Sunday 19 July 2009

Peatbogs and other habitats

Saturday saw another odo survey in leafy Dorset, but before I relate that tale, I must make mention of a trip to The Stables theatre during the week.

Our in-house historian recently attended a folk festival in Leicester and returned to MK in a state of high excitement, brought about by a Scottish band from the Isle of Skye. As would befit a recent graduate, a little research goes a long way, and it was spotted that The Peatbog Faeries were playing locally in Wavendon. Celtic fusion is the term that is used to describe their musical style, but it doesn't do justice to an eclectic mix of bagpipes, fiddles, guitars, keyboards, drums, trumpet and saxophone. Bizarre but jolly good fun. Anyway, following a thoroughly enjoyable evening of skirling, atmospheric live music, one of their CDs was my companion on the drive to Dorset.

I arrived at the site in glorious sunshine, but by the time that Keith and Iain, my companions for the day, had arrived, we were looking at wall to wall cloud and a gusty breeze. In a spirit of self-sacrifice for the greater good, I had left my camera behind, to satisfy the Law of Physics that states that photographic opportunities are more likely when the number of cameras present is less than the number of participants. As it turned out, I had my hands full with pencil and Weather Writer, so it was probably a good, if frustrating, decision.

From previous experience, we knew that dragons would be few and far between in the conditions, and that until the sun put in an appearance, damsels would be hard work too. Fortunately, there's much more nature to hand, so we were never going to be bored. To prove this, after seeing a family of Stonechats, Iain spotted a Nightjar. We had an early success with an ovipositing Emperor (Empress?) and a few Common Darters, but then we found several Raft Spiders with eggs. The morning continued with an abundance of Small Reds and Common Blues, with a handful of Azures, Blue-tails, Emeralds and Large Reds thrown in. Just before lunch, we came across a scrubby clearing that did reveal several Keeled Skimmers, Common and Ruddy Darters. Iain was busy watching two Emperors hunting, whilst Keith and I logged the numbers of damsels. Suddenly, a shout from Iain, alerted us to some action. One of the Emperors had taken a Darter, bitten its head off and dropped the remainder of the body. Iain retrieved this and as he passed it to me, it continued to crawl up my hand. Whoa!

After lunch, where we were fortunate to see a Downy Emerald, the afternoon got off to a fantastic start with two male Black Darters. I then had my second attack of arachnophobia, when Iain helpfully pointed out a female Wasp Spider. As a northern lad, I wasn't familiar with this particular species, which appears to be colonising the UK from mainland Europe. To be fair, it was a stunningly-marked creature, with its eponymous yellow and black body. The web, too, is a wonder. Presumably to cope with the grasshoppers of the Continent, it is reinforced down the vertical diameter, which gives it an air of dynamism, as if it is rotating. My field guide calls this feature a stabilimentum.

A brief shower gave us the opportunity to spot a roosting Emperor and a Black Darter, but further dark skies and rain convinced us to call it a day. As we left the site, we put up a large flock of Mistle Thrushes, about thirty of them, which seemed a bit early for that sort of behaviour.

Thirteen species of odos for the day wasn't too bad considering the weather. The only species not seen was a poorly Sally, who was hovering between being a red-eyed damsel and a white-faced darter. Get Well Soon, pet.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

A different Family History

Saturday saw MGLW and I off to South Wales for a few days to attend "younger but taller" sproglet's graduation from Swansea Uni. They sure know how to make you feel old, don't they? It doesn't seem five minutes since she was born and now here she is with a History degree. Let the past illuminate the future, indeed.

The journey down was marked by the weather becoming greyer and darker, to match our mood on hearing the updates of the cricket score. The Aussies were putting the England innings into perspective by amassing a hideous amount of runs and we wondered whether to shred our tickets for the last day, rather than torture ourselves with the imminent humiliation.

Sunday dawned clear and bright and remained so, despite the clouds hanging over the England batsmen. KP demonstrated that he still hasn't quite grasped the concept of "team", before Collingwood (good Durham lad that he is) led the way with a gritty 74 in 5 hours and 45 minutes. The atmosphere in the stadium for the last 6 overs was amazing! Every ball loudly cheered, as the increasingly-desperate Aussies unsuccessfully struggled to dislodge Jimmy and Monty. And for a team that uses gamesmanship to the nth degree, the Aussies do like to whinge if anybody else has a go.

And so to Monday, where despite several soakings from the wet Welsh weather, nothing could dampen our spirits as we gathered in the Brangwyn Hall as part of the degree congregation, to see our little Ruth graduate.

Ee, it makes us right proud.

Later, we met up with ten of her friends, many from the uni Hiking Society, at a nearby Italian restaurant and enjoyed as pleasant an evening as I've had in a long while. That made me feel a little younger, and I thank you all for that.

Sunday 5 July 2009

More "What I did on my holidays..."

Where was I? Oh yeah...

Day 6

We wander back around Loch of Garso and found some more Blue-tails, both males and females. Sadly, there's no access to the water's edge, which makes it difficult finding exuviae for definite proof of breeding.

Our circumnavigation of the island, outside of the Sheep Dyke, is being done in stages. No point trying to tear round the 13 odd miles of it in one go. There's too much to see and hear. Today's section is Linklet Bay. We begin as the tide starts to ebb, soaking up the atmosphere of blue sky, azure sea, white sands and small flocks of waders. MGLW had to almost elbow her way to the tideline...
Day 7

We allow ourselves the luxury of a taxi ride to the other end of the island as we're booked on a tour of the lighthouse at 10.30. After walking everywhere for a week, it seems incredibly fast but probably isn't. I cringe as we approach the one sharp bend en route. Get a grip, man! The lighthouse is now automatic but the associated buildings are being turned into a museum to create a bit more tourism and much-needed jobs. This one replaced the Old Beacon (featured on Restoration) and is the tallest land-based light in the UK.
We had views to Fair Isle and Shetland as well as being able to look down on the passing skuas. In a directional rather than a critical way, I mean.
Day 8
Back on Shanks's Pony today and back to Linklet Bay too. We're heartened to see 9 fledged Arctic Terns at Haskie Taing, though their mums and dads still like to use me as target practice. By the time we return to the Observatory in the late afternoon we are absolutely chin-strapped... until we're told of a Red-Necked Phalarope on Gretchen Loch. It's only a few hundred metres to the loch so it can't really be described as a twitch. Honest. Adrenalin cuts in and we scramble over the rocks to catch a glimpse of this natty little wader, before tea (or dinner for you Southerners). Forgot the camera in my haste. Oh arse! By late evening, I've recovered my composure and hit the sunset.

Day 9

Chatting to some of our fellow guests at the Observatory, we're introduced to the alternative Beaufort Scale for Orkney. I should say that these particular guests were builders from Harray, who knew only too well about the vagaries of the Orcadian weather. The normal Beaufort numbers 1-9 are actually the amount of pegs required to secure one item of clothing to the washing line. Whilst zero means it's "too windy f' claethes".

But the sunsets are a bit good...

Day 10

A very, very warm day by North Ron standards, into the low 20s. The butterflies were out in force. Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Large Whites. We even spotted a solitary Small Tortoiseshell. MGLW took the opportunity to revisit several sites to take photographs of various flowers, Northern Marsh Orchid, Heath Bedstraw, Thyme and quite a few we still haven't worked out what they are.

Day 11

In retrospect, not the best day to go sea watching. We left the Observatory in bright sunshine, but by the time we'd made it halfway up the island, it was becoming distinctly hazy. Perhaps that should be indistinctly hazy. Slowly but surely, as we approached the lighthouse, it disappeared from view altogether. On reaching the hide, situated between the Old Beacon and the lighthouse, we could see neither.

Fog. Apparently always happens after a hot day. Only one scheduled flight made it to the island, rather than the expected three. Hmmm, hope it clears for tomorrow. Honest!

Day 12

The visibility improves sufficiently to catch our flight back to Kirkwall. Whilst waiting for our connection to Glasgow, we have a potter along the beach at Inganess Bay and spot this homeless hermit.

The shell in the photo was my attempt at playing estate agent, but the crab wasn't interested at all.

To sum up, it's been a brilliant week and a half, much fresh air and exercise, wonderful food and fantastic natural history. A huge Thank You to the team at the Bird Observatory, for making us so welcome, answering all my stupid questions and providing endless advice. Cheers, folks!

Friday 3 July 2009

Still here, never fear

Normally, as the saying goes, I can resist anything but temptation, so the idea of having the will power to go "cold dragonfly" for twelve whole days was a bit daunting. What's this? Is the old git trying a novel way to raise money for charity? Has the last marble rolled out of his ear and Tink...tink...tink...tinked off down the road?

Actually, no, we're going on holiday. To North Ronaldsay, the most northerly isle of Orkney. No odos admittedly, but plenty of everything else with a bit of luck. Bring it on.

Day 1

From our bedroom window, we can see a wind turbine (the Bird Observatory is a rather environmentally-friendly building). We find it a handy indicator of which direction to expect the weather from. For the uninitiated, we go on holidays for wind, waves and weather rather than sun, sea and sand, though North Ron has those too. Some enterprising Starlings have made a nest in the electrical housing at the rear of the turbine, so ensuring that their chicks are sheltered from the excesses of the Orcadian elements by a combination of Man's ingenuity and Nature's tendency to fill a void. Day 2
It's a 5 minute weather day today. If it's raining, not to worry, just wait 5 minutes and it'll be fine. If it's sunny, on the other hand, better get out there quick and enjoy it, 'cos it'll be raining in 5 minutes! Made an abortive attempt to find the island's one calling corncrake and then remembered I don't do late nights.
Day 3
There are plenty of seals around the coast, Common and Grey. The former have pupped and the little bundles are rather cute. Certainly way too cute not to photograph! In the evening, we witnessed a confrontation between two females over ownership of a pup. Weird, you can actually hear Gordon Buchanan's voice in your head as the drama unfolds.
Day 4

Oh my goodness. What a day! Whilst looking at some orchids growing between Yellow Flags on a grass verge, we spot a male Blue-tailed Damselfly. There are odos on North Ron, just no-one thought to look. Whilst relaxing before our evening meal, a Basking Shark slowly meanders across South Bay. Then, dosed up with caffeine, we remain alert long enough to hear Mr Corncrake. Unless it was that Simon King bloke with his comb and credit card trick. Hmmm. Thanks must go to the ever-helpful and friendly locals who were only too happy to share their wildlife with folks "fae the sooth".

Day 5

A quiet day, writing postcards sitting on the rocks as the tide went out. You could feel the sounds of the surf and the calls of the sea birds flowing into the ink as the words took shape. Noticed that the Black Guillemots (Tysties) have designs on Riverdance. They kept gathering in threes and fours to try out their latest routines. It must be some sort of courtship ritual, but we couldn't stop laughing.

To be continued...