Tuesday 23 August 2011

If you can't stand the heat...

It's nice of scientists to point out to the rest of humanity that, yet again, Nature is way ahead of us.

I refer to the study published in the journal Science, and recently reported by the BBC, that animals and plants are moving their ranges towards the cooler poles at a rate three times faster than previously thought.

So whilst we've been bickering about whether climate change exists or not, spinelessly shuffling behind vested interests or guiltily burying our heads in the sand, the wildlife of the planet has voted with its collective feet, roots, wings and fins.

C'mon, people, catch up!

Whether it was just balanced reporting or someone at the Beeb has a sense of humour, I had to chuckle darkly at two of their quotes:

"Seeing that species are able to keep up with the warming is a very positive finding," said biologist Terry Root from Stanford University in California, US.

But what about the animals that already live at the poles, or at the top of mountains?"They die," said Dr Thomas (...from the University of York, UK)

Bizarrely, for me then, there's a bit of an upside to all this. I can jog on the spot here in little ol' England, gently simmering to Hell, whilst hundreds of new species of dragonflies take up temporary and passing residence in Britain and my Odonata field guide swells to many times its normal size.

However, I'd rather not, for much the same reason that I don't cook everything in the microwave oven. Perhaps when the last ounce of life is frazzled from the planet, there'll be a strident and unheeded "Ping!"

Wednesday 17 August 2011

And the winner is...

I can now reveal the answer to the question posed in last Thursday's blog, "Where's the unsolicited Puffin?"

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't stood behind me all the time. Neither was it perched on the end of my lens.

It was in the photo of the cliff top at Noup Head on Westray, discreetly nestled on a ledge at the bottom of the picture, left of centre.

Astoundingly, the winner was the very same puffin, which waddled into Kirkwall Police Station and gave itself up, admitting to the charge of loitering in a photo with the intention of being cute. Apparently, this public-spirited act was an attempt to avert the glare of the UK media's attention from the whole sordid affair, so that it could get back to its normal day job... posing for tourist photographs with a coy, sidelong glance, whilst simultaneously trying to break the world record for the most fish in a beakful. Puffins, eh, do they have no shame?

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Off the leash

After several months of crutches and sticks, Our Lass is now walking unaided and working hard to build up her leg muscles again. Today, by way of celebration, we relaunched that age-old post prandial occupation, the evening constitutional. It seems like a year since we've been able to do this, and, in fact, it just about is. However, it felt good to be out together in the fresh air, enjoying the setting sun and the onset of dusk.

We chose Bury Field as the location for this outing, principally because there's lots of grass for gentler walking. As the link above reveals, this area is common land on the edge of Newport Pagnell and is mainly used by grazing cattle and folk walking their dogs.

As we left the car park, behind the main street, we could see that some hard paths and information boards had been constructed since our last visit. As we were in no rush to join the throng of dog walkers and model aeroplane enthusiasts that we could see all around, we stopped to read the boards and learn a bit about the history of the place. Glancing up from this task, I noticed a pale-coloured bird, gliding over the pasture at the far side of the common. Gull? Egret? Barn Owl!

We stood rooted to the spot, as the owl quartered the ground, flying nearer and nearer. It seemed oblivious to the dogs, their owners, model aircraft and the gathered mass of humankind, as indeed were most of them to it. As it passed us, though, we realised that we weren't the only ones taking an interest, for a flock of Swallows were harassing it constantly. The Barn Owl, however, was simply intent upon the task in hand. With a sudden bank and turn, it folded its wings and plummeted into the long grass, to emerge moments later with an unfortunate rodent grasped in its talons. It flew off, back across the common, trailing Swallows and longing glances from His and Her Tenseness.

As we pottered along the paths cut though the grass, the owl appeared several more times, gliding silently to and fro, ever alert for the tell-tale sign of a vole, yet seemingly impervious to the noise and bustle all around it.

Happy times.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Photo competition

Anybody spot the unintentional Puffin in one of my Orkney 2011 photos?

No, me neither, until I was reviewing the posts.

There I was, quite deliberately concentrating on the other bird life that isn't mentioned very often, when, lo and behold, one of the cute, clown-faced, sea parrots sneaks in anyway.


Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Going coastal

Rather than dwell on the uncivil unrest affecting some of England's cities (which, in its way, is the human condition in microcosm - here's a problem, let's make it worse), as a little light relief, I bring you the final instalment of the Tense Team Tour of Orkney 2011.

You will recall, dear reader, that it was a time fraught with challenges brought about by Our Lass's last minute knee operation. More cautious minds might have decided to cancel the trip, however after a period of reflection, we decided to go ahead, but scale back our endeavours and seek easy solutions where possible.

The latter half of the holiday was spent on Westray, which offered plenty of opportunity to enjoy the rugged scenery of the Atlantic coast and explore the gentler, more sheltered bays.

This picture was taken whilst standing on a natural arch called the Scaun, showing the Admiral perched on top of the 14m cliffs, above a rather neat sea cave. The coast of the Aikerness peninsula was always impressive and awe inspiring.

From the same vantage point, looking west, there were countless sea caves being formed by the steady erosion of the Orkney Flagstones of the Middle Devonian age (about 380 million years old).

This picture was taken looking back, eastwards, toward the Scaun, a natural arch mentioned earlier, which has three entrances. The top of the cliffs are effectively a wave cut platform, as the storm beach is set way back from the edge. In Winter, it must be very dangerous standing on this spot.

The bay at Grobust is suffering much erosion of its sand. Slightly further inland, the Neolithic archaeology, at Noltland, is the subject of a rescue dig to gain as much information as possible from the site, before it is lost to the wind and sea.

At Noup Head, we were able to sit on the cliff top, watching the comings and goings at the sea bird colony and casting our eyes to the ocean in a fruitless search for Orcas. Our Lass is perched on a folding stool, resting after gingerly hobbling from the car park and passed the lighthouse.

Over on the east side of the island, the sheltered Bay of Swartmill offered the opportunity for the second group photo of the trip. Here, when not posing between the sand dunes, we spent a morning discovering Sand Martins, rock pools and Lyme Grass. For the photo, Our Lass's crutches were hidden away behind the dune, as she balanced on her good leg!

It remains for me to thank the many folk who made this holiday such an enjoyable experience: the staff at Flybe, Loganair and Orkney Ferries; absolutely everyone at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory; the North Ronaldsay Trust including Mark at the Lighthouse Cafe; Mr and Mrs Muir for their hospitality; Linda and Kathleen at Skaill Cottage; Mrs Groat; the Pierowall Hotel, the good folk at Westraak and, of course, the Admiral and Our Lass.

The sun now sets on our Orcadian adventures for another year, but we have fond memories, new found knowledge and a burning desire to return once more.

Sunset from the links at Noltland

Monday 8 August 2011

A bit more Northern Isles birding

It's now several weeks since our Orkney holiday, but you're going to have to put up with a few more posts yet. At least until the dragonfly season threatens to pick up!

One of the great things about visiting North Ronaldsay in late Spring/early Summer, is the sheer amount of birdlife on tap. As soon as we stuck our noses out of the door of the Obs, we were immersed in a feathered assemblage, all hell bent on raising their families.

This female Wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe, was looking for insects to feed her growing brood. The calls from the island's Wheatear population, a collection of whistles and clicks, followed us everywhere we went.

Whilst the Gannet, Morus bassanus, does not breed on North Ron, a constant stream of birds from nearby colonies feed in the waters surrounding the island. I was neither skilful enough or lucky enough to capture a photo of their steep diagonal dives for fish, but this bird flew by at low altitude and at a leisurely pace, allowing even a duffer like me the chance of a picture.

There are several colonies of Black Guillemot, Cepphus grylle, around the coast, with their simple but stylish plumage. By sitting quietly and patiently in an appropriate spot, we were able to gain some fantastic views of these Tysties, as they are known in the Northern Isles.

Down by the pier, we were fortunate to glimpse a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, Mergus serrator. This is the male in eclipse plumage, not as spectacular as earlier in the breeding season, but my first confirmed sighting of a blokey Merg, so I was happy.

One evening, this little bird was the cause of quite a bit of excitement at the Obs. Not that you would think so, to look at it. There we were, with our fellow guests, enjoying a postprandial cup of tea in the lounge/bar, when a breathless member of staff burst through the double doors. I should explain that the Bird Observatory staff are, on the whole, a calm and unflappable bunch, so to see one fired up on adrenalin was quite interesting in itself.

It transpired that a warbler netted at one of their ringing sites, was not what it had at first seemed, and ripples of excitement spread out through the island birding fraternity towards the assembled tea and coffee drinkers in the lounge. Only the Admiral and I seemed to react to the words "Blyth's Reed Warbler", the Admiral because he knew what it was and me because I knew I didn't! We grabbed our cameras, jumped in the hire car and, for the one and only time in the week, hit 5th gear, as we sped the short distance up the island in the tracks of the Obs Land Rover.

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Acrocephalus dumetorum, is a rare bird in the UK. It normally only travels as far west as Finland in Summer, but this was North Ron's second of the year, as happily related in their blog for the day and their weekly round-up of Obs life. As mentioned above, I would not have known this wee bird from a standard Reed Warbler Version 1.0, but the staff took the time to explain which features led them to be able to identify it as a Blyth's. There was much talk of the longer pale supercilium (eye stripe, to you and me) and short primary projection (wings not as big), but the most fascinating thing of all wasn't the warbler. It was the staff. Here they were, doing the thing that floated their boats, being up close and personal with rare birds and adding to our collective ornithological knowledge with their meticulous data logging and recording. It was a real joy to see them in their natural habitat, chucking birding buzz words around with ever-so-slightly-controlled abandon. Thanks, guys, for cherishing my inner geek.

In contrast, over on Westray the following week, I managed to photograph a common bird that I've seen on countless occasions but have struggled to approach close enough to garner a decent image.

The Hooded Crow, Corvus corone corvix, is a different race of the species that also boasts the Carrion Crow, and it is found in North and East Europe. There is an unofficial border between the two races in the UK, roughly along the Caledonian Canal in Scotland, Hoodies to the north, Carrion to the south. They are wary birds, so I considered myself fortunate to stumble across this  individual along the cliff tops at Castle o' Burrian, when I was actually trying to photograph a Curlew. 

Serendipitous, indeed.

Monday 1 August 2011

Blues and twos

On Saturday morning, Our Lass and I had a pleasant stroll around Little Linford Wood. The water bodies here are fast disappearing due to the lack of rain and warmer temperatures. The main pond at the top of the wood has long gone and all its Ruddy Darters with it. Sad times.

The butterflies didn't seem too bothered about this, but then they have their own worries to contend with...

Like not having eyes in the back of their heads.

Or having left their spectacles in their other jacket.

The next day we popped over to RSPB HQ at The Lodge, mainly to buy a sack of bird food, but also to give some moral support to the Admiral, who was helping out the RSPB staff at a dragonfly event.

Of course, the fact that we would see plenty of odes, never crossed my mind!

The ornamental pond in the gardens, though full of fish, always plays host to a varied cast of dragons and damsels. We were able to compare a male Red-eyed Damselfly and a male Small Red-eyed Damselfly on adjacent lily pads. Apart from being smaller, the latter also has an extra patch of blue on the sides of abdominal segments two and eight.

In a right two and eight...
Meanwhile, a male Common Darter was being incredibly obliging by hovering just long enough for me to attempt a photograph.

In one of the smaller ponds, we spotted this young newt, paddling in the shallow end created by a lily pad.

Back at the main pond, a pair of Small Red-eyes were making out. Though I didn't realise it at the time, the lady is rather mature, her thorax colouring having turned from yellow to green to blue.

After mating and with the male still in attendance, the female will descend below the water surface to lay her eggs, a manoeuvre fraught with danger in a well-stocked fish pond. Amazingly, the damselfly population at The Lodge seems robust enough to survive this peril.