Friday, 25 December 2015

A very Victorian Christmas

Our Christmas amble this year was a widdershins wander around the small island of Glimps Holm, a gentle jaunt of less than two miles.

Parking at the southern end of Churchill Barrier Two, our first festive nature present was a stunning male Long-tailed Duck, feeding in the quiet waters in the lee of the eastern side of the barrier. Shame I hadn't brought a proper camera.

Never mind, the views across Holm Sound to Rose Ness were splendid.

We crossed the main road and headed off around the island in an anti-clockwise direction, keeping to the grassy path above the rocks and low cliffs. A solitary young Gannet glided past and the occasional Great Black-backed Gull performed a flyby, but there was little birdlife until we reached Echnaloch Bay on the southern side of Glimps Holm.

Eiders, more Long-tailed Ducks, Great Northen Divers and a few Slavonian Grebes were feeding close in to the wrecks of the blockships on the western side of Churchill Barrier Three. The diver called once as we walked by, a sound that I had not heard before (I'm not counting the background effects on the Due South soundtrack cd). This particular Christmas Day walk just kept on giving.

Now we re-crossed the main road and descended the wooden steps to the sandy beach on the eastern side of the island. A young couple with a toddler and a babe in arms were also out for some festive fresh air, exploring the tide line and the fishing paraphernalia stored by the barrier. Here, we were sheltered from the northerly breeze, the waters of Weddell Sound as still and calm as a Summer's day (possibly more still than that!).

A sound snapped me from my reverie, and we spotted two small birds flitting along the strand line. I'm afraid phone cameras don't cut the mustard on occasions like this, but we had snow on Christmas Day!

OK, not actual snow, but a pair of Snow Buntings. They're both in the top shot (if you enlarge the photo) and the second shot is a zoom in on a single bird.

Before we returned to the car, Our Lass was rather taken by some exposed grass roots that recent storms had uncovered. Apparently it was reminiscent of Miss Havisham's wedding dress, a cultural reference of which I was blithely unaware. Still, one wouldn't have great expectations of me knowing much about Dickens.

So, if you will pardon the religious connotations, Merry Christmas and God bless us, every one.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

And in other news...

Here's a little something further afield, yet close to home.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

New Island Syndrome

Within the Orkney archipelago there are over seventy islands, with only the larger ones inhabited by humans. Whilst I live on the Mainland, I have visited a fair number of the other islands, but by no means all of them. Yesterday was a new island day, brought about by work rather than leisure pursuits, but the effect was still the same.

I woke at 05.30, so the day had already begun with a sense of the unreal. Who knew there were two five thirties in the day?! Breakfast didn't seem appropriate at that hour (which isn't a normal Tense reaction), but I put up a few sandwiches for lunch and bundled them into a bag with some fruit. On automatic pilot, due to the earliness of the hour, I packed a vehicle with the things needed for the day and set off into the darkness. Dawn was still three hours away.

Frost lingered in a few hollows on my journey into Kirkwall, but I arrived on the quay in good time to catch the 07.00 sailing to Stronsay and Eday. I hadn't visited either of these islands, but it was the latter which was my destination for the day.

The ferry journey took about two and a half hours, which allowed plenty of time for a spot of reading (Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes), some preliminary blog notes and, rather more importantly, breakfast!

Although this was a work day, there was still something of the excitement of an adventure about the trip. I had spent some time at the weekend perusing a map of Eday, not a huge amount of time, admittedly, as Eday is only eight miles long and not very wide. Switching to a different medium, online satellite views showed that my destination for the day was a ruined croft with no apparent vehicular access. Well, I did mention the word 'adventure', earlier.

Double-checking with a 1:25000 OS map confirmed the truthfulness of the internet. I could only hope that the croft was in new hands and undergoing renovation.

Normally, a visit to a new island would mean 'holiday' and 'Summer', but here we were nearing Mid-Winter's Day to add to the sense of the surreal. And, likely, any spare time waiting for the return ferry would be compromised by the weather and lack of light.

The ferry crossing was smooth, as several days of light winds had brought some much-needed calm to our meteorology, though I was prepared for whatever weather the day brought (a wise precaution in these parts, as lovers of Vivaldi would appreciate).

A further feeling of strangeness engulfed me, as in a previous 'life', if I was spending several hours travelling to site, I would be probably stuck in a traffic jam or flirting with the speed limit in the outside lane of a motorway. And definitely not sat at my leisure, watching islands go by and making occasional scribblings in a notebook. With an actual pen on actual paper! Most odd.

The ferry's first port of call was, as mentioned previously, to the island of Stronsay and the pier at Whitehall Village. It was not yet dawn and I broke from my musings to wander out on deck and glimpse what would be a destination for another day.

As we left Stronsay and crossed the sound to Eday, I met my first client of the day, who was also travelling on the early boat. He was able to reassure me that there was indeed a firm track to the site. Once docked at the Backaland pier and disembarked, I followed the client's vehicle northwards up the island until we reached my 'office' for the day.

Could be worse!

As we discussed where equipment should be located and agreed upon a plan, I was aware of the calls of several ravens, a snipe and a pipit, whilst several adult gannets were gliding across the bay to the west. 

By lunch time, the work was completed and I headed off to find the day's second customer. There was no answer to my knock on the door, but when I popped in to the community shop for a cup of coffee, one of the assistants informed me that the lady was away at the moment.

So, with a few hours to kill until the ferry was due, I allowed myself a leisurely drive back down the island, stopping off every so often to lapse into tourist mode.

No arguments about a possible third runway here.

Oo, I do love a good trig point.

Sunset? Already?

Stone breaker with a patented knapping motion. Obviously.

The MV Varagen arrives to take me home. Yay!

Weirdly, whilst sat on the pier in Eday, I noticed that my phone had loads of signal (not something that happens much in Orkney). The dizzy heights of five bars worth of 3G! I am obviously living on the wrong island.

Two and half hours later, we berthed in Kirkwall and the adventure was over for the time being, but I think that I will be visiting Eday again before too long.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Barrel riding the black wave

I have been meaning to blog about a phenomenon that I've experienced a few times since moving to Orkney, but I've not found the right moment to commit it to print. It may well happen in other places, at other times, but I have not previously seen it.

The first occasion was earlier this year, as I was driving out of Kirkwall, up the hill just past the Highland Park distillery (probably not directly relevant to the story, but you never know). As I left the 30mph zone, I was aware of a large number of black birds thronging the verges at the roadside, as well as lining the walls either side of the carriageway. There had been recent rain, but this had now ceased, and it appeared that a flock of rooks were investigating the road and the verges for tasty invertebrate morsels which had either been drowned or washed away.

As I was the only car on the road at that time, I was about to be the sole and fortunate recipient of an amazing effect. 

At the approach of my vehicle, firstly the rooks in the road took to the air, then those on the verges, followed by the ones on the walls. None of them flew any higher than was necessary to avoid the car, before settling back down again, to what was obviously an interesting food source.

The experience, from my point of view, felt like driving for about 25 yards through a wave of black wings. It was absolutely astonishing and reason enough to regret not having purchased a dashcam.

The memory lives with me, a wildlife encounter that was, like so many of them, totally unexpected.

Several months later, I was driving to work along a stretch of road with pasture on either side. As I crested a rise, in the distance I could see a flock of rooks in a rough circle on the ground, as is often the case when the birds are foraging. However, in this instance, the circle included the road and verges as well as the part of the fields on either side. It was a 50mph zone, but I knew what was about to happen (or at least I hoped I did), so I slowed down to savour the moment. Checking in either direction, it appeared that, again, I was the only vehicle in sight, which fleetingly made me wonder if I was being singled out for this treatment!

Once again, I had the joy of driving through a tunnel of rooks, a bit like riding a feathery wave of corvidian black, then watching in the rear view mirror as the birds flowed back down to earth as if nothing had happened.

To be fair, I love rooks, they were often my only company when I worked at a re-use yard, watching my recycling endeavours and commenting to each other in a wide range of calls. But I could understand that if you were a little ornithophobic, or more specifically corvidophobic, the experience might not be so fantastic. I suspect that Alfred Hitchcock would've loved to capture the footage too.

At Tense Towers, we don't see many rooks. A pair of Hooded crows are sometimes to be seen, keeping a respectful distance from any humans. Ravens, too, often fly over, their 'cronk, cronk' calls signalling their presence. So, this morning, it was a bit of a treat when a corvid flock appeared in the fields over the road. Mostly rooks, but with a smattering of jackdaws thrown in for good measure. To my shame, I only noticed when the birds settled on some fence posts to preen, a thin black line of feather fluffing activity.

At one point, there was even a row of 'four and twenty black birds'...

Saturday, 12 December 2015

A day without rain... so far

I was sat in the study/office this morning, ostensibly writing Christmas cards though, in actual fact, I was compiling a list of folk to whom we could send the cards. And absent-mindedly recycling last year's cards.

Outside, after a frosty start to the day, it had turned into a lovely sunny morning with barely a breath of wind. The North Sea and Scapa Flow looked like mill ponds and even the most enthusiastic wind turbine looked like its blades were wading through treacle.

The study window was open (which was a bit if a shock in itself) and not far from where I was sat at my desk, this fellow was also in repose, probably trying to sleep, but having to put up with my occasional mutterings as I sorted the festive list into family, friends (sooth), friends (Orkney) and 'ask Our Lass who that is'.

Displacement activity? Me?

And, of course, now I'm blogging about my prevarication. Oh dear.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

S Club 7

This morning, a fierce wind is careening across the countryside, as sharp hail showers and angry clouds scud along with it.

An occasional gap in the clouds allows amber sunlight to cast a golden glow over bare stubble fields (some of which might even be bere stubble) which gives an indoor spectator, insulated against the weather, the fleeting impression that it would be possible to go for an airy walk.

Several dozen Starlings fly to and fro over the garden, seemingly impervious to the heavy-handed elements, whilst a small flock of Snipe are tucked down in the muddy furrows of the field opposite. They are skittish, hunkering down even further when a gull flies overhead. During moments when they feel unthreatened and when long-billed heads emerge above the grass stalks, we count thirteen individuals, but guess that there may be many more hidden from sight.

Bizarrely, a grey cat appears from nowhere, walking carefully along the dry stane dyke that borders the road, before disappearing from view once more. As it does so, it spooks a female Sparrowhawk that I had not spotted at all. She flies low, impossibly low, across the stubble, more as a means of navigating the harsh weather than in any hope of startling a meal into flight.

The Starlings are nowhere to be seen at all and the tight-sitting Snipe are as one with the muddy ground.

Thursday, 26 November 2015


Still in England... still on a training course... still walking to and fro between hotel and venue.

Yesterday morning, I ventured out a little earlier than the previous day. There were fewer people and more birds. Goldfinch, Blue Tit, Herring Gull, Magpie, Jackdaw, Goldcrest and...

A Kestrel. The lone sentinel at the gates of dawn.

Today was a later start, so many more people and consequently fewer birds to be seen. But there was a Grey Squirrel and, as there was more daylight, I noticed this bug hotel or wildlife stack outside one set of offices.

Ee, it proper gives you hope, so it does.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The call of the wild

In a change to the advertised programme, this blogpost comes to you from an industrial estate in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England. Following my departure, earlier this month, from the waste reduction charity Orkney Zerowaste, I have ventured sooth for a spot of technical training.

This morning the weather was fairly benign, if a little chilly, so I walked the mile or so from my hotel to the training venue, through the industrial estate and alongside the channelised River Team. That description doesn't make it sound too hopeful for the chances of some wildlife, and indeed, the view was often like this...

However, as the saying goes, faint heart never won a fair maiden (at least, that is an approximate and publishable rendition of what was said), so off I jolly well went.

At various points of my stroll through the industrial sprawl, thoughtful planting of trees and shrubs had softened the harsher effects of acre after acre of factories, workshops, offices and car parks. The most obvious tenants of this landscape were Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and a few Black-headed Gulls.

As I was about to cross over a road, a high-pitched, but grating, call gave me pause for thought. It was familiar, but also somehow mysterious. I concentrated upon crossing the road safely, pondering whether I had simply heard one of the many vocalisations of a Magpie. Once back on the pavement, a further call solved the conundrum. A single "chip" being the clue to the identity of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. No wonder I was confused - very familiar from our Milton Keynes days, but now not heard so much in Orkney.

The return journey, later in the afternoon, was uneventful save for the rising Moon, a waxing gibbous globe creeping slowly above the horizon from behind the houses on a low hill to the east. So, despite the street lights, the traffic, the noise and the impersonal and intrusive industry, it was still possible to feel an elemental connection with the sky and the natural cycles that have shaped our lives for generations.

My hotel room is on the third floor, quite a change from our single storey abode in Orkney. I've been here a whole twenty four hours and haven't used the lift so far. Which pretty much assuages any guilt I might feel about having a fried breakfast.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Three lovely reasons why I frequent so many tea shops...

This is a guest photo-blog by Second Born (the muckle peedie sister, seeing as she's our younger daughter, but taller than First Born).

The montage uses photos taken by Our Lass and the girls, during a trip south earlier this, or possibly last, year. I had quite forgotten about it, until I noticed a 'Draft' blog sat in the Posts list.


Thursday, 12 November 2015


And so, dear reader, if Storm Abigail doesn't knock out the electrics, tomorrow I shall be revving up the vacuum cleaner. I suppose you could say that it's the old 'suck or blow' conundrum...

Monday, 9 November 2015

Where's Baxter?

It's a question that is asked occasionally at Tense Towers, though not so much in a 'red and white striped bobble hat' sort of way.

In fact, when it was posited this morning, by Our Lass, the phrasing was along the lines of, "Don't be too keen to vacuum the floor, I've lost Baxter."

Now I'm guessing that there isn't a household in the land that doesn't have at least one phrase which is understood perfectly by the occupants, but which is complete gobbledegook to the rest of the population.

One of ours is Baxter. He's not a hamster, or any sort of pet, or even a tin of soup. To be honest, he's not a 'he', they're a 'they'.

It all began years ago, when Our Lass announced that she'd lost the backs to her earrings.

"Why are your earrings called Baxter?" I had, not unreasonably, asked. And it stuck.

Another Tensified phrase is Norma Wright, which is usually heard following questions like "Do you want another hot drink?" or "Can I give you a hand with that?"

But our all time favourite is the, possibly apochryphal, story told by the late Kenneth Williams, of a book signing where the author asks a lady who should the dedication be made out to. The reply is Emma Chizzit, so a dedication to Emma is duly written in a book and handed over. The indignant lady asks, "What's this?! I only wanted to know how much is it?"

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Life imitating art

Very occasionally, in these pages, I have mentioned the late Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series of books. In fact, I've just checked my back catalogue and there are a tiny proportion of posts concerning STP and his prolific literary output (less than 1%) which, bearing in mind his popularity within Tense Towers, is a bit of a travesty.

Following his death earlier this year, it's probably fair to say that many Discworld fans were in a state of trepidation regarding the 41st and last book to be written and finally published at the end of August.

Speaking for myself, I wasn't in a rush to buy it, but couldn't quite articulate why not. On our way to Rhodes for First Born's wedding in early September, Our Lass pointed out the book on the shelves of W H Smith's in Manchester Airport and asked if I was yet ready to purchase it. I was not, but still couldn't put it into words. Helpfully, Second Born came to my rescue, by echoing my thoughts and explaining that it was probably due to the fact that it was the last one and, once bought and read, that was it, no new Discworld tales.

As has become customary over time (in some unfathomable, holistic and serendipitous way), a Discworld book was published shortly before my birthday each year so, as long as I was in possession of a little patience, everything would come to he who waits.

And it unfolded in a similar way this year, too.

Again I prevaricated, carefully crafting reasons not to begin reading the book and so hastening the end of the story. However, eventually, I did succumb to curiosity and begin reading The Shepherd's Crown, a story centred upon the young witch Tiffany Aching, who lives on the downland where, unsurprisingly, the main agricultural occupation is the raising of fluffy, white lawnmowers.

Then, yesterday, the postman delivered the latest edition of British Wildlife (in fact, the first edition since the publication of The Shepherd's Crown) and on page 25 is an article about sheep and The Chalk.

See, I told you it was holistic.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Weather writer

It's been a while, huh? And I'm not sure why.

Blogging seems to have taken a back seat of late, but without any clear reason for the lack of output. Yeah, things have been busier recently, though not to the exclusion of all else, so it's a bit of a mystery as to the scarcity of wordage.

Coincidentally, this diminution of posting has accompanied some settled weather. Orkney has experienced a sort of Indian Summer, with warm spells and calm days. Perhaps the meteorology is my muse?

Now, as we experience the calm before the first storm of the season, here I am sat at my computer, tippy-tappeting away at the keyboard, brow furrowed in concentration as, outside, night falls and the sky uses the cover of darkness to unleash some serious weather.

In fact, the return of my muse was presaged a few mornings ago, when I opened the bedroom curtains, bleary-eyed and out of focus due to a lack of spectacles. I was vaguely aware of a flock of birds flying over the garden and away from the house.

Cue a quick sprint to the lounge for my bins, dodging Our Lass mid-Whatsapp, and arriving at the window to ID the flock. It was a large, tight group of birds, by now flying over the stubble field across the road. Starlings. But before I could even think of uttering the word 'murmuration', I noticed the reason for this particular behaviour. It was a female Hen Harrier, gliding nonchalantly through the airspace between the flock and the ground.

As the RSPB website explains:

"Starlings join forces for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird amidst a hypnotising flock of thousands."

OK, this particular flock was not of that order, but the intention was pretty clear.

However, Hen Harriers don't routinely surf the web, so this lady raptor suddenly went into a steep climb and stall, talons raised, as she bludgeoned into the massed ranks of Starlings.

The flock disintegrated, as each bird suddenly remembered an important engagement elsewhere, but not before one of their number had to send its final apology for a missed meeting. The harrier landed in a neighbouring field with her prize and, once sure that she wouldn't be disturbed, began to devour the unfortunate victim.

The whole episode had lasted a matter of seconds, but the memory of the natural drama will stay with me for a long while.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sunday 4th October 2015

It's been a grand day.

Orkney awoke to gentle sunshine and not a breath of wind, so after a late breakfast, Our Lass and I pottered down to the coast to make the most of the weather before everything changes (i.e. tomorrow).

The tide was out in Holm Sound and a varied selection of waders loafed about on the exposed rocks. An occasional distant splashing puzzled us for a while, until we spotted a fish leaping out of the water. Whether this was to catch flies or to escape the jaws of some unseen predator, we couldn't fathom.

We sat on the sea wall by St Nicholas' Kirk, soaking up the warmth from an Autumnal sun. The only sound to be heard was the 'clacking' of stones on the beach, as they were industriously turned over by er... Turnstones.

Out of the corner of our eyes, we noticed a sudden movement to our right. It appeared to be a short white stick standing vertically by the side of the road. Eh? A second glance resolved the vision into a Stoat, stood up to check us out and revealing its white underside.

Reckoning that we were either not a threat or, more likely, it didn't care, the Stoat then crossed the road and began searching through the rocks at the top of the beach. A few waders and pipits took the opportunity to move a little further away, but the Stoat seemed to ignore them and worked its way along the beach towards us.

The following photos were shot with my phone, despite not being able to see the screen properly due to the glare from the sun.

Sorry it's a bit "Where's Wally?", but the Stoat kept disappearing and appearing between the rocks, as it cautiously approached us, ending up about three feet from me.

As mentioned before in these pages, Stoats are not native to Orkney, as shown in this recently-commissioned report for SNH. Entertaining and furry, they may be, but there's a great many species native to Orkney that are not evolved to cope with their arrival.

With the changing seasons, there's flocks of birds everywhere. The most ephemeral are the Pink-footed Geese heading south from Iceland and Greenland. Their calls have me searching left and right, looking for the source of the sound. Invariably, they're directly overhead and the last place I look.

The local Starlings are easier to locate...

Following a pleasant afternoon of garden chores, the evening saw the sunset bring a wonderful day to a close.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015


Our peedie home in Orkney was given its name by the chap who built it.

The plot of land upon which the house stands, along with another five properties, used to be a field. Whether it was all set to pasture, I'm not sure, but whenever we cut the grass this is what happens...

Photo courtesy of Our Lass
The local Starling flock arrive and proceed to carefully and systematically quarter the ground looking for invertebrates to eat. You wouldn't want to be a leatherjacket, eh?

I was minded of this yesterday (though sadly I didn't capture an image of the event) when I was stood at the bedroom window, listening to the sparrows in the dock patch and watching the Starlings at the bottom of the lawn. Said Starlings then moved, in a block, up the lawn and beneath the window where I was standing, leaving no blade of grass unturned in their pursuit of prey. Close up and in the bright sunlight, the patterns and colours of their feathers were a textured melding of metallic sheen and sparkling jewels. Their constant sounds, a mixture of whickering and burbling (possibly to each other or just talking to themselves), ebbed and flowed as they wandered under the window. A few of the birds paused to drink at a shallow puddle in the paving, totally unconcerned at, or oblivious to, my presence.

I imagine that this scene has played out many times over the years, including whilst the house was being built, so may well have contributed to the naming of the property.

Well, I like to think so, anyway.

Researching the etymology of the name, I discovered a thesis by Berit Sandnes, From Starafjall to Starling Hill, An investigation of the formation and development of Old Norse place-names in Orkney.

It is published online here.

The eponymous hills of the title are interesting in their own right, as shown in this extract:

"Starling Hill    Sc
Evie. HY 34 22.
Stirling Hill 1846 ComE.
A summit in the hills on the border between Evie, Harray and Birsay. This is a transparent Sc formation, but interestingly it seems to be a translation of Starra Fiold, see below.

Starra Fiold    ON
Evie. HY 35 22.
Starra Fiold 1897 OSNB.
A summit close to Starling Hill above. The origin is probably ON starafjall n ‘starling hill’, though the specific could even be starra gen pl. of störr f ‘rushes’. If the specific is the bird’s term – or the speakers have imagined it to be so – this name and Starling Hill appear to be a rare example of an ON name and its Sc translation.      

The reason why both live on would seem to be that they have come to denote two different summits."

Sc = Scottish

ON = Orkney Norn

Obviously, Starafea is not an ancient Norn, Norse or Scottish term, coming simply from a recent naming event, and I'm not 100% sure that '-fea' is 'hill', as it could be 'fen' or 'marsh'. However, we're on very free-draining ground, so I'll happily side with the 'hill' derivation!

To be fair, I don't mind what the house is called, as long as it comes with a flock of garrulous Starlings.

I extend my grateful thanks to Berit Sandnes, as well as to the staff at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall, for their help during the writing of this blogpost.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Wedding wildlife, Part 2

We were very decadent and assigned one whole day to all-out willdife watching.

The tourist literature for Rhodes is rather light on natural history, save for one well-publicised attraction, the Valley of the Butterflies. Maybe that's a bit harsh, there is a Bee Museum (which we didn't visit) which is more prominently signposted than the airport! I guess the fact that the Valley of the Butterflies features in the tourist information is a big clue as to what sort of experience it will be, but we were intrigued to see what was there.

The valley in question is located south west of Rhodes town, in the hills beyond the airport. It is a steep-sided, rocky ravine, sufficiently wooded to provide plenty of daytime shade from the glare of a summer sun. Boardwalks, bridges and a path snake through the valley, following a small stream and corraling visitors to one bank or the other to minimise disturbance to the butterflies.

This is not one of those artifically-created insect attractions. For the butterflies are here naturally, to rest, or aestivate as it is termed, keeping out of the heat of the day and conserving their energy.

Hang on... butterflies? Really?

There are a great many of them, clinging to rocks, tree trunks, fence posts and any surface they can find. It is an awesome sight, especially when the occasional insect takes flight to move to a different location, its fiery red/orange underwing suddenly revealed, before it alights again and the black and white striped forewings perfectly camouflage it in a landscape that is all shadows and sun beams.

We read the signage explaining the life history of the butterfly. We note the warnings about not making any sudden movement or noise, which might alarm the creatures and cause them to take flight. And we can't quite shake off the feeling that they're not butterflies at all, they're freaking moths!

I guess Valley of the Moths doesn't sound so glamorous, does it?

However, despite the Great Lepidopteran Scam, it is an incredible place. Even now at the end of the flight season, there are thousands of moths in this valley, it is quite spectacular. If you stand still and watch a particular spot, eventually it will become a swirling mass of fluttering wings, briefly flashing red, before all is still once more (spookily, I was reading Michael McCarthy's Moth Snowstorm at the time).

But it is a tourist attraction, so there are hordes of visitors, tacky gift shops and, oh no, a natural history museum!

If there's one thing that's worse than having the wool pulled over your wildlifey eyes, it's a series of rooms full of things that used to be alive but which are now dead. In fact, worse than dead, they're decrepit, falling apart due to the usual difficulties of curation - temperature, humidity and, ironically, the ravages of small insects. Here, again, there are more interpretation boards. It's all about the butterfly, Panaxia quadripunctaria.

I later learn that even the Latin name has been updated. It is now Euplagia quadripunctaria, the Jersey Tiger, as it would be called in the UK.

Stepping out of the depressing museum, back into the sunlight, I am greeted by a tree covered in blossom. No-one else is looking at it, yet it is teeming with life: bees, wasps and several Hummingbird Hawkmoths. In fact, we do see several actual butterflies during the visit, but no-one pays them any heed. A few huge Swallowtails flollop along, ignored by the masses. This is a deeply weird place.

It's a butterfly moth

Some butterflies moths
More butterflies moths
A little Lepidopteran afternoon delight
I feel duty bound to at least leave you with an image of a proper butterfly. Somewhere in here, there's a Swallowtail...

Wedding wildlife, Part 1

First Born's wedding, taking place on the island of Rhodes, presented the father of the bride with a bit of a conundrum... just how much wildlife watching is appropriate on such an occasion? Common sense prevailed and my camera and lenses remained in Orkney, though I did sneak my bins into our luggage. Our Lass took along a small compact camera, but I opted to just use my phone for photos.

The wedding day itself was a decidedly warm 40 degrees C, but everything went smoothly and everyone had a great time [... and a Buzzard flew over immediately post ceremony].

For the remainder of the week, either side of the Big Day, there was an amount of lounging by the pool, swimming in the sea and driving around the island with the air con on full blast.

But I'll start at the beginning...

After three separate flights and an hour's drive, we arrived at our hotel, just outside Lindos, at about midnight... to discover that our room was double-booked and we'd have to spend the first two nights at another hotel a further 20 minutes down the road. Whilst this standby hotel was of a similar standard, it was much larger and consequently a lot busier. However, by this time, we simply wanted to catch up on some sleep.

At the back of mind, I was still trying to figure out how I would see any local (and therefore completely new to me) wildlife. I needn't have worried... it was part of the room service... hot and cold running ants, a wasp and a cockroach.

The following evening, whilst returning to our room, our ears were assailed by a wall of sound that was strange yet oddly familiar. In the centre of the hotel complex was a large tree, which turned out to be the roost for a huge flock of sparrows. I have never heard such a barrage of chirruping, it even drowned out the cicadas.

Once settled into the correct hotel, we were pleased to find that our balcony had a view across some scrubland. This small strip of habitat produced a flock of Crested Larks, a Black-eared Wheatear and a shrike (possibly Red-backed).

The pool area and beach were equally blessed with wildlife (even if it was difficult to capture with a camera). The day before we arrived, there had been an emergence of small dragonflies, a species of darter, which flitted about between sun and shade, often landing to obelisk in the heat. Occasionally, a larger dragon was seen whizzing high over the swimming pool, but this was impossible to identify. There were loads of hornets buzzing about, several locusts in the flower borders and a five-legged grasshopper risked life and remaining limbs by walking across the paved area in full view of the local feral cat population.

It took me several days, but I eventually figured out what the darters were. There were several options available for this part of Greece, including some of the species we have in the UK, but I eventually managed to spot a mature individual that had enough diagnostic features to nail it. Unfortunately, it needed binoculars, so the best picture I could come up with involved trying to hold both bins and Our Lass's camera whilst focussing both on a distant insect. The results were rather unsatisfactory to say the least.

However, here's a couple of mobile phone pics of an immature specimen, discovered the next morning in the flower border between the hotel and the pool.

Whilst not yet coloured up, there are several clues here (as I learned): the eyes are brown above and blue below; the pterostigma has a thick dark leading edge and a paler area behind (see topmost part of wing in either photo) and the legs are not completely black. All this adds up to Red-veined Darter, a species occasionally seen in the UK, but not by me so I was chuffed to bits. The individual seen through bins was much redder, with obvious wing colour (eponymous veins and yellow wing bases).

Both First and Second Born tried to rescue darters that landed in the swimming pool, but to no avail. I can only presume that the chlorine in the water was bad for their health, but it didn't stop enterprising wagtails from wandering around the egde of the pool, scooping up any unfortunate dragonfly.

If there is an upside to a dead dragonfly, they're much easier to photograph!

Certainly, the view of the underside is not one that I've had previously, and is interesting from an anatomical perspective (male dragons have 2 sets of genitalia). Those eyes look so alive :o(

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Flying high

My Barrier 4 obsession shows no sign of abating...

This photo was taken from somewhere above South Ronaldsay as we returned from a wedding in Greece.

Barrier 4 can be seen right of centre, with the actual barrier as the left hand edge and the sand dunes comprising the remainder of the feature.

Did I not mention there was to be a wedding in Greece... ?

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Please do not adjust your set

In a change to the advertised programme...

Our Lass and I are off to an island which is known as a cruise ship destination of choice, has loads of ancient archaeology and, apparently, precious few dragonflies. Sound familiar at all?

First Born and her beau are soon to be married and the wedding ceremony is taking place on the island of Rhodes, which nestles between the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. The trusty internet informs me that this is 2091 miles away as the damsel flies... and about 18 degrees Celsius warmer.

The dawning realisation that this would impact heavily upon our normal packing routine prompted a reappraisal via the medium of Facebook:

A pair of natty suits... or a pair of muddy boots?

An assortment of ties... or a book on dragonflies?

Emergency money... or a t-shirt that's funny?

Stuff in case I'm out of sorts... or some fairly garish shorts?

And the answers?

Yes, no, no, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Apologies, for a moment there I appeared to be channelling Meg Ryan.