21st May 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Seabird dramatics one moment, a cliff face bright with wild flowers the next

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Shag or Cormorant? Scarf or Lorin scarf (or Tobielingey as well perhaps!) – sometimes it’s hard to be sure.

This one was typically puzzling, but mainly because of the most peculiar antics it was enjoying. At first it was just there, out in the voe, head down for a while, then head up again, with a lively shake, sending drops of water flying. Sometimes it dived, vanishing for a few moments before surfacing again a short distance away. It paddled steadily along between dives, gliding for a while, paddle, glide, paddle, glide. Peaceful, easy motion, idling along between Burravoe in Yell and the north shore of Heoga Ness. Nothing strange or unusual in that. But then it all changed.

Suddenly, as if convinced that a fearsome monster was heading rapidly towards it from behind, the pace snapped into jet-propelled mode. The feet went so fast that a fair old wake creamed out behind the bird (we could hear the churn­ing). Webbed feet thrashed the water so hard that the whole of the top and front of the bird rose clean out of the water. I’ve watched speed boats and salmon flit boats accelerate, their prows rising higher and higher as the speed increased. This bird was a speedbird. It leaned back, thrusting a chest and stomach out like a beer belly, in silhouette, for all the world like a giant black sea horse.

Driven by manic feet below, it nevertheless appeared to be completely, almost goofily, relaxed from the hips up. Then suddenly, flop! It was back in the water, sliding along, drifting and apparently back to normal. A dive or two, a glide or two, a detour to one side and then the other, pootling peacefully along, then whoosh, wheee! Off we go again. Up out of the water it thrust, chest out, head back. Once it actually reached forward over the belly and the long, hook-tipped bill nibbled at a few feathers, head shaking a bit to get a bit more scratch at the itch and … flop. Down again.

I only wish it hadn’t been pouring with rain at the time, as I actually had the video camera with me, but was reluctant to get it wet. We had to get on. We were pre-walking the Burravoe Field Studies trip and were timing the route, so we had to leave the speed bird to its antics. But it was on to another activity anyway, heading across towards the farther shore at a more normal pace and had soon dwindled into a fleck among the ripples and wavelets. But there were other bird surprises to come.

A curious moan rose from the sea 50 or so yards from where we last saw the cormorant. It was a scalp tingling, haunting noise reminiscent of a rain goose, but not quite right. Friends had seen a rain goose, or red throated diver, already that day, flying straight down the voe, uttering a sharp volley of the rather quacking call they emit while in flight. But the strange diverish calls we had just heard were something different. Binoculars were soon focused on a diver-like bird paddling along by itself. Another moan, rather miaowish, then a few somewhat more hootery. The suggestion of a juvenile great northern diver was made.

Then, as if to confirm the pos­sibility, from much further away, out west across the open sea, there came the contrasting, curdled yowls of rain geese. The nearer bird cry came again, low and sorrowful and as if on cue, there was another burst of rain goose clamour, but unfor­tunately, the birds were too far out to sea to watch clearly. The whole walk was a series of wildlife thrills. Such wonderfully rare birds and all within a few hundred years of each other.

Sometimes the Shetland Field Studies Group pre walks fare better with the weather than the following programmed walks, but ours was definitely wetter. We squelched our way around Heoga Ness, then up the banks overlooking Ladie’s Hole, where a mini Sumburgh Head scene met our eyes. The rain had eased, the sun was coming out. Kittiwakes were clamouring, shags were growl­ing, gulls were wailing, fulmars wheeling. Guillemots, razorbills, tysties, puffins were all at full nesting stretch. Between them, the birds creating a cacophony to the ear and a whirling maze to the eye. The whole dizzying scene was enriched with a cliff face frothy with a blaze of wild flowers; sea campion, Shetland red campion, birdsfoot tre­foil, spring squill, sea pinks and sheep’s bit. From the top, you could see the whole of Heoga Ness, spread out in the sun. We could see virtually every heuk we had covered in the pre walk.

Heoga Ness itself had been full of evidence of otters. One hole looks very much like another when you go “aboot da banks” but there are specific ways to tell a rabbbit warren from an actively used otter hadd (holt, to sooth folk) and I had never ever seen so many as we did on this wonderful curving headland. In fact, our usual risk assessment simply had to take on board the possibility of broken ankles, as there were hun­d­­reds of them. In places the ground had actually subsided because too much burrowing had undermined the surface.

But back to the otter clues. The facts of life for an otter going about its business are very much to do with “what goes in must come out”. As far as the “ins” go, there was masses of evidence. Crab carapaces were strewn everywhere along the shore. Legs of crabs littered the ground around the hadds and now and again there were shards of scaddimans’ heads, or sea urchin shells. Fish bones too lay in ragged scatters outside certain holes. It looked as though house proud otters had made their way out of the holes backwards, scraping and kicking the debris from their floors behind them, straight out through the doorway.

The “outs” consist of “spraint heaps”, or small mounds of peaty grass, liberally strewn with fresh drop­pings. Anywhere you find spraint heaps, with fresh droppings on them, you know you are in otter country.

Jill Slee Blackadder