Friday 21 June 2013

Isle of May - day seven. An owl, a whale, a Scottish folk singer.

Friday 14th June


Departed Low Light around 6.30am to check the traps. Due to two days of finding nothing, I'd just stated,  
'we're probably wasting our time',
from Keith,
and we began running forwards into the heligoland trap, waving arms and making noise... and the owl flew to the catching box... and Keith caught it. 7am in the Arnott Trap.


This was even better than the shrike and the puffin. Owls are my absolute favourites. Wonderful creatures. Ours was a female, ringing age code 5 (hatched during previous year). Wing length 293mm, weight 218 grams. Her eyes were like glass beads, orange and black, they pierced right through you. Her feathers were long and soft and in beautiful buffs, tans, browns and whites. Her legs and feet (to the very tips of her toes) were covered in a soft and fine tan-coloured down. Her talons were black and long and curved. Her 'ear' tufts stuck right up, perhaps an inch. These tufts that you see on some owls don't actually mark the ears; the ears are odd curve openings behind and below the eyes, only seen if you part the feathers there. The large facial discs around either eye of an owl are thought to help channel sound toward the ear holes, rather like a satellite dish.

As she was being ringed I made a few pages of ultra-quick sketches. The Fluke Street residents were roused and seven or eight scientists and staff actually left beds early to see her, and said it was worth the early wake-up. Apparently a long-eared owl on the island at this time of year is a very rare event – read more on warden Dave's blog here.

One of those who came out to see was the brilliant Karine Polwart, well-known Scottish folk singer whose music I listen to all the time. She and storyteller Claire McNeil were on the island for a couple of days prior to Sunday performances in the South Horn as part of the island's Seabird Open Day.

After the owl I went back to my Pilgrim's Haven spot and using ink and watercolour greatly improved yesterday's start:

For the rest of my time pre-breakfast I sketched puffins – it was my second last day on the island and there are few other places where you can find yourself surrounded by tens of thousands of them. When you start to look closely they're tricky; the facial and beak patterns and markings are complicated. And they seem very jumpy, heads constantly switching left to right, to forward, to left, to forward, to right, etc. Perhaps they do this more than other birds or perhaps I just noticed it more because of the extra large side-on surface area of face and beak.

Around noon, looking from outside Low Light over a flat calm sea, I saw... a whale! It was a minke, far out but seen well through binoculars.
From my sketchbook:
“Minke whale. Lunchtime. I spotted from Low Light. It was up and down on and off over several hours. Each time we saw it it would appear two or three times, coming up for air. Long dark back; long and backwards curving fin. Nose came up once or twice. Quite sharply pointed.”

Hallgeir, James and Keith were all around to watch. Karine was passing and joined us (plus chat and art-showing). There were porpoises too, though I'm not sure I saw them. It scuppered work plans for a couple of hours; we couldn't take our eyes of the sea. Once the resurfacings seemed to have stopped I continued with my shag painting of yesterday. It's still to be worked on:

After tea I again drew puffins, enjoying getting to know their shapes.

New birds seen:

female blackcap (top garden)
long-eared owl

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