Thursday 27 June 2013

Orkney, June 2013, Part 5

I mentioned in Part 2 that I would return to the subject of the cliffs on the north and west coast of the Aikerness peninsula, so I had better be true to my word and make good my promise.

Whilst I know little about the geology of Orkney and understand even less, the Westray Heritage Trust came to my rescue with their excellent publication 'Westray Flagstone, Guide to the Geology of an Island' by David Leather. This was published in 2006, but I don't think the intervening 7 years are going to make my comments too inaccurate, as the bedrock is actually 380 million years old! The facts in the following account rely heavily upon this solid tome.

The Orkney Flagstone Group of rocks has a total thickness of 750m. Towards the top of this, the Westray rocks are from the Middle Devonian period and are around 190m thick. Within this formation are 18 cycles of deposition made up from consecutive layers that were laid down in flood plains, salt flats, shallow lake shores and a deep lake. Within the individual layers can be seen many fossilised features, including wave ripple marks, river ripple marks, mud cracks, stromatolites and rain drops, as well as actual fossil remains of fish and plants.

Westerly gales blowing in from the Atlantic bring violent storms that have formed a boulder beach on the cliff tops of the Aikerness peninsula. Here, 14m above sea level, the storm beach is up to 30m back from the cliff edge and stretches for 400m in length. At its highest, the boulder pile is 4m high, with some individual blocks measuring 3m long and 30cm thick. This isn't a place where you would want to be during a storm!

Fortunately, on the day that we walked along the west coast, the weather was relatively benign.

Standing on the storm surge beach, looking towards the cliff edge. For scale, Our Lass is left of centre.
Standing on the cliff top (14m above the sea, remember) looking at the boulder pile at the back of the beach. The power of the waves has left the clifftop completely clean of debris.
Some ominous holes in the otherwise smooth surface hint at the destructive forces at work here.
We reasoned that these were probably impact craters from huge blocks of stone hurled from the cliff face.
You could wear a hard hat in this natural quarry, but I don't think it would help!
Our Lass standing on the edge of a rocky outcrop, The Nev.
Sea cave
Coastal scenery looking north from Vaval's Geo
The Three-cornered Kirn, a blowhole in the cliff, with the churning sea below.
During the walk, we rested in a small depression a little way back from the cliff edge. It was sufficiently far from the effects of the sea to be grass-lined, but with a small pile of stones at the bottom. It is only this evening, whilst researching this blogpost, that I've realised that this was another blowhole. Apparently, at high tide, it roars like a dragon and sends plumes of vapour from its nostrils. Y'know, a Winter visit does sound rather tempting!

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Orkney, June 2013, Part 4

Orkney is wonderfully photogenic. The Wheeling Steen Gallery, on Westray, is a good place to explore the art of the possible and soak up the scenic beauty of that isle.

Having feasted my eyes on the large canvas prints adorning the walls (and perhaps partaken of a slice of cake and a coffee!), it's back down to earth with a bump when reviewing my own bumbling images.

The best gadget in my photography toolbox is Luck, followed closely by Being in the right place at the right time.

These two valuable "skills" complement my other attributes of Hopeless camera shake and General cluelessness as to what constitutes a good photo. Whilst Our Lass is always on hand to offer advice, sometimes the action is a bit quick and there's no time to make use of her sage counsel.

So here's a few of my "nearly" shots...

Arctic Tern on our first Westray evening
Fulmar on North Ronaldsay (taken when laid on the golf course with the bird zooming 3 feet over our heads)
But pleasingly, my "skills" did click together occasionally during our holiday.

Our Lass modelling her "Thrift and Rock" camouflage on Noup Head.

Marsh Marigold by the Burn O' Cheor, near Letto Sands

A dull day improved greatly by an Arctic Tern on Ness of Tuquoy

The diminutive Scottish Primrose on maritime heath, Aikerness

 A similarly height-challenged Dwarf Willow on maritime heath, Aikerness

Seaweed-eating sheep on North Ronaldsay
Common Tern fishing in the Loch of Stenness

Monday 24 June 2013

Orkney, June 2013, Part 3

One of the things about relaxing on holiday is that you have the time to notice people who aren't on holiday and are not relaxed. This is also true of birds.

I mentioned in Part 1 that we experienced a very different Spring this year, during our stay on the Northern Isles of Westray, North Ronaldsay and Papa Westray. The length and severity of the Winter weather across the British Isles has meant a few weeks' delay to normal Spring proceedings for large swathes of our wildlife. Despite being at, pretty much, sea level and never too far from a coast, Orcadian wildlife is not immune from this effect. Coupled with our holiday being at the beginning of June, we quickly realised that many species of birds were at a far earlier stage of their breeding season than we would have expected.

This manifested itself in several ways. Just walking along paths and shorelines, we had to take great care not to disturb nesting birds, especially as many of them were still at the egg laying stage and had not yet begun to incubate their clutch.

Taken from a respectful distance, Ringed Plover nest by a west coast path
Even more dramatically, the constant aerial battles between prey and predator, or predator and prey depending upon the circumstance, was like something out of the skies above Kent in 1940.

Prey species (like Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew) were defending nests, eggs or chicks from predators (skuas, gulls, Ravens), sometimes several prey species combining together in their robust repulsing of marauding bandits. At the same time, other predators (more skuas) were intent on stealing food from parent birds (terns, Guillemots, Puffins) returning to feed their young or partners.

Oystercatcher chasing off a Raven

Herring Gull carrying off a Guillemot or Razorbill egg

Arctic Skua harrying a Sandwich Tern to regurgitate its catch

Despite assistance from an Arctic Tern, the Sandwich Tern is forced to jettison its load to  the waiting skua

Arctic Skuas with problems of their own, having to repulse a Raven from their territory
Whilst we were visiting the Ring of Brodgar on Mainland, a Great Black-backed Gull flew over an adjoining meadow. We had just wandered passed this area and had seen it was full of cute little fluffballs of wadery delight. Everything in the world seemed to react to the large gull; Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Curlews, Redshank and even Common Gulls, all brought together in the single aim of chasing off the raiding party.

My only regret is that the photographs do not convey the strident sounds of anxious yet indignant parents, piping and screaming their fury at each intrusion.

"Scramble, scramble, scramble! Bandits heading your way from the south!"

"Roger that, Oystercatcher 2. Curlew 1 and Lapwing 3 will give immediate assistance."

"Schei├če! Wir haben gesehen, Schwarz Nummer eins! Ziehen Sie sich in Sicherheit!"
(Oops! We've been spotted, Black 1! Retreat to safety!) 

"I say, chaps, the blighters have scarpered back across the Channel. Jolly well done, everyone!"

Sunday 23 June 2013

Orkney, June 2013, Part 2

The Aikerness peninsula at the northern tip of Westray has much to recommend it. At least, if you're of a similar frame of mind to a Tense Towers Team.

Our accommodation was situated within easy reach (and by 'easy' I mean 10 minutes gentle walking) of some fantastic coastal scenery.

Due south, and reached by a sandy track, was the Bay of Skaill, whose brilliantly-hued beach was featured in the previous post. This shallow bay was visible from the cottage and we never tired of watching the light changing upon the water, from the deepest blue to a sumptuous turquoise. Continuing around the coast for another mile, another sandy beach and an accompanying ayre were accessible at low tide. It was here that Our Lass spotted the butterfly highlight of the trip, a Painted Lady, nectaring on the ground from the flowers of (I think) Common Chickweed.

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui
From here, it was possible to return to the cottage on a single track road, which had the added advantage of passing by the Wheeling Steen Gallery which, as well as some gorgeous photographs and artwork, also sold tea/coffee and cakes.

If we turned right out of the cottage rather than left, and wandered through several small fields, we reached the northernmost tip of Westray at Bow Head. This was a favourite evening walk, but also at any time of day, really. For the first few days of our stay, the prevailing wind was from the north west and the ancient flagstone strata of this headland produced some rugged scenery.

Looking south west from the The Taing, we watched as the waves rolled in to The Scaun, a three-arched promontory of weathered rock. 

Noup Head lighthouse, in the distance, is four and a half miles away
The Scaun again, moments later, as the light changed
The shore, where the above photographs were taken from, was gently-sloping with the occasional step in the rocks as consecutive layers of flagstones were weathered out by the force of the sea. As long as care was taken to avoid slippery surfaces, it was possible to reach the water's edge, always being careful to maintain a respectful distance from the surf.

Further around the coast, on the west side of the peninsula, the geography became even more rugged. I shall post more on this area in a future blog, but for now, here's a taster...

Directly east of the cottage was the airfield. Occasionally, if the breeze was from the right direction, the 8-seater Islander aircraft operated out of Kirkwall by Loganair, would pass by the end of the garden wall whilst we were having breakfast.

The field immediately below the cottage contained several pairs of breeding Oystercatchers. The nearest pair were visible from our bedroom window and within a day or two of our arrival had settled down to incubate their clutch of eggs. They ignored any traffic that passed by on the single track road, but would scuttle away so as not to reveal the location of the nest if any cyclists or walkers came into view. Fortunately, from our vantage point, we did not appear to disturb them.

One Oystercatcher amongst thousands of Daisies

Orkney, June 2013, Part 1

For 2013, the Tense Towers Tour to Orkney was scheduled for the beginning of June, several weeks sooner than on previous visits. The rationale behind this being that it would be slightly earlier in the season and we would therefore see a different facet of Spring. As it turned out, the preceding long Winter had a greater impact upon this than we could have possibly envisaged, so that the blooming and breeding season of the Orkney flora and fauna was offset even further than anticipated for the majority of species.

So it was, indeed, different.

Forsaking the speedy pleasures of air travel (with its procedural baggage of unnaturally early starts, queues for security, running the gauntlet of the duty-free shop, hanging around in departure lounges and not actually being allowed much useful baggage, thank you very much), we drove.

Inevitably, this meant a longer journey, but we could at least pack everything including the kitchen sink (if we so chose) and watch the scenery as it gradually changed on the trip northwards. Setting off an a Thursday evening after work, Our Lass, JD and I sped up the M6 as far as Lancaster, somewhat bizarrely with the outside temperature rising slowly as we went. As we parked at a hotel and decamped to stretch our weary limbs, an Oystercatcher flew over, calling stridently. Our very own piper at the gates of dusk.

Friday was all about leaving England and heading north into Scotland. The Cumbrian fells of the Lake District and the Pennines gave way to the Lowther Hills of the Scottish Southern Uplands, then, after skirting Glasgow, we passed the Ochil Hills to the north of Stirling. Between Dunkeld and Pitlochry, we took a break to visit my brother and his wife, who were holidaying at a cottage above the River Tay and we enjoyed fine views and good food, as well as abundant wildlife in the garden. Giving our grateful thanks and fond farewells, we pushed on up the A9, through the Cairngorm Mountains and onward to Inverness. After booking into our hotel for the night, we dined in the company of Lucy, an old acquaintance and ex-colleague of JD's, who regaled us with tales of natural history amongst the glens of Wester and Easter Ross.

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, much like our mood, as we sped ever northwards through Sutherland to Gill's Bay on the shores of the Pentland Firth. The hour's crossing to South Ronaldsay was spent sea-watching, but with no cetaceans to report. Arriving on Orcadian shores, we drove into Kirkwall for a few supplies, before parking up at the harbourside to await the smaller ferry to Westray. To pass the time, we adjourned to Helgi's, a bar on the waterfront, where the non-driving majority of our contingent had their first chance to sample some Orkney ale.

"Draw the boat up to the noust - wipe salt from whiskers - and steer a course for the tavern."
The next ferry crossing was uneventful, as we threaded our way between islands until we reached Rapness on the southern tip of Westray. Once docked, we drove to the opposite end of the island, to settle into our home for the next two weeks, a cottage on the Aikerness peninsula.

The next morning, we hit the beach early...

White sands, turquoise seas and characterful skies

Saturday 8 June 2013


Not much in the way of 3G signal at the moment, hence the lack of posts.
But rest assured, the Tense Towers team are in fine fettle and good heart.

At the moment, we're sat on some rocks eating our lunch (bread rolls filled with either tuna and onion or JD's home-made houmous). Tucked beneath some low cliffs for shelter, we are looking at a small cove. The tide is out and the piles of seaweed are providing food for a host of wildlife. For company, we have Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, Knot, Oystercatcher, Common Gull, Black-headed Gull, Fulmar, Starling, Pied Wagtail, Arctic Tern, Sandwich Tern, Great Skua, Eider with chicks, Mallard, Shelduck with chicks, Snipe and Grey Seal.

One particular Fulmar is whooshing past us at very close quarters, the sound of the air over its wings like the crashing of a wave on the shore. The male Eiders are calling, with their comical "Whoo-oo!" which never fails to raise a smile. A Snipe is drumming in the distance and there's a constant background chatter of tern calls.

It's all rather pleasant, in a rotting seaweed kind of way.