19th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

‘He flew straight towards me, perched on a low stone wall and yelled at me …’

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Why won’t the Chaffinches come to my bird table? I’m aware that they are around; in fact they’ve been visiting my neighbour Pat’s bird table over a considerable time now. Maybe I’m just not providing the best grub. I confess to a reluctance to buy bird food. I always worry that the growers are using good land for western bird lovers and that they might be a bit short of good food themselves; but I am probably wrong. I use household scraps, extra porridge, prepared when I make ours, the same with pancakes and old dry goods which have passed their sell by date, if they have gone stale.

The snowy spell is over for the time being and I have stopped feeding the birds anyway. As soon as fresh earth reappeared, they turned their beaks up at my offerings in any case. The bird table today was deserted. Actually, both the bird table and the area around it are looking quite disgusting. I think I will try to get it all sterilised and dig over the ground a bit underneath. When the sparrows all started getting ill, a few years ago, one possible explanation pointed to bird tables.

Apparently, when lots of hungry birds squabble and shove each other around in their eagerness for bird food, they exchange all kinds of bugs, pests and germs in the process. The only way to prevent this is to give the feeding area a complete clean up. Better still, feed the birds somewhere else for a while instead, allowing the previous site to clean itself naturally. At least our feeding area should grow better vegetables this year, as there has certainly been a lot of extra manuring going on. The bird table stands in the middle of the carrot bed as it’s the only place where you can bird watch while washing up!

I can’t resist sharing a couple of treasured moments from the hungry bird/snow period though. I do try not to get anthropomorphic, but one of our dozen or so blackbirds made a number of attempts to communicate with me; I am sure of it.

I got up late at the weekend on one occasion and spent a few sleepy minutes gazing west across to white crowned Foula. A cock blackbird was scrabbling around beside several planters, trying to get at whatever might lurk in the crevices between them. He suddenly turned and looked straight at me. He stood up tall, peering rather crossly at me I thought. He flew straight towards me, perched on a low stone wall outside the window and yelled at me. He stopped, peered at me and yelled even louder. I’m sure he was saying “don’t stand there admiring the views, get out here with my breakfast!”

On a second occasion, I went out, calling an old family hen-feeding alert call, dating back to farming childhood days. A cock blackbird began calling immediately and promptly flew out of a far hedge, straight towards me, then dived under the hedge, but kept on calling quite musically each time I sang out. As I went round the back to the bird table he followed me all the way, at a safe distance of about a score of yards and then hid under a bush until I had left the scene. As soon as I got back indoors I peeped out. He was hard at work on the offerings I had left; first to the table.

The third time was one morning when I had made a special effort to clear the cluttered windowsill in my study. I had flung half a dozen batches of food out through the window during the morning, aiming roughly for the bird table, as the path had been completely obliterated by that last blanketing snowfall. I was working away on the computer when there was a sudden sharp banging on the glass. Startled, I glanced up, and there was the blackbird, craning his neck to look in at me.

He twisted his head this way and that, scrutinising every heap of papers and box of specimens, then, giving me a fierce look, he started to shout. The food had been eaten.

He stayed watching until I stood up, then he fled. But his antics worked. I soon had another batch of buckwheat pancakes on the go and after letting them cool, spun them across the drifts towards the rose hedge. My blackbird was the first one to taste them.

It really is beginning to smell like spring. Buds are greening up, shoots emerging from among scruffy, faded tangles of old leaves. Starlings are starting to sing sibilant songs and celandine leaves are bubbling out of damp places, all shiny and smart. Strange things are starting to appear, such as the ladybird, which popped out of the spiky end of a pineapple in Cott last week, along with fruit and vegetable scraps for the sheep and the geese. Thank you to the Gilfillan family for rescuing the peerie fellow.

The weather may have been a bit unkind lately, but there is one place where the snow and frost never cause problems. Underwater habitats here are still ice free, and at this time of year water clarity is at its best. Sub aqua enthusiasts have been out and about, diving on new sites and old and finding a welcome range of colourful wild sea life to brighten up their winter. Last Sunday a group went diving off the Ness of Sound. Their target was the Ranga, a wreck I was unaware of and one I must look up, to determine its provenance and ill-fated story. Apparently for most of the year, the scattered chunks lie on the sea bed invisible; hidden by writhing, swirling forests of seaweed. Not at the moment though. Every inch of the wreck lies clear and distinct and the sea life, which has colonised it, “has to be seen to be believed” say the divers.

Between 11 and 14 metres down there are some creatures which might seem alien in the extreme to most folk, but they are native to Shetland and have a longer pedigree in these waters than we do. They would have been familiar to the earliest inhabitants of the islands: sea slugs. There is one very orna­mental kind which is largely white, but has an array of pale grey spines on it. The spines are long and thin, but not stiff and dangerously sharp.

Three different individuals were seen at one point, all of different sizes. One was a very large speci­men, one a smaller, maybe middle aged individual and the other was tiny. It seemed very strange to one diving friend. If the seaweed is seasonal, growing densely in sum­mer and dying back in winter, how come sea slugs aren’t seasonal too? How could there be young, half grown and old ones all spread around the same area of habitat? The egg ribbons of sea slugs are seen frequently on these trips. There must be a good sea life book somewhere, which will enlighten us about more than just the basic identity of the creatures.

Jill Slee Blackadder