Figure 3: A Trip to the North End of Olkhon
Mid May took us to Muck visiting.
Follow the road from the pier, as you approach the prow of the hill – slowly ambling past darkly ploughed fields – the rest of the Small Isles open before you, smudged hills clasped to the sea.
With kids, charcoal, beers, salad and catch of the day we set to finding fire wood and building a BBQ in the sand.
The beach was surprisingly free of fishing plastics and sea bleached wood. Perhaps I am too used to the fishfarm detritus. As we widened the search the low fast upright stride of a ringed plover caught our attention. We left them in peace.
We dug a pit, ringed it with stones. Using grass, seaweed, dried manure and the odd twig, we lit the fire. Fresh Mackerel, small but fine. When I was growing up it was always with oatmeal. Hauling them into the boat, off the darrows, gut them on the shore, and then round the houses. Things change.
The path in from Acharn takes you along the southern shore of the Loch. I first walked it in Winter. Brown and damp. It leads to Arienas Point. A closely grazed green finger that stretches out from the heaps of ordered stones. Here the Oak peters out and gives way to Ash. Here the signs of a once inhabited village.
The boat crunched on the gravel. Telescope, binoculars, flask. The birch is just opening its leaves, in the light rain they glow pale green. Through the trees we settle on a small rise and unpack lunch, pore a coffee, and wait.
A dark wet hill rises from and surrounds the bay. It is thick with rain and visibility is low. Eventually the rain drifts down to us. I watch it run down the sides of my empty overturned mug. Sun. Eyes turn to the hill and we catch site of the two birds coming of a potential nest site. I follow the male with the binoculars, my companion follows the female. ‘If they are up to anything, then they will only leave the nest for about 20 minutes’. Up to anything means chicks.
My arms ache. I dare not lower the binoculars, they are so high, so faint I would never find them. The male hovers, then drop behind a ridge – lost. The female drops into the hill to roost. It begins to rain. A low hum tumbles down the loch. I turn to see what looks like a WWII plane come round the point doing a barrel role. It disappears then, then we hear it come back, it skims low, rolling over our heads. ‘She was watching it you know’.
The boat skimmed out the river mouth and around the point – onto to the loch, into the breeze. A thin plume of smoke drifted from a bank of Scots Pines on the opposite shore. Scanning, we noticed something red. Moving closer we saw a canadian canoe pulled up on the shore and a tent tucked into the trees. ‘B*****ds’. ‘Bloody campers, its so f****in invitin thats the problem‘. It was an inviting spot for blackthroated divers, and an inviting spot for the campers too. We trawled round the coast- no sight. Blackthroats are very cautious birds. They nest on small islands, liable to flooding. This is the southern part of their range. Their are probably about 150 pairs in the UK, we hope to spot 3 pairs today – but not here.
They sit low in the water, and in the faint misty rain and light wind are very hard to see. We catch a glimpse in one of the favourite spots. Thin elegant necks stretch out, white, thin bands of black, they turn and face and then drift away. Bouncing and humming across the swell we head for the next site.
On the way to work I often find myself lingering at the deep drainage ditches that run along the side of road. Long streaks of toad spawn, or dense clusters of frog spawn, sometimes something a little more exciting – perhaps a common newt. I used to walk this road to school; we would squat by an old wall looking for insects and amphibians in the water. I have children myself now, and having not seen a newt for years, I seem to encounter them frequently. It may be because my eye is closer to the ground. That day, cycling to work, I note the squashed outline of frogs and toads on tarmac. Then, passing the ditch below my father’s croft, a large grey shape takes to the air, settling a few metres from the road. A Grey Heron. You become so used to seeing these sentinels silhouetted by the shore it seems unworldly to come upon them by a roadside ditch. Wheeling up to my fathers for a better view I tell him of the encounter. Below the house the heron, still as a fence post, is waiting for frogs and toads. My father tells me that yesterday he drove past the grey shape, and then reversed the car to watch the unmoved bird. It only took flight when he wound down the window. For the next few days I cycle cautiously along the road, looking for an undisturbed encounter – its not to be.
On a damp misty day we bumped up the glen on a quad bike. The river was in spate and difficult to get across, so we took a high tack and scrambled up and over onto the ridge. Just as we dropped over the prow I caught site of a stone that did not quite belong. It was placed on top of what I assumed as a glacial erratic. I lifted it and underneath was a supermarket bag. Army manoeuvres – where were they being sent. We skirted along the base of a rock face, occassionally climbing onto a higher ledge so we did not lose height. ‘Here we are’. A roost site. A wind twisted oak stuck out of a small patch of vegetation that luminesced in the damp mist. I picked up a large pellet, and one arm round the trunk for comfort, I prized it open with my fingers. Above, my companion was scrambeling up the grass pulling downy feathers from bare twigs. Me with my fingers in the moss, and through the lichens on the trunk, searching for flight feathers. DNA samples for the Highland Raptor project. A fine specimen hung worryingly out of reach. I held onto my companions leg as he stretched out – just. It dropped to me and I placed it in a freezer bag. Wet, happy, we headed home.