Sunday, 20 January 2019

Small Year, Part 3

May was a time of renewed enthusiasm for the project, with Spring migrants appearing for the breeding season. These species helped achieve the second highest monthly total of the year, with only a few resident species in the mix, and two thirds of the birds being seen in Orkney. The exceptions were those species seen on a trip to a wedding near Edinburgh, although one of these was also seen subsequently in Orkney.

The beginning of May saw me on the rooftop of a low building on the island of Papa Westray. This was a working day and my mission was to refit several satellite dishes into place following the completion of an extension to a property. The main logistical problem was that all the scaffolding had been removed, and the fact that it was impossible for me to bring an aluminium ladder to site on Loganair's small aircraft. But the Papay community saved the day and I was able to borrow a ladder which was just long enough for me to raise my game. Once safely ensconced on the roof, the dish alignment procedure was going well, when I became aware of bird calls not far above my head. Armed only with a 13mm spanner, rather than a pair of binoculars, I could only ID the birds as being terns, but I did notice that there was a constant stream of them appearing over the top of the hill behind me, whizzing over my head and making a beeline for a field not too far away. I had initially worried that I was causing them some concern and that they were mobbing me, but I soon realised that I just happened to be on their flight path from wherever they were feeding. Later, at ground level, chatting with a local wildlife expert, I was shown the field in question, which contained an impressively large, for Orkney, colony of Sandwich Terns.

The following day, whilst driving past Kirkwall airport, I was fortunate to spot a Short-eared Owl, which was sat on a fence post by the roadside. Although some of these birds do overwinter in Orkney, this was the first one I'd seen for the year, and sadly, I wasn't to see many more. The jury is still out as to the possible causes for this, but there are concerns that their primary prey item, the Orkney Vole, is being extirpated by Stoats. No voles will likely lead to no owls.

Later that week, on a trip to visit friends in West Mainland, one of the quintessential aural experiences of the Spring migration burst into our ears with the distant call of a Cuckoo. You could almost sense all the local Meadow Pipits cringing in a collective "Here we go again!" as they considered the annual prospect of brood/nest parasitism.

The following Saturday saw a few more migrants popping up on my list, Arctic and Little Terns, as told at the time here. These were quickly followed by Sedge Warbler and Sand Martin whilst out looking for early damselflies at Inganess. The week also brought Lesser Black-backed Gull and House Martin. A mini-cruise organised for the Orkney Nature Festival fortuitously delivered a few Puffins swimming in the sea at the base of the cliffs of St John's Head in Hoy.

Just before our trip south, and also in Hoy, I was carrying out a survey at a site near Sandy Loch. With half an hour to spare before I needed to be heading back for the ferry, I walked up to the loch to see if there were any dragons or damsels to be seen on the adjacent pools. Sadly, there were not, but I did see a Common Sandpiper, with its distinctive three note call which had been burnt into my psyche from bird watching as a youngster on the banks of the River Wear as it flowed through agricultural land in County Durham.

And so to our trip to Dalhousie for a niece's wedding. Our first pitstop of the journey was at Helmsdale, where a few moments' perusal of the garden of a tea shop brought a Blackcap and... praise the Lord... a Bullfinch, the species I'd missed on the 1st of January! Then, in Tain, whilst walking along the main street, we were enterTained (sorry!) by a small, but welcome, horde of Swifts. There may have been rapture.

We weren't in a hurry on this journey and had purchased a picnic to be consumed near Loch Garten, whilst looking for White-faced Darter dragonflies. The odes certainly didn't disappoint, and we also clocked a Tree Pipit, singing from the top of a nearby pine tree.

The wedding weekend was a lovely occasion, only requiring the slightest of enhancements with the calls of Tawny Owl and Great Spotted Woodpecker!

To end the month, back in Orkney, I was dropping off my van for a service in Stromness and walking into town to be picked up by Our Lass, when the distinctive call of a Whitethroat reached me from an area of scrubby vegetation. This was another sound from my childhood, walking along between pastures bounded by high hedgerows, and the rasping song of this perky warbler.

May saw me break through the 100 species barrier but, although I didn't yet know it, I had already experienced the four best scoring months of the year. The remaining seven months would bring further opportunities, admittedly, with Scottish holiday weeks in Summer and Autumn, the Autumn migration and Winter arrivals in Orkney. They would also bring another 'nul points' month. But what would I see? And would it be quantity or quality?

Monday, 14 January 2019

In which a long-standing and puzzling question is answered [but is also Stuff On My Phone (22)]

When I know I'm going to be stuck on a ferry for a while, journeying between islands or archipelagos, I try to remember to download some radio programmes to my phone, so that I can spend the time catching up on stuff I didn't have the opportunity to listen to live. I'm quite partial to BBC Radio 4's The Life Scientific, The News Quiz and Saturday Live, none of which I'm organised enough to hear when they are originally broadcast.

This Friday evening was no exception, returning to Kirkwall from Lerwick in Shetland, stuck on a ferry for upwards of six hours. After drafting a blogpost (Small Year, Part 2), reading a bit of Barbara Kingsolver non-fiction, having a meal and then tapping my feet to various tunes on my phone, I fired up iPlayer Radio and listened to an edition of Saturday Live from November.


The guests included comedian, writer and presenter Sandi Toksvig, physicist Helen Czerski, reformed armed robber and now professional athlete John McAvoy and Ben Hewett, chair of Harmonica UK. Add into this mix the most lovable presenting duo in entertainment, the cuddly (but sharp as a new pin) Reverend Richard Coles and the most gorgeous laugh in radio, Aasmah Mir, and my troubles just melt away.

This particular episode is quite possibly the best 90 minutes of radio I've ever heard (and there's been several Test Match Special moments to give it a run for its money). The chat and banter was by turns interesting, funny, educational, heart-breaking and uplifting. But, for me, one particular snippet stood out. Helen Czerski was explaining how physics can be a very ordinary, everyday subject, not the confusing, impenetrable science which we often believe it to be. To illustrate this point, she mentioned making a mug of instant coffee and listening to the changing pitch of the sound as we stir the liquid in the mug (at 1 hour and 15 minutes into the programme). From being a very small Tenselet, I have always wondered why this was so! Wow! Fantastic! It's bubbles, apparently, introduced into the mixture by the coffee granules. The bubbles are released when the boiling water is added and sound travels slower through bubbly water, hence the pitch drops as we clang the side of the mug with a spoon. Then, as the bubbles make their way to the surface and escape out into the atmosphere and the liquid becomes less bubbly, the pitch gradually increases back to its original starting point. Yay! Explained! You cannot imagine how thrilled I was to receive this piece of wisdom (albeit two months later than the rest of the Radio 4 listening audience).

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Small Year, Part 2

Following our return to Orkney, the remainder of January was spent slowly building up a list of species which spend Winter at this latitude. For instance, it is possible to see Long-tailed Ducks on the Peedie Sea in Kirkwall (think of it as a large duck pond in the centre of town). When I say “… it’s possible… ” imagine fuelling up a van at the Ayre Filling Station, glancing between two vehicles at the other side of the forecourt, and there, on the Peedie Sea beyond, are several of these gorgeously dapper, black and white ducks. Golden Plover were spotted on a work trip to Sanday, Whooper Swans just down the road in Holm, as were Great Northern Diver, Purple Sandpiper and Goldeneye.

A few weeks later, whilst working on a broadband installation in Egilsay, my attention was caught by a simple, repetitive and tuneless song… ah, that’ll be a Reed Bunting. Whilst the following day, when aboard the ferry to Rousay, I managed to score a Black Guillemot swimming in the Wyre Sound. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, during February I didn’t add a single species to the list. Even now, I find that fact incredible to believe. What the heck was I playing at? Too busy? Too unaware of Nature? That doesn’t sound like me. January had brought 64 species, February none.

Then, on the 3rd of March, I had a stroke of luck. On a dreich day, Our Lass and I were out for some fresh air and saw a lone gull on the strand line of the beach by St Nicholas Kirk. Even without bins, I knew this was a Glaucous Gull. Nice, a definite bird of note, even if only recorded for posterity using my phone.



Towards the end of March, we travelled south for a niece’s wedding. This gave me an ideal opportunity to add a few non-Orcadian species to the list as I drove down the A9, M90, A1 and A19 to Middlesbrough. Annoyingly, a full day’s driving only brought a Shelduck, feeding on mud flats near Dornoch. However, a rest halt a few days later, whilst on the way to the wedding venue in Otterburn, offered up Kestrel and Linnet. And then Wedding Day itself summoned a Sparrowhawk and a pair of Dippers! The return trip was equally low key, with only Gannet and Guillemot seen in the Pentland Firth.

Another trip south was due a fortnight later for the Scottish Dragonfly Conference in Perth, but before that, I had another bit of good fortune at home, with the first sign of Spring migration being a Great Skua (Bonxie) flying past the lounge window.

The Perth trip got off to a bizarre start with a Red Grouse on a fence post at the side of the A9, as we drove through the Cairngorms. In Perth itself, our hotel grounds kindly donated a flock of Long-tailed Tits. After the conference, the return journey saw us making a pit stop for pies at Bruar (so, a pie stop, then), but we also took a stroll up the glen behind the shopping village and were soon listening to the calls of Coal Tit and Siskin.

The remainder of April saw a few more Spring migrants with a Chiffchaff in the garden, a Swallow in Kirkwall (not a euphemism), plus a Bar-tailed Godwit and a couple of Wheatears by the coast of Rose Ness.



A third of the way through the year, my species total sat at 89 (for reference, more serious birders hope to have 100 species under their belts by the end of January). Obviously, the further into the year we go, the harder it is to add more species, unless one moves location or there’s an influx of migrants blown off course. But that sounds like twitching territory and absolutely not to be condoned.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Small Year, Part 1

Birders have a thing called a Big Year, where a challenge is undertaken to identify as many species of bird as possible in a given area in a calendar year. The area in question can be a county, a country or the whole world. Make no mistake, a Big Year takes 365 days and is... big. For example, currently, the record is held by a Dutch birdwatcher, Arjan Dwarshuis, with 6833 species seen or heard.

Often, Big Year participants will be raising money for environmental causes and writing about or filming their exploits. It can be viewed as bit of a waste of carbon, I guess, so some folk elect to not use motorised transport. Gary Prescott, the Biking Birder, had a Big Year in 2016, cycling around the UK. Here are a few of his posts from OrkneyTo be honest, it's not just birders, there's butterfly big years, and dragonfly ones. In fact, you can probably find someone who has attempted a Big Year for just about any group of wildlife.

In 2018, to no fanfare whatsoever, I decided to embark upon a control experiment to all this frenzied dashing about and ecological madness. As I explained on social media several months in:


This astounding news was met with a deafening wall of silence from the ornithological press, conservation organisations and fellow nature watchers. Well, nearly all my fellow nature watchers:


Whilst barely making a ripple in the pool of competitive natural history, I had set in train a whole 12 months of keeping a record of the species of bird I saw wherever I happened to be. Make no mistake, twitching was strictly forbidden, so despite numerous 'shouts' on the local text alert service, I didn't cheat. What was allowed was the birds I saw whilst working, or out for a walk with Our Lass, or whilst on holiday (and these locations were not chosen with birds in mind), just no specific trips to see a specific bird.

I had no idea how the endeavour would pan out, as I wasn't a twitcher anyway, although I have been known to drive halfway across Orkney to see a gull. In most circles, I doubt that even qualifies as a twitch, but it was very verboten  for me in 2018. During previous years, I had usually managed to add a species or two to my life list, mainly by visiting the Bird Observatory in North Ronaldsay, but that was out of bounds for my Small Year. Looking at my year lists since moving to Orkney in 2013, my totals for birds seen (and mainly in the UK) were 141 (2014), 133 (2015), 142 (2016) and 141 (2017). With no plans to venture further afield than England and Scotland, what would 2018 bring?

In keeping with tradition, January 1st saw Our Lass and I in deepest Fife, celebrating the New Year with close family. Since moving to Orkney, this annual Hogmanay pilgrimage had taken on quite a significance for us, as it meant that we could also see garden birds that were not the norm back home. For my Small Year, then, it meant that, for a short while at least, I would've seen species that Orcadian colleagues had not! True to form, a wander out between hedgerows and fields to stretch our legs and get a breath of fresh air yielded 23 species for my blank page. Here were some 'exotic' birds that would be difficult to see in Orkney: Magpie, Carrion Crow, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Mistle Thrush, Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer. My only teensy bit of disappointment was the absence of Bullfinch, which we'd seen the previous day, along with all the above, but that was in 2017.

Which I think tells you all you need to know about what a pathetic endeavour the whole schmozzle was going to be!

The following day, the trip back to Orkney was a bit less productive, with Buzzard and Grey Heron spotted alongside the M90, a Red Kite over the A9 by the Black Isle, and a flock of Pink-footed Geese in fields near Dornoch.

So, with 28 species in the bag, and now back at work in Orkney, I had some hard yards to do until a family wedding would see us travelling south once more at the end of March...

Monday, 7 January 2019

A very unscientific view of Orkney's land mammals

For 2018, I resolved to record all the land mammals I saw in Orkney through the year. It would have been really great if I had made this resolution on January 1st 2018, but it wasn't until February, when I was proof reading the previous year's Mammal Report for the Orkney Field Club journal, that I noticed the words 'very under-recorded' for many of the species.

To be honest, I have been reading those words for several years, but this time I thought, hmmm, I could do something about that. So I set myself the challenge of helping the mammal recorder by making a list of all the land mammals I saw as I went about the archipelago during 2018. Sightings could be from the lounge window, from work journeys or weekend walks. I didn't include cetaceans (dolphins and whales) or pinnipeds (seals), nor any of the few species of bat that reside here, but did include any roadkill which was recent and identifiable at approximately 60mph. By 'recent', I don't mean that I ran it over, and by '60mph' I mean 55mph maximum, officer.

Orkney has an odd mammalian distribution when compared to mainland UK. For instance, we don't have Foxes, Badgers, Moles, squirrels or any wild deer. We have one species of vole, one species of shrew and two species of mouse. No Weasels, and prior to 2010, no Stoats. However, that one vole, the Orkney Vole, is a unique sub-species endemic to Orkney, although unfortunately for it, it is very tasty, especially if you're a Short-eared Owl or a Hen Harrier, or indeed a Stoat. We have two species of Hare (Brown and Mountain), as well as Otter, Hedgehog and wild Cattle (a feral herd on the island of Swona).

Interestingly, Orkney had a visit from a Walrus in March 2018, but I didn't go to see it (and it's a pinniped, anyway).

The most observed mammal was the Brown Hare (helped enormously by the fact that they frequent the fields around Tense Towers). I recorded 98 separate sightings of 135 animals, only one of which was dead (roadkill). All sightings were from either East or West Mainland. 

The next most populous creature was the Rabbit, with 46 records of 88 individuals, two of which were dead from disease or old age. Nine of the records were from islands (South Ronaldsay, Rousay, Sanday, Hoy, Flotta and Papa Westray).

Then we come to the Hedgehog, with 22 records of 22 individuals. 21 of these were roadkill (in fact, I began calling them dedgehogs), with only one seen alive (by Our Lass, quite near to home). Several of the sightings were from islands (South Walls and Burray).

As popular in my data as all the mice, voles and Otters put together, were the Stoats, which is a very scary thought. Would you see a Stoat every year? More frequently than that, or less so? Well, I recorded 10, nine of which were very much alive, with only one a roadkill. The species' proliferation across mainland Orkney in the last eight years is a real and present danger to the native wildlife, principally small mammals and ground-nesting birds. The one positive note was that all these sightings were on mainland Orkney, not any of the islands, although occasional reports come in of suspected sightings, which instigates an incursion response from a dedicated team.

Next comes the Brown Rat and the House Mouse, both with three sightings each. One of the rats was a roadkill, though of the two live ones, a huge specimen was seen wandering along our dry stone wall! The mice were all trap kills in my storeroom, as Autumn turned to Winter.

Sadly, both of my Otter sightings were of roadkill individuals, between mid November and mid December. I guess this is when juvenile individuals are beginning to venture further afield to look for a territory, just at the time when the shortening day length brings them into contact with rush hour traffic (that's a relative term in Orkney, but you get the idea). I am just relieved that I saw a live one in Shetland, and that I didn't run it over!

I considered myself very fortunate to spot a live Orkney Vole skittering across a road in front of me during May. My only other vole sighting being a dead one killed by a predator on Mull Head in July.

Similarly, the only Pygmy Shrew sighting was a dead one, presumably as a result of the teeth or claws of a predator (presumably a cat, feral or otherwise).

Not seen at all during the year were Mountain Hare (only found on Hoy), Wood Mouse or the feral cattle from Swona.

And now that I've got the hang of it, it's all systems go for 2019, too.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Mostly wildlife, some cake

This is a bit of catch-up post covering the last week. There's been quite a bit of record keeping on the Nature front - mammal data for 2018 sent off to the local recorder, same for Short-eared Owl sightings (precious few), and any other notable birds seen in Orkney. Coming the other way has been dragonfly and damselfly data, which I'm slowly incorporating into a single spreadsheet with the intention of future wrangling for statistics. Not to mention a report for the Field Club journal.

But between that and work, there have been some lighter moments. New Years' Eve, for instance, visiting friends for a meal and then playing a game of Cat Tetris (it wasn't actually called that, but it is effectively what was happening).


Several days later and the denouement of the Victoria Sponge can now be revealed!


Today was very pleasant, with plenty of sunshine and barely a breath of wind (don't worry, there's severe gales booked for tomorrow). We drove to Scapa beach to walk the circuit to the east, and enjoyed lovely views and some unseasonal moments betwixt hedges.


Pink Purslane

Gorseness

Colourful buds
Recently, I received a pair of fantastic book ends, which may have to be allocated their own shelf, just to house my books about Hares.

Buck end

Doe end
So, that's us up-to-date. Once the gales and flood alerts have been (hopefully) survived, there will be more news of data crunching with the records from 2018. Exciting, eh? No? Just me then.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Paint your wagon

Way back last year, when it was my birthday, a good friend, C, gave me a rather special present. It was a model of a long wheel base Series 3 Land Rover, which he had painstakingly assembled and painted. It has pride of place on top of a bookshelf in our lounge.



C is rather keen on modelling, as in the building of scaled down kits variety rather than the tottering up and down a catwalk in high heels. When Our Lass and I visit L and C, I usually spend a bit of time gazing in awe at his patience with his latest project. Occasionally, if we're headed south, we might be asked to source a particular shade of Humbrol paint. Oddly enough, the shade is usually one of the many greys, but that has more to do with military aircraft markings, rather than any saucy fetish shenanigans.

After my birthday, I pondered how I could return the favour for C's upcoming anniversary of time spent on the planet. It was a biggie, too. Searching online, I discovered that the Humbrol paint code which matched the number of his years was a metallic green. I then wondered if Humbrol ever made scaled-up versions of their tiny 14ml tins, and whether they could provide me with an empty one, maybe big enough to hide a present in?



No, no they couldn't. Oh well, no harm in asking, eh?

We had now reached the end of November, and what with not being such an organised sort of chap, I was concerned that I would run out of time to come up with a suitable alternative idea. Then, I had a brainwave. A cake! Of a tin of paint! Scaled up to giant size! And I could pay someone else (and more importantly, much more skilled) to bake and ice it! What could possibly go wrong? Well, all the novelty cake bakers who were recommended to me had full order books (either that, or for some reason, a tin of paint cake wasn't floating their boats), so there I was, back to Square One.

Unless... unless I baked it myself? Hey, I can make a mean Lemon Drizzle cake, a not-too-shabby Ginger and Rhubarb cake, and I'd even recently mastered chocolate brownies. This might just be possible, and it would be handmade for that personal touch. Right, I thought, let's do this! I contacted L for advice as to which flavour of cake C would like. A Victoria sponge with jam, came back the reply. Next, I asked her to measure a Humbrol tin, so that I could calculate how to scale it up to birthday cake size. Three centimetres high, by three centimetres diameter, she said. Oo, nice and symmetrical, thought I. Wandering to a kitchen cupboard to look for a suitable cake tin (my repertoire hadn't so far included circular cakes), I discovered Our Lass's eight inch tin for Christmas cakes. At this point, I was yet to realise that an eight inch tall sponge cake might be a bit of an ask.

During early December, whilst we were in town shopping for Christmas, I managed to buy an actual tin of the correct birthday shade. Number 50, metallic green. Wow, I naively muttered to myself, this project's steaming ahead! Later that week, the enormity of the task was beginning to impinge upon my sense of well-being. Discussing the problem with another good friend, I was given some great advice. You'll be needing ready to roll fondant icing. You can buy it online in different colours. You will need to watch a Youtube video of how to ice a cake. So off I went into cyberspace armed only with a credit card and a blithe sense of hope. A few days later, I was the proud owner of an icing turntable, several spatulas of various sizes, a couple of icing paddle thingies, and three colours of fondant icing: white, green and blue.

A brief chat with L, just before Christmas, brought me back down to earth again. How big a cake tin? Eight inches? That's a lot of cake! Perhaps I might've bitten off more than I could chew? Around about this time, the festive season more or less took over all our attentions, so with less than a week to go to the big day, I began the actual baking on New Year's Day. My sister-in-law, A, was an invaluable source of information and advice, gently nudging me in the correct direction for icing two different colours for the side of the tin cake. Leafing through an ancient copy of a Delia Smith's recipe book, I commenced to bake two eight inch diameter biscuits, about half an inch high. They tasted great, but I probably wouldn't have sufficient time to bake all the bazillion layers I would need. Take two was a Mary Berry recipe, which produced slightly better results, but it still meant I would need at least another two layers to approach the scaled-up size required. This morning, and my third attempt brought a further improvement, which briefly lifted my mood until I realised that the curvature of the top of the cakes would mean I needed to trim them to achieve a flat lid for the tin cake. Then I had a bit of a good idea. How about if it was just a six inch scale model? With a bit of deft knife work around a saucer, I had four cakes that stacked to nearly six inches high, even with one of the layers trimmed for flatness. With the application of some jam and a little shoogling of layers, I had the beginnings of a birthday cake.

At this point, I opted for a slightly easier method (though probably no less sweary) and used ready-made butter icing for the initial sponge covering. Then it was time to roll the icing and smooth it over the tin cake. Once the initial white icing was done, a green circle was cut for the lid, complete with an embossed '50'. For the blue stripe around the base, I followed A's advice and cut a strip of icing to wrap around the cake. I had purchased some black gel, in case I wanted to put any text on the cake, but I wasn't confident enough to try free hand on a curved vertical surface. In the end, I opted for a printed paper wraparound to mimic the style of words on the front of the cake tin.

So here we have it, a tiny tin and a big cake.



Tomorrow is the big day, and it only remains for me to transport said confectionery to L and C's home. Up a steep hill, onto a steeper track, round a hairpin bend and, finally, along several hundred yards of bumpy roughness. Talk about shake well before use.

As I don't wish to risk spoiling the surprise (or possibly nightmare, depending upon whether he likes it or not), this post is scheduled to appear the morning after Calum's birthday.