Saturday 24 December 2016

End of an era

After a rather stormy night (gale, hail, thunder and lightning), this morning we awoke to discover that our landline and associated broadband had been knocked out. We've been here before, eh? Coupled with that thought, there were sad scenes at the local Library and Archive yesterday, as social media guru and madcap librarian Stewart Bain, put in his last shift before leaving for pastures new. The moment was captured for posterity and plastered, appropriately enough, all over Facebook. See here.

Upon viewing the video, Our Lass (who was already at a low emotional ebb worrying whether Second Born would make it to Orkney for the festivities before Storm Barbara intervened) promptly burst into tears.

[Sobs] "It was when he stroked her face!"

Folk up here really appreciate their library.

Which neatly brings me to a shameless repost of an earlier blog from three years ago, when we were sans broadband and falling in love with the books and IT possibilities of Orkney Library and Archive. See here.

And here's the Library's blogpost from yesterday.

Right, I'm off to hide, before Our Lass figures out how to log on to the satellite broadband feed and reads this.

Friday 16 December 2016

Diffplacement activity

I took this photograph yesterday, when I should've been working...

Thursday 15 December 2016

Planet Earth II

I've kept quiet about this one. Left it on the backburner. But I can't refrain any longer.

Planet Earth II, the BBC's flagship natural documentary series of 2016, is the sequel to the original Planet Earth series, first broadcast in 2006. The photos in this post can be found on the BBC webpage for the programme here.

This time around, there have been six episodes, each one covering a different habitat: Islands; Mountains; Jungles; Deserts; Grasslands; and Cities. And each one exquisitely filmed, featuring a world of wonderful natural history and presented by the incomparable Sir David Attenborough. The behind-the-scenes technology was amazing, allowing the lives of the animal subjects to be captured in minute and intricate detail: the panoramic landscape vistas; the aerial shots of thronging herds of creatures; and the back stories of the camera teams. It has all been so absolutely fantastic.

I didn't like it. There, I've said it. Even after six weeks, I can't explain why, but it just feels like a missed opportunity.

Sure, we know more now than we did in October. Everyone went nuts with horror at the racer snakes hunting down the just-emerged iguanas. Without ever wondering what the snakes got up to for the other 51 weeks of the year.

How we chuckled at the bears scratching their itches on tree trunks (to some suitably 'funny' music). Though I will admit that I pondered whether this behaviour was the basis for the Baloo the Bear scratching scene in The Jungle Book.

We marvelled at the rare, at the exotic, and at the mind-bogglingly numerous.

But do we now care more about the environment? Would we heave our wonder-filled bodies up off the sofa and actually go outside and stand up for nature? Are we even aware of which species are facing the most severe threats of extinction, across the globe, on our continent, within the borders of our own countries, on our doorsteps?

Probably not.

And that's what irks me most. We slaver over the footage, voyeuristically entertained by story lines that verge upon the anthropomorphic. We endow predator/prey relationships with evil/good scenarios that just aren't there. It's a glossy magazine of faunal porn, and we lap it up.

For instance, take the Pygmy three-toed sloth (pictured above). It opened the series at the beginning of the Islands programme, a male searching for a mate. He swam between two small islands, following the call of a receptive female, but only found a female who already had a baby (and so wouldn't be ready to mate). As the forlorn denouement approached, the 'playing-hard-to-get' female called again, the camera panned across an idyllic scene of paradisiacal exoticness and Sir D intoned "At least she can't be far away."

That's because Pygmy three-toed sloths are endemic to the Isla Escudo de Veraguas, a tiny habitat of 1.7 square miles of tropical island off the coast of Panama. Nothing is very far away, let alone a vanishingly rare lady sloth with salacious urges to postpone extinction for at least one more generation.

What a wonderful opportunity to expand upon a little island biogeography, yet sadly missed.

Week after week, habitat after habitat, it was gorgeous viewing but agonisingly light on ecological imperatives. It's probably time to add my sanity to the Critically Endangered list.

Saturday 10 December 2016

My week in skies

OK, I admit it, I've been sky-ving at work again. Well, at this time of year, the non-work time tends to be dark, so when else am I supposed to get my fix of cloudscapes? Apart from the weekend, obvs.

Monday in Kirkwall. Waiting to catch a ferry in daylight. Yay!

Wednesday in Stromness. Freaky rainbow fragment.

Saturday in Stromness. Not actually work, but volunteering for a charity. 
The use of the car roof as a reflective medium was accidental. Apologies that it's not in Focus, as it's a Fiesta.

Friday 9 December 2016

"So he laid down and he died"

Is it OK to title an obituary post with such a line, even if it is taken from the last verse of one of the recently-departed's earliest compositions?

Here are some prophetic words from 1969, which still resonate in the present, from the King Crimson track 'Epitaph', sung by Greg Lake.

"Knowledge is a deadly friend
 If no-one sets the rules.
 The fate of all mankind, I see,
 Is in the hands of fools."

On Thursday, this week, it was this song which sprung to mind in the numbing silence and hollow blackness I felt on hearing the sad news of Greg's passing. I was going to write that his voice and lyrics scripted my late teens, but that would be woefully inaccurate. Jings, the guy influenced my world view for decades, mainly along with his fellow band members of ELP (Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer) and also his song-writing collaborator Pete Sinfield.

Tonight, I'm listening to tunes from King Crimson (1969), ELP (1970-79), Greg's solo stuff (1981-83), Emerson, Lake and Powell (1986) and ELP (1992).

In 'Battlefield' from ELP's Tarkus album, it was clear that he didn't warm to war: 

"Clear the battlefield and let me see
 All the profit from our victory.
 You talk of freedom, starving children fall.
 Are you deaf when you hear the seasons call?

Religion got short shrift, too, in songs like 'Mass' (Tarkus) and 'I Believe In Father Christmas' (eventually released on Works Volume 2), but a few lines in 'Hallowed Be Thy Name' (from Works Volume 1) showed a, maybe, subtler understanding:

"You needn't be well to be wealthy
 But you've got to be whole to be holy."

There were early signs of environmentalism in 'Knife Edge' from ELP's debut album in 1970, but perhaps Greg's most ecological song was 1992's 'Black Moon' from the ELP album of the same name:

"Just take a look around the world
 The future never waits
 We're skating on thin ice
 And we're in the hands of Fate.
 What we need's a little re-direction
 To find our blue lagoon.
 You know, it wouldn't come
 A moment too soon.
 Black Moon."

Any of these lyrics would be a fitting epitaph, I reckon.

Rest in peace, Greg.

Sunday 4 December 2016

To be shore, to be shore, to be shore

Over the course of this weekend, I have visited the coast near home on three separate occasions. The first two were walks with Our Lass, as part of her ongoing convalescence from knee surgery, the circular trip featuring a good mix of ascent and descent in its two and a bit miles. The final visit was me on my own, with just a camera for company.

Have a guess when I saw all the good stuff?

Saturday saw us postpone lunchtime until we'd walked down to St Nicholas' Kirk, by the shore of Holm Sound. It was a better day than forecast, with much more sunshine than expected. Not particularly warm, mind, but with only the gentlest of breezes. As we neared the kirk, flocks of birds were taking to the skies from the shoreline, a sure sign that something had spooked them. Sorting through the gulls, waders and ducks, we eventually spotted the culprit, a Peregrine falcon, which made several passes along the beach in an attempt to grab a meal.

As we began the climb back towards home, some pools in an adjacent field contained a couple of dozen Teal, the males looking especially resplendent in the low Winter sunlight. Turning our gaze back to the road, we just had time to see... something... disappear into the grass verge. It was probably a Moorhen, but in the brief view available, my instinct said Water Rail. I've not heard the call of one of these elusive birds in Orkney, never mind seen one, but this occasion would have to be chalked up to 'Unknown'.

Hardly had we recovered from that when, in the field on the opposite side of the road, we spotted a stoat running hell for leather towards cover. It disappeared into the verge for a while, before reappearing on the road and then scampered up the hill in front of us. This was the closest sighting to date to Tense Towers. When we eventually lost sight of it, it was headed for the wet pasture where, in a few months time, waders will be breeding. Not a happy thought. Further up the hill, a small flock of Golden Plover were sat in a meadow. As with the Teal, the light made their plumage positively glow. Absolutely gorgeous!

Today (Sunday), we repeated the walk, though a little earlier in the morning. Again, as we approached the kirk, we were rewarded with the sight of a cracking bird, a male Pintail, preening on the rocks just offshore. A little further along the road, I stopped to listen to a pleasantly calming sound, the rhythmic clacking of stones and pebbles, as a flock of waders prospected for tasty morsels on the beach below. They don't call them Turnstones for nothing!

By the time we returned home, the skies had clouded over, but after lunch things brightened up once more. Needing no further inducement, I grabbed my camera and headed back kirkwards. The tide was in, the light was better than ever, but there was no sign of the roll call of birds from the previous two visits. Gah!

Not to worry, there were still signs of life to be enjoyed...

Bath time for the Starlings

A pair of Stonechats

A wee Wren

Winter work trip

At this time of the Orcadian year, the working day with sufficient available light is much shorter. The most important tool in my toolbox ceases to be a 13mm spanner and becomes a head torch. And dragging oneself out into the darkness of a Winter's pre-dawn is slightly less enjoyable than skipping out into a mid-Summer blaze of sunshine.

One day this week saw us headed to Westray for some dishy action (satellite tv and broadband installations). The ferry departed Kirkwall at 07.20, so here's a photo taken as I potter along the harbour at about 7am. The inner harbour is where the pilot boats berth, as well as the RNLI lifeboat (just out of shot to the left).

The weather was calm and dry, allowing good progress to be made. This is important, not just from a business and financial perspective, but also because if there's time during the day, I like to pop in to a general store on the island. The eclectic (and necessary) mix of goods and provender in quirky juxtapositions never fails to cheer me up. On this particular day, I was not disappointed.

As luck would have it, although it could've been due to skill and teamwork, we were finished before sunset and sat waiting expectantly at the Rapness pier for the return ferry to Kirkwall. There's always a small doubt in the back of one's mind that it might not appear...

Sunday 27 November 2016

It's mud news week!

In our 21st Century lives, it's often not possible to distinguish the cycle of the year in any tangible sense, beyond a vague notion of what is being marketed by retailers. Easter eggs? Must be January 2nd. Santa hats? Probably mid September.

One of the joys (and occasionally that phrase is uttered between gritted teeth in the brunt of some horizontal weather) of living a more elemental Orcadian life is that the cyclical nature of the seasons is much more obvious.

There's the rather prominent effect of the passage of the setting sun back and forth along the western horizon. There's the holiday time-share experience of summer and winter migratory birds: skuas swapping skies with berry-ravenous redwings; and long-in-the-beak oystercatchers giving way to long-tailed ducks.

But this weekend, a more subtle change occurred, close to Tense Towers and close to our hearts. The muddy field entrance, just over the road from our front garden, cattle-poached and unprepossessing, has brought a little piece of Winter to our doorstep. And although these birds are resident in Orkney throughout the year, only during the colder months do Snipe choose to visit our immediate vicinity. They are very welcome.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Boat blogging

Any plans we may have had for Saturday were ripped up when I received a request, late on Friday, to attend a problem with a client’s customer in Caithness, across the Pentland Firth on the Scottish mainland. Our lifestyle, though occasionally idyllic, means that I cannot afford to miss out on a work opportunity when it arises. So, after running a local errand this morning, I was able to catch the lunchtime ferry out of St Margaret’s Hope, then drive from Gill’s Bay to Thurso, arriving on site by early afternoon. An hour and a half later, the problem was rectified, I was bidding farewell to a happy customer and heading out into the sunset.


Outside the customer’s premises, looking across Thurso Bay towards Orkney (centre).
Or litorally…

From the edge of Castletown, looking across Dunnet Bay.

From the top of a dune by Dunnet Bay.
For sure…

From Dunnet Head (which we can often see from Tense Towers if the visibility is good), with Orkney tucked away behind the lighthouse complex.
By the time I reached Gill’s Bay, darkness was creeping over land and sea, the temperature was beginning to drop and a slippery frost was forming on the damp ground. The ferry wasn’t due for another two hours. Reason enough, then, to repair to the terminal building for a bowl of hot soup, a slice of cake and several mugs of tea.

It’s all in a day’s work.

This post has been written (though not uploaded) aboard m.v. Pentalina, as she makes her way northwards, back across the Pentland Firth. In another few weeks, it will be three years since I made this self-same journey to become a resident of Orkney. I must admit, if anyone had said to me, four years ago, that our lives would be as they are now, I would have thought it utter madness. But in a very good way.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Round up

It's almost the middle of November and there's not much bloggage to show for it. This is normally indicative of a loss of muse (as opposed to 'mouse') or, as in this case, a chap just being so busy with consequential stuff that there's not been time to put finger to keyboard.

Yes, I do type that slowly.

Any road, here's a quick digest of my month so far, as seen through the eyes of my phone.

Eday can be windy?
A panoramic view of Kirkwall harbour and bay
Our Lass would like to get all shabby chic with this cabinet...
but the last person to lay a brush on it was my grandfather.
A sunny and showery day on Hoy...
when I attended this event.
The lowdown on the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Mus musings

Folks keep asking me about the mouse. Maybe it's to take their minds off other stuff, y'know, focussing on something inconsequential to prevent the dread thoughts from breaking through. Whatever they might possibly be?

Well, there have been developments on the rodent front. By the end of October, no mice had been harmed in the writing of this blog. In fact, by that point, several days after the new carpets were fitted, I was only giving the traps a cursory glance to confirm either the presence or absence of an ex-mouse. Life was good: the house was cosier, our feet were warmer and commensals were fewer. Then I thought to check that the bait was still in the traps (yeah, you're right, I was checking first thing in the mornings, before my eyes were properly dialled in). Guess what? Nothing. Clean as a whistle. 

So I'm pondering "Can a mouse lick off all the peanut butter without springing the trap?" and "Wood lice? Do they even like peanut butter?"

As there had been no further mouse scat, we couldn't immediately answer those questions, so I reset the traps (by this time they were located in the garage, rather than the lounge) with good old-fashioned cheese. Within a few hours, we had us a dead mouse, and we blithely wondered whether that was the end of the matter.

On the following Friday, after several days of zero readings on the mouse-ometer, I retired early as I needed to be up at six the next morning to catch a ferry. As I went to switch off the bedside light, something scurried from under a wardrobe and dashed behind a chair. Bearing in mind that we'd just been watching a tv programme featuring a tarantula, my reaction was reasonably calm.

Yep, it was a mouse. Oddly, decades of wildlife watching can't be unlearnt in a trice, so we spent an interesting half hour contemplating our options, whilst the mouse explored the room. When it sat in one of my slippers and stared back at me, I felt that the time to do something was probably now. Chuntering about lost sleep, rodents with an unerring sense of bad timing, and much else besides, I brought the traps from the garage and placed them in the bedroom. We then spent another half hour watching the mouse run over the traps, dislodging the cheese and caching it under our bed.


My next plan wasn't rocket science, but I needed something to work in a hurry so I could get some shuteye. In fact, forget rocket science, a rock would've been simpler, though the cleaning bill may not have been. I shut all the doors to the corridor in the centre of the house, save for our bedroom and the hall. Once the mouse was herded (ok, maybe not 'herded') into the corridor, it was reasonably easy to trap it in the hall, then open the front door and chase it out. A very temporary solution, I'll admit.

Now, my trip to Caithness (hence the early ferry) turned into an overnighter, so that Our Lass spent Saturday night alone. Almost. She was awakened in the night by a clattering in the corridor, which manifested itself as a mouse repeatedly trying to run up a small set of stepladders (the 3 step variety, just bought, unwrapped, but not put away). As we live in a bungalow, this meant that she could now legitimately sing "I saw a mouse. Where? There on the stair. Where on the stair? Right there!" a la 'A windmill in Old Amsterdam'.

Having taken advice from Sian on Graemsay as to how to catch a mouse in an emergency, Our Lass deployed an empty cereal box to good effect and released the wee beastie in the field over the road. Let's upgrade this solution to the status of 'mildly temporary'.

My return on Sunday was to tales of night time derring-do armed with only a cardboard box, plus pyjama-ed excursions to the Great Outdoors. I don't think either of us were expecting this to be the end of the matter.

Right about now, I recalled the umpteen lectures on hygiene that First and Second Born received when they were out with the RSPB, as teenagers, on mammal trapping surveys. Always wash your hands after handling mice/shrews/voles. It also hit home that the problem might be bigger than we had first thought and that it needed to be nipped in the bud. Harsh, but true.

So, confirming that the garage wasn't mouse-proof and probably impossible to make so, I ensured that the door from the garage to the kitchen was mouse-proof, and also rebaited the traps in the garage with walnuts. Firmly tied to the triggers.

Sure enough, after at least eleven days on the run, in and around Tense Towers, the Bonnie (or Clyde) of Mus domesticus tried one raid too many, its slipper snuggling days were finally over.

I can't say that I blamed it for trying, clogs must be quite chaffing in comparison.

Sunday 30 October 2016


Red, Green, Blue, the primary colours, or a video format.

These things weren't foremost in my mind when Our Lass and I went for a short walk this morning. However, that changed as we wandered along a muddy track, across some rough pasture and onto a seaweed-strewn beach.

First up was a female Redstart, at the edge of some willow bushes and frequently flitting down to the ground with a beautiful tail shimmer. Then came a pair of Greenfinches, feeding in a weedy area of Docks and Thistles. And finally, the hoped-for colour match, a Bluethroat hopping through the seaweed, looking for invertebrates, in the company of several pipits.

There were one or two Starlings present as well...

This is just a few of them. It all got rather dramatic when a male Hen Harrier flew by and a huge murmuration suddenly gathered to confuse the predator. There was one unsuccessful 'talons out' lunge towards the Starlings, but it seemed as though the tactic of 'strength in numbers' paid off.

Further along the coast, a battle of a different kind was in full swing, as two species of lichen struggled over ownership of a rock.

Near the Brough of Deerness, Our Lass stood on the clifftop, contemplating the waves, the solitude and what the heck is he doing with his phone?

I was trying out the Panorama function, which didn't result in a fly-on-the-wall documentary exposé of some politician's wrongdoing, but did look like this...

Dressing up for Hallowe'en


The BBC, in a news article on their website, described the Mexican 'Day of the Dead' tradition as, "Mexicans traditionally celebrate the Day of the Dead with a family picnic beside their relatives' graves or in front of a decorated shrine at home." And somehow, because of James Bond, it is now a 'parade, complete with floats, giant marionettes and hundreds of dancers and performers.'

I guess this is how customs and traditions change over time, so that the original meaning is gradually lost as each generation add their spin or twist to proceedings. Great for tourism, but not quite the soulful, reflective family occasion it once was.

I feel much the same about Hallowe'en. It is very different now from when I was a youngster (ok, that was a long time ago), but even back then we didn't spend much time remembering the dead: saints, martyrs and the faithful departed. 

So there's not a whole load of dressing up at Tense Towers at this time of year. It is left to others, including this wee fellow...

You're probably thinking, "Is that a Dunnock wearing too much make-up and a mask?" Well, the truth is stranger still. This small bird is a Siberian Accentor, which breeds in the Ural Mountains region of Siberia and overwinters in south east Asia.


However, this Autumn, following a long period of easterly winds, several individuals have been recorded in the UK for the first time. One made it to Sandside Bay in Deerness, which is just down the road from Tense Towers (well, just down the road if your point of reference is Siberia!) so, as alluded to in my previous blogpost, I went to see it on Thursday.

After watching it feeding for about 15 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised when it eventually hopped closer, until we ended up on the opposite verges of a muddy track. It was rather confiding, tolerating the presence of weird humans in clothing drabber than our own member of the accentor family, the Dunnock.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Very fitting

Today, we are having new carpets fitted in half of Tense Towers, to replace the ones ruined in a burst pipe incident during the Summer (yeah, I know, burst pipes are more of a Winter thing, but we like to go against the flow).

I recall writing on this blog, years ago, about a carpet fitting in another time and place. A swift search of the word 'carpet' produced a couple of pages of results, mainly featuring swathes of wild flowers, but also an intriguing one about habitat loss (here) and also the post I had in mind (here)*.

So, 2009, eh? Just as Middlesbrough Football Club were relegated from the Premier League. And here we are, seven long years later, Boro newly returned to the top division and the imminent arrival of cosy floors at the latest Tense Towers.

Well, I say 'imminent'. The day booked for the fitting was tomorrow, but a call earlier in the week asked if we could re-arrange for today. As this wasn't a huge problem for us, we agreed, and I adjusted my preparations to ensure that rooms were empty of furniture 24 hours sooner than planned. Now, the original start time was eight o'clock sharp, and one of our number didn't check whether this timing was the same for today's rearranged appointment. Hence, we were up, showered, dressed and breakfasted by the required hour (quite a shock for Our Lass, as she's still recuperating from her knee operation and quite partial to a lazy morning in her PJs). It's now 09.15 and I'm beginning to suspect that we're not first on the To Do list.

[... a bit later, after a trip to the local shop for a pint of milk and a few packets of scrumptuous biscuits]

Orcadian custom seems to dictate that hot beverages and ample crunchiness are on offer for any visitors. At least, that is the impression I have garnered, following several years of carrying out work in other folks' homes. Refusing the offer of refreshment is not an option, and on several occasions, my colleague and I have had to sit at a lunch table groaning under the weight of bread, sandwich fillings, home bakes and a huge teapot. Yep, some days it's a tough job.

Oh, speaking of visitors, we had one the other night. Our Lass and I had spent the evening emptying most of the furniture out of the guest bedroom and the study, cramming stuff wherever we could in the lounge, kitchen and garage. By bedtime, half the house was rather echoey... echoey... echoey and the other half was very, very snug.

The visitor? Oh, we didn't find out about that until yesterday morning. When I opened the lounge curtains, I was greeted by the sight of a trail of small black droppings along the window sill. In my befuddled, just awake, state, I mused on the options: bat or mouse, as their respective droppings look similar. Then, realising that not even the approaching 'festivities' of Hallowe'en would produce an indoor bat, I trudged off to break the good news to a somnolent Our Lass. For the avoidance of doubt, when crushing the droppings, they didn't crumble to dust to reveal a myriad of insect body parts. Definitely a mouse, then.

Whilst watching Autumnwatch on television last night, we were incredibly pleased to be told that a mouse urinates 3000 times a day. Thanks, Chris, that was a fact I would've happily not known in present circumstances.

To be fair, it's that time of year. The harvest's in, the weather's deteriorating and all a wee beastie wants is a warm, dry place to be. Unfortunately, our lounge, complete with additional double bed, boxes of paperwork, a filing cabinet and sundry other bits and bobs, wasn't in the ideal state for a quick game of Hunt the Rodent. Despondently, we dug out the peanut butter and a couple of traps and opted for patience over proactive. This morning, there's not a sign of said mouse. Nothing in the traps, no more droppings, narda. Oh, ok! So our house isn't good enough, eh? Offski'd at the first opportunity and not even a "Goodbye"? Humph!

Well, on the plus side, the carpet fitters have turned up, Our Lass has manned the kettle whilst I went on a twitch (sadly so, dear reader, more info in due course) and then I took over tea and biscuit duties whilst Herself was whisked off to the sprawling megatropolis of Kirkwall for a 'Ladies who do lunch' session with Sian from Life on a Small Island.

* Please note, for this blogpost, you have been spared the awful carpet-y puns of the 2009 version.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Light diffuser

OK, I know the physics behind a rainbow is technically refraction and reflection, but we often see one of these short diffuse arcs early in the morning. Any squall working its way along the east coast of Hoy (just visible through the rain shower), or the west side of Scapa Flow, tends to produce this magical effect.

It proper sets you up for the day.

Sunday 23 October 2016

Contemplative morning

A slow start to our day, the lack of a breeze outside reflected in a lazy Sunday morning inside. We sit by the lounge window, drinking in the liquid light that ebbs and flows across the view. Despite the covering of cloud, a few gaps hint at blue sky beyond, allowing occasional patches of distant hillside to glow in warm tones. Here a field on Hoy on our western horizon, then an area of heather to the north in Orphir, followed by intricate patterns of light and shade as the sun's rays pick out the concrete blocks of Churchill Barrier 1.

In the field over the road, we spot a single Redwing perched on a fence. It preens in the golden beams, the deep red of its underwing contrasting beautifully with its cream eyestripe, which make this, to my mind, the most glam-rock of thrushes. Odd that there's only one, though, as we are so used to seeing Redwings in large flocks, or hearing them flying overhead in the darkness, with their short, sharp, high-pitched contact calls.

Another Autumn passage visitor swoops across the garden. A Swallow bound for Africa, which reminds us that we saw one yesterday too, down by the farm, hawking for insects over some grazing cattle. In a few weeks, they will be repeating this behaviour with a completely different group of large herbivores, thousands of miles away from a wintry Orkney.

A movement on the dry stone wall catches our eyes, as a Robin puts in an appearance. Again, this is a bird we don't see very often, just on migration really, so all the more welcome for that. He or she spends a few minutes hopping up and down the wall and across the lawn, before disappearing towards the farm and, likely, a better chance of a tasty morsel.

The local flocks of House Sparrows, Starlings and feral pigeons, all fairly dependent on the immediate area around our neighbouring farm, go about their business seemingly immune to the changing of the seasons. From a different window, I spot a Starling having a bath in a puddle formed in a slight depression of the black plastic sheet which I'm using to suppress weeds in a proto-veg patch. As I have not yet created a pond, the birds use all means at their disposal to eke out bathing opportunities, the ground hereabouts being rather free-draining.

A small flock of Skylarks fly to and fro across a stubble field, their bouncing flight accompanied by snippets of bubbling calls. Yesterday saw plenty of tractors driving past our window, all fitted with ploughs, so the larks had better make the most of the stubble before the ground is tilled and sown. There's very little Spring sowing these days, great for food production, less so for overwintering birds.

Well, the day's a-wasting, I had better get a move on. Today's big task is to empty a bedroom of furniture, in preparation for the laying of a new carpet. Hopefully, by this time next weekend, the concrete floors of guest bedroom, study and corridor will be hidden once more under a cosy covering.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Despair and research

Yesterday evening, I had to give an update to the members of the Orkney Field Club, who were present at the club's AGM, regarding the progress, or lack thereof, of Scottish Natural Heritage's project to preserve Orkney's wildlife from the ravages of non-native stoats.

I have mentioned the stoat problem before on this and other blogs, and the more I read about island biogeography, the more I worry about the endemic Orkney Vole population and a whole raft of threatened ground-nesting birds.

Indeed, at last night's event, passions were running high. A range of emotions were on display, from sadness at the likely fate of island wildlife if SNH don't get a shift on, through impatience at the lack of proper feedback from the statutory NGO who should be dealing with the issue, to anger that there doesn't appear to be any big movers and shakers engaged with the problem.

It's all enough to make the most optimistic of us weep.

So, to lighten the mood a little, and as it is unknown how stoats first arrived in Orkney in 2010, I have done a wee bit of research into one possible method of transmission.

Remember that absolutely amazing photo from 2015, taken by a chap called Martin Le-May, in Essex?

Yeah, that one.

Well, a brief perusal of the distribution of Green woodpeckers in Great Britain from way back when to the present (as indicated by records submitted to the NBN Gateway) produced the map below, with the most recent records in orange and red.

Whilst perhaps not conclusive proof that stoats didn't arrive in Orkney by this particular aerial means, I think we can strike 'introduction by Green woodpecker' from the list.

Isn't citizen science  wonderful?!

Tuesday 18 October 2016

When your star is waning

A week ago, I returned to Orkney after a trip south to attend a family event and also a vocational training course.

It's difficult to convey in words just how nice it is to have "Welcome Home!" sunset.

And... breathe.

Sunday 16 October 2016

The emperor's new pose

You know how I'm quite fervent in my appreciation of dragonflies and damselflies? Almost bordering on the religious? Well this blogpost features a second coming, a resurrection and an ascension. Yes, really.

Last month, and twenty four hours after the event, I discovered that a Vagrant Emperor dragonfly, Anax ephippiger, had been seen on South Ronaldsay in Orkney. This species is an occasional Autumn migrant to the United Kingdom, hitching a lift on southerly or south easterly winds from such far flung places as West Africa or the Mediterranean area. Unlike the Painted Lady butterfly, it is not thought that the species breeds in the north and then a new generation returns south to complete the cycle.

Back in September, when retracing the previous day's itinerary, I realised that we had driven within a mile of the location of the sighting. Whilst this was a little irksome from a personal point of view, I was very happy to note the record, the first since 2011, when another Vagrant Emperor had been seen on the nearby island of Burray, reportedly perched on a pair of knickers on a washing line.

The 2016 sighting was made by a lady who not only knew a bit about dragons, but was also a dab hand with a camera. My grateful thanks go to Kim for the use of the image below.

Flight shot of Anax ephippiger in Orkney by Kim McEwen, September 2016
To put the sighting into some context, here's a map of the UK from the National Biodiversity Network Gateway showing records of the species up to the year 2015 (sightings from Autumn 2016 not yet added).

On Friday evening, Our Lass and I attended a talk about peat restoration in the Flow Country which was held in Kirkwall and hosted by the Orkney Field Club. Upon returning home, I flicked through social media and saw in a post from the UK Dragonflies and Damselflies site on Facebook that a Vagrant Emperor had been seen on Orkney. Puzzled as to why this news would re-surface after several weeks, I followed the link to an original post on the British Dragonfly Society Facebook page, where it became apparent that this was a new sighting from the previous day.

Whoa! I'd missed another one.

Yesterday morning, to confirm the details of the sighting, I phoned the lady who had discovered the dragonfly. I learnt that it had been stuck in a spider's web on a shed door in Birsay, from where her husband had rescued it, before photographing it and contacting the BDS. The insect was still with them, though dead, and I was welcome to go and view it.

As I had not previously seen a Vagrant Emperor, I accepted this offer, thinking that taking a few photos and having a perusal of the identification features for the species would be a handy thing. So, despite near gale conditions and lashing rain, Our Lass and I made preparations to drive to the north of mainland Orkney. Just before we left the house, the phone rang. It was Sue, the finder, to say that she had brought the dragonfly into the kitchen and it had started moving! We reasoned that due to the cold weather, on initial discovery the insect had been in a state of torpor, but in the warmth of the kitchen, it had 'miraculously' come back to life.

Double Whoa!

Advising Sue to put the insect back in a cool place, we drove in a controlled manner to Birsay. Thoughts en route surrounded the potential for releasing the dragonfly back into the wild. It was difficult to estimate how long it would survive: food sources are diminishing; as are warm days. With the south easterly winds, next stop from Birsay could well be Iceland (Vagrant Emperors have been recorded there!).

After chatting with Sue, and her husband Graham, we thought it best to release the dragonfly when the winds subsided and the the rain ceased. Looking at the weather forecast, the calmest day would be Tuesday. However, we knew the insect hadn't eaten for at least three days, so it would probably not survive that long. Sue kindly let us take the Vagrant Emperor away, in a plastic container, so that we could take more photos and hatch a plan for the release.

Sunday saw lighter winds and occasional sporadic sunnny spells, so Our Lass and I decided to go ahead with the release sooner rather than later. That way, the insect would have a chance to feed and maybe migrate further. We needed a site that would contain small flying insects, offered some shelter from the wind and had a sunny spot for warming up (the dragonfly, not us). We chose Olaf's Wood in South Ronaldsay, which had these attributes, though I had to studiously ignore the fact that it would also be full of hungry migrating birds.

Once in the wood, we soon found a small glade that fitted the bill. Our Lass gently placed her finger under the Vagrant Emperor and he responded to the warmth of her hand by stepping onto it.

America has Cape Canaveral, Russia has the Baikonur cosmodrome and Europe has the Guiana Space Centre. Welcome to the Vagrant Emperor launch platform, Orkney style.

The dragonfly was approximately 65mm in length, with a 100mm wingspan. The blue segment on the abdomen in an otherwise brown/yellow body is diagnostic for the male of the species.

Although there were some spells of sunshine to help warm up the dragonfly, I was expecting to see plenty of wing whirring, as it tried to generate heat in its flight muscles. Apart from a short burst of a few seconds, this behaviour was mainly absent. I did manage to video some 'pre-flight checks', as it cleaned its eyes, but I totally missed the lift off, because a Blue Tit (a rarity in Orkney!) called behind me at just the wrong moment.

The Vagrant Emperor soared up into the air and disappeared over the tree tops in an instant. Its ultimate fate was now in its own hands wings, and no matter how long, or short, it survives, I feel that is the correct decision for the insect.

The pre-flight video can be seen here.

As I write this, the only other Vagrant Emperors reported in the UK so far this Autumn have been two in the Isles of Scilly, way to the south of mainland Britain.

My grateful thanks to Sue and Graham Wharton for finding the dragonfly, rescuing it, contacting the BDS and entrusting Our Lass and I with its immediate future.