Thursday, 28 May 2009

A Shallow Scrape In The Sand

Image Left: Oystercatcher chicks

A Shallow Scrape In The Sand
Wednesday 27th May

After dinner we walked onto the low grassy headland above the arc of the beach, the Oystercatchers where already up swinging around us with alarm calls while keeping some distance. I had found the nest earlier today on a walk across the bay to collect some guests who had been visiting Iona for the day. At three o’clock the shallow scrape in the sand was occupied by to two fluffy chicks and a single undamaged egg. At five, on the way back from a visit to the croft a small beak could be seen as it broke through the shell.

I guessed by now the chick would be out but wasn’t entirely sure if the little brood would be mobile enough to have scarpered. Once on the move finding highly camouflaged wader chicks becomes almost impossible especially when their parents’ warning calls seem to encourage them to remain as motionless as any of the other three million pebbles on the beach. A couple of years ago I nearly flattened a lapwing chick that had decided to patrol a stretch of road next to a Pennine moorland. What had been conspicuous while running on flat surface of the loose road completely disappeared when seated.

After walking backwards and forwards over the same ten feet of road for five minutes and finding nothing I glanced down at my feet and saw what I thought was frog that had been unlucky enough to encounter a car. Realising it was the chick I took a deep breath before bending down, luckily the flat appearance was partially an optical illusion created by the mottled pattern of its down. I lifted the chick and its legs dropped down like the oversized landing gear of an aeroplane. When I placed it back in contact with the ground it new its cover was completely blown and made a break for it in style of Road Runner.

I took the precaution of checking and setting my camera before we neared the nest so as not to spend anymore time than necessary disturbing the chicks and their parents. We dropped onto the beach cautiously studying the ground before every step. We found three chicks safe and well with half an egg shell in a small cup of sand. The latest hatchling was still sporting the wet look and nestling into the down of its slightly older siblings. All in all we stayed at the nest for a little over a minute before walking the short distance back to the street and out of danger zone for the worried parents.

Image Above Right: Nest Amongst The Pebbles
Image below: The Conception

Monday, 25 May 2009

A Toilet At The End Of The World.

Image Above: The compost toilet

A toilet at the end of the world.
Sunday 24th May

The weather could only be described as ‘bank holiday weekend’, weather. I was milking in the morning and then supposedly heading round to the other side of the island by boat to collect rubbish from a group of beach cleaners. The sea, having picked up over the course of the morning was shrouding the feet of Iona’s cliffs with breakers making a boat trip out of the question. I contemplated braving the drizzle for a walk down to the narrows before wisely deciding against it.

In the end I spent the afternoon in the compost toilet annoying two queen wasps that have begun nest building. For most visitors to the island the idea of having to use a compost toilet is enough to get used to without sharing the space with a burgeoning population of stingy things. Having personally come to consider the flush toilet as a luxury item to be marvelled at when visiting the mainland I must admit I am still not in favour presenting these creatures such an easy yet vulnerable target.

The huts are not exactly air tight and every year a queen or two starts out under the illusion that they have picked out the best location on the island for a nest. While I may share a toilet with my next door neighbour, sadly at some point I will have to withdraw the welcome to my striped friends. In the meantime I got to spend a wet afternoon photographing wildlife from the comfort of the throne.

Image right: Wasp Queen and Nest
Image below: The Other Queen and Nest.

Sunday, 17 May 2009


Image Above: Cormorant’s skull, found by Sarah

Saturday 16th May

The day was bright but a strong south-easterly had brought with it a chill while managing to whip up the bay into a chop. Today’s job was transport, saying good bye to guests and hello to some new faces as well as ferrying the island’s long-term residents to the shop, collecting post, laundry, and delivering candles. I suppose I am not in the hotel and catering business, the guests generally go a little deeper joining the community if only for a week or two. Just as they take from the island they also contribute, whether that be energy, humour, new skills, perspective or challenges. But then I am also a guest here of sorts.

A poem brought by a guest

The Song Of Amergin

I am the wind that breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am a wild boar in valour,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of a lance in battle,
I am the god who creates in the head the fire of thought,
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?
Who brings cattle from the house of Tara?

Irish Poem 1000bc Approx

Thanks Judith, get well soon

Friday, 15 May 2009

Log Run

Image Left: Log Run
Monday 11th May

I followed the tractor across the bay, foregoing a lift on the trailer to enjoy the afternoon sun. The tides are still running under the influence of the recent full moon, pulling and pushing the water to both extremes at the highs and lows. The huge pan of sand the tide had exposed acted as a giant reflector removing the little shelter afforded by my hat. In the shallows a pair of herons hunted for flat fish and sand eels, the ripples from the sound barely making it up to their knees. Overhead a squadron of mergansers raced in tight formation while plovers and oystercatchers browsed the wet sand.

I paddled over a stream that meanders through the bay and serves as a dividing line between the island’s sands and those of Mull. Phil took the tractor around a longer route to the woodpile while I made a direct line through the rocks of the foreshore. In the Sound of Iona a cruise liner was occupying the main channel on a course to anchor mid way between the island of the abbey and Fionnphort the nearest point on Mull. I watched a kayaker who was following a parallel course only a little closer and laughed at the juxtaposition.

Looking back to Erraid, the little street, pier and gardens seemed equally absurd but still vital to my sense of the place. The lighthouse builders had brought Victorian order and industry, but had only imposed their will within the bounds of the settlement. Beyond the walls the wilderness and beauty of the island almost laughs at mans folly, like a leaning tower in the Grand Canyon. We loaded the trailer with logs, grunts, groans and the odd strain. The timber is the community's primary fuel and was felled about twenty miles away on Mull at a Forestry Commission plantation. We leave it a year at the pile to season before carrying it onto the island and chopping it into fire sized pieces. Phil left to collect the children from school and I drove the tractor back stopping to check on oyster catchers’ and lapwings’ nests from my portable hide.

Image Above: Broken Tap
Image Left: Oystercatcher on nest

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Sheep Round Up

Image Left: Hunter and hunted

Sheep Round Up

Tues 28th

I round the headland above the window,(a small cave that opens onto the sea) with three other volunteers. John the shepherd has taken his dogs over the dome of granite above, to search for sheep. This is a full scale round-up of the island’s flock and my job is to lead a small group around the worst of islands terrain pushing sheep ahead of us or just blocking off gullies, while John works with his dogs. We started over an hour ago as a line of about twenty people moving like beaters over the heather and the island’s high point. We passed as a wave pushing the sheep ahead like foaming crests. After descending into the central valley we formed a human corral before the group separated and our small team headed off up the side of Balfour Bay. In our absence the flock and the corral move along a side valley towards the eastern edge of the island where the await our return.

The main task for me, is not finding sheep but keeping pace with the shepherd. With only a year on the island against a lifetime’s experience I struggle. It seems at times that John and his sheepdogs almost flow through the landscape. As I trudge over rock and stumble through heather gullies the pack disappears only to remerge or overtake us as if somehow toying with the constraints of time and distance. Occasionally I find a route that enables me to dance over boulders, running on a earth of sharp points as if a little part of me belongs to the sky rather than the land. After another hour in the island’s labyrinths we come in sight of the human corral. I spot an unmanned flock a little further on and try and move around the rise they have chosen, unseen. They have moved while I am out of sight and I am not in the best position as they run on and I have no choice but to follow. While weaving through the terrain I loose my group of volunteers and have to push on alone. Soon they slow enough for me to catch my bearings and begin to turn them towards the route the rest of the flock will take to pier. I run, walk, jump and come to a halt like a dog spreading my awareness to the flock and the tiny movements that hint at direction. We sweep forward onto the gentle slope behind the croft and I pick up another couple of stragglers and a mother with new born lamb. Behind the corral and flock are on the move and I slow my sheep until they catch up. The two flocks are drawn to each other almost like drops of rain on a window.

We hold the flock behind the croft while John brings in another small group and then move off towards the beach before walking them along the track to the fold above the pier. In the afternoon the sheep receive the second part of their Blue Tongue vaccinations and a dose to discourage ticks. They slowly disperse over the afternoon to dot themselves once again amongst the rocks and heather.

Image Right: Holding the line in the heather