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.