Sunday 31 January 2016

A further BGB 2016 update...

Well, here it is, the only bird to actually set foot in our garden all weekend. Thank you, Snipe, old friend.

And if any member of the local flock of Starlings is reading this, don't forget that I can always change the house name, you lightweights!

Big Garden Birdwatch 2016 update

The Snipe is back!

Saturday 30 January 2016

Grim bits o' cheese

This weekend sees the RSPB's 2016 Big Garden Birdwatch, where feathery citizen science can take centre stage for an hour of comfy birding, staring out of the lounge window whilst cradling a mug of hot chocolate. Here at Tense Towers, we've not taken part in the survey since moving to Orkney in 2013, and circumstances still conspire against our participation. The quantities of trees and bushes planted have not yet reached a critical mass, and those that are growing, are doing so very slowly. In all, there's not much to tempt the ornithology into half an acre of unkempt grass land.

Even 'our' solitary Snipe has forsaken us for the weekend, though this may have more to do with yesterday's meteorology, rather than any lack of wader loyalty.

Yep, Orkney had a visit from Storm Gertrude, the media-savvy weather previously seen with a starring role in New York. We didn't have the amount of snow that the Big Apple saw, but the wind was up at storm force, driving along some fierce hail stones. Any birds flying through that were making heavy weather of the... er... heavy weather.

This morning, the gales have backed off a bit, but there has been some snow overnight.

More in hope than expectation, Our Lass and I sat looking out of the window (with coffee as the hot beverage of choice), watching as grey squalls and small patches of watery sunlight scudded through our view. A few flocks of birds could be seen at distance: Starlings, Common gulls, a Rook/Jackdaw combo, Greylag geese and feral pigeons/Rock doves. Then, a single bird was spotted circling higher in the sky, a Peregrine! Not much chance of that perching in our garden.

And still the weather gusted and hailed. 30 knots! No, not the waders, the wind speed. Gah!

Tomorrow looks to be a little calmer, so I will grate some cheese, on the off chance of persuading the Starlings to deign us with their presence. Oo, talking of Starlings, the BBC's Winterwatch has been on our screens this past week. It can be a little samey, but there's always a few nuggets of science and some impressive camera work to keep us interested. For instance, I didn't know that Starlings' eyes are so positioned that they can see into their own open beaks. Wowser! OK, this probably sounds more impressive if you know that the birds forage for food by jabbing their beaks into the ground, looking for small invertebrates. By forcing their beaks open, the Starlings can see if there's anything tasty in the hole and grab it before it escapes. Amazing!

Saturday 16 January 2016

A bit formulaic

On several afternoons this week, I have had pause to stop and marvel at the skyscapes before me. Whilst the geography of these isles often means that there may not be a phone signal, let alone any nG (where 2 < n < 5), a mobile phone is always handy to record the ephemeral moods of the heavens.

From Rousay pier, looking towards Mainland (Wed)

From West Mainland, looking towards the north of Hoy (Fri)

From East Mainland, looking towards the Holms and Burray (Sat)

Saturday 9 January 2016

Don't stop...

It's probably fair to say that my formative years were in the 1970s, certainly as far as music is concerned. Living in a small hamlet in rural, yet industrially-scarred, County Durham, we wanted for nothing, as far as I could tell. Didn't everyone have an outside loo, a single coal fire and no radiators, ice on the inside of the windows in winter, and two pianos?

I vaguely remember my folks purchasing a radiogram and their subsequent growing collection of vinyl albums which fed it, a huge percentage of which seemed to be by James Last. 

When the time came for me to begin my own musical adventure, I don't recall many 7" singles, it was nearly always albums. Looking back, I can only guess that I didn't want to be bothered having to change the record so frequently. I was born for Progressive Rock. And perhaps those two pianos seeped into my psyche more than I thought. Keyboards were the main driver of the music I listened to, a blend of traditional ivory mixed with howling synthesisers, fused together by the theatrical Keith Emerson of ELP.

Guitars came much later, with a Damascene moment that occurred in the sixth form common room of Wolsingham Grammar School. Nothing salacious, you understand. In fact, I wasn't even in the common room at the time (I was in the quiet study room, bludgeoning my way through some maths homework), but a song was being played on the turntable in the common room that could be heard throughout the building. It had guitars, many of them, and more riffs than seemed appropriate for a weekday lunchtime. And it went on forever, well, at least until a frenzied crescendo which morphed into a sort of gentle afterglow. No connotations there then!

Let me tell you, quadratic eqautions are no match for nine minutes of southern boogie. One of my fellow conscientious and studious colleagues gave in to temptation before the rest of us and went to ask what the record was.

Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

It was the day the world changed.

Some few years later, I found myself in The Hungry Years Gathering Place, a rock disco in Brighton, in the company of the lady who would become my wife. We rather liked Freebird. Even on the night when I forgot to get up to dance to it and we had a blazing row - but that's another story. In fact, the Years played many songs that we liked, another favourite being Don't Stop Believin' by Journey. This usually came on during the part of the evening when the repertoire was a little less heavy and allowed the girls to command the dance floor. This didn't hold me back, mind, as it's a stonking song. So, sadly, I can't claim to have kicked off the New Man/metrosexual lifestyles of more recent decades. I was just enjoying all the swirling long hair and patchouli oil (no, not mine).

Bringing things into more recent times, my mobile phone has a few tunes on it. Not a huge amount, though, as there's a strict set of rules for being downloaded to the Tense phone. I only allow myself one song from each artist or band, so choosing just the right track is often tricky. I don't know why I have this rule, other than building up a songlist that is multi-genred and occasionally quirky. Some of my favourite artists aren't in it yet, as I just can't decide on the quintessential song - if you're only allowed one, it has to be either very significant to my life or demonstrate everything that the band means to me.

Journey are in there, with Don't Stop Believin', but Lynyryd Skynyrd haven't made it so far because, despite the life-changing nature of Freebird, there's several candidates for Fave Skynyrd Tune.

However, in some sort of multi-generational, fusion, crossover malarkey, when First Born was wed, Don't Stop Believin' was on the bride and groom's playlist at the reception, as it means something to them too. Sweet as!

And so, without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you (well, YouTube gives you)...


Monday 4 January 2016


Older readers may recall Beatlemania, but as a young Tenselet, I was blithely unaware of the significance of the Fab Four. Neither for their effect on the musical landscape nor the reaction they engendered in young ladies.

Sure, I knew the words to Yellow Submarine (and my brother's alternative transport version 'Purple Aeroplane'), but by the time I was ready to unleash my pocket money onto the High Street's vinyl emporiums (and that probably has more connotations than I'm comfortable with), the Beatles had gone their separate ways.

The enduring legacy of their back catalogue is still as potent as ever, I guess, because there was much rejoicing around the world when, last month, more than 200 Beatles songs were made available to various streaming services.

However, by this time, a slightly different mania was occurring at Tense Towers, as one of the festive gifts was a 1000 piece jigsaw featuring beetles in all shapes and sizes.

Whilst not featuring acres of blue sky, vast swathes of white clouds, abundant lush vegetation or heavily-patterned seascapes, it did provide us and our visitors with more of a challenge than we were anticipating. 

The top and bottom were certainly a test of our patience and resolve: two rows of purple and one of white/purple, that could be either end.

One inspired guest hit upon the idea of sorting out all the beetle bums (Blur fans take a bow), or heads... no, it's a bottom... or is it?

But, eventually, after a few late nights, we arrived at the completed puzzle in a mood of euphoric 'inordinate fondness'.

Apparently, there's a circular version of the jigsaw too, but from a habitat point of view, I think it's important to maintain as many (h)edges as possible.