Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Web

Image above: The mark left by a hawk's beak in a seagull’s feather
The Web
Thursday 14th January

A sparrowhawk rises from the jumble of rocks that make up the shoreline. Its wings are stiffened, thumb feathers drawn in like the hand of swimmer pushing water. It tilts its body as if a sudden gust has caught it off guard and in doing so flashes the white of its chest against the darkness of a rain shadow. Its a female and she puffs away over heather hugging the contours until she is out of sight. I amble over wondering if I had disturbed her while she was with a kill, although her talons had been empty. I find only sea tossed debris, polystyrene and plastic bottles.

Forgetting the hawk I move on enjoying the unfamiliar softness of boggy ground after a month of hard labour on frozen earth. The Sound of Iona is all chop, waves beating relentlessly again the rocks with all the ineffectualness of child’s tantrum. A hundred yards on and lost in thought the first feathers of a kill go unnoticed until I stumble into the midst of what looks like a pillow fight gone wrong. I look for a carcass or a trace of bloodied flesh but it has gone, only the feathers remain. I collect some primaries for identification and guess the victim was a seagull. Today is not the day for unpicking a crime scene, the hawk may only have been responsible for the idea of a kill rather than the culprit.

Back at home, I retrieve the feathers from my pocket and place them in order of size. Five are from the right wing with one stray from the left; its camber arcing in opposite direction. Superficially they appear to be in good condition, their quills still intact despite having been grasped and ripped from the wing. The soft parts are pock marked and I remember the shape of a hawk’s bill from other encounters. This is frenzy, each tiny mark is the jabbing of a beak as it searches for a lever to grasp. There a hundreds of these punctures in my small collection of feathers to have plucked the whole bird with one beak seems almost a labour of love.

I fish out my microscope from the bottom of the bookcase and set it up on the windowsill table. Outside dusk has begun to gather about the mountains. Ben More the highest of the range has spent the day shrouded in mist and there are no fireworks this evening as the sun leaves the bay to climb the heights. Even on a low magnification the feather gives up its intricacy. Each tiny filament that branches away from the central quill is fringed with rows of fine barbs that mesh with those of the neighbouring filaments; creating a web both strong and yet flexible. I move the feather and find a puncture and imagine the shape of the bill its hollow triangular section indelibly marked into the web. Part of me understands the hawks frustration, grasping at something so apparently solid that it can cradle the wind and yet still be so insubstantial. Despite the hole the web stands, but other feathers have almost lost their rigidity under the assault.

I look for the marks left by the beak’s final grip on the shaft as it pulled the feather from the flesh and find a delicate pinhole. On others the force exerted by the tip of the bill has shattered the translucent quills like a biro crushed underfoot. I pack away the microscope non the wiser as to the culprit, higher magnifications always expose the gaps both physical and in my understanding of the world. Tonight the wind is already erasing the drama from the landscape and feathers will reclaim their anonymity freed from the burden of being evidence.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Under Ice

Image above: Seal Paw In The Sand
Under ice
Sunday 10th January

Yesterday’s tracks remain undisturbed, overnight a sheet of ice has consigned the wanderings of the beach’s devotees to a museum exhibit, a world behind glass. I follow the prints of a rabbit to the grassy margins of the sand and lumber up over the turf to find the bleached skull of another. It seems that death stalks the land while the world waits under ice. There is always expectancy to be found in the drip of an icicle under the sun or the soft lapping of salt water at the ice. Already the wading birds have begun to think about territories, lapwings stride over the grass in ownership and take to air in its defence squawking at trespassers. I remember the plans I had made for a hawk’s nest box and wonder whether the return of spring will once again confirm me as a procrastinator.

Below, the triangle of a beach nicknamed the Little Caribbean stretches away to meet a constellation of rocky islets and outcrops. The sand occupies the white part of the spectrum, its crusted ice coating almost phosphorescing in its brilliance. The water sits easy in shallow lagoons thinning out the oceans depth of colour until it appears only tinted but dense like toughened glass. The sky touched by scattered cloud still holds to its nitrogen blue. Today vision is all elemental as if hues and subtlety have been banished and replaced with industrially applied colour; this is paint by numbers for the numerically challenged.

I walk on out to the islets and their accompanying shallows and find myself transfixed by the interplay of light each wavelet brings to the beach. But I am no casual observer, the refracted and the reflected sunlight only sparkles for me. If I move, the light moves with me and so like everyone I get my own personal sunbeam.

From over the wide expanse of beach death travels on the breeze and I follow, finding a claw half buried in sand and ice. It takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust and then comprehend my vision, at last an image emerges of a seal lying like a child at rest from making snow angels. This is white on white, bleached fur, seashell sand and a shroud of ice. I resist the urge to kneel and take the paw within my hands. The smell returns as the air eddies; the carcass has been punctured and emptied leaving the skin to tightened over its ribs like the canvas of a canoe, I move away.

Image below: Golden Plover, Preening

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Fishing for Erraid

Image above: Scorpion Fish
Fishing for Erraid (The Weird Windowsill Fish)
Monday 4th January

The wind has started again and like a jukebox brought to life by some otherworldly coin it has begun to rattle out melodies on the cottage windows. I walk across the sand of Christine’s bay with a bucket in hand trailing a garden rake as my youngest son nods in his sling somewhere in the outer layers of my winter clothing. Occasionally the rake hits a solid object in the sand and I stop to investigate an empty shell or a stone. I walk on towards the narrows and a spot where a couple of days ago I had stopped the tractor between firewood runs to hunt for cockles. The picking’s had not been great and later after watching an old documentary about Morecambe Bay’s cocklers I realised just how poor my takings had been.

I find the tyre tracks and the marks left by my previous excavations, the tides have softened and healed the scares. Leaving the bucket on the sand I begin to rake and after half a dozen strokes the blade clunks against a shell and I roll a cockle out onto the undisturbed sand before scooping it into the bucket. I wonder how a tool so rudely made could carry the resonance of a hard shell and soft body as perfectly as a tuning fork reaches pitch. Iron-handed I work my way between the high and low water marks. I image striking a seam of densely populated sand, but still it is ten or twelve strokes between cockles. A little disheartened I move down to the river and find the low banks littered with empty shells. Here the sand gives way to deposits of gravel carried as bed load, each pebble a single piece of mountain. In places live cockles dislodged from the sand and gravel lie on the surface decorated by the sun with patches of algae. I leave these to the hooded crows who drop them on favoured rocks and then daintily pick at their lunch.

The afternoon has moved on, and I look up to find the sun has left the bay for the mountains. Away over the sand I spot my wife, I wait toying with a bank of gravel and we walk on together up the river. Deep in the corner of the bay we find one of the fish traps the local shepherd had told us about, it consists of a dwarf wall in a crescent shape with a small outlet or shoot. Rising tides bring fish from the sound like mullet and flatties as well as salmon and sea trout although the latter are generally headed up river to spawn. If the shoot is blocked or netted it effectively cuts off the retreat back to the sea. We never asked about the history of the traps but a part of me wonders about future use.

Out of the sun the wind begins to bite and we head back stopping randomly to prospect. My wife draws me back to patch of gritty sand that makes a small island in the river. With little more than a starter’s worth for an afternoons work I decide to give it one last go. Every stroke brings up two or three cockles and after five minutes we have collected enough to half fill the bucket. We wander back in the gathering dusk, up on the hill behind the cottages the cows are silhouetted against a mackerel sky. I carry on down the street to the main kitchen to collect some milk and stop to look at a pair of scorpion fish in a windowsill fish tank.

A guest who had stayed with us in the summer asked in worried tone one morning whether it was normal to see fish crawling out of the sea. An explanation about the walking fins of scorpion fish seemed to put him at ease. Later I wondered whether he had been slightly disappointed as I imagined he had been harbouring the belief the fish had come to talk.

From the windowsill the scorpion fish look on in abject boredom as if the street was the least interesting rock pool they had ever had the misfortune to be stumble into.

P.S. The scorpion fish were rescued from an abandoned creel and released later that evening after a photo shoot, unharmed if not a little bored; the cockles weren’t so lucky.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Tree With Lights

Image left: Ice On Balfour Bay
The Tree With Lights
Christmas Day 25th December 2009

The low winter sun had failed to reach into the depths of Balfour Bay leaving the sand with a thick coating of ice. Where the curtain of light has reached the margins it lies crumpled, bejewelling the frosted sand and chasing icy fingers from the rocks and foliage. I walk the ice bridges over an entombed stream until their fragile backs break and the granite walls of the valley echo under the sound.

Up in the sunlight the island shines, bracken and heather gilded and woven into the finest of tweeds. Even the ocean has been subdued and laps at the island’s shores sending small riffles through the shallows. Below the island’s high point a hen harrier is sailing on thin current of air while its shadow is projected almost horizontally onto rock faces by the low sun. Mid way though the bank of a turn it folds its wings and drops into the heather like stone wrapped in a handkerchief. I wait for it to emerge and it duly flaps over the ridge and out of sight.

I remember it is Christmas day and naively expect the universe to make some kind of seasonal grand gesture; maybe piped music, lights and a tree. Back on the ridge a kestrel has taken over patrolling from the harrier, I stand in the half light of the bay looking into a dome of blue as the wings of the hawk flicker.