The sleeper train is ironically named. I arrived half cut, on the back of long days spent time zone swapping and nights not spent well slept. The carriages are dimly yet warmly lit to stimulate tiredness, the train pulls out of London smoothly, and I watch the suburbs slip past until we find darkness near Watford. I loll back in my seat, slip on the ear plugs and on the eye mask. I nod forward and sit bolt upright. And repeat.
I can't fall asleep on a train. I might miss my stop. It doesn't matter that the train is overnight, my stop twelve hours away at 8am tomorrow and at the end of the line... It's a law of my nature. I can't fake otherwise.
I roll into Inverness feeling like a zombie, leave on a coach an hour later feeling worse after a coffee. Watching Scotland slide past the window. Ross into Sutherland's dramatic hairpins and cutting across into Caithness's vast moorlands. The view is extraordinary and familiar, so I break the back of the new Melissa Harrison novel instead. These are not ideal roads for a coach and progress is slow — I get off at the ferry terminal with seconds to spare before the boat departs.
Hoy stands proud in the middle of the Firth, twice as tall as the other dimly viewable Orcadian isles. It was a cold crossing but not a rough one, despite the strong wind. Out in Scapa Flow: Guillemots — hundreds of them — where I usually see mostly Razorbills, and Puffins. It amazes me still how these birds, among the least elegant flyers can still frantically out flap the ferry's engines. Further out Great Skuas just seem to hang around, practicing menacing the Gannets and Shags, but not with the real vigour that will come on a calmer day, where fish and terns and gulls will coincide. There are six Arctic terns though and that will do for now, the first I've seen to have returned from their epic migration. Makes my zombie-tiredness seem like nothing, really. They do everything with a buoyant elegance and I'm very happy to have them back. And then a surprise: a Manx Shearwater skimming the sea surface, threading itself between waves on thin stiff wings. I'm not sure why it was a surprise, other than I thought they hadn’t returned yet. In my more lovestruck moments I think they're the final evolution of flight. I find them thrillingly economical, a bird that is all wing. They know how to fly. Seabirds know how to travel.
Several hours later and we taxi down the runway at Kirkwall airport, the half-full island hopper plane buffeted by the rain. On the back of the pilot’s high vis jacket, the letters FAB scrawled in felt tip, like a budget thunderbird. We shake through clouds and wind and rain, passing low over Sanday looking like beach paradise, seeing North Ronaldsay look tiny amongst the rain and waves. The coast by the airfield still looks threatening; the rocks there are the biggest and the waves don't crash gently into them, but we cross them facing the direction of the airfield this time. I enjoyed this flight. Maybe Loganair doesn't always require belief in divine intervention.
I am informed all the chairs I fixed have subsequently all been broken by the volunteers. We also have a new volunteer. George is younger than me and in denial about it, he’s also a trained fishmonger from Somerset with an impressive bird list and, gallingly, found a White-rumped Sandpiper on the island when I was on holiday. I’m a little bit jealous of that.
Two hours in and I discover the biggest change after my two weeks away. Fleur beckoned me to the bike shed. Gave me some glass bottles with rubber teats and opened the door. Restless souls bounded out — and got herded back in. A shed full of seven lambs is a chaotic, pungent place, bouncing with energy. One lamb, eager for its milk, decides to clamber over the backs of two lambs at once. Others rear on their hind legs, place their forelimbs on my thighs like begging puppies. I take one and tip the bottle back and squirt it with milk.
I hate the word cute. Or I thought I did and now I’m not sure. I don’t think I have anything else to describe them with. They are the tragic lambs. The orphans of dead or missing parents from flocks around the island that we’ve taken in, and they made me melt inside. Caddy lambs as they’re known. We give them 175ml of Lamlac each time and warmth, hay and attention. The instinct to protect and nurture life stirs.
It is entirely possible, on days like this, to come across a redstart on a kelp-covered rock and think it the most beautiful thing in the world at that given moment...
Some mornings you can’t dodge the weather. Easterlies and drizzle dragged me out at grey half-past eight. The Arctic Terns are back here too, squabbling over territory and fish, and hanging around the same field that the Lapwings nest in, who are currently preoccupied with dive-bombing the harmless Fulmars that are still omnipresent, and drifting into every available gust of wind.
I stopped at Nouster. Out amongst the waves a Great Northern Diver lurked, Turnstones picked their way along the shoreline and Wheatears flit between the rocks. It is good to be back here, back by the side of the sandy beach where only birds walk, back in to the teeth of a cold and wet wind — though my stinging fingers disagreed. I should’ve remembered my gloves. That was my thought process when a bird crossed my vision, perched on a rock, shivered its tail. I half knew what it was before I got my binoculars on it. And in the grey of the morning, I welcomed in a Common Redstart. A creature of deep oak or pine forests, places of tranquility, bedraggled and exhausted on the shore. It made sorties through the air above the weed, picking out insects, replenishing itself. The rain did not extinguish the flame of its plumage, the shiver of its tail. It — a male — has three colours on its plumage and each is taken to excess. The red is rich, the black is velvet, the white line dividing those is like lightning.
Here’s the thing: I’ve seen many Common Redstarts. As it’s name suggests, it’s a common bird in the right place (and the right place is usually a very nice place to be), and each one stops me in my tracks. It’s not that I forget how beautiful they are — but they stun, like all things of proper beauty should.
I spent the rest of the walk in a sort of sodden daze. Two damp Goldcrests and a gorgeous Pied Flycatcher along the dyke, all heading off in the same direction, to the same sort of Scandinavian wood as the redstart. My year’s first Tree Pipit and a Whinchat freshly arrived in too.
I don’t remember the island having this many birds.
Polling day. To vote on North Ronaldsay you have to go to Sanday. To get there you have to fly to Kirkwall and fly back out to Sanday, or take the ferry. That's an entire day and a lot of money, just to vote. The attitude here tends to swing between mild interest and trendy apathy. We're too out of the way, too remote, too pragmatic to feel anything too strongly about that. The island would like something centre left though. The loss of EU subsidies up here would be a massive blow to the economy of the archipelago.
One of the jarring things over my past two and a bit weeks spent swapping between Orkney, Suffolk and Hungary, has been the absence and presence of insects. To sit on a sunny afternoon in my garden in Suffolk and have butterflies, bee-flies, hoverflies buzzing around the flower beds and ground ivy in the lawn has been a pleasure. A thousand miles south and east: Camberwell Beauties, damselflies and dragonflies I don't recognise patrolling willow tops, deer ticks in my leg and an overly inquisitive hornet in my rucksack. Back in Orkney: it feels as though any insects would've been blown to Russia by now. The westerly gale kept me up half the night, slamming hail and rain into my window pane. By sunrise, it slackened enough to walk at a right angle into the wind, though the wind was the sort that steals the breath out of your mouth. I watch a Shoveler take off into the wind, a flurry of wing beats and then it just hung in the air. Stasis achieved into the teeth of the wind. I watched this while killing time, fiddling with my coat and wellies and considering the practicalities of riding a bike up island. And checking Twitter one more time. I didn't exactly want to go outside this morning. Westerlies blow migrating birds away from the island, not to it. It's a crude logic but it's basically sound.
And then I get a text from Mark, who had been at the Westness headland for ten minutes: one Long-tailed Skua past in the first ten minutes. I junked my plans for the day and walked up island. Slowly. Pressing against the wind. I note a Great Skua overtakes me — and all the other birds, as it bludgeons its way north. Chaos, naturally. The Lapwings and terns all rise up and get buffeted by the wind. The skua doesn't seem to notice the wind. It is beautiful: because to see a bird built for weather like this, excel in weather like this...
It is more beautiful than the Siskin I find sheltering in the ditch that runs though the kirkyard, looking sad and miserable. That is a surprise, maybe no one saw it yesterday, or its re-orienting itself from drifting on to one of the other islands. It's the first I've seen on the ground here. Beyond the kirkyard: fields of lambs, dandelions and daisies and a male Whinchat — all stark stripes and peach-breasted prettiness. This was definitely not there yesterday and suggests that despite 50mph westerly winds birds are arriving somehow.
I get to Westness and find Mark sheltering behind a wall, the only place in the lee of the wind. To our right, waves rolling into Westness bay and the atmosphere is thick with a grey haze of salt. To the left: spindrift is being flung up the beach. In front of us: the waves are crashing in at such height it's difficult to see the sea behind. Does the sea rage? It's a metaphor and not a great one, but we've looked at the sea and identified emotions in it for aeons, and not just superstitious sailors. On a day like today, rage is the only thing comparable to the energy and unpleasantness of it.
Mark has not had any other skuas past. In the two hours spent there, we find a few Great Skuas, a Manx Shearwater and a summer plunged Snow Bunting flitting along the wall.
By the time I get back to the obs to handle the shop shift, the chopping the vegetables, emptying the bins and general tidying shift, it's clear that birds are moving. I found a Pied Flycatcher perched on the daffodils persisting in the verge of the main road and flushed a Jack Snipe from a roadside ditch on my walk back. Being inside now is the total opposite to how I felt this morning. A curse, a cooping up and there is no feeling worse than being stuck inside when there are migrants birds to be watching.
I get back out at three, taking Sara out to see the male Pied Flycatcher that's been relocated by the pier, with a flock of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs foraging in the shelter of concrete and steel. She thinks I'm madly over keen on the flycatcher's dapper black and white plumage and air of Scandinavian woods. I think that her cooing over the adorable tiny Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers is quite understandable actually, not that I would ever admit that.
We headed up island to the cover of the gardens. Halfway up the hill and a Quail flies up, and over the nearest wall, like a tiny partridge on fizzing wings. At this point I lose my head. A Quail! Unmistakable. And only the second of this hyper-elusive species I have seen. Sara thinks my sanity is further slipping away.
Half asleep. 6:30am. I roll over, poke my phone and receive the news I don't want to. A Tory win — a majority too — and old liberal England in disarray. I can't sleep on it. I complain instead. George tells me to stop whinging, but he didn't vote so his opinion doesn't count. I don't know what this means for me. The current Conservative politics stands for everything I can't abide: punitive, petty and selfish. I don't like the politics of selling off the state and criticising the weak. I'm not sure what this means for wildlife: the badger cull will presumably carry on, SSSIs will presumably still be built on because you create an ancient woodland elsewhere, apparently (only in planet Tory). I feel the sickening sense of despair that comes from looking at a better future - and relapsing into the old, stale, unprofitable state of affairs.
So I look for small mercies. Alastair Carmichael, a good man and the only candidate to visit the island, becomes the only Scottish Lib Dem MP though by barely 800 votes. The islands carry on as they always did. Truth is, it has been odd election for me. I love the cut and thrust high theatre of elections (and despise the thoughtless, shouty soundbites that comprises most 'politics'). But out here it's very easy to turn the TV off. To skip down the Guardian and read other things. I've felt one step removed from the action, for the action is the 'white noise of modern life' that Mark Cocker wrote about recently from Caithness. As in Caithness on Orkney the very fact of landscape and your place in it, compel you to think of bigger, more essential things than a squabble in London. It really shouldn't be like this, but it is.
I went out to watch the lambs. I didn't expect them to bring me any closure or wisdom. But seven lambs make an excellent distraction. They’re getting bigger by the day.
The lambs are being given seaweed and less milk to wean them onto proper food. They're being left out of the shed for longer and longer to introduce them to the hardship of the weather. Though on an evening like this, the weather is no hardship at all: a gorgeous clean sunset dipping behind Papay and golden light everywhere. The sea seems particularly blue.
Earlier on the east coast of the island a Rough-legged Buzzard drifted inland over my head, dropping in height as it came in and finding all the crows in the area taking off in pursuit. It’s exciting but familiar to me from the East Anglian winter. I later discover it’s only the fifteenth record of one on the island and a lifer for George who, after many stressed phone calls, finally gets onto the bird before it flew high to the north in the early afternoon. It would’ve been a lifer too for the other volunteers who missed it by minutes. 50 minutes later it is reported from Fair Isle.
I settled down to watch Turnstones, Sanderling and Knot arriving on the island from over the sea, in pristine summer plumage. They’re feathered in the rich reds, notched with black — the camouflage of tundra grass and mosses and Orcadian beach. To sit very still and watch them feeding closely, unconcernedly, by sluices the mind of all the angst of the morning.
I was on a run of two good birds in two consecutive days: Quail and Rough-legged Buzzard. It's natural to want to make that three in three. The day held promise: Mark predicted a White-billed Diver or a Dotterel, the sea looking good for the former, the weather for the latter. It was a still calm morning, hot and clear. Weather to soar in, to migrate in or take one last stop off before Scandinavia — or at least Shetland — in. It felt like summer.
My misfortune was that I was allotted D. The census route that most frequently ends with sore legs and a half-blank notebook. I found my good bird though: an Iceland Gull, bright white as the Glaucous Gulls I was seeing back in March, but merely the size of a Herring Gull, with gentler, more rounded features. It's on it's way back to Greenland to breed, though it is very much a (scarce) bird of the British winter.
I am still looking for the birds of summer, though I'm not sure what they'll be here until I find it. It's not the Whinchat — Stiaccino says Sara — that's just passing through. I'm pretty sure it's not the Sedge Warbler singing in a tiny bush in a garden on the most north westerly croft on the island. I very much hope it's not the Meadow Pipit climbing out of the grass and into the sky, with its piercing song of single syllable whistles that once got so far into my head I could hear it when I shut my eyes to go to sleep. I found a Whimbrel on the rocks, briefly, before it spotted me and flew off with a hail of whistled notes. I learnt today that Whimbrel is the sound of summer in Iceland, and I feel I should let them know that they're on their way. Not our summer yet.
That afternoon: sit in the coolest place inside, door shut to distractions. Plough on proof reading the 2014 bird report and untangling sentences, correcting typos and pretending that inaccurate apostrophes are not a matter of deep grievance to me. Meanwhile a flock of Turnstones swirled outside the window. I bet I missed a raptor migrating due to the work. Not all the work that happens here is of particularly great interest. I don't mind this as it suits my strengths more than trying to fit duvets into duvet covers or baking desserts would. But it's not rewarding like sheep work, or building stiles. Even drystone dyking is preferable, if only because it happens outside.
When work is done at half eight, having cleared up dinner, washed the dishes and laid the breakfast table for tomorrow's guests (I hope they appreciate it), we play. We head up to the community hall, the school's sports hall and play table tennis, pool, badminton and football until the others are tired and content and I'm puce and sweating buckets.