Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Just a word about Fair Isle. Wow!!I'm pretty much used to islands, and I'm pretty used to getting to them by boat, but the trip didn't disappoint. Travelling via the Varagen - one of Orkney Ferries North Isles boats, the first 2 hours were in blanket fog, but this eventually cleared somewhat and, nearly 5 hours after deprture, we squeezed through the seething gap and into North Haven. Arriving to a full pipe band (we brought our own) the islanders welcomed us marvellously. Considering there are only 68 men women kids and oaps, the 30 or so that greeted us was a fair showing, and the rest were busy organising other bits and bobs up at the hall - great start.A quick wander up South Gavel, an adjacent cliffside to the Havens, and into puffin city. I nearly broke an ankle as the ground gave way - a result of energetic subterranean rabbit and puffin activity, virtually honeycombed the whole clifftop. Fair warning, though. A few pages of rubbish sketches and I decided to settle down for a landscape - the light did not behave, though and changed constantly. I made an effort, anyway.Up to the hall and a quick discussion with Holly from the Bird Observatory. Desperate news - their terns and skuas virtually failed before they'd even begun - Christ will this ever change up here???? Anyway, back to the remaining birds - bonxies (Great Skuas) absolutely everywhere and gannets doing really well, so not all gloomy stuff. Went out and spent the remaining time getting bonxied. Found a beautiful pair of Arctic Skuas though and, besides the pale and dark morphs, they also have an intermediate form - these happened to be they! Georgeous birds. Travelled back the way we came - chucked about in an eight-metre swell for a half hour then fairly easy going all way home. Had 11 storm petrels as rocket fly-bys over a period of 30 minutes, so that was fun. Unfortunately no cetaceans at all - probably a tad choppy for decent views. Going back on the very next boat to leave here!!! (that's next year).Today I felt inclined to re-visit the white billed diver. I tied the trip in to collecting a crossbill carcass from a pal for study, but my plans changed as I picked up a road-kill great black-backed gull. It would be very smelly in a fairly short time so the crossbill was refridgerated and the gull got the once-over.
Always sad to find dead birds but I always take the opportunity to study them in a bit of detail.

Only slight downside (birding wise) was the fact that up here in sunny Scotland, it's already the summer holidays, so wherever I go, the kids come too. We have another very special bird up here at the moment – white-billed diver! The diver is actually around the island where we used to live, so it was fairly easy to persuade the girls that we ought to go and see some of their old friends and have a picnic on one of our favourite beaches. I used the beach time to make a colour sketch of a favourite plant - oyster plant. After the beach fun, it was off to Barrier 4 and the white-billed (yellow-billed, or whatever we call it now) diver. I found the bird fairly quickly - but it was a long way away and required a drive of a couple of miles to get any decent views. By this time the kids were playing up, so I had a five minute 'watching only' spell and then away.
Sal had the day off so we took the kids to Birsay for a meal out (hot dog from the green van!!! - scrummy) and whilst they were rockpooling, daddy was observing old friends and making a few drawings. Unlike much of the tern colonies across the isles, this little one with 80 ads has good numbers of growing chicks and food seems to be coming in regualrly too - fingers crossed.Today I had to make a trip to the Old Country - South Ronaldsay (amazingly on the very same day that a rose-coloured starling and white-billed diver were present!) although I have seen both birds recently (well the R-c s was a diferent individual, but you know what I mean). The last viewing of th ediver ws fairly brief and just a voyeur trip. Today's was meant to have a bit more purpose to it and I managed to blag a gaff sitting on an old girl's beach, fairly cool temps and watched 'our' bird for a good 3/4 of an hour.Added a bit of colour back home.

We have had a couple of nice birds in the Isles over the past week. Had a couple round today to look at some paintings. Whilst they were here, I mentioned there had been at least 2 rose-coloured starlings in the county and that I had just missed the one in Stromness because I had to take the girls to the dentists - grrrr! They had been gone for precisely 12 minutes and I decided to get the washing up done. A bit of a commotion on the neighbours' ridge-tiles made me glance up to see a little line of 4 sparrows chirrping and tail-flicking - but I couldn't see at what. So I leaned over the sink a bit and there he was. I don't see many of these from the garden - so swiflty out with the scope. He stayed quite happlily for 3 or 4 minutes. Just long enough for a quickie or two.

Have been working on a large (full imperial sheet) watercolour. It's a celebration of one of my favourite species – Arctic Terns. I have been toying with the idea of having the picture a rainy one. I was trying for the clash of climate, you know, rain on a sunny day, but I'm not sure this pic is the one to do it on. There's already quite a lot going on and maybe this extra element is just too much. I finally decided to leave the rain, but there's a suggestion that it has only just left the scene, one or two drops still loitering.
This little colony of Arctic Terns means a huge amount to me personally. Orkney is world famous for its seabird colonies, however over the past few years they have suffered tragically, with not even a single tern chick being raised at all last year. This year every colony across the Isles has failed again! - except for this one. This tiny colony of approximately 80 adults and well-growing chicks stands like a bastion against the dismal news across the rest of the Isles. We're all hoping at least some of the chicks survive.Hence 'After the Rain' - not only in the climatalogical sense of the phrase, but also in the 'I Can See The Sunshine After The Rain', philosophical sense.