Buxton Heath

My first year at UEA is over, which inevitably means it’s time for reflection. It won’t come as a surprise that I joined the university’s Conservation and Wildlife Society. Through it, I’ve become acquainted with one particular reserve via our volunteering efforts. I refer to Buxton Heath.

Buxton Heath is a commons managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It is mostly dry lowland heath, but also has extensive areas of wet heath, rough pasture, bog and birch scrub. In recent years, however, there has been concern about this particular habitat overtaking others, and to combat this it frequently deploys the Conservation and Wildlife Society.

I’ve participated in a variety of activities in my first year, including cutting down  birch saplings, creating bonfires of branches and digging ponds. The first few Saturdays in which I volunteered were in the winter, and I will freely admit that, at that time of year, the heath can be a dreary place: even without the downpours I had to endure, it’s cold, colourless and seemingly lacking in any sort of life. But come Spring, the flowers emerge, colour returns to the trees and Buxton Heath becomes very inviting indeed.

This is in a large part due to the birdlife. Woodcock and snipe can be seen all year round, in no small part due to the aforementioned pond-digging that the Conservation Society have been doing for several years creating plenty of wetland habitat. When the warmer months come around, however, the newly-verdant woods are awash with the song of blackcaps, chiffchaffs and cetti’s warblers, with the occasional cheeky cackle of green woodpeckers for good measure. The long grass is also ideal for mice and voles- and kestrels. On a good day volunteering, I’ve seen three kestrels in an afternoon.

I’ve mentioned the reptiles that inhabit Buxton Heath, but the same sunny and exposed conditions that make it such a good habitat for them also benefit a wide variety of invertebrates. The paths that have been cut through the heather have created exposed soil, creating an ideal habitat for minotaur beetles, and as such, the paths are littered with their burrows. Scan the heather, and you have a good chance of finding mining bees and sand wasps.

However, where the reserve really stands out is fungi. An eager mushroom enthusiast might find turkey tail, shaggy parasol, fly agaric to name a few. But a true speciality is the presence of the nail fungus Poronia punctata, a species was only discovered in Norfolk in 2012, and is found on only a handful of sites across the UK.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the herd of Dartmoor ponies that graze on the heath. If you do ever go down there, I would suggest that you seek out these ponies-they’re very friendly and their presence has brightened up plenty of wet days for me.

Norfolk boasts an A-List of nature reserves: Strumpshaw Fen, Titchwell, Holkham, Cley Marshes, to name a few. Buxton is far, far removed from these distinguished names; Nonetheless, it has a real charm to it, and enough wildlife to make it well worth a visit.

 

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Reptiles of Norfolk

Once again, university work has occupied a large part of my time, and consequentially I’ve fallen behind on this blog. Now that I am finally getting around to writing a new post, however, my first year at university is almost over.

Just as Year 1 draws to a close, however, UEA and its surrounding nature is at its most beautiful. Norwich is a surprisingly green city, at least around the Student Village where I live, and just now the trees are budding in profusion: the oaks have their leaves out, the birches have catkins, and there’s even some cherry blossom still there. There’s also plenty to keep any birdwatcher occupied, and due to some recent sunny spells in Norfolk, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time at the lake on UEA Campus, which at this time of year has nesting common terns, displaying great-crested grebes and a variety of songbirds, including my first blackcap.

All this, however, is for another time. The subject of this post is reptiles. In the nearly three years this blog has been active, I’ve barely mentioned reptiles, if at all. There’s a simple reason why that is: Britain has very few species of reptile, with only three species of lizards and snakes each. Scotland has fewer still, with only two lizards and one snake, and all of them are small, unobtrusive and can bolt away in a second when seen. However, since arriving back at UEA for the final term of the year, I’ve managed to make up for lost time by seeing four of Britain’s six reptile species.

I saw my first ever grass snake about three weeks ago, on my way down to the lake. This encounter only lasted a few seconds, however, as I tried to pursue it through the undergrowth, with predictable results. However, one week later I had more success as, following the course of the River Wensum from the University Village, I came across a pond with a grass snake swimming across its surface. Grass snakes are in fact firmly attached to water- not only can they swim, but they can stay submerged for over an hour. This makes them one of the top predators in pond ecosystems, with both tadpoles and adult frogs and toads forming the majority of their diet.

One day before that second encounter, I was volunteering on Buxton Heath, a reserve just under an hour’s drive from Norwich, which frequently employs UEA’s Conservation and Wildlife Society as a taskforce. Usually after a working in the morning and if the weather is good, we take a wildlife walk around the heath. On this particular day, one species was ubiquitous: the common lizard, of which I saw at least twenty in the space of an hour.

The highlight of that day, however, was lifting up one of the metal slabs dotted around the heath, and finding a slow worm and a juvenile adder, another reptile first for me. This particular adder was also notable for its brick-red body, a rare colour in adders, and one Norfolk is a hotspot for. Then yesterday, I was back on Buxton Heath, and on our way to the site, came across a full-grown adder, this time with the grey and black patterning, and sunbathing less than an inch from where my shoe was.

Even if it’s only a brief glimpse,  I do have a certain fondness for reptiles. As such, it’s been incredibly satisfying to up my game with reptile spotting, particularly coming from having never seen any of Britain’s species of snake. Come to think of it, I should probably talk more about Buxton Heath. Maybe next time…

My scepticism about banning driven grouse shooting

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends”

Some readers may be baffled by the presence of the above quote, taken from Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is doing in a nature blog; and yet for the subject that I am talking about on this post, I could think of no better way of illustrating the problems I face. Not only does the argument on this post go against the arguments of many bloggers from the “biocentric tribe” (i.e. Peter Cairns’ description of the people who believe nature does best when left alone) whom I follow, but it also goes against arguments I have made myself, on this very blog.  The issue in question? The e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.

 

The fourth such e-petition was created back in November last year, but while many naturalists were actively promoting it from the get-go, I barely gave it a mention. Part of this can be attributed to my six-month absence, but when all three of the previous e-petitions were created, I swiftly put my signature on all of them, something I was very vocal about. It was a great feeling to see the third e-petition achieving 120,000 signatures and a debate in Parliament, and frankly a bit disappointing to witness the low turnout of MPs on the actual debate. The same could be said about the result of the debate, even if, deep down, I never expected a ban to actually come to fruition. Not that this deterred Gavin Gamble from creating the fourth e-petition mentioned above, which as I said, I didn’t sign.

So what was my reason for not signing it? Quite simply, I had changed my mind on the subject. I no longer think that banning driven grouse shooting is the way to stop illegal activity.

On one hand, I still have a lot of issues with grouse shooting. I don’t like the fact that the habitat being maintained is the result of deforestation, I want to see more upland land allowed to manage itself and I still believe that this would be compatible with grouse shooting as an industry.

At the same time, I can’t deny the huge amount of good that grouse moors do. This was a point that was frequently brought up in the Parliamentary debate, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of the facts backing this statement up. Grouse moors are providing a haven for a lot of species that are otherwise scarce in the UK: studies from the GWCT show successful breeding increase by 35% in curlews and 40% in lapwings following keeper-led management, for example, not to mention the demonstrable benefits to golden plover, black grouse, merlin, short-eared owl and greenshank, among others.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t shifted on the need to combat criminality in shooting. The
recent disappearance of both a golden eagle in the Monadhliaths and hen harriers over grouse moors in Northumberland and Wales illustrates why. But I’m no longer convinced that a ban is the way forward. When push comes to shove, I would advocate licensing game shooting: it’s a compromise between two extremes, utilised in most European countries, supported by the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, and is currently being implemented in Scotland as we speak.

I know that I am in a somewhat awkward position in terms of what I want, but then again this position is a good illustration of how this debate is not clear-cut and lacks easy answers. But regardless of where we stand in this debate, we can all congratulate ourselves for raising awareness of an issue that only five years ago was almost unheard of. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than when the hen harrier overtook the puffin in the competition for Britain’s national bird. While wildlife crime is, in many ways, as bad as ever, the outcry against it has never been stronger, and the perpetrators are finding themselves challenged for perhaps the first time.

The petition to ban driven grouse shooting is still open until April 2nd, and if you support it, then you can add your signature here. Meanwhile, Ed Chalmers’ petition for licensing is open until June, and I would also recommend signing it. And remember that it’s okay to disagree, even with like-minded people.

 

Long-tailed tits from my window

Imagine for a second, that you’re in my place. You’re in your room, at UEA’s Student Village. It’s a weekday afternoon, just after you’ve come back from a lecture; or maybe it’s the weekend, but you committed to going nowhere, because you intend to do work. Chances are it’s raining outside, or at least overcast, and unfortunately the weather is a perfect match for how you feel right now. You’re barely making any progress in what you’re doing, and you’re inner self is begging you to leave the room, go outside, maybe get the bus into Norwich- basically anything but this!

Then, from your window, a cascade of little birds descend on the birches, swarming all over the branches in the most chaotic way possible, with birds moving in every direction. Yes, the long-tailed tits are coming through, and considering how you feel right now, they’re a god-send.

Since settling in at UEA, my bedroom window has become an important site for what little birdwatching I’ve been able to do. Usually, it’s the typical garden birds: robins, blackbirds, blue tits and so on. One of the highlights of January was seeing a pair of fighting firecrests. But the most fun birds to watch are undoubtedly long-tailed tits.

Long-tailed tits are not, in fact, relatives of blue, great and coal tits, but are in fact a separate family known as bushtits, and are the only species of this family found in Europe. They’re very much a nomadic species, always moving from tree to tree, and never really staying anywhere for very long. When they move, they like to do it in massive flocks- often I see flocks of 10-15, sometimes 20, but flocks of 50 have been recorded.

As I said, they’re tonnes of fun to watch, and a lot of this comes from their flock dynamic, or rather the lack of it. This is because they’re completely disorganised: when they touch down on a tree, they then start moving about, with each one going in a different direction, in a state of complete anarchy.

What also makes them so entertaining is their personalities; they’re so loud and bubbly, with a seemingly limitless supply of energy: quite simply, they’re completely incapable of giving less than 100% to any action. Add in their resemblance to rotund fluffy lollipops, and you’ve got one of the most charming creatures on Earth.

The tits may stay there for half an hour or a few seconds. But that’s all part of the fun; not knowing how long they’ll stay makes you rush to the window to see them as quick as you can; to let your eyes fully take them in, before it’s too late. Sadly, I haven’t seen them for several weeks, which is to be expected: by now, the flocks have broken up into pairs and individuals, and gone their separate ways. This is one of the many signs Spring is here: with the Beast from the East having passed Norwich and the snow now almost gone, the snowdrops, which were already in full bloom, have survived almost unscathed. The crocuses are beginning to flower, and the blackthorn buds are opening. Who can say what Spring has in store?

 

 

My experience as a naturalist with Asperger’s Syndrome

It’s become a regular thing for me to apologise for my lack of content, and yet again, I feel obliged to do so, with this post taking nearly four months for me to write. This is partly due to moving down to Norwich and beginning life as a student at the University of East Anglia, leaving me caught up in work and student life. However, the biggest reason for such a delay, if I’m honest, is me often feeling burned out, and even considering giving up writing this blog; something I have firmly decided not to do.

I originally began this post when, back in October, I sat down and watched Chris Packham’s incredibly revealing documentary Asperger’s and Me. Chris has been very vocal about his condition, and it’s raised the issue of naturalists on the autistic spectrum. As such, I wanted to share my own experience of growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the effect it has had on me, because even though a lot of time has passed, it’s still something I want to talk about.

In many ways, living with Asperger’s Syndrome has been a trial. In the past, I’ve behaved the wrong way in certain social situations, without knowing what I’ve been doing wrong; indeed, I’ve often struggled with social situations full-stop. While I’ve learned in recent years how to form and maintain a friendship, I’m still far from sociable, and if I ever take a day out it will typically be on my own. I’ve still never asked a girl out, although I’d really like to: I’ve just never felt confident enough. And while I haven’t quite been driven to depression, I have been prone to extreme low points when things haven’t gone as I hoped. Arisaig this year was a case in point: the RIB broke down early on in our time up there, and I felt really down about not being able to go out to sea. It should come as no surprise my blogging productivity was low during that time.

In reality, however, these are things that everyone experiences. I’ve learned to be put off by these, because for every pitfall, Asperger’s Syndrome also provides a great advantage. Chris pointed to two particular aspects that he felt defined him as a person: a hypersensitive memory and an obsessive mind-set. Both of these are things I can relate to. Whenever I’m in the garden, or at sea, or anywhere else outdoors, I always find myself noticing things other people miss, because I am always looking meticulously at the surroundings and everything in it. And like Chris, this meticulous observation has been fuelled by an obsession, from an early age, with wildlife and natural history in some form or other, and a desire to learn everything about it, whether it’s keeping a slow worm in a tinfoil container, or the countless hours pouring over encyclopaedias, even to the point of having them read to me as bedtime stories. Even when, in times such as the last few months, I’ve felt burned out, it’s this obsession that’s kept me going.

Asperger’s Syndrome, or any form of autism, can be difficult to cope with of times. Ultimately however, it’s something that has defined who I am, as a naturalist and as a person. As we saw in Asperger’s and Me, there are scientists who are attempting to find a way of ‘curing’ Asperger’s and other autistic disorders. And while I wouldn’t object to somebody with the my condition who wanted themselves cured, I wouldn’t do it, because Asperger’s Syndrome is an instrumental part of me.

My week with Trees for Life

From September 9th to September 16th, I had the privilege of participating with Trees for Life. Specifically, I was on a Rewilding Week, which blended Trees for Life’s signature tree-planting activities with activities designed to teach us more about the forest’s ecological relationships, and was based at Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Estate in Glenmoriston.

For those of you who don’t know, Trees for Life is a conservation  charity based north of the Great Glen. Their primary work is forest restoration, and their aim is to restore, over a period of 250 years, 1000 square miles of the Scottish forest sometimes called the Great Wood of Caledon.

If hearing the phrase “Great Wood of Caledon” conjures an image of a continuous blanket of pines stretching from coast to coast, discard that image. Go back 5,000 years, and what you would have seen would be a patchwork of habitats, including closed-canopy pine forest, coastal oak forest, open land, alder carr and scrub. Unfortunately, centuries of deforestation by everyone from the Vikings to 20th century foresters have reduced this forest to 1% of its original cover- a state maintained by stocking of artificially high numbers of red deer for shooting. In the place of this rich and diverse habitat, an open, simplistic and largely barren ecosystem has sprung up across much of the Highlands.

But I think I’m getting sidetracked on the subject of this blog- what about my week at Dundreggan? What was it like? What stood out?

Well, one thing that really stood out was biodiversity: from the strawberry spider, whose population at Dundreggan constitutes nearly half the British population, to the wild boar we never saw, but whose signs were everywhere, and a host of creatures in between (including my first badger), Dundreggan is teeming with life. The latest surveys recorded 2,815 species, including eight species never recorded before in the UK. Yet Dundreggan is far from pristine; it’s a habitat in transition, having been much like the ecologically poor habitat already mentioned, until its purchase ten years ago by Trees for Life. The vegetation has had a resurgence in many places thanks to deer control and fencing, but still shows little signs of a canopy. Even so, the natural richness of the area demonstrates how much potential is in the Scottish Highlands, not to mention all of Britain’s uplands.

 

Waterfalls at Dundreggan, courtesy of Trees for Life.

 

The actual conservation work was fantastic, including work in Dundreggan’s tree nursery, removing invasive weeds (rosebay willowherb, which outcompetes tree saplings) and surveying Forestry Commission woodlands for red squirrels. But the best part, of course, was the tree planting. Our first day in particular stands out in my memory: we were above the natural treeline planting dwarf birch and goat willow. These shrubs are the main indicators of montane scrub, a habitat that is almost extinct in Britain, but is the natural habitat of a host of species on continental Europe. The rain was grey and drizzly at best and bucketing down at worst on that day, but we kept at it the whole day, because nothing can beat the feeling of resurrecting a nearly-dead habitat.

But the best aspect, in my opinion, was the people. Whatever our interests, we always have times when it feels like there’s nobody to share it with, or that we’re saying the same things to the same people, or groups of people. Meeting like-minded individuals, being able to hear their experiences and points of view, and being able to discuss issues that we all cared about, was refreshing and much-overdue.

The best way to finish this post, I think, is the point that was raised by one of my fellow participants: saving the environment often focuses on what we can’t do: we can’t eat meat, fly abroad etc. But this is an example of something we can do: we can plant trees for the future. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

August-nature’s siesta

This is an unusual entry. Typically, a blog post, regardless of the blog’s subject, is about a recent experience, idea or thought of the writer- in any case, the post is about something. In this case, this post is about nothing– as in nothing is the subject of this post. But you can expect that when you’re a naturalist and it’s the month of August.

Ah, August, the month where everything slows down to a halt. The sun is out, the crops are being harvested…and it’s all very quiet, even dull at times.

From nature’s point of view, this is a period of lethargy- even more so than the winter months, I would argue. While there are still some wildflowers, notably red clover, most have died off by now, and all we have in the meadows is a pure green canvas of grass. The gorse bushes have faded, and their black seed pods rattle in the wind. Galls and parasites cluster the leaves of the trees, the oaks and sycamores in particular.

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Mallard drake in moulting plumage

 The birds keep a low profile in August: with this year’s chicks fledged, the whole cast- tits, finches, wagtails, buntings, sparrows, robins and thrushes- are now out of sight, out of mind. Many of the ducks are still moulting. The only birds I saw on a walk around the farm last week were a flock of meadow pipits and a pair of buzzards quartering the conifers, both species you can expect to see anywhere; their presence makes the point.

So that’s August in a nutshell. But the good news is that things are about to change, because even though this post is about August, it’s actually the beginning of September. Soon the winter waders and wildfowl will be upon us. I’ll be back up in the Highlands next week, and after that will be moving down to university. Hopefully I’ll commit more to blogging than I have over the summer. But it’s been an enjoyable summer, and I look forward to what the colder months bring.

Hen Harrier Day 2017

Another year, another Hen Harrier Day. And before I start, I would like to profusely apologise for taking over a week to write this article.

For this year’s Hen Harrier Day, on August 6th, I chose to go to the event on Eigg, this being the nearest from Arisaig. This was a more low-key event compared to Loch Leven’s event last year, or even the relatively low-key one at Glenturret before that, not to mention the demonstrations this year at Boat of Garten, Rainham Marshes or any of the other events across the country. But, large or small, we are all adding our voice.

The journey to Eigg on the Sheerwater was very rough indeed, with the fragile vessel rocking precariously from side to side. Surprisingly however, it was a very good day for seabirds. Guillemots and Manx shearwaters were to be expected, but there were also kittiwakes, a great skua and a flock of terns, including a little tern, which was a first for me.

I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned Eigg before, so I’ll give a brief description of the island. Eigg is the second largest of the Hebrides’ “Small Isles”, at 12 square miles. It is in community ownership, having been bought by the Isle of Eigg Community Trust in 1997, and is home to five species of raptors, including two breeding pairs of hen harriers. This is excellent of course, but it makes for a sobering thought that a twelve-mile island has nearly as many breeding hen harriers as the whole of England. It’s a sign of widespread and unchecked criminality.

Christine Gibson, the seasonal ranger on Eigg, took us on a walk in hope of finding  one of the hen harriers. This led us through areas of scrub and open birchwood, large areas of which are on blanket bog- insight into the habitat we could have more of in Britain if we weren’t consistently burning moorland.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see a hen harrier, but there was an interesting array of rare upland flora, including heath-spotted orchid,  yellow saxifrage and sundew, as well as mating damselflies and singing willow warblers.

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Sundew

 

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Yellow saxifrage

 

 

Of course, since I began this post, the Inglorious Twelfth has come and gone, and the guns now ring out on moors across the country. Just before the Twelfth, however, news concerning another species of harrier, namely the marsh harrier, surfaced, as footage of two men shooting at a marsh harrier nest on a North Yorkshire moor and then stealing the eggs was revealed by the RSPB. And although this isn’t in grouse shooting area, it’s also worth mentioning that soon after that, a Montagu’s harrier was also found shot in Bircham Tofts, Norfolk. Wildlife crime continues, despite increased awareness.

But we mustn’t despair, because our own actions against these criminals have been far greater. Aside from the demonstrations, the Inglorious Twelfth Thunderclap has sent our message to 11 million people on social media. People often deride social media and ‘slacktivism’, but it really is an incredibly powerful tool for any movement, as a means of spreading awareness quickly, as demonstrated by the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and our own movement.

The fight will continue, but it’s come a long way in a short space of time, and it’s going as strong as ever.

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Hen Harrier Day 2017, and the need for game shooting licensing

Once again, Hen Harrier Day is on the horizon, and with any luck I’ll be attending the demonstration on the Isle of Eigg on August 6th. This is the fourth year of the Hen Harrier Day, and the way it has increased from four protests in the first year to twelve this year is incredible, showing how this fantastic cause is growing and reaching out to increasing numbers of people.

At the same time as the Hen Harrier movement has ben gathering momentum-or indeed due to it-there has been increasing calls for licensing game shooting in Scotland, something I can definitely support- my reasons will hopefully become clear in this article. Recently, this debate even made its way into Scottish Parliament, a definite sign of our voice being heard.

Naturally, there has been plenty of comment from many shooting organisations, which has been…well, more or less what you would expect. We have Carrieane Conaghan denouncing it as “draconian” and Alex Hogg, Chairman of the SGA, referring to us as an “extreme fringe“.

Now, I suppose you can expect what my reaction is going to be, and that’s because I have firmly established myself as part of what has been called the ‘biocentric tribe’: somebody who believes that nature fares better on its own, as opposed to the ‘anthropocentric tribe’, which includes most shooting organisations who believe that nature requires human management. I can’t escape being part of the former “tribe”, and so my  view will be naturally slanted by this. The least I can do is present my argument in a way that acknowledges and addresses the concerns of the other side. So here goes.

Put simply, licensing shooting isn’t extremist. According to SNH, the majority of continental Europe has some form of licensing, whereby all people who wish to shoot apply for a licence, and have it removed if they have committed wildlife crime. And as far as I’m aware, France, Germany, Norway and Slovakia (plus 10 other nations) still have thriving shooting industries, not to mention far lower levels of wildlife crime than we do.

I won’t claim that licensing is a magic bullet that will put a stop to all wildlife crime. What it can do is locate the rotten apples in the shooting industry more easily. There are plenty of landowners who have nothing to do with the crimes committed by their keepers, and plenty of keepers in the opposite situation. Ensuring both carry licenses and revoking the license of the culprit, in the event of wildlife crime, seems to me to be a far more effective way of preventing similar events in the future. The shooters that stick to the law (I know there are many) would have nothing to fear from licensing.

At any rate, something has to change, because the status quo isn’t keeping our raptors safe. Red kite persecution in Northern Scotland is as high as it was 25 years ago, a third of tagged golden eagles from 2004-16 have been found dead on or near grouse moors, and over 40 pairs of Scottish hen harriers have been lost since 2010.

So what can we do to raise further awareness? Well, I would recommend signing to Findlay Wilde’s #Inglorious12th Thunderclap, so that on the day grouse shooting commences, the people you follow on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr will be alerted to the plight of our natural heritage on grouse moors. I would also recommend emailing you local MP to sign this Thunderclap, and if you live in Scotland, emailing your MSP to support licensing game shooting. And you can attend a Hen Harrier Day near you (this map should help).

With any luck, this Hen Harrier Day will be the best yet, and our message can spread even further.

An exceptional sighting at Arisaig

Last week I saw something incredible; something I’ve been trying to see for years. And it’s this something that’s the subject of this blog. But I’ll get to that soon. Before that, I should probably provide a bit of context for this bog.

On July 9th, I decided to take a boat out to the Small Isles, mainly to get out of the house and on the water, having spent several days grounded on land (Dad’s RIB burst the first day we put it in the water, and appears to be beyond repair). There are plenty of ferries, big and small, that do these runs, but in my opinion they don’t get much better than the MV Shearwater. And that was what I boarded today.

The MV Sheerwater (taken on my phone).

As we left the pier at Arisaig, reports came in of…well, that would be spoiling it. We left the bay, passing the many seal-covered rocks as we did so. We made good progress, and a third of the way to Eigg came across two puffins, bobbing aimlessly on the waves. As we proceeded, we passed several flocks of Manx shearwaters, no doubt nesting on neighbouring Rum, which holds 30% of the population.

We were nearing the pier at Eigg, when we received reports that the thing that had been reported earlier had been seen again off the southwest cliffs, causing us to take a hastily-arranged detour in search of our quarry. As we rounded the cliffs, three other boats joined us; evidently there was something there.

Then in the distance, an enormous dark fin broke the surface…

…and a minute later, it came back up just in front of our boat. This was it- my first killer whale!

The whale then dived back down, resurfacing on the right hand side of the boat. For the next 20 minutes or so he engaged us in this game of hide and seek. He would surface at a particular direction to the boat, only to go under, then resurfaced at a different direction. He started out in front of the Sheerwater, but then began surfacing to the side of us.

The triangular gash in his fin identified him as John Coe, a 40+ year old  bull orca of the resident North Atlantic pod. They are primarily seal hunters, and are in fact more closely related to the seal-tipping orcas of Antarctica than the herring-hunters in Norway.

However, just then it dawned upon me that I had left my camera behind. So I didn’t get a single photo.