Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Stuff On My Phone (29)

One of the problems of driving around in a roof-racked van with multiple ladders, is that the radio aerial has a shorter life expectancy than a World War Two fighter pilot. So, when the occasion arises where I need some aural pleasure, I turn to 4G or WiFi internet access on my phone. Binge listening, a grateful sanctuary from the tedium of ferry travel (waiting on piers and plying the high seas), usually centres around topical news satire and science documentaries.

There's not much radio I would willing listen to these days: news coverage is either too shouty or just too polarised (honestly, if balance is a couple of folk from either end of a politically spectrum cancelling each other out, where's the moving towards a solution?); talk shows are just soul-crushingly depressing (the only thing worse than no-one being able to have an opinion is everyone having an opinion - and again, from the outer reaches of the topic de jour); music, for so long a go-to option, has left me cold (such that now, along with many other folk, I rely on downloaded playlists); and sport (at least for a Middlesbrough supporter) is too much of a roller coaster ride.

There has always been the calming influence of Test Match Special, but synchronising my work with international sporting fixtures is not a schedule for financial success.

However, last week, I had a bit of a revelatory moment when I fortuitously discovered the BBC's 'Fortunately' podcast with Fi Glover and Jane Garvey. This podcast began in 2017, so I was able to gaze rapturously at a list of 127 episodes, and look forward to the pleasant thought of mellowing out on plenty of upcoming journeys, listening to these two amazing ladies.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Post Ciara constitutional

After several days of indoor work, the departure of Storm Ciara meant that I could venture outdoors again. An early start saw me slip sliding my way to the van, with the pair of us then tiptoeing into Kirkwall through the first appreciable snow of the Winter here. Two hours later, when the ferry berthed in Westray, it was still very cold, but bright and reasonably calm.

Thankfully, my customer was soon on hand with a warming brew, but he and I quickly realised that I'm not completely over Middlesbrough selling Adama Traore to Wolverhampton Wanderers.


With the task completed, I had a few hours to kill before the return sailing back to Kirkwall, so ventured to Grobust beach to see what was about. The answer was mainly waves, although there were Oystercatchers and Curlews in the fields behind the dunes, and a flock of Purple Sandpipers on the rocky shore.





There was still evidence of the previous night's snow and hail showers...


but this doesn't count.


Did I mention the waves?






As I began the walk back to where I'd left the van, a small movement at my feet caught my eye. There, walking over the accumulated hailstones, was an insect. Despite the cold, it wasn't hampered by lack of mobility. Indeed, I struggled to photograph it, so quick was it to avoid detection.


Whilst waiting for the ferry, I wandered to the breakwater by the pier. A couple of birds were perched on the rocks, and I puzzled over their ID for a while before throwing the question out onto social media.

Ummm, not sure, could be a Cormorant, could be a Shag?

With a steep forehead, this is defo a Shag

The two together, apparently showing a distinct difference in foreheads. However, I wasn't certain that this was enough evidence to make the right hand bird a Cormorant.

Facebook reckoned that it was probably a young Shag (thanks, AF).

Monday, 10 February 2020

The laziest storm chaser

As I sit here typing this, occasionally gazing out of the window at the weather, I ponder what it must be like on a two hour ferry journey. Hopefully, Our Lass will tell me later. Yup, it's all a bit meteorological at the moment, eh? Countless folk from slightly nearer the Equator have contacted us to ask if we're ok, and we are, as I don't think Orkney has had the brunt of this storm. Another glance out of the window reveals another wintry squall scudding across Scapa Flow. Once it has hammered on said window, in a brief and confused flurry of snow, sleet and hail, there will be a chance to take in the scenic outline of Hoy, with a frosting of snow on the hilltops.


And repeat. But there have been more pleasant interludes during the last few days.

Early Friday morning, when I opened the lounge curtains, there was a moonset in progress behind Wideford Hill. It was probably asking a lot of my little point-and-shoot camera to capture the moment, but at maximum zoom and very little light, it managed this image.


Later that afternoon, in bright sunshine and a very brisk breeze, I ventured back to Evie Sands with the recce team from Wild Orkney Walks. The conditions made photography difficult, but in the shelter of a bank at the top of the beach, we were able to watch several groups of waders, including this Redshank.


We had a slow start to Saturday, at least until a bird call filtered through the bedroom curtains and the duvet was flung aside in a mad dash to the window. The Skylarks are back! Not in full song, mind, but it was lovely to hear their flight calls, a pleasing mixture of chirrups and gentle warbles. Perhaps in response to this, shortly afterwards, Our Lass noticed a bird sat in the ploughed field opposite. It could have just been a feral pigeon or a Rock Dove, but it wasn't.



Nope, a female Merlin was hunting on the ground, so presumably for lesser fare than larks and pipits.

By mid-morning, the sunshine had tempted us outdoors, despite the chilly wind. In a few sheltered ditches, the first stirrings of Spring were making themselves known, with Marsh Marigolds and Lesser Celandine beginning to show.



Strongest gusts here at Tense Towers were on Saturday evening, or so it seemed, as we struggled the short distance from car to front door, wondering why some unseen assailant was turning the garden hose upon us.

Sunday was a wet, windy day, but pretty much standard fare for these parts. It looks as though we will have another few days of strong winds yet, before a brief and welcome respite.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Bad form?

If I'm honest, it was the hare. Stick a picture of a hare on a box and it's a nigh on certainty that Old Tense would buy it. So what if it's a 1000 piece jigsaw? Who cares there's lots of white... and black... and enough shades of grey to give anyone a libido-sapping headache?

All I saw was the hare.

And so, on Christmas Eve, at right about the time the sherry and gin began to flow, we made a space at the end of the dining table and opened the box.


From the off, it was obvious that this was a jigsaw in a different league. OK, we found the four corner pieces pretty quickly, but only one of them could be located with any certainty.


The bottom edge was the obvious 'way in'. The other three sides took much longer.


In fact, even when the perimeter was completed (after recourse to the tape measure, because two sides were the wrong length for a while), there were several mistakes in the top edge which wouldn't come to light until much later. 


But hey, there's a lovely picture of a hare on the box.


And at least that bit is done!


The twiggy bits were slowly taking shape...


Very, very slowly...


OK, painfully slowly. And with all the white areas done, it was time for the greys and blacks.

However, tonight, after 42 days, and with 999 pieces in place, I arrived at the final piece of the puzzle. 

It didn't fit!!

Yup, there was one more mistake to rectify.


Phew! Can we change the tablecloth now, before someone calls Environmental Health?

Sunday, 2 February 2020

[Happy sigh]

It was a cold, crisp morning, and the Winter light was gorgeous. We were keen to be out in the fresh air, so after the fairly rare experience of scraping the ice from the car windscreen, we headed across to West Mainland.

We left the car by the Broch of Gurness and walked back along the single track road by Evie Sands. The calls of dozens of Long-tailed Ducks came to us from out to sea in Eynhallow Sound. Shags and Red-breasted Mergansers were busy fishing in the bay, whilst a Slavonian Grebe drifted through on the tidal race.

On the beach, there were plenty of waders foraging along the strand line and the water's edge, and a Grey Heron patrolled the shallows on the hunt for fish.




A flock of around 28 Snow Buntings were busily exploring the beach, argumentatively chirruping amongst themselves and squabbling over any interesting finds.


As we wandered inland along the banks of a burn, we encountered several pairs of Stonechat. Here, a female was sufficiently puzzled by my presence to hang around for a few photos.



In the distance, a male Hen Harrier quartered across a patch of wetland, hoping for Snipe, I guess. As it continued on its way, a large flock of gulls in the next field all took to the sky, rather than risk being caught on the ground. Their Greylag Geese neighbours, being somewhat larger and out of the harrier's league, simply watched the raptor fly low overhead.


We turned along a rough puddle-strewn track, the night's chill having given each one a coating of ice. The track crossed over the burn and then skirted the shore at the other side of the bay. More waders were present here: Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone.


It wasn't a long walk, but the wildlife moments were top notch.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Purple aaahs

The weather forecast for Tuesday showed it to be the most favourable day to go birding, with an expected dry, but cold, morning, a sunny afternoon and little in the way of a breeze. So I arranged to meet up with Eagle-eyed M, to explore the beaches of Deerness for waders and wildfowl.

At dawn, the visibility was excellent, I could see snow on a few of the mountains of the Scottish mainland and, indeed, there was hardly a breath of wind. By the time we rendezvous'd, however, it was by turns raining, sleeting and snowing. Undeterred, though with the occasional chunter about meteorological inexactitude, we persevered with a walk along the shore of Newark Bay. The tide was most of the way in, which we assumed would make for poor birding, so spent most of our time looking across the flooded fields just inland, where ducks and waders were foraging in the mud and the murk.

Far to the south, there appeared to be some lighter sky, but it wasn't in any rush to visit East Mainland. We squelched on, through a carpet of thick seaweed thrown up onto the coastal path by recent storms, and spotting a few more ducks bobbing about on the gentle sea. After a while, we noticed that we were approaching a mixed flock of waders, which were spread out along the tide line, dodging incoming waves in their hunt for the freshest, tastiest morsels amongst yet more seaweed. They were mainly Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers, frantically searching for food and ignoring two entranced humans. Because it was nearly high tide, the birds were only a few feet away and seemingly unconcerned. As it was also calm, it was possible to hear a sound which I had not previously encountered, a multitude of Purple Sands burbling away to themselves. It was very reminiscent of Swallow twitterings, and it was only the persistent drizzle which stopped me from filming the lovely spectacle, for fear of ruining my camera.

Next stop was Sandside beach, where a similar thing was happening, but with added Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. Scanning the skies, we spotted a raptor headed our way, which resolved into a Sparrowhawk. When the hawk saw us, it broke off from its anticipated route along the tide line and flew out to sea a little way. Then it turned again to fly parallel to the shore, heading for the promontory at the far side of the bay. Half way there, it swooped down low to the water, and on reaching the rocks put up another flock of Purple Sands, only just missing out on snatching one very fortunate bird out of the air.

Driving back inland, we passed several fields with small flocks of Pink-footed Geese, all busy grazing. We went to a small wooded quarry, which can often contain birds sheltering from the weather, but all our searching produced just one Dunnock (which I missed). However, there were several fungi to puzzle over and some Snowdrops to gladden the heart. Later, local fungi expert L identified my photos as Scarlet Berry Truffle and Glistening Inkcap.

Returning to the car, we noticed a couple of finches, sat on a wire fence, just over the road. They flew off before we could positively ID them, but they then landed in a paddock which had been converted into a huge allotment. As we scanned through the ridges of soil, clumps of weeds and huge neeps, we realised that there was a large finch flock busy foraging: Linnet, Twite and Greenfinch. As vehicles passed, the flock flew to the shelter of a mature hedge, where there were also a couple of dozen Redwings. As if that wasn't pleasing enough, three Snipe shot out of the neep patch, whirring away with fast wing beats.

After lunch, the sun eventually broke through as promised, so we pottered around the loop from Tense Towers down to the Holm shore at St Nicholas Kirk. The brightness had encouraged several Brown Hares out into the open, there was a pair of Shovelers on the flooded field behind the kirk, and in the newly-extended cemetery, a small flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plover were resting and preening.

Offshore, the bay held a Great Northern Diver and a Goldeneye, and as the sun slowly slipped towards the horizon, the local Starling flock began to practise their pre-roost murmuration moves. As we were stood in front of the barns where the Starlings would eventually roost, after a while they flew towards us, the pulsating sphere morphing into a horizontal line, the feathered flurry making a gentle whoosh as it passed over our heads.