Wednesday 31 July 2013

Philately will get you...

... anywhere in the UK, and probably by the next day, for the price of a 1st class postage stamp.

On the 4th July 2013, Jersey Post issued a set of stamps to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the British Dragonfly Society (BDS).

There were several choices: a First Day Cover; a set of mint stamps; or a set of Cancelled to Order (CTO) stamps. That last one translates as franked but not on an envelope, I think.

Not understanding the jargon, I opted for all three, to cover the options!

First Day Cover (front)

First Day Cover (Back)

The Tense Towers Odometer certainly read full scale deflection on the day that this little lot landed on the door mat.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Odonata Tensica 2

This year the British Dragonfly Society is 30 years old. As the 2013 National Dragonfly Week, 20-28 July, comes to a close, I thought I'd better post a vaguely odonatary blog. Here's a link to the Beeb website, with some spiffing photographs showing you what is out there to be seen and marvelled at. I'd normally link you to the British Dragonfly Society's webpage, but it appears to be down at the moment. Calamitously bad timing? Or Time's revenge for making Dragonfly Week nine days long instead of seven? We may never know.

For most of this week, the pond at Tense Towers has been the sole preserve of a couple of Blue-tailed Damselflies. However, all that changed today. Unfortunately, Our Lass and I were out on another mission (ok, it was a tea shop, guilty as charged), so we missed the best bit.

I'll take up the story at lunchtime, as we sat in the shade of a Hawthorn tree, scoffing cheese on toast and gazing at the many insects buzzing around the garden.

Our Lass thought she saw something other than the resident Blue-tails and wandered over to the pond to have a look. She had drawn a blank, just as a slight shower began, and after returning our chairs back indoors, I joined her by the pond.

My movement put up a dragonfly, which disappeared over the garden fence and out of sight. In the second or so we had to ID it, my best guess was Common Darter, possibly teneral i.e. just emerged and taking its first flight. That'd be the kind of 'just emerged' that meant it had come from our pond.

Our Lass and I looked at each other. We both looked at the pond. Then we looked a whole load closer at the pond.

In amongst the stems of some Purple Loosestrife, we discovered seven empty larval cases of Common Darters. Seven! And because there had been a thunderstorm the previous evening, it was highly likely that these had all emerged this morning, as any from yesterday would have been washed off the stems by the rain.

OK, if we've missed all this emergence, I thought, are there any left in the garden? Slowly turning around to face a Honeysuckle bush, we were greeted with a single Common Darter, sat sunning itself at about our eye level.

We then found another one on the lawn, that had emerged but whose wings were crumpled and useless, so it was unable to fly.

An angel with broken wings
After recording these events for the blog, I retrieved my chair, put it in the shade at the end of the pond and sat listening to the radio. I hadn't been there long when a large shape glided over the fence and proceeded to fly around the vegetation beside the pond.

A big dragonfly. A lady looking to lay her eggs. A Southern Hawker.

Carefree foot shown for scale
Rather than take my eyes off her, I phoned Our Lass, who had gone back indoors. She duly arrived and we watched Mrs SH ovipositing on a variety of substrates around the edge of the pond. Some dragonflies do not lay their eggs directly into water, but place them above or near the water body, so that they either hatch and fall into the water or the water level rises in the Winter and engulfs them.

This female Southern Hawker was using the edges of paving slabs, moss and a Hart's Tongue Fern leaf for her oviposition sites. Dead wood is another favourite, but we haven't any of that by the pond (yeah, yeah, save for me!).

If I was to recommend that you do one thing for Nature, it would be to dig a wildlife pond in your garden. You will be amazed at the diversity of life that turns up. I only tell you about the dragons!

Saturday 27 July 2013

Sundials, sadness and satire

It's been a strange week. Not just because it rained.

Regular readers of this blog (come on, own up, one of you must qualify) may recall a certain cast member of the small band of characters who occasionally inhabit these pages. I am referring to the one and only Captain Sundial. See here, here and here, if you need reminding.

This Thursday, 25th July 2013, marked his last working day, as he retired this week, just a few days shy of his 75th birthday.

By way of a tribute/wind-up/celebration of the good times, as well as cards and leaving pressies, he was given a document, highlighting some of the moments for which we will remember him with great fondness.  

The History of the World, Part 1 of 1, from the beginning of time until the present

(In which we discuss the nature of causality and the temporal effects of entropy)

In the beginning, God created the transmitter and the receiver.

But the picture was without form, and void; and a small voice said, "Have you powered up the transmitter? We're only seeing white noise at this end."

And then darkness was upon the face of the screen, so the small voice said encouragingly, "That's better, but you might want to switch on the camera too, 'cos we're just receiving a carrier now."

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And the small voice, the nascent Spirit of Radio, saw the light, that it was good: and said, "That's a really neat trick."

Approximately 4.5 billion years later, or a little after 4005BC depending upon your point of view, an infant Captain Sundial cast his first shadow and everyone agreed that it was lovely, but wouldn’t it be a good idea if we put his nappy back on now, please?

Following a childhood filled with more ordnance than you could shake a Trident missile at, possibly due to some international fisticuffs and an arsey bloke with a moustache, CS took to National Service like a duck to atomic physics. His contempt for authority, and blatant use of a self-loading instinct to deliberately take the opposing viewpoint to any given order, saw him banished to the Library where it was thought he could do little harm... teaching officers which way was up and other life skills.

Years passed, civilisations came and went (as did one or two electronics companies) and with much heralding, and not a little mickey-taking on the subject of sundials, CS arrived at his current place of work in 2002.

His avowed intent was to fly the flag for analogue technology, but within an hour of arriving, he’d discovered a sundial on the gable end of the Post Office next door. Oh how we laughed, and then looked sheepishly at each other, thinking "How the hell had we missed that?"

CS settled into life amongst several colleagues who he had known for many a year. He’d watched them grow up from wet-behind-the-ears graduates and develop into fully-fledged electronics design engineers (or at least ones with the ability to use a photocopier), whilst in turn, they all thought he was... just the same old codger he’d always been.

Those of us who have had the pleasant fortune to work with CS at other firms are well-versed in his little eccentricities. But anyone new to the company who hadn’t encountered the Gospels according to CS tended to spend a few hours, or days, in shock, until taken to one side by some kind-hearted soul and re-assured that “It’s ok, he does talk to his sandwiches. You only need to worry if you can hear them talking back.”

I count myself amongst that happy band of co-workers that have known CS for some considerable time. He has occupied the neighbouring bench through the best years of my working life. This is no coincidence. With more experience than can reasonably be crammed into one lifetime, CS has taught me so much, not only about electronics and RF, but also a wide variety of other topics, such as astro-archaeology, paganism, ancient civilisations, combat pedantry  and, of course, sundials.

It must be acknowledged that CS has been at his most tolerant of authority and administration during these past eleven years. Yes, really! Whether this indicates a softening of his principles over time or perhaps a begrudging acceptance of the tide of officialdom, it is impossible to gauge. Or maybe, to think the unthinkable, he actually likes working here! However, not a day has gone by when he hasn’t asked, “Can I go home now?” The timing of this request varies depending upon whether the electronics are fighting back or if he’s had enough of bureaucracy, but his personal best is an impressive 9.06am.

With typical topical timing, this week, the question morphed into "Can I retire now?"

I accidentally discovered that the only sure-fire way to wind him up was to wear a tie. This, in part, explains why I rarely do!

CS has been an absolute joy to work alongside and he will be hugely missed. His knowledge and experience, coupled with his willingness to share this information for the betterment of all, mark him out as a test engineer par excellence. If there is a Spirit of Radio, he embodies it heart and soul.

In saying farewell to Captain Sundial and wishing him every happiness in his well-deserved retirement, I would like to share with you a few examples of the many vocational courses and training sessions that he has attended over the years.

1998 Food Handling course
CS: "These sandwiches are awful!"

Tense: "Who made them?"

CS: "I did."

1999 Ethnicity and Diversity training
"Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low. Through the streets in a kilt I'll go.
All the lassies shout "Hello! CS where's your troosers?"

2006 Working Time (Lord) Directive seminar

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Contented sigh

I was woken from my slumbers this morning, as I am on many mornings, by the dawn chorus songs of blackbird and... wood pigeon? To be fair, they sounded as sleepy as I had just been.

However, instead of dropping off into the land of nod again, to await the strident call of an alarm clock, I remained conscious, dimly aware that there was another sound to be heard. A soft, gentle sound, not unlike the falling of rain.

Sweet, sweet rain. It's back!

Following weeks of dry weather, the hottest day for seven years and possibly the warmest night since 1990 (according to the Beeb), life has returned to normal with the soft weeping of the sky.

I stood by a window and savoured the return of the prodigal cloud. After a few minutes, the intensity of the rainfall increased and the land was treated to a short burst of heavy precipitation. Gutters and downpipes gurgled with glee, vegetation shivered in anticipation of a thirst quenched, whilst I smiled and sighed.

Soon, all too soon, the gentle pitter patter resumed once more and I returned to bed. Before I fell asleep again, I recall hearing a joyful wren singing its heart out, followed by a distant rumble of thunder. After a few seconds, the wren launched into an ever more defiant song, but this time it was answered by a gentle snoring at my side.

Contented sigh.

Monday 15 July 2013

Odonata Tensica

Either side of our Saturday jaunt to Stowe Gardens, our own garden at Tense Towers came up trumps with odes too, the warm weather certainly seeming to boost the amount of insects on the wing and moving around.

As well as the usual suspects at our small pond (Large Red, Blue-tailed and Common Blue damsels), for most of the day we were graced with the presence of a male Banded Demoiselle.

He probably arrived from the nearby canal, for we don't have any of the flowing water that this species prefers. This would explain why, mid afternoon, we had a brief visit from a female Banded Demoiselle, but she wasn't interested in either our pond or his charms.

SB earned some brownie points, if you'll pardon the pun, when she spotted a Brown Hawker patrolling the hedge line at the back of the garden. This was my first sighting of this species in 2013, though that's probably more to do with lack of effort on my part than any delay in their flight season.

In the evening, Our Lass and I were sat by the pond, enjoying a cool glass of something medicinal, when a movement to my right, near a Pyracantha bush, caught my attention. At first, I thought it was a late-flying bee, but when it flew into full view, it revealed itself as a male Broad-bodied Chaser. Though the light wasn't great and the dragonfly then roosted in deep shadow, I did manage a record shot, as we don't often see this species at Tense Towers.

Six species of odes on our small plot is grin-inducing on any day of the week!

Sunday 14 July 2013

Stowe + Odonata = Stowedonata?

On Friday afternoon, Our Lass and I both received a text message from SB.

"Meet up at Stowe Gardens after work? Then perhaps a meal in Buckingham?"

It was tempting. The day had been hot, so there would still be damsels and dragons about, but I was without camera and bins, nor did I have a change of shirt for the meal. And the thought of the carbon footprint involved in the endeavour, with all three of us travelling in separate cars, was somewhat disturbing.

But the gardens wouldn't shut until 6pm, the car park was open until 7pm so, as long as afterwards we all ate a locally-produced organic salad, the idea had legs. I left work at 4.30pm and made my way to Stowe through the country lanes.

And an inspired idea, it certainly was.

The main lake was teeming with Common Blue, Red -eyed and Blue-tailed damsels, whilst more Black-tailed Skimmers than I'd ever seen were patrolling the water's edge. 

Pity about the lack of optics, mind, but needs must...

As the sun lowered in the sky and lost some of its heat, the skimmers were resting on the warm rocks protruding from the water. These were some of the best views I've had of this species, as they took short breaks from defending their territories from rival males.

As the parkland emptied of visitors and the sun began to light up the stonework of the monuments, a few photo opportunities presented themselves.

Palladian Bridge

View across main lake towards the Corinthian Arch
Before heading into Buckingham for dinner, I decided that we had to return to Stowe the next day, armed with optics.

If anything, Saturday was even hotter. Good for odes, bad for His Tenseness, but I was driven on by the thought of all those skimmers whizzing to and fro. They did not disappoint, for as we walked around the edge of the main lake, we saw... well, what do you make of it?

How many wings?
Yep, almost immediately, Our Lass spotted a pair engaged in a bit of afternoon delight. They soon transferred to some waterside vegetation, which allowed us a different view.

They can even fly around like this, which is rather impressive, I think!
Normally, once mating is complete, she begins egg-laying by dipping her abdomen into the water as she flies along. Her partner will fly close by, guarding her from rival males. In this particular instance, however, that didn't happen. She landed on a rock and began ovipositing from there, gradually edging along the surface.

Research later revealed that the field guides state in an area where the density of males is high, the females will perch to egg lay, reducing the amount of disturbance they suffer.

Boys will be boys, eh?

Male Black-tailed Skimmer

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Downton. Ah... bee.

After a few weeks, the post-holiday blues weren't wearing off and a spirit-lifting tonic was sorely needed. Cue a trip to the Shropshire - Herefordshire borders for some quality dragon time and a relaxing weekend of gentle walking.

The first port of call was the Long Mynd, above Church Stretton, where near Pole Bank there are some water bodies scattered across the top of the hill. We were not sure what to expect, as most years we don't normally venture this way until mid-August. We definitely seemed to be too early for Common Hawker, Common or Black Darter and Emerald Damselfly. However, we weren't too down-hearted, as there were copious quantities of Four-spotted Chasers and a sprinkling of Emperor Dragonflies, whilst the damsels were all busy exhibiting definite breeding behaviour. We witnessed Large Reds, Common Blues and Azures in tandem, the wheel and ovipositing. In fact, it was so hot that the odes were whizzing about like there was no tomorrow, which made photography a bit of a challenge.

There was also a group of Swifts hunting for insects across the top of the heather, approaching so close to us that we could clearly hear their wings as they scythed through the air.

Small pool near Pole Cottage, with the Stiperstones ridge visible in the distance.
Of the few shots I managed with Very Wrong Len, this male Large Red Damselfly was the most interesting. Not, as I thought at the time, for the prey item it was eating, but rather for the parasites that the damsel was carrying on its lower thorax.

We moved on to Wildmoor Pool, a favourite Odonata pilgrimage spot further along the ridge of the Long Mynd. Again there were Emps and 4SCs and plenty of damsels, Our Lass spotting a single Blue-tailed amongst abundant Large Reds and Common Blues. By searching the flowing water above and below the main pools, we also saw a few Golden-ringed Dragonflies, but these were impossible to approach and disappeared off at a great rate of knots whenever we tried. The best sighting was of a familiar face sat by the main pool. Steve Prentice, one of the two British Dragonfly Society's paid employees, was hiking across the Mynd with his partner Ann. This was quite a find, as I've only ever encountered Steve either behind a computer when I have a technical query, or in front of a lecture room screen, holding together the live IT at a BDS function. We didn't know they let him out in the fresh air!

Next, we meandered our way towards Clun, for a potter around this pretty village, before heading off to our accommodation for the evening. Old Downton Lodge is a pleasant mixture of a restaurant with rooms/hotel/B+B, nestled away above the River Teme, just west of Ludlow.

Our Lass exploring the cottage garden planting in the central courtyard at Downton
As the sun set, and with temperatures still too warm to retire, we sat in the garden, chatting and watching the Swifts, Swallows and House Martins overhead. When they turned in for the night, we switched our attention to the bats for a while, before finally calling it a day ourselves.

The next day was even hotter and Our Lass was keen for some more garden gazing. I was happy with dragons, so it looked like we needed a garden and some water. Perhaps a water garden would do? Close to Pembridge in Herefordshire, there is Westonbury Mill, with 3 acres of streams, ponds, boggy bits, flower beds, meadow and follies. It was just the ticket.

The follies are an absolute delight. There is a stone tower with an ingenious mechanism for raising water into a reservoir hidden within the structure. Every so often, the tank is emptied through one of the gargoyles half way up the tower.

The doves don't seem to mind.
Nearby is a domed fern grotto, whose construction features 5000 wine bottles. The effect from inside the dome is very similar to a stained glass window.

Reflection in pool set into the floor of the grotto.
Out in the wildflower meadow, which was alive with Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterflies, the Spiral Mound is a small hill with a spiralling path winding gently up its side. There is also a Summer House, built from elm and reed mace, which looks distinctly African.

The most recent creation is a cuckoo clock. A fully working cuckoo clock. A cuckoo clock that's really quite large, at least for a... er... cuckoo clock.

Yep, it's house size!
"But what of dragons and damsels?", I hear you cry.

You didn't?


Well listen up anyway, you winged jewel philistines.

There were many damselflies. I mean, very many. Mainly Large Red and Azure, but with the addition of a whole two Blue-tailed. In the streams, were several dozen Beautiful Demoiselles, whose colour variations in the strong sunlight were simply amazing.

Mr Beautiful Demoiselle

Mrs Beautiful Demoiselle
Mr and Mrs, he displaying to her. Zingy blue or what?!
But though I sat and gazed across the ponds, along the streams and up and down the canals, there was nary a dragon. It was 26 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine, what were they waiting for?

Eventually, the heat took its toll on me and we headed for the dappled shade of the flower beds.  In one particular glade, we lingered to enjoy the heady scent of the blooms, the gentle trickling of water across pebbles and the lazy buzz of insects in a patch of sunlight. A sudden movement in the air brought us out of our reverie. A large dragon was hawking to and fro, then landing momentarily on a stem before continuing to hunt again. We both did a double take. A Golden-ringed Dragonfly? In a garden? We normally associate this species with heathland and moors, so this was a pleasant surprise, especially when it finally perched on a piece of vegetation to munch on its prey.

It continued to hunt and feed, allowing us the best views we've ever had of this stunningly gorgeous insect. Its habit of shaping up to land on a plant and then aborting the manoeuvre was  perplexing me, but I put it down to the fact that it was in an odd habitat and perhaps the dragon was a bit confused too.

Another successful hunt brought it ever closer...

And it dawned on me that something wasn't quite right.

Then it caught a bee and settled down to try and chomp its way through all that pollen.

Taking a closer look...

there's damage to at least one of the rear pair of legs, whilst it appears to be only using the middle pair and one of the front pair to grasp the stem. Whether it was using the other front leg to manoeuvre the bee into a better position, I am not sure. Odes will often perch with this pair of legs stowed behind the head, but I've never seen it done singly.

The coating of pollen must have made consuming the bee a tad tricky. I can only possibly liken it to eating a heaped dessert spoon of powdered chocolate. Not that I have tried or would recommend either as a snack.

Monday 8 July 2013

Orkney, June 2013, Part 7

Belatedly, here's the concluding episode of our Orkney trip. This one's all about birds.

Apologies, but with the first photo I'm about five weeks behind. Shoddy work, really.

During our Aikerness peninsula walk, there was a tender moment between a pair of Shags.

OK, I'll say that again, but this time with a straight face. As one bird landed on the cliff face with its wings outspread, its partner performed what we took to be a bonding ritual, arching its head and neck back, raising the crest on its head and calling. I'm guessing that to another Shag, that's quite endearing.

Whilst on Papa Westray, in the company of Sarah, the RSPB warden for the North Hill reserve, we had great views of Guillemots which were breeding on the cliff. Several sea birds, including Guillemots, do not build nests but lay their egg directly onto a narrow ledge. As an adaptation to this environment, the large eggs are pointed so that if knocked, they roll in a tight circle and don't fall off onto the rocks or sea below.

I read recently that Guillemots do have a unique claim to fame, in that their eggs are self-cleaning.

Back on Westray, our walk to Mae Sand was enhanced immeasurably by the presence of a flock of Sanderling. These diminutive waders were probably still heading northwards to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, but we spent a pleasant afternoon in their company, as they fed amongst the seaweed on the strand line of the beach.

Oh, go on, let's have another photo of wadery cuteness...

Our trip to North Ronaldsay coincided with an easterly breeze, which often brings some unexpected, yet pleasant, surprises. JD always seemed to be in the right place at the right time (and I'm pretty sure it wasn't luck!) and picked up some cracking sightings that eluded Our Lass and I: Golden Oriole, Wood Sandpiper and Spotted Flycatcher.

One evening at about 11pm, Mark from the Bird Observatory kindly took us out to Bridesness in the Obs Land Rover to hear a calling Spotted Crake. The metronomic "whip... whip...whip" sounded almost electronic, and reminded me of a test tone used to prove audio circuitry.

Next morning, whilst wandering up the 'main' road of the island, Our Lass casually asked, "Is that a Wheatear on that gate post up ahead?"

To which JD and I gracelessly replied, "Expletive deleted, it's a male further expletive deleted Red-backed Shrike!"

By Ancum Loch, we were fortunate to see a Yellow Wagtail, but the Blue-headed sub-species more commonly found in Scandinavia. The Obs staff informed us that these birds don't usually breed on North Ron, but looked like doing so this year.

Also that evening, Mark spotted, caught and ringed a male Bluethroat (see previous link).

Back on Westray, my fourth lifer for the trip was a pair of Curlew Sandpiper, feeding amongst Redshanks and Ringed Plover at the sheltered western end of the Loch of Swartmill. 

As ever, Orkney and its wildlife had abundantly repaid the effort taken to travel the six hundred and odd miles northwards.

My grateful thanks must go to a long list of folk for making our holiday so enjoyable, with apologies if I've missed anyone out: Linda Hagan (Skaill Cottage); All at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory; the staff at the Pierowall Hotel; Jack's Chippy; Malc at the Westray Heritage Centre; the Haff Yok Cafe; J C Tulloch, Groceries; Hume Sweet Hume; the Papay Peedie Tour; the Wheeling Steen Gallery; Loganair; the Standing Stones Hotel; the sage advice of Shenagh Leiper; Pentland Ferries; Ann and Derek for their hospitality; the Timespan Centre, Helmsdale; Kathleen Drever; Northlink Ferries; Orkney Brewery, and especially Dark Island; the Golden Marianna; Helgi's; Orkney Ferries; the RSPB, for unintentionally providing a rich vein of humour which we mined for two weeks; the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse Visitor Centre; Birsay Tea Rooms; and finally, not forgetting, Our Lass and JD for their infinite patience and good company.