The Drummer

It's been raining here in Orkney, every blasted second of this miserable, grey, cold and windy July day. Sheeting down from low thick cloud from dawn, which happened at about 1am, until dusk which will occur very soon at midnight. Everybody has been walking around cloaked in Goretex with long sleeves, long trousers and even longer faces seeking indoor means of entertainment. Not an easy task on an island that caters far more for sheep than people. Still the roses look nice.

It was a different story yesterday. Then the sun broke through around midday transforming the drab  of the moors into sheets of verdant green; the sea from steely grey to bright vibrant blue; the meadows to carpets of buttercup gold. Beautiful.

At Marwick Head on Mainland watching fulmars ride the updrafts over high sea cliffs was exhilarating. The birds stalling into the breeze at eye level, demonstrating ably their complete mastery of the air, is one of those sights that would make anyone with any sense of aesthetics stop and stare. Marauding great skuas, Bonxies as they are parochially named, cruised the cliff face looking for an easy meal in the form of unattended chicks. Huge, steely-eyed great black-backed gulls did likewise. Ravens cronked overhead and kittiwakes kittiwaked. Guillemots brayed and the stately gents of the throng, the puffins, grunted in greeting to one another on narrow ledges overlooking a sheer drop of 200 feet. But all may not be well here, for despite scanning the cliff faces through binoculars it was difficult to find any chicks. Some fulmars seemed to still be incubating, but many pairs were simply sitting in their nesting nook with no obvious sign of eggs or young. It was the same story with the kittiwakes. Times are hard for our seabirds.

Later, we watched a distant short-eared owl hunting over the heather clad slopes of the uplands whilst more great skuas and the occasional smaller Arctic Skua patrolled its nesting grounds. The RSPB have many reserves scattered around the islands all well signed, many with excellent paths and hides. From one hide we had views of a red-throated diver tending a fluffy brown chick on a small loch where wild grey-lag geese gathered and more Bonxies cruised the updrafts.

On our after dinner stroll we heard a snipe drumming over an area of wet meadow, a strange bleating sound that I last heard about 20 years ago. It was so uplifting to hear this sound of territorial dominance, more so since we have pretty much lost breeding snipe from large tracts of my home county and indeed most of lowland England. All over Orkney the skies are full of piping oystercatchers, trilling curlews and in a small wet meadow by a minor road beside a loch, a lone snipe strutting his stuff. The first time me and my boyhood mates heard a drumming snipe we couldn't for the life of us think what the heck was making the noise. We thought it must be a swarm of bees and looked around anxiously to see if we were in imminent danger of being smothered. The problem with this theory was that the noise came in short bursts of a few seconds with longer gaps between. Not a bee swarm then, maybe some kind of frog? Eventually we espied a small bird flying over the small marsh in front of us and as it executed an almost vertical dive the weird sound again reached our ears. No binoculars adorned our necks in those days, we hardly needed them, but we knew enough to identify the long billed speck as a snipe. How weird that a bird should make such an unbird like sound though; little did we appreciate that the noise is made by air vibrating the stiff outer tail feathers that are fanned as the bird dives. One of the poignant sounds of spring that sadly no longer graces the small marsh where we first heard it. Needless to say that wetland has virtually disappeared along with the snipe that made it their home. But they still find a home here in the large areas of wet meadow and bog in the low lying land around the island perimeters and it was a joy to watch this one.

We plan a trip to Hoy tomorrow. We are promised better weather.

Comments

  1. ". Not an easy task on an island that caters far more for sheep than people."....
    ahh! But the beer is good!!

    The last time I heard a drummer was in the water meadows at Castle Acre...
    ten years ago!! A strange and wild sound...

    Often read your blog... 'tis a good read....
    it remains open as a tab...
    but I comment little... often a matter of time...
    we had a snipe one winter in the millstream behind the house here...
    but his thoughts were more with keeping his feet warm than making strange noises....
    our strange noises here are the Barn Owls on sonic attack...
    and the Wikileaks [Stone Curlews] as they fly into our water meadow...
    had eight individuals once... heck of a racket....
    what 3 or 4 hundred must have sounded like in the Brecks between the wars, I just cannot imagine!

    Also just read your June 29th post...
    we have both the Swallowtails here...
    but the European one is less choosy...
    I found a pretty mature caterpillar on a wild carrot the other day...
    and last year, munching on my celeriac...
    happily left to munch after I photographed it...
    there's no way it can damage the celeriac...
    or, if it can, I'm not going to pick an arguement with it!
    Nice shot of yours, tho!
    Keep well, keep sane...
    both not too difficult as a birder....
    Tim

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Tim, many thanks for your comments. The Orkney thing was written after a particularly cold, wet and windy day which seems an awful lot worse when you can experience it in daylight for 19 hours. It got better and we did see some great birds, especially seabirds which I never tire looking at. You're right about the beer.....and the whisky!

    Your neck of the woods sounds rather special where are you exactly?

    I'll endeavour to keep well. As for sanity who can tell.

    Cheers!


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Late in replying... as usual!

      Our neck of the woods is Touraine du Sud...
      just at the tip of Indre-et-Loire....
      Central France.

      We are waiting for the Bee-Eaters at the moment...
      a flock hunts this valley when on migration...
      they can stop around for up to three weeks.
      This year it is exceptionally dry, so insect numbers are down...
      but we may well get them for a while.
      We chose here because it is a day's drive from the Channel ports...
      in an elderly 2CV!!
      Also we are in reach of the Loire,Anjou,Touraine and the Brenne national parks... and not too far from the Sologne.

      Delete
  3. at least the birds were good
    it is on my must go to list . . .
    one day
    Darren

    ReplyDelete
  4. Birds were indeed great, but the weather can be trying. We had some close encounters with Bonxies and I've got a few decent snaps. Hopefully I'll find time during breaks in decorating to post them here. Hope all is well with you all.

    ReplyDelete

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