Friday 30 May 2014

Breakfast blog... or not

So, here I am, on holiday with Our Lass, my brother and his wife. In deepest, darkest Perthshire, with trees and deer and stuff.

This morning, during breakfast, I noticed a small bird perched on a wire in the garden...

Yes, dear reader, I had sprinted from the breakfast table, grabbed my camera and returned to the window to blat off several shots of this cute, and increasingly rare, passerine.

But what's this?!

Not singing...

Eurgh! Not a subject for a meal time!

But discussions ensued. Was it a sunflower seed? Not likely, Flycatchers eat er...flies. Perhaps a beetle wing case? Hmm, it looked a bit big for that. So, was it a pellet? Only one way to find out...

It so very was! Sat on the top of the wall, below the wire the bird had perched upon, was a pellet. Being fresh, it was rather squidgy, but with the day heating up and a light breeze in evidence, I thought it best to grab the pellet before it dried and blew away.

My dear brother wasn't so impressed that, halfway through his breakfast, his nutty sibling was busy improvising with whatever he could find (a till receipt, two pebbles and a hair grip) to look at all the small, indigestible bits of insect that a Spotted Flycatcher doesn't want.

Natural history heaven :o)

Monday 26 May 2014

Furnishing four further facts
A while back, through a blogpost and its comments, I&T surmised upon the origins of the sand that has appeared adjacent to Churchill Barrier 4 in the intervening years since the barrier's construction.

More recently, a letter in The Orcadian newspaper held a clue to solve the mystery.

The letter writer, Morris Pottinger (who I understand once lived on Orkney, but now resides on the other side of the Pentland Firth in Caithness), was discussing a problem associated with the ferry port of Burwick  in South Ronaldsay.

The paragraphs that particularly caught my eye were:

"I studied old pre-war tidal charts and new post-war ones, and was struck by the difference from pre-Churchill Barriers and afterwards in relation to the Lothar Rock outside Burwick.

Pre-war, the tides did indeed hasten on flood or ebb past the Lothar, but after 1945 the flow increased massively at that point on the south-east corner of South Ronaldsay.

The effect of this changed, and increased, flow on Caithness is that no longer does shell sand come in at John o' Groats, Duncansby or the other shell sand beaches we had.

A look at the east side of the Barrier between Burray and South Ronaldsay tells you where it now lodges. Not too far to find a reason.

The four channels now Barriered no longer allow ebb and flow to pass through, channelling all the  tides either direction past the Lothar..."

In the above map (pre-barriers!), Burray can be seen top right, Burwick is on the south-west corner of South Ronaldsay and Duncansby Head is shown in the north-east corner of Caithness, on the Scottish mainland.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Thilent Thurthday

'X' marks the spot

Today sees polling stations open across the UK, as the population is encouraged to vote in the election for the European Parliament.

There's a good deal of ranting by politicians as to whether EU membership is a good thing or not. One camp tends to play on fears of 'foreigners' and the centralisation of powers in another country, whilst the other camp promotes the economic benefits for businesses and workers, as well as funding for major infrastructure projects.

As if anything could be so cut and dried.

The whole malarkey is further complicated by the fact that, inevitably, the results will be seen to be a marker for next year's general election in the UK. And as far as Scotland is concerned, the more pressing matter of the independence referendum in September this year.

For Our Lass and I, reappraisal has become the norm of late. A new home, new jobs, living in a different country - these are all big changes, which have rippled out into other facets of our lives. So it's no surprise that I am wondering afresh where to place my vote.

Now, we don't reside in a village, let alone a town, so I wasn't expecting anyone knocking on the door to canvass my vote. Various political parties did send us mail, which focussed upon the points which they thought would bring them the most success. But it wasn't possible to enter into any sort of dialogue over what I might want.

I did email the political party I normally vote for, raising a few questions about Europe and challenging them to convince me to maintain my loyalty. I received a short, automated message along the lines that not all emails could receive a reply.  

Fortunately, help arrived in the form of a link embedded in a fellow blogger's post. This led me to a website that allowed users to check which party is closest to their beliefs. I had to answer 30 questions and I was then presented with a graph, showing how strongly each party's manifesto sync'd with the Tense world view.

The most interesting part of the exercise was that it wasn't how 'close' at all, but was a matter of 'not too far'. I had answered the questions with wildlife in mind, this being the main driver for me. No single party and I had above 50% agreement, but two parties stood out as being least worst, with 47% agreement (the worst party was a lowly 5%).

Pleasingly, on some level at least, one of these two was the party that I had been contemplating as being the recipient of my 'X'. But it would seem to be the case that politicians, in general, don't see nature, wildlife or habitat as a big issue. Shame on them.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Joining the dots

The local Orkbird text and email messaging service was busy this weekend with reports of a small group of Dotterel frequenting fields in Deerness.

The Dotterel is a an Amber List status bird in the UK. On Orkney, it is listed as a rare visitor.

In a change to traditional roles, the female Dotterel has much brighter plumage than the male. Indeed, it is the male that bears the responsibility for raising the young. How very 21st Century of it.

When the initial notification went out on Saturday morning, I was at work on the opposite side of the island. By the time I was free to go Dotterel dotty in the afternoon, it was raining and not particularly conducive to lugging a camera around.

Sunday started wet too, but gradually improved through the morning. Our Lass and I nipped into Kirkwall, before wandering from Scapa Beach along a part of the Crantit Trail. The scrub and wetland areas held several 'singing' male Reed Buntings and a Sedge Warbler. We had arranged a lunch engagement in Burray, and while driving across the Barriers, I received another Dotterel update. They were still there! But once again, I would have to be patient until later in the afternoon.

Once we reached Deerness, we left the car at the small parking area for the Covenanters' Memorial and walked a circular route around the tracks and lanes until we came upon the field said to contain a small group of three Dotterel.

A car was parked at the easterly edge of the field, and a camera lens was visible. This was a good sign! Even better, the occupant of the car was a chap we had met on North Ronaldsay the previous year, so whilst we had a chat to catch up, we were able to use his car as a hide, so as not to make the birds nervous at our presence. We were very grateful for this, though in truth, the birds were very confiding.

Charadrius morinellus
In one of those  odd coincidences that occur from time to time, next weekend is the Orkney Folk Festival. One of the bands performing over the course of the weekend is Shooglenifty. One of the tracks from their Murmichan album is entitled 'The Dotteral'.

It's a double album

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Throw those curtains wide

Many of my recent blogposts have been initiated by what has been seen from the windows when I opened the curtains each morning. Despite the apparent dearth of trees on Orkney (as, elsewhere, these are perhaps most folks' perception of the changing seasons), there is a great deal of variety in my morning vistas.

At this point, dear reader, feel free to break into a rousing chorus of Elbow's One Day Like This (it's the bit at 3.20 in the video).

So having thrown those curtains wide this particular morning, I was pleasantly surprised to discover bright sunshine and not a breath of wind. The cliffs of Dunnet Head on the Scottish mainland were carefully highlighted, features on the distant hillsides of Hoy were intricately picked out and, in the meadow over the road, motionless Dandelions heads stood carefully to attention, mimicking the stationary wind turbines in neighbouring fields. Holm Sound and Scapa Flow were as calm and flat as the proverbial mill pond and the rattling songs of Starlings filtered through the still air from the nearby farm.

Driving to work, it was obvious that this glorious morning was affecting all and sundry. There were many more tractors on the road, as farmers were taking full advantage of the respite to till, harrow or sow. The verges are slowly changing from the yellows of Daffodils, Dandelions, Coltsfoots and Cowslips and, instead, are gradually taking on the muted pale lilac of Cuckooflowers and the zingy, electric pink of Red Campion.

As I crested the rise above Kirkwall, the view across the town revealed the cruise liner Discovery docked at Hatston Pier, whilst the tall spire of St Magnus Cathedral was outlined against the bluey silver, brushed steel mirror that was Wide Firth.

Even a delay through roadworks, en route to Stromness, could not dampen the joyous mood and optimism of a beautiful Orcadian morn. Sat in a convoy, trundling along the coast road at 10mph, allowed ample opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of Keelylang Hill, the Bay of Firth and everything in between.

Passed Finstown and on through the Neolithic scenery of Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, this really is a commute to savour. And even at journey's end, just before rural gave way to town, there was one last field offering up a Hare.

It proper sets you up for the day.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Never too old to learn

A previous blogpost, concerning a power cut that plunged much of northern Scotland into darkness, had an brooding air of foreshadowing about it. However, do not worry, we're not talking about a plot full of twists and turns to rival a Scandinavian detective cardigan-fest.

My brother and his wife visited us last month, in an attempt to understand what the heck Our Lass and I are playing at by moving to 59 degrees North. As the dutiful host, I felt obliged to entertain our guests as best I could and, as neither of them drinks beer, I decided to increase their sum of knowledge by traipsing over to Quoyloo and the Orkney Brewery Visitor Centre for a tour of the premises.

Regular readers will recall, with an amount of long-suffering weariness, that I am partial to the occasional pint of Dark Island. So how excited was I to witness it being lovingly brewed? Very!

During the years when we had holidayed on the mainland of Orkney, the Visitor Centre was not up and running. Since its opening, we had holidayed predominantly on the outer isles and not had the opportunity to visit. Time to correct that gross error, methinks.

But first, in time-honoured fashion, before we became embroiled in the science of creating a pint of beer, we had a cup of tea and a cake. By some strange quirk of Fate, mine had Dragonhead stout in it.

The Tasting Hall cafe was housed in the original building where the brewery began its life. But this wasn't the first use of the structure for, in a previous existence, it had been the school house for the village. To honour this fact, many of the artefacts from the school were on display on the walls, and the tables and chairs had an oddly familiar look about them, too.

On the tables, old inkwells were now home to packets of sugar.

Some relics from the time when the building was a school.

No school bell, but a whistle for the Headmistress.
Suitably sustained, we were led by our genial guide into the brew house. Here we were shown (and allowed to sample) the various stages of roast cereal that are used for brewing a range of beers.
Pale, Crystal and Chocolate Malts
Of course, another ingredient of beer is hops, and we were allowed to a peedie taste of this too.

Quite citrusy, it was.
On the wall of the brew house was a large diagram explaining the whole process...

The malt and warm water (heated by energy recovery from another part of the process) are first placed in the Mash Tun to convert the cereal starch into sugar. The 'wort' produced is then fed to a Copper or Kettle, where the hops are added and the whole lot boiled.

Mash Tun (right) and Copper (left)
From the copper, the wort is cooled quickly in a heat exchanger and sent to a fermentation vessel, where the yeast is added.

During the fermentation process, the sugars are turned to alcohol.

Once fermentation is complete, the beer can be conditioned either in a cask or a bottle.

As we were technically still at school, there was time for a bit of homework...

Which malts were used for (left to right) Red Mcgregor, Dark Island and Northern Light, do you think?

Saturday 10 May 2014

What a grey day

Today (Saturday) has been an inauspicious one, weatherwise.Grey cloud, frequent showers and a chilly north easterly wind.

Yet a mere 24 hours ago, we had as beautiful an Orcadian evening as ever I recall. Not a breath of wind, enough cloud to make an interesting sunset and the landscape alive with wildlife.

Our Lass and I pottered down to the shore by St Nicholas Kirk, then round by Greenwall and back home (which still needs a blog name, eh?). Oystercatcher, Curlew, Snipe, Lapwing and Redshank filled the air with their calls and flight displays. Hares ambled up the track ahead of us, before shifting gear to tear off across a field. Swallows swooped low over pools and meadows, making the most of the available food resource. A group of ten Arctic Terns called raucously from overhead as they flew northwards, whilst a solitary Bonxie glided off across Scapa Flow. Great Northern Divers fished in the bay and a small flock of Turnstones clambered over the rocky shore.

It was an evening to savour, so no camera to consume my attention, just bins for ID purposes and a phone for skyshots...

St Nicholas Kirk
View across Howes Wick
View across Holm Sound
Sunset from Hurtiso
Then, once back home, I dug out the camera for a sunset shot. Rather than risk missing it, I didn't even stop to change lenses, so this is with the 300mm one.

It didn't come out as I'd hoped, so was destined for the Recycle Bin. However... because I was using Live View to protect my eyes (rather than stare into the viewfinder and burn my retinas), I didn't notice the three sunspots until later, when reviewing the image on the computer.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Numeracy for floo-ers

... in which the unit of measurement will be the Spring Squill, Scilla verna.

Lesson 1 - Counting

One Squill
Two Squill

Wordless Wednesday - Home from Holm

Monday 5 May 2014

Oystercatchers - it's not all they do

Some mornings I'm a little nervous about opening the curtains, because you just never know what you'll discover out there.

Today's treat was an Oystercatcher, intent upon ridding the garden of worms.

I am wondering if this is a lady Oyc (they're not easy to tell apart), as she appears to have a set of muddy footprints on her back. Perhaps from a gentleman wader bird.

How ever might that have occurred, I wonder?!

Older readers may recall an episode of the 1970s sitcom Sykes, where Eric's sister Harriet returns from answering the door. If I remember correctly, she was wearing a white dress and the caller had been the coalman and Harriet now had a pair of black hand prints on her behind. Conversely, she may have been wearing a black dress and it was the baker! Ah, such innocent days.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Anya Jenkins was correct...

This is a hare, feeding in the field across the road from our home. I'm rather fond of hares, in a 'where there's hares, the world hasn't gone to hell in a handcart' kind of way, as opposed to an 'on the menu' way. It's a difficult emotion to rationalise, but for me it's part a spiritual symbol of Spring, part a love of wildlife in general and part a memory of the long ago, carefree days of childhood.

Hares were introduced to Britain during the Iron Age, so I'm guessing that there's an amount of pre-Christian myth and magic associated with the animal. In fact, hares are symbolic in many religions, so perhaps I'm not alone in my spiritual sojourn.

To obtain better hare shots, either I would need to be closer (not really feasible, they're a bit jumpy), or they would need to be closer, which means that they would be feeding in my garden. I am told that one of the many threats to our willow planting will be from hares eating the new growth.

Y'know, for great views of hares, I'm probably willing to sacrifice a bit of willow.


this isn't a hare, it's a rabbit.

In our garden...

trying to ingratiate itself into my affections by eating dock plants.

But I'm not so easily convinced of its intentions or yet ready to accept it as a loyal ally in the fight against the dark forces of Dockhood.

Its sense of curiosity will eventually and inevitably bring it into contact with willow saplings and all manner of recently-planted juicy annuals and herbaceous perennials.

Rabbits were introduced to Britain in the 12th Century, after the Norman invasion of these isles. They are documented as being in Orkney from at least the 17th Century. So, whilst I am attempting not to channel the spirit of Mr McGregor, my trust has been put on hold, as I recall the words of the late, lamented Anya Jenkins*...

"Bunnies aren't just cute like everybody supposes, They've got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses. And what's with all the carrots? What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?"

* Sorry, another Buffy reference, I'm afraid.