Sunday 31 August 2014

Waste not, want not

Yesterday, dear put-upon reader, I began a blog post with a bit of a whinge about a temporary lack of mains water at OTT. It was only a bijou rantette and I'd hoped you wouldn't overly notice.

Y' see, we do not have a cold water storage tank at OTT, mains water is fed directly to the cold taps and we live near the top of a low hill. So any loss of pressure following a burst pipe in the area and we're one of the first households to be affected. The mitigation is that we keep a supply of bottled water handy for drinking and washing, whilst using the waste washing water to flush the lavatory.

It certainly makes you realise just how much we all seem to take a plentiful supply of clean water for granted. It's important stuff as, let's face it, by volume, it is the main ingredient in a cup of tea.

But then, what of all the empty plastic bottles?

Well, at the moment, Our Lass is busy propagating cuttings of all manner of leafy things. With the bases removed the 5 litre bottles are just the ticket for hot-housing on the windowsill.

And I'm pondering if I can create a row of mini cloches for the garden. There's just the small problem of the wind speed to consider...

The Pound Sterling and Plan B

OK, you can relax, this has absolutely nothing to do with the upcoming Scottish Referendum, or the debate surrounding a possible currency union or otherwise.

As the weather was so peachy this morning, bright sunshine and hardly a breath of wind, we spent a bit of time in the garden. Our Lass weeding the one border that has been half-tamed and me shifting some rocks from an adjoining paddock, that the local farmer was happy for me to take.

The pile of rocks were left over from the renovation of a dry stone wall, so Mother Nature had started to reclaim them beneath a covering of grass, buttercup and dock. I gradually unearthed the lumps of stone and transported them across to OTT, building another cairn for later use around the property. Towards the bottom of the pile, I discovered a bundle of dried grass that looked for all the world like the nest of a rodent, perhaps a mouse or vole. On closer inspection, however, it became apparent that the occupants were, in fact, bees.

I quickly took a few photos with my phone and replaced a slab over the nest, so as not to disturb the bees too much. Posting the pics on the local Facebook insect group page brought confirmation that bees do occasionally re-use rodent nests, though whether with permission or not was harder to gauge!

I think that in the last pic, towards the bottom of the shot, it's just possible to make out the comb. Sadly, none of the photos were useful in IDing the species of bee.

Saturday 30 August 2014

It's been a funny old day

07.15 Stagger out of bed, make way to kitchen on autopilot, turn on cold tap to fill kettle. Nothing, not a drop. Arse! Make a pot of tea with bottled water and stagger back to bed to contemplate having to go to work without having a shower.

09.00 Set off for work and drive past the scene of the burst pipe... exactly where it was previously, when it happened three weeks ago.

12.00 Whilst sorting through a bag of donated items at the re-use yard, a work colleague discovers this...

Very dead, very desiccated, not native to Orkney. May well have been dead before it made the journey to these isles from gods-know-where.

16.30 Back home again and there's a knock at the door. Open it to discover a policeman. Just as he begins to explain the reason for the visit, I notice a Hen Harrier flying behind him. It slowly glides over the road and begins to make its way along the fence of the field opposite. I hurriedly try to gauge the odds of being arrested if I run for my camera and then barge the boy-in-blue out of the way. Apparently there'd been some vandalism at the church up the road. Probably not related to the Hen Harrier.

17.00 Following the departure of the local constabulary, we sit outside with a medicinal beverage and are astounded to see a single, small, greeny-brown bird fly into the tallest vegetation in the garden, a clump of thistles. As it lands, it emits a single "Wheet" call and then remains silent, but flits in and out of the stems for a minute or two, before flying straight past us and over the house. Everything pointed to Chiffchaff. We are elated. Five miles down the coast, they're fighting off Barred and Booted Warblers, Pied Flycatchers and Wrynecks. We don't care. Much.

17.45 Our Lass shouts from the kitchen that there's a ship steaming past the Rose Ness lighthouse.

She's nearly right!

It's been a funny old day.

Thursday 28 August 2014


North Ron trip 23-24 August 2014, Part 2

Hmmm, are you thinking, "Wait a minute, he ended Part 1 by leaving the island. How the heck is there a Part 2?"

Well, the first episode was more about mood and atmosphere, whilst this final instalment concerns birds... mostly birds.

For this visit, Our Lass and I limited ourselves to pottering around the south of the island, foregoing the culinary pleasures of the North Ronaldsay Trust's cafe, located in one of the former lighthouse keeper's cottages at the far end of the island.

Not for us a full-English-breakfast-fuelled frantic dash to the most northerly cafe in Orkney, nor even a mad calorie-burning twitchfest to try to locate the Common Rosefinch that had been seen with the local finch flocks for several days. Nope, although we did partake of a full English, instead we ambled passed Holland House, down to Bridesness and then back again via the beach of South Bay. After a light salad lunch at the Obs, we maintained a slow pace down to the pier and around the south west coast, before heading inland to the airfield and our flight back to the sprawling mega-tropolis of Kirkwall.

But banish such urban thoughts from your mind and simply enjoy a few photos of feathered and fleeced fauna, glimpsed and garnered on our perambulations of this picturesque isle.

Purple Sandpipers, Calidris maritima, near Twingness

I suspect that this is a Willow Warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus, at Bridesness

Sanderling, Calidris alba, in South Bay

A juvenile Ringed Plover, Charadrius hiaticula, in South Bay

Fulmar, Fulmaris glacialis, over dunes at South Bay

Several young Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica, waiting to be fed at South Bay

North Ronaldsay sheep, Ovis sp., near Twingness

Snipe, Gallinago gallinago, in Gretchen Loch

Wednesday 27 August 2014

North Ron trip 23-24 August 2014, Part 1

I wanted to give Our Lass a special treat for our wedding anniversary, so was considering an overnight stay with half board at an Orkney hotel. A bit of research, earlier in the week, had narrowed down the choices to either the Foveran (a good 'restaurant with rooms' sort of place) or the Bird Observatory on North Ronaldsay.

As it turned out, even with return flights, the Bird Obs was the better deal, and I knew for a fact that Our Lass would appreciate some quality tiny island time. Then I checked the meteorology (a prudent course of action in these parts) and noticed that going a week early would give us some absolutely peachy weather.

So last weekend, off we went to North Ron. I should add that, due to work commitments, the only flight I could make on Saturday afternoon was the 16.00, which only had one seat available. I took a risk, booked Our Lass on the previous flight and promised that I wouldn't miss mine, as spending an anniversary weekend apart wouldn't have been the most romantic of situations!

Fortunately, all went according to plan, and we spent a wonderful twenty four hours on North Ronaldsay. Big blue skies, scudding white clouds, azure seas, white sandy beaches, dry stane dykes, rugged coastal scenery [happy sigh].

What speed limit?
Dry stane dyke at Bridesness

A dreamy South Bay

Following the clowgang, the sheep track outside the perimeter wall

Cloudscape from South Bay

Scattered memories of bygone times

Gretchen Loch

A fond farewell, as we fly past the lighthouse and old beacon

Friday 22 August 2014

Gettin' tufty with it

That venerable and august wildlife NGO, the RSPB (or rspb, as it often is these days), has launched a campaign to promote the inclusion of Nature in political parties' manifestos ahead of the UK General Election in 2015.

A noble and necessary endeavour, I hope you would agree. Wildlife and habitats should be on the political agenda, and not just as the things that are obliterated and trashed to make a quick buck.

The campaign is Vote for Bob

However... (you knew there'd be a 'however', didn't you?), the RSPB's choice of a figurehead for the campaign is a little odd, or as they put it, "innovative" and "quirky".

It's a Red Squirrel.

Called Bob.

Who has a pet snail named Brian (this could be him?)

It just all seems a little... Wildlife Explorers. Though to be fair, how often have you thought that a parliamentary debate sounded like a bunch of unruly school children running wild, so maybe Raspberry are onto something.

I've had a nice letter from a nice RSPB man in Edinburgh, letting me know that Bob won't be making too much of a fuss in our neck of the woods until after the Scottish independence referendum.

But, presumably, Bob actually lives in England, so is he based at RSPB HQ, near Sandy? A quick search on the NBN Gateway showed that the last recorded sighting of a Red Squirrel in Bedfordshire was in 1996. Even camped under the bird feeders and with pine cones on tap, a Red Squirrel from then wouldn't live long enough to be still around now.

This would either indicate that Bob is elsewhere and 'working from home' through the magic of the internet, or the RSPB have been suppressing mammal records to keep Bob's name and location secret, as those Greys can be complete and utter trolls.

Either way, I think we can rest assured that the era of lobbying government with scientific facts is over. Well, it didn't work too well for badgers or habitats, did it?

Sunday 17 August 2014

Seize the moment

Orkney is a landscape with big skies where the power of nature is both very visible and incredibly awe-inspiring. More prosaically, this means that weather forecasting can be done on the hoof and, if necessary, the decision taken to high-tail it for cover or dash for a camera.

In fact, toting a camera at all times is almost obligatory, if a little impractical.

As my DSLR is normally fitted with a 300mm lens, in the eternal but faint hope of dragons, it is a bit of a lump to carry around, as well as being unsuited to landscape shots. Thankfully, mobile phones conveniently step into this photographic breach.

Some of our weather is very ephemeral, so being in the right place, at the right time and also facing in the right direction is rather essential. For instance, this morning, looking up from the book I was reading in bed revealed a rainbow just down the road.

Mobile phone through a rainy bedroom window
Later in the day, I glanced out of the lounge window and saw an even more transient meteorological moment. Away over the other side of Scapa Flow, a shower was crossing the island of Hoy. A few of the foot hills were picked out by a diffuse spectral paintbrush, not so much a rainbow, more of a rain splodge.

DSLR from front door
Orkney seems to be a place that lends itself to seeing odd bits of rainbows, though I guess it probably happens everywhere, just not so visibly.

In the spirit of carpe diem, when Our Lass nipped outside to check the temperature and wind speed, we discovered a harvestman on the threshold [he said, segueing seamlessly from seven colours of the rainbow to eight legs of the arachnid] and it was swiftly recorded for posterity.

If you go down to the woods today...

The big surprise, this being Orkney, is that there was a wood to go to, in any direction. Ok, I suppose Olav's Wood isn't that large, but in the context of the supposedly treeless Orkney, it is a veritable forest.

Located in a valley on the east side of South Ronaldsay, the wood is a mixture of habitats and planting. Late Summer (as it is here) probably wasn't the best time to sample its delights, but as a means to escape a stiff northerly wind, it fitted the bill perfectly.

Paths wind sinuously through scrub and wood

Bench, bridge, burn

The path often runs alongside the burn

A small glade between conifer, willow and rose

Rosa rugosa avenue

Common Carder Bee on Devilsbit Scabious

We are still in Orkney, aren't we?

Monday 11 August 2014

The big question,Yes or No?

Almost from the first moment we moved to Orkney (an archipelago which has been under Scottish control since 1468), there has been a big question hanging in the air. A question as yet unanswered, but one that will be resolved before the next UK general election in 2015. 

It is a question with significant local ramifications, but one which is global in its reach. In fact, its roots are just about as far flung as you can be from here. And to be brutally honest, as English incomers, we wondered if it was entirely appropriate for us to be part of the debate at all.

Our Lass and I have talked it through, argued over it and changed our individual stances more than once. On wild and windy walks in Winter, on sheltered Spring saunters and, lately, on jousting July jaunts. However, in recent days, I feel that a consensus has been reached and a decision will be made soon.

Aye, in a sudden u-turn, whose g-forces would come as no surprise to many a Westminster politician, our policy of only using native plants in our garden has spun 180 degrees around the compass, as we contemplate the introduction of New Zealand Flax, Phormium tenax.

Surely you didn't think I was referring to the other big question? See here and here.

From the off, we had wanted to establish a garden that was big on native planting, so as to maximise the habitat opportunities for native wildlife and promote biodiversity. You see, the problem with non-native plants, even if they are not invasive, is that they all too easily reduce the available space for native plants. And other native wildlife has evolved to live in, on and around native plants.

So a vote for non-native plants can potentially reduce the biodiversity of the area. Tricky, eh?

OK, you may well ask, why has New Zealand Flax suddenly become so de rigueur? Put simply, it's because it can survive in the Orcadian climate (i.e. windy and wet), can provide shelter for more tender plants and other wildlife, is very architectural and can produce this effect when it flowers...

Sunday 10 August 2014

The calm after one storm and before another

After yesterday's rain that washed out the County Show in Kirkwall and brought a touch of muddy Glastonbury to the proceedings, today was absolutely gorgeous. Never mind that the remnants of ex Hurricane Bertha are headed our way for tomorrow, today we enjoyed the sunshine.

I find it quite heartening, with all this 'ex hurricane' stuff, that we're recycling someone else's weather, rather than wasting precious resources on coming up with our own name for it.

To give you a sense of just how nice a day it was, up here in jolly old Orkney, Our Lass was persuaded to go for a walk BEFORE breakfast. Uh huh, that's how meteorologically fabby it's been!

As we wandered down the road towards St Nicholas' Kirk, a female Hen Harrier drifted over the fields, pursued at a respectable distance by a flock of Starlings. A large group of Curlew were spooked into the air by the raptor, but soon settled down again after it had passed. Incidentally, today is Hen Harrier Day in England, a day of peaceful protest at the persecution of the species. There are fewer Hen Harriers in England now than in 1981 when they were given legal protection.

The bays either side of the church were looking splendid. 

Plenty of waders were visible on the shoreline, including Redshank, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Curlew and Golden Plover.

We made our way to the cliffs at the Bay of Semolie and sat watching Fulmars, Great Skuas and numerous gulls gliding back and forth along the coast.

Eventually, the lure of a cooked breakfast became too much to bear and we headed for home. By now, there were loads of butterflies on the wing, mainly Small Tortoiseshells, but with a Red Admiral, a Painted Lady and a Green-veined White thrown in for good measure.

And some day-flying moths.

We had worked up quite an appetite too.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Northern lights

As the sun set this evening, I stepped out of the front door with my camera, to take a few photos from the step, before the light faded too much for hand held shots.

From OTT, we can see five different lighthouses. Below are photos of two of them.

First, a familiar view to readers of this blog, Dunnet Head light on the north coast of Scotland, some twelve miles distant across the Pentland Firth. The light flashes white, four times every thirty seconds.

And then, just visible above the roof of a byre of the neighbouring farm, Pentland Skerries light, situated on Muckle Skerry, off South Ronaldsay, about seven and a half miles distant, out in the Pentland Firth. The light flashes white, three times every thirty seconds.

Friday 8 August 2014

Autumn migration and the art of serendipitous lateness

Yesterday morning we were supposed to leave the house early, as we had been tasked with helping out at the Dounby Show, organised by the West Mainland Agricultural Society.

Our Lass and I were part of the pinny posse for the East versus West Cook Off on the Orkney Zerowaste 'Love Food, Hate Waste' stand. There's photos on the OZ Facebook page, if you're that interested in seeing me in a pinny, but just don't expect me to make your life easy and link to it!

Anyway, as is the way of these things, we didn't quite hit our marks and were a bit tardy in our morning routine. We were still odding about with stuff, well after our intended departure time, when Our Lass pointed out a bird flying past the lounge window. It took me a few seconds to cross the room and grab my bins, so all I managed to see was the back end of a bird, brown above, white below, with much barring.

Probably a Sparrowhawk, I thought. At which point, it turned sharp left and flew off across a field, presenting a side view of pointed wings and an odd wing beat that just screamed Cuckoo.

Flying low to the ground, it kept disappearing behind a ridge, then re-appearing and disappearing again. Eventually, it landed on a fence post at the far side of the field. Our Lass also disappeared, clambering on to the wooden seats at the front of the house for a better view. I scrambled for my camera, before joining her on the adjacent chair.

There was just time to grab a few long range photos before the bird took to the air once more and was gone. Later in the day, after sharing this image with folk eminently more qualified than me to comment on bird ID, the consensus was juvenile Cuckoo.

I don't know about you, but I find this part of the Cuckoo's life cycle just as amazing as all the brood parasite stuff. If your mum and dad don't bother to build a nest or take the time and trouble to raise a family themselves, by the time you're ready to migrate south to West Africa for the Winter, there's no-one to accompany you or show you the way. That's a journey of 5000 miles into the unknown, on your own. Incredible.

And jolly decent of it to fly past our window.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Zoiks! Oycs!

In the absence of any oysters to catch, here's some Oystercatchers doing what Oycs do best. Feeding, bathing, preening, loafing, displaying, flying...