Sea area Fair Isle: Week five in the Orkney Isles
Guest blogger: Production Co-ordinator Ellie Williams is with the team in Stronsay exploring the island's seal life with wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan.
As my Aberdeen-bound plane fidgets furiously (from the pilot putting his foot hard on the gas to build up enough umph to clear the stubby runway in Kirkwall), I think about the adventures we’ve had in Orkney this week. My favourite day began something like this:
When you're fumbling around before light preparing for a sensitive audio mission, the last thing your senses want is to be shocked by the horrendous sound of a car alarm. As I panic-fumbled around with the unfamiliar hire car keys trying to work out how to stop the racket, the lights came on in the small post office opposite and a dog began to bark - definitely not the best way to make friends on a small island!
Once peace had been restored, Soundie Gary and I got on our way through steady drizzle to a nearby farm. With a combined 14 layers of clothing, we crept our way across a dark field. As the headwind hurtled into our faces and the drizzle turned to pelting drops, we crawled through soggy stumpy grass towards the far edge of the field until we could see the silhouetted jagged rocks of a beach.
Accompanying the howling wind was the haunting song of seals. I have never heard seals call before and can't quite describe how I felt - awe, wonder and a slight tinge of fear at being in the presence of something so powerful. It was really dark, and at first I couldn't see anything until a ghostly shape lolloped up a nearby bank and lifted its head to have a look around. We froze, buffeted by the sea spray, listening and working out how best to record the beautiful sounds. Alas, it was just too wet to get the equipment out so we retreated to the shelter of a nearby crumbling barn for a warming cup of chai.
Half an hour or so later the rain began to soften and as the sun rose we crawled back for attempt two. I noticed then what I hadn't before. We'd been commando crawling through a magnificent array of poop (crusty cowpats, wader plops, rabbit pellets, goose pipes and gull splats) and that most of it was smeared onto us too. It was worth it though as we silently placed two microphones facing the beach and absorbed the song that filled our ears. The seals were making two calls. The first I can only describe as a rising and falling ghost-like 'wooooo'. The second, like the warm but exhausted cry of a young baby. We couldn't see most of the colony but, by listening, could visualise the noisy gathering of seals over the other side of the bank.
Peeping through the grass with binoculars, I could see a tufty newborn pup with fur the colour of snow and beautiful black eyes and nostrils relaxing next to its mum. A couple of heads popped up just out from the shore enjoying the rain splashing around them and I too began to enjoy the refreshing drops falling on us again. We left the seals in peace, deciding it was time to head back for poached eggs on toast. As we drove past the neighbouring bay, three seals were swimming in the shallows of the turquoise Caribbean-coloured water that you get up here in Orkney. The white sand seabed made their curvy bodies stand out as they bobbed and watched us inquisitively.
After breakfast, I joined Gary as he was apologising to the post mistress for the rude early morning awakening. Fascinatingly, she explained that her two children (11 and 13 years) hadn’t known what the sound was. We couldn’t believe it. The soundtrack of a small island is so different to a city's – lapping waves, sheep, cows and fishing boats - no place for a harsh car alarm. They even store their keys in the ignition, it's the safest place. I’m going to miss that part of life there. I can’t complain though, as we're off to Dartmoor National Park next and a lovely old autumnal oak tree, perfect.
Watch this week's Autumnwatch (Thursday 8.30pm, BBC Two) to see Nick Baker's reports on the life in the undergrowth of a Dartmoor woodland. You can also ask him a question about wildife and he'll answer the best of them on Unsprung. Read Ellie's diary from week three in the Northumbria.