Monday, 18 February 2019

Quintessential wildlife and cake

Whilst I may have been sat staring at a computer monitor or a tablet screen for much of the last fortnight, none of that activity appears to have had anything to do with writing a blogpost. Sometimes one's work/life balance isn't worth the... weight.

A few weekends ago, the Orkney Field Club organised a walk around Birsay at the northwestern tip of the Orkney mainland. This was to be followed by lunch at the Birsay Bay Tearoom. What is not to love about that arrangement? Storm Erik did his utmost to put a very wet and windy spanner in these works, but he hadn't reckoned with the meteorological talents of Eagle-eyed M, who managed to arrange a suitable weather window for a blustery, but dry, amble along the coast of Northside.

Burns were overflowing, fields were flooded, and the breakers coming in from the Atlantic were huge, but sunlight was catching the waves, such that the rocky shore was a kaleidoscope of greens, blues and whites. Dodging these waves, whilst trying to forage or rest, was the job of a flock of about thirty Purple Sandpipers. These Winter visitors from Greenland, Iceland or Scandinavia are well-camouflaged for their rocky environs but, again, the low sunshine was helping to highlight the birds as they moved from rock to rock. A few Goldeneye and Eider ducks were offshore, the occasional Grey Seal inquisitively bobbed its head to the surface to stare at us. More birdlife was pottering about in the flooded fields, with flocks of Curlew and Oystercatcher busy feeding, their long bills probing the soft ground. At one point, a large flock of Starlings flew by, pausing briefly to give the merest hint of a murmuration. Likely, this flock had been foraging through the tangled masses of seaweed thrown up on the shore, and was now returning to a nearby farm to congregate and socialise.

With an eye on the clock, and not wanting to be late for lunch, our group took a shorter route than intended, which turned out to be very fortuitous. As the track we were using reached the cliff edge by a rocky geo, we paused again to watch a pair of Goldeneyes. Scanning the water's surface, I was aware of a shape that was too brown to be a seal, but too mammalian to be drifting seaweed. At this point, adrenaline kicks in, and as the human brain attempts to resolve a pattern into a known shape, it is all too easy to mis-identify a piece of flotsam and make a fool of one's self. With this in mind, I tentatively approached the walk leader and mumbled, "Er... I think there's... er... an Otter out there."

Reassuringly, nine other pairs of eyes also thought this, and we spent several minutes watching the Otter catch prey, swim to the cliff edge, clamber out onto a shelf and eat its lunch. And, once it had swum out of sight, we hightailed it to the Tearoom for soup, sarnies, scones and cake.

Owing to the forecast, I didn't take my camera. Unfortunately, my phone just wasn't up to the job of recording images of the surf or the Otter. Even in the tearoom, I failed to capture a photo of the repast, but that was because I wasn't quick enough!

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Some Winter skies

Sunday morning, the low Winter sun catches the snowy hills of Hoy
Also available in pink (same view on Tuesday morning)
Hazy Sunday afternoon - not to mind it's blurry (with apologies to the Small Faces)

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Stuff On My Phone (23)

OK, this one's very fresh, downloaded within the past hour after hearing a brief few bars of the intro on a TV programme, then spending half of said programme trying to recall what the track was, before finally remembering and letting out a huge sigh of relief.

If you haven't been watching BBC Four's 'Guitar, Drum and Bass' rockumentary series, you have missed a fascinating, occasionally quirky but always entertaining, journey through some pivotal moments in the history of rock music.

We didn't manage to catch any of the three programmes live, but they're all still available on iPlayer (just!), and so it was only this evening when we got around to watching the final episode about the guitar, hosted by Patti Smith's guitarist, Lenny Kaye. It was this programme which contained the background sound of an Echoplexed guitar intro to a song I knew... if only I could remember it [check it out at 2:18 to 2:39 in the programme, if you want to play along].

It's quite difficult, at least for me, to identify a song from 20-odd seconds of intro, when the rest of the programme carries on with one great song after another, so that there's no time to catch one's breath and have a jolly good ponder. Eventually though, enough neurons aligned themselves, a roadie cranked the handle of a portable generator in my subconscious, a band name emerged through the dry ice of decades past and my inner geek handed me a Post-it with the answer written in leaky Biro.

But I won't tell you just yet...

I was shocked to discover how long ago it was that the song had been a hit. Well, minor hit, it peaked at number 25 in the UK Singles chart in 1981 and also marked a bizarre time of my life. Having left school after A levels, I had a belated teenage tantrum and didn't go to university. Through a combination of a passion for motorsport and a school romance which had transcended the limitations of the Sixth Form, I ended up, some months later, in the Army (I know, I know, you're right, it doesn't make sense, but there you go).

Yes, so long ago, in fact, that it pre-dates that fateful and fortuitous meeting with Our Lass later the same year!

But fast-forwarding back to the present, half way through 'On Guitar... Lenny Kaye!', I suddenly let out a yelp, grabbed my phone and searched iTunes for...

The Passions... with 'I'm In Love With a German Film Star'.

Listen to it here.

The 1980s, eh?

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in the Seventies anymore."

Thursday, 31 January 2019

You lose some, you win some

2019 marks 40 years of the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, the long-running project to detect changing trends in Britain's garden visitors, with the latest survey taking place last weekend. The weather here in Orkney was dreich, with persistent drizzle all day Saturday and more of the same for Sunday with the added bonus of a brisk northerly wind. It was so awful that a planned Field Club walk to look for waders on a stretch of coast in Evie was cancelled.

So, all things considered, I had decided not to bother with the Garden Birdwatch this year. That was until, whilst peering out through the rivulets of rain running down the lounge window, I detected a blurry movement across the lawn. Yup, there, foraging in the lee of the dry stone wall, was a Blackbird, the sole representative of feathered fauna to be witnessed gracing our environs with its presence all weekend.

Since then, the weather has been calmer, colder and altogether much icier and snowier. This has been quite picturesque at times (those when I didn't have to drive anywhere) and rather treacherous at others (those when I did). But gradually, either because of the change in weather or the fact that birds are just plain old perverse, a few species began to reappear around Tense Towers.

Firstly, on Monday morning, as I pottered about outside, I could hear Skylarks quietly trilling to one another. On looking around, I traced the sound to a small flock, just over the fence in the field opposite.

Tuesday brought Meadow Pipits, again I was alerted by their contact calls, and these too were foraging close by. Even more pleasingly, half a dozen Rooks spent some time investigating the road beyond our garden wall, presumably for invertebrates which had succumbed to an application of road salt. The sun put in a brief appearance, so I was able to take a few photos of the Rooks (through the windows, so as not to spook them).

Yesterday (Wednesday), I didn't have much opportunity for wildlife-watching, but was incredibly lucky on two separate occasions. Firstly, in the morning, as I was looking out of the window to check on the weather before setting off to work, a largish brown bird was flying low over the field opposite. My initial reaction was "Sparrowhawk?", but as it banked and rose to clear a fence, I saw the telltale white patch at the base of its tail. Hen harrier!

Then, later in the day, I was on the phone to a client and, deep in thought about an IT problem, I absent-mindedly wandered over to the window again. Whilst a goodly proportion of my brain cells were involved with discussing spreadsheet cells, another significant number were helping to track a wader which was soaring up from the field opposite. Being careful not to say the word 'Snipe' out loud, I was just awarding myself a brownie point for the fortuitous sighting, when another movement on the edge of my vision caught my attention. This, the cause of the Snipe's flight, was another Hen Harrier, a male resplendent in its silver/grey plumage, which was now wheeling away to try its luck elsewhere.

As I type, today, a lazy flock of Common Gulls is slowly drifting by the window. The birds are likely en route from the pasture where they have been foraging, headed to either the shore or a recently-ploughed field. Meantime, several vocal flocks of Greylag Geese are making the journey in the opposite direction, from sea to fields, to begin their day's foraging. The local Starling and House Sparrow flock are noticeable only by their absence. Must be all those flippin' harriers!

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Small Year, Part 4

With five months of my Small Year having flown by (sometimes quite literally), it seemed that I had already surfed the crests of the three predictable waves: the initial surge of resident species added to a blank list; the overwintering birds which ebbed and flowed around Orkney; and, more recently, the invigoratingly fresh splash of Summer visitors arriving to breed.

The indications were that, even before the halfway point of the year, I had seen the vast majority of species which would be available to me. Without giving too much away, this was indeed so. However, more happily, I was yet to discover that most of the small number of significant finds for the year were still to come!

In fact, this began to happen almost immediately, in bizarre circumstances, when I was very definitely not birdwatching. At the beginning of June, as is customary, I took Our Lass out for a meal to celebrate her birthday. We had chosen the Skerries Bistro as the venue for a long lunch, to be followed by a wander along the clifftops of South Ronaldsay. A haar had limited our views of the Pentland Firth during lunch, but as we left the bistro and made our way along the coastal path, the sun managed to burn through the fog and give us splendid vistas to all points of the compass. However, we were just as happy looking at the wild flowers and insects adjacent to the path, so it was some time before my attention was taken by a white shape at the edge of a lochan about two hundred metres away. Without any binoculars or a long-lensed camera (Our Lass's birthday, remember!), I couldn't be sure what it was. It had to be a bird, a quite large bird, but it was more upright than prone. Not a swan, then. Egret, maybe? After pinging a message out on social media, in case others might want to know about it, I received a reply back to say that it was a Spoonbill, and had been present for a week. Result!

A week later, on a different set of cliffs, our ears were assailed by the onomatopoeic calls of Kittiwake, as we pottered along the coastline from Birsay to Marwick in the company of some good friends. Around mid-June, I was astonished to pick up the call of a Quail in the field over the road, and then even better, a Hobby was seen for several days, hunting over the rooftops of the barns of the neighbouring farm. Towards the end of the month, we journeyed south, to the edge of the Abernethy Forest, for a holiday. This was principally a dragonfly trip (and the hot weather certainly helped in that regard), but, of course, I couldn't help noticing the occasional feathered thing. A walk near Tomintoul brought several Spotted Flycatchers and a Grey Wagtail, then an evening constitutional at Loch Garten was accompanied by a serenading Willow Warbler, before a quick check of a lochan at Boat of Garten served up a Little Grebe. Inevitably, on the last day of the holiday, I was dragged to the Osprey hide at RSPB Garten, but only after I'd found a White-faced Darter on a nearby bog pool.

July was quite a lean month, perhaps in part due to it being a time when bird populations are quite static, but mainly because it was peak dragon season and I was otherwise engaged. On a non-dragonflying day trip to Westray, showing the island to friends, I did hear a Corncrake whilst we were exploring the ruins of Noltland Castle. We were so surprised by this, I had to check that it wasn't the RSPB using a tape lure to tempt the birds into suitable flag bed habitat.

Into August, and walks on local beaches brought me Red-throated Diver (here all year, but I hadn't positively caught up with one until now), Sanderling and Black-tailed Godwit. An Odonata trip to Hoy also benefited from the same valley we were exploring being home to the recently-fledged White-tailed Eagle chicks.

Speaking of eagles, colleague Eagle-eyed M was beginning to wonder about my work trips to Shetland...

And a few weeks later, again, when I found some potentially good dragonfly habitat...

As the Autumn began, I was fortunate to be outside on the day when a calling Whimbrel flew over the house, which was a moment to savour and a nice addition to my garden list! Midway through September, we had booked a week in Perth and Kinross, at the Bamff Estate. The hope for the holiday was to watch Beavers (which we did) and dragons (which we also did). But the biggest surprise was the amount and variety of fungi to be seen. Happily, I finally managed to see a Jay, a scant 251 days into my Small Year, and the holiday also brought me Treecreeper, Water Rail and Red-legged Partridge.

By October, most of the Summer breeding migrants were gone, although there would still be species transiting through Orkney from further north. However, first there was the not insignificant matter of a Winter visitor I had failed to positively identify in the first three months of the year, a Redwing, and fortunately, a work trip to Stenness sorted that out. And then it was my birthday, and the now legendary (at least in Tense Towers) sighting made from the corridor between the bathroom and the bedrooms.

X marks the spot of where I was standing when I glanced across our bedroom, through the window, across the lawn, over the wall, to a fence post on the other side of the road.

With a male Ring Ouzel sat on it! I don't think my feet touched the floor for days afterwards, as I was on such a high. The month ended with an equally thrilling encounter with a small flock of Waxwings in a tree of the garden adjacent to the property where I was working in Kirkwall. November, however, was a zero month, with no new species added.

And so to December. My favourite set of gate and fence posts came up trumps again on the 2nd, when the Meadow Pipit I was watching (from the lounge window) spooked another bird to fly up from the ground. It wasn't another Meadow Pipit, it was a Black Redstart. Oh my days!

On the 16th, a walk with the Orkney Field Club through varied habitat on the north coast of Scapa Flow delivered a few Slavonian Grebe out to sea, and then a bonus Woodcock, flushed from the base of a hedgerow as we sauntered by. My final new species of the year, was seen whilst visiting Graemsay on the 20th, a sleek male Pintail just offshore from the rocks of Sandside beach.

So, that's what I did see. How about what I didn't? On our journeys to mainland UK, I had missed Barn Owl, Kingfisher, Nuthatch and Green Woodpecker. On Orkney, unforgivably, I didn't positively ID a Common Tern at any point through Spring and Summer. But those few species aside, I was happy with my meagre haul. The only species which could possibly be argued to have been twitched during the year, was the Osprey, but we had been staying within 2 kilometres of the nest site, so I think that would be harsh to deny. All told I encountered 139 species in 2018 without any special effort. This is actually six species higher than my poorest year of the past five years, and only 3 species lower than my best.

I think that I can say, when it comes to nature-watching, I'm am content to rely on serendipity and paying attention to what's around me at any given moment.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

You win some, you lose some

Remember the paint tin sponge cake? Well, there was plenty of excess sponge, what with the failed cake that was a biscuit and the whole 8" diameter down to 6" diameter malarkey. But Our Lass had the brilliant idea of slicing the offcuts into sponge fingers and freezing them so that we would have handy makings of quick desserts.

Several weeks later, and with the addition of custard, cocoa powder and this...

we can now say that the experiment is a success.

Actually, we've not opened the jar in the photo, but the one we did open (raspberries and rum) was snarfed before I could take a picture of the contents.

Meanwhile, warming to her unaccustomed role as Kitchen Goddess, Our Lass then announced that she was going to make loads of stock with the carcass of the roast chicken from Sunday lunch. By Monday morning, and her departure for work, I was staring at the large pan which had been left on the hob to cool from the previous evening. Pretty much every plastic container in the kitchen had been used to house the various leftovers, which gave me a bit of a problem when it came to freezing the stock.

Undaunted, I used a dish to act as a holder for several freezer bags, and managed to decant a couple of litres of stock without too much trauma. The bags did flollop about a bit, but I reckoned that as long as the stock froze, it would be ok.

Later in the day, on checking the freezer, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the idea had worked, with no leakages to report.

Unfortunately, however, the two bags which I'd squirrelled away into a door shelf were well and truly solid and not for budging. Oops.

I think that when the time comes to defrost those, it will be a big gravy day!

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Small Year, Part 3

May was a time of renewed enthusiasm for the project, with Spring migrants appearing for the breeding season. These species helped achieve the second highest monthly total of the year, with only a few resident species in the mix, and two thirds of the birds being seen in Orkney. The exceptions were those species seen on a trip to a wedding near Edinburgh, although one of these was also seen subsequently in Orkney.

The beginning of May saw me on the rooftop of a low building on the island of Papa Westray. This was a working day and my mission was to refit several satellite dishes into place following the completion of an extension to a property. The main logistical problem was that all the scaffolding had been removed, and the fact that it was impossible for me to bring an aluminium ladder to site on Loganair's small aircraft. But the Papay community saved the day and I was able to borrow a ladder which was just long enough for me to raise my game. Once safely ensconced on the roof, the dish alignment procedure was going well, when I became aware of bird calls not far above my head. Armed only with a 13mm spanner, rather than a pair of binoculars, I could only ID the birds as being terns, but I did notice that there was a constant stream of them appearing over the top of the hill behind me, whizzing over my head and making a beeline for a field not too far away. I had initially worried that I was causing them some concern and that they were mobbing me, but I soon realised that I just happened to be on their flight path from wherever they were feeding. Later, at ground level, chatting with a local wildlife expert, I was shown the field in question, which contained an impressively large, for Orkney, colony of Sandwich Terns.

The following day, whilst driving past Kirkwall airport, I was fortunate to spot a Short-eared Owl, which was sat on a fence post by the roadside. Although some of these birds do overwinter in Orkney, this was the first one I'd seen for the year, and sadly, I wasn't to see many more. The jury is still out as to the possible causes for this, but there are concerns that their primary prey item, the Orkney Vole, is being extirpated by Stoats. No voles will likely lead to no owls.

Later that week, on a trip to visit friends in West Mainland, one of the quintessential aural experiences of the Spring migration burst into our ears with the distant call of a Cuckoo. You could almost sense all the local Meadow Pipits cringing in a collective "Here we go again!" as they considered the annual prospect of brood/nest parasitism.

The following Saturday saw a few more migrants popping up on my list, Arctic and Little Terns, as told at the time here. These were quickly followed by Sedge Warbler and Sand Martin whilst out looking for early damselflies at Inganess. The week also brought Lesser Black-backed Gull and House Martin. A mini-cruise organised for the Orkney Nature Festival fortuitously delivered a few Puffins swimming in the sea at the base of the cliffs of St John's Head in Hoy.

Just before our trip south, and also in Hoy, I was carrying out a survey at a site near Sandy Loch. With half an hour to spare before I needed to be heading back for the ferry, I walked up to the loch to see if there were any dragons or damsels to be seen on the adjacent pools. Sadly, there were not, but I did see a Common Sandpiper, with its distinctive three note call which had been burnt into my psyche from bird watching as a youngster on the banks of the River Wear as it flowed through agricultural land in County Durham.

And so to our trip to Dalhousie for a niece's wedding. Our first pitstop of the journey was at Helmsdale, where a few moments' perusal of the garden of a tea shop brought a Blackcap and... praise the Lord... a Bullfinch, the species I'd missed on the 1st of January! Then, in Tain, whilst walking along the main street, we were enterTained (sorry!) by a small, but welcome, horde of Swifts. There may have been rapture.

We weren't in a hurry on this journey and had purchased a picnic to be consumed near Loch Garten, whilst looking for White-faced Darter dragonflies. The odes certainly didn't disappoint, and we also clocked a Tree Pipit, singing from the top of a nearby pine tree.

The wedding weekend was a lovely occasion, only requiring the slightest of enhancements with the calls of Tawny Owl and Great Spotted Woodpecker!

To end the month, back in Orkney, I was dropping off my van for a service in Stromness and walking into town to be picked up by Our Lass, when the distinctive call of a Whitethroat reached me from an area of scrubby vegetation. This was another sound from my childhood, walking along between pastures bounded by high hedgerows, and the rasping song of this perky warbler.

May saw me break through the 100 species barrier but, although I didn't yet know it, I had already experienced the four best scoring months of the year. The remaining seven months would bring further opportunities, admittedly, with Scottish holiday weeks in Summer and Autumn, the Autumn migration and Winter arrivals in Orkney. They would also bring another 'nul points' month. But what would I see? And would it be quantity or quality?