In her fourth and final column from Shetland, Jennifer Lucy Allan learns to identify the island’s birdlife
I know nothing about birds. Until this trip, the only thing I could spot outside of picture-book blue tits, robins and magpies was the pale buff grey wood pigeons that stalked the garden at my parents’ house like fat emperors, whose calls I had learned to imitate with two clasped hands on a holiday with cousins aged eight. Sumburgh is one of the best places to watch seabirds in the UK, and with a borrowed pair of binoculars and the luxury of a panoramic window, I intend to improve my knowledge.
The first thing I learn: there is no such thing as a seagull. I am told this by Jane, who works for the Shetland Amenity Trust and organises the residencies here. She comes to the cafe to prepare it for the summer season and lends me a book on Shetland birds, explaining what we can see from the window. The birds wheeling around the cliffs are fulmar, she says. They spit smelly oil as a defence mechanism and can be spotted by their stiff wing shape when flying.
The guillemot are out feeding for the day, and the puffins the headland is known for only arrive around March. They are much smaller than people expect: pigeon-sized, not penguin-sized. The tiny rust-chested fluffballs I watch bouncing between the railings on the viewing deck are twite, named onomatopoeically for the sound they make.
When they wheel close enough to the window, I can see the fulmar’s tube-like protuberance above their beaks, as if someone started a beak, got it wrong, and started again underneath. It makes them look grumpy, but means they smell things better, and it’s how they
expel salt from the sea. They croak in a broken-voiced chatter that I learn to distinguish from the heavy craw-craw of the great black-backed gulls that dwarf all of the other birds.
Every few days the guillemots return from feeding, and huddle in crowds on the small stepped ledges of the sheer black-grey rocks, all facing the same way, precariously balanced in an irregular herringbone of black and white. I learn to recognise an oystercatcher’s pleepsing call before I see its black and white colour-blocked body, boldly accessorised with red legs and beak. My ears and my eyes are sharpening.
All these birds also have their own Shetland names, combinations of Old Norse, Celtic and Scandinavian names. Fulmar are maalie, the twite are lintie, a puffin is a tammie norie, and the great black backed gull is a swaabie. The names are layers of languages and sounds made by birds and people.
On a walk up to the radar station, a fulmar circles me in huge loops all the way back as I trudge along the ridge. I try to look for kittiwakes, which a sign says I should see, and I spend some time trying to establish whether the large black bird down on the rocks is a shag or a cormorant. I fail to come to a conclusion. The book is good, but Jane is better. I have learned far more from her than I can manage on my own.
Down at the headland, where the yellow grass is flattened like coarse wet hair from last week’s storm, the fulmar wheel in huge numbers. Two collide in a soft papery thud a few metres from my head, and another skims the grass, just brushing the steeply sloping ground where the water has collected in puddles and pools and trickles down from the fields in deep rivulets gouged from the soft soil.
I had previously resented those who appeared to luxuriate in the minuscule shifts of a landscape and its inhabitants. The joy of seeing the changing of seasons in intimate details is often only available to those with the luxury of time to watch and listen, to walk the same place over months or years.
I resent it unfairly, because it represents a stable connection to a place of a sort I do not have, and I am envious. I have not slept in my own bed for one continuous month in over a year. Living between cities and countries, with new loves and old friendships scattered across the UK and Europe, it is not places that feel like home to me, but people.
But by the end of my time here, despite days spent off the island working, I have sunk into this landscape. I notice daily changes in the sea’s surface, in the sound of the wind, in the different lights of dawn and dusk and the slowly lengthening days.
I am struck by these small differences. One day a sea spray hangs as a threshold of mist around Horse Island, and a while later a lumpen milky froth appears on the surface of the water. Another day is so calm I can see, or imagine I can see, shadows moving under the glassy surface like great sea monsters gliding silently through the sea. On one nippy Tuesday the light turns soft, a wind whipping the breakers around the rocks into a fine spray picked out in sunbeams half way across to Fair Isle.
I notice the days when the guillemot have gone, leaving white shit streaked on the black rocks like a tide-mark of their monochrome habit, and I notice when they come back. Some days the fulmar soar much higher than others, and on others they wobble, knocked by invisible wind currents. I am gulping in this constantly changing sky and sea, learning to gauge the wind strength from behind a window by observing the acuteness of the angle of their wings.
I planned to hire a car and go north, but there was too much to look at around Sumburgh Head. I had expected to go a bit mad with no shop, no pub, no people. But in the choice between sitting at these windows for days on end and heading out, the former kept winning.
By the end of the month I had settled in, was luxuriating in details. I did not feel bored, because the view was infinite. There was nothing to do and nothing else I should have been doing.
When I could see that far, there was always something to look at. I did not want to come home.