Sunday, 22 August 2010

Love on the rocks

There's been much discussion at Tense Towers recently, regarding the subject of photography. What works, what doesn't, how is parameter A affected by parameter B, et cetera, et cetera.

I will admit straight away that as a young Tense-let, back in Mr Musgrave's Physics lessons in the mid 70s, I realised that photography was not a discipline in  which I was ever going to excel. A small cardboard box, a pinhole and a sheet of greaseproof paper was, and is, about my limit of understanding.

Be that as it may, I've occasionally pitched into the conversations about F stops, apertures, exposures and white balance like a complete duffer, because let's face it, it's all just magic involving a tiny imp and a painting set, isn't it? Oh... sorry, no, that's Discworld. My mistake.

The discussions have spread to the Admiral and the Prints of Wales, as there's a wealth of knowledge out there. It's just that I think, genetically, I'm a point and click kind of guy, and always will be. Our lass, on the other hand, has a set of chromosomes of a different colour, which gives her the talent for spotting a good picture.

However, it's possible that she may have misunderstood some comments regarding length of exposure...

Yep, that's her with her new friend Nik.

Changing tack a bit, I'm happy to report that there's a few more darter dragonflies about at the moment. Whilst down at our local reserve, I managed to capture this male Ruddy Darter, soaking up the heat from the morning sun.

Meanwhile, back at Tense Towers, our lunchtime snack was interrupted by a flurry of activity beside the pond. Several Common Darters appeared, males trying to hold territory and females looking for a bit of peace and quiet. Fat chance. The result being... love on the rocks.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

And finally... Holiday 2010 - Part 8

And so to the final chapter of our Shetland trip.

The one particularly wet day of the holiday was spent in Lerwick, shopping for presents for family and friends, exploring the older part of town and visiting the splendid Shetland Museum.

The next day, our last full one on the isle, barely brings itself to the breakfast table. We stare out at low cloud on the hills, white wave crests in Swarbacks Minn and rain lashing against the windows. The forecast is for improved weather to follow, so we spend an hour at the B+B packing, the better to enjoy our last evening on Shetland.

We set off, mid morning, for West Mainland, an area we've so far ignored. It is still raining, but, in a way, that's quite good, as the first port of call on our itinerary is the waterfall on the Burn of Lunklet. The weather gods are definitely on our side today, for as we park beside the burn, the rain stops and the clouds begin to lift. Sure enough, there's plenty of peaty water cascading off the hills and the waterfall is a foaming torrent pouring, like a huge dark ale, over the rocks towards Aith Voe.

Our next stop is Da Gardains, a croft near Sand, that has been turned over completely to horticulture rather than agriculture. In a sheltered voe, behind an ayre and a salt marsh, thousands of trees and shrubs have been planted, creating a very different landscape to that of the rest of Shetland. A stream winds between a series of ponds all chock full of tadpoles, our lass discovers a newly-fledged family of Goldcrests and the sun beats down as warm as it has done all fortnight.

Moving on to the village and port of Walls, we pop into the cafe, above the local bakery, for lunch. I take up my customary position with my back to the room so that you-know-who can peoplewatch at her leisure. Before our soup can arrive, her skills are proven beyond doubt, when she spots a couple who we met on last year's holiday on North Ronaldsay in Orkney. Our lass saunters over for a chat, though the husband can't place her immediately. Then he sees me and exclaims, "The dragonfly man!" as the penny drops. The world's lowest key celeb, that's me.

Still chuckling over my sudden fame, we drive inland to Stanydale to view a complex of ancient structures. Neolithic farmhouses, field boundaries, burial mounds, standing stones and a large chieftain's hall are laid out on a plateau, all the more strange for being one of the few places in Shetland where you can't see the coast. This suggests an amount of deliberate siting, but the reasons are lost across the intervening 4000 years, we can only speculate and wonder at the motives of these folk from long ago.

Yours truly tells a joke so old, it's positively Neolithic
After all that merriment, we make our way to Vementry, to take in the view across Swarbacks Minn to the B+B. I make no apologies for almost repeating a photo from Part 1, this has been a magical holiday, in great part due to the hospitality shown to us by Elsie and Ivor Wood at Westayre.

We journey back north for our last evening of big skies and summer gloaming, stopping off at Mavis Grind, the narrow strip of land that divides the North Sea from the Atlantic Ocean between Mainland and North Roe. Then we drive over to Eshaness for a final look at the volcanic landscape and the setting of the sun on an enthralling visit to these most northerly of isles. Thank you to the residents of Shetland for their kindness and patience. Thank you, dear reader, for sharing in the memories. Good night.

Monday, 16 August 2010

With dragons in Mynd

For a bit of spiritual renewal, our lass and I ventured over to Shropshire this weekend, on a pilgrimage to the Long Mynd. 

Settling into a room in Church Stretton, we stared from our window as a thunderstorm grumbled its way across the hills, lending a suitably atmospheric start to the proceedings. Sadly, in the valleys of the National Trust's land, it's a while since we've met anyone dressed in black wearing a white collar. I refer to the Ring Ouzel, of course. 

Sunday was by far the better day and we wandered between Pole Cottage and Wildmoor Pool, taking in the fresh air and occasional burst of sunshine. There weren't many birds to speak of, singletons of Dunlin, Snipe and Stonechat, but the dragonflies put on a fantastic show. The blustery conditions made photography tricky, but we were able to record a varied amount of breeding behaviour. Honest, this is far less seedy than I've made it sound, and certainly nowhere near as irreligious as my normal background readings would suggest.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly (male)

Emerald Damselflies ovipositing

Recently-emerged Common Hawker (male)

Common Hawkers in tandem

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Nature! Huh! What is it good for?

The first day of August sees us down at the local nature reserve. At least I think that's where it is, because the habitat maintenance contractors have been in and, boy, does it look different. Whilst I won't claim that "habitat maintenance contractor" is an oxymoron, their work is often compared to that other great landscape improver, Genghis Khan. Finding a small corner that seems to have been accidentally left untouched by the Blitzkrieg, the Admiral, our lass and I busy ourselves searching for invertebrates recovering from PTSD.

OK, enough of the time-spanning military destruction metaphors.

Suddenly, the Admiral lets out a shout and points behind me. I turn round, half expecting to see Martin Sheen (stop it, now) but it's even more interesting than that. No helicopter gunships, no Wagner (oh for God's sake...!), but sitting on a Teasel head is a Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly, my first one. It doesn't stay long in one place, dodging from flower to flower, though the only things shooting at it are 3 cameras. However, you could hear Wrong Len laughing hysterically in the background.

Apparently, renegade lepidopterists have been releasing this species behind enemy lines, so its provenance is a little shaky, but this soldier ain't complainin'.

Further into the reserve, in another brashcutter-devastated area, we discover a Ruddy Darter that has attacked a Common Blue Damselfly, knocking it out of the air. The tussle lasts a few seconds and then the darter appears to lose interest. The damselfly eventually flies off, seemingly unharmed.

But what about the mental scars, eh?

Claydon revisited

Hmmm... I seem to be a bit behind with my blogging. Best I make amends sharpish.

At the end of July, we made a return visit to Claydon House for another dragonfly survey. The intervening two months had seen changes aplenty, with several flight seasons having ended and new ones starting. However, we were still in for some odo surprises, from the most unlikely of directions...

Predictably, we arrived at lunchtime. Just a coincidence... no, really! So by the time we'd eaten, it was just about optimal flying temperature and we set off to explore. A group of artists from Oxfordshire were displaying sculptures throughout the gardens, which made for quite a surreal experience. Especially when you're mooching about in the herbaceous borders for your first damselfly of the day and look up to discover this...

One of the artists, Daren Greenhow, makes all sorts of interesting things out of bits of old bicycles and other metallic stuff. You can find these dragonflies, plus much much more here. Our lass is now a bit worried that she might look out of the window one morning, to discover something akin to the Angel of the North gracing the edge of the pond. It's a thought.

Tearing ourselves back to reality, we managed to record 10 species for the afternoon. A Migrant Hawker in the vegetable garden; a whole host of damsels on the ornamental pond, Azure, Common Blue, Red-eyed and Small Red-eyed; an Emperor and a Brown Hawker over one of the lakes and Ruddy Darter, Emerald Damselfly and Blue-tailed Damselfly in the meadow below the house.

Over tea and cake, I pondered on the feasibility of introducing my bicycle to the concept of recycling metamorphosis.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Send in the clones?

There seems to be a whole ballyhoo, at the moment, about the safety of eating meat from cloned animals. I'm willing to bet that there's loads of scientific data supporting the (mainly American) case and a similar (mainly European) amount refuting it. Just how wide does the Atlantic have to become before we stop automatically adopting their "good" ideas? I'm not saying that folk in the US don't have good ideas, just that fawning acceptance of every one is probably doing more harm than good and a bit of healthy questioning wouldn't go amiss.

Presumably, to a vast number of consumers, and possibly to a number of vast customers, it doesn't matter a jot where the next cowburger comes from, as long as it's cheap and sufficiently tasty. 

"Hello, dear hearts!"

But that may be a very short term view. As we're at last starting to realise, in the natural world diversity is very important in maintaining a healthy biota. Healthy populations are comprised of a wide variety of genetic traits. Strength and resilience through diversity, rather than breeding for a few specific criteria. Put simply, not putting all our eggs in one basket, if that fact isn't too much of a chicken nugget.

We've already seen habitats, across the world, destroyed in the creation of huge arable mono-cultures, be they for cereals or palm oil. And you wouldn't want to find yourself relying on one variety of potato, would you? Once was a tragedy, to do it again would prove how incredibly stupid we really are and how incapable of learning from history. Let's not have a whole industry based on one specific version of the bovine genome, eh?

Yeah, I can hear you, what's a bloke from Milton Keynes know about cows? All his are concrete. Hmm, but not so the arguments put forward by the vested financial interests of global agri-business. I, for one, will need to hear a much more convincing case of the necessity of this science, before reserving a space for it on my plate next to a Yorkshire pudding.

"I hope that the nice vet has got warm hands!"
So why the headlong rush to invent more cows anyway? Aren't there sufficient already? Doesn't the old-fashioned, tried and tested method work anymore? What's wrong with well hung Daddy Bull and several Mummy Happy Heifers shagging 'til the cows come... home? OK, so much for the romance, I guess most inseminations are probably artificial these days. There's probably plenty of vets needing to keep their hands in, after all. But if there's a worry that we won't be able to adequately feed future generations, then perhaps we're answering the question the wrong way. Stabilise the human population and leave poor Ermintrude alone.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Holiday 2010 - Part 7

Drawing ever nearer to holiday’s end, we had booked to go on the night trip to Mousa, to visit the best-preserved of all Scotland’s brochs and also experience the spectacle of Storm-petrels returning to their nest sites at midnight.

But that’s nearly a whole day away!

Until then it’s archaeology and history in equal measure, starting at a quarry in Catpund, where an outcrop of steatite was worked from the Neolithic until recent times. Steatite, or soapstone, is a soft rock, which can be worked with stone or metal tools to make bowls and plates. Once fired, it becomes hard, strong and heat-resistant, and was invaluable to the Vikings, who did not make much pottery. Still today, it is possible to see the chisel marks where round or rectangular kitchenware has been hacked out of the hillside.

Driving south, we visited Old Scatness broch, where it is likely that the Catpund quarrymen may have lived. Tucked away between the airport access road and the runway, this archaeological gem was not discovered until the 1970s, when workmen building a new road to the control tower sliced through the site. We were given a guided tour, by staff in Iron Age dress, through the various stages of building and house styles, from broch to aisled round house to wheel house. This time span encompassed the Iron Age, the Pictish period and the arrival of the Vikings, the latter being either a violent invasion or a peaceful sublimation, but no-one can seem to agree which. Scatness presented us with a much more intimate and informative experience than the Jarlshof site just down the road.

In contrast to the tiny ruined water mills we had seen all over Shetland, our next port of call was Quendale Water Mill, a large Victorian structure incorporating an overshot wheel, dating from 1867. Fully restored to working order, it offers a glimpse of the not-so-long-ago, yet seems as  far removed from today's agri-business as the early Neolithic farmers.

After a bit of a snooze by the shore near Spiggie and another pleasant meal at the eponymous hotel, we headed over to Sandwick on the east coast, to await the small boat that would make the trip to Mousa. Arriving on the island at about 11.30pm, we walked for about 20 minutes to reach the broch. For a 2000 year old monument, it stands an impressive 13m high, is 15m at the base and 12m at the top. Within the double walls is a stairway leading to the parapet, the narrow steps of which required great care to ascend and descend in the dark.

But enough of all this stony talk, what we really want to see are the Storm-petrels. These relatives of the albatrosses are only about the size of a Swallow and there are 6000 pairs nesting on the island. They nest in dry stone walls, in between boulders on the beach and in the walls of the broch. Each parent takes a three day shift, sitting on the eggs, whilst their mate is feeding out at sea. Due to the risk of predation by gulls and skuas, the Storm-petrels only return to the nest at night. The birds that have been incubating the eggs call to their returning partners, so that the air is filled with a churring/purring sound that ends in a rather comical hiccup. In the half light, standing beside a wall containing dozens of calling petrels is an amazing experience.

As the moon rose, we watched as the returning birds circled the broch, looking for all the world like a flock of bats, though there are no resident bats on Shetland. As we made our way back to the boat at 1am, there was still sufficient light to convince a Skylark that it was dawn and his clear sweet song added another sonic layer to the gentle purring and weird hiccups of the Storm-petrels.