I have just returned from a trip Doon Sooth ("Doon Sooth" to many Shetlanders is anything south of Fair Isle). I was away at the new RSPB Scottish Headquarters in Edinburgh. The office is less characterful as the old place but it is still full of characters.
I feel a mix of excitement and fear going to the city. Fear of fumes, getting murdered (too much Inspector Rebus novels!), getting run over and such like. My "inner child" has never quite been internalised, so I still get visibly excited by the likes of escalators and double decker buses. I happened to make friends with a child psychiatrist whilst southbound, and I couldn't help but wonder what he made of the "ooh" sounds I made, particularly when I noticed that the lesser celandine was out and there were rabbits in Edinburgh!
A trip to East Lothian with friend and artist Howard, revealed a beautiful pair of avocets (we even saw them displaying and mating), reed buntings, chaffinches, long-tailed tits and so on. It was interesting to watch Howard as he sketched the birds, capturing their movement and form so effortlessly. I took a moment to ponder on how fitting it was that the avocet is the logo of the RSPB. One bird can represent so much. I also took a moment to enjoy a bit of toad love action that was going on in the boat pool. There aren't toads in Shetland.
A trip to the SOC centre at Aberlady was worthwhile. What an amazing collection of bird books, bird art, bird information and in a lovely setting. We took time to enjoy the India exhibition by the Artists For Nature group. From here we visited the amazing Ormiston Yew. Those who know Shetland will understand that trees are something of a novelty to Shetland folk. However, I don't think anyone could say that the Ormiston Yew is not an outstanding tree. At over 1000years old, the tree sprawls out and forms a "cathedral" and has been witness to many a secret meeting. Historical figure John Knox is documented to have been there. We had our own special meeting there, when a gentleman appeared through the branches and said "Hello Howard." Here was a favourite artist of mine, John Busby. Howard had been on one of John's courses nearby at North Berwick some time ago. What a small world!
It was great to visit the mainland and to see different birds, trees, toads and notice how spring has sprung around Edinburgh. However, it is wonderful to return to the familiarity of Shetland, and particularly Sumburgh Head. I hear a handful of puffins were seen a couple of days ago, killer whales went past only yesterday and the Shetland wrens are singing in full voice. Sometimes, as full voiced Dolly Parton has sung, you need to go away to remind you of what you've already got.
Sorry this entry has not particularly been about Shetland. Mousa Boat Trips start running this weekend, and I can't say how much I am looking forwards to stepping back on the island. I'll look forwards to sharing news from our Shetland reserves now spring is picking up pace.
Hiyi Shetland Group. As I type this blog, the wind is absolutely howling outside. It took a bit of strength just to open the car door. I'm glad that yesterday was a lot calmer as we had our monthly Shetland RSPB Wildlife Explorer Group meeting.
With fellow volunteers Sharon and Sarah, we headed west (stopping for good nosh and an art fix at the Bonhoga) to the lovely community of Aith, situated at the head of the sheltered Aith Voe. We'd hired the Community Room in the Leisure Centre, and (being fans of alliteration) called the day "Mad March Mammals" so to discover more about the land mammals which occur in Shetland.
Due to the Ice Age, all Shetland land mammals are introduced by people, by accident or on purpose. We had a chat about the mammals of Shetland and had a giggle at Sharons' quiz "Who Dung That?" which you can imagine. We decided to go down to the shore, to collect some beach stones to do some arty stuff with and see what wildlife we could find. A local brother and sister led the way for the group, who had come from all over the isles.
Seashores are excellent places to explore with children. Straight away the youngsters and their adults were discovering what life was in amongst seaweed, the burn and under rocks. Discoveries included butterfish, some kind of eel-type fish (maybe, as a parent suggested, a young conger eel), dahlia anemones, sea pen casts, and massive mussels. One boy even found a whale bone! Time flew by, so all living things were retuned to the shore and we returned to the Centre to make mammal art using stones, paints, pipe cleaners, sea shells and the all important googly eyes.
Sharon pointed out that Aith was about the only place in Shetland she's been and not seen a rabbit. In fact, the only kind of mammal we saw was of the woolly variety. However, a good time was had by all. One of the most rewarding thing for us volunteers was seeing the children, dressed in wellies, waterproofs and warm hats, make new pals. What more can you want from a Wildlife Explorer day on a Shetland Sunday afternoon?
On Friday night, our local Up Helly A was on. A fiery procession of hundreds of guizers marched down the Sumburgh Head road (from the quarries famous for the odd rarity), towing a beautiful replica viking galley. Standing in horizontal sleet, we watched the procession, enjoying the brass band and the colourful costumed squads - including vikings, alpacas, snowmen, chessmen and the Queen. The skies cleared as the procession gathered on the Grutness beach, and then with a final cheer from the Guizer Jarl and his squad, the boat was pushed to sea and the flaming torches thrown upon her.
There was something quite special about the mix of fire, ice and sea. The squads departed, and I shot off home for a quick eye-liner repair job and pick up my homebakes before going to the Ness Boating Club to serve on the bar. The Up Helly A festivals are a great community event, and the dance had folk aged from nine to ninety all gathered together in celebration. Some lucky folk who stepped outside got treated with a display of the Northern Lights around 11pm, in the background was the sound of the Cullivoe Dance Band playing a marathon of strip the willows, Boston two-steps and reels. Shetlanders know how to party and the performances and dancing were still on-going after 4am!
I got to bed just before 6am but was woken mid-morning by the phone ringing. It was my mother saying she was watching killer whales passing her house! I couldn't believe my luck, as exactly a week prior I had been watching pilot whales in Lerwick harbour. Experience has taught me not to feel too lucky until I've actually seen the whales, so I quickly readied myself and headed toward Grutness, near Sumburgh Head reserve. Imagine my relief and joy when I saw a bull whale's fin breaking the surface of the water. My brother was lucky enough to get this picture from Sumburgh Airport.
With friends Hannah, Jenny and her two boys (and canines Sparky and Apollo) we enjoyed the views of whales, with the sun glistening off their bodies as they passed towards Sumburgh Head. We took a brief jaunt up to the lighthouse, and watched as the whales moved south. It seemed as if there were a pod of three and of four, but it was difficult to say for sure. I hear there were Risso's dolphins at Fetlar and harbour porpoises in Lerwick, so the near perfect sea conditions were a blessing to nature lovers.
Whilst we've had a weekend of sleet, gales and sunshine, the signs of spring are becoming ever more evident. I saw the leaves of marsh marigolds for the first time this year, and there are ever more oystercatchers returning. The signs are all very welcome after a long, cold dark winter.
Best wishes from Sumburgh Head