Monday, 22 December 2014

Solstice saunter

If you've been wondering where old Tense has got to, don't worry, we're just experiencing a temporary bout of internet outage. Well, I say, temporary, but the sad fact is that following nearly two weeks of thunder and lightning in Orkney, there's rather a long queue to gain access to a BT engineer. To be honest, the reported number of lightning strikes per hour was some huge figure, so if the only damage is a bit of wire, it could be said that we're lucky.

The earliest consultation will be on 15th January, but that's just to investigate and, hopefully, diagnose the problem. A full repair may take longer :o(

This past weekend saw a return to more normal, changeable weather. Our Lass and I took the opportunity to have a walk around the local loop as a low key celebration of the Winter Solstice.

Impulsive and spontaneous are two words that aren't often uttered in the same sentence as His Tenseness, so to general shock and awe, we walked the loop in the opposite direction. The slightly different views that this presented were interesting. As we descended the gentle hill from Greenwall, looking across to Rose Ness, I was reminded of a chance meeting the previous weekend with an archaeologist from the college in Kirkwall. On hearing that we lived near Rose Ness, he explained that he had been surveying that area this year and discovered some new features.

The only obvious earthwork, to our eyes, is a small, incomplete mound, so I asked if this was likely to be from the Neolithic, the First/Second World War or somewhere in between. His reply was that it was the former, but more exciting still was the information that the old beacon further along the promontory was stood on a previously unrecorded Neolithic earthwork.

This thought was in my mind as I scanned the view from Rose Ness, to our left, across the ruined broch by the edge of the bay and around to our right, where the present day church of St Nicholas' Kirk stands. On a mound.

Yes, walking in the opposite direction did give a different perspective of the topography. So I'm a bit keen to be reunited with the internet to continue informal investigations.

Meantime, many thanks to Orkney Library and Archive for coming to the rescue, in the shape of their excellent computer room.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Garden bird quiz results

Just over a week ago, I asked a question on this blog based on the identity of the birds visiting Tense Towers.

"Which eleven species were seen by us in our Milton Keynes garden during the winter of 2012/13 and also in our Orcadian garden during the Spring, Summer and Autumn 2014?"

As I admitted at the time, it wasn't hugely scientific, but it did set an interesting challenge. Three readers accepted the mission to ID the eleven species and I thank them all for the time and effort that they put into the task.

In a time-honoured procedure, I will now pointlessly build in 'tension' and 'drama' by offering up some thoughts on the quiz before finally revealing the answers and the winner.

Interestingly (at least for me!), the three contestants are very different in several respects:
  • knowledge of the site(s) - one had not visited either, one had visited only MK and one had visited both;
  • knowledge of wildlife - this ranged from casual interest, through professional interest (but not particularly for birds), to professional interest (with more affinity for birds).
That said, the spread of results was small, only 2 points separating first and last, which either goes to show that it was a bonkers question in the first place or, as pointed out previously, it isn't very scientific.

So, "Jolly Well Done!" to all participants!

The incorrect answers received were:
  • Blue Tit (resident MK only) - rare in Orkney;
  • Great Tit (resident MK only) - rare in Orkney;
  • Coal Tit (resident MK only) - has bred in Orkney in the past;
  • Wood Pigeon (resident in MK and Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Collared Dove (resident in MK and Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Magpie (resident in MK only) - rare in Orkney;
  • Jay (resident in MK only) - very rare in Orkney;
  • Pied Wagtail (Winter visitor to MK garden, Summer visitor to Orkney garden) - however, crucially, during the MK survey it was not recorded;
  • Grey Wagtail (occasional Winter visitor to MK garden) - rare in Orkney;
  • Song Thrush (resident in MK, does breed in Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Dunnock (resident in MK, does breed in Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Reed Bunting (resident in MK, does breed in Orkney) - but not seen at OTT.
OK, the correct answers are:

  • Four species ID'd by all contestants - Starling, Blackbird, House Sparrow and Chaffinch (though for our Orkney garden, the latter was only 3 birds on Autumn migration:
  • One species ID'd by two contestants - Robin (seen more during Spring and Autumn migration in Orkney);
  • Two species ID'd by only one contestant (but not the same contestant in each case) - Blackcap and Greenfinch (the former on Autumn migration in our Orkney garden, but overwintering in the MK one, the latter present throughout);
  • Four species not ID'd - Goldfinch, Wren, Sparrowhawk and Goldcrest (the two 'goldies' being Autumn migrants in our Orkney garden, but with only the 'crest a migrant or overwintering bird in the MK one). The Wren was as elusive in Orkney as MK, but seen occasionally. Sparrowhawks just like to be where there's loads of finches, I guess.
And the winner?

Well, there was a tie for first place, with 6 correct answers.

But I think I'm going to reward all participants with a calendar, for entering into the spirit of the thing and spending some time thinking about Nature.

A 2015 calendar, featuring twelve images from this blog during the past year, will soon be on its way to each of you, Martin, Martin and John!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

He's not a weather bomb, he's a very naughty storm!

The last few days have seen a vast and all-encompassing threat descend upon the British Isles. I refer, of course, to the media frenzy regarding the 'weather bomb' storm that made landfall yesterday, beginning in the far north west.

As far as Orkney is concerned, strong winds are a way of life, with the consequent hazards, and their subsequent mitigation, just a necessary part of living at 59 degrees North.

For OTT, this has meant one foray out into the garden to remove a large sheet of soggy bale wrap from the barbed wire fence that separates us from the neighbouring farmer's field. I'm sure it is slightly easier when it's not blowing a severe gale, but it probably made amusing viewing for anyone fortunate enough to spot my attempts to extricate it as I didn't wish to risk the whole fence disappearing eastwards at a great rate of knots.

What has been unusual though, is the sheer quantity of thunder, lightning and hail that we've been experiencing. This began on Sunday afternoon and the squally showers haven't really stopped since. Our Lass and I watched one thunderstorm traverse the length of Hoy, then hop over Hoxa Sound to continue its journey down South Ronaldsay.

So here we are, five days later, and there appears to be no let up in the amount of hail that is scudding Orkneywards.

The only downside to this is our letter box. It appears to be under the mistaken belief that it is some sort of water transfer system, rather than a portal for mail. I had carried out some remedial work on it in late Summer, with a tube of silicone elastomer gunk, but the dryish Autumn obviously lulled me into a false sense of security, as this week has seen a veritable torrent pouring through the door. A torrent only partially matched by my dark and profane utterances at the damp situation.

Of course, until it actually stops raining water and ice from the sky, there's very little chance of successfully fixing the problem. And the weather forecast gives very little hope in that regard.

Last night, I cooked a sausage casserole, as the time seemed right for some Winter comfort food. Seasonally, I look forward to celebrating the return of the parsnip and the Brussel sprout. Nom, nom,nom. 

Quiz update

Quiz-wise, a few interesting facts have emerged:

  • Despite the weather and the consequent interruptions to electricity and broadband, entries are being received;
  • The number of entries is several times greater than anticipated;
  • I will now have to furnish the adjudicators with The Hat of Opportunity;
  • All entrants, so far, are called Martin;
  • Both of them!
Please be re-assured that entries are accepted from folk who have other names.

Here's a taster of what you're competing for...


There's still a few days left to send in your thoughts as to the identity of the eleven species seen in our garden in Milton Keynes and Orkney.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Whether or not


Shortly after sunrise on the 4th of December, the morning light picked out some landscape features on the tops of the distant Hoy hills.



Wispy wispness directly overhead in Stromness at lunchtime on 6th December.



At the same location, a few hours later, following a sudden burst of wind and lash.



This morning, we were awoken by a thunderstorm and hail showers.

Weather in Orkney is never dull. It may be frequently overcast, but it is never dull.

UPDATE, 14/12/07 11.40


Friday, 5 December 2014

Quiz

Tomorrow sees the anniversary of my arrival on Orkney, with today's wintry weather (hail showers driven on by a biting north wind) providing a chill reminder of that snowy night last December.

So please forgive me, long-suffering reader, for a spot of reflection.

Of the many changes that have occurred during the past year, one of the most striking is the list of visitors to our garden and its environs. Not human visitors, I might add, but feathered ones. Yes, upon moving into OTT, I succumbed to the temptation to begin a garden list, a list of birds seen in and from the garden. It's a fairly artificial construct, I admit, placing a human-centric view of boundary and space upon creatures that have their own idea of what makes a territory, thank you very much. Cue angry tweets?

And, to be honest, it's probably even more pointless than that, because although we lived in the original Tense Towers for twelve years, and saw an awful lot of species in that time, I didn't keep a garden list back then. So I can't 'go compare'.

But here's the deal. It's a very unscientific contest between, on one hand, a small suburban garden, on the edge of a large town, as far inland in the UK as you can be, for the period November 2012 to March 2013; whilst on the other, a reasonably large patch of unkemptness, on a sparsely-populated low hill, within half a mile of the sea, yet 600 miles further north, for the period February to November 2014.

The former is a list of resident UK birds that actually landed in a Milton Keynes garden to feed during the winter months. The latter is a list of any identified bird species that could be seen from an Orkney property, either in or around the garden.

It isn't fair, as one period is half the other, with the raw numbers confirming this point:

  • MK species count = 28;
  • OTT species count = 51.
But the intrigue would be any surprising similarity or disparity between the lists.

Let's crunch some data!

The passerine migrants are one obvious difference between the lists, with swallow, house martin, wheatear, black redstart, willow warbler, chiffchaff, red-backed shrike and cuckoo all turning up in an Orkney summer/autumn rather than an MK winter.

The same can be said for wintering wildfowl. I would've been rendered speechless if any goose, let alone a Pink-footed goose, had visited our wee MK garden.

Waders, too, have a bit more habitat to explore in Orkney so, from OTT, we have had joyous views of Snipe, Curlew, Golden Plover, Lapwing and Black-tailed Godwit.

MK strikes back with the more 'normal' garden birds: Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Reed Bunting, Siskin and Heron. Throw in a couple of woodpeckers (Great Spotted and Green), some corvids (Magpie, Jay, Carrion Crow), plus Wood Pigeon and Collared Dove.

But some things are just simply 'Orkney', like the occasional flyby of a Hen Harrier, Great Skua or Hooded Crow, all tough species to clock in sleepy Buckinghamshire.

Then I thought "Let's even things up!"

Which birds of the 'Orkney 51' have actually set claw in the OTT garden? Amazingly, the number was 28, exactly the same as for MK. And of those 28, there were only 11 species that had frequented both gardens.

It seems to be the season for quizzes and so here's the Imperfect and Tense version.

Which eleven species were seen by us in our Milton Keynes garden during the winter of 2012/13 and also in our Orcadian garden during the Spring/Summer/Autumn 2014? Your challenge is to identify these birds. 

Please leave your answers (hint: cos there's no Ansers) as a comment on the blog before December 13th. All correct entries (or closest entries, if none are correct) will be placed into the Hat of Opportunity, with one lucky winner being chosen at random.

The solution and the winner's name will be unveiled on Sunday 14th December.

And the prize? A 2015 calendar, featuring images of Orkney that have appeared on this blog in the last twelve months.

Good Luck!

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Not just in Wimbledon...

Agriculture is a big employer in Orkney. Farming has been a way of life here for 5000 years and it is pretty much the main industry on the islands.

A result of this is that there are loads of silage or haylage bales produced each year, which are all wrapped in plastic sheet. The sheet comes in various colours: black, green or white. It is even possible to use two colours at once, making each bale look like a giant humbug (he said, warming to the festive spirit). Fortunately, there are opportunities to dispose of all of this plastic in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly manner, once the silage/haylage has been unwrapped to be fed to cattle or sheep. One such scheme is this one, run by Solway Recycling.

Inevitably, with a lightweight, thin material and Orkney's windy weather, a fair bit of silage wrap is blown about the countryside, at least until it meets a barbed wire fence. This is certainly unsightly and can be downright noisy in the wrong conditions.

At this juncture, around the environs of Tense Towers, Our Lass goes into wombling mode, collecting stray wrap and disposing of it in an appropriate way. That is to say, it disappears into our household rubbish bin and eventually ends up at an incinerator on Shetland to provide heating in Lerwick.


Just don't mention the words 'Madame' and 'Cholet', or you may be chased around the kitchen by an irate woman brandishing a sharp utensil.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Tin can ying-yang

Yesterday morning saw me carrying out a recycling survey in Kirkwall, with the help of a colleague. Not for us the dusty analysis of dry statistics, but the 'boots on the ground' collection of raw figures. Think of it as the opened-baked-bean-tin cutting edge of environmental data. This is possibly as exciting as my life can be at the moment! Yes, really! A heady concoction of plastic, glass, paper and cans, amidst some adrenalin-fuelled data-gathering, brought on by the critical nature of the timing of the survey.

This is because if we're too early, it's not light enough to see, or perhaps folk haven't yet put their bins out for collection. But then again, if we're too late, the local council will have been around and whipped all the data away in their big orange recycling lorry.

Fortunately, our timing was perfect. As we were about a quarter of the way around the survey area, the bin lorry appeared and followed a similar route to us, so we were able to maintain a healthy gap between our data gathering and their recycling collection.

After that, I gave my colleague a lift across town to pick up an undelivered parcel from a courier's office, which was located in an industrial estate. This meant a little guesswork on our part as to where to go. Our first attempt was down the wrong road and we ended up in a cul-de-sac at the Orkney Cheese factory. As I hadn't previously known where this was, I mused that the trip had turned into a fromage of discovery. Second time lucky, we found the correct street and retrieved the parcel.

During the survey, I had also discovered a wallet in the pocket of the waterproof I was wearing. The wallet belonged to another colleague who had borrowed the coat the weekend before, so being the good Samaritan that I am, I dropped it off at his address as I left town.

This good deed was rewarded with some amazingly quick karma, because as I drove passed the airport, a male Hen Harrier flew along the road beside me. A grand view of a grand bird.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Johnny Depp never had it so good

It's probably fair to say that Our Lass is a down-to-earth sort, a gal driven by life's priorities and who is a firm believer in the old mantra of 'success is all of what you need and a little of what you want'.

For example, my nearest and dearest cooks but does not bake. To live, we all need to eat food, so Tense Towers is a home of tasty, few frills, nutritious meals. OK, we ship in, or I bake, the occasional cake, but that's where the 'want' comes in.

So, it's probably an indication of our changed lives that, today, Our Lass decided that a little frivolousness was called for. As we're fans of dark chocolate and only slightly dark movies, 'Chocolat' is a perennial favourite at OTT. So much so, that we even have a recipe book inspired by the film.

And today was its day!


Our Lass reckoned we could do without the whipped cream, the sprinkles were optional, chilli flakes would suffice for a whole chilli, but the alcohol was a necessity. See? Priorities!


A pint of milk, a cinnamon stick and the chilli flakes were simmered in a pan.


Then, a bar of dark chocolate (85% cocoa) was broken up and melted into the pan.


This was then whisked, whilst off the heat...


a little brown sugar added, and the mixture allowed to stand for 10 minutes to infuse. This was the difficult bit, as Our Lass is not THAT patient :o)


Then, a bit more whisking, before returning the pan to the heat to bring back to simmering point.


Finally, the mixture was sieved into two mugs (MINE had sprinkles!) and then the last ingredient added...


a shot of Cointreau.

And the  verdict?


Vianne would've been proud!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Chuffed chef

Our Lass was watching Masterchef on television last night. Several young professional chefs were given scraps or leftovers and asked to make stunningly tasty and aesthetic-looking dishes. From a Love Food/Hate Waste point of view, I thought this was a spiffing idea.

Unfortunately, simply cooking nourishing, hearty food isn't good enough, of course. Therefore, although I would have happily eaten any of the dishes produced, staple fayre doesn't make for great television viewing, so there were some harsh criticisms of perfectly good food and several dejected chefs wandered off into the night.

Tonight, after a dreich day with gale force winds and driving rain, some warming, wholesome grub was required to lift the mood at Tense Towers. Yours Truly was ushered into the kitchen, whilst herself disappeared off for a rendezvous with a lusciously hot bath.

On her return, a freshly-pampered Our Lass was treated to a Spécialité de la Maison:

Steamed Heritage Winter Vegetables,
on a bed of Yorkshire Pudding,
with a Sweet Potato Purée
and a Jus de Knorr et Bisto

The judge's comments ranged from "Nothing wrong with your portion control" to "Nice sprouts", which modesty barely allows me to take as constructive, yet piquantly saucy, criticism. Or even saucily piquant.

I mentioned that I thought I had prepared the gravy before. "Déjà vu?" Our Lass asked. "No," I replied, "Dévà jus."

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Bizarre

I have an undeserved reputation for "Bah! Humbug!" when it comes to Christmas festivities. I am not anti-celebration at all, merely pro-celebration at the appropriate time. More of a Twelve Days of Christmas kinda guy, than a twelve weeks of Christmas commercial zealot. I'd rather hear a paean to paganism, than the electronic beeping of checkout tills.

Even so, I had a very strange experience last weekend, which in some ways, I'm still trying to understand.

Voluntary Action Orkney, an umbrella organisation representing a whole raft of Orcadian charities, sponsors a Charities' Christmas Bazaar every year in the Kirkwall Town Hall. At this year's event, there were more than 20 charities taking part, all selling festive fayre and raising money for good causes.

I was helping out on my employer's stall, which covered two of our projects, 'Love Food, Hate Waste' and Steptoze Yard. One table was laden with all manner of tasty homebakes, with hot soup or non-alcoholic mulled wine also available. The other table featured a range of recycled gifts, things handed in at our re-use yard, from candlesticks to soft toys.







But, yes, it was only the 8th of November. And there's something rather surreal about decorating a stall with tinsel and lights, whilst still wearing your Remembrance Day poppy.



Don't say a word, just don't...

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembering

Fifty three years ago, in 1961, approximately halfway between the time that Our Lass was born, in West Germany, and when the infant Tense first grizzled his way into the world, in north east England, the East German authorities constructed the Berlin Wall to divide East from West.

We were each blithely unaware of the others, or, at least, I know that Our Lass and I were not introduced... and neither of us were keeping tabs on East Germany.

Some time later, Our Lass and I found ourselves living together in West Germany...

Then, twenty five years ago, we left Deutschland to return to Britain. Twenty five years ago, the Berlin Wall came down.

Weird, huh?

I was thinking these odd Cold War thoughts, this morning, as Our Lass and I stood on the cliff tops at Hobbister, looking out across Scapa Flow and observing a two minute silence for Remembrance Sunday. As it is one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War, the occasion seemed to have a deeper significance still.

The 'safe' anchorage of Scapa Flow has seen its share of tragedy in the past century. In 1917, an accidental explosion aboard HMS Vanguard resulted in the loss of over 800 men. In 1939, the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat, also saw the loss of over 800 men.

This morning, the skies were overcast and sombre, there was not a breath of wind, allowing sounds to travel much further than normal.


After our respectful silence, remembering the sacrifice that others had made, we lightened the mood by wandering along the path, watching Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks on the sea below. Their calls rang out through the still air, mingling with the gentle sounds of waves on the shore. Amongst an array of grebes, divers and Black Guillemots, one small bird stood out. We looked at it... we looked at each other... and then we looked at it again. It was tiny, really small. Squat and compact in shape, mostly black but with white cheeks and breast, it had a short bill and a hint of an upturned tail. I could only think of one possible bird that would fit the description, but neither of us had ever seen one before, a Little Auk.

We will certainly remember today.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Local loop

For the beginning of November, this morning was absolutely peachy... bright sunshine and the softest of breezes. The sort of morning when all of your plans, no matter how important they were, go out of the window, along the road and off into the wide blue yonder.

I opted for a local loop, all on single track tarmac roads, so boots and car could be left at home. Grabbing my bins but eschewing the camera, I made my way along Cornquoy Road, which together with Greenwall Road and The Tieve Road make up the circular walk that I refer to as the Kirk Loop.


As I dropped downhill towards St Nicholas' Kirk, a few waders could be seen in neighbouring fields: lapwing, curlew, redshank and golden plover.


On a flooded field behind the church, eighteen teal watched me warily from the water's edge. Where the road skirted the cemetery wall, I could see dozens of birds sat on the tarmac. This was a bit of a conundrum until I realised that, with the high tide, huge swathes of seaweed had been thrown onto the grass verge, and swarms of flies were emanating from this 'aromatic' mass. The starlings and pipits were having a grand time! Rounding a bend in the road brought me out of the lee of the cemetery wall and into a suddenly stiffer breeze. All the flies and other invertebrates were being propelled along by this wind, so that it felt a bit like walking into a living hailstorm.

Once away from the shoreline, the situation improved, so I could stop to take a few more photos with my phone.



The gentle climb up to Greenwall (reputedly the oldest, continually-occupied current dwelling in Orkney, at approx 400 years) emphasised just how warm it was. I was wearing way too many layers, which isn't something you can say too often around here.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Gey swappy

This blogpost so very nearly turned into the third instalment of 'The Perils of Listening in English'.

Yesterday, a lady turned up at work, looking for a second-hand racing bike. Fortunately, this week, the Yard had a couple of them 'in stock', and my cycling customer opted for the rustier of the two, as she intended to break it down for spares.

Bearing in mind the time of year and the likelihood of inclement weather, I asked the lady if she cycled much during the Winter, to which she replied that she did. This was the reason for the purchase of the racing bike, as it would provide the rider with the opportunity to huddle down over the handlebars and reduce wind resistance.

"But it can still be gey swappy," she added as she swung the bike onto a carrying frame at the rear of her car.

Several of my brain cells triggered a system-wide warning that this wasn't the time to open my stupid gob and make a guess at what that meant. Instead, I rewound the conversation in my head, played it through again and politely asked the lady to repeat what she'd just said.

As I later found out, 'swap' has five different meanings in Orcadian dialect*, but in this case it referred to a gust of wind. So, I would conclude that 'gey swappy' is 'very gusty'. Yep, I imagine that cycling in Orkney through the Winter months (actually, any time, really) is prone to this effect.

Incidentally, 'gey' meaning 'very' does indeed derive from gay. It is used in much the same way that it is in English, in phrases such as 'the experience was pretty bad'.

This morning, following a leisurely start to the day courtesy of the clock change from BST to GMT, Our Lass cajoled me into going for a walk, despite the overcast conditions, blustery winds and the omnipresent threat of rain. OK, yeah, I'm just a wuss, but as we parked the car nearby to the Covenanters' Memorial in Deerness, Our Lass's phone beeped to inform her of an incoming text. The message was from one of the most outdoorsy folk we know, who was happily sharing the news that she was cosily tucked up indoors, with a wood-burning stove and her hi-fi giving it max therms and volume respectively. My response was not repeatable.

Still, we had an entertaining three mile amble, out through farmland, across a moor and back along a cliff top. We saw our first Barnacle Geese of the Autumn, a big flock of Golden Plover and Turnstone, a female Sparrowhawk and the occasional Rock Pipit. We returned to the car, rewardingly tired and rather windswept.



Aye, hid wis gey swappy, beuy.

* As defined by Gregor Lamb's 'The Orkney Wordbook'.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Size is relative

This is a guest photo-blog by First Born (the peedie muckle sister, seeing as she's our elder daughter, but not as tall as Second Born).

All of the following images were taken by FB.

Saturday was unexpectedly warm, that is, unexpected by the population of Orkney and the woefully-incorrect weather forecaster for the region. Still, every cloud..., eh?

Our Lass and FB went to Yesnaby on the west coast, soaking up the rays and admiring the views.








The following day, in more normal October weather for Orkney, they ventured to Rose Ness.






Stormy baptism

Our last visitor from South, for 2014, left yesterday.

It's probably just as well. Today we're in the teeth of a storm, gusting 80mph winds, horizontal rain and all three ferry companies reporting cancelled sailings.

Even this font is struggling to remain upright...

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Smaller wheels

Orkney has its challenges when it comes to changing your car. There are a few dealers on the island, but for a greater choice, it involves a journey to the Scottish mainland, to Aberdeen or Inverness.

There's the internet, of course, but for someone who's loathe to buy a pair of shoes on line, purchasing a car without a test drive or a good look around, didn't seem like a great option.

However, that's just what happened!

After several fruitless searches on national dealers' websites that were either bereft of stock or hopeless to use without re-entering your parameters each time, I found a reputable chain that had an example of exactly what I was looking for.

In South Shields.

That's the one in Tyne and Wear.

In England.

Not exactly on the doorstep, I had to admit.

After all the negotiations and paperwork had been sorted out, it was agreed that a rendezvous in Inverness was a satisfactory compromise so, on Thursday, I caught an early ferry across to Scotland and drove south.

The journey down to Inverness was relatively straight forward: a large flock of Whooper Swans feeding in a field in Caithness; countless thrushes flying over my bonnet; and a lone Jay swooping across the dual carriageway as I approached my destination.

Then it was time to swap cars...



The thirsty 4x4 was loaded onto a flatbed truck and I was given the keys to frugal motoring and not being able to see over hedges.

The above photograph is cropped to remove the front of our new vehicle, just in case anyone is remotely upset at the registration plate. There isn't anything to be remotely upset about but, someone, somewhere, may take objection to it. At least, I know that it would be accidental, as opposed to the thin veneer of denials dripped out by the BBC and Top Gear. It would indeed be ironic if, in this instance, the Top Gear team were the innocent party.

So, motoring fans, I'm sure you're itching to know some vehicular facts about our new set of wheels. From my point of view, this boils down to which mp3 track was the first to be played through the in-car entertainment system. I don't have many tracks on my phone, but sufficient to fill a 2 hour driving stint, so I spent a few minutes pondering the most appropriate inaugural song to play:

John FORDham's 'The Voice'... too obvious.
Within Temptation's 'Faster'... best not, eh?
Joe Walsh's 'Life's Been Good' featuring the line "My Maserati does one eighty five."  Er... no!

In the end, I pressed Shuffle and was rewarded with Lone Star's 'Bells of Berlin'. My emotions being fairly well summed up by the lyric "I can feel sadness, I can feel joy. Between the two I'm torn." No more off-roading opportunities, but much more cash in my pocket. Sigh.

Driving back northwards, the road followed the coast for a while. The tide was very high in the Cromarty Firth, such that grassland above the littoral zone was underwater. In one of those snapshot moments, I noticed that on a short stretch of coastal fencing, three Buzzards were sat, patiently waiting for their next meal to reveal itself.

With half an hour or so to kill before the return ferry, I detoured to Duncansby Head Lighthouse for a photo opportunity with the new wheels.



I know, I know... how am I going to squeeze fifteen bags of garden waste into that?

Post script, 17.51 14/10/12: I reckon ten maximum, but it handled six no bother this afternoon :o)

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Autumn migration

A few days of wintry storms, earlier in the week, brought all manner of tired and hungry migrating birds to Orkney.

Judging by the amount of text alerts, urgent emails and Facebook postings, it seemed that, during the following days, every clump of bushes in the archipelago was harbouring a rare bundle of feathers. As OTT is bereft of such habitat, I was on the wrong side of grumpy (and, no, I haven't accepted a role in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs').

On Wednesday, just as I was about to leave for work, a pair of Robins chased each other into our garden. During the past few months, seeing even one Robin was a highlight, so two was a bit of a bonus. Then, a warbler appeared on the fence across the road, but disappeared before I could think of trying to ID it. And work beckoned :o(

By late afternoon, when I returned from the Yard, I was once more resigned to blissful ignorance of the avian diaspora occurring all around us. But as I was shutting the garage door, a movement in the garden caught my eye. Robin? Nope. Redstart? Yes!

Dashing camera-wards and returning in time to grab a few images, I was so thrilled that one of these wee birds would visit our home.


I texted Our Lass, so that she was aware of the possibilities upon her return home and then resumed watching and photographing the Redstart.


Our overgrown garden is teeming with invertebrates of all shapes and sizes, so I guess it was actually quite a good place for a pitstop.


Our Lass did indeed have the opportunity to see it, as it has hung around for four days so far. After studying the field guides and asking wiser heads than mine, it was concluded that this was actually a Black Redstart, not a Common one, so our garden list is suitably enriched by its presence. Whilst we both watched this little gem of a bird, three Chaffinches put in an appearance, along with a Song Thrush and a few Redwings. Magic :o)

And today, Our Lass spotted a male Blackcap, which I managed to set eyes on as I returned from work.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Perils of Listening in English, Part 2

At the end of a recent shift at the Yard, I was preparing to lock up when a chap in a red boiler suit appeared, casting his eyes this way and that. I began to explain that most areas of the Yard were now shut and asked if he was looking for anything in particular, so that I could target my 'unlocking'.

In a broad accent, he replied that he "didnae want oot at aal", but he had "gey many spoots", if I was interested.

Fortunately, I knew that 'spoots' were the local name for razor-shells as, when we spent last Winter on Burray, we would occasionally see folk out on the sands of Echnaloch Bay searching for them. Sherlock Holmes-like, I figured that the red boiler suit indicated that he was a fisherman. Not being aware of any gender issues with razor-shells, I also assumed that they were not, in fact, gay, but that my customer was referring to 'gey', as in 'very'.

Having the knowing is one thing, but in a recycling context, how do you answer a question like that?

OK, we're a kind of reclamation yard, but just not that kind of clam.

My scarlet-clad companion must've recognised the signs... the confused expression... the struggle to find the right words... the big sign saying 'numpty southerner', so he took pity on me and slowly explained that he was working in a nearby housing estate, replacing all the soffits, guttering and downpipes. Rather than putting all the unwanted plastic into landfill, he correctly figured that it was re-usable and was offering it to the Yard.

Like the Moon rising over the horizon on a hazy night, my face must've gently lit up with understanding, as I realised he meant spouts, not spoots.

"Aye, we can always use those, many thanks," I replied, embarrassed yet again.

Monday, 6 October 2014

... and season to taste

Defining the seasons in Orkney is a tad tricky. On the one hand there's a wealth of evidence, not all of it anecdotal, that points to representation of all four on a daily basis, especially if you're outdoors. Another point of view is that the seasons occur in the normal order experienced further south, but not necessarily for similar durations. Meteorological norms and equinox/solstice mathematics just don't provide sufficient resolution with which to view the Orcadian year.

For example, after a comparatively mild and benign September, which allowed us all to pretend it was still Summer, today (6th October), it would appear that Winter has arrived. So Autumn 2014 was about 5 days long!

With a gale force to severe gale force weather system blowing in from the south east, the morning's high tide at 10.30 prompted a temporary closure of the Churchill Barriers. Police cars were visible at the southern end of Barrier 2 and the north end of Barrier 1, preventing access to the small island of Lamb Holm.


Though we can't see Barrier 2 from the house, the sea spray blowing across Lamb Holm and the neatly-horizontal windsock are a reasonable indication of conditions.


From the northern end of Barrier 1, Graemeshall Road tracks the eastwards along the coast, and in doing so, will make for an interesting journey for the next six months or so.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Oh, soffit!

It was inevitable, I guess...

Following the success of the 'mystery' brassica in our garden and the abundance of Large White butterflies visiting the plant, there was always going to be a long game playing out through the remainder of the Summer and into next year.

A while back, as Our Lass and I sat outside enjoying an afternoon's sunshine, we noticed caterpillars heading for the hills, or at least across the path and up the wall of the house.


Over the course of several days, chrysalides appeared on the soffit boards all around the property, as this year's larvae pupated to prepare for next year's population of adult butterflies.


A few days after that, I noticed that a few of the chrysalides were missing, and I presumed that they'd been discovered by a predator and eaten. To be honest, I couldn't think which of the birds visiting our garden would have the ability to do this, but I let that pass. Possibly wagtails?

Later still, I saw that many of the chrysalides had what appeared to be tiny balls of fluff alongside them. This did puzzle me, as I couldn't figure out what was going on.


Then, yesterday, whilst idling looking through the excellent 'Bugs Britannica', by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, to find some information on bristletails, I spotted a photograph that nailed the reason once and for all.

A species of parasitic wasp had laid their eggs in the growing caterpillars and whose own larvae has consumed the caterpillars from within and then finally emerged from the chrysalides to pupate themselves. Gruesome, but that's how evolution works in the insect world.

So, yes, in a way the pupae were the victim of a predator, but not at all in the way I'd imagined. The unfortunate caterpillars had carried their assassins with them during their epic journey up the wall of the house.

Oh, soffit!