Continued from last Saturday
My potential destination for a spell of immersion in nature
was, inevitably, chosen from the comfort of an armchair, aided by implausible online
images of sun-drenched, white-sand beaches, and idyllic descriptions. The
obvious next step, before launching headlong into the unknown, was a dose of
realism. I needed to go there in order to get a feel for the place first-hand.
An autumn ‘recce’ was suggested and (with the help of the sun-drenched beaches)
Hazel gladly agreed. We organised two-weeks in the remotest of the cottages
rented out by the island’s main estate and headed north on a not-so-sun-drenched
late September day.
It’s often said that a leisurely overland journey leads to a better appreciation of the final destination than when dropping out of the sky after a much shorter trip, but one involving a complete disconnection from the landscape below. I think there’s something in that. Despite the rigors of an all-day drive ahead, my mood lifted perceptibly as we left Devon behind and progressed through increasingly unfamiliar territory. Once past the busy sections of the M6 in the urban north-west of England, the landscape opened out and the traffic died away. The distant sharp peaks of the Lake District slid by on one side and the low, heather-clad hills of the Yorkshire Dales offered a contrast on the other. There was one final battle to come but once Glasgow had been safely negotiated, the traffic thinned again, this time for good. The narrow main road winding its way north along the shores of Loch Lomond was littered with sodden leaves and debris from Storm Ali that had blown through earlier in the day. My daughter was delighted to hear that a storm had been named after her and appropriately contrite when told it had slowed our progress a little as we headed north.
Then came the ‘Cal-mac’ ferry from Oban, the main urban centre and port on the west coast of the Highlands. Without fail, I spend my time on a boat up on deck looking out over the seascape. Perhaps it’s partly down to a susceptibility to sea-sickness when confined inside a moving ship, but mainly it’s a hangover from the two years I spent working for the old Nature Conservancy Council’s ‘Seabirds at Sea’ team. It was my first proper job in conservation after university. I’d spend days, sometimes weeks, at a time on ferries, fisheries research boats, and even the Royal Navy’s Fisheries Patrol Vessels, surveying offshore seabirds.
On one occasion the navy ship I was working from was diverted
from its normal task of checking to see if fishing boats were operating legally,
to something rather more out of the ordinary. A team of heavily-armed uniforms emerged
from a helicopter that landed on deck, before I was obliged to take their place
and head back to dry land – it would not have been appropriate for a civilian
to witness whatever may have been coming next. To help derive estimates of seabird
numbers we learned to visualise a transect, two hundred metres wide, on one
side of the ship. By recording all birds using that transect the figures could
be multiplied up to work out the overall numbers of birds using each sea area.
All these years later, my brain is still drawn towards the same approach, projecting
an imaginary line across the ocean and trying not to miss anything on my side
The seabirds on this journey were all routine fare for the time of year but welcome none-the-less. Despite my days recording seabirds I’ve spent most of my life well inland in the southern half of England. Whole years can slip by without seeing common seabirds like Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes. There were small groups of all three as we headed west away from the mainland. The auks sitting on the sea closest to the boat performed their usual trick as we approached them, wings becoming flippers as they threw themselves underwater and disappeared – desperately trying to evade detection in my imaginary transect.
I was delighted to see a few juvenile Kittiwakes with their distinctive black zig-zag lines on the upper wings. This, to my mind, is our most subtly graceful and elegant seabird, the adults with their delicate grey and white wings and contrasting ‘dipped in ink’ tips. It’s a bird that has struggled badly in recent years due to declining stocks of sandeels, its staple food in the breeding season, most likely due to a combination of overfishing and warming seas. At least a few pairs this year had managed to find enough food to rear their young. A brief, if unexpected, reminder of Devon came in the form of some distant dull-brown dots on the remote southern shores of Mull a few miles to the north as we passed by. They could only have been Red Deer and they helped to highlight the vast scale of the landscape around them – our largest land mammal reduced to tiny specks, dwarfed by the rocks and moorland all around them. On the other side of the ship were the islands of Jura and Scarba and the menacing waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan between them. The tidal races and whirlpools here are notorious and almost accounted for George Orwell in 1947 during a family boating trip, potentially depriving the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four which had still to be finished.
After two and a half hours the ferry slowed and performed a series of unlikely, juddering contortions; easing alongside a pier that, to the untrained eye, seemed inadequate for its job. Most people stayed in their seats, awaiting the onward journey to Islay, but we made our way down to the vehicle deck and joined a handful of other people heading onto one of the smaller and more sparsely-populated islands of the Inner Hebrides. To be continued on Saturday at 12:45…