Sunday, 19 May 2019

Everlasting reprise

Our Lass was keen to catch up with some wildlife highlights from the week, so on a very different morning weatherwise, we headed to Kirkwall and then Yesnaby.

The Woodchat Shrike was still in the same place in some bushes on an industrial estate, still hoovering up invertebrates from the neighbouring paddock.

Over on the west coast, it was a very different day from my previous visit. The sunshine and a brisk easterly wind having been replaced with thick grey cloud, no breeze to speak of and a slight drizzle. Undeterred, we set of south along the clifftop path.



Almost a sea stack!


Mountain Everlasting

Heath (?) Milkwort

Mountain Everlasting

"Stop p*ssing about taking photos of primroses!"

Discarded or predated eggshell from a Great Black-backed Gull, or perhaps a Razorbill

Yesnaby Castle

Saturday, 18 May 2019

The one where Tense comes out

There have been easterly winds for a few days now so, bearing in mind the time of year, there have also been reports of sightings of rare birds all over Orkney (and elsewhere, I'm sure). Birds which are heading north to breed in the short, but bounteous, Arctic Summer have been blown off course, and the Orcadian birders are very organised in finding them and also spreading the word.

A local social media group is overseen by a dedicated volunteer, who manages to alert group members to a wide variety of fantastic wildlife. Not just birds, mind, but also Otters and any cetaceans that may be in Orkney waters.

And so it was on Friday morning. Our Lass had gone of to work, I was busy vacuuming whilst waiting for a customer to collect some equipment and my phone kept 'pinging' with updates of newsworthy birds seen on some of the outer islands of the archipelago. Now as I hope you know, I am not the kind of guy to drop everything and jump on a boat or a plane to go and twitch a rarity, so these reports were useful information, but no more than that. Then, the news arrived that a Woodchat Shrike had been seen in an industrial estate in Kirkwall. Not only was this bird on the same island as me, it was only fifteen minutes away (and that's driving slowly) and it would be a lifer for me. I have not previously seen a Woodchat Shrike. Well, there was that time when I was walking home from Junior School along a country lane when I thought I saw one, it is a very vivid memory, but I suspect it might have been a dream.

To be honest, it was a very moot point, as I still had forty five minutes to wait for my customer, so I couldn't really shoot into town to see the bird. Technically, I could do it... but it would be bad form if I was delayed and kept the customer waiting. So I vacuumed the workshop too and then threw a load of clothes in the washing machine.

Just before the designated arrival time, I received a different 'ping'. The customer was running late and would be another twenty minutes. At this point, a succinct expletive may have been uttered. By the time I was hanging out the laundry to dry, there had been further news that the shrike was still around, but for how much longer?

Resigning myself to the fact that the chance had passed, I decided to bake a cake, as there was plenty of rhubarb to be cropped and I had found some crystallised ginger in the dry goods cupboard.

The customer duly arrived, pleasantries were exchanged, equipment was handed over and farewells were said. On checking my phone, it appeared that the bird was continuing to show well, but now I had forty five minutes to wait for the cake to be ready. Birds on migration tend not to remain in one place as they still have some place else to be. It was a pleasantly warm day, with lighter winds, so decent enough weather for a bundle of feathers to do the avian equivalent of a satnav's "Recalculating..." However, this species does not usually occur any further north than Southern Europe, so who knows?

Remembering that Eagle-eyed M was in town, as we were due to meet up later to go and search for damselflies, I messaged to see if she had heard about the shrike. She had, and was collecting some new binoculars and then a coffee before heading over to the industrial estate. I had to admit that I was being delayed by confectionery. 

Eventually, the cake was deemed ready, hoicked out of the oven and left on a wire rack to cool, whilst I hot-footed it to the car and disappeared shrike-wards, muttering silent pleas that the bird would hang around for a few minutes longer.

Upon turning into the designated road, I could see, in the distance, past some industrial units, a few cars parked by the kerb. Beside them were four individuals armed with cameras and binoculars. This looked like the correct place!

I parked up and scrambled out of the car, trailing my own bins and camera behind me, and tried not to look too sheepish. For this was Tense on a twitch, a fact not lost upon several of the gathered birderazzi. In 2018, I may have overplayed my hand as regards my Small Year!

Thankfully, at that point, Eagle-eyed M pointed out the shrike to me and I concentrated on enjoying the moment, that this wasn't a dream, and after a further five decades I was finally watching a Woodchat Shrike.






The bird was some distance away across a paddock, perched in bushes on an embankment behind a wire fence. It was obviously very hungry and made countless hunting trips down into the paddock to pick up, presumably, insects from the ground. Occasionally, it appeared to be attempting the shrike trait of storing food in a larder, but Willows do not have the same capability as Blackthorn for this purpose.

Rather pleasingly for M, the first bird seen through her new bins was this one, which is certainly a christening present to savour.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Orkney Nature Festival 2019

The annual Orkney Nature Festival is being held this week, and I went along to one of the  events, at Yesnaby on the west coast, hosted by the Orkney Field Club. The Club was marking its 60th year with a walk along the clifftops and through the maritime heath habitat where Primula scotica can be found. This delicate wee flooer is endemic to the north coast of Scotland, in Sutherland, Caithness and Orkney. It is also the emblem of the Orkney Field Club.

Our walk took us by a sea stack known as Yesnaby Castle, before we left the sandstone behind and set off south along the granite-bouldered path.



Skuas soared by, both Arctic and Great, tracking the coast and keeping an eye out for a chance to steal a meal. We walked on, through swathes of pale blue Spring Squill and the occasional Tormentil, Lousewort or Milkwort.

Eventually, on a windswept clifftop, we stopped to search for our diminutive quarry and were rewarded with many leaf rosettes and a few plants in flower.



Primula scotica has two flowering seasons, usually one in May and the other in July. Some plants flower in just one, a few in both, but most do not flower every year. This year, after an unseasonably warm early Spring, and a current spell of very dry weather, Nature seems to have hurried on with some things and delayed others. Certainly, we would have expected to see more Scottish Primrose flowers in May, but perhaps we had found ourselves in the species' floral interregnum.

We walked on a little further, to another sea stack, North Gaulton Castle, and spent a while watching two climbers as they made their ascent. 


On the return journey, we encountered another flower, which was a first for me, Mountain Everlasting. I suspect that it probably grows taller in more favourable habitats, but here on the clifftops it is very small. It has separate male and female plants, and the botanical experts among us spent a goodly while discussing the gender and characteristics of various blooms. The ID guides are very rigid upon which flower is male and which is female but, as in many things, Life's a bit more complicated than that. In the end, it was mooted that perhaps an LGBT group was required for the plant.


A secondary target species for the day was a rare beetle, Chrysolina latecincta ssp Intermedia, which has a very limited UK distribution. This is a beautifully-marked black beetle with striking red stripes along the edges of its wing cases. It feeds on Sea Plantain in Orkney, and its only other known UK sites are on the island of Unst in Shetland and by Loch Etive in Argyll and Bute. Sadly, again, the early Spring warmth seems to have allowed it to complete its life cycle much sooner in the year, so we were unable to find a single individual.

Next year...

Breaking a duck... no birds were harmed in the writing of this post

On a recent warm and calm day in Orkney, I was able to add the first sightings of the year to my Odonata diary. The long wait through the Winter was finally over as, along the banks of the Wideford Burn in East Mainland, a couple of Large Red Damselflies were seen.



A 'large' butterfly which tumbled past and dropped into the vegetation resolved itself into a pair of mating Green-veined Whites.



Later in the day, a small pod of Orcas was cruising around Scapa Flow, so Our Lass and I changed our planned route for a walk and headed over to the coast by St Mary's village. Sadly, as is often the case, we didn't manage to catch up with the pod, but there was loads of other wildlife around, including a pair of Little Terns. 


We spent some time gazing out across the Flow, listening to the calls of a variety of birds and, at least in my case, occasionally checking social media for Orca sightings updates.



Sunday, 12 May 2019

May montage

Well, after a reasonably prolific April of blogging, creative output has taken a back seat during the last fortnight. There's been lots of island hopping for work, friends visiting from New Zealand and a fair bit of fruitless searching for damselflies.

So here's a breezy run through of some of the stuff I've been up to since last we spoke...

Kirk yard flowers, (St Nicholas Kirk, Holm), 28/04/19

Painted woodlouse (25' up a gable end of a house in Sanday), 01/05/19

Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, 05/05/19

Our Lass photographing Primula scotica at Yesnaby, 10/05/19
Me photographing Primula scotica at Yesnaby, 10/05/19

St John's Head and the Old Man of Hoy (and a cruise ship), 10/05/19

Our Lass in the old millstone quarry at Yesnaby, 10/05/19

The old millstone quarry at Yesnaby, 10/05/19
 
Here's one they half made earlier! 10/05/19

The quarry walls are now used by climbers, if the number of eyebolts are anything to go by. 10/05/19

Hoverfly (Eristalis pertinax, I think) in Durkadale plantation, 10/05/19

Redpoll (of some indeterminate species) in Durkadale plantation, 10/05/19

Rowan bud burst, Durkadale plantation, 10/05/19

Peregrine falcon (male), 11/05/19

Bay of Semolie, Holm, 11/05/19

Spring Squill, 11/05/19

Sea Campion, 11/05/19

Brown Hare, just coming into range, but then was scared off by a car, 12/05/19

Lousewort, Wideford Burn, 12/05/19

Sycamore, Wideford Burn, 12/05/19

White Ermine moth (male) on front step, 12/05/19

White Ermine moth (male) on front step, 12/05/19

Monday, 29 April 2019

Dash in the attic

For one of the blog landmarks of recent weeks (1000th-ish post and 10th anniversary), I had wondered about posting something a little different. One possible idea evolved out an interview I did with the local BBC Radio station for the Orkney Field Club, and the interviewer had offered to release the mp4 file of the article, should I wish to share it.

Tempting though this was, I wasn't sure that the world was ready for such a thing, and anyone following the blog probably didn't deserve having my dulcet tones ruining their day.

But I felt a pang of regret that I hadn't marked either occasion with something a little... suitable.

Fast forward to today, and an opportunity presented itself whilst I was at work. I routinely end up in loft spaces, perhaps running cables or fitting an aerial, often in cramped conditions, wearing all of Mr Health and Mr Safety's PPE, whilst trying not to notice all the spiders.

But not today. This might not be the most luxurious loft on the planet, but it had a certain something that I felt compelled to share.

No spiders were harmed in the making of this movie. And the customer's permission was politely sought and kindly given to post this particular video clip on my blog.

Life imitating art

With a few hours to kill last week whilst the Tense-mobile (an actual car, not the dragonfly ornament) went for an MoT, I visited a tea shop and an art gallery (very much in that order of priority) in Stromness.

Still recovering from my bout of under-the-weather, I took a gentle stroll around the sheltered harbour of Hamnavoe, refuelling in Julia's Cafe, before ambling into the Pier Arts Centre where there were several exhibitions in progress.

Many have said that I am a bit of a philistine in these matters, although I heard the phrase as 'fils en Tyne' so I wasn't too upset. See? I can do cultural jokes. Although I was actually born by the River Wear.

With my lack of couth, I was momentarily flummoxed by a broken window, wondering whether it was part of an exhibition, a bit of ongoing street theatre or an actual smashed pane. However, it did prompt a sudden experimental urge to explore my Mondrian phase. Thank goodness I wasn't carrying a red felt tip pen.



In a corner of one gallery was an old wooden chair. As I perused various serially-baffling artworks, I couldn't help repeatedly glancing at the chair. It was very familiar. I don't mean that it sidled up to me and tried to borrow a cigarette and twenty quid, but I had the distinct impression that I had once owned it. If this was art, it was freaking great art, because it was speaking to me!


Y'see, years ago, we inherited a set of chairs like this one, from an old lady who had been a big part of my formative years. Although the chairs didn't sit well with our more modern furniture, their provenance gave them unconditional space in a conservatory, where they were pressed into occasional use when we needed additional seating. Being completely anti-social scrotes, this wasn't very often.

When we moved to Orkney, the down-sizing nature of our plan meant that some serious decisions had to be made. Not quite as harsh as 'if you haven't used it in the last six months, it goes', but not far off. So, all but one of the chairs were donated to an environmental charity who had a re-use yard in Stromness, with the remaining chair relocating into the garden shed in case Our Lass ever stopped being a horticultural whirlwind for five minutes and needed a sit-down. To date, dear reader, she has not.

This means there's a real possibility (although this style of furniture must've been manufactured in their thousands) that the chairs had indeed found a re-use, and I had once been very well-acquainted with this very chair. Does that make me an arse-supporting supporter of the arts?

One of the exhibitions concerned landscape, and I was rather taken with the works of the late Bet Low. Her depictions of Orkney landscapes were uncomplicated and often quite simple, but were able to communicate some essential quality of the scene to this unseasoned heathen.

There was one I really liked, it was huge and I couldn't stand far enough back from it to take a photograph. Instead, I tried to photograph a smaller painting of hers, but the light was against me, which I think may be ironic in a painterly way.


It is called Red Rysa, which shows a view of Rysa from, I think, somewhere in Scapa Flow, with several of the hills of Hoy in the background.

Here's a more viewable version of it (scavenged from the interweb).


And in one of those strange quirks of Fate, that has you questioning your faith in free will over destiny, as I wandered back to the garage to collect my car, I bumped into a retired lighthouse keeper who was, and probably still is, a regular customer of the re-use yard. I don't think there was a day went by when I worked there that he didn't pop in for a look around. Stromness is that sort of place.