Sunday 15 May 2016

Graemsay - party island!

Here at Tense Towers, we don't receive very many invitations to birthday parties. After all, the alternative scenario would just involve too much cake.

Hang on, I may be in the wrong blog...

And so it was, that Our Lass and I ventured over to the peedie island of Graemsay yesterday, to help Sian (of Life on a Small Island) prepare and celebrate a significant day. The island has a population of less than 30 residents, but this number was swelled with guests from further afield, including musicians from Hoy, Quoyloo and Stromness.

The event was to being held in the island's Community Hall, a small wooden building that hosts the majority of the annual shindigs of Graemsay. Having only experienced their Harvest Homes, Hallowe'en, Christmas parties and such through the medium of Facebook, I wasn't exactly sure how everyone was going to fit into the room, as well as all the food, the musicians and dancing. I guess it's probably achieved through some complicated manipulation of a small tear in the fabric of space/time.

During the afternoon, we ferried plates, glasses and drinks up to the hall, where folk had already been decorating the walls with 'Happy Birthday' banners, to which Sian had us add a selection of photographs (carefully censored by herself) of her life to date. She very sportingly sprinkled these with comments featuring her self-deprecating humour.

Then it was back to Chez Sian to prepare sandwiches for everyone. Other folk were also bringing food, so there was no prospect of anyone going hungry.

I am sure that the evening's celebrations will be featured in the 'Life on a Small Island' blog, so I will leave a description of the festivities to Sian.

But here's a few photos from the weekend...

The entrance to Chez Sian

A thoughtful birthday present from a musician, which had its world premiere on Graemsay 

A less seen view from Chez Sian with the Commnity Hall just visible in the distance

Madame Button

Farewell to Graemsay
For Sian's view of the evening, see here.

Monday 9 May 2016

Not going to the ball

On a recent bonny day, which began with such a sunny morning, I just wanted to jump into the car, put Xanadu by Rush in the CD player and drive around the island. Yeah, I know it's not a great use of the world's finite resources and does carry an amount of carbon footprint baggage, but, man, it was really sunny.

It was a cunning plan with, as they say, one small flaw.

Although I could find the accompanying album 'A Farewell to Kings' as an LP, there was no sign of a CD. Even a thorough check of the compilation CD, 'Retrospective' revealed that it did not contain the required track.


When I finally did go out in the car, as I drove along I began pondering about other tracks on the AFTK album. I ended up doing that thing where you know the tune and most of the verses, but have to sing it out loud all the way to the chorus before you can remember what the song is called.

"A modest man from Mandrake
Travelled rich to the city
He had a need to discover
A use for his newly-found wealth

Because he was human
Because he had goodness
Because he was moral
They called him insane

Delusions of grandeur
Visions of splendour
A manic depressive
He walks in the rain"

Some of my singing was even in tune!

"Eyes wide open
Heart undefended
Innocence untarnished

Cinderella Man... "

Yay! It's called Cinderella Man!

"Doing what you can
They can't understand what it means

Cinderella Man
Hang on to your plans
Try as they might
They cannot steal your dreams..."

Later that same day, I beat a path to an online music emporium and ordered said album. Whilst still on the web, I wondered how the Cinderella Man song came about. Intriguingly, perhaps bizarrely, it's here.

Today, the CD arrived. Tomorrow, the forecast is for wall-to-wall sunshine.

Oh, and Xanadu is based upon Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan.

Weeping Window

In 2014, to mark the outbreak of World War 1, an art installation featuring hundreds of thousands of ceramic poppies was unveiled at the Tower of London. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red featured a poppy for every British military fatality of the conflict, over 888,000 of them.

Since 2014, parts of the installation have toured the UK and this year, 2016, for a few weeks, to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, it is on display in Orkney as the Weeping Window at St Magnus' Cathedral in Kirkwall.

Yesterday evening, as the sun set, we went to view the poppies. No pomp, no ceremony, just a few of us together, each alone with our thoughts.

A larger night-time picture can be seen on The Orcadian website here.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Sad song

My recent spell of tidying our garage was not just the result of a balmy Spring day. What I omitted to mention was the fact that Our Lass was in the process of completing an essay for some coursework, and I was actually staying out of the way. So, despite my productivity, I was aware that Herself had been forced to endure a gloriously sunny day sat staring at a computer screen.

To make amends for this unfortunate state of affairs, at the conclusion of the... er... Conclusion, we took advantage of an equally pleasant evening and wandered down to the shore for some quality nature time.

The route is almost all on a tarmac'd road, that passes between a mixture of pastures as it descends a low hill towards St Nicholas' Church. About a week ago, on a similar jaunt, we had stopped beside one particular wet pasture to marvel at the vocal gymnastics and gravity-defying aerobatics of some Lapwing (in Orkney, colloquially Teeick or Teeoo). As well as the 'pee wit' call that leads to scores of vernacular names for this member of the plover family, their display song is described (by Collins Bird Guide) as 'chae-whiddlewip, i-wip i-wip... cheee-o-wip', an approximation that I wasn't even going to attempt.

Back to the other evening, and as we approached the same spot, the scene was not much changed. If anything, the grass was looking a little lusher, lit by the low sun, and the green, bronze and magenta iridescence of the Lapwings' plumage was simply gorgeous. However, the atmosphere was very different. Gone was the ebullient, bubbling song, gone were the deft-winged dance moves, to be replaced by 'heartbreakingly shrill... pwaay-eech' alarm calls (Thanks again, Collins).

Our Lass and I exchanged knowing glances as we surmised that, perhaps, eggs had hatched and tiny fluffballs of wadery delight were running the gauntlet of a host of avian and mammalian predators. Keener-eyed for the detail, through her bins Our Lass spotted a chick scurrying away into some longer grass. Adult birds flew across the pasture towards us, a slower and more obvious flight with which to grab our attention, and all the while, that sad, mournful call.

We soon moved on, rather than cause more anguish, making our way down to the shore and along to the kirkyard. Here were several Pied Wagtails, a couple of Wheatears and a singing Blackbird, the latter's fluid notes oozing sweetly over the landscape like Golden Syrup flowing across freshly toasted bread. Behind the church, on fields still water-logged from Winter, several gull colonies (Common and Black-headed) provided a raucous backdrop, like edgy rappers at an Adele concert.

After sampling this sonisphere for a while, we retraced our steps up the hill, hoping not to disturb the Lapwings too much on our return. As we reached 'their' pasture, sure enough, a couple of adults took to the air but, just as the pleading cries began, there was an explosion of noise behind us. Turning around to look back towards the church, it seemed as though every gull and wader in Christendom was on the wing and calling in alarm.

There was a predator abroad somewhere.

A frantic search of the thronging (mainly) white mass of birds revealed the dark shape of a Bonxie (Great skua) gliding effortlessly through the pandemonium. It occasionally banked a little to the left or right to avoid the attentions of the panicked gulls, but pretty much stayed on its chosen route. In fact, it was headed straight towards us and soon its mobbing escort ceased to be gulls, becoming a couple of dozen Lapwings.

Whilst I silently cursed that I hadn't brought my camera, we watched in awe as the Bonxie (still suffering the close attentions of many irritated Lapwings) flew over our heads, banked slowly around and returned over the pasture. We could hear the low frequency, vibrating wing noises of the Lapwings as they pulled crazy turns to keep up a constant badgering of the predator, trying to be just enough of a problem to chase it away. Eventually, the Bonxie disappeared into the distance, everyone else (birds and humans) calmed down and we were left with the dispiriting thought that what we had witnessed was just a recce, a prelude to battles to come and probable sudden death to some poor Lapwing chick.

Nature, eh? It's a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Friday 6 May 2016

Spring cleaning

The garage at Tense Towers is used for what, I suspect, a large number of garages are used for i.e. storage of all manner of what-have-you and not for keeping a car under cover.

Sadly, though we have been here over two years, there are still boxes that haven't been unpacked and they must now be on borrowed time, their contents having not been needed in 30 months.

Today, with the sun shining and a warm breeze gently drying the laundry, I decided to have a bit of a spring clean. There is plenty of shelving in the garage but it is perhaps not used to its full potential, so a little thought allowed me to reorganise and make the place more ergonomic. Two piles of detritus accumulated by the car: a small one to be taken to the recycling centre (cardboard, electrical items and bagged general waste); and a larger one for the re-use yard (curtains and rails, bedding, household gadgets, automotive bric-a-brac).

I will admit that I did occasionally catch myself muttering out loud "Oo, that'll come in handy one day!" before trudging wearily to the re-use pile and resignedly adding to its bulk. No, Tense, it hasn't come in handy for a long, long time, and if you do need it next week, well, that's just tough!

Slowly, the garage floor began to emerge into the light, with panic-stricken woodlice and spiders shading their eyes from the glare of a purgative sun. The rearranged shelving made much better use of the space and, although I've not managed to make huge inroads into the packed box conundrum, there is now room to contemplate a Final Push.

A couple of things are still perplexing me: the three metre long wooden spar that we beachcombed ages ago is still propped up in the centre of the garage; and why, when the highest tree in the garden is a willow (towering to all of one metre), do I still have a set of telescopic pruning loppers?

Thursday 5 May 2016

The thing that has to happen before it becomes hare-raising

Warning! This evening's blogpost contains material of a sexual nature. Well, to be more exact, some nature in the act of mating.

Hare activity near Tense Towers continues to be sporadic and a mite frustrating. If the light is good (as it was this morning before 7am), the hares are way, way, way in the distance at the far side of a field. But if the light isn't so great (as it was this evening after 7pm) then the blighters come much closer to the side of the field nearest to home.

After requests for info about the behaviour we had witnessed last week, I was lent a copy of the booklet The Brown Hare by Stephen Tapper, a Shire Natural History. Many thanks AG, it has proved to be very informative.

For instance, I now know that mate guarding by the male is a common behaviour as the female approaches oestrus. And mating is not confined to Spring, but continues through the Summer until September. We notice this behaviour more in Spring because the crops and grass fields are short at this time of year, so the activity is visible.

This evening, things started off much the same as usual, with a little light exercise for a couple of courting hares.

Then, another joined in the chase.

The female, at the front, was initially content to keep the guys at a distance...

 but she soon stopped playing quite so hard to get.

Then it all got a bit complicated, as the chosen mate was continually interrupted by the unsuccessful male...

But after another bout of running around...

the loving couple were finally able to have a few moments of peace.

In five decades of nature watching, this is the first time that I have witnessed hares mating. We didn't have to get up early, or walk for miles in absolute silence, or sit for hours on a patch of damp grass. We didn't even worry about staying down wind. I can heartily recommend the great fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

Sunday 1 May 2016

Question time, part 5

My letter concerning the threat to Orcadian wildlife from stoats, which was sent to the candidates for the Orkney seat in the Scottish Parliament, received various responses (here and here). After a short period of reflection and deliberation, I think I can now summarise the experience as being reasonably positive:

  • Four of the five candidates responded, the exception being the Conservative one;
  • Not all candidates had been aware of the problem;
  • Unsurprisingly, from the responding candidates, only the previous MSP (Liberal Democrat) had direct experience of the issue;
  • Only one candidate mentioned seeing a stoat (SNP);
  • All responding candidates were appropriately concerned about the possible ramifications for tourism in Orkney;
  • All responding candidates stated that they would listen to expert advice (mind on, I'm not sure that I fall into this category, as suggested by some candidates, but I would hope that 'expert' means scientific data and not circumstantial hearsay);
  • All responding candidates thought that more funding was both essential and urgently required.
So, Thursday's election will very likely see an Orkney MSP who is already aware of the stoat problem, as the probability of the winner being Conservative is quite small (and I suspect there will be an amount of tactical voting for either the Lib Dem or the SNP candidate).

Admittedly, knowing about the problem and actually doing something about it are two different things. However, the candidates state that they are open to listening to the views of the electorate which, if followed through, has to be a good thing.

It will be interesting to note the proportions of each party in the new parliament, as this may well have a bearing upon the chances of successful lobbying for more funds for a stoat eradication campaign. It should be noted that there is no Green Party or RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism) candidate for the Orkney constituency, though there are candidates on the regional lists for all Scottish regions. These regional candidates could well pick up secondary votes for the allocation of proportional representation seats.

What ever your political persuasion, please do vote on Thursday.

A bittersweet moment

I wandered into the lounge this morning, but even before I could forget what I'd gone there for, I looked out of the window and saw a small white feather touch down on the lawn. For a fleeting, unforgiveable moment, I thought "Ha, a Sparrowhawk has caught one of the Linnets eating my wild flower seeds!"

It was not so.

Over the road, an Oystercatcher was sat preening on a gate post, presumably after a spot of bathing in the puddles in some nearby wheel ruts. This was the source of the windblown feather. Within the short amount of time that I assimilated this information, a House Sparrow flew down and seized the feather from the grass and flew off with it to line its nest.


That got me thinking... recycling is actually older than humanity. For millions of years, nothing, absolutely nothing, was wasted by life on Earth. All manner of bodily effluvia (noxious or otherwise), decaying bodies and structures (burrows, nests, dams) are food or shelter for something else. 

And then we came along.

Are we the only lifeform on the planet that litters? I rather think we are, which is a sad and depressing state of affairs. Worse still, our litter is inadvertently mistaken for food or nesting material and results in the death of many creatures who have ingested plastic items or have been trapped in a twisted tourniquet of twine. Our slow-to-decay litter is building up in vast floating gyres in the oceans, spreading into, and further up, the food chain as microscopic particles, which are slowly poisoning the environment and everything in it.

Will some tiny lifeform evolve that discovers a way to tap into this huge, currently toxic resource and begin feeding upon it? Then, as it spreads around the world in a frenzy of Gaian gourmandising, will all our windows fall out and the warranty be invalidated on electrical appliances everywhere?

If we do not take responsibility for our own actions, we have to realise that our future may not be in our own hands.