Wednesday 27 July 2011

Westray flowers, Part 2

Not far from the cottage we were renting, the Admiral and I discovered a gem of a pasture. One evening, we had headed out to the north coast of the island, principally to see if we could photograph a sunset, but with a Plan B of exploring along the storm beach.

The sunset was too cloudy, but we were fortunate enough to briefly see half a dozen Orkney Voles, which ran between boulders, across the turf. Working our way along the coast and through a swathe of Campion, we reached a geo (a narrow inlet bordered by steep cliffs), that was fenced off, sensibly preventing us from risking life and limb. With our planned route back to the cottage now in tatters, we looked at the map for alternatives. Rather then bimble across 3 fields, we chose to cut back eastwards and pick up a track used on the outward journey. The light was starting to fade as we set off again across a pasture, but a small white flower caught my eye... Grass of Parnassus. Even before my exclamation of surprise had died away, we also found a Scottish Primrose, the diminutive pastel jewel in Orkney's floral crown. Somehow, I thought, we have to find a way for Our Lass to reach this spot, despite being on crutches.

As the Hooded Crow flew, it was only 500m from the cottage to the pasture, but to walk it on firm paths would mean a detour of over a kilometre and then negotiating a grass meadow, ripe for hay making. I couldn't see how it could be done. Although her stamina was growing day by day, it was still only a few weeks since her operation, and we did not want to jeopardise her recovery. The distance would just be too much, but even without that, an uneven field covered in long grass wasn't the ideal surface for Our Lass to tackle.

As the days until the end of our holiday became fewer, our frustration grew in inverse proportion. I wasn't too keen on risking the hire car on the stony track, especially as it had fairly low profile tyres. However, as time was running out, I threw caution to the winds. That just left the knotty problem of the bumpy field. This was solved serendipitously when Westraak, the local wildlife tour company, drove passed the cottage, along the track and through said field. Flattened grass, wide path, sorted!

So what was all the fuss about?

This is Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia palustris, and we had never seen it growing in such profusion as here in this small pasture, within a stone's throw of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing it in clumps before, only single flowers.

Here's the Scottish Primrose, Primula scotica, which, although confined to a small area of the pasture, was presenting well, especially considering that our ID book stated "don't hope to see it in late June or early July."

To prove that Our Lass made it to this fantastic piece of maritime heath, and also to give some scale to the primrose, the below photo features both beauties. Our Lass is the one holding the camera...

Not content with her adventure off piste, Our Lass then went one better and found several specimens of Frog Orchid, Dactylorhiza viridis, which had just started to bloom.

The Eyebright next door showed how low growing these orchids were in this harsh environment.

Various islands in Orkney have just the right conditions to support this wealth of maritime heath flora. The farming techniques are still those of years long past, and though they are inevitably more mechanised, they are still sensitive to the needs of Nature. The farming fraternity is often criticised for its close relationship with agri-business, but at least here, in these northern isles, the balance is more wildlife friendly. Amen to that.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Westray flowers, Part 1

In the ever-increasingly anachronistic posts about the natural history we encountered whilst holidaying in Orkney, here's a short series of some of the flora seen on the island of Westray.

As previously mentioned, with our botanical expert hors de combat, we were rather on the back foot when it came to flowers. The Admiral and I could, however, content ourselves with the thought that to appreciate the beauty of a roadside verge full of wild flowers, one doesn't necessarily need an encyclopaedic knowledge of taxonomy and Latin. It's therefore a shame that I didn't have the foresight to point my camera along a lane and record the scene. Campions, trefoils, vetches, buttercups, orchids, you name it, I ignored it. What a prune.

Keeping things simple, the thistles were just starting to bloom and their fresh look and geometrical shapes were an obvious choice for a photograph.

This is a Marsh Thistle, Cirsium palustre, which we found just about everywhere, but this particular one was on the cliff top at Stanger Head.

As the saying goes, also available in white! And also on Stanger Head.

On one of our potters along the links at Rackwick, my eye was caught by this clover plant, which I blithely assumed was simply a White Clover, Trifolium repens, and so didn't check the leaves.

Though it isn't very tall, as demonstrated by the neighbouring Eyebright, it could be Alsike Clover, Trifolium hybridum. Serves me right for not noticing or even taking a shot of the leaves. To be fair, I was just captivated by the pattern and colours.

Whilst wandering along the cliff path at West Kirbest, we came across a small white flower which we did not encounter anywhere else. There appeared to be only one small patch, possibly a single plant, so I recorded it for Our Lass to puzzle over that evening.

It turned out to be Fairy Flax, Linum catharticum, which as its Latin species name hints, was used in times past as a purgative.

On the same stretch of coast, but growing between the wave cut platform and the storm beach, were these pretty little plants, shown below. I must admit that I thought I was taking a picture of one type of plant, but later, upon reviewing the images, I realised there were two separate species.

We decided that the white flowers with four petals were Common Scurvygrass, Cochlearia officinalis, but the pink flowers with five petals gave us the run around until we resorted to the time-honoured technique of looking at every page in the ID guide. As it happened, the petals were actually sepals, there weren't any petals and the plant was Sea Milkwort, Glaux maritima. No wonder I find dragonflies easier to identify!

Monday 25 July 2011

Run to the hills

I arrived home from work on Friday night and thought,

"Stuff this for a game of soldiers, I need some quality dragon time."

This wasn't a back-handed compliment to Our Lass, more a feeling that the flight season was passing me by and I wanted to see some winged beauty. And where did I want to see it? On the Long Mynd, of course. Forget loyalty to one's county of residence, when the going gets tough, take a two and half hour journey west (Yes, I suppose I could've titled the post "Go West!", but Iron Maiden was always going to beat the Pet Shop Boys to that honour).This response to the siren call of the Shropshire dragons was welcomed whole-heartedly by Our Lass, so the next morning, off we went.

Up on the moor, between Church Stretton and Ratlinghope, we parked by a series of pools and let the peace and quiet, the heathery atmosphere and the trickle of running water soak into our souls. Deep breaths, eyes closed, relax.

Now... to business. The day was reasonably warm, but the sky was mostly cloudy. A north westerly breeze delivered a few gaps in the fluffy stuff, so that for a few minutes at a time, the temperature would rise and a few dragonflies would take to the air. We managed to identify ten species, but only saw ones and twos of most of these. Plan B was to return the following day, when the weather forecast was much better.

And so it proved. A wonderfully sunny day, though still with that north westerly breeze, saw plenty of insects on the wing. I don't think we had ever seen so many Green-veined White or Grayling butterflies, never mind the odes.

Whilst exploring the pools and wet flushes, we came across a flower that we didn't recognise. We have been visiting this area for nearly twenty years but hadn't previously seen it before, so to say that we were surprised would be an understatement. Later, upon our return to Tense Towers, we discovered that it was Bog Pimpernel.

And what of the objects of my desires? Well, they did not disappoint. Responding to the increased levels of heat and light, many more dragons put in an appearance and we were able to spend plenty of time in the their presence, including the gorgeous Golden-ringed Dragonfly.

According to its taxonomic code, the Number of this Beast is a non-threatening 2601.

Friday 22 July 2011

No ex-skuas!

During our time on North Ronaldsay and Westray, we did not encounter any resident birds of prey. However, we were able to watch skuas most days. They are the pirates of the seabird colonies, chasing and harrying their quarry to make them drop food, or simply attacking adults and chicks, without fear or favour. The species present were Great Skua, Stercorarius skua, known in the Northern Isles as a Bonxie, and Arctic Skua, Stercorarius parasiticus, also called Parasitic Skua, or known locally in Orkney as a Scootie Allan.

The Bonxies patrolled the cliffs looking for any opportunity that presented itself from the nesting Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins or Kittiwakes. The Arctic Skuas tended to concentrate on the Arctic Tern colonies, though we also saw them targeting Black Guillemots.

This is a Bonxie, scavenging on a dead Eider Duck, on the coast at Dennis Ness on North Ron.

These are more or less consecutive shots of an Arctic Skua, also at Dennis Ness on North Ron. There were a pair of these birds that loitered on the ground between the lighthouse and the the small water body of Trolla Vatn. We assumed that they were watching and waiting for terns to show up. We saw them regularly, as we visited the Lighthouse Cafe most days, so I suppose they could've been waiting to see if they could make us disgorge our lunch!

One evening on Westray, the Admiral and I were watching a Black Guillemot that was sat on the edge of a low cliff. It had caught a butterfish and was trying to ensure that no marauding predator  could follow it to its nest site. Seemingly, from out of nowhere, an Arctic Skua zoomed across the storm beach, mere inches from the ground. The guillemot, sensing the danger, hopped off the edge of the cliff and disappeared out of sight. Given the skua's closing speed, I couldn't see how it was going to give immediate chase, without flying passed, out over the sea and doing a u-turn. Not a problem. At undiminished speed, as it reached the cliff top, the skua rolled through 180 degrees and dived vertically after the guillemot! I've no idea what happened next, but it was a mightily impressive display of aerial agility. I imagined the guillemot opening its beak to mutter some profanity at the turn of events and thereby losing its butterfish. 

Here's a brace of Bonxies over Bow Head on the northern tip of Westray. Not a sight to fill the hearts of any nesting seabird with joy, as their shadows raced over the jagged rocks like sombre angels of doom.

More uplifting tales of sweetness and light, next time, on I&T.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Waders of the Last Auk

Yes, I'm afraid so. The punfest continues. As does the blogging about our recent trip to Orkney.

Carrying on the theme of shore birds, here are a few more photos of waders seen on North Ronaldsay.

These are a pair of Sanderling, taking a break from feeding at the water's edge in Linklet Bay. They were quite approachable, so you're allowed to wonder why the focussing wasn't crisper. Oops.

This isn't in focus either, but it was a long way off and moving quite fast and erratically. It's a Snipe in the throes of its courtship/territorial display flight. This is known as 'drumming' and is caused by the air flow over the outer tail feathers. The picture handily shows these sticking out at an angle from the body. If you've not heard this before, have a listen to the last bit of the audio in the above link. I wouldn't have described it as drumming, mind, as to me it sounds more like the world's heaviest kazoo being dropped from a great height. Not such a catchy phrase as drumming, I'll grant you.

Ah, Oystercatcher! A spectacular looking bird with an impressive range of piping calls. On this island during early Summer, it's difficult to be out of earshot of one of these beauties at any time of day. As Our Lass also has this on her ring tone, it can be (a) confusing and (b) damned annoying at 3 in the morning.

The mobile hide came in useful once more when we spotted this Lapwing chick in a pasture bordering the road. Not bad from the driving seat and out of the passenger window, obviously with handbrake applied and gearbox in Neutral!

I previously mentioned that to travel from North Ron To Westray, we had to change mode of transport from aeroplane to boat on Papa Westray. This small island (about the same size as North Ron) was sadly the place where the last Great Auk in Britain was killed in 1813. A bronze statue has been erected on Fowl Craig to mark this solemn day.

So, onto Westray itself, where the Admiral scored maximum brownie points by locating a wader that I had never seen before. In fact, even when he pointed it out, it still took me ages to see it, as its camouflage was just about perfect for the habitat it was stood in!

It's a Purple Sandpiper, which was feeding in a pool amongst the rocks and seaweed. Even when it moved, I wasn't initially aware of the shape of the bird, only the shimmering of part of my field of view. And, yes, I was sober.

Monday 18 July 2011

Questioning the bill

I mentioned breeding waders in yesterday's tern blog, so I'd better make this a wader post.

OK, for starters, here's a wader ON a post...

We were able to approach quite close to this Curlew thanks to Our Lass's poorly knee. A hastily arranged hire car for getting about North Ronaldsay (an island only 4 miles long) meant that we had a mobile hide! The bill on this bird isn't full adult length, which made me wonder if it was a Whimbrel instead, but no, it's a Curlew.

Here's a shot of a different bird, in more congenial surroundings, again from the 'hide'.

Some waders we couldn't drive to. Around the coast were plenty of Ringed Plovers. This one, on the shore of Linklet Bay, was a ringed Ringed Plover!

When they weren't collecting jewellery, they could be a bit more shellfish...


Sunday 17 July 2011

One good tern...

Returning to our holiday theme, one of the attractions of Orkney in early Summer is the sheer quantity of breeding waders and seabirds, despite the decline in numbers of some species. The reduction in food supply, principally sand eels, has meant that many seabirds have not bred successfully for several years in a row. Whilst they do tend to be long-lived and so can try again another year, no species can withstand repeated failures on the scales seen in recent times without there being a major concern over the viability of the population to recover. 

There are several colonies of Arctic Terns on North Ronaldsay, which, due to the low-lying nature of the island, are in pastures or behind the beaches. However, the wardens at the Bird Observatory told us that the week before our visit, heavy rain over several days put paid to eggs and chicks alike, resulting in a total failure of the species to produce any young on North Ronaldsay for 2011. This was also true of other ground-nesting birds, where a few day's poor weather wiped out a whole generation.

Ironically, during our stay on the island, the weather was mainly warm and dry by Orcadian standards, which at least meant we could spend time watching these gorgeous birds.

The above shot was taken at the golf course, a splendid nine hole arrangement behind Linklet Bay. When I say'splendid', I mean for bird watching, as the presence of grazing sheep and the inevitable product of their endeavours would make for an interesting round of the game.

We regularly visited this spot, as it was terrain that Our Lass could negotiate without too much swearing trouble and another sojourn resulted in the surprising sighting of a pair of Little Terns. You may recall, dear reader, that on the Tense Towers team trip to Norfolk at the end of May, we had the good fortune to see a large breeding colony of these birds at Winterton dunes. And you may also remember that I did not take my camera with me on that morning. Suffice it to say, though I was now in the company of Cameron Binns, I couldn't manage other than a record shot of either of the birds as they flew along the shore and over the golf course.

The following week, we moved to another island, via a 15 minute flight to Papa Westray and then a 30 minute ferry crossing to Westray itself. Whilst we were out looking for Puffins at Castle o' Burrian, I spotted a tern sat on a rock at the far side of the bay of Rack Wick. It was too distant to be sure what it was, but I did know it wasn't an Arctic or a Common or a Little one. The Admiral came to my rescue, identifying it as a Sandwich Tern, but before we could think moving closer for a better view, an Arctic Skua harassed it into flying away. My disappointment was tempered by the fact that this was a new species for me, as my sandwiches don't normally attract the attention of piratical skuas.

A few days later, the Admiral and I were walking along the west coast path, enjoying views over the sea to Rousay and the gloriously sunny weather. A bird shot passed that wasn't the normal Fulmar or Great Black-backed Gull or Arctic Tern. This time we were close enough to hear its call, which was very different to those I already knew. Another Sandwich Tern! It made several  trips back and forth along the coast, allowing an opportunity to at least capture some sort of image.

Wishing to share these fantastic birds with other nature lovers, we contacted Graham Maben from Westraak, the local wildlife tour operator, who told us that half a dozen pairs do come to the island each year. Graham was soon able to return the favour, but that, as they say, is a story for another day.

Friday 15 July 2011

An evening assignation with Mrs Brown

Whoa! Don't panic! This isn't a lurid tale of tasteless journalistic fervour, no mobile phones are involved and the only hacking in evidence was the loss of a small amount of undergrowth in one of our borders.

Neither is it a belated, but nevertheless, shocking revelation concerning the private life of Queen Victoria and her faithful Scottish servant, neither of whom, as far as I know, ever visited the sleepy Buckinghamshire village of Milton Keynes.

However, it is about time that we had a dragon post (and not that Rebekah What's-her-name, either). I had been hoping to return from an odonatologically abstinent holiday to discover clouds of damsels and dragons filling the skies of England (Tense... Tense... wake up, mate! You're dreaming!), but things are a bit quiet around Planet Odo at the moment. So it was a most pleasant surprise, last evening, to have a Brown Hawker, Aeshna grandis, visit us, as we sat in the back garden.

It was about 6pm, the day was still warm with plenty of sunshine and Our Lass and I were partaking of a mug of tea, whilst watching the comings and goings around the pond. Wasps were making countless trips to collect water for their paper-making exploits (or new paper sting operation, as I like to think of it) and a Lesser Stag Beetle pottered across the paving stones, oblivious to the comparative nominative slight handed out by humans.

Suddenly, a dragonfly appeared, made a few exploratory flights in the warmest corner of the garden and disappeared into an overhanging Clematis clambering over the fence from next door's garden. This seemed a little early for a Brown Hawker to settle down for the night, as we have often observed them flying quite late, towards dusk. Upon checking the vegetation, however, it did appear that this female dragonfly was intent on doing just that.

Despite still being hampered by a poorly knee, Our Lass was able to manoeuvre herself and her camera into position in order to capture the below image.

I checked the hedge at 6am this morning and this grand lady was still there.

To loosely connect this post with our Orkney holiday, the dialect phrase for 'last night' is the streen, a contraction of 'yesterday's evening'. Strangely, English use of 'today' is apparently a contraction of the day, the more correct Orcadian phrase. Whilst most bizarrely, on Orkney, 'tomorrow' is the morn. I was most confused when a lady on local radio stated that an exhibition was opening at "2.30 the morn". Jings, I thought, who's going to get up that early?

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Spurious Spurrey

Going on holiday in a group can be a bit of a logistical nightmare. Admittedly, the Tense Towers team are only three in number, but as Our Lass wasn't allowed to put any weight on her left knee during the whole of our time in Orkney, things could've been rather fraught. Fortunately, all the preparation beforehand paid off and everyone we met was helpfulness personified.

Inevitably, it was occasionally frustrating for her that she couldn't go rock pooling or climb to the top of the lighthouse, but as she built up her upper body strength whilst using her crutches, new goals became possible. Lowering her sights, literally, put her in the realm of small flowers that would ordinarily have been overlooked in the search for larger Northern Isles life forms: seals, killer whales, red necked phalaropes, Simon King, black guillemots, otters, etc.

A short, grassy track from the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory led to a five barred gate, beyond which was the preserve of the seaweed-eating sheep. From the low cliffs could be seen a rocky beach and the swirling waters of the North Ronaldsay Firth and the Atlantic Ocean.

Initially with plenty of rest stops, Our Lass trod this 300m track with a monotonous "click, thump" rhythm, in order to reach the nirvana of a wild vista beyond the sheep dyke. Whilst the Admiral and I were intent on photographing Black Guillemots, she innocently pointed out a wee flower that we had walked past umpteen times. Binoculars were wielded, cameras were deployed, Ohs and Ums were oh-ed and um-ed, heads were scratched. Then politeness cut in and we scratched our own heads, before realisation finally dawned. Yes, we definitely don't know what this is.

It's a... er...hmmm?
The small white-centred, pink flower, no more than 8mm across, had 5 petals and grew in small clumps (technical botanical term) on the bare sandy clifftop. Later, in the bar (where else), recourse to a copy of Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (Blamey, Fitter and Fitter), narrowed it down to a Sea-spurrey, Spergularia, but which one? Sand (rubra), Greater (media), Lesser (marina), Rock (rupicola), Greek (bocconei)? Only Greater and Lesser are known in Orkney, as Sand has supposedly not made the jump to the Northern Isles. It was definitely not Greek, as there wasn't a bouzouki player for miles, nor was it Rock which appears to be a plant of the west coast of Britain.

The defining characteristic seemed to be the comparative length of petals to sepals. Longer equals Greater, shorter equals Lesser. We couldn't even agree on this and I reckoned they were the same length anyway, which brought Rock back into the frame.

Oh, we're rubbish at botany, if you hadn't already guessed!

So, dear reader (presuming that you are still paying attention and haven't wandered off to do something more meaningful), can you help? Are you the world authority on Sea-spurrey or even someone for whom the ratio of petal to sepal is but a trifle? To be honest, I think the North Ronaldsay sheep probably stood a better chance of working it out than we did.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Full marks for Fulmars

These days, on a visit to the Northern Isles, it would be virtually impossible not to see a Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis. Yet, according to Mark Cocker in Birds Britannica, they did not breed in the Orkney archipelago as little as 120 years ago.

Fulmar... the supermini of the albatross world, though I gather that the airscoop on the bonnet is actually a tube for filtering out salt from sea water.

Roosting on top of a sheep pund at Dennis Ness, North Ronaldsay
Encounters with these birds have become synonymous with our trips to Orkney, especially on North Ronaldsay, where they often nest at the base of the sheep dyke. This dry stone wall is maintained as a barrier to keep the seaweed-eating sheep off the fertile pasture, so a circumnavigation of the island on its seaward side is bound to bring you into close contact with many a Fulmar.

Gliding effortlessly above the storm beach adjacent to Trolla Vatn, North Ronaldsay
If I say that they have a somewhat vomitous predator response, regurgitating a foul oily substance, you will appreciate why it pays to keep an eye open for where they are roosting.

On cliffs above the Bay of Kirbest, Westray
Its Orcadian name, 'Molly-mawk' or 'Mallimack', derives from the Dutch for 'foolish gull', as its habit of sitting tight on its egg made it an easy target for hunters in times past. Whereas 'Foul Maa' is of a more Scandinavian origin, referring to the previously described habit of sharing its breakfast after the event.

Monday 4 July 2011

Back to Normal

I don't know, you nip away for a few weeks and the blogosphere traffic goes crazy, but I think I've caught up with all my reading of posts, replying and commenting.

The Tense Towers Team have had a break in northern climes, still on British soil, but with a much different biota to sleepy Buckinghamshire. In fact, returning to MK on Saturday afternoon was a bit weird, as we saw birds that would've been regarded as quite rare for the last fortnight.

"Look! A Magpie!"

"Wow! There's a Blue Tit!"

"Listen to that amazing call, what it is it? Oh, a Goldfinch!"

So back to normal felt a little abnormal for a while, but I think we've got it out of our systems now.

As the photos featured on I&T rarely show the team, regular readers may wonder if we spend our nature-watching time back to back, in a small triangular shape, cameras pointing outward. I have to inform you that we're not such a regular polygon as that, as a scroll down this webpage will testify, taken on holiday, doing what we do best... drinking tea!

Yep, the unholy triumvirate of the Our Lass, the Admiral and myself ventured to a few of the islands of Orkney, first North Ronaldsay and then Westray. The photo in the above link is courtesy of the staff at the Bird Observatory, where we spent a fantastic week, soaking up the wildlife, local cuisine and not a little Dark Island ale. If you're ever in Orkney, I would recommend a visit.

I'm working my way through 14 days of photographs, so there's much more to come, however, by necessity, it might be more interactive than usual as there were lots of flowers that were new to us. Any help with ID in the upcoming posts will be gratefully received.