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.

Monday 3 October 2016

Orkney Field Club trip to Berriedale, Hoy, 2nd October 2016

Leaving Stromness harbour, headed for the hills of Hoy.

A minibus took the OFC group to Rackwick to begin the hike to Berridale.

Rest halt below Grut Fea to savour the berryfest and a passing Yellow-browed warbler (not shown).

In an actual relict native woodland!  In Autumn! Berriedale.

This is what the tiny Aspen seedlings in our garden want to be when they grow up.

Terrain within the dale.

Autumnal colour... and friend.

When we ran out of trees, there was a waterfall.

In fact, it was a bit of a camerafest.

This place must be awesome in Winter.

Looking back down Berriedale and across to the Glens of Kinnaird.

Climbing up onto the tops above Berriedale.

The island of Graemsay nestled between Hoy Sound and Bring Deeps.

Rackwick Bay from Cuilags.

Graemsay from Cuilags (for Sian!).

Sandy Loch and Ward Hill from Cuilags
The descent from Cuilags to Sandy Loch was 333m in less than a kilometre. There were no photos during the descent, or the subsequent amble down the hill to the pier, mainly due to trembling hands (the former) and wobbly knees (the latter).