It is now a week since summer started: calm, hot days with distant shimmering shades of green and brown. Grasshoppers grate from grass that tickles and pokes my legs. It is a time of year when the annual bird list stagnates – there are still rewards for looking, though. Like everything of value, devoting time and patience enhances my experience.
I am fortunate to live on the coast where wobbling waves alternate with an expanse of sand and mud. The mature dunes I walk through to reach the beach are full of new life. Goldfinch juveniles, streaky finches with a gold lightening strike on their wings, outnumber their parents and whitethroat jump out of every bush and tussock. A couple of weeks ago the only birds on the beach were a few immature herring gulls and a lonely oystercatcher. Today I can see new arrivals – adult black-headed gulls have appeared, still sleek and smart in their summer plumage, and the first common gull of the autumn has arrived. Instead of one oystercatcher, there are 36 and two curlew strut across the ooze. A gang of brown juvenile starlings now squabble amongst bladder wrack on piles of boulders.
I can only appreciate this start of the ebbing flow of the year because I am watching the area regularly. Beneath the superficial list of names I can hear the first exhalation of autumn. I don’t need the latest, most expensive optics or transport to notice this, I need time. The moment to stand and observe is so easily lost in our rush to change the world.
The streamlet glistens in the sunlight as it trickles over pebbles and stones. The sound of my dog lapping eagerly at the clear water drowns out the quiet tinckle of the flow. He eagerly returns to me with water still dripping off his hanging tongue, padding the hardened ground as he walks. I am just about to send him back into the water when my eye is drawn to the ground he has covered. Right where his paw fell there is a twisted piece of wood with a bold hatched pattern. That pattern is one that is familiar. This is not a piece of wood but a snake. It remains still but as I walk to its side I can see its head and tongue, pronged and waving like a wagging finger chastising us for disturbing it.
The pattern that caught my eye is of a common viper, better known as an adder. This is only the second time I have seen one, and I have contrasting feelings. My dog is still oblivious to it and I want to keep him that way. I can envisage the outcome of an inquisitive sniff. I want to look at this creature and get a photograph, though. With the dog safely down and staying I reach for my camera. As I do so the neck straightens and moves forward, the coils quickly trailing after it until it disappears behind a small wall. Shifting round I can see no signs, only cracks and crevisces between the rocks making the face. Looking now there are no signs that a snake was just here.
Still keen to capture an image, I try a trick. Nearby there is an abandoned farm building where I can retreat and watch the birds. Swallows nesting at the back of the buildings skim the turf of the surrounding slopes and continually twitter as siskin and linnet in the scattered trees give harsher calls. After 15 minutes standing, I walk quietly back to the stream and look over the wall. There at its base is the hoped for bold chevron pattern and now I succesfully get my photograph. Even as I press the shutter she starts to move off again. Within 30 seconds she is back in the crevices, hidden.
Today is a calm, sunny, early summer day. Nearby is Lynn Brenig, one of the largest lakes in Wales. A wind pushes wavelets along its length and creaks trees but here, sheltered, the air is warm. Winter is different, the ground crackles as snow and ice abound, yet this snake will still be here. I have seen no aggression from her today, even when trodden on. She has been shy and required stalking for my best views. Instead of feeling threatened I felt excited and privelaged to share these few minutes with her.
For most of the year they are hidden, their narrow leaves looking like the grass that they grow amongst, but as we approach mid summer and the birds fade into the bushes, orchids flower. Amongst the pot pourri of plain yellow flowers, short spikes of pink and purple appear. My bee orchids always fascinate with their structure, a crown of normal pink petals displaying the central suede cherry. Getting down on my knees the detail in the centre is remarkable. A vivid red tongue is surmounted by a short green hood with fur cushions on each side. The cherry I saw from a distance is now delicately marbled.
I call these my orchids because they grow on my front lawn. They were not planted their, they simply appeared. This piece of grass measures about 5 by 3 metres, smaller than the smallest official nature reserve. Managed like a traditional hay meadow, it is home to yellow rattle, cowslip and grasshoppers as well as my orchids.
All of the neighbours have neat, closely mown sheets of velvet. To me, my orchids are far more attractive.
Why travel to a collection of cliffs and stacks when the passage is never short, often rough and sometimes dangerous? The bait that attracted me was the history of the seabirds here. Thirty years ago I read of the spread of fulmars from the only british breeding site – St Kilda. Then I learnt about a population of people who scaled sheer cliffs and rowed to offshore stacks to harvest seabird that provided food, oil and feathers – the St Kildans. Nowhere else in Britain has this relationship been so well documented with witness accounts and photographs.
There is always anticipation as a new place is approached, but the rough crossing denied me a first glimpse of the islands breaking the horizon. Instead I emerged on deck when we were anchored to see a cove cradled by hills and ridges. A group of green buildings like shipping containers behind a small, rocky beach stood out stark against the barren slopes. A road ran into the hills leading my gaze to a radio mast on the skyline. The St Kildans may have left but the stamp of a modern community is clear. Spreading out from the new village are softer shapes formed of coalesced boulders. Grey lines and circles wash across the low land around a single line of grey houses.
Once ashore I soon find the echoes of the old community now faded. The walls of the houses are intact but inside the floors are marshy grass or covered by fallen rocks. Where the people lived, sheep now wander and shelter. Starlings, dark and almost spotless, and wrens, grey and scruffy, now converse where parliament used to be held. Despite the isolation, the islands are crowded. Cruise ships anchor in the bay sending a continuous flow of tourists in black inflatables to race around the village and slopes. People wander without restriction, sometimes apparently without respect. On returning to the shore I hear talk of being struck by skuas and of finding nests with eggs.
After exploring the old village I explore the surrounding steeper ground. The slopes are covered by shrivelled heather and grass that barely reaches my ankles. Tiny dots of colour break through the brown mat like sparkles of sunshine on the sea. Blue violets, purple lousewort and pink heath spotted orchid crouch close to the soil. In wetter patches sphagnum moss shines green, clubmoss forms inch high forests and pale green rosettes of butterwort wait their insect prey. In a gully, primrose spatter the wall yellow whilst purple saxifrage is almost spent. There is a constant sound of birds. The chip,per,chip,per,chip,per call of snipe and grouse like growl of fulmar sound like they are coming from the plants whilst parachuting meadow pipit twitter softly and wheatear sing their short, chat like warble from rocky perches. Occasionally the stuttering whistle of whimbrel catches my ear.
Unlike the lost crofting community, the seed of seabird abundance that inspired me to visit is still here. Every piece of steep ground is dotted white where fulmar sit on their egg. Bonxie patrol the ridges like raptors looking for victims. Out to sea, uncountable numbers of birds appear as smoke blowing from rocky crags. As our boat pushes out of the bay rafts of puffin rise like shimmering black sheets and the nasal call of kittiwake echoes around cliffs. In open water gannets spear the water in a fountain of spray, dodging fulmar that bank and shear like fighter planes. The seabird heritage is alive and flourishing.
Crow and raven fly to roost in conifer woods above Pitlochry. The hill fades to darkness as the Corvids sit on the upper branches of the trees, silhouetted against the grey clouds. They call across the glen, croaks and caws mixing in a conversation that I cannot understand. From nearby undergrowth a bark like that of a large hound echoes through the gloom. I hear branches snap as an animal pushes through fallen trees. Instinctively I pause to look for the beast but it has fled. What would my reaction be if wolves still lived here?
At Braemar a shard of original woodland survives. Looking from the village, the whole of this birch wood can be seen dressing the nearby hillside like a well-tailored suit, a delicate purple haze drifting over the moor. The balance between ground, animals and sky determines the distribution of the trees, the density of which waxes and wanes in response. Dense stands of interwoven branches alternate with open areas flooded with light where the ground is smothered in heather, juniper and grass. There is no abrupt ending to the wood it simply thins to isolated trees. Near the village a group of 14 birds flies over with a direct flight and occasional folding of the triangular wings that at a glance could be mistaken for starlings. The call could not – a soft, high-pitched trill that is as much felt by my ears as heard.
I splutter a name – ‘waxwing!’
After tantalising views they settle amongst juniper, clambering over the bushes calling constantly. They cling to the ends of branches, dive into the depths of the bushes and hang upside down flapping wings. For quarter of an hour they ransack the vegetation like starlings attacking a bird table. The juniper remains green, yet all I can see is a mass of spine covered branches. Although soft to touch, they are not waxwing food. I imitate the waxwing by lifting branches up to look beneath. There were the wrinkled, blue berries about the size of petit pois nestled at the heart of the bush. This is waxwing food.
These birds breed in birch forest in Scandinavia. They have learned the intricacies of this habitat through the pressures of survival. The wolf still roams amongst their extensive Northern woodland. Here in Scotland the waxwing have been drawn to a mere fragment of a habitat edge. It should dominate the glen. Next to the village, a deer fence crosses the forest. On the outside of the fence there are old trees with gnarled trunks and dying branches scattered amongst dense heather. Inside the fence there is a dense mass of saplings smothering the ground, regenerating the forest. This is a habitat out of balance. The deer are magnificent, great rough-necked beasts with head-dresses of pointed antlers appearing to reign over the glen, but it should be the wolf which reigns. Deer are everywhere – I see them outside the cottage where we are staying, in the woods and on the moors where a single stag still roars. In tangled vegetation, a pair of bright, sparkling branches catches the eye before I realise they are antlers and notice the grey face looking straight at me. The large, dark eyes do not blink and the erect ears are fixed. The pale rear defines the extent of the body that is motionless. The deer should be nervous of a canine pack, not the hunter’s gun. The carnivore is attracted to the weakest leaving the strong to thrive. The carnivore is ever present; the deer cannot stand and decimate a patch of ground before wandering on. The deer and habitat both become stronger when wolves are present.
Back at our cottage an unseen pack of foxhound howl across the glen in an echo of history. My pulse quickens, I look around nervously and feel a few degrees warmer.
A bird’s character starts with its eye, and the eye of this black-headed gull is looking at me. It’s not frightened but hopeful, a plea for me to provide food. The scene is reflected in the eye, the sky forming a highlight, coot and mallard also hoping for food and a tiny image of me sitting on this bench made of weathered wooden slats. The gull’s world in miniature is projected in microscopic clarity, a mirror of the image shining on the bird’s retina. In this tiny drop we are sharing this world, sharing this moment.
The gull may have been looking at me with hope, and it may have seemed as though we were connected, but there is a barrier between us. There is a film of fear which is taught to every one of us. I noticed this whilst walking beside the canal at Llangollen. The towpath is so close to the water that I can easily reach down and touch it. The smoothly flowing, tea-coloured water is cold, stinging my fingers. Children are constantly told to stay away lest they fall in. I think about tasting it, but recoil after a lifetime of teaching that wild water is unclean, dangerous. Ribbon like leaves of water plants waft in the current like hay meadows in the wind and plump roach swim slowly upstream, rising occasionally to snatch an autumn fly. I imagine Tarka swimming past. Despite this picture of purity, I recoil from contact. It is ingrained in me that this un-processed wildness is dangerous. Everything we need must come from wildness, but it must pass through the film, be processed into the human world, to be safe. Are we so driven by technology that things which have not been purified by it are harmful? Is the world we occupy so contaminated, so poisoned, that real contact with it needs to be regulated?
I am following footprints, a pattern of tracks along a forest trail. A multitude of opposed arches, the marks of cloven hooves, leave blades of mud. The prints mark the passing of a herd of herbivores along the path I am walking. The marks are crisp, fresh. I listen but all I can hear is the swish of wind in branches and occasional calls of coal tit and goldcrest. The tracks continue for half a mile. To leave the track in the wood I have to climb a low bank where the ground is smothered by a sponge of grass, bramble and branches. With each step the sponge is squashed and branches snapped. Beneath the trees the ground is brown pine needles and hidden branches. This ground feels hollow. A tangle of dead, scaly, reptilian twigs stops my progress beneath the trees, threatening to impale my eye. The decision to follow the obvious track is easy.
The hoof prints stop where the track emerges from the pines. Wind turbines stand on the hill. At first these are silent, but closer there is a soft hush like a distant jet plane. They stand like weather vanes rotating in unison. A derelict stone hut stands proud on the skyline, two gable ends and a single crumbling wall, whilst sheep graze quietly and chew the cud on the sward beneath the blades. A buzzard drifts slowly between the turbines, balanced on the wind as each wing makes minute adjustments, feeling each ripple of air. Flocks of fieldfare, shouting their chackly call, fly past like dust clouds in the wind. The sound of the turbines competes with the wind in the trees. The trees win. As I spend a few moments next to the wind farm the noise recedes from my attention like a fading echo.