Sunday, 14 September 2014

Another brick in the wall... we do need some education

The dry stone wall, which borders one side of the garden at OTT, is in a state of disrepair. This could be due to a combination of several factors: age (its, not mine); subsidence caused by the activities of rabbits; large farm machinery driving passed it on a regular basis, or overzealous weeding at its base by Our Lass and I.

Irrespective of the cause, the solution is the same. Rebuild it. There wasn't even a discussion about whether we wanted a different type of boundary. We both like the wall and the habitat it creates. It is probably not substantial enough for nesting birds (wrens and starlings might possibly consider it), but its nooks and crannies supply homes for all manner of invertebrates. Recently, following an influx of wagtails to the area (probably due to migration), we often have a Pied Wagtail pottering across the lawn or along the wall, searching for tasty morsels.

Whilst not quite tall enough to hide the barbed wire fence of the field over the road, it does bring a flavour of Orkney stone into the garden and is a likely substrate for lichen to colonise.

Not wanting to blindly blunder into some substandard nightmare recreation of neolithic stonework, I booked myself onto a one day course to learn the basics of dry stane dyking (as it's known up here), run by Voluntary Action Orkney on behalf of the Scottish Crofting Federation. So, yesterday morning, I and eight other keen students presented ourselves at a site in Orphir to soak up some knowledge of 'rock Lego'.

Kevin, our tutor, showed us how to construct an A-frame, for use with a string line, to ensure that our wall was level and even.

We split into teams of three and commenced work, from the ground up. Ian and Steve (pictured) drew the short straw and had me for company.

Kevin patrolled the line, helpfully pointing out where we were going wrong and offering advice and encouragement. It really isn't as easy as it looks and the most important bits seem to be the small stones that fill the centre of the wall and bind everything together.

Approaching lunchtime, we had made some progress and worked up a good appetite too. We adjourned to Kevin's home, a short distance away, where his wife had prepared a meal for all the attendees. Soup, a Ploughman's salad and homebakes. Delicious!

After lunch, and a tour around the exquisitely-crafted dry stone structures at Chez Kevin, we set to once more, endeavouring to maintain the profile of the wall as it grew skywards.

Ta-dah! Not bad for a first attempt, we thought. And now we are suitably emboldened to try this at our own homes and gardens.

To be continued...

At some point.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Solar flair

As the sun accelerates towards the Autumnal equinox, on its journey along the western horizon, the evening colour palette is augmented with a predominance of grey hues.

The ephemeral pinkness of an Orphir dusk

Saturday, 6 September 2014

I don't believe it!

Proof, if it were needed, that living in Orkney is a great deal different from holidaying in Orkney, is provided by my lack of Hen Harrier photographs during the last nine months. Binoculars and camera are on permanent standby at home, but even that is not a sufficient state of readiness when one of these gorgeous raptors glides across the neighbouring field.

Several visitors, obviously in full-on holiday mode, have snapped amazing shots from the front doorstep, or beside the garden wall, but I'm just not in the game. Now that I think about it, I don't recall actually capturing a decent harrier image when we were holidaying either, but that was probably due to a combination of factors: insufficient lens power (2006-2007); injured (2008); on an island with lack of suitable harrier habitat (2009, 2011, 2013).

So here I am, able to see Hen Harriers all year round, through Winter roosting, Spring and Autumn migration and Summer breeding. And whilst we don't live near prime moorland habitat, there's plenty of Orkney Voles on tap, so the occasional bird of prey graces the environs of OTT with a flypast. It's just not happened when I've had camera in hand.

I shouldn't whinge. Plenty of folk would give their eye teeth to have the enthralling encounters that we have been able to experience. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, the species is seriously threatened in England and parts of Scotland due to illegal persecution. Therefore, if I seem churlish at my 'misfortune', please forgive me this small selfishness.

Mind you, it isn't helped when I return home from work, as I did this afternoon, to be greeted by Our Lass, with a small compact camera in hand, brandishing an image to make my hair stand on end.

Not just a Hen Harrier photo...

Not just a Hen Harrier photo, taken from the lounge window...

Not just a Hen Harrier photo, taken from the lounge window, showing a bird sat on a fence post across the road...

But a Hen Harrier photo, taken from the lounge window, showing a bird sat on a fence post across the road, with another harrier sat on another fence post a little further still down the road.


Our Lass informed me that they both had ringtails, so would be either female or juvenile. I must admit, I don't know whether two adult birds of the same sex would tolerate each other to this extent, or if it is more likely that they are siblings who have fledged this year.

If only she'd had time to pick up Very Wrong Len before a car drove past and frightened them away. No-o-o-o-o-o-o!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Border urgency

Whilst we have been taking our time, considering the options for laying out the garden at OTT, Our Lass has been keenly bustling one of the borders into shape.

I say 'one of the borders' but, at the moment, it is the only border. And it is not yet free of Docks, but we're getting there, bit by bit.

Crocosmia, Red Campion, Common Ramping Fumitory, Cornflower... then back to the mystery Brassica and Docks. There's a few Meconopsis hidden behind the Fumitory, too.

The old garden fork came with us from Milton Keynes. It was a much-loved perching spot for a Robin, back then. Now that the handle has disintegrated, it isn't such an easy landing pad, but the odd Starling has graced its weathered wood (I've just not been quick enough to record it for posterity).

The Cornflowers have survived the winds and are providing shelter for yet more Fumitory. A few small trees in pots are hiding up against the dry stane dyke, awaiting their turn to go mano a mano with the Orkney weather.

This week, an old shovel has joined the garden fork, to give the border that 'I've just nipped inside for a cup of tea, but I'll be back' look. And we spotted a Robin the other day, the first we've seen since early Spring.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Waste not, want not

Yesterday, dear put-upon reader, I began a blog post with a bit of a whinge about a temporary lack of mains water at OTT. It was only a bijou rantette and I'd hoped you wouldn't overly notice.

Y' see, we do not have a cold water storage tank at OTT, mains water is fed directly to the cold taps and we live near the top of a low hill. So any loss of pressure following a burst pipe in the area and we're one of the first households to be affected. The mitigation is that we keep a supply of bottled water handy for drinking and washing, whilst using the waste washing water to flush the lavatory.

It certainly makes you realise just how much we all seem to take a plentiful supply of clean water for granted. It's important stuff as, let's face it, by volume, it is the main ingredient in a cup of tea.

But then, what of all the empty plastic bottles?

Well, at the moment, Our Lass is busy propagating cuttings of all manner of leafy things. With the bases removed the 5 litre bottles are just the ticket for hot-housing on the windowsill.

And I'm pondering if I can create a row of mini cloches for the garden. There's just the small problem of the wind speed to consider...

The Pound Sterling and Plan B

OK, you can relax, this has absolutely nothing to do with the upcoming Scottish Referendum, or the debate surrounding a possible currency union or otherwise.

As the weather was so peachy this morning, bright sunshine and hardly a breath of wind, we spent a bit of time in the garden. Our Lass weeding the one border that has been half-tamed and me shifting some rocks from an adjoining paddock, that the local farmer was happy for me to take.

The pile of rocks were left over from the renovation of a dry stone wall, so Mother Nature had started to reclaim them beneath a covering of grass, buttercup and dock. I gradually unearthed the lumps of stone and transported them across to OTT, building another cairn for later use around the property. Towards the bottom of the pile, I discovered a bundle of dried grass that looked for all the world like the nest of a rodent, perhaps a mouse or vole. On closer inspection, however, it became apparent that the occupants were, in fact, bees.

I quickly took a few photos with my phone and replaced a slab over the nest, so as not to disturb the bees too much. Posting the pics on the local Facebook insect group page brought confirmation that bees do occasionally re-use rodent nests, though whether with permission or not was harder to gauge!

I think that in the last pic, towards the bottom of the shot, it's just possible to make out the comb. Sadly, none of the photos were useful in IDing the species of bee.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

It's been a funny old day

07.15 Stagger out of bed, make way to kitchen on autopilot, turn on cold tap to fill kettle. Nothing, not a drop. Arse! Make a pot of tea with bottled water and stagger back to bed to contemplate having to go to work without having a shower.

09.00 Set off for work and drive past the scene of the burst pipe... exactly where it was previously, when it happened three weeks ago.

12.00 Whilst sorting through a bag of donated items at the re-use yard, a work colleague discovers this...

Very dead, very desiccated, not native to Orkney. May well have been dead before it made the journey to these isles from gods-know-where.

16.30 Back home again and there's a knock at the door. Open it to discover a policeman. Just as he begins to explain the reason for the visit, I notice a Hen Harrier flying behind him. It slowly glides over the road and begins to make its way along the fence of the field opposite. I hurriedly try to gauge the odds of being arrested if I run for my camera and then barge the boy-in-blue out of the way. Apparently there'd been some vandalism at the church up the road. Probably not related to the Hen Harrier.

17.00 Following the departure of the local constabulary, we sit outside with a medicinal beverage and are astounded to see a single, small, greeny-brown bird fly into the tallest vegetation in the garden, a clump of thistles. As it lands, it emits a single "Wheet" call and then remains silent, but flits in and out of the stems for a minute or two, before flying straight past us and over the house. Everything pointed to Chiffchaff. We are elated. Five miles down the coast, they're fighting off Barred and Booted Warblers, Pied Flycatchers and Wrynecks. We don't care. Much.

17.45 Our Lass shouts from the kitchen that there's a ship steaming past the Rose Ness lighthouse.

She's nearly right!

It's been a funny old day.