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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?