Sunday, 15 October 2017

Steve

Since returning from holiday at the end of September, I've not had much chance to be out in the garden. Mostly, this has been due to inclement weather, either strong winds or heavy rain, often both, as well as too little time to fit in a spot of gardening after work (the double whammy of a busy schedule and shortening daylight).

Today, for instance, I had plenty to do to prepare for the week ahead, so much so that I hadn't even started on the list of work things I was supposed to be doing. However, the weather was better than forecast, and it seemed like an ideal opportunity to mow the lawn, especially seeing as how it had been neglected for over a month!

Migration-wise, our little corner of Orkney doesn't make the headlines or even the local 'bird alert' text service, but we're still seeing the occasional Swallow and, this morning, a couple of Redwings flew over, as if to highlight the changing seasons.

This week's main excitement was caused by the Aurora Borealis, with a good showing of the Merry Dancers on Friday night. For once, even aurora lightweights like us were able to view the Northern Lights, as the 'show' started as soon as it was properly dark, which was before 9pm. It was a blustery evening, so I didn't bother taking my camera outside but, fortunately, plenty of other folk did.



The local Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook is a useful resource for alerts, updates, technical info and some fantastic photography.

Friday night was no exception, as 'Steve' put in an appearance. Let me explain. There is an aurora phenomenon that doesn't, as yet, have a scientific name. It had previously been thought that it was a sky feature known as a proton arc, but apparently not, and so an aurora group in Alberta christened it Steve.

To the naked eye, the colours are never quite as vibrant as those seen by a camera as, on a long exposure, the camera is able to pull in more light than our eyes. So, for Our Lass and I, Steve was more of a grey colour, a weird, long, thin cloud emanating overhead and trailing off to the east (we're usually just looking north for the Lights). 

However, one of the local aurora hunters, Amanda Ruddick, captured this amazing image of Steve (see here).

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Dragonfl-eyes

Dragonflies and damselflies have amazing eyes, especially the former, with their huge, almost wrap-around, pair of peepers. Their compound eyes can be comprised of as many as 30,000 facets, known as ommatidia, which give them an almost 360 degree field of view.

A male Southern Hawker
This is because each facet points in a slightly different direction, but the insect processes the partially-overlapping images to create near-surround vision. If that wasn't impressive enough, dragonflies have many more types of light-sensitive proteins, opsins, in their eyes than compared to humans. We have three, so are tri-chromatic, whereas some insects have quadruple that and some dragonflies have as many as thirty. This allows them to distinguish many more colours than we can, and they are also able to detect in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, as well as polarised light.

Different portions of a dragon or damsel eye may be tuned to certain frequencies of light, so that when we look at the insect, its eyes seem to be of two, or more, colours.

A male Red-veined Darter, sadly deceased. From the top, its eyes are brown.
Whilst from below, they're blue
But enough of the science.

Have you ever wondered why a dragonfly always appears to be looking at you, no matter where you are in relation to it? OK, technically, it is always looking at you, what with all the 360 whatnot going on, but take another look at the Southern Hawker at the top of the blogpost. Do you notice anything?

Yep, it looks like they have pupils, even though we know that they don't possess eyes like ours. I think this is due to the absence of light being reflected back out from those facets which are facing us, which makes them appear black and gives the 'pupil' effect.

And because of the wrap-around malarkey, wherever we are in relation to the insect, this will happen. No matter whether we're in front...

Common Darter
 to the side...

Common Darter
behind...

Willow Emerald damselfly
or below...

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
it will still seem to be staring straight at us.

I am always on my best behaviour around dragonflies. Just in case.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

South to North

Our return journey from holiday, back to Orkney, was a similar trip to the one which had taken us to Norfolk. We re-visited Second and First Born, spent a few days with my brother and his family in Middlesbrough, visited my dad and then, once back in Scotland, dropped in on Our Lass's sister and her family.

Whilst in Milton Keynes, and clutching a £10 off voucher, I went on a pilgrimage of sorts, to pay my respects to the factory shop of a certain clothing manufacturer.


Meanwhile, at Second Born's abode, the Harlequin ladybirds were gathering on all surfaces, seemingly trying on all manner of clothing... 



Whilst in Middlesbrough, we visited RSPB Saltholme in warm Autumnal sunshine, finding plenty of Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers.


The view from one of the hides was a little unusual, as a work party were  busy with a spot of habitat maintenance. A took the below shot and cheekily sent it to the RSPB with the message 'A flock of Shovelers'. 


The following day, the photo appeared in one of their community blogs, with the accompanying article being written in a similar vein!

By the time we returned to Orkney, the isles' weather was going all traditional, with the usual equinoctial gales. However, fast-moving and horizontal meteorology can make for great photographic opportunities.


Friday, 6 October 2017

A halcyon day

For our last full day in Norfolk, we headed to the north bank of the River Yare and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, via Fairhaven Garden on South Walsham Broad. Our Lass wanted to see a Kingfisher, because they are only very occasional visitors to Orkney.

As luck would have it, as we neared the gardens, in a village called Pilson Green, a streak of electric blue shot across a roadside pond, disappeared briefly behind a stout wooden bus shelter, before it re-emerged immediately ahead of our car and headed off down the lane in front of us.

"There you go," I said, "We've seen a Kingfisher, shall we go home now?"

If that wasn't enough, whilst in Fairhaven Garden, we could hear plenty of high pitched piping (often the only indication that there's kingfishers about) and were treated to a millisecond's worth of view as one flashed across a footbridge.

Fortunately, as it was dull and overcast, the dragons were a bit more obliging on the photographic front than the birds. We watched a male Southern Hawker searching the water's edge for a mate, and there were several Common Darters in the market for some free warmth, courtesy of my hand.



I take great heart from the fact that dragons like this Common Darter do not view humans with any other thought than that we're slightly warmer than the surrounding habitat. Wise ape? Self-proclaimed pinnacle of evolution? You can keep it!

After lunch (the real reason for visiting Fairhaven), we made the short journey to Strumpshaw and set off around the Fen Trail, eyes pealed for wildlife.



In fact, our first nature moment was very relaxed, as for once the subject wasn't flying or running away. I'm guessing it's an Inkcap mushroom of some sort.



As we wandered beneath an Oak tree, a brown shape came flying low towards us along the trail. At the last minute, it hauled back on the stick and disappeared up into the branches of the Oak. It wasn't, as I first thought, a Sparrowhawk, but a Jay. I tried to take a photo of it, but there were just too many leaves in the way, and the light wasn't great either. So, we turned our attention to a nearby pond, which had a couple of darters ovipositing in tandem. After watching them for a while, we turned back to the trail, and I noticed the Jay again, busy collecting acorns. I managed a couple of photos before it disappeared once more. The first image was just a blur, the second was this...



So, the only two decent photos I've taken of Jays over the years, have both been in Norfolk, but on opposite banks of the Yare from each other. See here for the other one.

Walking along a track called Sandy Wall, we noticed several dozen Common Lizards lounging on the wooden edge to the path, trying to eke out as much heat from the wood as possible. Oddly, I wasn't so keen to pick up one of these, especially when a few had already shed their tails, presumably in response to being attacked by a predator.



Also on this stretch of the reserve were very many Guelder Rose bushes, laden with the shiniest and reddest of shiny, red berries. Some winter-visiting thrush will be grateful for all that bounty.



Turning off the main track, we made our way to a hide overlooking a small pool within the fen. As we entered, another chap was leaving and whispered that the Kingfisher was showing well.

Like we needed our "Excited" buttons pushing!

So, we sat in a hide full of folk brandishing more optics than a pub supplies exhibition, and waited. A distant Marsh Harrier briefly piqued everyone's interest, a Little Egret caused a bit of a flurry and then I whispered "Water Rail!" Cue much snapping of photographs. Me included, though I was only in single shot mode, not continuous like my fellow residents.



After a bit more of a wait, we were finally rewarded with an appearance from a Kingfisher, who ignored the wall-to-wall shutter clatter coming from the hide and flitted between several suitably-located posts.




At one point, it flew further away and hovered over a particular patch of water. And hovered, and hovered, then hovered some more. In all honesty, it hovered for longer than just about all my previous views of Kingfishers up to that day. A-maze-ing, darling!

Our Lass was really pleased.

We finally dragged ourselves away, so that other folk could enjoy the spectacle and carried on around the fen. There were many Spindle and Wayfaring trees along the path, some still bearing fruit, but most with their leaves turning red. It was in one of these latter (I think) that we found three Migrant Hawkers roosting, though it was difficult to approach closely for a photograph, as I didn't want to trample any vegetation.



And Strumpshaw was no exception to the Ivy league, with towering drifts of the climber gloriously a-buzz with insects. Here's what all the fuss was about...



If I had planned it, I couldn't have laid on such a sumptuous extravaganza of wildlife watching. The fact that it was all left to chance made it so much more exciting and it was a fitting end to our Autumn break.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Stuff On My Phone (4)

About a year ago, I shot this video one morning whilst working in the West Mainland of Orkney.

Skeins of Pink-footed Geese were passing over on their southward migration from their breeding grounds in Spitzbergen, Iceland and Greenland, to spend the Winter in the UK.

A couple of nights ago, during a lull in the weather, we heard the tell-tale sounds of this year's goose migration as we lay in bed.

A relaxing Saturday

Following our wanderings all around the Loddon area on Friday, the next day was a much more sedate affair. Once again, we left the car to its own devices and bimbled about in the immediate vicinity of the cottage.

Sisland has a lovely wee church, some of its structure dating from the 12th-13th Century. We walked around the graveyard, browsed the historical literature in the... whatever the religious equivalent of the foyer is, and then looked around the interior of the church.




As it still wasn't lunchtime yet, we walked a small loop through fields to the north of Sisland.


With a small diversion for a 4G moment.

During the afternoon, we sat and read, just read. I felt hugely guilty that we weren't 'doing anything', until I realised that on holiday it is ok to just 'be' and relax.

However, at 4pm, everything stopped for tea.

This kind of tea...



If 'doing something' is required, I can heartily recommend this particular pastime.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A 'no car' day

One of the big plus points about our chosen holiday venue was the availability of walks from the door. The tourist info at the Owl Barn also encouraged holiday-makers to consider leaving the car at home for the occasional day, and we were only too happy to oblige.

Our chosen route used lanes and tracks to head east into the small market town of Loddon. From here we planned to explore some of the Wherryman's Way, along the River Chet, before looping back through Loddon to Sisland.


Thanks to my OS map for holding steady during the photo.
As it was a hot day, we were travelling light, Our Lass with a DSLR camera and me with my bins. However, I did have the camera on my phone.

I love this pic

Y'know, it's funny, but by the time we ambled into Loddon, our talk had turned to the topic of Elevenses. It's uncanny, isn't it? What were the chances? We could remember a lovely little eatery from previous visits, but not where it was or what it was called. And so we traversed the main street, hoping to find that it was still in business. Indeed it was, hello Spoon Cake!

Following refreshments, we picked up the Wherryman's Way route and headed towards the River Chet. Before we reached the waterway, however, we discovered that the route was subject to some diversions due to emergency repair work. No matter, we decided to chance our arm (well, legs) and see how far we could go.

A suitably odo-tastic ditch on the flood plain
After little more than a kilometre, which happily did include Migrant Hawkers, Common and Ruddy Darters, we came up against a path closure and had to use the track for Chedgrave Common Farm to retrace our steps.

Fortunately, this meant that we could experience a wonderful hedgerow. As Orkney residents, we don't have much in the way of hedgerows to savour, so this was a nice surprise. The stand-out plants were the copious bushes of Ivy (Ivy? Bushes? Really?) which were just a-buzz with insects. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Ivy was a real holiday highlight, every clump was very much audibly alive. 




We didn't see many Ladybirds in Norfolk, but look at those pollen baskets on the bee.
After returning to Loddon (Oh, look, lunchtime!) and another visit to Spoon Cake, we revised our plans and headed south of the town, then circled round clockwise back to Sisland.


Another cracking hedgerow
As we walked along a field boundary by Loddon Hall, a distant movement caught our eyes. Way, way up ahead, we could see something running about and jumping in a puddle, if all the splashing we were witnessing was anything to go by. Through my bins, I identified the mystery animal as a Stoat, and we watched for ages, not daring to move, as it bounced and somersaulted around. After one last frantic bout of mad dashing, it disappeared into a crop of beet and we were able to creep up to the puddle to look for stoat signs.


The only tracks visible were these ones, photographed by Our Lass
On returning to Sisland, I spotted this post box in a wall, which would appear to date back to Victorian times.