Swings and Roundabouts - Shetland February 2016

Another trip to Shetland and another spin on the northern weather roulette wheel.

The trip didn’t start well.  We were 400 yards into the 500 mile journey from Oxford to Aberdeen when the phone rang. “We just wanted to check that you’d got the message about the Saturday sailing. It’s very likely to be cancelled”.

Winter sailings between Aberdeen and Shetland are always prone to disruptions. Boats go early. Boats get delayed. Boats get cancelled.  Over the years we’ve been very lucky with the sailings – I can only recall two or three occasions when we’ve been messed about  – but on a short trip to Shetland it is a bit frustrating to ‘lose’ a day.

The tone of the messages weren’t encouraging, there were question marks over the Sunday night sailing too, but we decided to continue on north and see what turned out.

Ythan Estuary, just north of Aberdeen

Our original sailing was indeed cancelled, and we got to spend a day catching up with relatives around Aberdeen before heading to the harbour on Sunday afternoon to check in.  At every stage we were warned that the crossing was going to be a ‘bit bumpy’ – “it should be fine to Orkney, but after that…”.

For those who haven’t braved the Northlink boats – the journey from Aberdeen takes 12 hours by the direct route, and 14 hours if you go via Orkney, and is a really important service for the islands. Even at this time of year, when tourists are thin on the ground, the boats are usually well filled with passengers, cars and freight, and cancellation of a boat means that the next one will be filled to capacity.

As we headed out of Aberdeen harbour on Sunday evening I did feel a touch of sympathy for the many folks sitting around on the chairs and in some cases decks waiting for the weather to worsen. (I should add that although we too were waiting for the weather, we were at least got to do this tucked up in one of the ship's cabins.)  We rolled our way across the Moray Firth en route to Orkney, every now and again a big roll felt like a warning of the seas ahead, particularly of the notorious Fair Isle Channel.  This 25-mile wide passage between Fair Isle and the rest of Shetland is where the North Sea and the North Atlantic get it together – and they don’t agree on much, even on a still summers day this bit of sea is at very least ‘a bit lumpy’,  and during a storm in February…

But somehow the wild weather melted away overnight and we had a smooth journey up past Fair Isle and Sumburgh Head and into Bressay Sound to arrive on Lerwick on a cold sleety Monday morning.

By some fluke of the roulette wheel our arrival on Shetland coincided with the arrival of the longest spell of calm weather that the islands have seen all winter.  The winds swung round to come from the Arctic, and then almost faded away complete – ensuring that the island got several days of still cold weather, and on the rare occasions when the skies weren't clear the only precipitation was in the form of snow.

Snow on the beach, Quendale Bay

There is something magical about wandering on sunlit snow-covered beaches, and we made sure that we spent plenty of time doing just that.

Braving the elements on Scat Ness

Sumburgh Head in the evening sunshine

Quendale Bay

Shetland sheep don't mind the snow

And our luck even held for the ferry crossing back to Aberdeen – the crossing was so smooth at times that it was difficult to remember that the boat was still moving. Would that it was always like that at the other times of the year!

There are a few more pictures from this visit on Flickr.

Local Reserves - Oxford

Guilty as charged.  

I really do spend too much of my Oxford time thinking, planning and plotting ways to spend time elsewhere.  But just occasionally I have a Oxford weekend when I spend time enjoying the bits of Oxford I really like.

I'm not talking about the dreaming spires and gated colleges, although these are what draw most visitors to Oxford.  

I'm talking about the local nature reserves.

Over the weekend I spent time at 'my' two local reserves. One day at the RSPB Otmoor Reserve, and one at the BBOWT C S Lewis Reserve.

RSPB Otmoor has been developed since we've been in Oxford - it's been a major restoration project, returning drained farmland to the reed beds of the past.  The reed beds are now a fantastic wildlife draw - and we visited late in the day to see what I really think is Oxford's best wildlife attraction.

Late in the day at this time of year there are huge gatherings of starling - murmurations - that can completely fill the sky.  As we walked from the car park we saw what looked like mini-murmurations of both golden plover and lapwing, and as we got closer to the reed beds a pair of marsh harrier were swooping low over the reeds too.  

The main attraction, though, are the starlings.  

As the light starts to fade small groups of starlings start to swing low over the reeds looking for somewhere to roost, and as if by magic the groups coalesce, slowly building into huge dark clouds of birds.  Sometimes the birds spread out until they almost seem to disappear, at other times they come together until it seems impossible that something so dark and huge can fly so silently.  If you get really lucky the flock (which might be up to 75,000 individuals) will pick a spot close to the edge of the reed bed, gradually the birds spin down to the roosting spot, the silence becomes the white noise of 150,000 wings beating and then the raucous chatter of the birds jostling for position alongside each other.

Otmoor Murmuration, February 2016
Otmoor Murmuration, February 2016

My other entertainment - on the first Sunday of most months - is at the BBOWT C S Lewis nature reserve just outside the Oxford ring-road in Headington.

This reserve, once part of the author C S Lewis' back garden, is a little sanctuary between houses on one side and farmland on the other - it's nice to think that Lewis might have taken inspiration for the Narnia stories from spending time sitting around the filled-in clay pits on the reserve.  The reserve is somewhere I've regularly visited over the years, and a couple of years ago I spotted the signs (goodness knows how many times I must have wandered past them without looking) mentioning the regular volunteer work parties that help maintain the reserve.

It always feels good to spend a few hours chopping, picking or digging on the reserve - and there is real satisfaction from walking up steps that you've helped build or reinstate.

The reserve is another local sanctuary for wildlife - there are muntjac deer around (at least some of the work is about making it difficult for them to eat new growth), there are regularly kingfisher and heron around the pond margin, along with mallard, moorhen and coots and, if your timing is right, bats swooping across the ponds too.  On this visit I was able to spend ages watching a great spotted woodpecker around the tree tops. February is a splendid time to spot woodpecker - they are really active and they don't have so much foliage to hide behind.

C S Lewis Reserve, February 2016

Neither reserve is easy to find, or particularly well sign-posted, but both are worth the effort!  

There are directions to Otmoor on the RSPB website, and to the C S Lewis Reserve on the BBOWT website.  Maybe see you there!