Thursday, 28 August 2014


North Ron trip 23-24 August 2014, Part 2

Hmmm, are you thinking, "Wait a minute, he ended Part 1 by leaving the island. How the heck is there a Part 2?"

Well, the first episode was more about mood and atmosphere, whilst this final instalment concerns birds... mostly birds.

For this visit, Our Lass and I limited ourselves to pottering around the south of the island, foregoing the culinary pleasures of the North Ronaldsay Trust's cafe, located in one of the former lighthouse keeper's cottages at the far end of the island.

Not for us a full-English-breakfast-fuelled frantic dash to the most northerly cafe in Orkney, nor even a mad calorie-burning twitchfest to try to locate the Common Rosefinch that had been seen with the local finch flocks for several days. Nope, although we did partake of a full English, instead we ambled passed Holland House, down to Bridesness and then back again via the beach of South Bay. After a light salad lunch at the Obs, we maintained a slow pace down to the pier and around the south west coast, before heading inland to the airfield and our flight back to the sprawling mega-tropolis of Kirkwall.

But banish such urban thoughts from your mind and simply enjoy a few photos of feathered and fleeced fauna, glimpsed and garnered on our perambulations of this picturesque isle.

Purple Sandpipers, Calidris maritima, near Twingness

I suspect that this is a Willow Warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus, at Bridesness

Sanderling, Calidris alba, in South Bay

A juvenile Ringed Plover, Charadrius hiaticula, in South Bay

Fulmar, Fulmaris glacialis, over dunes at South Bay

Several young Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica, waiting to be fed at South Bay

North Ronaldsay sheep, Ovis sp., near Twingness

Snipe, Gallinago gallinago, in Gretchen Loch

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

North Ron trip 23-24 August 2014, Part 1

I wanted to give Our Lass a special treat for our wedding anniversary, so was considering an overnight stay with half board at an Orkney hotel. A bit of research, earlier in the week, had narrowed down the choices to either the Foveran (a good 'restaurant with rooms' sort of place) or the Bird Observatory on North Ronaldsay.

As it turned out, even with return flights, the Bird Obs was the better deal, and I knew for a fact that Our Lass would appreciate some quality tiny island time. Then I checked the meteorology (a prudent course of action in these parts) and noticed that going a week early would give us some absolutely peachy weather.

So last weekend, off we went to North Ron. I should add that, due to work commitments, the only flight I could make on Saturday afternoon was the 16.00, which only had one seat available. I took a risk, booked Our Lass on the previous flight and promised that I wouldn't miss mine, as spending an anniversary weekend apart wouldn't have been the most romantic of situations!

Fortunately, all went according to plan, and we spent a wonderful twenty four hours on North Ronaldsay. Big blue skies, scudding white clouds, azure seas, white sandy beaches, dry stane dykes, rugged coastal scenery [happy sigh].

What speed limit?
Dry stane dyke at Bridesness

A dreamy South Bay

Following the clowgang, the sheep track outside the perimeter wall

Cloudscape from South Bay

Scattered memories of bygone times

Gretchen Loch

A fond farewell, as we fly past the lighthouse and old beacon

Friday, 22 August 2014

Gettin' tufty with it

That venerable and august wildlife NGO, the RSPB (or rspb, as it often is these days), has launched a campaign to promote the inclusion of Nature in political parties' manifestos ahead of the UK General Election in 2015.

A noble and necessary endeavour, I hope you would agree. Wildlife and habitats should be on the political agenda, and not just as the things that are obliterated and trashed to make a quick buck.

The campaign is Vote for Bob

However... (you knew there'd be a 'however', didn't you?), the RSPB's choice of a figurehead for the campaign is a little odd, or as they put it, "innovative" and "quirky".

It's a Red Squirrel.

Called Bob.

Who has a pet snail named Brian (this could be him?)

It just all seems a little... Wildlife Explorers. Though to be fair, how often have you thought that a parliamentary debate sounded like a bunch of unruly school children running wild, so maybe Raspberry are onto something.

I've had a nice letter from a nice RSPB man in Edinburgh, letting me know that Bob won't be making too much of a fuss in our neck of the woods until after the Scottish independence referendum.

But, presumably, Bob actually lives in England, so is he based at RSPB HQ, near Sandy? A quick search on the NBN Gateway showed that the last recorded sighting of a Red Squirrel in Bedfordshire was in 1996. Even camped under the bird feeders and with pine cones on tap, a Red Squirrel from then wouldn't live long enough to be still around now.

This would either indicate that Bob is elsewhere and 'working from home' through the magic of the internet, or the RSPB have been suppressing mammal records to keep Bob's name and location secret, as those Greys can be complete and utter trolls.

Either way, I think we can rest assured that the era of lobbying government with scientific facts is over. Well, it didn't work too well for badgers or habitats, did it?

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Seize the moment

Orkney is a landscape with big skies where the power of nature is both very visible and incredibly awe-inspiring. More prosaically, this means that weather forecasting can be done on the hoof and, if necessary, the decision taken to high-tail it for cover or dash for a camera.

In fact, toting a camera at all times is almost obligatory, if a little impractical.

As my DSLR is normally fitted with a 300mm lens, in the eternal but faint hope of dragons, it is a bit of a lump to carry around, as well as being unsuited to landscape shots. Thankfully, mobile phones conveniently step into this photographic breach.

Some of our weather is very ephemeral, so being in the right place, at the right time and also facing in the right direction is rather essential. For instance, this morning, looking up from the book I was reading in bed revealed a rainbow just down the road.

Mobile phone through a rainy bedroom window
Later in the day, I glanced out of the lounge window and saw an even more transient meteorological moment. Away over the other side of Scapa Flow, a shower was crossing the island of Hoy. A few of the foot hills were picked out by a diffuse spectral paintbrush, not so much a rainbow, more of a rain splodge.

DSLR from front door
Orkney seems to be a place that lends itself to seeing odd bits of rainbows, though I guess it probably happens everywhere, just not so visibly.

In the spirit of carpe diem, when Our Lass nipped outside to check the temperature and wind speed, we discovered a harvestman on the threshold [he said, segueing seamlessly from seven colours of the rainbow to eight legs of the arachnid] and it was swiftly recorded for posterity.

If you go down to the woods today...

The big surprise, this being Orkney, is that there was a wood to go to, in any direction. Ok, I suppose Olav's Wood isn't that large, but in the context of the supposedly treeless Orkney, it is a veritable forest.

Located in a valley on the east side of South Ronaldsay, the wood is a mixture of habitats and planting. Late Summer (as it is here) probably wasn't the best time to sample its delights, but as a means to escape a stiff northerly wind, it fitted the bill perfectly.

Paths wind sinuously through scrub and wood

Bench, bridge, burn

The path often runs alongside the burn

A small glade between conifer, willow and rose

Rosa rugosa avenue

Common Carder Bee on Devilsbit Scabious

We are still in Orkney, aren't we?

Monday, 11 August 2014

The big question,Yes or No?

Almost from the first moment we moved to Orkney (an archipelago which has been under Scottish control since 1468), there has been a big question hanging in the air. A question as yet unanswered, but one that will be resolved before the next UK general election in 2015. 

It is a question with significant local ramifications, but one which is global in its reach. In fact, its roots are just about as far flung as you can be from here. And to be brutally honest, as English incomers, we wondered if it was entirely appropriate for us to be part of the debate at all.

Our Lass and I have talked it through, argued over it and changed our individual stances more than once. On wild and windy walks in Winter, on sheltered Spring saunters and, lately, on jousting July jaunts. However, in recent days, I feel that a consensus has been reached and a decision will be made soon.

Aye, in a sudden u-turn, whose g-forces would come as no surprise to many a Westminster politician, our policy of only using native plants in our garden has spun 180 degrees around the compass, as we contemplate the introduction of New Zealand Flax, Phormium tenax.

Surely you didn't think I was referring to the other big question? See here and here.

From the off, we had wanted to establish a garden that was big on native planting, so as to maximise the habitat opportunities for native wildlife and promote biodiversity. You see, the problem with non-native plants, even if they are not invasive, is that they all too easily reduce the available space for native plants. And other native wildlife has evolved to live in, on and around native plants.

So a vote for non-native plants can potentially reduce the biodiversity of the area. Tricky, eh?

OK, you may well ask, why has New Zealand Flax suddenly become so de rigueur? Put simply, it's because it can survive in the Orcadian climate (i.e. windy and wet), can provide shelter for more tender plants and other wildlife, is very architectural and can produce this effect when it flowers...