Today feels like a spring day, with a cool air, bright sun, gentle breeze and similar daylight length. What a very different experience greets the September visitor compared to May. The only seabirds to be seen on the Sumburgh Head cliffs today were shags, fulmars and a couple of herring gulls. I notice at this time of year, some birds start displaying again. I believe it is a response to the daylight length, being similar to that of spring. I hear the weekend is to be calm, but strong winds are forecast for next week. I wonder if they shall blow in any unusual visitors?
The news of a tufted puffin down south has had me scanning the seas. Not a puffin to be seen. I met a couple from the USA at the Sumburgh Head reserve yesterday. They were hoping to see puffins, but got their timings wrong. They did however find a puffin on their coastal walk to the reserve, albeit in quite a state of the decay! In an effort to console them, I directed them towards Mousa Sound and Quendale Bay for the chance of seeing porpoises. Jenny, our administrator, saw around a hundred porpoises (or neesiks as they are known here) in Quendale, and I'd seen a very active group of twenty or so at Mousa. Neesik, I think, means "Sneezer" in Old Norse, on account of the animal sounding like it's sneezing when it comes to the surface for breath.
Before I go, I have to mention my encounter the other night - nothing to do with birds. Thanks to our Field Teacher Linda, I have been learning how to SCUBA dive. In the evening, we went for a dive off of Lerwick (Shetland's capital). I greatly enjoyed kelp forests, sea urchins, dead man's fingers, and various fish species. As we surface swam back to the boat, something greyish caught my eye, just a few feet beneath me. It was getting quite dark and difficult to see and I thought it first to be seaweed and my eyes playing tricks. It twisted and turned, and then I realised there were two eyes, a mouth, limbs... it was a seal! Well, I let out an almighty girly squeaky scream (even with the breathing aparatus in my mouth!) and found out that seals can hear you scream underwater as it disappeared. It surfaced behind me, and I am pretty sure I heard it laughing at me.
Today was my first day back at work following some annual leave. I had taken some time off to go to Skye for my brother's wedding. I also managed a bit of time in Orkney, Harris and Lewis and a few places in between. It was great to walk amongst trees! Another highlight was not one but FOUR golden eagles on Harris and Lewis. I've only been off Shetland for ten days but can notice great changes. A gale has battered my trees, the sky is filled with the sound of meadow pipits and skylarks on their southerly migration and I haven't seen or heard an Arctic skua or tern.
Rather bizarrely, I couldn't get into the office today as the Norwegian version of East Enders were filming and the Local Authority closed the road. But I did make it to the lovely RSPB Mousa reserve. It was the last ferry of the year, as the weather is about to turn for the worse. I called on local volunteer Ray to help me tidy up for the winter and off we set around the island. Ray managed to fill me in on what I had missed on "Stormy Day" the previous weekend. Stormy day is the day that we visit Mousa to check on the storm petrel chicks. It is my favourite day of the year which I was vexed to miss, but couldn't miss my brothers wedding for the love of a seabird.
In the 1980s, the RSPB's Mark Bolton did a lot of research into storm petrels and installed nest boxes to help with his study. We check the nest boxes around the 11th of September with local ornithologists Dave Okill and Roger Riddington. It's fabulous that, whilst most birds are finished for the breeding season, on a small island straddling the 60 North line, tiny chicks are in their nests waiting their next feed. Storm petrels feed on plankton as they pitter patter across the sea surface. Ray told me that judging from the size and number of chicks, 2009 was a better breeding season for these tiny seabirds than 2008. There was the usual mix of tiny and well grown chicks. Mark found that chicks may still be present on Mousa in November! How amazing. It is entirely natural that the chicks are late fledgers, but climate change does seem to be having an impact on storm petrels also. Mark and Dave have found that the productivity of storm petrels relates to the surface sea temperatures in May. More research is required to better understand the effects of climate change on these superb wee birds.
The joy of hearing about the success of another of our seabirds was dampened when we spotted a seal pup suffering wounds around its neck. It was tangled up in fishing nets. Who knows whether this stuff ended up in the sea purposely or accidentally. I have contacted Ron, the local SSPCA Officer who has much experience in this sort of thing. Ideally the pup would be captured, assessed and the netting removed with minimal upset. We've removed a grey seal pup with similar injuries from Mousa, which went on to be cared for and released by the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary. The seal today is not a simple case as currently it is mobile and strong enough to escape to the sea. Now that there is no more ferries to Mousa, the situation is even more difficult.
Not only do marine creatures have to battle against the effects of climate change but still, even in these days of heightened environmental awareness and responsibilty, still they have to deal with pollution from us - often with fatal consequences. I am not holding out much hope for the fate of this small pup, born on Mousa in June.