Wednesday, 23 September 2015


Our peedie home in Orkney was given its name by the chap who built it.

The plot of land upon which the house stands, along with another five properties, used to be a field. Whether it was all set to pasture, I'm not sure, but whenever we cut the grass this is what happens...

Photo courtesy of Our Lass
The local Starling flock arrive and proceed to carefully and systematically quarter the ground looking for invertebrates to eat. You wouldn't want to be a leatherjacket, eh?

I was minded of this yesterday (though sadly I didn't capture an image of the event) when I was stood at the bedroom window, listening to the sparrows in the dock patch and watching the Starlings at the bottom of the lawn. Said Starlings then moved, in a block, up the lawn and beneath the window where I was standing, leaving no blade of grass unturned in their pursuit of prey. Close up and in the bright sunlight, the patterns and colours of their feathers were a textured melding of metallic sheen and sparkling jewels. Their constant sounds, a mixture of whickering and burbling (possibly to each other or just talking to themselves), ebbed and flowed as they wandered under the window. A few of the birds paused to drink at a shallow puddle in the paving, totally unconcerned at, or oblivious to, my presence.

I imagine that this scene has played out many times over the years, including whilst the house was being built, so may well have contributed to the naming of the property.

Well, I like to think so, anyway.

Researching the etymology of the name, I discovered a thesis by Berit Sandnes, From Starafjall to Starling Hill, An investigation of the formation and development of Old Norse place-names in Orkney.

It is published online here.

The eponymous hills of the title are interesting in their own right, as shown in this extract:

"Starling Hill    Sc
Evie. HY 34 22.
Stirling Hill 1846 ComE.
A summit in the hills on the border between Evie, Harray and Birsay. This is a transparent Sc formation, but interestingly it seems to be a translation of Starra Fiold, see below.

Starra Fiold    ON
Evie. HY 35 22.
Starra Fiold 1897 OSNB.
A summit close to Starling Hill above. The origin is probably ON starafjall n ‘starling hill’, though the specific could even be starra gen pl. of störr f ‘rushes’. If the specific is the bird’s term – or the speakers have imagined it to be so – this name and Starling Hill appear to be a rare example of an ON name and its Sc translation.      

The reason why both live on would seem to be that they have come to denote two different summits."

Sc = Scottish

ON = Orkney Norn

Obviously, Starafea is not an ancient Norn, Norse or Scottish term, coming simply from a recent naming event, and I'm not 100% sure that '-fea' is 'hill', as it could be 'fen' or 'marsh'. However, we're on very free-draining ground, so I'll happily side with the 'hill' derivation!

To be fair, I don't mind what the house is called, as long as it comes with a flock of garrulous Starlings.

I extend my grateful thanks to Berit Sandnes, as well as to the staff at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall, for their help during the writing of this blogpost.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Wedding wildlife, Part 2

We were very decadent and assigned one whole day to all-out willdife watching.

The tourist literature for Rhodes is rather light on natural history, save for one well-publicised attraction, the Valley of the Butterflies. Maybe that's a bit harsh, there is a Bee Museum (which we didn't visit) which is more prominently signposted than the airport! I guess the fact that the Valley of the Butterflies features in the tourist information is a big clue as to what sort of experience it will be, but we were intrigued to see what was there.

The valley in question is located south west of Rhodes town, in the hills beyond the airport. It is a steep-sided, rocky ravine, sufficiently wooded to provide plenty of daytime shade from the glare of a summer sun. Boardwalks, bridges and a path snake through the valley, following a small stream and corraling visitors to one bank or the other to minimise disturbance to the butterflies.

This is not one of those artifically-created insect attractions. For the butterflies are here naturally, to rest, or aestivate as it is termed, keeping out of the heat of the day and conserving their energy.

Hang on... butterflies? Really?

There are a great many of them, clinging to rocks, tree trunks, fence posts and any surface they can find. It is an awesome sight, especially when the occasional insect takes flight to move to a different location, its fiery red/orange underwing suddenly revealed, before it alights again and the black and white striped forewings perfectly camouflage it in a landscape that is all shadows and sun beams.

We read the signage explaining the life history of the butterfly. We note the warnings about not making any sudden movement or noise, which might alarm the creatures and cause them to take flight. And we can't quite shake off the feeling that they're not butterflies at all, they're freaking moths!

I guess Valley of the Moths doesn't sound so glamorous, does it?

However, despite the Great Lepidopteran Scam, it is an incredible place. Even now at the end of the flight season, there are thousands of moths in this valley, it is quite spectacular. If you stand still and watch a particular spot, eventually it will become a swirling mass of fluttering wings, briefly flashing red, before all is still once more (spookily, I was reading Michael McCarthy's Moth Snowstorm at the time).

But it is a tourist attraction, so there are hordes of visitors, tacky gift shops and, oh no, a natural history museum!

If there's one thing that's worse than having the wool pulled over your wildlifey eyes, it's a series of rooms full of things that used to be alive but which are now dead. In fact, worse than dead, they're decrepit, falling apart due to the usual difficulties of curation - temperature, humidity and, ironically, the ravages of small insects. Here, again, there are more interpretation boards. It's all about the butterfly, Panaxia quadripunctaria.

I later learn that even the Latin name has been updated. It is now Euplagia quadripunctaria, the Jersey Tiger, as it would be called in the UK.

Stepping out of the depressing museum, back into the sunlight, I am greeted by a tree covered in blossom. No-one else is looking at it, yet it is teeming with life: bees, wasps and several Hummingbird Hawkmoths. In fact, we do see several actual butterflies during the visit, but no-one pays them any heed. A few huge Swallowtails flollop along, ignored by the masses. This is a deeply weird place.

It's a butterfly moth

Some butterflies moths
More butterflies moths
A little Lepidopteran afternoon delight
I feel duty bound to at least leave you with an image of a proper butterfly. Somewhere in here, there's a Swallowtail...

Wedding wildlife, Part 1

First Born's wedding, taking place on the island of Rhodes, presented the father of the bride with a bit of a conundrum... just how much wildlife watching is appropriate on such an occasion? Common sense prevailed and my camera and lenses remained in Orkney, though I did sneak my bins into our luggage. Our Lass took along a small compact camera, but I opted to just use my phone for photos.

The wedding day itself was a decidedly warm 40 degrees C, but everything went smoothly and everyone had a great time [... and a Buzzard flew over immediately post ceremony].

For the remainder of the week, either side of the Big Day, there was an amount of lounging by the pool, swimming in the sea and driving around the island with the air con on full blast.

But I'll start at the beginning...

After three separate flights and an hour's drive, we arrived at our hotel, just outside Lindos, at about midnight... to discover that our room was double-booked and we'd have to spend the first two nights at another hotel a further 20 minutes down the road. Whilst this standby hotel was of a similar standard, it was much larger and consequently a lot busier. However, by this time, we simply wanted to catch up on some sleep.

At the back of mind, I was still trying to figure out how I would see any local (and therefore completely new to me) wildlife. I needn't have worried... it was part of the room service... hot and cold running ants, a wasp and a cockroach.

The following evening, whilst returning to our room, our ears were assailed by a wall of sound that was strange yet oddly familiar. In the centre of the hotel complex was a large tree, which turned out to be the roost for a huge flock of sparrows. I have never heard such a barrage of chirruping, it even drowned out the cicadas.

Once settled into the correct hotel, we were pleased to find that our balcony had a view across some scrubland. This small strip of habitat produced a flock of Crested Larks, a Black-eared Wheatear and a shrike (possibly Red-backed).

The pool area and beach were equally blessed with wildlife (even if it was difficult to capture with a camera). The day before we arrived, there had been an emergence of small dragonflies, a species of darter, which flitted about between sun and shade, often landing to obelisk in the heat. Occasionally, a larger dragon was seen whizzing high over the swimming pool, but this was impossible to identify. There were loads of hornets buzzing about, several locusts in the flower borders and a five-legged grasshopper risked life and remaining limbs by walking across the paved area in full view of the local feral cat population.

It took me several days, but I eventually figured out what the darters were. There were several options available for this part of Greece, including some of the species we have in the UK, but I eventually managed to spot a mature individual that had enough diagnostic features to nail it. Unfortunately, it needed binoculars, so the best picture I could come up with involved trying to hold both bins and Our Lass's camera whilst focussing both on a distant insect. The results were rather unsatisfactory to say the least.

However, here's a couple of mobile phone pics of an immature specimen, discovered the next morning in the flower border between the hotel and the pool.

Whilst not yet coloured up, there are several clues here (as I learned): the eyes are brown above and blue below; the pterostigma has a thick dark leading edge and a paler area behind (see topmost part of wing in either photo) and the legs are not completely black. All this adds up to Red-veined Darter, a species occasionally seen in the UK, but not by me so I was chuffed to bits. The individual seen through bins was much redder, with obvious wing colour (eponymous veins and yellow wing bases).

Both First and Second Born tried to rescue darters that landed in the swimming pool, but to no avail. I can only presume that the chlorine in the water was bad for their health, but it didn't stop enterprising wagtails from wandering around the egde of the pool, scooping up any unfortunate dragonfly.

If there is an upside to a dead dragonfly, they're much easier to photograph!

Certainly, the view of the underside is not one that I've had previously, and is interesting from an anatomical perspective (male dragons have 2 sets of genitalia). Those eyes look so alive :o(

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Flying high

My Barrier 4 obsession shows no sign of abating...

This photo was taken from somewhere above South Ronaldsay as we returned from a wedding in Greece.

Barrier 4 can be seen right of centre, with the actual barrier as the left hand edge and the sand dunes comprising the remainder of the feature.

Did I not mention there was to be a wedding in Greece... ?

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Please do not adjust your set

In a change to the advertised programme...

Our Lass and I are off to an island which is known as a cruise ship destination of choice, has loads of ancient archaeology and, apparently, precious few dragonflies. Sound familiar at all?

First Born and her beau are soon to be married and the wedding ceremony is taking place on the island of Rhodes, which nestles between the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. The trusty internet informs me that this is 2091 miles away as the damsel flies... and about 18 degrees Celsius warmer.

The dawning realisation that this would impact heavily upon our normal packing routine prompted a reappraisal via the medium of Facebook:

A pair of natty suits... or a pair of muddy boots?

An assortment of ties... or a book on dragonflies?

Emergency money... or a t-shirt that's funny?

Stuff in case I'm out of sorts... or some fairly garish shorts?

And the answers?

Yes, no, no, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Apologies, for a moment there I appeared to be channelling Meg Ryan.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Garden List

Our Lass was on a roll at the weekend...

On Friday evening, whilst I was in the kitchen cooking tea and being oblivious to what was going on outside, she shouted from the study that there was a bird on our neighbour's roof.

Not even wearing spectacles, I was absolutely no help at all, but I kept my unfocussed eyes on the bird whilst Our Lass fetched two sets of binoculars. That at least established the identity of the visitor as a falcon. Our Lass then kept her eye on the raptor, which was being mobbed by a small flock of Swallows, whilst I retrieved my camera from the lounge.

There was just enough time to rattle off a few shots before the falcon gracefully exited stage right.

We think it was a young Merlin, a bird not previously seen within the environs of Tense Towers, so a prime candidate for addition to the Garden List.

Two days later, on Sunday morning, and reasonably early on a Sunday morning too (I was still in my dressing gown), Our Lass spots more unidentified birds. This time from the lounge window.

In amongst a flock of Common Gulls are four waders. I hurriedly dash off to throw on some clothes, so that I can try and sneak a little closer. However, halfway through this endeavour, I am aware of the daily drive by of the milk tanker, with the result that there are no more waders left in the field. Dang! I should've just gone outside in my dressing gown!

Perusal of our ID books produces a short list of Knot or Ruff, so I throw the question out to those with more experience than me with such conundrums. The consensus is Ruff, as Knot are not usually seen away from the shore.

Brilliant! Another addition to the Garden List.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Perils of Listening in English, Part 3

The Scottish Government recently announced that it would be banning the growing of GM crops, in an attempt to protect the excellent reputation that Scotland's food and drink industry has garnered over the years. Let's ignore any references to deep-fried Mars bars, eh?

So, I was alarmed to hear on our local radio the other day, that farmers in Orkney were having a terrible year due to something called 2-Wheat.

I could only assume that this was the trade name given to a fearsome and ecologically damaging genetically-modified cereal crop but, unsurprisingly, I was wrong.

Orkney has had a great deal of rain through the Spring and Summer: cattle couldn't be turned out onto pasture until much later than normal; hay-making was delayed, and many crops have had a shortened growing season.

An awful situation though this is, it isn't the cataclysmic destruction of our environment by some nightmarish science experiment. Nope, it is just that the ground's been too 'weet' i.e. wet.