June 15th   Leave a comment

I was out in a kayak this afternoon and paddled from Roome Bay to West Braes and back. Hardly an adventurous voyage but it was so calm and quiet that it seemed wrong to make any sort of effort. I tried to get close to a couple of puffins that were fishing a few hundred meters from the harbour. They just dived as I approached and re-emerged fifty meters away. They can swim pretty fast underwater and their default response to danger is to dive and swim for it rather than fly. If you have ever watched a puffin taking off, particularly on a still day you will know why. They barely look capable of getting airborne and once so they wobble alarmingly as if at any moment they are going to lose control. Their wobbliness in flight is so characteristic that you can use it to identify puffins as they fly by, even when kilometres out. The other auks fly in a much more even, definite way. All the auks find it tough though to take off, with their short wings more adapted for flying underwater than in air and all will dive under the water when they feel threatened. This makes them particularly vulnerable to oiling. Gulls might fly off and leave an oiled area but auks submerge and as they get more stressed get covered again and again with each dive.

It't tough being a puffin when you want to get airborne

It’t tough being a puffin when you want to get airborne

There were also a few terns out from the May Island to take advantage of the fishing near Crail. I saw all three species: sandwich, common and Arctic in the space of an hour. At one point I had an arctic tern and a common tern flying side by side. The difference in the way they fly was as obvious as between a puffin and a guillemot. Arctic terns look like they are one of those child’s mobiles that you pull a string and the wings flap up and down, but with unnaturally deep strokes and with the body bouncing up impossibly high with each down stroke. Common terns in comparison look less like they are made of elastic – light and easy fliers for sure but much more like gulls with their bodies staying much more level with each wing beat. I really value this insights because most views of seabirds aren’t from a few meters away on a calm sea. Like for the auks, the flight action of a tern can really help to identify it when it is kilometres out.

Arctic tern - flying elastic

Arctic tern – flying elastic

At this time of year I feel slightly cheated because even as we still haven’t passed the solstice and the temperatures are still rising I start to think of the autumn approaching. I can’t help it when the signs are everywhere. Hundreds of starlings and their noisy fledglings, a few pairs of mallards and even the first goosander of the year, all in Roome Bay and settling in to moult post-breeding. There was even the first couple of black-headed gulls back after finishing (probably after losing their nest or chicks) trying to breed this year on an inland loch.

On Tuesday night it was fairly clear with a bright moon. At about 11pm Saturn was fantastically visible just by it. Through my telescope I could see the rings really well with a gap between them and the planet, and for the first time I could even see bands. Mars was glowing red a little further to the east, and I watched it a huge bright star started drifting between the planets taking a few minutes to pass across the southern sky. I was the international space station of course. Perhaps not wild or natural, but beautiful in the night sky nonetheless. Saturn will be visible in the southeast, roughly above the May Island for a bit longer and is well worth looking out for- even through binoculars you can just make out it is an odd ovoid shape because of the rings.

Posted June 15, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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