Return to the Islands

I moved to Millport on a bright April in 2011 and fell in love. The winter before had been hard and the island’s animal inhabitants seemed to be rejoicing in the spring. The air was thick with birdsong and the hedgerows were full of movement. Uprooting so many miles north and out to the coast, the wildlife was so different to what I was used to. I spent my free time exploring the island or wrapped up in books, planning my next adventures and catching up on my work. For three years I combined studying and working at the Marine Station with getting to know my surroundings and the secrets they contained.
Last autumn I left my island idyll to join the FSC as part of the trainee tutor scheme, spending my winter at centers in the south of England as I made the effort to transform from researcher to teacher. My winter was spent in the company of exotic migrating species, gently rolling landscapes, and unseasonable warmth. So used to the quiet island life, being in close quarters to 20 other trainees was unnerving, claustrophobic, and I looked forward to the New Year and my retreat northward. In my mind I could see the silent, clear, crisp chill of a sunny island morning, and when December 30th rolled round, I boxed myself into the car and began my long drive north.
Imaging my dismay when, after spending four months away in the sunny south, the island looked bleak – cold and uninviting. Driving from the ferry to the house, the sky and sea were a drab grey. The birds that had filled the sky when I left in the autumn were long gone, replaced by near constant drizzle unlikely to turn to snow at such low altitudes. As I unpacked my boxes back into my new flat I went through the post that had piled up whilst I’d been away; four bird watching magazines and a number of holiday brochures. The bright pictures of interesting animals and far off places seemed a far cry to the wind swept island I had returned to. Had I imagined the islands wintery wonders?
For the month of January I relied on the usually smart little black guillemots – now scruffy in their winter plumage – to keep my spirits up. The birds are a protected species, but common on the west coast of Scotland, and can reliably be seen from the beaches. When I first moved to the island they rapidly became my favourite bird species. They’re truly unique in appearance; stubbier than the more common guillemots and razorbills, with their scarlet legs and gape and black velvet plumage, the white spot on their wings flashing as they fly.

Black guillemot
Black guillemot

The late winter snow has again been hard on the birds of Cumbrae. One evening, as I extend my walk home with a walk round Farland Point I see a goldcrest foraging; the bird is so intent on feeding that it ignores me as I pass, snatching a fat overwintering caterpillar from between the gorse spikes. To my left a rock pipit sits forlornly, looking chilled, not bothering to fly away, and I silently pray for warmer winds. I re-hang my birdfeeders and am soon visited by long tailed tits and great spotted woodpecker, re-entering the garden like old friends.

Long tailed tit
Long tailed tit

Into February now, I can at last see the first signs of the island spring that I have missed. In the evening I hear the tawny owls calling in the trees, and a short drive from the ferry gives me a brief glimpse of a barn owl. The bird is most likely one of the pair that nested in the cliff last year, fledging 3 ghost like chicks from their precarious cave-home. In the day time I hunt for their roosts, peering into the trees, marking where the day-dwelling birds drive them from the trees and into the open. Underneath the trees the first signs of snowdrop and crocus are appearing, moths can be seen in the glow of the street lights, and the auks are returning from a winter spent far out at sea.

Tawny owl

Soon the spring will be here in earnest, the ravens will croak their claim over the inland cliffs as the fulmars return. With them will come grasshopper warblers, lizards, sharks, and students. They will only see the island at its finest, in the warm months; the bones of the island hidden by new growth. They will not see the owls – covered now by leafy branches – and the goldcrests and pipits will shun their sight in favour of other food, far from prying eyes. Yes they may have the gannets and the shearwaters, the otters and the minkes, they can keep the image of the smart little guillemots; they will not have this. Not for them the questing blackcaps, and the divers feeding on the wind-tossed sea. The winter is for the residents and the intrepid few. You earn your right to the winter sights of the island and you increase you appreciation of the summer months. For now, I can wait for the spring.

Photos and text by Natalie Welden


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