Black Vulture

Black Vulture
Photo: Inge Curtis

This fine fellow sat on a wooden post for a portrait. Never long out of sight in the skies around here, Blacks are the more sociable of the two species of vulture. With a poor sense of smell compared to Turkey Vulture cousins it makes sense to have more eyes on the ground for scarce carrion.

A wake of vultures (nice collective noun for a bird clothed in black who pores over a cadaver) is reluctant to leave a meal when disturbed, for example, by traffic passing close to roadkill. Although their appearance, habits and smell are repellant to most people, they do a fine job clearing flesh that would go putrid and grow pathogenic bacteria that can harm later diners with less acidic, and hence less sterilizing, stomachs.

On Islands. #1. Home Rum

Isle of Rum
Isle of Rum, Inner Hebrides

You don’t have to be born on one to love islands, though I have a double reason, born on an island off another island.

A BBC article about a young couple settling on the Isle of Rum brought back fond memories of staying there for a couple of nights some years ago with a family member. It is the largest of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides with a northerly view of Skye’s Cuillin Hills.

Alex and Buffy were chosen from a list of applicants to join the community of about 30 residents. They sought a change in life, and what a change from Bristol, England! Roaming for days in wind and rain over 40 square miles you may never meet another soul, though plenty of wildlife. Red deer and feral goats on the boggy land; white-tailed and golden eagles overhead; otters, dolphins and whales from the shoreline.  

Life isn’t so hard as for crofters in the past, who lived in ‘black houses’ until 19th Century landowners turfed them out  for more profitable sheep and deer (so-called Highland Clearances). Not even Rum is off the Net nowadays, though off the Grid. There are compensations for leaving conventional jobs, pubs and supermarkets. Fresh air, exercise, no crime and something new and interesting on every hike. Creature comforts can be enjoyed, nestled in a new ‘eco-house’ with scrumptious home baking according to their Instagram blog.

George Orwell chose a hermit life on the island of Jura to the south for writing his novel 1984, but you don’t need to be a self-employed writer or artist to live on Rum. Paid and voluntary work are available for the tiny community and nature conservation.

My first sight of the island was from camp near Arisaig in 1971. We saw a mountain dome 30 miles out to sea in one of those glorious but rare Highland sunsets. Decades later I stayed on Rum at Kinloch Castle, perhaps the most eccentric stately home I ever visited.

Built by an English industrialist who bought the island for recreation, he rests in a mausoleum modelled on a Greek temple, planted incongruously in wilderness overlooking the ocean . His son built the castle in 1900, creating an opulence he couldn’t afford after the 1929 Crash. It had golf and tennis courts, grew hothouse fruit, and had heated ponds for turtles and alligators. Extensive gardens were cultivated by a gang of men said to be paid to wear kilts. I remember the walls of the dark wainscoted hall where majestic heads of deer hung among portraits of the less handsome Bullough family. Painful to see skins of big cats spread on the floor.

After the folly, the island was sold to the Nature Conservancy around 1957 and is now owned and managed by NatureScot to protect internationally important habitats. Among the natural treasures is the Manx Shearwater colony nesting in holes atop a mountain. Perhaps the largest in the world at 100,000 pairs they are at sea most of the year, and in the breeding season only venture back from fishing to their burrows after dark because they are vulnerable to predators.

I climbed to their redoubt, arriving around 11 pm, an hour before complete darkness at that latitude in midsummer. Nothing stirred until midnight when weird croaks from their catacombs alerted me. Then ghostly birds flapped around silently, even in arm’s reach. With an LED headlight I could get inches away before they flew, fearless as they hadn’t seen humans all year.

Some memories never fade, like the first sight of an isle bathed at sunset or the last sight of a Manxie at midnight.

Next post: Black Vulture

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch
Photo: Inge Curtis

Not hard to imagine a common ancestor of American and European goldfinches managed to make the hazardous passage across the Atlantic to found a colony on the other side that evolved different colors over time. A single member of the European species was recorded here in 1999, although possibly released or escaped from captivity.

They are common, with similar habits and belong to the same genus. But of the pair the American deserves the name as breeding males are cloaked in canary yellow and sooty black, whereas Europeans have only a yellow flash on the wings. Both delight the eyes, twittering with apparent joy as they pluck seeds from flower heads, deserving the collective noun, a charm of goldfinches.