Magical Mousa at midnight

This week I at last went on a night trip to Mousa to see the Storm petrels at the broch.

Mousa is a tiny island just off Shetland (10 minutes’ boat ride away) which has the world’s most complete broch – a 2,000(ish)-year-old structure, some sort of fortified homestead. There are lots of these all over Scotland (which is, in fact, the only place you find them) and though all are fascinating, none of them has much remaining, other than a few feet of wall.

The broch at Mousa, however, stands 13 metres high, with its double walls still intact, a staircase going right up to the top between them, and chambers to explore at ground level. Even a day trip to Mousa is well worth it, to see this enigmatic and mysterious edifice, its blank face revealing nothing about what might have gone on inside.

One of the most exciting things about Mousa, though, is that it is home to more than 6,000 pairs of breeding Storm petrels. These amazing little birds – about the size of a House martin and similar in colouring – spend most of their lives out at sea, coming to land in the breeding season, to set up home in burrows and in rocky clefts and walls. At Mousa, they actually breed within the walls of the broch itself as well as in other walls and rocky areas all around the island.

Storm petrels have one egg only, and the adults take it in turn to incubate, with one sitting on the egg and the other going out to sea – sometimes hundreds of miles and for days at a time – to feed on plankton. Shift changes take place at night, to avoid predation by gulls and everybody’s favourite bird-to-hate, the bonxie, so this really is the only time to see them.

Sunset over St Ninian's Isle

Sunset over St Ninian’s Isle

We had a beautiful, perfect evening for our trip. We watched the sun set spectacularly over St Ninian’s Isle before heading to Sandwick to get our boat out to the island, where a just-past-full moon rose. There are strict rules on visiting the island, to protect the birds: you have to stick together as a group, stick to the boardwalks, and absolutely no flash photography is allowed.

We stopped at the first wall, just before it got really dusky (it was about 11.20pm by now) as the birds on the nests began to start calling to their incoming mates. This is the other weird and wonderful thing about Storm petrels – the noise they make is, quite literally, indescribable. It has been tried – the most famous being the rather unromantic ‘fairies being sick’ – but the best I can do is to say it doesn’t sound like any kind of bird or animal, more like something electronic, a kind of white noise, with a bit of hiccuping and coughing at the end.

By the time we’d walked around to the broch itself, and all done a torch-and-simmer-dim-lit climb up the steep and narrow stairs and around the walkway at the top, it was midnight, the birds were calling in earnest and, at last, the travellers began to come home. They flit and flutter like bats, and, like bats, will come really close if you’re in their flightpath. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them started to appear, circling the broch before landing on the wall and disappearing into the nest. The changeovers happened so fast, that sometimes it looked like a bird just alighted on the wall and flew off again.

We stayed for half an hour more – some people lying on their backs on the ground, some sitting on rocks a few feet from the broch, some sitting inside the broch to listen to the calling birds in a kind of 2,000-year-old surround-sound system – but all too soon it was time to leave the Storm petrels in peace.

And as we drove away from Sandwick and began to head north at about 1.30am, the sun began to rise again.

Fairies being sick? I don’t think so, but there definitely was something magical about the experience.


An obsession with aquilegia (part II)

It’s been a pretty grim weekend, weatherwise – it’s hardly stopped raining at all over the past two days.

Bert has been going a bit stir crazy, but I discovered some dark purple aquilegia growing wild behind the dilapidated old building in front of the camping bod, so I’ve been having fun photographing that.

I like to think of a granny in a razzy dark purple bonnet

I like to think of a granny in a razzy dark purple bonnet

I’ve had to mess around a bit with flash, because the light’s so poor but I quite like these two pictures.

I think it’s time to curl up with a bar of chocolate and a film, though…

Eggs for breakfast

We have a glut of eggs at the moment. I can’t seem to cook fast enough to keep up with our super-productive hens. So, it’s eggs for breakfast every day (and one for Bertie) and frequent omelettes and quiches for tea. With lots of egg-rich cake in between. (If anybody local to me would like any eggs, please let me know…)

One of the hens, though, Tabitha, has been getting a bit broody. She plumps herself down on all four eggs and refuses to move unless you get in the laying box and physically take her out of it. At which she complains and grumbles ominously, before wandering off to, at last, get some food and drink.

You have to watch it with broody hens – at an estate where Graham worked as a gardener a few years ago, the hens free-ranged and laid eggs wherever they wanted, and one day, under a hedge, he sadly found a poor old hen that had got broody and basically starved itself to death by refusing to get off the (sterile) eggs.

Our poor (sterile) hen is just following her instincts. It’s the time of year – spring, and all that, and everybody’s making nests and producing babies.

The other afternoon out walking with Bertie, I stumbled on a Meadow pipit nest – almost literally. The adult bird flew out from under my feet and as I knelt down and pulled back a bit of heather, I could see that this one was well beyond the egg stage. Five enormous mouths attached to five tiny little heads gaped up at me.

I let the heather fall back into place, stood up and turned around to mark and identify the spot so that I could bring my bird-ringing husband to it later. Spotting a distinctive gravelly area, I thought ‘I’ll find a marker there,’ and stepped three yards away from the nest. That was my mistake. When I turned back, I absolutely could not find the nest again. Mother Nature is pretty clever like that. Meanwhile, I went from being really proud of myself for finding my first-ever nest, to mentally slapping myself around the head for being so stupid.

I didn’t hang around too long because I didn’t want to keep the adult off the nest, and I could hear it calling. But Graham and I did go back, and once I’d got  him to the general location, the nest-finder extraordinaire soon located it. He’s been on a bit of a gull and wader nest- and chick-finding mission the past few weeks, providing all-important data for the British Trust for Ornithology.  The Meadow pipit chicks are too young to ring yet, but in a few days they’ll be sporting fancy new jewellery.

This morning, higher up the moor, I witnessed a ferocious aerial battle. A marauding Arctic skua was making its presence felt, amid a cacophony of Oystercatcher yelling. I admit I began to feel slightly sorry for the Scooty allan (as Shetlanders call the skua) as two or three Curlews harried and harassed it, not giving it a moment’s peace. I can’t say I blame them though – the skua would happily take eggs or even chicks given half a chance. There was grappling and tumbling and screeching and yelling going on for a full five or ten minutes.

Eventually the skua decided discretion was the better part of valour, or that the meagre bounty on offer wasn’t worth the hassle, and headed off to leave the Curlews in peace. No eggs for breakfast for him, today.

A bird on the beach is worth two in the field…

For a day that started off looking fairly grey and dismal, it turned into a glorious afternoon. ‘I’m not going to bother drawing the curtains,’ I’d said to Graham this morning when I got up to make the tea.

What a difference a few hours make.

A curlew chick, newly ringed

A curlew chick, newly ringed

Unable to bear the prospect of sitting at our laptops any longer, with sunshine streaming in through the windows, we decided to start the weekend early, and upped and headed off to an area where whimbrel are known to nest. Graham is newly licensed to monitor them. He’s also currently very keen on ringing wader chicks of any persuasion, Schedule 1 species or not, so it was quite a slow journey, stopping at every sighting of a curlew, redshanks, oystercatcher or lapwing that looked like it might have some babies around.

An oystercatcher chick

An oystercatcher chick

So I got the opportunity to photograph oystercatcher and curlew chicks.



The area where the whimbrel are was covered in orchids, which suddenly seem to have sprung up everywhere. There’s loads of lousewort and butterwort about too. And not just one or two, but whole swathes of them. So Bertie and I hung around photographing flowers (much to Bert’s chagrin) while Graham went to look for whimbrel nests.

Arctic skua nest

Arctic skua nest

Not only did he find a couple, but we also found an Arctic skua nest. At this stage, with just eggs, they’re not so aggressive and protective. When I asked Graham, who didn’t appear to have made any effort to memorise the location, if he’d be able to find the nest when he came back to ring the chicks, he said, ‘Don’t worry, the skuas themselves will tell me where it is!’  You just have to be brave enough to endure their wrath in order to find it.

A bull with his harem

A bull with his harem

With the nest-finding done, we then took Bert for a walk on the beach, where he could have a good run around, much needed after being denied any earlier bunny chasing on account of nesting birds. A herd of cows in a nearby field – you don’t see that many cows in Shetland – thought he was absolutely fascinating and came lumbering up to the fence to have a gawk at him. Including a rather large and intimidating bull. ‘I don’t think we should hang around,’ said Graham. ‘Looking at the size of him, and that fence, I think if he decided he really wanted to get this side of it, he could.’

Sandwort? Beachwort? Seawort?

Sandwort? Beachwort? Seawort?

So we left the bull and his harem to their own devices and sent Bert for a swim in the sea (it’s amazing what throwing a stone in the water will achieve). I was fascinated by a plant (as yet not properly identified) that seemed to be taking over the whole beach and was actually growing in the sand. ‘Sandwort,’ said Graham authoritatively. ‘Or beachwort. Or seawort…’ It was rich, dark green,with tiny white flowers, and had a strong, sweet smell, not unlike gorse.

Sand patterns

Sand patterns

I also rather liked these sand patterns created by the receding tide.

And then Graham found a ringed plover chick (star of the main photo on this page) to ring. He was very chuffed as it was his first of this species and quite the smallest, fluffiest wader baby I’ve ever seen. Definitely the baby bird of the day for me.

When you think I was considering not even bothering to draw the curtains this morning, it wasn’t a bad day…

An obsession with aquilegia

I discovered some Granny’s Bonnet – or aquilegia, or columbine, or any number of other names, so I’m told – growing  in the garden yesterday, and thought it was so lovely I’d pick a sprig to photograph.

It seems to have developed into something of an obsession.

First, I had to get all set up with coloured paper for a background, and the right light (natural), coming from the right angle, which gave me an opportunity to play around with my new reflector. And of course, I had to experiment with different-coloured papers, and different angles, and focusing on different blooms.

Then I decided it merited a bit of macro treatment – which made me realise how badly I need a much sturdier tripod than the one I have. The close-up pics have come out well enough for posting on the internet, but they wouldn’t get past a picture library checker.

It’s made me realise, too, that I need to expand my range of backgrounds – I much prefer to set up with a nice background than to Photoshop one in later – so I think a trip to a craft shop might be in order. Some sort of easel would be useful too – bits of paper sellotaped to the back of a dining chair standing on the kitchen table isn’t the most professional of studio set-ups…

But I persevered, and tried yellow, blue and green backgrounds, and I’m quite pleased with the results. I think I like the cool blue best. What do you think?

Silver treasure on the beach

On our walk round the bay this morning, Bert and I both discovered treasure.

I picked up a curl of birch bark, probably arrived from Norway as we don’t have much in the way of birch trees here in Shetland. I wonder how it got here, what it’s journey was.

It reminded me of one of those intricately decorated cuffs or torcs worn by tribal chieftains or rich ladies of Ireland or Scotland in pre-Roman times, the sort of thing you see carefully displayed in glass cases in the British Museum.

Bertie thought his find was far more exciting though: an old tennis ball, or so I thought, lying soggily in the grass above the beach. But it didn’t really bounce terribly well, which was a bit disappointing. Perhaps because it was wet, I thought, but as it dried out it became evident that this was much more than just an old tennis ball. Suddenly, it squeaked. And that was it, he wouldn’t give it up for love, money nor biscuits. Until he’d chewed the squeak out that is, which took about five minutes. Actually, that’s a bit of a record, for him…

A quick addendum to that last blog…

I just went for a walk around the other side of the bay, and was amazed (yes, again) by the milkwort growing in great big bunches. Well, OK, the milkwort itself is little and tiny, but I’ve never seen so much of it growing together before. Usually it’s just one or two flowers.

And I was also amazed by the butterwort plants growing down the path of a boggy little stream – the leaves have been evident for some time, but I swear there were no flowers yesterday. Today, they’ve all sprung tall, elegant blue-headed blooms.

Is that why we call it spring? (Though technically I suppose it’s summer, now…)