Saturday, 10 November 2018


OK, so I'm not over my Minion phase, it's a fair cop.

But, no, I'm serious... bananas!

This bunch were just being unpacked, on their way to the fruit bowl, after I had a trip into town to purchase a few comestibles.

Seems like I got a bargain, as there was a wee free gift with this bunch...

Not being too sure what it was (insect pupa/spider egg sac), or where in the journey it might have originated (Colombia/UK/Orkney/anywhere in between), I decided to contact a local expert... local to Orkney, I mean.

I could've predicted her reaction... 

"Can I have it?"

As I was only too happy to not have it, after taking a few more photographs, I jumped into my car with said banana and delivered it over to L's place. I may have glanced nervously at the banana a few times during the trip.

So, I'm not sure how pale and ashen my appearance was when she answered the knock on her door, but her opening gambit did quickly bring back some colour to my cheeks.

"Yes, it does look spidery, but you're OK it probably isn't the large one whose bite gives you a four hour erection."

Just what is the appropriate language for a banana and egg exchange?!

I am assuming that the black bits are frass left behind by either the spider or maybe a parasitic insect, so who knows what's in there? Well, we will see. L will box up the egg sac to see if anything has survived the journey and so might hatch out.

Watch this space...

And, yes, I am very hoping that the mum-to-be isn't lurking in the boot of my car or somewhere in our kitchen!

In the interests of preserving the sanity of any arachnophobes reading this post, I haven't put in any links to pictures of spiders, Brazilian Wandering ones or otherwise. Also, on other grounds, I would caution against an internet search for 'four hour erection'.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Working with wildlife

What makes for a rewarding job? Money? A worthwhile endeavour? Satisfaction at some defined result? There are probably many reasons, ranging from the safety and security of doing a regular thing, day in, day out, through the gamut of risk all the way to the fluidity of a new experience in a new place every day.

I am fortunate that the drift of my vocational choices currently put me in midstream of this work flow, with a small number of different tasks to perform, where the performance is to an ever-changing backdrop. The stage is never set.

Take this week, for example. It being Autumn, and my work ranging between 59 and 60 degrees North (for that, read Orkney and Shetland), my journeys between sites, and occasionally the sites themselves, have been illuminated by various natural history moments.

Monday saw me in the west mainland of Orkney, where a short trip between two customers in the late afternoon, brought flybys from firstly a Peregrine falcon with prey (probably caught over the nearby Marwick Loons) and then, a few miles later, a male Hen Harrier quartering fields close to the road I was using.

On Tuesday, an early start to catch an inter-island ferry saw me making the journey to Westray. By 9am, I was stood at the top of a ladder, listening to flocks of Skylark, Redwing and Twite as they passed overhead. I hasten to add that this isn’t why I was at the top of a ladder, it was merely a fortuitous consequence. Once back on terra firma, my customer pointed out three geese which were foraging in an adjacent field. Not, as I had blithely assumed Greylags, but White-fronted. Sadly, without bins, I couldn’t confirm this, but the Greylags do tend to congregate in much larger flocks.

With the arrival of Wednesday, I was back on the Orkney mainland, and all was rather quiet wildlife-wise, until the afternoon. There I was, in a housing estate in Kirkwall, terminating a cable for a customer, when I became aware of a gentle trilling sound. Predictably, I was on a stepladder. Turning around carefully and slowly, I scanned the vegetation in the neighbouring gardens until my eyes alighted upon a small flock of, maybe, half a dozen Waxwings. Wow!

On Thursday, it was quite an early start to catch a peedie plane to the small island of Papa Westray. Regular readers will recall that I am of the opinion that there can be no finer beginning to a day, at least whilst fully clothed. Hey, it’s Autumn in Orkney, I was fully clothed! Once on site, there I was up a ladder, replacing a damaged satellite dish (“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good”). I was being entertained by the island accents of several Wrens, whose softened song was altogether more laid back than their mainland cousins. In the surrounding fields, and in the skies overhead, flocks of Golden Plover called mournfully, whilst their burnished plumage caught the rays of a noontime sun. Not far from where I was working, maybe fifteen or twenty feet away, was sat a Rabbit.

Sadly, here, I must strike an even more sombre tone as, although its eyes looked bright and its erect ears were glowingly backlit by the sun, the fact that it didn’t respond in any way to the noise of my power tools or the weird beeping of my satellite meter, made me wonder if all was not well. By the time I had tidied up beneath the newly-installed dish, my worst fears were confirmed. Quite quickly, the rabbit’s ears flattened to its body, its head lowered to the ground, its body keeled over and it was gone. At least for the last moments of its life, it had a bit of warmth from an Autumnal sun and some gentle murmurings from me. Upon death, I don’t know where bunny souls go, but I expect that its mortal remains would be found by either gulls or corvids or an assortment of sexton beetles. Soon there would be no trace left of the corpse, save for a fading memory in the mind of some soft blogger.

With a few hours to wait until my return flight, I wandered down to the shore by an old pier, wending my way between small fields full of thrushes and finches. As I retraced my steps, I popped in to see a wildlife-watching colleague who is always keen to practise his procrastination. During our conversation, I voiced, I think perhaps for the first time, a slight regret that upon leaving school, I had not considered a career in nature conservation or ecology. It can only be a slight regret, as my life has followed an interesting and entirely unpredictable trajectory, more worthy of a giddily-drunken pinball player, rather than some focused skeleton bobsledder.

Friday found me in Shetland, working in Lerwick, after an overnight trip on the ferry from Kirkwall. The task was completed by mid-morning so, after a spot of office work at the desk that is my car, I took a leisurely drive over to the west side of Shetland to see if the incoming Atlantic rollers were catching the sunlight. They weren’t, and neither were there any Orca sightings being reported, so after another spot of office/car, I pootled back into Lerwick. Here, on the stroke of midday, as I drove through an industrial estate and past the power station, an animal made to dash out in front of the car. Fortunately, I was well below the 40mph speed limit, and the creature was able to do a swift about turn and regain the grass verge. Looking in my rear view mirror, I held my breath as it ran between my car and the van behind me. Once I realised that it was safely across the road, I was able to exhale and exclaim “Flippin’ heck, an otter!”

When, when, when will I fit a dashcam to my car, eh?

So, whilst I do not work in an ecological or an environmental role, in a way, I jolly well do.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Burwick to Barth and back

Since moving to Orkney about five years ago, we have sampled quite a few of the wildlife moments in the local nature's calendar. However, perhaps the most glaring omission from this unofficial list has been visiting the south west coast of South Ronaldsay to experience the Autumn pupping of Grey Seals.

Yes, as soon as the weather starts its stretching exercises for a Winter of storms, the heavily pregnant Grey Seal mums-to-be begin to haul out on the nursery beaches in not-so-sheltered rocky coves.

This year we decided to make the effort and see what all the fuss was about. The generally-accepted modus operandi is to walk quietly along the clifftop path, so as not to disturb the mums and pups. Binoculars and a camera lens with plenty of magnification are quite useful at this point.

We parked the car at the empty foot ferry terminal in Burwick on the southern tip of South Ronaldsay, the ferry service from John o' Groats having ceased until next Summer. Climbing up onto the clifftop path and continuing northwards, we soon began to hear the 'siren' song of nearby seals. Sure enough, in the first cove we encountered was a female Grey Seal and her fluffy white offspring.

As we wound our way along the clifftop, below us, rocky beach after rocky beach was full of nursing mothers. Each cove also seemed to have a couple of hefty bull seals loitering by the water's edge, trying to out-muscle and out-psyche each other in a bid to maximise any mating opportunity that might come along as the female seals flollopped between sea and shore.

We hadn't really known what to expect from the experience, but even our fleeting visit allowed time to witness all manner of behaviours from the assembled cast. New-born pups would wail, a fractious mum would engage in some 'handbags' if another mum invaded her personal space, the bulls would posture and snarl, but generally it was a cutefest of suckling pups, resplendent in their white fur.

Mums and pups...

Female 'handbags'...

Testosterone-charged bulls...

The only fatality we saw on the day...

The females come into season after giving birth, hence the loitering males. This pair were busy making out on the beach.

Once we reached Barth Head, we decided to turn around and retrace our steps, but not before noticing that, further north, the coves and, consequently, the pupping carried on all along the coast.

In other wildlife news, we had a flyby Merlin and saw a migrating Goldcrest, hopping about in the undergrowth beneath a rusting lump of farm machinery. One cove was full of Jackdaws, there were several Ravens 'cronking' loudly from fence posts and, bizarrely I thought, several Herons.

We later learnt that not everyone is sensible when it comes to seal-watching, with a small group of folk being seen down on the beach. Predictably, all the female seals had left their pups behind and taken to the water. It is to be hoped that they returned once the danger had past, but the concern is that a pup might be abandoned or left alone at a critical time. With decent views available from the clifftop, it is really regrettable that anyone would think it appropriate to disturb vulnerable wildlife in this way. More encouragingly, over 200 pups were counted, and hopefully in a scant few weeks, they will moult into their waterproof coats and take to the water.

Here's a link to some info about Grey Seals.

And here's a link to the Sanday Seal Cam on a neighbouring island.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Taste test

Our Lass works as part of a small team. One of her colleagues is currently attending a cookery class, one evening a week, which teaches participants the skills necessary to prepare food for the festive period.

A pleasant outcome of this is that, the following day, her colleague brings to work some examples of her baking from the previous night's class. If I'm very lucky, some of these goodies find their way to Tense Towers. The other week we gratefully sampled some scones and cake, which were very tasty indeed.

Yesterday evening, Our Lass arrived home with a small clear plastic container in which could be seen half a dozen biscuits. I was informed that as one of the ingredients was marzipan, which Our Lass doesn't like, all the biscuits were for me to try. Result!

After our meal, out of politeness, I patiently waited several microseconds before sauntering to the kitchen to savour these latest culinary delights. After all, I am rather partial to marzipan. On first opening the container, however, I was a little disconcerted by the aroma, which seemed rather savoury in origin for a sugary almond confection. Then I noticed the poppy seeds decorating the biscuits and, confused, I pondered upon the lack of any sort of sweet fondant vibe.

Nonplussed, I selected a biscuit at random and took a small exploratory bite. Mmmm, the texture was perfect, a nice gentle crunch and a pleasing melt-in-the-mouth experience, but I couldn't detect anything of my favourite festive taste. There was a strong flavour, mind, but what was it? I called to Our Lass to ask if she was sure about the marzipan, and she replied that she was certain that is what her colleague had said.

Now thoroughly perplexed, I wandered to the lounge to offer Our Lass a biscuit, to see if she could work out what the mystery ingredient was. After a few more moments' cogitation, we finally agreed that there was a definite cheesy note, which confirmed my initial savoury thought. Our Lass wondered if she had picked up the wrong container by mistake. What else could explain the difference between expectation and reality? Intriguingly, the taste was quite familiar, and eventually I recalled a nice restaurant we used to frequent on very special occasions, where an amuse-bouche was often served between courses. This was the clue we needed to solve the cryptic culinary case.

The answer turned the whole world upside down, for although Our Lass won't touch marzipan, whereas I will, the mystery ingredient has exactly the opposite effect on us both. Parmesan!

M-ah-zip-an / P-ah-miz-an, it's an easy mistake to make.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Stuff On My Phone (20)

This particular post is very current, as I only downloaded the track in question this week. The tune is about four or five years old, so maybe I'm not any sort of up-to-date, happening, finger-on-the-pulse, music aficionado. But here's the story of the serendipitous sojourn which brought the song to my auditory cortex.

On Tuesday morning, I received an email from a blogging colleague, which contained a few links to things I would find interesting. One of these links was to a short film of lightning storms, shot with a super high speed camera (1000 frames a second). I wasn't able to watch it immediately but, later that evening, I remembered the email as I was sat waiting for the overnight ferry from Orkney to Shetland. So there I was, at 11pm, staring intently at my phone screen in a dark car park at Hatston terminal. It was quite arty, very crisp, nicely sound tracked and I did indeed find it interesting. If you want to marvel at the cinematography and technical expertise, here's the link but, mind on, due to the content, it does contain flashing lights.

Now, there's a couple of other things you should know...

The music on that film isn't what this post is about. And my phone was set, to my chagrin, to play the next video of Vimeo's choosing.

As it turned out, this was another super high speed movie, by the same photographer, which featured a motor bike stunt rider, fireworks and ticker tape. All very impressive when shot using this equipment. Unfortunately, these weren't the only subjects of the film, as centre stage were several scantily-clad ladies... on trampolines. Now there's an image that will be difficult to unsee.

However, it was the accompanying music which grabbed my attention, and before boarding the ferry I had already downloaded the song, 'Dernière danse' by Indila, from her 'Miniworld' album of 2014. It was a huge hit around Europe but, I guess, less so in the UK and USA as it is not sung in English.

Being a lad from County Durham, quite interested in the history of my region, and not one to usually bear a grudge, I must admit that I have struggled with France. At school, we were taught all about the Romans and the Vikings, but then skipped to European history of more modern times. It was only later that I discovered about the Harrying of the North which took place after the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, when William and his troops laid waste to much of northern England, including County Durham. Some historians have described this episode as genocide.

So, on one level, for no particular logical or personal reason, I have struggled with all things French (and, yes, I do appreciate that the Normans were just another bunch of Vikings).

Laying these ghosts to rest has taken some time. However, the novels of Joanne Harris have certainly helped, the film 'Chocolat' was an absolute delight, I then had a bit of a setback with Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland in 2009, but 'Dernière danse' has completed the healing process.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Cygnus x 100

No photos of the fleetingly-seen Dunnock, I'm afraid.

But the Redwings just keep on coming, and a couple of Fieldfares deigned to show up too.

Then, a noise we'd been hearing all afternoon, whilst we concentrated upon more mundane matters, made itself felt. Opening the window further, we realised that it was the sound of Whooper Swans, newly-arrived from Iceland and refuelling before heading further south. We couldn't see them, so figured they were either foraging in a field down the hill, or maybe gathering on Graemshall Loch.

Jumping in the car, we drove in the general direction of the whooping, without recourse to a road map for the route to swanage. Sure enough, on Graemshall Loch, there were about twenty families of Whoopers, maybe 100 swans in all, busy socialising, feeding and preening.

We parked up and just enjoyed the sight and sounds of wildfowl and waders, as the fading light lent an atmospheric feel to the scene. Some gentle whistling indicated the presence of Wigeon and several wisps of Snipe burst into the air, but before I could voice a query of "I wonder why they did that?" a Hen Harrier glided by as sufficient explanation.

I've not seen a Swallow for a day or two, and wildlife-y chat is turning to the subject of Grey Seal pups on the nursery beaches of the islands. These are the things, rather than deciduous leaf colour, that tend to illuminate an Orcadian Autumn.

Fans of the Canadian rock band Rush may appreciate the pun in the blog title. 'Cygnus X-1' was the black hole featured in their eponymous track, whilst Cygnus cygnus is the Latin binomial for Whooper Swan. Researching this, I have just realised that the starship of the song's hero is named after Don Quixote's horse, Rocinante. Live and learn.

Remember this day

Mark the date...

Saturday 20th October 2018...

An absolutely monumental occurrence...

And I can say I was there...

Ladies and Gentlemen, I can confirm that, today, I have added Dunnock to the Tense Towers garden list. Whoop, whoop! Go me!