Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Where did the winter go?

It seems just like yesterday that I was on Mousa, weighing and ringing Storm Petrel chicks as they grew closer to fledging. Seven months, however, have sailed by since then and here I am, back in Shetland, hiding inside from the wind and the rain and about to embark on a second season of fieldwork for a 4-year study on the effects of environmental change on the breeding behaviour and physiology of the European Storm-petrel. Out of 69 breeding pairs that were monitored in 2010, 42 pairs (60.9%) successfully fledged a chick. Let’s hope for a equally good season this year!

Despite the current weather, I remain optimistic for a fairer summer than last year. A trip back to Shetland just 2 months ago reminded me what cold weather really feels like. I witnessed all 4 seasons in 3 days – I arrived to a decent snowfall, force 7 winds, and wild seas, while the next brought blue skies and sunshine, while the ocean was flat calm. Before I knew it, however, the sun had vanished, the temperature was just pushing 2˚C and horizontal sleet was pounding on my back. I couldn’t have asked for anything more or less.

Sumburgh Head under a light dusting of snow

The main purpose of the trip was to interview and recruit fieldworkers for the 2011 season, though it happened to also coincide with the South Mainland Up Helly Aa – an annual festival to celebrate Shetland's heritage (see and for more info).  I was staying with Helen, the RSPB South Shetland warden, who roped me into helping on the bar for the evening celebrations. I quickly reminded myself how to pull a pint and use a till (it had been a good while), before being thrown straight into the frenzied celebrations and surrounded by Irish Leprechauns, peas in a pod, alpacas, pirates, penguins, among many other inspired costumes.

The torch-lit procession heading down from Sumburgh Quarry towards Grutness Beach

There were Flintstones, penguins, pirates, peas in a pod..and many, many more

The procession culminates in the burning of a galley

As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, the following morning brought even more delights...after clambering into bed at 5:40, Helen and I initially weren’t enthralled to be woken at 11am by the ‘phone ringing. However, our attitudes quickly changed when we found out there were 3 Orcas heading south and in our direction. Rather bleary-eyed, we headed straight to Grutness, where I picked up at least 2 Orcas just offshore. Racing up to Laaward Point, we enjoyed good views of what turned out to be two pods, each of 3 animals. Having been promised sightings of Orcas from Mousa last summer, the only day they were seen in Mousa Sound, I was collecting someone from the airport! Let's hope for more sightings this summer!

Orcas off Laaward Point, March 2011