Sunday, 30 December 2007

Shetland Sojourn III

Our last day in the islands. We pack, feed ourselves and the gull, tidy up and haul all the gear into the car, bidding a fond farewell to our temporary home.

North-east this time, to Vidlin, Delting and Lunning, the Whalsay ferry terminal (no otters this time – but no ferry around) and an almost Scandinavian landscape of painted wooden houses and boats on the firths. The weather has improved, which bodes well for our trip back to Aberdeen tonight.

Shetland sheep come in a variety of colours….

Heading down the coast we stop to check out the seals on the rocks north of Gletness, and spot something else in the water – another otter! It catches an eel, and hauls out onto the rocks to eat it, but the distance- and the activity of the otter – make the photos awkward. We miss the otter, but do manage to catch a few seals, basking like sausages on the smallest of rocks.

We have lunch (very nice, highly recommended if you are ever there!) back at the Shetland Museum, with no need of lamp-posts this time. It’s a beautiful place, very new, nicely laid out, and covering all aspects of the islands’ history.

There are some weird art installations, too. The one on the left is Mum….

Time for a bit of shopping in the Lerwick rush hour – warm woolly Shetland knit hats from Jamieson’s, and some bits from the Shetland Soap Company.

There is just time to take a few twilight pictures before we are due to check in at the ferry terminal. Clickimin Broch lies close to the heart of town, an ancient tower-dwelling in the heart of modern housing, beside the leisure centre and within sight of the supermarket.

The ferry to Bressay runs back and forth all day, taking commuters to and from homes on the neighbouring island and Lerwick. It’s time for us to catch our own ferry.

Well, I say ‘time’ but after check in we have to wait almost an hour while the heavy goods containers are loaded (I have to wonder why they don’t get these aboard in advance of the passenger load!) and we eventually find ourselves driving aboard down a narrow canyon between container wagons. It feels rather risky, a view that isn’t helped as the ‘Norröna’ ferry (Bergen to Tórshavn) limps into Lerwick, having managed to hole itself on a stabliser, the hold cargo shifting so that a container fell onto some cars, (flat!)and a total of 80 cars damaged….

Fortunately, we have no such drama, and spend a comfortable night. We arrive back in Aberdeen at about 7.00 am, the lights of the city coming up rapidly along to starboard. It’s still too early, so we take a short trip up to Torry Battery to watch the dawn come up, before finally heading down to Tracey’s for breakfast, and to sort out all the heap of gear in the car.

Shetland Sojourn II

Sunday morning found our visitor back, looking for breakfast. It’s not easy eating porridge under that watchful eye……

South today, all the way down to Sumburgh. The main airport for Shetland is set in a low-lying, soggy and sandy flatland below the rise of Sumburgh Head. To reach the very south of the island, you have to drive across the end of one of the runways – interesting. Especially when a plane comes over your head…
The airport electronics also had a weird effect on the car – fortunately we were stopped at the time – the engine cut out, the trip meter reset itself…baffled, we paused at Grutness, where the ferry to Fair Isle departs (and there are some fond memories there!), in a squall. The locals didn’t seem too impressed with the weather either…..

No further interruptions to the running of the car, and we head up towards the lighthouse. The car park is below the lighthouse itself, with a clear drop to the sea just over the wall. The sea is rough, snow squalls are followed by bursts of bright sunshine, and the wind harries the fulmars and gannets along at a great rate.

The lighthouse, in spring and autumn, is a wonderful place to see migrating birds and the seabird cities that fill the cliffs of the Head, but in winter, there is little around and we head north again, via the dune lochs of Virkie and Spiggie, the mill at Quendale (shut for the winter) and the western coastal route to St Ninian’s Isle. The island is joined to Mainland by a tombolo – a thin sand spit caused by tide and current. The waves run along the sandbar, breaking tops white and misty, whipped by the wind.

We stop for lunch near Maywick, and look up from divvying up the sandwiches to see a wall of whiteness coming up the road towards us; in a moment we are engulfed in a hailstorm, pellets of ice bouncing off the bonnet of the car and hammering on the roof until we can barely hear. Moments later it has gone as fast as it came, heading southwards. The old line is true – ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait a couple of minutes and it’ll change.’

We spend the afternoon investigating the small, causeway-linked islands of Burra, and the end of today’s trip takes us to Scalloway, the second town of Shetland, home of the maritime college and the wartime ‘Shetland Bus.’

The light is fading fast, and we head back to Lerwick.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Shetland Sojourn I

Saturday morning we scraped the snow off the car, and headed north, to the top left-hand corner of Shetland Mainland, to Eshaness, where the geology meets the sea. Literally. Here the sea has cut through the flank of an ancient volcano, different types of lava flow stacked up like a layer cake, a cross section of an explosive past. There are gas bubbles, ash and volcanic bombs, the fine grained flows of runny lavas, the blobby agglomerations of the stickier stuff. Different hardnesses of rock give way to the sea at different speeds – in places the cliffs are like giant’s staircases, in others, arches and needles rise from the Atlantic rollers like the teeth of a fossilised monster.

The power of the sea is evident. Rocks lie along the cliff-top, thrown up by storm and tide, to be swept off by other waves reaching 40 metres above the sea, and the waters offshore are littered with wrecks. Yet people have lived here for many thousands of years, their presence recorded in the stone age cairns, Pictish brochs and in the remnants of pre-clearance villages.

The wind is bitter. As I step from the car to take photos, my eyes immediately stream, and the cold slices into my bones. It’s not a day to hang around.

Eshaness Lighthouse – now a private house (lucky people!) – is one of the few that has a square tower. It stands foursquare against the wind and weather, staring out across the Atlantic. I snapped the picture and dived back into the warmth of the car.

We head back towards Sullom Voe, where the tankers discharge and fill their tanks with the oil from the hostile fields in the seas between Shetland and Norway. It’s actually not that imposing – the Flotta terminal in Orkney is more obvious, and the St Fergus terminal at home, with its huge flares of burning gas, more dramatic. Nearby is Mavis Grind (pronounced, I think, with a short ‘i’) which is designated the shortest distance between the Atlantic and the North Sea - a mere stone’s throw (if you have a small stone and a very strong arm!) We head to the northern ferry terminal at Toft, where the inter-island ferries head out to the low-lying, peat-covered island of Yell. No, we’re not going to Yell, but there is purpose in our trip.

Years ago, on Fetlar, we were chatting with a local gentleman about the likelihood of seeing otters. Go to the ferry terminals, he said, it’s almost guaranteed – they like the disturbed water where the ferries come and go, it stirs up the fish.

He was right, as we’ve discovered on numerous occasions since that conversation.

We sat and ate our sandwiches, watching the ferry load up and the seabirds go back and forth. Ferry terminals are also a good place to find well-maintained public toilets, so we took advantage, and I was just getting back into the car, when Mum noticed a disturbance offshore.

Binoculars snap to attention, and with delight we spot two otters, fishing in the bay. They roll around each other, diving and splashing, and then separate. They are some distance off the beach, but I take a picture anyway - honest, this IS an otter! While we watch, it catches a butterfish and, gripping it firmly between its paws, happily chomps it in front of us.

The light is fading rapidly – twilight comes at around 3 p.m. - so we head back towards our base, and our warm and cosy apartment.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Northern Exposure

So how on Earth did we come to be lugging drainpipe and old curtains to Shetland, and why was Mum wrapped around a lamp-post in Lerwick?


Some time ago, I won a ferry ride for two plus car to Shetland, through a prize draw associated with the annual Beach Clean-up. (Thanks to Northlink Ferries and the East Grampian Coastal Partnership) Yippee! Mum and I hadn’t been to Shetland for years, so it was a really nice treat…the only caveat on this enterprise being that the trip had to be taken before March 2008. Given our winter weather, it seemed vaguely sensible to take it sooner rather than later, and as my friend Tracey was heading up that way to deliver a teacher training course on school grounds (something we’re both involved in) it made a kind of sense to tie it in and give her a hand. So we booked a self-catering apartment in Lerwick, and all three of us headed north in early November, the car laden down with all the gear for the course (this is where the drainpipe and curtains comes in).

Now I have to say, the weather in November isn’t always kind. We’d been watching the forecast for several days before we went, and it was holding true to form, so we were quite relieved that the Wednesday ferry was scheduled to sail as normal. We duly checked in and boarded, and soon found our cabins. It’s a reassuringly large ferry, very clean and polished, with friendly staff, and is very comfortable; the trip takes around 12 hours overnight, so we headed for the restaurant for dinner, before the trip really began.

We watched the lights of Aberdeen fade behind us, went over the details of the course we were delivering in the morning, and, as the ship began to rock and roll in the worsening weather, headed for our cabins.

There’s a very good reason why the bunks on our old friend ‘Leader’ run fore and aft. In a bunk that runs from side to side, (as on the ferry), as the ship rolls, you slide. First towards your head, and then towards your feet. Gentle rolling from side to side is OK, sliding up and down until your head hits the bulkhead is less entertaining. Sleep was a long time coming…..

Overnight the weather got gradually worse. As daylight broke through the window on Thursday morning, we were relieved to see the island of Bressay, and a choppy sea in the approaches to Lerwick harbour.

We rolled thankfully ashore, and went to sight out the terrain – we couldn’t get into the apartment until lunchtime (Mum’s task, to check in and set up camp) and Tracey and I were due to be at school until about 3 pm. So we unloaded our cargo of drainpipes, curtains and other stuff at school, dropped Mum down at the centre of town and went back to work. As the day went on, we saw the weather deteriorate rapidly as blizzards whipped through, and the walls of the school hut we were in flexed dramatically. We had to reduce the amount of actual outdoor activity we were originally planning, in case we lost a teacher or two over the nearest horizon. The southbound ferry was cancelled, all the inter-island ferries tied up, and Shetland battened down in the teeth of a storm-force wind.

Meanwhile, Mum had discovered the local museum , and had spent a happy couple of hours wandering around. On emerging, she found waves breaking over the seafront, and by the time she got to the road, had to cling desperately to a lamp-post to prevent herself being blown over. Fortunately, a nice local lady (thank you whoever you are!) in a 4x4 stopped, rescued her, and gave her a lift to the apartment, where we all met up later, to swap tales of wind and weather.

I can thoroughly recommend the place we stayed. Warm, comfortable, and with all the bits and pieces we needed. Plus a nosy neighbour, who visited each day to see if we had any spare food.

On Friday, Tracey and I went back to school to deliver another day’s training, followed by her departure – on the fortunately reinstated ferry – back to Aberdeen, family, and the joys of moving house. Mum and I stayed on over the weekend to rediscover Shetland, which will be the subject of the next entry in this blog.

Watch this space.

Splashing About

Well....there are those who wanted to see what I was painting down at the RSPB reserve.....

the idea is that it's what you might see out of the window at that time of year, (including underwater) the picture done so far being winter. (Summer is to be done in the depths of this winter.... hmm...will this make me feel warmer when I'm doing it?)

Anyway, here it is - a patchwork version of the whole thing, and a couple of 'highlights'...

this is the bit to the right that you can't see..


Saturday, 8 December 2007

Slow Boat Under Birmingham

The canal network stretches throughout the heart of England, and used to carry much of the country’s goods. After years of neglect, enthusiasts have managed to restore much of the system, and it now carries a different cargo – holidaymakers. Amongst whom, this summer, were a motley collection – Mum, Brother, the Temporary Dog, the Temporary Dog’s real owner, and your humble correspondent. One week, four people, a singularly unenthusiastic dog, 95 miles, 93 locks, and one lost foot of height.

bargedog, but not by choice....

With a canal holiday, you book the boat, take food, and plan your route day by day, aiming for a reasonably accessible pub in which to spend the evening. Fortunately this is not hard! You can’t go fast – around 4 miles an hour (partly to protect the banks from erosion, and partly to prevent the poor souls in boats that are tied up from being thrown around too much!) Locks take around the same time as a mile of travel, so you calculate in ‘lockmiles’. Going through a lock is an interesting procedure – and can be a little Edgar Allen Poe-ish….

On Being Locked Up.

Half-ton gates slam behind me. Dank, slime-covered stones rise above my head, mosses and liverworts dripping coldly down my neck as I turn to see what’s coming.
Somewhere above me, there is a clanking as hidden doors are opened; water starts gushing into the narrow chamber. I am thrown forward and backwards by the torrent, fighting to hold my position and stop myself being hurled against the gates by the water’s force.
I rise on the flood to the top of the chamber, into sunshine now, and engage forward gear. The gates ahead open - we’re clear of the lock.

You get the picture?

Ryder's Junction

The boat is easy-ish to handle – you have to remember it’s around 60 feet long and turns like a brick, and although it has a very shallow draught, sometimes the canal is even shallower….OK, we got stuck a few times, and had to resort to pushing off with a long pole, but that’s why they give you a long pole in the first place! There were some stretches of canal that were better kept than others, too – navigation by means of avoiding sofas, shopping trolleys and children’s bicycles – and I hereby warn all those who venture onto the waterways to avoid the Wyreley and Essington (otherwise known as the Curley Wyreley) unless you have a particular fondness for stopping every half mile to unload the weed hatch….. a singularly unpleasant business where one halts the boat, vanishes under the rear deck-plates, unscrews the hatch lock, and goes headfirst down the subsequent hole with one’s arms in freezing water, groping around the propeller to disentangle a variety of substances, from weed to rope to angler’s line to plastic herons and thorny twigs……

Other stretches were pure delight, with kingfishers, wagtails, and shoals of fish darting amongst the weeds, and it was a simple joy to hang over the side and watch the world drift past below your fingertips, interrupted only to note what new bank vegetation the current helmsperson had just dragged you through!

So why pick on Birmingham?

In truth, it was the revelation of the trip. There are more miles of canals in Birmingham than in Venice, and waterways thread their way through the heart of the city, looping around, though and under the buildings.

It is a very weird feeling to be climbing through a series of locks that lie beneath a building under construction, or to sail past a restaurant that lies between locks – knowing that on the up-lock side, the restaurant wall holds back millions of gallons of water…

There are odd places down there, under the city. Urban mythology lies in wait. Under the Telecom tower, beside the canal, there is a wide area of gravel, beyond which is a wall, with a series of openings. Each opening has a gate of wrought iron, each with a different design. It’s not hard for the imagination to see these as holding pens for trolls, or as merchants’ market stances, waiting for the late night secret market where rare, dangerous, and esoteric items are bought and sold…..

To rise from a series of locks into a narrow gap between buildings, windowless faces staring blankly high above your head, to find a vast, colourful mural depicting the history of the canals in the city – just for your delight – is a reassurance that there are still people to there who understand the fun of the unexpected and unnecessary. At night you tie up (for free!) in the heart of the city, not far from the Indoor Arena, in the upmarket waterfront yuppie-zone, adjacent to pubs, clubs and café-culture.

Then the following morning you set off and find yourself somewhere under Spaghetti Junction, in an alternate – maybe parallel – world where there are thundering juggernauts overhead, and slow, peaceful waterways below, and below that, a river or a forgotten road.

Fishermen know these places, and keep them to themselves. Locking-down, you suddenly realise that the sheet of metal to the side of the lock and towpath is a motorway sign. An aqueduct carries you along beside the M6. Do the drivers, rushing to work, caught up in the frenzy of meetings and time-keeping, ever notice the slow-boat-people?

And the lost foot of height? Well, I did the research afterwards, and found we'd gone UP 309 feet in height, and DOWN 310 feet.... so am I now living a foot below everyone else?

Thanks again to my brother for some of the photos...

Mea culpa

I know - I've been remiss. Much of the year has gone by without comment..... well, actually, I made quite a few comments, but many of them were the same as last year (albeit greyer and wetter), so it seemed daft to re-blog them. That, and being up to the proverbial ears at work. Which is why it's been so quiet around here.

With any luck, and a following wind, I hope to update things in the next few days.

But don't hold your breath!

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Whale Tale

I was just getting the paints sorted out for the next section of the picture I’m doing for the RSPB reserve, when the Reserve Manager appeared at the door.
‘There’s a minke whale in the harbour at Fraserburgh.’

What could I do but down tools and go see…..?

You may well have seen this in the national news – young minke whale followed a fishing boat into the harbour and got stuck. (If you were looking closely (hi Sue!!), you may even have seen me on the evening news report, one of the many watchers on the quayside.) I was in two minds about going to see it – these things nearly always end up in tears, and I didn’t want to be a voyeur on a sad tale. On the other hand, I did want to see it – I didn’t believe that it could actually be in the harbour itself. But it was.

Standing on the quay, we watched as the whale circled the harbour pool, coming up to breathe every four minutes or so. It didn’t seem too stressed, though there would be no food for it. There were no ship movements as the big pelagic trawlers were tied up, though this may have confused the sonar picture. Why couldn’t it find the gap and the way out to sea?

One of the gang went off to find out what was happening. Apparently, on the entry to the Balaclava Basin (the bit of the harbour in question), there is a concrete ‘lip’ – at low water there is about 3 metres of water over this, and chances are the whale’s sonar was bouncing back off the lip and making it think there was no way out. To make matters worse, if it got over the lip, the harbour wall was straight ahead, leading off left at an angle towards the open sea, but a sonar picture could well seem to show no exit.

The whale circled. A couple of grey seals wandered in, to see what all the fuss was about – they sometimes get fed from the quayside, so possibly thought their luck was in. They made their way out with no problem, but the whale kept going round and round. I had a real sinking feeling about this. I perched on a set of steps by one of the fish warehouses, and felt slightly sick.

Nothing to be done. High water wasn’t until mid-afternoon, and there would be attempts to lure it out then. So I went back to painting rushes, reeds and reflections, and kept an ear on the news. One of our regulars reported sighting larger whales feeding off Rattray Head.

The first attempt failed. I watched familiar faces crop up on the news reports, explaining the plans to help. The whale started to look weary – the dorsal fin started to droop. I began to think this would go the way of so many recent whale encounters in Britain.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

It took several days and a lot of effort, but as you’ll probably know, the whale escaped safely to sea. What wasn’t on the news was that I paid for my prurient curiosity – in perching on the steps of the warehouse, I got at least ten ant bites. That’ll teach me.

Blackbird Hiatus.

Guess you may have been wondering where I’ve been.

My life has been subject to blackbirds. Comings and goings have all been closely monitored, and commented upon, usually loudly. To venture out through my door, for a while, became almost a crime, punishable by pain in the eardrums.

They have been nesting in the honeysuckle by the front door. I didn’t realise to start with until, looking out through the window one evening, I noticed the female with a huge beakful of grass and twigs, determinedly poking about in the leaves beside the window. To put this position into perspective, the nest was built at my eye level, halfway between the door and the front window, less than a metre from the door itself. Going in and out, I found myself confronted by a beady stare: what are you doing now? How dare you?

I guessed she was laying eggs after a week. Blackbirds have nested in the garden before, but usually without success; on the window-ledge, they were ousted by the jackdaws, in the fuchsia bush they gave up when it was very windy. Now there were two birds, taking turns in brooding whatever lay in the cup of the nest. I resisted the temptation to look and see how many eggs they had – if she wasn’t sitting when I went out, she was lurking in the bushes and chuntering at me, an under-the-breath muttering of ‘well, get on with it, go to work, go away’ that was oddly compelling. In the evenings I watched them through the window, high-fiving with wingtips as they changed over brooding duty. They are not very elegant birds, and did everything with a great fuss and kerfuffle.

Then came the day I saw her coming into the nest with a huge caterpillar. I rang Mum: ‘we have babies!!’ The female did most of the work, aided occasionally by her more laid-back mate, who seemed to expend most of his energies on singing from the TV aerial, announcing his territorial claims to the other blackbirds down the road, who tend to dispute his ownership of my small garden.

Feeding continued apace, more and more caterpillars sacrificed to growing young. I wanted to blog, to tell everyone, but had the uneasy feeling that to do so would be the kiss of death, so kept quiet. One evening, there was a great scuffling in the honeysuckle, a flurry of wings and an inexpert flapping. They had fledged. As is the way with blackbirds, they immediately hid, and kept very quiet, except when the youngsters tried to fly – this was more a controlled crashing around the shrubs. The starlings in the chimney fledged at around the same time and were nowhere near so discreet; flappings and shoutings and persistent demands for food from every rooftop and telephone wire. I think the blackbirds thought the neighbourhood had gone downhill.

I see them occasionally now, speckled brown and still inexpert, lurking around the garden, skulking amongst the plant pots. (I think there were at least two young raised.) My life is my own again, without the constant criticism.

A bit later in the year, I’ll take the old nest down, and use it at work to show the children how it’s done. Maybe they’ll try again next year.

Monday, 9 April 2007

On Being Spotted – a cautionary tale.

One of the lesser joys of working with children is the potential for catching things from them. Until recently, this has been – in general – coughs and colds, mostly easy to shake off, but this last week has changed the record.

Last Tuesday, I had a headache. I put this down to working on the computer all afternoon, concentrating on the end of year accounts and getting my reports up to date, ready for the evening meeting with my Management Committee, and the actual meeting itself – never the most stress-free of occasions! Paracetamol (and a small bar of free-trade chocolate!) made me feel better, and carried me through to 9.00 pm and my eventual supper.

Overnight, I felt horrible. Woke at around 1.30 am, couldn’t stop shivering, my feet were freezing, although I was quite warm otherwise, so at around 3.00 am I threw my dressing gown across the bottom of the bed. This seemed to solve the ‘ice-block on the end of the leg’ problem and I dropped off to sleep, only to wake at around 6.00 am absolutely roasting! And I mean boiling. Well, I put this all down to being a woman of ‘a certain age’, and headed back into work, to go over the accounts with our treasurer and figure out why things weren’t coming up in the right columns in the computer printouts. We sorted it out, and felt rather pleased with ourselves, and I headed off to get ready to travel down to Mum’s for the Easter break in a small haze of achievement. Still felt ‘heady’ but put it down to the lack of sleep, and thought – ah well, it’ll be OK after a decent night tonight and then we’ll be off on holiday and I’ll be fine. Had a shower before bed and was slightly askance to find a few spots here and there – put this down to excessive sweating, and possibly a change of hair conditioner.

As we drove South on Thursday, with the dog mumping and grumping in the foot-well as usual, I noticed one or two more spots appearing on my arms. Odd, but it could still be a minor allergic reaction, so I thought no more of it.

Friday morning, things were very different. I looked in the bathroom mirror, and realised I was turning rapidly into a Dalmatian. This was NOT an allergy, but a definite spotty outbreak. We consulted the family encyclopedia. A virus – measles, rubella or chickenpox seemed the most likely. I felt OK, apart from being concerned I would frighten passers-by, but it would be useful to know what it was I had, and how long I might have had it, and who I might have infected on the way and now needed to tell…

Process of elimination on symptoms brought us down to – oh joy – chickenpox. As a mate of mine who caught it a couple of years back said – ‘I’m covered in unsightly bobbles!’ Every time I looked, there were more – my head felt like it had a bad case of sunburn, and my skin like someone had planted a crop of lentils just beneath the surface. And then highlighted the subsequent lumps with red paint. And then stuck little dabs of custard on the top of the lumps…

So the holiday has been spent quarantined. Infectious until tomorrow. Can’t do all the things we planned to do – no trip to IKEA, no trips to more garden centres, no taking the rubbish to the tip…hey, maybe there’s an upside to this after all!

Perhaps not. It’s been itchy, sore in places, and for one who is no oil painting to begin with, the join-the-dots facial embellishment is not a terribly successful look. But apart from that first night, I’ve felt fine. I haven’t even lost my appetite – in fact the major gripe has been frustration! I’ve been trying to find out what the ‘join-the-dots’ puzzle actually makes when done, but unless it’s a map of the far side of the moon, craters and all, I’m flummoxed. It occurs to me to wonder – if they’d all joined up, what would have happened then? Would I have turned into a chicken? Why is it called chickenpox after all, if not?

But it’s going away, fading and drying up. Somewhere in Aberdeenshire there’s a parent who’s been sat up with a spot-ridden child, the statutory bottle of calamine lotion, and far more worries than we’ve had. But, looking at the possible complications, far fewer potential major side effects. We used to take these things in our stride – measles, mumps, chickenpox, and the rest - we used to deliberately try to get our kids infected early in life, when the risks are lower. I know this was the case with me – I just didn’t ‘catch’ the darn thing when I was supposed to, though we thought at the time I had. (Moral of the tale – one spot doth not a pox make!) Nowadays, we go straight for the inoculation. I’m not sure which is the better move, myself. Being left to catch everything has resulted in me having a resilient system that fights infection, and this has been an exercise in patience more than anything else.

Now I need to know – was the one apparent (measly) measle I had back in 1960 the real thing, or is that still lurking out there too, waiting for me?

Monday, 2 April 2007


i'm being stared at by a nose -
the other end's a tail that goes
around in circles, up and down;
a hairy dog that's small, and brown.
she's fond of cheese and walks and sleep
and blankets left all in a heap;
she mumps and grumps
and moans and groans,
she bounces, flounces,
chews up bones.
a welcome bounce can soothe your woes
but i'm being stared at by a nose.....

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

The Stare - DogBlog II

I am being stared at by a nose. It’s attached to a small hairy dog, who thinks there is an outside possibility that I may have cheese about my person. Or within reach. Or in the same room. It’s a penetrating stare, which has little to do with eyes (well, they’re getting a little less than perfect), and she’s able to maintain it for hours. If I move chairs, she shifts round to keep The Stare on target. I am – to her small doggy brain – She Who Gives Cheese.

In the same fashion, Mum is She Who Walks. If she moves from the sofa, she has a hairy shadow. Just in case she’s going out. Even if it’s only to the kitchen. Or to the bathroom – we get accustomed to being escorted (and mump-grumped at while we are in there). The Stare (it has developed a personality of its own) follows us wherever we go.

The joy of dogs.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Happy Mother’s Day

‘You have got to admit,’ I say to Mum, as we peer out into the gloom through the windscreen, ‘there are not many mothers that get to celebrate Mother’s Day like this.’
‘Hmmm.’ she sounds singularly unimpressed.

It’s 5.30 in the morning, in the dark, and there is a howling gale blowing from the north-west. Somewhere out in the dark, there are geese….. yes, it’s counting time again, and here we are, waiting for take-off!

A harsh rattle of sleet hits the back of the car, and the sky grows a bit lighter, lowering stratus clouds flying away above us, dumping their load of precipitation as they pass. At about 6.00 a.m. a few geese can be made out struggling through the murk, fighting a strong head wind that blows them straight back to the loch, where they give up and land again. The rooks and jackdaws are enjoying the wildness, tumbling and diving in the wind, but little else seems to be happy about it. Three roe deer cross the field, pausing to check out the car parked in the middle before springing easily over the fence and heading for the shelter of the Badger Wood. The wind rocks the car, and a gusting veil of snow reduces the visibility to a few hundred metres. I wipe the condensation from the windscreen and crack open the side-window a few millimetres. The howl of the gale is too loud to hear what is happening among the geese that I know are out there, but cannot see. I put the window back up. We spread a blanket across our knees to try and stay warm, burrowing into our fleece jackets and pulling woolly hats low on our heads. In a gap between snow-showers, a few more geese try to make their escape, wheeling around overhead only to be blown back again. One or two groups of very determined birds actually manage to make it, heading out to forage.

The snow has built up on the window on Mum’s side of the car, blocking her view. We slide down the window to clear it, and a small drift falls in, onto her lap. A car pulls up behind us.
‘This is ridiculous!’ Vicky sticks her head in through the rear door ‘we’re abandoning it for today. Breakfast back at the farmhouse!’
We are not sorry to retreat.

Later, after bacon butties, we go over to the visitor centre to see if we can see anything. The field to the left of the centre is full of geese, packed in tight, heads tucked down into feathers or feeding in a desultory manner on the grass. Fortunately, the winter has been so mild (until today!) that it hasn’t stopped growing, and they can find a decent meal. The few ducks visible are tucked well in under the banks and in the reeds. There’s no sign of the visiting sea eagle; it’s either sensibly tucked down somewhere out of the storm, or – if it’s tried to fly – is probably halfway to Norway by now.

Before we finally go home, we call in at Kinnaird Head to watch the gannets wheeling and diving offshore. The sea is a mass of white-marbled slate green, foam whipping off every ripple and crest, breaking over the rocks, spume flying through the air. A couple of scoter duck, black against the whiteness, battle their way rounds the point. An eider rides the surge, white on grey. As we drive round the harbour, a large bull grey seal bobs up in the sheltered water, safe in his refuge. We take the hint, and go home.

Sex and Violence in Suburbia

Early March, and there is an amphibian orgy at the bottom of my mother’s garden.

Go out in the dark and there is a constant sound, a low throbbing underlying the distant hum of traffic and the barking of the dog in the next street, audible even from my bedroom. It’s the croaking of frogs. Recent warm weather has spurred them into amorous action, and they have gathered in Mum’s ponds to indulge in some hot frog-on-frog action. Huge billows of spawn bear testament to their activities, and there is a mighty splashing whenever we venture down the garden path, as they dive below the surface in a flurry of waving legs. In twos and threes, or even more, they cling together, each male trying to grab hold of a compliant female, even if he has to share her with several other males. He locks his forelegs around her ponderous middle and hangs on until she’s ready to lay her eggs, to make sure he’s in the right place at the right time. But it’s a wise frog that knows its own father, as any one of the attendant males could be Mr Right. Sometimes their cumulative enthusiasm is too much, and the female is so beset by suitors that she drowns.

Feeling rather the voyeur, I venture down the garden and try to count heads (or legs). It’s a losing battle, as they pop up and vanish all over the place, in the ponds or in the undergrowth – I lose count at thirty, and under the reproachful stare of many gold-ringed amphibian eyes, retreat to the house.

In revenge, they croak loudly all night.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Count the legs and divide by two.

Seven-thirty on a cold Sunday morning and there’s no sign of the sun.
The sky is starting to shade to deep blue, the fields around the car are a featureless mass, and there is a distinct aroma from the large pile of manure to the right. A chill breeze blows through the window, and my companion rubs his hands briskly, and peers through his binoculars into the gloom.
‘I think I can hear them.’
I stick my head out of the window. It’s hard to tell where the sound is coming from - definitely from in front of us, but there are elements that may be behind and overhead.
‘I think you’re right - they’re on the move.’
We stare hard into the darkness.
A flicker of movement? Yes - a darker mass moving against the sky, only visible in the reflected light from the sea.
‘Damn! Something’s put them up!’ I clamp my binoculars to my eyes and grab my click-counter. From the hollow to the right they come, a great streaming, clamorous flock, dark shapes stringing out, shifting, coming together and then moving apart, shouting reveille to the brightening sky.

Pink-footed geese, heading out from their overnight roost to feed.

So why am I sat in the cold next to the dung-heap?

It’s the monthly Wetland Bird Census. All over the country, hardy souls are out looking at lakes and lochs, estuaries and mudflats, counting geese, ducks and waders as part of a long-term survey designed to see what’s around, where it is, how many are there, and how the numbers are changing. Our ‘patch’ is the local nature reserve, and today there are five of us looking it over; one at the north end checking the beach, the estuary, and the grazing fields, one south, counting birds on the main body of the loch, one at the top end of the loch, checking amongst the reedbeds, and two of us on the western side, where the majority of the geese head out from the low wetlands into the surrounding countryside. It’s an unglamorous location, in the entrance to a stubble field on a low rise of ground, beside the aforementioned manure pile (awaiting the attentions of the muck-spreader). At least this time it’s to one side - last year the farmer piled it straight in front of where I usually park the car, completely blocking the view! I have counted geese from this place for years; sometimes from the car, occasionally from the reserve truck, and on one memorable occasion stood in a snowstorm in the lee of a large fencepost.

Today the geese are leaving practically in the dark, which makes the counting a little more awkward than usual. I swear they look for new ways to confuse me; flying low along the hollows in the land to suddenly pop up, or all taking off at once in a mass resembling an explosion in a bedding factory (we call this ‘feather-bedding’), or sitting tight and stretching the count (and my bladder-control) out for hours and hours!

I peer into the patch of sky between the manure heap and the rookery wood, where the flocks are just visible, black shapes heading westward. As they pass in front of my binoculars, I count them. At the other side of the car, I can hear Angus doing the same, the steady click of his counter as he tallies the flocks leaving to the northwest. There is little in the way of a break today, the geese seem determined to get to their feeding areas as soon as possible and as the light grows, we can make out more and more of them rising from the low ground in flocks of anything up to six hundred birds. We get some warning of large take-offs - the constant background noise builds to a cacophony of calls as they wheel into the air. Occasionally there are groups of whooper swans, huge and elegant, white wings beating steadily, small family parties with their greyish youngsters, or wheeling flocks of lapwings and golden plover in their thousands.

So how do we count them? It’s a question I’m often asked, and I’m often tempted to give the reply shown above… Actually, if they are in small groups, they can be counted individually. Skeins can be counted in groups of five, hitting the clicker every time you get to twenty. For bigger flocks, where the individual geese can generally be made out, count in groups of twenty (see how big a group is and then ‘size up’) - and as the flock gets bigger and more densely packed, work in fifties or hundreds. Or use combinations of these methods. You get better with practice! It’s not utterly accurate, but accurate enough for the census, and with the same people doing the count each time there is a type of standardisation. What they don’t tend to factor into the equations is the co-efficient of frozen fingers, steamed-up binoculars and windows, or random clicks of the counter caused by shivering!

It’s a dull, grey morning, with the sun hidden behind a dense layer of cloud. Inland there is snow, although it’s clear at the reserve with occasional sleet. A fox, thick winter coat fluffed up against the cold, trots across a distant field with the remains of a goose carcass; it’s nearly the end of the shooting season, so he’ll have to work harder for his breakfast next month. A buzzard calls from somewhere above us, a high mewing cry, and in the field beside us a large group of partridges fusses about amongst the remains of the crop, small bustling brown bodies popping up amongst the dry grasses and taking to the air in an explosion of wings.

The stream of geese slowly winds down, the last few family groups taking to the air, and we head back to the visitor centre to thaw out and count the ducks and waders on the ponds there. Afterwards, we tally up the numbers over bacon sandwiches in the kitchen. Around 20,000 geese in all - about twice the norm for this time of year, probably driven in by the bad weather further south.

Not a bad morning’s work, and next month, we'll do it all again.