Bliadhna Ùr Mhath (from up south…)

Weeks of bad weather, of ragin’ gales and rain falling either in torrents or else as mist, followed by 10 days of calm, unseasonable warmth (8C/46F, and currently 11C/52F), and even sunshine, has led to more than a few garden daffodils deciding that spring is on the way. Despite – or perhaps because of – a lack of snow anywhere in South Uist, including on the hills and certainly down here at sea level, winter is, however, a long way from over yet.

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But on this New Year’s Eve, with excitement already building of plans for the evening and for the future, and as darkness begins to fall, signs of hope, such as these, are more than welcome as symbols of the continuing cycle of the seasons – or,  in human terms, of what goes around, comes around.

So, Happy New Year to everyone (or Bliadhna Mhath Ùr, if you’re from down north); and may 2019 bring again a sense of peace, of tolerance and of a willingness to adjust to the lives, and the hopes and dreams, of other people. All of us are migrants, as we travel through this life; not always in the physical sense (though that’s true of more of us that some are prepared to acknowledge) but certainly in the spiritual and the emotional. And may the challenges of recognising the journeys of others become once again what defines us as individuals and as a people.

UPDATE 1/1/19: With the six-hour 86-song party playlist in full swing, and  – unusually, since I put a lot of work into constructing a coherent, flowing playlist – on shuffle, the New Year was brought in by Cathy Ann McPhee’s beautiful arrangement of Chi mi’n Geamhradh (I See Winter), followed immediately after by Mary Ann Kennedy (Mise Fhuair). Make of that what you will.

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Two perspectives on Hebridean calm

We’re in the middle of a mini-spell of dry, sunny and calm weather – which makes a change from an autumn which has so far been marked by a surfeit of rain and persistent gales and otherwise high winds. This morning saw barely enough wind to make the grasses lean and a clear sky which, in combination, made the bay free even of ripples of movement and which lent the water a milky sheen, a suggestion of and almost an absence of colour. It was a return to the best days of high summer.

Here, looking north-east from the kitchen door steps, and echoing this site’s new header pic (although this was taken to catch the reflections of late afternoon sun) we have Eabhal and Ruebhal in the centre of the frame (and the Dark Island turbine) but what is taking centre stage is the sea, streaked blue and translucent in the shallows of a retreated, but just off a neap, tide (with water levels low but a high tide line) and with a texture starting to be shaped by a growing breath of wind. The turbine, pointing south, and a sole oystercatcher at the bottom of the photo provide the only movement.

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Some three and a half hours later than the noon at which this photo was taken, and a short bike ride mostly finished, I stopped at Loch Bi just at the Aird A’Mhachair side of the Ard na Monadh road, with the sun due to set less than 40 minutes later and offering photographers full golden hour mode. A little cloud cover offered both a way of catching the sun’s rays as well as a means of allowing me to point the camera at the sun, with a stronger wind providing ripples across the water of the loch – mostly freshwater but with a component of salt water provided by very narrow channels funnelling through from Loch Sgioport – and lending it the creased look of silver cigarette packet paper.

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After so much rain and wind, days like these – and there a couple more yet to come – provide essential points of recharge, both for nature and for ourselves, anchoring us into a sustaining reassurance of calm amidst the headlong tilt at the senses presented by the hammeringly persistent rain and wind.

Primaries, Uist-style

Some bold primary colors from Friday last week here on Uist, with the red of the dinghy and the blues of the sky, the sea and the prawn boat complemented by the green kite of the kite surfer, brilliantly catching the late afternoon sun.

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Truth to tell, we’ve not had a lot of days like this recently – May and June were lovely on Uist but July and August – in contrast to the heatwave across most of the rest of the country – has been cool and damp. Today, we’re back to grey clouds and rain, and, with the schools also going back tomorrow, and us also lighting the first fire of autumn, there is an end-of-summer feel about the place and this sort of picture is likely to become increasingly a rarity. For this year, anyway.

We also don’t get a lot of kite surfers off Mol Mor (the beach at Kilaulay, on the opposite shore of this photo). The spring tides we’ve had in the past week not only strand the prawn boats when moored and not in use at low tide,  but also expose the rocky reefs that radiate out from the beach like the bony spines of long-buried dinosaurs. These are hazardous to boats and to kite surfers alike, unless they really know what they’re doing and, with our winds, there’s always the danger of a mis-calculation or a mis-step which might well bring disaster or, at least, a nasty gash on the leg. However, the tide is pretty full here, submerging the reefs under a cover of water that might, to some degree, act to cushion a fall, so this one seems to be aware of the potential threat.

More days and scenes, including kite surfers with colourful kites, like these would certainly be very welcome; although I know how envious just about everyone else is of temperatures as cool as 16C (61F) and an afternoon of steady, and refreshing, drizzle!

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?

Introducing Jimmy…

Jimmy the Crake is a man about town; a man on a real mission, as you can see from his calm, confident, determined air. He’s also, quite possibly, the world’s (or, perhaps, the Hebrides’s) most non-secretive, sanguine, confiding corncrake. Dapper, suave, with a degree of rural sophistication quite befitting his environment, and well able to carry off a zoot suit and bandana combination, here he is striding about his business.

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And in full view of me stood not only watching him but also zooming in on him.

Set off here against a backdrop of the nettle bed stirring into post-winter life just above the shoreline, but yet to regain its full stride, Jimmy soon made his way along the fence to the corner of the garden, where a stone stands proud and which he seems to have made his calling post. From here – twice yesterday in the daytime – as well as several times from elsehere, he rasped, bass steel comb struck along a hard edge, regularly but in short bursts, for the next few minutes before moving on. It’s not for nothing that corncrakes are more usually seen than heard. You see, I’m stood – uprooting a stack of dandelions which have leapt into life while I was away in Sofia – on a bank on higher ground no more than 20 metres away. An afternoon-long activity which is far from complete. Movement into and then from the house, to pick up the camera, and then my somewhat clumsy attempts to creep along and and down the garden, treading less like Grasshopper than Keystone Cop, to where I could get a shot unencumbered by wood or galvanised wire mesh seemed to have little impact on his desire to engage in his primal duty of calling out.

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This is my third summer here and I – very briefly – saw one corncrake the first year, with two other calling males nearby, but saw none (at least, not here in Ardivachar) and heard few others last year. And Jimmy has only arrived in the last week or so – he wasn’t here before I left for Sofia.

A level of bravery perhaps aided by the presence of another calling male a couple of crofts up into Ardivachar; or otherwise, male corncrakes being the love-’em-and-leave-’em types that they are, by the desire to keep an eye out for other women, Jimmy already having found one mate this season (oh yes – I saw her too: a little more traditionally shy, she was spotted in the dense vegetation contributed by irises and nettles a little distance away, Jimmy in fairly close company). Indeed, yesterday I was as likely to see corncrakes as I was starlings. Well, almost.).

Regardless, it seems a good plan to leave the bottom section of the garden unmown again this forthcoming summer, just in case we’re hosting, or otherwise providing cover for, any of Jimmy’s off-spring. The apparently rising population of corncrakes across the UK, where the further reaches of the Hebrides chain, and Orkney, play a key role, is good news and thus a bit of inaction in the garden this summer seems to be entirely justified in support of Jimmy’s attempts to do his best on behalf of the future of his species. Amongst which a lineage based on greater confidence of approach, and less skulking around in the nettlebed, would also surely be a good thing.

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.

An Easter Bunny says hello…

… snapped through our lounge window, sunning him/herself in this morning’s sunshine while contentedly chewing on yesterday’s tender morsels.

IMG_0212a (Custom)It’s the third time I’ve seen him/her this week too, but the first time I’ve done so with a camera close at hand: the first time hopping around underneath the nest box/bird table made with love, and with pride, down at Restore, on which I think s/he was feasting on some spilled berry suet otherwise ignored by our thriving (and clearly well-fed) gang of starlings; the second time when s/he scuttled off to a hidey-hole after seeing me head for the shed for more briquettes for the fire, probably to a ‘burrow’ made by me among the somewhat haphazardly ‘stacked’ and now a little overgrown concrete blocks in the background of the photo, discarded in the renovations of our home nearly two years ago. (And which also forms cover and potential nest sites for other birds, including wrens, by the way – reason enough not to tidy it up!)

All this and plenty of grass: it seems that Bunny is living the life of Riley – at least until that white-tailed eagle comes a-calling again…

In the meantime, a Happy Easter to one and all!

There she goes…

In a similar way to what happened to me just a couple of weeks back, I’m again sitting in my usual chair by the window, working on something or other on the laptop, when I caught the movement in the corner of my eye of a large dark object just below eye level moving this time right to left. A cat, perhaps: no, quite clearly an otter barrelling over the grass just outside the garden door and then down over the rockery towards the fence which divides our garden from the grassy strip separating us from the shore. Just managing to grab the camera which I keep on the adjacent window shelf and zooming in as quick as I could on the animal’s shape and general direction, I managed to get something on, er, film:

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The picture quality is clearly pretty poor – though it is, ultimately, a shot of an animal moving with a fair amount of speed taken through a window and on a day that was both wet and (though this has little to do with the quality of the shot) blowin’ a bit of a hoolie in the direction of the window glass. But, nevertheless, a moment of joy worth capturing as I realised – and impressively quickly, for me, precisely what I was seeing.

This is the second otter I’ve seen from this position in a couple of weeks: the other one to capture my attention was further away on the croft land which surrounds our property. I watched him – I’m guessing wildly here from his sheer bulk – move fairly slowly over the land towards the shore before taking a sharp left and heading for the cover of the remains of a long-ruined building. I got a shot of him too, but heading away from the camera reveals little more than a fairly sizable rear end and not much to identify it as an otter other than what is in my head of what I had seen a few seconds previously. This one here, I think, is a female – again, judging by the size: this one appears smaller. Her front end has been blurred by raindrops on the glass, but you do nevertheless get an impression of hindquarter power and muscle as she bounds determinedly and hastily towards, and then under, the bottom rail of the fence, as well as the denseness of the fur. A date, perhaps – or simply in search of tea. Beyond the fence, she disappeared on to the shore (at more or less high tide, but held somewhat at bay today by the force of the wind, she may have gone straight into the water or otherwise tracked over the seaweed-covered rocks), leaving no further trace but a blurred memory. And a snatched photo.

A she and a he, eh? Just 50 yards and a couple of weeks apart. I hope they meet – though I suspect they already have.

Watching the tide roll away

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A small part of a flock of greenshank on Ardivachar beach, taken at quarter past six last night and just after sunset against a tide now well on the retreat.

Our own bay has seen a lot of greenshank this winter, and far more than I can remember last – mostly, these are likely to be Scandinavian birds coming here for their winter holidays, although there is an increasing resident population overwintering here too rather than heading off to south-western Ireland and the Med. As I write this morning, yesterday’s (and this early morning’s) blue swamped by a uniform, and increasingly chilly, grey, there is a large three-figure flock, recently swelled from the thirty or so birds we had a few months at the dark end of 2017, towards the far side of the bay busying themselves on the edge of an incoming tide.

Yesterday, with our bay also sparkling in the welcome sunshine that covered most of the UK, the flock was engaged in a kind of brief murmuration of some 200+ birds, twisting and turning in the sun, rising higher in a figure of eight pattern and taking their cues from a continually changing succession of invisible leaders, white bellies flashing in the sunshine against a sky the softest of blues as they did so, before settling again to feed and preen at the edge of the tide, all spread out and each settling back down into their own spot with the rarest of squabbles among them. There was no raptor obviously present among them, but greenshank, as easily disturbed as their smaller red cousins, often do this although rarely flying up more than a few feet above the water: food is still scarce and conserving energy remains a vital element of individual survival.

Talking of mumurations, this is a good excuse to link to this picture and report from earlier this year, but which crossed my Twitter feed for the first time also at the weekend. It’s somewhat anthropomorphic to see birds forming the shape of an even bigger bird to see off a predator, and thus we should resist the temptation to see anything in Daniel Biber’s terrific picture other than a great shot of a moment in, and apparently out of, time as well as a tribute to the lengths and the sheer hard work that photographers put in to capture meaning in a shot – although the collectivist in me so wants to see resistance to anthropomorphism, on this occasion, crumble!

A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.