Tuesday 28 June 2016

45 minutes of time travel

Yesterday, I was working on Papa Westray, one of the northern isles of Orkney. Once my task was complete, I had about three quarters of an hour to wait before the peedie plane was due, to whisk me back to Kirkwall. This was just enough time to wander around a small loop, taking in Holland Farm, the Knap of Howar, a bit of shoreline and the Old Kirk.

At Holland Farm, the slurry tank has an enigmatic emblem emblazoned upon it. This is a copy of some Norse graffiti, the 'Dragon'which can be found in the Maes Howe chambered cairn on the mainland.

Also at the farm, in one of the fields, are these piles of stones...

which I presume were once used for drying crops?

As I walked down to the west coast, I had to cross a pasture full of cattle. They were much more interested in grazing than gazing at the view, or at me.

Then it was a brief visit to the Knap of Howar...

before pottering along the shore to the Old Kirk (St Boniface).

Once back on the 'main' road, the view to the east was of the Holm of Papay, with a few yachts anchored in the bay.

And then back to the airfield, where the boundary walls feature an uneasy alliance of lichen and warning paint.

This heady mix of past and present is a theme widespread in Orkney and not confined to Papa Westray, but this short walk certainly brought it to the fore.

The deafening sound of dust settling

Unless, by some strange quirk of fate, you have avoided all media for the past week and solely rely on Imperfect and Tense for your current affairs input, you will have probably heard that, in a referendum of its population, the UK has voted to leave the EU. How very quelle surprise.

As in all things, it's not quite as straight forward as that, mind. For although the combined results put the Leave camp on 52% and the Remain camp on 48%, England and Wales voted to offski from the EU, whilst Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.

The campaigns fought by both sides were rather negative, with some downright lies hoisted upon the populace as complete facts. How that isn't illegal, I do not know? Is there any other walk of life where you would be allowed the unbridled freedom to con folk to such an extent? Well, apart perhaps from those pedlars of landline broadband with their 'up to bazillions of Mbps' on offer.

I steered clear of the televised debates. Politicians trying to shout each other down is such an unedifying spectacle, the only winners, I suspect, being ear defender manufacturers.

Predictably, my own view on the referendum was governed by the best outcome for wildlife, which put me firmly in the Remain camp. Not that the environment featured anywhere in the whole debate to any great extent. However, whatever your view of the EU, its Habitats and Birds Directives provide an amount of protection for the ecology of a continent. And I do not think anyone has any great hopes of a deregulated UK giving a second thought to concreting over vast swathes of Nature.

Now that the people of the UK have spoken, it will take some time for the situation to resolve itself, as there doesn't appear to be a Plan B. And, I suspect, there wasn't a Plan A either, beyond trying to bluff the EU into yet more concessions and change the leadership of the Conservative party.

So, with the pace of change and the multitude of pressures upon the environment increasing, the natural world will go back to doing what it does best, evolving to cope as best as it can.

Thursday 23 June 2016

Solsticial scupperings

I had been hoping to take some photos around the Summer solstice, not least because of the possible alignment discussed in a previous blogpost. However, the sunsets of late have featured rather more cloud than was helpful.

Yesterday evening, just before sunset, I noticed an ephemeral sky feature about 30 degrees above the sun. A small cloud was exhibiting colours way beyond what is normally expected of a bland conglomeration of water droplets.

For once, I was able to capture an image of the colours that actually did the cloud justice and, after checking a couple of books on sky phenomena, concluded that it was an iridescence.

So there you have it, pink and green pastel shades, it's what the discerning cloud about town is wearing these days.

Sunday 19 June 2016

Always thinking of pie

Whether it's been the three weeks of Springwatch and Unsprung, or the fact that I've been reading Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, today I had an urge. Don't worry, I haven't been eating tadpoles, listening to 80s music or indulging in 70s retro clothing, but whilst mowing our plot this afternoon, I was musing about the relative uses of the habitat in our garden.

There's lots of grass and weeds, in various sizes from XS to XXXL, all trying to cater for different creatures, so that there's a bit for everybody.

Then it dawned on me, what this problem needs is a pie chart.

A quick sketch, some rough calculations, numbers fed into a spreadsheet and voilĂ !

So, in habitat terms, most of Tense Towers is a longer than average sward, peppered with buttercups and daisies. Then comes the 'lawn', which is the bit at the front, seen from the lounge window and consequently mown to a trim 5cm.

Both of these grassy areas are frequented by House Sparrows, Starlings and Common Gulls, searching for invertebrates.

The hard standing where our cars are parked (and rock and wood are piled up, waiting for some inspiration on my part) is very much the least hard working of our habitats. There may be all sorts tucked away in the rock piles, mind.

The house is home to two humans, a family of House Sparrows (obvs) and about 14 billion Woodlice.

The uncut grass is our wildlife triangle, not as hoped a sea of cornfield annuals, but also containing the usual thugs: docks, nettles and thistles. This is only cut once a year, so will probably attain a height of a metre, even in an Orcadian gale. It does provide plenty of seeds for overwintering finches.

The smallest habitat unit contains our trees, various clumps of species that have not, as yet, grown taller than the uncut grass. Hopefully, their time will come.

Sharing the honour of tiniest habitat is a patch of short sward, 3cm at most, which consistently proves to be an absolute magnet for an Oystercatcher or two. We stand at the window, watching in amazement as those long beaks wreak havoc on the local worm population.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Food for the soul

There comes a time during every holiday when you realise that you're going to have to rearrange the order of the contenders in your 'All-time favourite tea shop' list.

No? Just me, then.

Faithful readers of this blog will know that the village shop in Torridon is currently in the top spot, with only the possibility of a significant sea level rise likely to affect its position.

However, following several trips to Glen Lyon, there's a new kid on the block...

Locally-roasted coffee, homebakes, soup and sandwiches, what's not to like?!

Our Lass was quite taken with it, too, as her following four photographs show:

That picture of the window above the front door is significant, as on our first visit, someone was busy moving in...

Yep, tea, cake and House Martins. It's a heady combination to help a grumpy so-and-so unwind from the stresses of Life.

We returned the following week and things had progresses somewhat.

Two nests :o)

The views out front were just peachy...

And the bird list included Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper and Spotted Flycatcher.

Whether it was intentional I'm not entirely sure but, on our last visit, the teapots were themed to our herbal teas. Green for peppermint and yellow for lemon and ginger.

Now, that is attention to detail!

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Spread your wings

As conscientious and knowledgeable readers of Imperfect and Tense, you're probably wondering if we saw any Odonata whilst on holiday.

Hell, yeah!

At Loch Garten:

Born to be wild: a recently-emerged Four-spotted Chaser.

On the trail of the lonesome pine: a White-faced Darter.

At Keltneyburn Nature Reserve:

Denim and leather: over-mature Large Red Damselfly.

Two out of three ain't bad: Large Red Damselflies (and friend).

At Logierait SSSI:

Blue for you: Azure Damselfly.

Once, twice, three times a lady damsel: Northern Damselflies.

We also managed to see, but not photograph, Common Blue Damsels and a possible Azure Hawker (I know!). 

Tuesday 7 June 2016


One of the great things about the cottage we rented near Aberfeldy was the amount of wildlife on the doorstep. Not literally, although the owners' hens were regular visitors to that particular location.

Early in the holiday, I was idly looking out of our bedroom window, admiring the view across the valley, but slowly becoming aware that I was actually concentrating upon something else.

It was the tinkling song of a Goldfinch.

I continued to watch the Goldfinch for a while and realised that it had a partner. Then my interest went up several more notches when I spotted a nest in the conifer outside our window.

Photographing it wasn't straightforward. The light was only really in my favour late in the afternoon, although as Our Lass isn't prone to siestas, I didn't have to worry about disturbing her. No, the problem was more along the lines of factoring in enough magnification to make out what was going on.

My DSLR camera is normally set up with a 300mm prime focus lens, ever ready for that perfect dragonfly shot (still waiting...), but this didn't quite cut the mustard. Then I tried using a telescope and my phone as a crude digiscoping experiment that was more Blair Witch than Gold Finch. Even using Our Lass's compact digital camera and the scope gave very aberrant chromatic results. So in the end, I bolted a x1.4 extender onto the 300mm lens and heavily cropped the ensuing images.

At least I was using a tripod, the most underused of all my wildlife watching paraphernalia. It normally only gets an airing for astronomical events. But by setting the camera to Live View and increasing digital magnification to x10, I was able to focus reasonably crisply, or at least to the crispness of my eyes. Then it was a matter of delaying the shot by a couple of seconds to allow everything to stop shaking and Hey Presto! 

A few days later...

 And a bit later still...

During our second week at the cottage, the chicks continued to grow, but I wasn't able to take any clear images. It was windier for one thing and this made the tree move around much more, either blurring the image or obscuring the nest altogether. The nest itself seemed to be shifting position, but I don't know whether this was due to the branches flexing or the weight of the growing brood.

However, shortly before we left for home, I am happy to report that that chicks were doing well, with much exercising of wings and the likelihood of a successful fledging.

The Scottish Tourist Board probably don't take into account the provision of magical wildlife moments when auditing a property for a star rating. But if they did, then this one deserves at least four Gold stars.

Monday 6 June 2016

Leslie Nielsen - fondly remembered

One big plus of going on holiday is that you have the opportunity to do different things to that which you would normally do at home. As a wildlife watcher, that does leave me in something of a quandary.

OK, let's start again. One big plus of going on holiday is that you have the opportunity to watch different sorts of wildlife to that which you would normally watch at home.

On our second day in Aberfeldy, we were joined by Second Born, meeting up in Inverness to go to a Peatbog Faeries gig. More of that in another post, but the night was also memorable for the drive back down the A9. Now, we've driven this route countless times, mainly during the day, but never at night at this time of year. Going through the Cairngorms and descending into Perthshire, we were astonished to see so many Red Deer grazing on the grass verges at the side of the road. We had to take evasive action several times, as huge-antlered stags wandered into the road in front of us. Scary stuff for all concerned.

The next day saw us at Keltneyburn Nature Reserve in Glen Lyon, ostensibly for damselflies, but there were several deer in the neighbouring pastures. I'm not great at deer ID, so this may not be a Roe Deer.

Over the course of several days, we became aware that a Brown Hare was occasionally running through the courtyard of the cottage we were renting, once even when Our Lass was sat out there. Attempts to photograph these encounters were futile, as by the time I registered what was happening, it was already too late...

On a trip to Cluny House Gardens, we were fortunate to meet several Red Squirrels, and this particular one was in the car park.

We returned to the gardens the next day too, as it has a wonderful mix of native and exotic woodland plants. And I had better luck with one of their Brown Hares.

Back at the cottage, I had resorted to putting out a camera trap, in an effort to photograph the hare. After several luckless days and nights featuring hens (days) and slugs (nights), we eventually struck gold...

On our last evening in the cottage, no-one wanted to cook, but the fridge was full of salad stuff. Second Born had the great idea of take-out pizzas (and our salad, obviously), so her and I were dispatched into town to order and collect.

There was going to be a 20 - 30 minute wait for our order to be ready, so we wandered off through the town, across a golf course, and to a footbridge over the River Tay. Second Born had been keen to visit this bridge, as we could see the A-frame sections poking out above the treetops when we were driving to and from the cottage.

As we reached the middle of the bridge, I looked over the side and saw something under the water, swimming downstream. At first I thought it was a huge fish, but then decided it was too big and must just be a weirdly-shaped clump of water weed. Second Born spotted it too and ventured "Platypus?" 

It wasn't any of those things, it was a Beaver. We didn't have a pair of bins or a camera between us (c'mon, we'd nipped out for pizza), but I did managed to snap a blurry shot with my phone before it was out of sight.

How could I have forgotten that there is a population of 'accidentally released' beaver in the Tay catchment? Jings, but I'll remember that pizza.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Made in China

The Tense Towers Team have been on holiday. Not, as the title of the blogpost suggests, in the Orient, but near Perth. Not the one in Australia, the other one, in Scotland.

A grand time was had by one and all: Our Lass, Second Born, her beau and me.

So the month of June will be mainly me remembering stuff we did and then posting holiday snaps. Apologies in advance.

To begin with, rather appropriately, here's a few pics from the trip home at the end of the holiday...

If you're ever in Lochinver, on the north west coast of Scotland, can I suggest that you pop into Highland Stoneware?

I had heard of Lochinver, many moons ago, as Second Born told me she had been there with her university buddies. To be fair, the only thing I remembered from back then was the fact that there was a pie shop. Funny that, eh?

But what a pie shop...

I can heartily recommend the Chestnut, mushroom and red wine one, as well as the Chocolate, pear and almond offering. And they do mail order!

Tomorrow, if you're lucky, there may be photos of wildlife or perhaps a glimpse of some stunning scenery.