Twelve thousand Common Murres, Uria aalge, known as Guillemots in the UK, nest on Staple Island. Murres eschew nesting material and just use shallow depressions on the rocky surface of such “bird cliffs.” Their eggs are rather more pointy on one end than your typical egg, so that, if nudged or knocked, they should roll around in a circle… instead of off a ledge.Choate says “murre” is probably of Celtic origin. “Guillemot” is from the French Guillaume, making these birds “little Williams.” The final “t” is pronounced in Great Britain.A small percentage of Murres are of the brindled or ringed variety, with white around the eye and flaring back in a down-curving line. This percentage increases as you get further north.Sets you apart in a crowd. But with so many birds crowded together to nest, wouldn’t the birds simply confuse eggs? Turns out their eggs have a high degree of variation, presumably to help parents identify them.
1. It’s hard to focus an iPhone in the wind with one hand.
2. Looks like I need a manicure. Although I’ve have never had one, so I probably won’t ever get one.
3. Never believe anybody when they say the city is a sterile wasteland with nothing but pigeons and a surplus of rats. Just down the block from a Kestrel nest in the valley of the industrial-wasteland bordering the Superfund site of the Gowanus, I find a Multicolored Asian Lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) on something growing out of the crack between sidewalk and building.
The Farnes are a series of outcroppings of igneous dolerite known locally as the Whinstone Sill starting a mile and and half off of the town of Seahouses, Northumberland. There are 15-20 of them, the ambiguity depending on the tide. Uninhabited except for bird wardens working for the National Trust, the larger rocks in the cluster were once the purview of monks and then lighthouse keepers. Local Victorian heroine Grace Darling (could she have a more perfect name?), a sturdy lass with the oars, is famous for helping her lighthouse-keeper father rescue crew members of a wrecked ship; the area was long treacherous to ships and is littered with wrecks. A family of European Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis); if you’re seeing green on the adult, good, because get this way during breeding season.Now days, the Farnes are littered with guano. About 21 species of birds nest on the islands, with Guillemots (a.k.a. Common Murre) and Puffins the most numerous: in 2013, there were 12,942 Guillemots and 11,151 Puffins on Staple alone. Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla, we call them Black-legged Kittiwakes on this side of the Atlantic) are the third most numerous breeder. Just under a 1000 were on Staple in 2013. They prefer tiny ledges for their sticky nests. They typically have just one chick. The islands are also a big tourist attraction: several boat companies operate out of Seahouses, which has a definite “Puffin Season” this time of year. You pay for both the boat trip and the National Trust’s entrance fee (₤7.40) if you’re not an NT member. We opted for the 2.5-3 hour (₤15) morning trip to Staple with the Billy Shiels company. Keep an eye on the weather: we heard that afternoon trippers were poured on by the rain (by then we were safe inside the Olde Ship Inn with Black Sheep Bitter).The islands smell distinctively of fish, the main food for practically everybody there, and all that fishy guano, which whitewashes the cliffs. Of course, there are those who eat anything and everything, including other birds. Above, Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) keep an eye on the Puffins.This European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus, considered different from our Herrring Gulls, L. smithsonianus) was unsuccessful at swallowing this dead something chick.The only pair of Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) I spotted. (There were 58 Fulmars recorded on Staple in 2013.) Banding has proven that these pelagic birds — they only come ashore to breed — can have a mean lifespan of 34 years, and some have lived half a century, outlasting the people who banded them. There are also Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) in the surrounding waters and rocks and small shingle beaches. On Inner Farne, Atlantic Terns were nesting, so you’ll need a hat if you go there; they are fiercely protective of their nesting space and will dive-bomb you and shit on you (I had that experience in Iceland, thank you.)Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus), different from American Oystercatchers (H.palliatus) but just as noisy.
Yesterday afternoon, I walked over the canal and was surprised by a pair of Kestels cavorting in the air, then two more, flying about. I didn’t have my real camera, so for our post-prandial constitutional we walked down into the valley to see if we could catch the family again. I’d spotted the nest earlier, in a rotten cornice, as is usual here in the city, but at sunset there was no sign of them. Still, there were compensations: these things, and Swifts, and then, nearing home, the fireflies.
You never forget your first Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). Mine was, alas, quite dead, a veritable ex-Puffin, gone to join the Choir Invisible. It was being inquisitively pecked at by a Herring Gull on Nantucket’s South Shore. The scavenger was put out and aloft by my approach, and the small dead auk of the family Alcidae was in pristine shape, recently passed, not yet breached by the gull’s bill nor too mussed by the waves that had tumbled it ashore. I probably should have gathered it up as a specimen for the Maria Mitchell collection. Nantucket is too far south for any regular appearance of Puffins. But this was before I was an actual bird-watcher. On a trip to Iceland in 2010, I saw a few Puffins with their seemingly inadequate wings beating swiftly as they raced along off-shore, but the steep coastal hill we drove up to, a reliable Puffin nesting ground for generations, had been abandoned. A local said the surrounding waters had gotten too warm for the fish the birds ate. Then, last year, anticipation (and stomach!) mounting, I took a boat around a Puffin rock off of Maine, but it was raining, visibility stunk, and I was green around the gills from the rolling, roiling sea. Not a good time was had.But now, I can finally report that I’ve been to Puffinland, and it was good. These astonishingly colorful bills are a characteristic of the breeding season, as is the make-up like intensity of the facial patterning, and, indeed, finding the birds on land at all. Outside of these summer months, Puffins spend their whole lives at sea. Only breeding brings them ashore: they lay their eggs in burrows on grassy slopes on coastal cliffs. Just such a place is Staple, one of the Farne Islands off the Northumberland shore, run by the National Trust. There will be more pictures to come of the other breeding species found there. So tonic to be reminded of the wonders and marvels of the planet.
The owl of Minerva overlooking wee Jamie Boswell’s brilliant career. National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.At the kirk in Duddingston, Edinburgh.On the exterior of The Salmon, in Belford. Presumably an earlier incarnation of the inn….In Craster, under the pall of the smokehouse working on the town’s famous kippers (cf. Salmon Rushdie’s first brush with the things).In Alnmouth.Saw this in two different spots and wondered. Turns out to be the symbol of the old Martins Bank, defunct since 1969. 16th century beginnings with London goldsmiths, who banked under the sign of the Grasshopper.The bird is Liverpool’s “Liver Bird,” a cormorant which has been the city’s symbol since at least the 14th C. It joined the Grasshopper after a merger with Bank of Liverpool in 1928. A Red Squirrel in a mosaic at the National Portrait Gallery. The animal itself, Sciurus vulgaris, is in critical condition in the UK due to the invasive Gray (yes, our familiar North American park inhabitant) and habitat loss. The Grey is not only larger and more aggressive but carries a pox which it is immune to but which horribly disfigures and kills the Red. We saw a Grey in Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden, but no Reds anywhere. The Berwick Red Squirrel Group’s hazelnut-filled boxes were noted in Shiellow Wood south of Fenwick.There is a war going in the UK between large landowners, their myrmidon gamekeepers, and raptors and their allies. The landowners make money from game-bird hunters, and claim raptors kill too many grouse and pheasant (an introduced species, by the way, which we saw and heard far more times than we saw raptors), so the gamekeepers poison and shoot raptors (all illegal, but money talks loudest of all in Thatcher’s neoliberal encampment). The Hen Harrier in particular is under severe threat from the eradicationists.
This is Arthur’s Seat, a volcanic outcropping turned into a park surrounded by Edinburgh and environs. The sticky toffee pudding at the Sheep’s Heid on the far side was magnificent. I nursed an angry British bee’s sting in the ear over it and a pint.We stayed close to the Royal Botanic Garden and de-jetlagged there. Its Rock Garden in particular was superb.Joining us for a cuppa in the Garden, as corvids harried a Buzzard above us and Dunnock, Magpie, and Herring Gulls mooched from the tables.After a few days in the Scottish capital, we walked the 59 or so miles of the Northumberland Coast Path from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Warkworth over five days. Unlike my Dartmoor walk of two years ago, this path was well-blazed, and the North Sea was ever present except for one in-land loop. While the official path itself mostly ran up on the dunes, we also had Ian Smith’s book to guide us along the shore itself. And the always amazing Ordnance Survey maps (Explorer 1:25:000 scale, map numbers 332 & 340).Rocky outcrops and curving beaches alternated along the coast. The whole trip was scheduled around the tides at Lindisfarne, a.k.a. Holy Island, whose causeway is only accessible during low tide, so our mornings usually coincided with low tides and safe access to some beaches.Sandstone, limestone (and old lime kilns), and the Whinstone Sill were our major geological features.We had to ford a few small burns running into the sea. Just before this one, a warden watching over nesting Little Terns and Ringed Plover privileged us with a viewing of the birds on the sand. The morning’s walk from Belford back to the coast was rather mizzling (a word I knew from Thoreau; it turned out to be Scots as well), very much snail weather, in the fields we edged.