Death in the morning

A little after eight this morning. I pad through, dressed, to the kitchen where the sun, already two-thirds of the way across its path between the turbines and the low hills to the south, is already fully up above the horizon. It’s one of the last times I see this before the hills obscure the sunrise until much later in the day, and I rejoice in the scene and its warmth. Slightly further north and east, a small rain shower casts down in long, thin, smears of dark grey as the sun, a full disc but nevertheless hazy, casts its warm glow into the kitchen, illuminating with a timeless orange light the surfaces and the walls. There is little wind and the rain, a brief interlude in what will be a warm, almost cloudless, balmy day, is soon gone.

Overhead, one of the headland’s flock of ravens floats down towards the bay, feet dangling below, but held so, in a straight line from which, given the lack of wind, it barely deviates. I imagine it, a few seconds ahead, landing on one of the rocks exposed by the retreating tide, to bask in the sun and, maybe, plan its day just as I am doing. Though it does, already, appear a little more purposeful.

It lands. Not on a rock, though. It has already planned its day and breakfast is its next item. It lands on top of something on the sand and immediately jabs downwards. Its target moves. It’s not dead. Shocked out of my slumber by the violence of the thrust and by the – clearly erroneous – belief that ravens prefer their food already matured as opposed to fresh, I grab my binoculars from the lounge window shelf. Its prey continues to struggle as its adversary continues its stabbing motions, irregularly and infrequently, long moments between, like each one was already the last.

The prey continues to move. It’s a bird, of some kind – though I can’t make out what, even with the binoculars. It staggers about in its own defence, under the weight of the raven on its back, looking like a young, unfledged chick, though it surely can’t be, not at this time of year. Then the raven flies off, landing ten yards or so to the left, its back turned nonchalantly on its prey, bored with the struggle or else regaining strength before returning to the affray. The target vainly continues to flap its wings, ineffectively, seeking to make progress in any direction and I’m reminded somehow of the lumbering efforts on land of a penguin. It seeks, slowly, to raise itself to a height, to convince its attackers that it is not injured, that it is proud and able to defend itself, and capable of doing so.

It does not convince, or make progress. For whatever reason (an earlier assault, most likely), it cannot fly away. A second raven joins the fight – except that this already uneven contest is not a fair fight. The two are not evenly matched in a struggle for supremacy, with death the honourable outcome for the loser. If it’s a murder of crows, then what is it of ravens, joining up in a tag team against something already weak and virtually defenceless?

The ravens do not compete. They work together. The second one also stabs away at the prey, infrequently and irregularly, surprised at having to make another attempt to subdue, until the first attacker rejoins it. They stand side-by-side, momentarily in converse about what to do next. It cannot get away. It will not. The second raven, too, flies away a short distance before the original bird resumes the attack. Steady, not frenzied. Determined and resolute, not panicky. Remorseless, and not giving up.

The prey continues to struggle, long wings flapping, lurching about, trying to martial something, anything, with which to respond to the onslaught it is under, the raven’s beak continuing, repeatedly but oddly irregularly, its stabbing motions, interspersed with periods of rest, as a fighter in between rounds. Gulls circle overhead – but they do not join in. A flock of fifteen or so dunlin edge closer across the sand in wedge formation, interested onlookers to the scene before them but perhaps, mostly, glad it’s not them. The prey is significantly larger than them and, as it moves, I see a longer bill and am reminded of a cormorant.

The bird spins, facing its attacker and, for a moment, I imagine that this is its best chance, to use its own bill in its own defence. Inwardly, I cheer it. Except that it has not spun round; it has been spun. And its beak is no match for that of a raven which, eventually, delivers some sort of coup de grace before, again, flying away some short distance to recuperate, to distance itself from the murder it has had to commit, to quieten its senses.

Called briefly away from the scene, I return some time later. The prey is now headless, its neck a bloody stump, its body slumped behind like the contents of a small sack. The ravens are long gone. With a white chest and black body, I think, after all, it was probably a guillemot. I’m reminded of how defenceless it appeared and cannot escape the thought that it was a chick. It would not be the first time this year that I have watched a predation, but this one has left me oddly and disturbingly moved. Most likely, the bird was already injured – in some way – and the ravens, opportunistic scavengers, have moved in to finish the job and, perhaps, have been surprised by how long it took them.

A surround of white feathers on the sand, lying so many and motionless in the lack of wind, bears testimony to its plucking and appear, in some way, in small tribute to its last stand. Not the white feathers of cowardice, these. Meanwhile, the gulls continue to fly overhead, not interested in the murder committed on the sands below them, or apparently in its product, before the rising tide eventually sweeps away the body, and the evidence, and the feathery tributes, out to sea and into the wider food chain, and all returns to peaceful normality.

Searching for adventure…

The corncrakes have been a little late returning this year – late April in some parts of the island but only on 11 May did they make it as far as Aird A’Mhachair right up in the north-west corner. Lack of cover from the yellow flag iris and the nettles, which have only in the last week or so grown tall enough to offer one of the UK’s most elusive ‘native’ birds sufficient cover in which to skulk, is possibly one reason for why. ‘Ours’ – nesting on the croft for the last several years – made it back the following day and, spending a few hours in the garden on a few days of spring weather this week, I’ve heard three, possibly four, calling males in the area.

The one which inhabits our croft is, just possibly, Aird A’Mhachair’s least shy corncrake, and I’ve seen him twice this week. Not, like last year, staying on the outside of the fence. Oh, no. That’s no longer for him. I saw him firstly on the day after his arrival (you tend to hear rather than see corncrakes), loping purposefully, neck stretched, across the middle of the lawn (well: grass, really), cut this year shorter than a new squaddie’s haircut, making his way for the fence and the rather denser cover outside, and just the wrong side of the remains of a line of daffodils which sheltered him perfectly from view from the house.

And, then again this afternoon – I heard him from the drive at the front of the house, closer by than hitherto, and, wondering if he had taken up his old calling post on a stone on the outside corner of the fence, dashed through to take a look. No – sadly not there. But then, looking a little to the right, again, standing more or less in the open in the middle of the lawn (…) and still calling proudly. Grabbing the camera – kept close at hand for just such an eventuality – he made his way towards the fence, this time the right side of the daffodils, before taking up a perch apparently on a new calling stone, this time on the inside of the garden and just about 30′ from the window. He was perfectly happy for me to open the window and, not only that, but to pose and issue a few more calls – that strangely, unbird-like sound, a bit like scraping your fingernails quickly across the teeth of a plastic comb; a bit like a couple of sharp twists of a supermarket acrylic pepper grinder.

Here he is, in full calling flow:

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And then here, not looking in the least embarrassed at such a display of open, untypical extrovertness (and at quarter past three in the afternoon, too):

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He’s calling again now, as I write – partly it’s looking for a mate; partly, being possessively territorial birds, it’s advertising precisely which bit of the village is his.

Maybe he knows it’s late in the year and there’s not a lot of time left to raise one, and hopefully two, broods before setting off again for that long migration across the Sahara and back to the African savannahs. But, then again, maybe this particular one realises that searching for adventure is, indeed, the type of life to find….

UPDATE 20 May: Not the best picture (he was a few feet further away than on Thursday), but here he is again calling out for all he’s worth. Mostly, the calling has been infrequent – this afternoon, a pattern of four ’rounds’ and then a small break. I’m guessing that the infrequency reflects that he has a mate already and is just reminding all and sundry that this is his part of the village; as opposed to the greater urgency surely demanded by the need to find a mate.

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And so it begins (again) …

Wandering around the side of the house this afternoon after the hail had melted away in the warmth of the sunshine, topping up the bird feeders as I went with additional sunflower seeds, I couldn’t help but notice this, just before I put my size 8s right on it:

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The dimensions – likely to be about 3cm, top to bottom, when whole – but more the pale blue colour without markings make me think this is a starling’s egg, carried away from the nest to avoid attracting the attentions of predators (though not too far away, I suspect). It looks as though our gang nesting in the walls of the old byre have a hatchling. Well sheltered it would therefore have been there, not least against today’s north-westerlies, but it’s been a cold week even before today’s hail.

Looking forward to the new member joining the gang in due course and, when old enough, being put to work on the usual lawn scarification duties – starling beaks probing the grass for leatherjackets and other tasty morsels are a great help in keeping the moss at bay!

Have also been seeing a lot of the male hen harrier these last few days; usually, it’s the female we see (and probably five days out of seven) but the male – presumably on breadwinning duties with the female on eggs or otherwise engaged – has recently been a daily visitor. Outside the breeding season, he seems to hunt elsewhere so it’s likely to be the prospect of an easy meal, with other mouths to feed, which have brought him hereabouts. In contrast to the female, which quarters the ground in a mazy flight from about 10′ up, twisting this way and that and looking largely for mice and voles rather than the local birdlife, the male’s tactic is to fly in low and very fast, scattering everything in an absolute panic, including a bunch of oystercatchers dozing in this evening’s sun in the shelter offered by the wee beach just down from the house, suddenly appearing, unseen and at pace, among them. He’s not interested in the oystercatchers – they’re far too big, for one thing – or indeed, it seems, in the rest of the wader population occupying our shore, but he does seem to enjoy waking up the neighbourhood. And so he ought.

UPDATE 11 May: walking around outside today, there were *a lot* more shells scattered on the grass and an unholy amount of high-pitched peeping screaming ‘feed me’ coming from the byre. Hoping therefore to get a lot more scarifying done this autumn!

Also saw the female hen harrier fly determinedly past about an hour ago, too – so it looks like the male’s doing a spot of house-keeping and -sitting tonight.

On a June midnight

The heatwave currently gripping all of the country has also held sway in the Hebrides, with the last few days being sunny, and hot (21C yesterday), and the Met Office forecast for the next week for the Range here on South Uist being sunshine all the way with daytime temperatures varying from 18C to 21C (again above 20C!). Consequently – other than tonight, when a dreadfully thick haar has rolled in off the sea – the days are also very long: an official sunset time of 2231 and a sunshine-related golden hour to follow means that there is plenty of light in the sky and no need for electric lights until after 11pm.

I blogged last midsummer about how much difference there is between the apparent compass point at which the sun sets at high summer compared to the depths of winter – at just beyond midsummer, the sun sets well past north-west. The counterpoint to observing this high angle of sunset is that you can also track the movement of the earth around the sun as the days move from one sunset above north-west towards the sunrise of a new day before north-east. Being at a lower level of latitude than the Shetlands, where I have also spent midsummer and where the ‘simmer dim‘ means that the hours of darkness with the sun below the horizon are really only twilight hours, it does get dark here although it’s a soft, shadowy darkness rather than hard nightfall. You couldn’t, famously, read a book outside. And yet, looking to the north, the sky (on a good day!) has plenty of colour, with the fading, but still present, orange tones of sunset shifting across the sky from where the sun sets towards where it will rise and, above that, blue fading to black overhead. Once your eyes have adjusted, it’s apparent that there is still plenty of light and, for the birds outside, there’s therefore also plenty of reason for activity, usually based on something or other winding up the redshank, whose piercing, piping calls as nests, and territories, are defended against any and allcomers are the soundtrack to this picture:

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(Taken last night looking due north at about ten minutes past midnight.)

With the weather being so good, most of Uist seems to be engaged on the jobs for which you need a guarantee of sunshine (and no rain) – like painting the shed (its third coat in two years, despite us using, er, Ronseal ‘One Coat’ – maybe it’s the way I’m using it but my shed appears to be something of an example of a product not exactly doing what it says on the tin), and the perimeter fence (a job which is long overdue and which is a substantial enough task not to be wanting to add further coats every single year).

So, rare days indeed – and, after a day soaking up the ozone and breathing in the aroma of paint, what better than to settle back with a sizable bottle of your own, and really rather good, homebrew as day turns into this sort of midnight blue?

The prospect of summer

We were talking on the blog yesterday about the strength of the winds throughout the Hebrides; and then I saw a tweet from the inestimable account run by Orkney Library, raising an old blog post from the Archive describing some Orkney customs for 1 May. One of them was this rhyme relating wind direction on 1 May to the prospects for that season’s crops:

If the wind is in the Sooth
Thir’ll be braed for every mooth;
If the wind is in the Aest
There’ll be dule for man an’ baest;
Sud the wind blas fae the West
The muckle shaeves are ill tae fest;
If the wind comes fae the Nort
Aa‘ the rigs are tight and short.

(‘dule’ = ‘suffering or misery‘)

It’s interesting – though not at all surprising – that the state of the weather on key dates (as 1 May is, in respects both of pre-Christian customs and traditions as well as having more modern significance in terms of workers’ rights both historically and currently, for example with the McStrikers), popularly linked to agricultural prospects; nor that people in other parts of the UK where trees are somewhat less abundant have different rhymes to the arguable better-known (at least, by me) arbour-based ones (‘When the rooks build high/The weather will be dry’; ‘Oak before the ash; and we will have a splash/Ash before the oak; and we will have a soak’) or the one about St. Swithin’s Day [no, not that one – Ed]. Or, indeed, that rhymes in the northern isles seem to be based on wind, which can be changeable to some degree, rather than rain, which is more or less a given.

The general level of pessimism contained within the Orkney rhyme over prospects for the crop can be noted – only when the wind is southerly is the harvest likely to be decent. And there’s humour in that as well as, probably, grim historical reality. Fortunately, yesterday here on the Range the wind was due south all day, at least until 6pm when it switched right around to NNW. So, there’s some room for debate but, given that 6pm is after most of the growth is done for the day, I’m calling the 1 May wind as a southerly – so, that means there’ll be ‘bread for every mouth’. (And therefore beer too, of course.)

Encyclopedia Brittanica reports the conditions for good wheat production as follows:

‘Weather that is comfortable for humans is also good for wheat. Wheat needs 12 to 15 inches (31 to 38 centimeters) of water to produce a good crop. It grows best when temperatures are warm, from 70° to 75° F (21° to 24° C), but not too hot. Wheat also needs a lot of sunshine, especially when the grains are filling. Areas with low humidity are better since many wheat diseases thrive in damp weather.…’

So, if the Orkney rhyme is to be believed, and can also hold true for over here in the west, we’re likely to have a warm, sunny, non-humid and not too wet summer. Probably, there ought not to be too much wind, either. That would do me.