About midday the rain set in, not torrentially but in visible grey sheets drifting from the west across the island. It has the tang of Atlantic salt. The island is where the Atlantic meets the North Sea with the decorum of a drunken punch up at a funeral and in this wind-raked place, you have to give some days over to the weather.
The chronic cabin fever returns. The essence of being trapped indoors is being able to see the waves lapping through the mist with one eye, other eye trying to fix my broken phone, or trained on my computer, watching spring roll in throughout England on twitter.
The rain cleared up this evening; the wind died off and through the murky grey light, a chink of blue in the sky. It’s dinner time. Mark and I cling film ours up and head up the road to the nets. The ringing site is the well-vegetated garden at Holland, the highest ground on the island and the best cover for birds. This evening it was crawling with Redwings and Twite. We caught a few of each; the Redwing a handful, nipping my fingers, the Twite a small surprise, if you were dexterous enough you could fit three in your hand and have space to spare. The other revelation: as the sky cleared the evening chilled, my hands grew cold. Twite are little bundles of warmth, energy and life. They call quietly as they leave my hand, bounding up into the bushes.
As the evening turns dark, a skein appears above the western horizon. As they descend, they resolve out of dark shapes, into defined light and dark. They honk: a double hiccup like squeaking gate. Pink-feet. I am transported by my ears out of a field in cold wet Scotland and back to a marsh where the horizon seems to encompass half the world and Pink-footed Geese are the most important things. It is instant East Anglia. You can always find yourself at home with birds.
A politician visited the island. Alistair Carmichael is the local MP — though he was at pains to point out that he was a mere candidate, as you can’t be a member of a dissolved parliament — out canvassing on the small islands. I was told he was a councillor and had a pleasant chat with him before the penny dropped and he introduced himself. It was probably a missed opportunity to grill him on the coalition’s record in power, and the Lib Dem role in propping it up. But ach. I am not on trend with being cynical about politicians. I believe many of them are in it for genuine public good and not just for the expenses. I also believe that being expected to talk politics every minute of every day, as well as weekly flights from Kirkwall to London and back, must be a truly exhausting schedule. He is a man of easy charm, perfect affability and I spare him an evening off politics, and the obs unwinds with him and a glass of whisky, talking standard Orcadian fare: terrifying flights, the ideal dog and the time a brogue-shod Vince Cable went to Marwick Head and looked over the edge.
I have great respect for Alastair for actually coming out here and chapping on doors. With a population of under 50 and a distinct downward trend, North Ronaldsay is about as far away from the political circus in Britain as it’s possible to be. It would be very easy to not come out at all. This seat has been Alistair’s since 2001; and since 1837 has been Liberal/Lib Dem for all but 17 of those 178 years. I wonder if any other political candidates will come out here? I wonder how the SNP will do, and if they’ll take the seat. It would be an outrageous political scalp to get. I look forward to seeing what happens.
I had just settled down when a call came. They've run out of rings at the ringing station and trapped a Sparrowhawk. Could Steve grab the spare ringing box and would he like to see the Sparrowhawk? I was there in five minutes.
Dusk. We crowded into the tiny ringing station hut, lit by a weak light from a dying car battery. Mark held a bird bag very deliberately, feeling for the feet and bill from the outside. He gets his hands safely around the bird, I remove the bag from around it and time stopped.
The first thing I see are its feet. Yellow. Feet too big for their thin legs, hanging half-cocked. Black talons, hooked like a crook, hanging as if half-poised to grip relentlessly. Remorselessly.
A hawk moves at different speeds to humans. It operates at a much faster frame rate and at unbelievable clarity and detail. It transfixed me with its eye. A luminous yellow, flickering. A brighter, deeper yellow than should be naturally possible. I saw the tiny adjustments it was making to its iris, to its direction and looking at us who had temporarily taken it hostage. I saw it thinking — no not thinking — I saw its instinct to bloodlust in that eye. The bright heat of action and coldness of a killer. It gazed at every pore in my skin and the awe in my eye.
We take the length of the wing from the chord to the tip of the primary feathers (241 mm) and its weight, after it bottoms out our first pair of scales. 345 grams. It had been feeding well for a migrant and confirms our suspicions that it felt and looked like a brute, a bruiser of a hawk.
I am reminded of H is for Hawk, again. Sparrowhawks get described as pet cats to the Goshawk's leopard nature. It's true in that context, but even a Sparrowhawk can fill a room with fearsome presence. The eye is set in, under a furrowed white brow of intent and set just back from the lethally hooked bill. Made to rip and tear and cut through feathers and skin and warm blood. It was a young female: a chocolate brown plumages on the black, with creamy fringes to the feathers. A male Sparrowhawk was trapped earlier that was significantly smaller and lighter. There is talk that the male is prettier: blue in top and orange-barred underneath. But I'm not sure what the point of a pretty hawk is. It is not meant to be so.
Mark releases it into the night. It slips away, black against the indigo night sky, to the north. I remember to breathe.
That eye might be the wildest thing I've ever seen.
Auguries of the season: sunshine and Wheatears falling out of the clear sky. Five on the fence posts, two on a ruined outbuilding. One in song. Wheatear song is something I rarely hear and it always catches me out: a quiet crunching burble of notes, from a bill that barely seems to open. It is entirely appropriate that these birds should mean the coming of spring. Their backs are grey and their fronts are the warm peach colour of dawn. They’ve made it back from Africa. Not the first migrant to arrive, but the first of the great migrations here, to what is likely the field in which they hatched last year — or years before. I feel like we should hang out the flags. Deck the fences in bunting.
The surf still battles the rocks in great sound and fury. It is a relatively calm day but the swell in the Atlantic is still stiff and blowing spindrift rainbows about. It would be a clear day too were it not for the swell and surf: the thrashing of the waves releases salt, that you can see drifting across the bay and hazing the distant headland. A different sort of sea fret. One that you can taste and tell is going to make every bird seen through your binoculars fainter and greyer until you relent and clean the sea from your lenses again. I love almost everything about this island but the salt.
10pm. I settle down to write my diary. I can only remember one thing from today.
We were making the finishing touches to the gate when I look up and see Gavin sprinting towards us. Between snatched breaths: ‘your phones aren’t working… Fleur rang… Mark’s had a White-tailed Eagle over Bridesness’.
Tools dropped. Gate slammed shut. We bundle into the Land Rover, shred grass and mud and head to the middle of the island, stopping by the airfield. Gavin notes the gulls going crazy, half the island away: I find the eagle flying powerfully south, low over the edge of the east beach. A dark giant of a bird. It dropped out of sight. The gulls swing up, wheel around and plunge, and repeat. We jump back into the car, bail out as close as the road will take us and scurry like snipe across a field towards the dyke. Gingerly we poked our heads over and come face to face to a started cow. A flock of sheep. Beyond that, a single brown one? No, eagle. The single brown sheep flapped a wing at a gull that passed too close.
To clarify the size of an eagle: it stands as tall and as long as a sheep. The wings are not just long but thick. They appear ungainly, like it must paddle through the air when it flies. A Hooded Crow drops in next to it, waddles over, tweaks its tail and flies off. It sits under an aerial bombardment for about half an hour. Seemingly unconcerned by the gulls, losing their cool in close proximity. Neither do the sheep, incidentally. People would have you believe that White-tailed Eagles and livestock can’t coexist: it’s a belief that has torpedoed one reintroduction scheme and is a belief that is frequently aired on the west coast. But they grazed oblivious to their new near neighbour, the eagle.
Then it flew. And those paddle wings turn into eight-foot of grace and power: lifting up and into the haze, trailing gulls, crows and a raven as it headed south.
Shivers down my spine. I moved to an island without breeding birds of prey but find myself repeatedly being stopped and thrilled by its birds of prey.