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.