Birding: it drags you out of bed at 5am, sticks you in the spin cycle of a north westerly gale on the island’s most exposed headland. It keeps you there, for a shivering hour and a half as the brunt of the weather beats itself out. You dream of warmth, of breakfast, of coffee without the stale tang of thermos flask. You talk to yourself to stay sane. Three of us, Mark, George and myself are tucked behind the dyke but the rain still hits us. We are perched precariously on piles of stones, one eye shut, the other kept to old borrowed telescopes on shaky tripods.
Despite the weather the waves are not as large as they usually are here, which gives us as a chance to see the birds for longer while they fly low between the waves. Arctic and Great Skuas are flying about distantly. We get our eyes in on them as they pass back and forth. Skua migration is the target and these are the common local birds. They are the baseline from which we judge difference to sort out the elusive rarer species that might be passing. When seawatching the birds tend to be distant and quick, disappearing between waves. Skuas are particularly speedy with a 40mph tailwind and you need familiarity with the common birds to have confidence identifying the others.
That cold wet hour and a half is spent doing that. Spirits dwindle and I think about leaving but don’t. We try to find more sheltered spots and we end up either side of the wall, all convinced that we've found the most sheltered spot. The rocks beneath me collapse and dump me on my back, between my legs. Everybody laughs and a Black Guillemot lands on the wall nearby to look down on me. And then Mark picks up a couple of Long-tailed Skuas flying at middle distance. I don’t pick them up, despite a running commentary of shouted instructions because my scope is fogged with raindrops. A rookie error. I wipe it clean and kick myself. Hard. The sea looks black again, the wave crests white instead of varying shades of grey. It’s easy to let that happen when you’re not seeing much, when your thoughts turn to how cold and wet you are and not on how your view is slowly deteriorating. It reawoke my old dislike of seawatching, the worst form of birding.
The wind slackened a little and turned north westerly. The result was almost instant: two Pomarine Skuas shot past, distant and quick. Through the rain it was possible to see bulky wings and wing flashes, their spoon-shaped tails quivering with effort of flight. Then ten Long-tailed Skuas pass. This time we all see them as the flock jostles over the waves, shearing down through the troughs and swinging up above the crests. The wings are long and thin, swept back and they look like a three-pointed bird. Or absurdly, like a bow and arrow.
We turn to celebrate. High fives all round, gibbering stupid excited things when birds appeared behind us. I raise my binoculars and all sense breaks in me. I garble the word skuas. Everyone looks around and nine Long-tailed Skuas took a shortcut between the bays over our heads. At this point George exploded. Mark — seen it all before, level-headed Mark — expressed disbelief. I reached for my camera.
I remembered then that sense of excitement. The thrill and awe of Long-tailed Skuas and a foot-long ribbon extending from their backs and whipping in the wind. I remember seeing my first cutting the corner of Aird an Runair in a Hebridean gale that cancelled the ferry and stranded me on that island. I saw fifty that day, thought they were perfect. Tern-like in flight, the most unlikely of piratical birds passing on their way through to their arctic breeding grounds. In today’s stronger weather they remain a perfect species. In five hours we saw 79 migrating past. Seawatching is the best worst birding.
79 Long-tailed Skuas is an island record. Before 2013 there had been just 33 Long-tailed Skuas seen on 14 occasions. In 2013 Mark and a volunteer called Simon discovered 49 passing off Westness in a bumper year for skua passage in north west Scotland. Now in every north west gale in May, seawatching from Westness has produced Long-tailed Skuas. Looking at the map and the spread of records from today suggests that the open water between Papay and North Ronaldsay is acting like a bay, catching skuas passing the north west coast of Orkney in these gales, before they head north past the west coast of Shetland and around to the north coast of Norway.
The numbers being seen here are not quite like they are from North Uist, where watchers from Aird an Runair have logged several thousand instead of hundreds this spring, prolonged over weeks instead of days. However it appears that skua passage is more widespread in the remoter coastal parts of north west Scotland than previously thought, it just takes several hours sat on a rain-lashed rock to find out.
There is a postscript.
A day like this was never likely to revert to normality. Instead, an hour spent defrosting and drying off before I was back out in the afternoon, clearing old wire off the coastline around Twingness. Halfway around I get a call from Mark — he had a pod of four Killer Whales heading north from West Beach. I ran frantically across boggy fields back to the obs, jumping into the Land Rover. We tore off up island, heading back to Westness to try and intercept them as they headed off around the island. But while we were there, they were being seen around the corner at the lighthouse, where a small group had gathered. It’s the first sighting of Killer Whales from North Ronaldsay in three years and it’s left confused emotions in me: happy they’re back, jealous of Mark for having a photo of four giant dorsal fins sticking out above the waves and dejected that I wasn’t one of the lucky ones. But above all, a primal thrill. To come so close to seeing one is an appetiser for when one will appear in front of me, glistening wet black and bigger than I can imagine, the dolphin that kills whales.