A close encounter of the s(urr)eal kind

HOW IS your window bird watching going? Bird tables make the easiest wildlife watching stations and with all the inventiveness of modern designers and modern materials, you don’t even need to have a garden for a bird table.

There are sucker-fixing trays which can be firmly attached to the outside glass of the windows of flats and garden-less dwellings. In fact the latter can sometimes be even more satisfying, as you can watch birds so closely, without the need for binoculars, that you can see every feather and claw, every twinkle in those bright, bird eyes.

If you watch regularly, feeding the birds at the same time each day, you will gradually become familiar not only with the species, but with individual birds as well. The “pecking order” applies to more than just domestic hens.

One particularly cocky starling rules the roost here. Other starlings defer to him (I’m assuming that it is a “him”) but other birds too are cautious while he is about. He is a right little “dog in the manger” too, quite ready to eat his fill and then just sit there and watch, flying at anything in feathers which dares to approach.

Blackbirds are curiously shy in the face of starlings, which is strange, as they are bigger by far and amazingly aggressive and noisy with each other.

But after the starlings have finished their meal, only then does the blackbird fraternity come out of hiding. For a while beforehand you can see them under the base branches of the rose hedge, watching and waiting. Scraps which are knocked off the starlings’ banqueting battleground often fall through the twigs and the blackbirds pounce on them. We usually try these days to sling handfuls of food under the hedge to start with, as well as scattering across the table above.

Robins, when they pass through on migration, are far from intimidated. They will make a threa­tening dash at almost anything in feathers, unless perhaps a seagull. Sparrows too hesitate before starlings and prefer to feed once the racket is over. When the starling clan have filled their bellies, the sparrows will swirl down in a chatter and clean up. But when all the rest are long gone, only then will the blackbirds approach.

But birds aren’t the only wildlife you can watch up close. Roy Greenwald showed mum and I a marvellous seal-watching corner in Lerwick recently. At the time it was blowing a gale from the west, but the sea in this selkie haven was calm. It’s the sheltered harbour behind the Bød of Gremista, hemmed in by break­waters and not far from the easy pickings around Shetland Catch.

There were so many seal noses sticking out of the placid surface that at first I thought they were bottles. No wonder the wildlife folk call this “bottling”. We must have watched a score and more at a time. But there was one occasion when I was even closer.

Some years ago, with a group of bairns in Mousa, I was sitting on a beach, watching seals. In case of bad weather, I had brought along a pile of “essy” bags. I thought that it might be fine, in a chilly breeze, to climb into one, crouch down and haul the rim up round our chins, to keep the warmth in. In the event, it was a fine day, but nevertheless we wore our black bag shelters, found cosy neuks to sit in a waited and watched.

For a while the seals, a good lot of them that day, just carried on as they were; gliding along, noses just breaking the surface, a glossy glimpse of a back, the slap of an occasional tail breaking the water. Heads popped up now and again, tilting backwards to squint up at the sky. There were snuffs and snorts from time to time and random splashes as a seal dived. Then a few heads began to turn in our direction.

Heads began to pop up all over the place. Big eyes goggled our way. The bairns were excited, but did their best to keep still. Seal heads sank out of sight and when they rose up again, they were closer. The message had got out that something curious was to be seen on the shore and there was a slow gathering of seals, gradually edging closer. You could see their eyes clearly now and they were definitely looking right at us.

They seemed to be really interested, as their gaze shifted constantly from one to another of us, scattered as we were along a strip of beach, backs against seaweedy rocks, but safe and dry inside the plastic bags. Safe from getting cold or wet, certainly, but safe full stop? I was beginning to wonder. We were entering new territory here. After all, people watch wildlife, don’t they? People creep up and try to get closer and closer to wild creatures, not the other way round.

The seals were so close now that you could see more than just heads. Large areas of body were visible, some dark, some light, all mottled and blotched in different arrangements of greys, fawns and black. I had no idea how beautiful their coats were. Heads were near enough now to see the nostrils; amazingly flexible organs, which could close up tight, wrinkle into a score of different expressions, or open wide to snort.

The eyes amazed us, by their lack of shine; they gleamed rather than shone, with a kind of cast across them, maybe they have protective films to keep out the salt water, but our admiration and interest was beginning to be overtaken by concern. Excited seals were still streaming our way and the sea in front of us was seething with them.

At first they kept a wary distance, plying backwards and forwards in the shallows; then as the numbers grew, one or two young bloods made tentative approaches even closer. Their flippers could be seen, and the odd glimpse of an open jaw.

Whiskers too were a revelation. Great bursting clusters of them, stiff as knitting needles, sprouted from around their eyes and noses. Snorts and snuffles, belching noises and gargles were increasing, and so was a strange smell; the distinct hum of rotten fish. Seal breath was drifting our way – yuck! Time to re-think.

I spoke quietly to the bairns, explaining that although the seals were only being curious, and would not harm us, that it might be sensible to get back to the others now and see what was going on along the beach with the bonfire. We were, after all, getting a bit stiff.

So I heaved myself out of my black bag and stood up. The seals flipped. Every head vanished and the shallows thrashed as scores of them made for deep water. The bairns too rose up and stood, watching the departing creatures, still excited, half sad that we had not waited any longer, but I breathed a massive sigh of relief.

It would probably have come to nothing. The seals would almost certainly have come no closer, finding as they would have done that the black, shiny bags held not the bodies of strange seals, but little scary humans. However, they were getting just a little close for comfort and I wasn’t taking any chances.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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