Saturday, 26 March 2016

Warning signs?

The ageing process... what's that all about?

Forgetfulness, aches and pains, weight gain - these are things which I have thought would accompany the gentle stroll downhill into old age.

But if I really consider it (and being quite forgetful anyway, I do have to think quite hard), these symptoms have always been with me. So perhaps they're not great indicators of life changes.

As a species, we've never been very good at Time, which is a bit of a let-down when you look at the ways in which we bombard ourselves with temporal information. Calendars, clocks, watches and the omnipresent relentless display on much of our technology.

We're only here for a wee while in the big scheme of things, but to us, individually, it feels like forever. As a wiser man than me said:

However, last night, I was caught off guard by the subtleness of a few recent shifts to my behaviour, and I am now wondering whether these are actually part of my ageing process. There I was, driving into town to attend an Orkney Field Club talk, listening to a CD en route, so far, so normal. Then I considered the situation a bit more carefully.

Were the speakers belting out some heady rock anthem of yore? Melodic prog? Metal mayhem and screaming vocals? Nope, it was Adele.

Was the OFC talk about Nature, red in tooth and claw? Y'know the kind of thing...the razor sharp finality of a Peregrine falcon stooping out of a blue sky? The heart-stopping panic of a seal encircled by a pod of Orcas? Er... not exactly... it was about lichens.

I've always thought I would get around to lichens when I was no longer able to adequately see or hear the fast, whizzy things I usually watch, be they birds or dragonflies. Or to put it another way... older.

So, last night was a revelation. Lots of new words to learn, nearly 500 species of lichens to see in Orkney, as well as the expected bonus of knowing that lichens don't fly away. Unless it's really, really windy.

Today, there was field trip to Finstown Community Garden to look at lichens up close and personal. And it is up close and personal! We must've looked an odd bunch, with hand lenses deployed, noses pressed up against trees and stone walls. It was as if we'd all been told to stand in the corner and not look at the rest of the class.

I couldn't keep up with the steady stream of Latin names, but I did make a valiant effort to remember the various groups of lichen types we saw:

Crust forming  - crustose

Leafy - foliose

Shrubby - fruticose

Script-like - lirellate

With only my phone to act as a camera, my photos weren't great. But here's the most amazing thing, where two different species of lichen met, the border between the two often showed distinct signs of conflict.

So even with lichens, Nature is red in tooth and claw!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Beach haul

After a calm and dry week, Saturday morning dawned with rain and a chilly westerly breeze. By late morning, with my chores out of the way and Our Lass looking for a break from her studies, we wandered down the hill to the beach.

Well, I say 'beach', but it isn't quite the white sands/turquoise waters of some parts of Orkney, more a rocky foreshore with a bit of gravelly shingle.

And it is the shingle to which we are drawn.

Careful feet, keen eyes and enthusiastic hearts search amongst the gravel for the tiniest fragments of treasure. Not pirate contraband, you understand, but sea glass and other small nuggets of beach ware, originating from shipwrecks or coastal middens claimed by the sea.

Today's haul featured clear, green and blue glass fragments, as well as a piece of porcelain and a crab claw.

The large blue shard had some lettering on it, but all I could make out was an 'M'.

On the walk back, heading into the biting breeze, we spotted our first Coltsfoot of the year, as Spring edges ever closer to ousting Winter from the land.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Show That Never Ends?

About a year ago, I wrote a blogpost that had been on the back-burner for some time. I knew it would be published eventually, but had not been looking forward to the day. On the 12th March 2015, the world lost the wit and wisdom of Sir Terry Pratchett. Turning my half-formed thoughts and patchy notes into a cathartic eulogy was an emotional experience.

Fast forward to the 11th March 2016, which would've been my mum's 86th birthday, and I was stunned once more to discover that another of my heroes had shuffled off this mortal coil.

The soundtrack to my teenage years was heavily influenced by keyboards, usually several of them all at the same time, played by the dextrous hands of the prog rock maestro, Keith Emerson of ELP. From tracks featuring classical piano, through honky tonk, Hammond organ and on towards Moog synthesisers (often with amazing segues in the same song), I was spell bound.

Not for me the 'cold' dystopian feel of the synthesisers demonstrated by Kraftwerk (though I'll admit that Autobahn is cool!) or Gary Numan and Tubeway Army. Nope, I was hooked on soaring, melodic synths and Emerson's boundless Moog energy.

Particular favourites were the Moog solo at the end of Lucky Man, just about any bit of Pictures at an Exhibition, the transition from piano to synth in the middle of Trilogy and the live version of Aquatarkus.

It wasn't until ELP had been disbanded for some time that I eventually had the chance to attend a Keith Emerson gig. He was touring the UK with a show combining music from his days with The Nice and ELP. Then, a few years later, as a treat for their Dad, First and Second Born took me to the inaugural High Voltage festival in London's Victoria Park, where ELP were headlining the Sunday. At last! Messrs Emerson, Lake and Palmer together again on one stage [Happy, happy, happy and a chorus of contented sighs].

So, to hear of the great man's untimely passing is sad indeed.

In a bizarre twist of Fate, I had just received an email from a colleague, for whom I had proofread an article. In typical Tense style, I had littered his carefully-crafted words with a bucket load of additional punctuation, to which he responded with a jokey "Fanfare for the comma, man!" Chuckling to myself, I closed down my email, clicked over onto the BBC News website and, in an emotional diminuendo, discovered the news of Keith Emerson's death.

So now, I guess, Emo will be finding out first-hand, just what Mussorgsky thinks of ELP's rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

A glimpse of home from Glimps Holm

A calm morning enticed us outdoors. For the first time this year, there was definitely a bit of heat in the Spring sunshine. We drove across to the small island of Glimps Holm, between Churchill Barriers 2 and 3, for a wander along its low clifftops and sandy beach.

There was plenty of wildlife about:

Here's a Turnstone and a Purple Sandpiper, with a pair of Ringed Plover.

Two pairs of Red-breasted Mergansers were spooked into flight by a small boat...

 A bit of a photo finish, there.

Soon to be heading north for the breeding season, this smart male Long-tailed Duck was feeding in the shelter of Barrier 3.

Up at the trig point in the centre of the island, a dizzying 32 metres above sea level, we could look back towards Tense Towers, nestled between Hurtiso Farm and the East Mainland Church.

Back on the beach, we were in the pink...

What a grand morning!

Friday, 11 March 2016

March hare

On a few evenings this week, a Hare has been feeding in the field just across the road from Tense Towers. For me, there is no finer example of the heralding of Spring than the increased visibility of hares.



[Happy sigh]

Monday, 7 March 2016

Oh, what a night!

Well, it's not late December, and neither is it 1963, but we do often experience four seasons in a day.

However, yesterday evening, whilst I was at the airport waiting for Our Lass to return to Orkney from visiting Second Born in jolly old M of K, I received a text stating somewhat briefly and to the point,

"Aurora. Now."

Funnily enough, at Tense Towers, the usual fly in the ointment of any aurora spotting is the rather well-lit airport. So, here was I, slap bang in the middle of Light Pollution Central, with nary a chance of seeing anything.

To put it bluntly, "Boreas!"

I texted a few other folk to help spread the word about the Northern Lights and waited patiently by staring at the Arrivals screen.

With Our Lass safely back on terra firma, we scooted home, me intent on getting there as fast as reasonably possible, she intent on not telling me what she could see out of the passenger window, in case I crashed the car.

Although it was freezing outside, and occasional snow flurries interrupted proceedings, there was an amazing display. The below photos are of the view west from our front door.

Eventually, I realised that the lounge window faces west, so we decamped inside to continue watching in the warm, whilst drinking a mug of hot chocolate. We're not very gung ho aurora chasers at all.

The circus is back in town

It looks as though my previous post was a bit premature...

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Platform upgrade

Back in December, an offshore accommodation vessel, Safe Boreas, arrived in Orkney waters. It has been anchored in Scapa Flow over the winter, undergoing maintenance and the installation of additional accommodation modules.

Here's a photo of the platform taken on New Year's Eve, when the snow on the Hoy hills provided a scenic backdrop.

All through the winter, the lights of the platform have illuminated the nights, looking for all the world like some garish hybrid of a funfair and an ocean liner. Today, I was sat in the lounge, reading the local paper, when I happened to look up and take in the view across to the west. Safe Boreas was on the move, under her own steam (ok, probably not steam-powered, I'll admit) and leaving the Flow.

Here she is, heading south past the island of Flotta and its oil terminal.

The ship tracking app, AIS, provided a handy reference of what was going on. The remaining accommodation platform, Regalia, is still anchored in the north east corner of Scapa Flow.

And here is Safe Boreas passing through the Sound of Hoxa on her way to a temporary anchorage to the west of the island of Swona.

It's been a busy week or so in the Flow. There have been half a dozen visiting tankers at anchor during ship to ship LPG transfers, but the biggest news has been the discovery of a World War 2 torpedo on the sea bed. From its location, on the east side of the Flow, it has been reasoned that it is probably from the German submarine U-47, and one of the three failed torpedoes that was fired during the deadly attack on HMS Royal Oak in 1939.

Another one bites the dust

This week saw another island added to my 'Visited' list, with a work trip to Stronsay, on a typical 'many weathers' Orcadian day. Having left a chilly and overcast Kirkwall harbour early doors, we arrived in Whitehall Village, the main settlement on Stronsay, to be greeted by driving sleet and the prospect of a morning's outside work on the wrong side of damp.

At our first port of call, a recce of the problem revealed that reconfiguring the internal wiring would be a better and cheaper option for the customer, rather than fitting equipment to the exterior of the building.The ensuing loft work meant that I got dusty instead of wet.

Before our next task, we popped into one of the island's general stores. I always appreciate a visit to this type of emporium, as it really feels like setting foot in the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin. And true to form, I discovered some provender that I couldn't find back on Mainland, or even the Scottish mainland. I won't tell you what it was, as that would be letting the genie out of the cardboard packaging.

Driving to our next appointment, the sky to the east looked a little bluer, so hopes were raised that the afternoon would prove drier than the morning. Even so, the track down to our destination was awash with water draining off the surrounding land.

By the time we had driven along the top of the beach, the sun was forcing its way through the clouds and we were treated to a glorious afternoon of golden light. Below is a view of the Bay of Houseby. Can you spot the dog? It's a... er... border collie. Sorry.

With an hour to kill before the ferry back, I was given a mini-tour of some of the island, starting off at the Sand of Rothiesholm by the Bay of Holland. This is a mile-long sandy beach that I suspect doesn't become much busier than this...

There are several other beaches on the island, each facing in a different direction, so I reckon that I will be returning in the future to savour more of Stronsay's stunning scenery.

As sunset approached, we just had to stop the vehicle and enjoy the spectacle of the reflections upon the surface of the water in Blan Loch.

Then, after a short wait, the ferry arrived to transport us back to Kirkwall, allowing me an hour or so's worth of quality reading time. Currently, this is The Song Of The Dodo by David Quammen. The book is about island biogeography, evolution and extinction. It's proving to be a cracking read.