Wednesday, 8 April 2020

A little garden birding

Or perhaps more correctly, a little birding in the garden.

Shortly after Our Lass drove off to work this morning, a pigeon pottered about the hard standing. The species is Columba livia, from where all feral pigeons are descended. This one could have a few more of the original Rock Dove genes in it, but it's difficult to be sure just where it sits on the sliding scale of Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove.

This is a Common Gull, perched on a fence post after recent rain and scanning the ground for any invertebrates tempted out by the damp conditions.

After I had mown the wildlife triangle the other day, the local Starlings didn't waste much time in taking advantage of the opportunity for a bit of foraging.

I have a friend who is meticulous about cleaning the guttering on his house, often rather precariously to my way of thinking. At Tense Towers, I never bother. The birds are very efficient at this task.

And yes, we have to tie our bins down due to the meteorology.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Corenvirons-20, Part 3

So far, during this mini series of historical stuff viewable during a brief foray outside as part of my allowed exercise under lockdown, I have been looking at reasonably old structures which show up on 19th Century maps and are still visible in the landscape today. However, for this post, the subject doesn't appear on either the 1882 or the 1903 Ordnance Survey map of the area for the very good reason that it hadn't been built yet.

I may end up using these two images several times, as there's a wealth of historical interest contained within them.


Once again, the field boundaries are very similar, with the only real difference between the old map and the recent satellite image being the collection of buildings near the shore below East Breckan.

These are the complex of structures which made up the Holm Battery, a coastal artillery battery, built for World War 1 and modified for World War 2, to protect the entrance to Scapa Flow via Holm Sound. As a key strategic naval harbour, the Flow was heavily defended by artillery batteries, blockships, and anti-submarine nets. However, it was through Holm Sound during October 1939 that the German submarine U-47 evaded all the defences and sunk the battleship HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 lives.

This incident shook the British high command out of their complacent conviction that Scapa Flow was impregnable to submarine attack and, in 1941, work began on constructing the four Churchill Barriers to permanently seal the eastern approaches to the Flow. In many of my sunset photographs taken from Tense Towers, Churchill Barrier One is often visible, linking the Orkney mainland to the island of Lamb Holm.

Corenvirons-20 data

Target: Holm Coastal Artillery Battery
Location: NGR HY493017
Distance from Tense Towers (as the dragon flies): 500m
Hazards: Cliff edges, sea spray
Mission accomplished: Yes
Comments: The U-47 began its attack on the night of Friday 13th October 1939.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Outside whilst we still can

Today's bright and breezy 'Boris Bimble' of daily allowed exercise, mainly featured gulls and corvids, although that had much to do with the fact that I wasn't quick enough to capture images of Curlew, Oystercatcher, Reed Bunting and Fulmar.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Hooded Crow

Herring Gull

High tide at Graemeshall

A profusion of Lesser Celandines

Our rhubarb is beginning to sprout

Friday, 3 April 2020

Corenvirons-20, Part 2

Today's episode of 'What Tense does on his daily perambulation' is, rather unromantically, half a mile of tarmac called the Tieve Road. There have been a few mentions of this lane in the blog over the years, so this post isn't going to be hugely ground-breaking in terms of knowledge. I thought I would admit that fact straight away, as I would hate to pull the wool over your eyes, but I sheepishly thought that I might set the post in a slightly different context.



As can be seen from the maps and satellite view, not too much has changed in nearly 140 years, other than extensions to the kirk cemetery. Most of the field boundaries are still as they were in the 19th Century.

We will begin our mini-travelogue at the junction with Cornquoy Road, down by the shore and adjacent to the old kirk.

The latest extension to the cemetery can be seen on the right in the above photo. Proceeding in a generally northerly direction, we will proceed up the Tieve Road to the junction with Greenwall/Warthill Roads.

At this time of year, before the grass has begun to dominate the verges, Dandelion and Lesser Celandine provide some vibrant colour, and I guess also pollen and nectar for early insects.

But perhaps the most impressive flora of the moment is Marsh Marigold, which abounds in the ditch bottoms, as this part of the lane has plenty of flowing water.

And all that water is emanating from springs in this small paddock, 'teeve', 'tave' or 'tieve' being the dialect word for a well.

The paddock itself is usually home to a few sheep, but at the moment contains just one ram who, to my consternation, was a bit of a photo-bomber.

The final stretch of the road is much drier, with no obvious ditches, so our eyes tend to stray to the fields on either side, on the look out for Brown Hares hunkering down amongst the tussocks of grass. None today sadly.

Corenvirons-20 data

Target: Tieve Road
Location: begins HY511006, ends HY515012
Distance from Tense Towers (as the dragon flies): 1.45km (maximum)
Hazards: Still carrying my work phone, photo-bombing ovine
Mission accomplished: Yes
Comments: I seriously mis-calculated my ability to ignore the constant sound of running water...

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Corenvirons-20, Part 1

As the pandemic lockdown continues, a blogger has to find new ways to generate sixty sentences' worth of distance typed, especially as the unforgiving page has such an evil white glare. So, welcome to a slightly-heralded series of stuff which is within easy perambulating distance of Tense Towers, and which does definitely not contravene any government edicts (at time of writing).

Blame the old map and the milestones.

Today it is blowing a gale out of the west, the windchill mid morning put the temperature at a chilly minus six degrees Celsius. Barrelling along with this wind are frequent showers of snow and hail. Happy flippin' April.

Undaunted (well, quite a bit daunted actually, but there's a tiny, wee spark of journalistic fervour trying to glow here), this afternoon I put on most of my wardrobe and headed out to find the milestone I mentioned recently. As I left the sanctuary of Tense Towers, I thought I would take a few seconds to pay tribute to something that features in many of my photos from the lounge window, and which is often commented on by visitors to our home. The comments range from "Aw, it's a shame about that sign post." to "Have you got a big hacksaw?"

I don't, in fact, have a big hacksaw, although I do happen to have a cordless angle grinder. However, the sign is safe from me, if only because if it wasn't there, due to the speed at which some vehicles whistle by Tense Towers, they would likely end up in the sea.

Carrying on with my short walk, I followed the main road around to the right until just before the manse (actually, one of three manses, but that's a story for another day). The old map indicated that there was a milestone here, one mile from Holm and seven and an eighth miles from Kirkwall.

Sure enough, there it was atop a dry stone wall, less worn than the example down by the old kirk, as I could just about make out the carved characters.

Corenvirons-20 data

Target: Milepost
Location: NGR HY498018
Distance from Tense Towers (as the dragon flies): 360m
Hazards: Road traffic, horizontal hail
Mission accomplished? Yes
Comments: Back home in time for a 3 o'clock cuppa

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Key largo

I will attempt to not make this post too florid.

After a week of ploughing through my Lockdown To Do list (starting at the bottom and working up), I was given an urgent job in an adjacent county for a key worker who was having trouble accessing IT at home. Those of you who were paying attention in Geography class will be aware that the phrase 'adjacent county' when applied to Orkney involves a sea journey. So it was, that early yesterday morning, the van and I hopped aboard the ferry from St Margaret's Hope in South Ronaldsay, in the company of a lorry and a pick-up towing a trailer. It was not busy. Upon reaching Gill's Bay in Caithness on the Scottish mainland, we trundled westwards on roads so quiet that I felt like waving at each passing vehicle, à la small island mode.

The job took about an hour and a half, even with the help of several curious cats, so just before lunchtime I left a satisfied customer and began to ponder how to fill the next seven hours before the ferry sailed for home. Our Lass had anticipated my predicament and had selflessly furnished me with a shopping list, with which to while away some time in a supermarket. The westerly breeze was bitingly chill as I, and a dozen or so other folk, queued outside an emporium of essentials for our turn to peruse the gaudy shelves, respectfully maintaining our two metre distances and contemplating our plummeting body temperatures.

Once in-store, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a plentiful supply of dairy-free milks. I have long suspected that I have an uneasy relationship with cows' milk and so have been on a reduced dairy intake for a year or so. Back in Orkney, presumably like many places when the panic buying started, unthinking milk drinkers were quick to snap up all the dairy-free milk produce in case the dairy stuff was ever in short supply. Believe me, lactose sensitive is not a place you want to be if there's a toilet roll shortage. It's quite graphic for all the wrong reasons. Just sayin'.

Fortunately, Our Lass's list was not a long one, and I soon found myself in another queue, this time for the checkouts. Curiously, the alcohol aisle had been chosen as the holding area for this queue, and I couldn't decide whether this was purely for the smooth routing of customers or a subtle hint as to how to cope with self-isolation and worrying about cashflow.

In an unexpected, yet magnificent, display of forethought and planning, I had brought a packed lunch, three o'clock and dinner, so nourishment wasn't going to be a problem. I found a convenient place to park up for lunch and checked emails and the like whilst watching the panorama before me.

Gulls and waders were huddled down in a sheltered spot on the rocky shore, a few pipits and wagtails pottered about the car park, corvids looked for any morsels the gulls might have missed and a pair of Oystercatchers noisily and frequently made love. Some things are independent of the temperature, obviously.

The remainder of the afternoon passed by in a slowly flowing stream of online office work, podcasts, wildlife watching and a bit of reading. Eventually, the mv Alfred hove into view and I could finally head for home. Today is wet and windy (not an IBS reference), so I am definitely not venturing far from a kettle.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Bunting high and low

I am reading a book about local history at the moment, Sheena Wenham's 'A More Enterprising Spirit - The Parish and People of Holm in 18th Century Orkney'. Perhaps that is why I found myself looking at a late 19th Century map of the area (or at least pre-World War 1), and pondering about a milestone shown adjacent to St Nicholas Kirk, the one on our daily circuit.

Now, readers with sharp eyes and even keener memories, may recall a photo similar to this one from 25th December last year:

showing a stone embedded in the sea wall opposite the kirk. Today, although it was nowhere near as pleasant to be out, I paid a bit more attention to this particular stone.

It's a tough ask of a lump of sandstone to spend 120-150 years being battered by the North Sea without showing some signs of weathering. Is that the remains of a carved '8', do you think? My guess at how long the stone has been there was vaguely informed by an article on the web which stated that roads in the county were built in the latter half of the 19th Century.

It wasn't a day for photography, or even hanging about, as a brisk westerly was bringing wintry showers in off the Atlantic. However, whilst we pottered back up the hill towards home, we kept or eyes peeled for some Reed Buntings, which we think are back on territory in the reed-lined ditches hereabouts. They are not particularly spectacular looking or sounding birds (perhaps not even to each other), but they are being rather skulky and flighty, which has only served to heighten our interest. Perhaps not evolution's finest hour, then.

Anyway, today we managed to see at least one female, perched briefly on a fence, and at least one male, hopping about in a ditch bottom, out of the weather and searching for food.

I took countless images of the male, and this was the 'best' of the lot, the others being either out of focus, obscured by vegetation or [sigh] out of shot.

Returning briefly to the milestone theme, there is a further stone which I could visit on my allowed daily perambulation, but please try to contain your excitement at this thrilling prospect!

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Friday, 27 March 2020

Light exercise

If you were thinking, dear reader, that during January and February, I&T wasn't keeping up with the expected number of posts, then you would be correct. You would also be forgiven for speculating that if this trend were to continue, Old Tense was going to be in a spot of bother come December, what with his arbitrary annual 100+ blogposts rule.

However, you're very not allowed to say "Thank Goodness for Covid-19 and the global lockdown, now Tense can up his game!" That would be bad, very bad, but thanks for the unsettling and unnerving sentiment.

This morning I used my allotted quota of 'temporarily leaving the house for a walk' to potter around the old kirk loop, not in the company of Our Lass (as she was working), but with a new set of bins. Don't worry, my trusty old set are still fine, but looking at their objective lenses (the big end), the housing around one of them is a very mis-shapen oval, rather than the eminently more preferable circular. They're on borrowed time, I would say.

To be honest, I was hoping for some rare and spectacular migratory bird to fill my field of view, so that the bins could be properly 'christened', somewhat like the Woodchat Shrike which Eagle-eyed M managed on her first foray with new bins last year. It's ok, I'm not bitter, I'm completely over it and barely mention the incident more than twice a week.

As it turned out, despite news of Wheatears in other parts of the island, there wasn't too much to report, but the sun was shining so I just soaked up plenty of photons reflected off feather, fur and flower.

On the lichen-encrusted cemetery wall of the old kirk, a couple of Starlings were sat, looking rather resplendent in their glittering sequined costumes. I've heard it said that when their bills change colour for the breeding season, the base of the male's is blue, whilst the base of the female's is pink. No idea if that's true or just a fanciful meme, but this photo seems to show both colours. However, in these gender neutral times, we'll just have to jolly well go on wondering, eh?

Heading for home, as the road climbed up from the shore and between fields, there was a noticeable increase in Lapwing activity on the rough pasture. The birds were calling and displaying more, and a few individuals were a bit nearer the road in a wet flush. Still nowhere near enough for a decent photo, mind, but with the peachy light I thought it worthwhile trying to capture an image.

Iridescence! [Happy sigh]

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Quacking weather

Our Lass and I had only walked around the local kirk circuit a short time ago, but what a change in the intervening few days. Non-human changes, that is.

Where, on Sunday, we struggled to see a Coltsfoot in flower, yesterday there were verges teeming with them. And there was a hardly a breath of wind, so photography was possible. 

The Lesser Celandines have been out for a while, but looking very battered and bruised due to the equinoctial winds and lashing rain. So, again, it was lovely to find pristine examples.

As it was such a glorious afternoon, and because we're all having to stay at home, it is difficult to synchronise one's daily allotted exercise with the rest of the parish. Cue much social-distancing malarkey and a busier (though not exactly crowded) amble.

Behind the old kirk, there is a flooded field, and we took the opportunity to use the kirk boundary wall as cover to look at the wildfowl gathered there.

Gadwall, Shoveler, Shelduck and Teal

Shoveler and Shelduck

Teal dabbling (those gold triangles are a dead giveaway)

Teal and Mallard
Today it is very sunny and I've even had all the windows open! The Met Office are predicting 9 degrees C, feeling like 6 degrees C. So not quite shorts and sandals weather just yet!

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Lockdown, don't look up

On Monday afternoon, I gathered the staff (me) together in the board room (lounge) and after the formal announcement, and subsequently brief question and answer session (me, me and me), the message went out that the business was on hold for all non-essential work.

Predictably, the next morning, well before 9am, a phone call came in requesting help with a property which had no tv signal. I was halfway through my apology, when the voice on the other end of the phone politely cut in and explained that the property was empty, as they weren't moving in until Saturday. As the conversation progressed, it became obvious that there was a clear need in this case (for reasons which won't be explained here), and so together, the caller and I hatched a Covid plan which would allow the job to go ahead.

In a nutshell, it entailed us never meeting, a bunch of keys, numerous door handles, lots of hand-sanitising wipes, an emailed invoice and a bank transfer payment. My quote for the job was based on the customer's knowledge of the probable history of the property, but when I arrived on site and garnered a proper understanding of the existing infrastructure, another solution presented itself. As this was also considerably cheaper, a further phone discussion was had and this option agreed. Everyone (well, maybe not my bank manager) was happy and, more importantly, safe.

My journey to and fro produced a Stoat sighting (reported to the Orkney Native Wildlife Project) as a furry blur rocketed across the road in front of me. In flooded fields near the customer's property, there were four Shelduck by a pool, and close by,  a small number of Pink-footed Geese tucked in amongst a larger flock of Greylags. The roads were much quieter than normal, many businesses were shut, and consequently there were swathes of empty car parking spaces in town.

So, with a much-reduced means of generating income, I, like many folk, are contemplating how to fill the unforgiving minute. My immediate list looks like this:

1. Design a webpage for the business - this task never made it to the top of a To Do list during the first five year plan, so now seems the perfect opportunity to broaden my skill base (and probably my repertoire of expletives);

2. The lawn mower has never had an oil change in six years. I suspect it is going to be a busy little machine in the coming weeks, so best I give it some TLC;

3. Email storage - I have one unread email which needs replying to, but more significantly, there's 1.5Gb of archived mails which I'm sure could be trimmed massively;

4. Source petrol, see 2. above;

5. As I drove by a farm last week, I was treated to a thrilling murmuration by a small flock of Starlings (hundreds, rather than thousands). To be honest, the van was less impressed than I was, due to the prolonged burst of brown paintballing - wash van thoroughly.

How are you all coping with the changed circumstances?

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Dawning realisation

This graph was included in an article on the BBC News website on Sunday 22nd March 2020. I was initially puzzled by the fact that adding the Recoveries and Deaths together didn't match the number of Current cases. Then I remembered that anyone who thinks they have symptoms of Coronavirus should self-isolate for 14 days. Looking at the graph again, it dawned upon me that the sum of the latest numbers of Recoveries and Deaths matches the Current cases from 2 weeks ago.

So, in another fortnight, the Recoveries and Deaths columns are going to do what the Current cases column is doing now i.e. triple. Am I reading that correctly?

And it doesn't look like that Current cases slope is going to be levelling off any time soon.


Love is a social disease

Unexpectedly finding myself in the category of 'key worker', through a contract with a national company, was one of the more surprising developments of this past week. I guess that with 'everyone' self-isolating, having access to tv and broadband is seen as essential.

So, it was fortuitous that there were also plenty of wildlife moments to take my mind off things. Let's begin with an area of rough ground in an industrial estate in Kirkwall, which is becoming well known as a good vole hunting spot for Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls. As an aside to a fellow blogger, does this release me from my pledge, CT?

All the above shots were taken from a vehicle (and the resulting photos subsequently cropped). The following afternoon, I had a few hours spare, and the light was much better, so I returned to the spot to try and capture flight shots of the owl. I also had to get my lazy arse out of the car!

This Pied Wagtail was NOT happy

Later in the week, Eagle-eyed M suggested a walk at Brodgar, with the hope of some quality otter time. As we skirted around the perimeter of the Ring, the air was filled with the sound of birdsong. Skylarks were 'ascending', trilling their flurry of notes from on high like some avian stream of consciousness. Meadow Pipits were fluttering skyward before parachuting back to earth in an audio visual display of territoriality. In the distance, on some shallow pools, wildfowl were gathered to feed and loaf: Shelduck, Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal, Wigeon and... my 100th species for the year... Pintail.

As we neared the shore of Stenness Loch, I spotted a dog Otter on a spit of land. He soon moved into a small bay to hunt, so we quietly crept around the lochside path to get a better view. He was finding plenty of eels (I think) and although we weren't close to him, the lack of a breeze meant that we could hear all his splashings as he constantly dived and resurfaced.

Early yesterday morning, as has become the custom of late, the first birdsong we heard was a Skylark. Sometimes the wee guy is airborne, but occasionally he takes the easy option and sings from atop a fence post.

Later that afternoon, Our Lass and I took a walk at Mull Head in Deerness. There was a stiff southerly breeze which felt colder than it ought, but it was good to be out in the fresh air and we were careful to socially distance ourselves from the only other two people we met.

Seabirds are returning to the cliffs for the breeding season, so we sat and watched the Guillemots for a while.

One ledge in particular attracted our attention, as there was an obvious space in the serried ranks of auks, and even as new arrivals alighted on the cliff, this gap was maintained. Zooming in with my little camera, I realised that there was a Fulmar at the back of the ledge, who was intent on claiming the ledge for albatross-dom. Perhaps with current affairs in mind, I couldn't help but think of this scene as a failed attempt at giving a lecture on the merits of social distancing. You know you've lost your audience when they start having sex.

As we wandered back to the car, there was another reminder that Spring is in the air, and that there's only one species on Earth which is particularly preoccupied with pandemic. Way, way in the distance, a couple of Brown Hares were chasing and boxing, in a possible prelude to procreation.

Now, after all that smut and shenanigans, go and wash your hands.