Tuesday 27 September 2016

A Monday to like

Due to a low key and lethargic weekend, Monday morning saw me mowing our plot before rains hit later in the week. I was sufficiently awake and alert to notice this wee flower just before it was about to have an urgent meeting with Mr Blades in HR.

Would you look at that?! A Wild Pansy! And not anywhere near my failed wildflower patch. Go figure.

Later in the day, I noticed just how far along the western horizon the setting sun had travelled since the Summer solstice.

In fact, although I framed the sun in different parts of the image, I couldn't fit in the distance travelled in one shot. So the above photo simply shows off Scapa Flow and a distant Hoy at sunset.

Later still and Facebook went nuts, at least locally, as we were treated to a clear evening with a light show courtesy of the Aurora Borealis. Although none of us managed to stay awake until the early hours for the best view, we were able to sample a little of the natural theatre.

Here's the Plough, the aurora and the tail lights of a passing car.

More faint greeny glow and a shooting star.

These were fifteen second exposures, so are probably slightly more vivid compared to as seen with the naked eye.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Hup's a daisy

For the second day in a row, we found ourselves in the village and port of St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay. I know what you're thinking... and, yes, tea and cake were involved. This time we were in the company of Sian (from Life on a Small Island blog), who had journeyed over from Graemsay to visit Our Lass during her convalescence. St Margaret's Hope is known locally as The Hope, and sometimes referred to as the even shorter T' Hup. After a pleasant lunch at Robertson's Cafe, we wandered the short distance to a community garden next to the Marengo Centre. 'Marengo' is not your typical Norse-derived place name, as the above link explains.

Whilst the ladies pottered around, discussing 'Bake Off', identifying plants, chatting about 'Strictly', helping each other negotiate stone steps, musing over 'Poldark' and other life-enhancing topics, I busied myself with taking photographs. This being Orkney, I hadn't anticipated there being much in the way of colour, what with it being Autumn and all. And Autumn seemed to have arrived after the previous day's glorious weather. But I was wrong...

It would appear that my phone is a better entomologist than I am. I was trying to take a photograph of a hover-fly, but my phone decided that a different, and much smaller, insect was of more interest. I'm not sure whether it is a species of sawfly or scorpion fly, but it's definitely a female.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Hoxa call

Whilst technically the Autumnal equinox, Thursday was a lovely late Summer's day with warm sunshine and a gentle breeze. It was the sort of day that doesn't occur very often in Orkney, so it would have been frivolous to waste it upon indoor tasks, or even worse, work.

This wasn't a conundrum with which I had to wrestle for too long, as Our Lass is on sick leave, recovering from an operation and, due to a late cancellation of a booked job, I was free to enjoy the benign weather.

The morning was spent carrying out husbandly duties of the retail accompaniment variety. Who knew that it was possible, nay necessary, to go shoe shopping whilst on crutches?! In the afternoon, we drove across the Barriers to South Ronaldsay and made our way along the single track road to the Hoxa peninsula.

Parking up not far from some boggy pools, our plan was for Our Lass to enjoy a bit of a careful potter along the tarmac track, safe from uneven surfaces but conveniently close to Nature.

This late in the Orcadian dragonfly season, I wasn't sure what, if anything would be on the wing. However, the weather has been kind to us this Summer, so hopes were high of at least something.

After a bit of diligent searching, I finally spotted a male Black Darter, not far from the water's edge. His wings were somewhat tatty and his black colouration a little faded, suggesting that he was a rather mature individual who had experienced many adventures in his short aerial existence.

Whilst Our Lass ambled to and fro, I wandered up a grassy track beyond the pools. In the lee of a willow plantation, plenty of insects were enjoying the warmth of the sun and the foraging opportunities, including these Common Carder bumblebees. My thanks to MG for help with the ID.

There were also some female Black Darters, probably younger than the male I had seen, and therefore looking pristine and fresh.

Walking back towards the car, the flash of sunlight upon wings alerted me to the presence of a few more dragonflies. These turned out to be more male Black Darters, so my tally for the visit was six individuals, 4 males and 2 females. I chuckled to myself as I realised that the boys were hanging around the edge of the pools, hoping for the girls to come by, whilst the girls were in fact elsewhere, more interested in lunch and basking in the sun. Perhaps a lesson there that I would've benefited from many decades ago!

Head down in odo observation mode, I was vaguely aware of the alarm calls of some Snipe nearby. My automatic reaction was to look overhead, presuming I had spooked the waders and that they would be hurriedly gaining altitude and sweeping away to a quieter bit of boggy moorland. Unable to locate the birds, I was about to resume my search for dragonflies, when my gaze fell upon some other movement beyond the afore-mentioned Willows.

It was a juvenile Hen harrier, busy searching for prey and consequently scattering Snipe right, left and centre. It repeatedly pounced down into the vegetation, perhaps chasing an Orkney vole, but to no avail. It eventually flew off, empty-clawed to try its luck elsewhere.

Just before I reached the car, something small flew across the road in front of me, which turned out to be a Painted Lady butterfly. It landed, briefly, on a Scabious flower, allowing me to rattle off a few shots before it fluttered out of range.

It was a very fresh-looking specimen, presumably recently emerged, so I expect that it will shortly be commencing the journey south to Africa. Our Lass and I made the slightly shorter journey into St Margaret's Hope to forage upon herbal tea and fruit cake. Cafe society, indeed.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Walls, what are they good for?

Long-suffering readers may well remember this post from two years ago. Re-reading it now, I am chastened to recall that our dilapidated wall has been awaiting attention for all of that time. Shame on me.

Now, most photos from Tense Towers, looking straight across the front lawn, do not show the wall in too bad a light. However, a glance along the wall is a very different kettle of fish...

Well, this afternoon, pretty much two years to the day since the training course, I finally went all neolithic with our boundary dyke.

It was a grand day, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. To be exact, the Skylarks were calling, as small migrating flocks of five or six flew overhead from morning until evening.

The first task was to remove the fallen portion of the wall...

then it was possible to see the state of the cross section of the wall.

The infill was mostly absent, which will not have helped the structure.

And so the re-build began, trying to maintain the 'A' shape of the cross section and packing the centre of the wall with plenty of infill.

At least it is now a bit straighter!

I suspect that the rest of the wall will need attention too, but I will need to recover from this session first.

Barrow breath or Lemming dribble?

The list of strange afflictions which affect the human body seems to grow ever longer as medical science discovers yet more causes of our suffering. And we always appear surprised, notwithstanding the fact that we're dumping loads of our toxic waste into an environment and a food web that's had a gutful of our plastic throwaways.

Happily, this post has nothing to do with that, as Our Lass and I have just finished a light lunch of poached eggs on toast. Our appreciative thanks must go to the hens from Life on a Small Island blogger, Sian. And thanks also to Sian herself, of course, for being kind enough to transport them safely all the way from Graemsay to Tense Towers (utilising two cars and a ferry).

(There's now a tab on the right hand side bar of the blog which links to some of my fellow Orkney bloggers, including Life on a Small Island)

So, as our lunch ramped up a level from 'light' to 'modest', I pondered upon the choices of cake. For her visit to see Our Lass, Sian had also baked some Bara brith, what with her being of Welsh descent and all, whilst I had opted to go with the old staple of Lemon drizzle cake.

Our Lass had the choice, Barrow breath or Lemming dribble?

Obvs, I would've said "Both!"

Saturday 17 September 2016

Up on the roof

Thursday was very foggy. For some places. Other places had bright sunshine.

A Mainland drive from north to south or from east to west produced alternating bands of weather which, despite the breeze, remained in place all day. Weird. The morning saw me on a roof in Stromness. Visibility was across the street and that was about it. I didn't take a photo, but if I had, it would've looked something like this...

Whilst I was taking some readings, a two tone siren sounded from the centre of town. Hmm, over the last three years, since moving from a large city to quiet ruralness, sirens have gone from just another bit of background noise to 'Wtf?'

So I was a little concerned as to what might be happening over in the harbour area that warranted the alarm. My unease ramped up another notch as a second siren wailed out its clamouring cry. Through the shifting grey swirls of fog, I could just make out a diffuse flashing blue light. Then I heard much shouting and screaming which, despite my foreboding, sounded for all the world like excited children.

Hang on a minute, this is likely to be a planned primary school visit by the emergency services, isn't it?


Twenty four hours later and what a difference a day makes. Another rooftop, another part of Orkney. Some grand view, this.

Friday 16 September 2016

Less bovver than a hover

Back in the 1980s, an advert from Qualcast, makers of rotary lawn mowers, advised folk that "It was a lot less bovver than a hover". This slogan insinuated that hover mowers, as made by Flymo, were not as easy to use or that they produced inferior results.

Now, this is supposed to be a wildlife blog, so let's get straight down to the nitty gritty.

In Orkney, there are about 50 species of hoverflies, but there are only 8 species of dragonflies and damselflies. I can ID all of the latter and very few of the former, so from my, admittedly biased, point of view, a dragon is a lot less bovver than a hover.

This saliet snippet was of absolutely no use to me the other day, when I arrived at a customer's property a bit earlier than forecast (it was a good day, we were ahead of schedule) and they weren't in. To make good use of the time, whilst waiting for the customer, I was surveying the outside of the property for the best solution, which meant that I had to skirt around the edge of their garden.

It's a lovely garden, still with plenty of colour in it (plus a small water feature, sadly odo-free on this visit).

But it did have loads of other insects...

The waiting wasn't really a chore.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Back to front

19:27 Late in the evening, a sun shower delivers a rainbow to the back door.

19.39 From the front door, the sun sets towards the west.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Breaking radio silence

A flurry of blogposts and then nothing for a week. What is that all about?

Yep, last week's blogathon, with six posts in as many days, was all about the muse generated by the previous weekend's wildlifey activities, plus a free day to write and schedule the posts.

The fallow period thereafter was a result of a busy old time, with an anniversary (ours), a trip to England (ours), a wedding (a nephew), visitors (Dr Jelly and his girlfriend), man flu (me) and knee surgery (Our Lass).

Remarkably, none of the above resulted in many photographs (though there are a few x-rays) and even less nature-watching, which presents something of a problem for a putative nature blog.

So, without the aid of an electron microscope, how do I extract the tiniest sliver of natural history from that lot?

Well, as I scan back through the meagre pickings in my Pictures folder, I see that the first thing that happened was the arrival of our visitors. Dr Jelly is a good friend of Second Born and a marine biologist specialising in Cnidaria (jellyfish to you and me). His girlfriend is currently on a work placement within Orkney, so he took the opportunity to journey north and here they are in our kitchen...

Several days later, it was our wedding anniversary, and for weeks I had been struggling with ideas as to what would make a suitable gift for Our Lass. Then, as happens from time to time, Fate intervened. Through my work, I met a lady, Carrie Paxton, who had recently moved to Orkney and who is an interior glass designer. Whilst busying around her home, it was impossible not to notice, and be very impressed by, the curved glass panels on display.

Light bulb moment!

Once home that evening and with the earlier idea burning away on a slow fuse, I fired up my computer and hit research mode. Now, whilst we have very few birds that frequent our garden all year round, one of these species is the Wren. As luck would have it, on Carrie's website, there were a couple of curved panels featuring some wee Wrens. Yay!

And very nice they are too.

A few days later, Our Lass and I journeyed south to attend a family wedding. We stayed overnight with Second Born in Milton Keynes (my first trip back to the city since leaving in December 2013). Walking back to her flat from the pub, in the twilight, we spotted an urban Fox slinking along a redway, keeping to the shadows and ever watchful for food! The wedding the next day was near London and I was on a very tight leash as regards nature watching (no bins, no camera, no free time), but it was great to catch up with folk, some of whom we had not seen for many a year. Despite the constraints of formality, I managed to hear a Nuthatch and some Ring-necked parakeets, as well as see four (sadly unidentified) dragonflies. Obviously, the fairest damsel was the lovely bride. The ceremony and reception went well, with dancing and carousing late into the evening, although I wimped out long before midnight.

Returning to Orkney, after hanging around in several thronging airports, it was good to be greeted, on our arrival, by a spectacular sunset, a gentle breeze and the call of a lone Curlew.

Since then, I've succumbed to the dreaded lurgy and Our Lass has headed off to Aberdeen for a knee operation. One of the compromises to be made when living in Orkney is that some medical care is not available at the local hospital in Kirkwall. Consultants from mainland Scotland visit on a regular basis, but the actual surgery is carried out in either Aberdeen, Inverness or Glasgow. Our Lass's new ambulatory augmentation has been christened Betaknee (Betony?) by First and Second Born. Where do they get their quirky thoughts from?

Friday 2 September 2016

Four waders and a funeral

I mentioned a trip to Rose Ness in a previous post (the one about avoiding the midges). What I didn't mention was that there was a bit of a preamble to the er... amble, which I will recount here.

En route to the clifftops, I knew we would pass a muddy pool behind St Nicholas' Kirk, so I made sure that I had my camera with me. This pool has held water for a long time, well, at least as long as we've lived in the area. Other pools have come and gone, depending upon either incessant rain or a prolonged dry spell, but this one was a stayer.

Until, that is, someone drove a tractor into it and the resulting wheel ruts became two drainage ditches. Could've been an unintended consequence, I suppose.

Any road, the upshot was lots of mud, which resident and migratory waders were making good use of. Hence the camera. The number of species was lower than on recent visits, but these Redshanks, Dunlin and, possibly, a Curlew Sandpiper made a nice grouping.

OK, you've got me, the blogpost should be titled 'Five waders and a funeral'.

And so, on to the cliffs. The first sight that greeted us was a dead sea bird. From our vantage point, I wasn't sure whether it was a Guillemot or a species of diver. Time for a closer inspection.

I made my way down a steep grassy slope, and along the base of the cliffs, being careful not to incur the displeasure of the resident Fulmars. Locating the deceased bird, I was fairly sure it was a Guillemot. There were no obvious signs of what caused its death.

Nearby, there is a small sea stack. I couldn't help noticing that it was a bit smaller than the last time we walked by.

Also on the beach and also beyond salvation, was this jellyfish...

ID'd as Lion's mane jellyfish Cyanea capillata by Dr Martin Lilley. Many thanks, Dr Jelly! And he tells me that a freshly washed-up example like this could still sting. Eep!

OK, it's a fair cop, the blogpost should be titled 'Five waders and two funerals'.

Thursday 1 September 2016

The cliff effect

Sunday morning saw us out for a stroll near Rose Ness, ostensibly looking for any birds migrating south but, in actual fact, just ensuring that there were no midges within a thousand yards. Other than the plentiful Fulmars, Redshanks and Shags, the only birds we saw that might possibly have been thinking about migration were singletons of Grey heron, Bonxie and Skylark.

However, one particular geo had a useful surprise amongst its general flotsam, a fairly intact-looking fishing box. In a moment of spontaneity, I endeavoured to recover the box, plus as much litter as I could fit into it. Our Lass stayed on top of the cliff to direct me towards any bits I might've missed, and to take photographs.

Leaving aside the driftwood, save for a small piece of gnarled trunk for Our Lass's collection, I began gathering up all manner of man-made detritus. 

Ten minutes later, I struggled back to the top of the cliff with my contraband.

A ragtag jumble of plastic bottles, an aerosol can, polystyrene fragments, plastic shards, food packaging, rope, string, a banding strap, a netting bag and several... er... medical tubes. 

But the beach was much cleaner. 

One small bio-degradable recovery was some twists of birch bark. If only all our flotsam was so benign. Back home, we recycled what we could, re-purposed some of the rope and bagged the remainder for the trip to the Shetland incinerator.