When she first came into our care she was dishevelled and awkward-looking. Her feathers, lifted apart by the oil, had none of the sleekness that I normally associate with guillemots, and overall it wasn't the most attractive picture. Before too long, however, the experience became a wonderful opportunity to observe the guillemot form and to gain a greater understanding of these beautiful birds.
First thing I noticed, and I think that this was due to cold and exhaustion, was that she would sink down onto her haunches, right over her legs. I've never seen a guillemot doing this before, but some of the old drawings of great auks show them in this position. When I first sat her in the warm bath she sank down, and I imagined that the warmth seeping into her body would be rather restorative. When, after her first wash, I sat her on a rock in the bath, out of the water, she did the same. This, I think was when the exhaustion came into play.
After that first session was over - the first wash, dry and feed and once she'd had her first sleep in that position, she never again sank onto her haunches, instead sitting upright in a pose we more typically associate with auks. This group, of which the common guillemot is a member, spend all their time on land sitting upright. When I sent photos to my family, my four-year old nephew was delighted to discover that his auntie had a penguin in her bath, asking my sister - his mum - if they could get one too(!). But really, the auks are known as penguins of the north - an example of two groups evolving very similarly to inhabit similar environments, and Ru had instantly picked up on their similarities without any of the preconceptions of an adult. Guillemots have the most remarkable feet. Greta's were grey, webbed and clawed. Strong feet. But what I found really interesting was how they were used. Instead of standing just on the foot, most of the auks sit on the lower leg as well, leading to a rather long, thin area that is in contact with the ground. I found this absolutely incredible and I loved seeing her sit upright on her long legs, webbed feet spread out in front.
Once she was fully waterproofed, the perfect design of form across the rest of her was confirmed. Her feathers fitted together as one and she preened constantly, making sure that everything was sitting nice and neatly. Her wings were small and neat, but when she flapped them to dry them, the speed which she would shake them at sprayed water all over the bathroom. Indeed, it was her wings that really revealed her ultimate perfection when she was released and we were treated to the most incredible sighting of just how her wings would function under water.
As I said in my first post on this subject, when Greta neared the sea on the day of release, she leapt from my hands before I was ready. Luckily I was at the edge of a sea pool, where I'd planned to release her anyway. She jumped and hit the water, immediately diving underneath the light turquoise surface. The water was so clear that we could see every motion, and suddenly, wee Greta that had been living in our bath was transformed into a wild creature of the sea. She literally flew through the water, her wings responding to her element with precision and the whole thing was just perfection. All my concerns, my worries, disappeared once I'd seen how she behaved in the water: this was her home.
Guillemots are incredible. They, along with the rest of the auks, are true seabirds and return to land only to breed. They can fly, and fly well - when out on the water you'll often see a bazaar of guillemots, fast-winged and confident, flying just above the swell. Darting black and then white as they show their different sides. So, they can fly, but really their wings are perfectly adapted for life under water. Normal dives will be up to 20m below the surface, but incredibly dives of up to 180m have been recorded. And we had the privilege of witnessing just a tiny aspect of Greta's capability.
It's magic to be an observer to the might of nature's evolution. To witness a species so perfectly adapted to their environment. Still I wonder where Greta is and what's she doing. I hope she's returned to her breeding grounds. Off the Outer Hebrides our highest populations are on the Shiants, St Kilda or Mingulay. I hope she has found her tribe, for one lovely fact that I discovered during my guillemot research is that they commonly undertake a lot of communal grooming - allopreening - and this ties in with her reactions to my de-oiling efforts. For a bird that is entirely used to being with others of its kind, the aloneness of being on a beach by itself cannot be overstated. The relaxation that I could feel pouring through her bones as I massaged the oil out might have been her reacting to a habit that she was missing, a loneliness that was eased by some contact with another species.
I have used the word 'perfect' so many times through writing this post. But, it stands. She was flawless: her form wonderfully adapted to her environment, and my experience entirely superb.