Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Light and shade

One evening last week produced some wonderful ephemeral skies and nice lighting effects.

Thankfully, the good folk of Rackwick Bay on the west side of Hoy were not repeating any Bikini Atoll tests, but it did look like it.

Late evening, the sun was hidden behind a thick bank of cloud, with just a thin sliver of light at the horizon and a few cloud tops tinged pink.

But towards sunset, the light intensity ramped up again, but from a very shallow angle. This was enough to drag me away from The Art of Persia on iPlayer, and even stand on a garden chair to see over the wire fence of the field across the road. Sadly, this was too much human for a flock of Curlews to suffer and they wandered off to the other side of the field. A lone Lapwing remained to give some scale to the lines in the recently-mown pasture.

And then it was sunset...

Monday, 13 July 2020

Head, white and blue

With the predicted further lessening of lockdown restrictions and the likely resumption of tourism, Eagle-eyed M of Wild Orkney Walks was keen to recce some walks to check for any changes which would need to be made to risk assessments. I was invited along as a socially-distanced minimal rent-a-crowd, an extra pair of eyes and cover against lone working. The weather was better than forecast, as we ambled towards Mull Head from the Gloup car park.

M quickly found some Scots Lovage, a plant I had not so far seen this year. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the little purple anthers in the close-up photo, as well as several insects which I didn't realise were there.

There were plenty of Common Blue butterflies about, but they were mostly rather flighty. I had to take my time to get into position for the below pic. Slow and low was the way to go. 

As we ventured further north and the clifftop vegetation turned from grassy slopes to heath and moor, there were some lovely views out to sea, across swathes of Bog Cotton.

At a narrow geo, our gazes were drawn towards a dark silhouette at the seaward end of the ravine. A lone sentinel at the gate in the form of a Shag.

As we neared the Head, a pair of Arctic Skuas were hunting just off shore, monitoring the returning auks bringing food back for their chicks. Although it was a tough ask for my little point and shoot, I did manage an image of the pale phased bird of the pair.

On the cliff ledges, it was difficult to spot the Guillemot chicks, as the adult birds were protecting their offspring from marauding gulls by shielding them with their bodies. In the below photo, there is a young Guillemot in the centre of the image.

M isn't just eagle-eyed, she has good hearing too, and she picked up the call of Red-throated Diver as it flew in off the sea. Again, it was asking a lot of my camera!

At a small cove, we stopped to listen to the echoing calls of Black Guillemots. The birds were hidden from our view, but their piping notes bounced around the rock walls and to our ears. In the sheltered waters of the cove, we could see some large jellyfish, possibly Lion's Mane?

As we retraced our steps, we found a female Common Blue butterfly perched on a grass head in the centre of the path. 

We both took several photos of her before moving on, and as we did so, she suddenly fell off the seed head and plummeted into the undergrowth. I assumed that this was a belated reaction to our presence, as a perceived predator threat. Down between the grass blades, the butterfly remained motionless, so the only other reason I could think of for her behaviour, laying eggs, seemed a remote possibility, especially as there didn't appear to be any Bird's-foot Trefoil present.

I took another photo then, for some reason, I offered my hand to the butterfly. She stepped straight onto it and did a pirouette to orientate her wings to where the sun would be through the clouds. Maybe the warmth of my hands was a bigger draw than the fear of human predation? It was a lovely wildlife moment. Happy sigh.

As we returned to the car park, another small cove held a few Razorbills and a single Guillemot. This one was the bridled form which looks like it is wearing spectacles. Beside it was an unhatched egg, presumably rather late in the season for it to hatch now.

Before the walk's end, there was just time for one more, ever-so-slightly gratuitous Bog Cotton photo.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Up the stares and along a landing

It's been seven days since I last posted, but for once I can't blame a lack of muse, as there's five blogposts in draft from various goings-on and all manner of what-have-you. Between being out there doing stuff (work is slowly picking up again) and maybe a lack of motivation to be tippy-tappetting away at a keyboard, there has been a week's silence from Old Tense. One consequence of lockdown (and I will let you decide, dear reader, whether it is a favourable outcome), is that my nominal two posts a week target has been buried under a flurry of Tense Towers tales, such that we're several months ahead of schedule. And there's more local legends and parochial prattlings in the wings, pending a possible second wave of virusness. So, without further ado, let's begin catching up on recent events hereabouts.

Last weekend, a third oil platform sailed into Scapa Flow and anchored off Howequoy Head. This is the Stena Don, a frequent visitor to Orkney when things are quiet in the spewing-forth-of-fossil-fuels business. It arrived with a complement of three ocean-going tugs which helped to tether the rig in position. Our corner of the Flow was busy that day, as there were also three freighters at anchor with no goods to ship anywhere.  

At one point, a helicopter landed on the Stena Don, and we wondered who was to-ing or fro-ing (if you're wondering, yes, I am on a bonus scheme with hyphens in this post). Later that day, there was a peculiar conjunction of two of the tugs, Njord Viking and Loke Viking, so we reckoned that the chopper must've been Dr Dolittle coming to see his Pushmi-Pullyu.

With all the staring out of the window, I noticed a tiny thing on the sill (well, apart from all the dust etc), but what it was, I couldn't begin to fathom. Shaped like a cartoon bone, purple with pale speckling, what the heck was it?

My best guess is some part of a flower?

Whilst I haven't seen a dragonfly so far this year, I was cheered up immensely by this rock engraving from Rob at Orkney Beach Craft.

Rob is now busy with a house name plate for us... with a difference.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Pond update

It is six weeks since I blogged about the creation of a garden pond at Tense Towers. To be honest, there's been little progress since, for a number of reasons, but the plan is still to have a functioning water body before the end of the Summer. I should perhaps qualify that remark, as anecdotally, the end of the Orcadian Summer is associated with the second week of August, when a cold wind invariably appears, to scoff at Hawaiian shorts and pina coladas. Maybe I should aim for the Autumnal equinox?

Anyway, back in May, I left you with news that the liner and some pond plants had been ordered. The pond plants from Celtica Wildflowers, in Perthshire, duly arrived and were put into small water-filled containers to acclimatise. And there they still are, although the House Sparrows have found these containers and happily drink from them. Indeed the hole excavated for the pond has been a source of great interest for sparrows, Starlings, Rock Doves and an assortment of gulls, although now it is beginning to develop a green frisson as plants begin growing from the bare earth. 

The liner took a little longer to arrive, actually a lot longer, as apparently the whole world was using lockdown as an excuse to dig a pond. The manufacturers couldn't keep up with demand, so my liner was going to be a while. Obviously, lots of ponds should be great for wildlife, but the aquatically-minded creatures at Tense Towers would have to be patient.

Traditionally, during the Summer in Orkney, the phrase "Is there a liner in?" refers to whether there's a cruise ship berthed at Hatston quay, disgorging bus loads of tourists to the scenic honeypots of the archipelago, but that ain't happening either, for obvious reasons.

At the beginning of this week, the pond liner finally arrived, almost to the day when we discovered a problem with our sewage arrangements. We aren't on a sewage main, but have a septic tank to take care of such things. Investigations continue, but it would seem poodent to wait and see whether half the back garden has to be excavated to repair a soak away.

As they say, shit happens.

A more recent blogpost bewailed the lack of rain and the dire consequences for dragonflies and damselflies hereabouts. Predictably, since then, it's done nothing but rain, or at least we have had a series of light showers. I can't help but think that these would have been handy for filling up a nascent water body and pacifying any passing Naiads. I can but hope.

To be continued...

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Muddy waters blues

It had been about a fortnight since the last visit to Russadale and the several dozen damselflies busying about their life cycles, so another trip was due to monitor any changes. Eagle-eyed M and I met up at Happy Valley, at the foot of Russadale, and quickly checked its pond for odes. There were a couple of Large Red Damselflies and about ten Blue-tailed Damselflies, some freshly-emerged, some overmature. At the time I remarked that this was the most populous I had seen the pond, so I couldn't wait to saunter up the hill to the quarry pools.

It really is a pleasant walk, between heather banks and verges of wild flowers, a little rough underfoot, but the climb is very gentle. Stonechats, Willow Warblers, Robins, Meadow Pipits and Wrens were all feeding young. Hoverflies and butterflies, a few moths and a bazillion other flying insects were all on the wing, as were a Hen Harrier and a Cuckoo.

When we arrived at the quarry, however, our mood darkened at the sight of virtually dry pools and an almost complete absence of damselflies. M spotted one fluttering up from the vegetation, a very fresh Blue-tail, and we mused that this could be last one emerging from the pools this year unless there's some prolonged spells of rain soon. There are dragonflies which breed here, whose flight season has not yet begun, so their larvae are stuck in the mud. I have no idea whether that is a survivable situation for Black Darters and Common Hawkers.

How and ever, not everyone was so distraught at the lack of water in the pools. A female Crane Fly was busy egg-laying into the mud. I have to admit to wincing whilst watching it.

Somewhat down-heartedly, we retraced our steps through the dale, musing upon the lack of rainfall and the natural processes of vegetative succession which were threatening this breeding site for at least four species of Odonata. Thankfully, Nature slowly worked its magic upon us, as the other wildlife of Russadale came to our rescue.

A Red-thighed St Mark's Fly

A female Common Blue butterfly

Valerian fit to burst

Ta Dah!

Oh, that conjunction of red flower bud and green ferniness

Slender St John's-wort

A Meadow Brown butterfly

A male Common Blue butterfly

Blue boys on Valerian


Another male Common Blue butterfly
Since that visit on Thursday, and as I type this now, it has rained and is forecast to continue for much of the weekend. I can only hope for sufficient precipitation to recover the situation (with apologies to all the local farmers trying to cut hay for fodder and silage).

Friday, 3 July 2020

Blue for you

After last week's outing along a stretch of the east coast of South Ronaldsay, Eagle-eyed M suggested that, for this week, we should try the west coast instead. This shoreline, from Sandwick down towards Burwick, looks out onto the Pentland Firth, across to the islands of Swona and Stroma, and further to Caithness on the Scottish mainland.

We began at the bay of Sand Wick, where a flock of Oystercatchers were enjoying the sun, sea and sand. A single Sandwich Tern flew by, and Ringed Plovers were scurrying about the beach. A grassy path wound its way up from the shore onto the low cliffs and we headed south through habitats which alternated between coastal heath and verdant pasture, depending upon how much improvement had been carried out to the neighbouring fields.

Where run-off was providing over-nutrification, the grass was long and lush, with plenty of thistles. Where run-off was minimal, crowberry and heather held sway. In one small geo, the lush vegetation ran downhill all the way to the beach. These orchids were just above the high tide line.

However, the plant we were looking for was to be found in the wilder areas of heath, and in Orkney the flower is mainly located on this stretch of coast and the island of Eday. Whilst our target was quite similar to Devil's-bit Scabious, we weren't going to have the wool pulled over our eyes, we were on the hunt for Sheep's-bit.

With some Catsear

And in the sheltered gullies, flitting amongst the trefoils and vetches, were many Common Blue butterflies. They were tricky to approach or photograph.

Whilst in pursuit of the Blues, I spotted a potter wasp, a five-banded one, which was busy robbing nectar from some Tufted Vetch.

Our luck with the weather didn't quite hold out, as we were caught in a shower during the return trip, but we didn't let that dampen our spirits after a wonderful day's wildlife watching.