important story. But so is the sheer beauty of it, how it makes us feel and behave: the fundamental reason behind why so many of us love the environment.

I am terrified for the future of our environment. But now, while we still have orchids, odonates, marsh harriers, clean beaches and migratory wildlife, we need to write about them, and the love of them, before they become forgotten things.

Nature doesn’t much care for borders.

The group of waders called ‘knots’ get their name from Canute: trying to hold back the tides that the birds race and forage in. The red knot were mostly birds that had failed to breed successfully in the high Arctic, either in Greenland or the far north of Russia. A great knot – the fifth record for Britain – was what the lines of twitchers were parsing the flock for.
I spent yesterday afternoon and evening on Norfolk beaches trying to find it. The afternoon at Brancaster, under a fierce sun broiling the air and turning the distant wader flocks into a singular grey smudge, warping and melting a pair of spoonbills in the heat haze. Clean golden sand. Clean sea. The evening was spent at Holme, feet half-sinking in and sloshing in the tidal flats. Behind us, in the dunes, a turtle dove purred, and a storm cloud darkened the horizon. When the great knot appeared, out from behind a clump of seaweed the excitement travelled down the line of assembled birders. Instructions barked out, reactions whispered: fifty people united in glee. 
The great knot belongs in summer in the far north east of Siberia. Upon departing the tundra they migrate the length of Asia, to spend their winter in the Australian summer, forming giant flocks on beaches. Or, occasionally, getting that mammoth migration wrong by 90 degrees and landing in the right habitat, with a similar species in the wrong hemisphere.
Nature doesn’t much care for borders.

Friday, 24 June 2016


You fly like a man drowning. Frantically paddling, wings out of sync, legs akimbo, worried faces. Trajectory: downward. Down on your back.

Your natural reaction, I read, is to stay motionless — completely still — in the face of danger. I agree. So's mine. But being on your back at the bottom of Lewisham station stairwell is not where you evolved to be. Lewisham evolved around you. While you crept out at night from the dead wood pile, drunk on hormones and ready to wrestle, a city was built around you. Concrete towers grew tall and were felled. Metal and glass towers grew in their place. You stayed.

We guard you. People rush past, fear of the beetle in their eyes. We flip you the right way with our tickets. Your grappling hook feet still thrash for grip. Your movements jerky, like a clockwork toy that can't quite get going. Antennae waving — four points on the end, like fingers reaching out to hold onto air. Between your shields, gilt edges.

Down the stairs comes the only other person not afraid. He looks at us. Nice stag beetle, he says. They're rare now. We shepherd you to the edge. The bright lights behind you, the thick dark night of the undergrowth ahead. Your antlers twitch.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Lewisham Wildlife

A squirrel sat on a railing, holding a monkey nut in its paws, tight like a prayer.

A young heron in a bundle of sticks, peering out from a broken willow. Fluffy down around its crest. Swaying its stubby, dagger-ended head up, then down, striking out at nothing in particular. Dreaming of fish.

An adult heron walking tibia-deep in the water, wings folded with stately, hands-behind-backs poise, past three terrapins clinging onto a floating log. One half-mounting the other, maybe mating, maybe merely clambering over it in slow motion enthusiasm.

We followed the concrete rivers of South London just to see where they would take us. Heavy clouds hung low over dirty streets and the air was thick and stale with the smell of fried chicken. Spring in south London.

Lewisham does not promise much in the way of wildlife, but away from the high streets it can be found. We found the park by following the Quaggy: a concrete-sided river funnelling clear water north from here to Deptford Creek, where it meets the muddy brown Thames. The banks, as they are, are filled with daffodils and litter and out of the corner of my eye it wasn’t entirely clear which was which. A smashed up laptop beached in the middle of a gravel patch stayed until the next heavy rain swept it downstream. I’m used to seeing grey wagtails (as yellow as daffodils) in upland streams, not clinging to these lips of grey concrete, picking off the gnats hatching from the shallow water. In the grey neglected bits of London, nature has the colour. From a nearby tree, a starling mimics a police siren. Eight oranges and four apples floated downstream.

The river diverted underground, and we walked along the grounds of dilapidated buildings flourishing with green alkanet. A few lemon yellow blooms of cowslip, red-dead nettle and archangel in the cracks, surviving impolitely. Growing where they please. There is more to urban nature than crests of buddleia sprouting from every undisturbed surface. It was London where I came to learn my basic botany on the weeds that grow before the landowners come with chemicals to obliterate them, erasing their colour in favour of concrete.

I read the other day that the environmental philosopher Anthony Weston thinks ‘disconnection is not the root of environmental crisis but, most fundamentally, is the very crisis itself’*, and I think he’s right. Its why we should celebrate urban nature, given that 82% of British people live in urban areas. The herons, the parakeets, the wagtails, the alkanet that flourishes with neglect and is usually full of bees. It’s the pearl that forms around the urban grit. The trees clear the air. The flowers and wagtails introduce people to nature that’s not exclusive, not the preserve of the shires or a TV documentary. That’s not to say that London is environmentally perfect — though neither is the countryside — but biodiverse enough to make me rethink what nature can be. Or even should be.

*Anthony Weston, The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher (Albany: University of New York Press, 2009), p.132.

Monday, 2 November 2015

On Orford Beach (after Sebald)

The lighthouse edges closer to the North Sea. It will go the way of Slaughden, five miles north of here and sixty two years a relic under the sea. Or perhaps like Orford harbour, suffocated by shingle. Nothing lasts forever on the shifting stones of Orford Ness. The waves made this sculpted shingle spit, the waves remake it and the waves take from it too. Underfoot it crunches like the waves that break upon the shore. Rain. Leaves, miles from the nearest tree, are blown on the wind. A hare skims over the shingle crests like tumbleweed. Tumbleweed, that is, that hunkers down to the stones behind the sickly green sea kale and disappears completely.

To disappear completely in a landscape that could be drawn like an architect’s plan, a landscape of regular lines and flat horizons would seem difficult. Even with the weather settling in, when either end of the spit disappears into the greyness of distance, the in-between space seems impossibly open. But the repetition of shingle and its undulations played a trick on me. The dappled colour, the pointillism of the land warped my eyes. I felt the shingle rising, floating around me, a disorientation in the way that no shingle beach had done to me before.

The walk around Orford Ness takes you back to the military huts across the salt marsh channel on a bridge with no sides, along a ribbon of broken concrete.

I am beckoned into the dark. Laboratory four. My eyes adjust to the green and the dust and the dirt. A bone lies in the corner, dully shining. I pick up a hard hat from the pile. On one wall paint is cracking and peeling, like a layer of lichen; the ceiling camouflaged by the creep of algae across the concrete. With the guide I descend down a crumbling, darkened set of stairs, handrail flaking rust, to the bottom.

He explains. They call these the pagodas. The overlapping concrete roof, raised on columns with a dome of wind-sculpted shingle on top gives them the look of a religious building. The reason for this is because the roof is designed to break apart. The high windows blow out, the columns give way, the concrete breaks in the middle and the shingle pours in like a waterfall, sealing the building and whatever remains inside.

An instant tomb. A shingle sepulchre.

Everything else is, apparently, a mystery. Geiger counters suggest that nuclear material was not tested on site, though the evidence that does exist says that the explosive triggers that cause the nuclear reactions in atom bombs were. It's hard to tell anything from the evidence left inside laboratory four: the walls are as high as a church, clad with metal panels with crucifixes cut out of them. Rusting veins of pipes still run. Of the numbers stencilled on the walls, the number 23 is the least faded.

23 years ago W. G. Sebald walked on the shingle here, feeling like he was passing through an undiscovered country, and though the feeling remains it is no long the same. The year after he came the National Trust bought the site and set about discovering it. Paths were made safe, cleared of the ordinance that still crops up, unearthed by the progress of shingle. Buildings were surveyed. Archives were explored, information collected, former soldiers spoken too. Truth is relative here. Story proliferates. I was told that the radar warehouse halfway up the Ness contains the wreck of a UFO found at Rendlesham and that the sea between here and Shingle Street was one day set ablaze — and charred uniformed bodies washed ashore. Allegedly.

This is not the same National Trust that does tea rooms in manor halls. The manners here are decay and entropy, its spirit not tamed, its truth still elusive. A progressive preservation of a place that -- without celebration or judgement -- has become a museum to Suffolk's small part in mutually assured destruction. A museum to the apocalypse that it nearly caused. 

23 years ago, knowing only that it was once the site of military testing, Sebald felt that he was 'amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe'. A place that eluded him and his all knowing voice. It eludes still. 

I come over clammy, claustrophobic in the dark of laboratory four. The weight of shingle on the roof oppresses, the certainty of a building designed to smother and suffocate completely. Back out in the bright light of the cloudy day, amongst the ruined outbuildings, wire shells and sprawl of brambles, I can breathe again.

In the shelter of one of the buildings sits the casing from an old nuclear missile, a collection of military signs, and photographs of soldiers. In the doorway a garden cross spider trailing silk, manipulates its back legs and weaves its web from the outside in. From the brambles strewn among the huts a goldcrest forages, gleaning invisible insects from the thick clumps of leaves and thorns, its crown of gold glowing in the late afternoon gloom. It is the most alive thing on this almost island of the dead.

What will survive of us is not love but brambles, rocks and concrete.

Friday, 2 October 2015

The North Ron Diaries: Reckonings

‘It was a fortunate wind
that blew me here. I leave
half-ready to believe
that a crippled trust might

and the half-true rhyme is

(Seamus Heaney)
Sanderling: from the high Arctic to west Africa
I’ve never experienced seasonal changes so sudden and dramatic as they are here. The diffuse process by which the earth tilts to and from the sun, the growth, death and movement of things seem amplified this far north. Winter lasted through to the end of June — then summer suddenly in July. August baked, then the sky washed the migrating birds out of it and made late summer a humid, bird-filled affair. The first of September was when the warmth went and the Arctic wind brought autumn in. Autumn is not a mellow season here. There is no hint in the wind, no first falling leaves. The wind is cutting and cold. The leaves on the few sheltered sycamores, that have grown for two hundred years to barely twelve foot, are shrivelling, withered at the edges and snatched at by the wind. From the fields Snipe spring up like a jack in the boxes that carry on climbing through the sky. Fieldfares rattle down the walls, earlier than I have ever seen them before.

For birds these seasons are vague and personal. August was the month when we had an arrival, when birds converged on the island en masse as an oasis from the wind and rain. Wrynecks and Icterine Warblers perched beside the locally bred Linnets and Blackbirds — autumn meeting summer. September is the month when it is autumn for all creatures. September is the month when everything begins to move. 

It is clearest out to sea. The Arctic Terns have left, heading for Australia then onto Antarctica, a journey that can take a bird from fledging to arrival a mere three months to complete. Instead Sooty Shearwaters stream past the island for several weeks as a metronomic presence — consistently ten per hour — on their way south for spring. An island bird throughout the world, they breed in the extremes of the Southern Hemisphere, spending their winter sweeping across oceans in the northern summer. The rougher weather of autumn in this end of the Atlantic suits them well. In calm conditions they dawdle, unsuitably stiff-winged. Into a strong wind the long thin wings shear up and down, echoing the crashing waves that threaten to, but never quite, wash them out of the sky.

Sooty Shearwater by George Gay
As the month progresses the change in birds reflects distances travelled and distances left to go. The Willow Warblers of August fade — in numbers and colour — until the last of the paler birds from the far north have passed through. Mid-month is when the Yellow-browed Warblers turn up, having come from the forests of Siberia to flit down dykes, fences and lurk in the weedy corners of the island. It was my privilege to ring one that turned up in our nets, taking it snugly between four fingers, and feeling it's weightlessness, the thrum of its heart and the delicacy of the wings that can take the bird over enormous distances. The scales said 5.9 grams. 

When I see them I see them mostly in thistle fields. Scurrying between the purple heads that are softened and just about turning to seed, feeding on barely perceptible insects. It is typically the dreich days that brings the warblers in and under glowering skies, a bird not much bigger than my index finger and bright vivid green and white with butter yellow stripes seems impossible — too small, too bright, too fragile in a place so harsh. It's a marvel that they make it here at all. The wonder is that they're a relatively modern phenomenon, and turning up in numbers that suggests their occurrence isn't the result of freak errant migrations. Despite being thousands of miles off course, they have been discovered spending the winter in the Canary Islands instead of South East Asia. Not all those that are lost succumb. Some become the pioneers of a new range, a new distribution. The survivors that return to Siberia to breed pass on their new migration routes. We still don't know how birds do it, where the impulse to migrate and the mechanics behind how they navigate lies. We don’t know why distribution changes like this.


I have an interest in lives lived in geographical extremes, whether human or animal, up mountain, island or deep in the country. I read an article recently on life in an Alaskan cabin that rang true to me. The author was living out the Thoreauvian desire to live deliberately but found herself wrestling with the boredom of freedom and the question of how to fill a day, when not swatting insects or walking seven miles to the local shop. What she remembered from amongst the mundane days are the moments of unexpected beauty that punctuate life in remote places. It’s the same on an island like this. The days off are boring, the days on are menial, full of mucking in (or out), and then you’d have a close encounter with a bird, or the first clarity after fog, or still evenings when the setting sun burns up through the salted air. Life on islands fills you with close encounters. Island life is a leveller. It is only the tourists who care that you’re not half Viking with a family tree traceable to St Magnus. Instead — though rife with enough politics to fill a soap opera — I found a place full of the warmth of five minute conversations with everyone you pass up the main road. A mutual agreement that if you’re living on a tiny island with a population of less than fifty, you share a smile and a wave, and it just makes things work better. I was lucky in what I did. Most islanders don’t get a day off and life is hard when your livelihood relies upon cows and the fields are waterlogged and the grass doesn’t grow. They don’t get much time to sit and look but the unexpected beauty of the place still finds its way into their lives.

Like the author in Alaska, I have seen the northern lights. Despite an obsession with checking every clear night, and every cloudy night when my phone pinged an aurora alert at me, I only saw it three times: a green flickering, like lit gas under a hob, but taking up the northern horizon of the night sky. I saw it best at 3 am, ripped from my sleep and hardly awake, an uncomprehending, shivering, staring at the sky. I have a crisis of imagination when confronted by it. No words for it, no language with which to process it. I wonder if in the past it was taken for a supernatural event because when words come to me they come as surreal and technicolour. I almost feel the same way about the night sky. The milky way, the shooting stars, the constellations I don’t know the name of. Growing up under light pollution the reaction is to regard this night sky as somehow fake, as if it were the product of some digital trickery.

Aurora over Lurand by George Gay


There are some other things I have no language for. Grey hairs, a creased face. Crashing waves and a bit lip. A nervous scratch until it bleeds.

I have never been good at goodbyes.

When I arrived on the back of a March gale I was fairly broken. Chewed up by a London life that I didn’t want to live, nerve-endings frayed to the point where I couldn’t be sure if I could last a journey on the tube, the walk to the park, a conversation. I retreated to North Ronaldsay for a different work. I was soft-handed then, now I can shear and worm sheep, care for lambs and dig holes in stony ground to put up gates and bake cheesecakes and bread. In the process I made myself again, until I felt fully human again — and I carried on working until the concept of home meant a small island as much as it did the open fields of East Anglia.

September is the month when it is autumn for all creatures.

Now it is time to leave for another not-yet-home, the other east of Essex. I am not looking forward to leaving here. Over six months I forged a relationship with this place that feels like love, and it is possible in the pain of parting to feel that it was better to have never loved at all than to have loved and left. But it couldn’t be any other way. As Anne Sexton wrote, ‘[to love...] is like a prayer and can’t be planned… you just fall / into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief’. And I had no idea from my first walk out, along the sea spume covered rocks and across the dykes I would learn to jump, that this wind-raked, salt-harrowed place would undo my disbelief, my culture shock, in the way that it did. And it won't feature in the end of year reckonings: a reasonable year for arctic terns, a record year for tystie nests, a disastrous year for spring migrants. So I shall write it now: I believed in this place.

And September is the month when everything moves.


All that’s left is for me to say thank you: to Kevin and Alison for seeing my CV and asking me to be here until April, then June, then September; to Mark and Fleur for teaching me more than I think they realise; to June for the sheep help and to Molly, Heather, Laura, Gav, George, Pete, Jonny, Sam and Espen for being there — it’s the teamwork that makes the...

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?