The abundance of birds here is evident even before I’ve unpacked my things into my homely little camping pod in the corner of the Balranald campsite. My arrival is heralded by a duo of corncrakes scratching out their calls in the wildflower meadow, one on either side of the pod. A swallow repeatedly swoops past as I settle myself on the step at the front door, to watch a corn bunting perched only a few feet away on the stalk of a seeding doc, singing its jangling song while being harassed by a couple of house sparrows. The campsite is right on Balranald RSPB reserve and I’m utterly transfixed by the wildlife that is so evident all around me. After a few minutes in my trance I come to and realise that the swallow is desperately trying to get to its nest, which is directly above my head, built on top of the light fitting in the apex of the little hut.
I shift inside the threshold and watch them as they flutter in every minute or so feeding their nearly-grown chicks. Hopefully they will fledge while I am here. I lay on my back on the floor, head just inside the threshold, looking up at the nest from underneath.
The corncrake starts up again. And the second, and then a third. I’m surrounded. The camping pod overlooks the marsh – an exceptionally rich area of the reserve teeming with waders and full of wildflowers. Above me I hear the quiver of a drumming snipe and look up to see it frantically beating its wings as it climbs upwards and then plummets down as its tail feathers make that remarkable noise. I get the feeling it might take me a while to get unpacked.
I’m here to spend a few days of a Sabbatical from RSPB – every five years we are fortunate enough to have the chance to work somewhere else in the society or for a BirdLife partner for four weeks to use our skills, or gain new ones, in the service of the wider nature conservation family. I am here in the Uists to look at how we interpret our visitor reserves, especially a new reserve we have in partnership with the community of South Uist at Druidibeg. But I also have a few days at Balranald to speak to visitors and learn about our work in the Uists and the special interaction of crofting and nature conservation which creates the most species rich agricultural landscape in Britain.
Later I get a chance to explore the reserve, a patchwork of croft land and common machair grazings with the most exquisite wildflowers covering every square inch of land. As I start the walk around the peninsular on the dune above a beautiful sandy bay (taking note that a swim in the incoming tide would be warmed by the hot sand) I look down and see a dead bumblebee. This is the Great Yellow bumblebee, probably the rarest animal on this peninsular – they are highly dependent on machair, the incredibly species rich meadow habitat that grows on the shell sand of the Hebrides, and Orkney. I take it back to show a few people on the campsite and then set aside to pass to the site manager. Everywhere on the walk are redshank, oystercatcher, lapwing. All these species have been fast declining in the rest of Britain but are still common on the extensive grazing systems supported by crofting.
As I come over a rise a kidney shaped pool comes into sight, shallow and rocky-edged. There is a piercing shriek of a diving Arctic tern and I duck, but it wasn’t going for me, it’s after a small brown shape on the path ahead of me. The otter, slick with water from the pool, lifts its head to the tern, turns on itself and starts up the path towards me. Distracted by the tern dropping again and again almost onto its back, it isn’t paying attention to me and I lower myself quickly onto the ground hoping that it will walk right past me. But when it is 5 metres from me the otter suddenly turns and heads towards the sea, the tern still dangling, as if on elastic, directly above it.
After I had passed the Arctic tern colony, ducking frequently, stopping only for a good look at a fine Dunlin on a rock only a few metres away from me with beautiful black belly and rich brown scallop, edged wing plumage, I stop on a rock just off the path to watch the sea crashing on the rocks of the headland. All around me the grassland is short, and deep purple orchids, the Northern Marsh Orchid, grows in profusion. In the distance out to sea a black shape is moving towards me purposefully and, as it gets closer, I see that it is surrounded by a halo of mobbing terns and gulls. They have good reason to fear, the black shape resolves into that of a great skua, or bonxie. This large, dark brown bird is a little like a gigantic gull with sharper wing tips, and white crescents on each wing. They live less by piracy like other skuas, and more by predation. On a visit to Orkney a few years before I had seen the fearful remains of a puffin that had come into close contact with a bonxie. The little body had been turned inside out, its beautiful beak wrapped in its own skin and the breast muscle neatly cut away. But this bonxie had no intention of lingering at Balranald, it continued its course due North East, the gang of terns still in pursuit.