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The water is never as cold as you think it’s going to be. In fact, floating on your back with your legs casually crossed at the ankles, it’s pleasant. This is my favourite Polar Bear pose: rotating slowly and thoughtfully through a panorama of Crossapol Bay – just like those compasses children make with a dish of water, tissue paper, and a needle.
Saturday morning swims start with the drive from my house to Crossapol. It’s a road I travel nearly every day; but there’s a special savour when I’m not rushing for work. In May, the presence of Road Birds adds a dash of jeopardy. These troublesome creatures are a mixed species group, united by an irrepressible desire to get vaporised by your car. Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails are the worst offenders – though Snipe will give you a good run for your money too.
Early in the season, they shoot out of their roadside nests at the last possible moment, fluttering weakly as they battle to gain altitude. This gives you just enough time to get seriously worried that you’re going to hit them, but not sufficient time to do anything about it. Being so light, they are usually saved by the wave of air sweeping up and over your vehicle. Their feathery persons are carried across the windshield, alarmingly close to your face, and then deposited safely behind.
Unfortunately, the Road Birds toe a thin line between two prevailing features of my life: 1) the fact that I love birds, and have no desire whatever to squash them; and 2) the sad reality that I am late for everything. Thus, my spring driving is punctuated by clenched teeth and whitened knuckles as I cringe behind the wheel.
My favourite Road Birds are the Island House Redshanks (or the Roadshanks as I like to call them). On the approach, their grey and white wings curl into little ‘Ms’ of irritation. Furiously, they swoop over the tarmac; beaks wide, orange legs dangling like bendy straws, and raising hell with a shrill piping. The Roadshanks aren’t as cavalier as the pipits. Instead, as you pass, they land on top of the stone dyke; craning their necks to menace you through the passenger window.
Most members of our weekly swimming club are less enthused by birds than me. But being in the water allows for some terrific views. Arctic Terns are standard fare during the Hebridean summer; but it was still a buzz to see the first 2019 breeders returning from their long migration. My cry of delight brought the terns screeching down from the clouds like silver Valkyries. As they clicked and chittered within a metre of my beaming smile, the other Polar Bears back-paddled anxiously. Not everyone was as keen to get reacquainted.
Indeed, as Road Birds go, Arctic Terns take a certain professional pride in evening-up the score. I have seen them reduce cyclists to tears on the Reef, during the tense few days when their part-feathered young cross from the machair (where the adults nest) to the dunes (where the chicks prepare for lift-off). Most Road Bird fledglings sit blithely on the warm asphalt; blinking in innocent wonderment at oncoming vehicles, as their parents swoosh involuntarily past the panicked faces within.
Not so the terns. The adults will defend their young vigorously against all comers; stooping at road users to drive them away. Finding one dead on the verge brings a lump to my throat: in its long and crabbit lifetime (up to 30-years) an Arctic Tern might fly three million miles. That’s four trips to the moon and back in old money.
Sculling my hands and watching the sunshine through their porcelain wings, I wished the advance-guard a safe and productive summer ahead.