Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Scurvy grass and White-winged Gulls

For the last three weeks there has been a well-trodden path to Orkney's finest wildlife spectacle. The violent northwesterly gales of December 2011 and January 2012 played their part in bringing a large influx of arctic gulls into the county in the shape of Iceland Gulls and Glaucous Gulls. The phenomenon isn't just restricted to Orkney - similar numbers of white-winged gulls arrived in Faroe, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. Each winter we would expect to see a handful of these gulls from the northern latitudes but the numbers of gulls in 2012 are unprecedented. If you visit Marwick you are likely to see at least 50 Iceland Gulls and ten Glaucous Gulls. Among them have been recorded up to four Iceland Gulls of the race Kumlien - that's the race that comes from Canada. 

When the gulls first arrived they were looking battered and dishevelled after the rigours of the winter. In fact a few corpses were found on the beaches of Marwick and Skaill to the south. But providentially, the gulls' arrival coincided with the appearance of a whale carcase in Sand Geo - it seems to have been the gulls' saviour - blubber in abundance. Now the gulls look relaxed and well fed - their spirits and well being have soared.

The cliff top path to the spectacle is wet and muddy thanks to the foot traffic and the wet winter - apparently it rained for 54 consecutive days in November and December 2011. The grass is yellow but liberally sprinkled amongst it are the deep green leaves of Scurvy Grass - you can't fail to see it. After flowering the leaves seem to grow bigger and bigger and occasionally you may find some as large as digestive biscuits. Of course when I went out to find monster leaves they played hard to get and the biggest I found last Sunday were the size of Ritz crackers. You can see the size in comparison to a rather shiny 1 pound coin.

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