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  • Writer's pictureMonique Sliedrecht

Keeping Our Eyes Open

It has taken me a little while to get going this weekend. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I’m feeling sluggish. I probably need to follow my own advice, and walk more.

So I did yesterday. A friend and I went to the Duncansby Stacks, a place situated in the most northeasterly point of the the UK mainland. There were a lot of people there - many more than the last time I was walking on this unique outcrop of land, that’s for sure. Caravans, cars, hikers, families…. It seems we are coming out of our lockdown! And it looks like the north may be a destination for many.

Of course, the whale sightings last weekend were something to behold, and they drew people up in the hopes of spotting the orcas in that same location again. I must admit I secretly long to see them with my own eyes as well. I was hugely disappointed to miss their amazing appearance a week ago. After reading the wonderful eyewitness accounts from others, I became quite excited and obsessed about the whales for a number of days afterwards. However, I know how fickle and undetermined the swimming patterns of orcas can be. The ocean is a vast expanse and home to these marvellous creatures and they will go wherever they please, with no set map or plan. To see them is rare, but it doesn't hurt to keep one's eyes open that little bit more in case of further sightings.

My friend put on his wellies as he got out of the car, and we trekked across the gentle rolling, grassy clifftops, past the lighthouse, and toward the stacks of rock jutting out of the sea. It is a dramatic sight every time I go, and I’ve been a lot.

I have often thought that people look like giants when walking in this landscape. Trees or houses are out of view to give any sense of actual scale. We are all giants of the earth in that one moment together on this windswept moor and uninterrupted coastline.

The cliff edges are covered in bright fresh carpets of green now. Clumps of sea thrift are in full bloom, their small globes of pink blossoms dotting the tufts of long grasses. The appearance of these flowers surprised me a little bit and made me realise I have some catching up to do with all that is growing in the landscape around me and on my doorstep.

I’ve been stuck inside this last week, inhibited by the rain and cold, and too preoccupied with my work. If not careful, I will miss the wonderful voices and exultation of Spring around me, rain or shine.

Halfway to the Stacks we stopped to look down in the cavernous space that drops to the deep turquoise water below. The sheer height is something else, and I'm glad for the fencing that is there to hold back my curiosity. I was keen to see the numerous seabirds that would be nesting on the cliff edges by now, and we made our way up along to the top of the inlet.

If the direction of the wind is right, you can detect the birds from a mile away. The scent is unmissable (and not all that pleasant!). The sound, a cacophony of calls and squawks, is magnified by the enclosed space, echoing off of the surfaces of rock and water. It was getting louder the closer we got.

Hundreds and thousands of seabirds, mostly guillemots, were on the strata of rock ledges. It is a sight to behold and as magnificent as the whales, in my opinion.

The sheer number of these birds, and their precarious nesting sites, is impressive. Apparently they lay a single pyriform egg on a cliff edge in dense breeding colonies. They do not build a nest. 'The egg is popularly believed to roll in an arc when disturbed, preventing it from falling over the cliff edge.'

We spent time watching, listening... until a group of tourists came and joined the high chatter of birds as they look excitedly through their binoculars. We made our way back to the car, the cold wind was picking up and stinging my ears.

I can get disorientated with the wide expanses of rough seawater on both sides of this lonely clifftop that juts out into the vast ocean. It is not an environment I grew up in. However, the more I visit and watch, the more at home I feel, and I am filled with wonder and awe.

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