Sunday 29 January 2017

BGBW 2017

First up, let me say that I didn't think I'd be participating in the 2017 Big Garden Bird Watch. Readers with a longer than normal attention span (all of you, surely?) may recall that the only bird to grace our garden with its presence during the previous BGBW had been a Snipe. What may not have been revealed at the time, was the fact that the RSPB's survey was not designed to cope with this particular scenario. Following a heated email debate and some pedantic sulking (yes, that was me), I admitted defeat and didn't submit the record.

So here we are in 2017 and, to be honest, I wasn't prepared to put myself through all that again. The local avifauna had other ideas, mind, and a single Blackbird pointedly paraded up and down outside the lounge window until I relented.

But it didn't stop there. Not by a long chalk. A tiny flurry of movement on the dry stone wall resolved itself into a Wren and then a House Sparrow gave away its location by chirruping from the rooftop.

Three actual birds, actually in the garden, on the actual weekend of the BGBW and they were all on the actual form, so totally legitimate for the survey. I will admit that I had to have a bit of a lie down after such frenzied activity.

As mentioned yesterday, the 100+ Common gulls that showed up for the ploughing competition over the road, didn't deign to set foot within the environs of Tense Towers, but this morning offered up a whole new level of excitement.

I was stood by the window, watching a Rook on a nearby fence post in the field opposite. It easily resisted my attempts to either levitate it or force it to fly across to our garden by mind power alone, although I did have a sudden impulse to eat a worm. No idea what that was about. It did occur to me to wonder why it was sat there, which was serendipitous, as a few fence posts further along the field was a raptor.

All thoughts of worm snacks disappeared in my mad dash for a camera, and I fired off a volley of shots through the rain-splattered window. I didn't dare open the front door, as this would've likely spooked the bird but, luckily, our bedroom window wasn't closed. With great care, I gently pushed it further open, until I could bring the camera lens to bear.

Unfortunately, the bird was sat with its back to me, and remained in this orientation throughout the whole 10 minutes I was able to watch it, before it glided off along the fence to the furthest corner of the field.

The raptor was staring intently into the recently ploughed field, possibly looking for worms (perhaps the Rook was even smarter than I'd already given it credit for). By its size and markings, I reckoned that it was a female Merlin, and I watched in awe as she took a break from hunting for lunch to run through a few stretching exercises.

Pleasingly, one of my photos captured one such move, the falcon equivalent of Tai Chi, 'Grasping the Pipit's Tail', perhaps?

And here is one of the few pictures where the bird looked around.

With a predator sat close by, I was probably very fortunate that any small birds showed up in the garden at all. I think we'll call that a result.

A sporting legacy

There's not much motorsport in Orkney, we're not Mull or the Isle of Man. The local motor club does have an autotest championship and there's a motocross club for the two-wheeled scrambling brigade, but that's pretty much it, really.

So imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Orkney had been mentioned in the same breath as the World Rally Championship. It seemed so petrol-headedly preposterous that I had to follow the link. For the 2017 World Rally Championship, the official Ford team will carry the number plates from a couple of cars belonging to the owners of the local Ford garage in Kirkwall. It's a nice bit of publicity, when normally the fastest thing on the road, certainly around here, is the wind.

But, and it's a big muddy but, I was reminded this week that there are plenty of Orcadian competitions which involve engines. Quite large engines. And mud. Plus some huge tyres. Did I mention the mud?

Saturday saw an event very close to home, the East Mainland Agricultural Society's Ploughing Match, which was held at Hurtiso Farm in Holm. The field for the competition was located across the road from Tense Towers, so we had a grandstand view. By 9 o'clock, there were a dozen tractors on site, all rigged for ploughing. Whilst there weren't many spectators, a sizeable flock of Common gulls had gathered, as is usually the case if they spot a tractor and plough. The gulls soon lost interest, however, when the competitors climbed out of their cabs and began a reconnaissance of their allocated plots. 

I have no knowledge of the skills required to accurately drive a tractor (other than having owned several Land Rovers). Neither do I have an appreciation of the intricacies of ploughing or its use as a mudsport, but I know plenty about pitting one's wits against opponents in the muddy outdoors in inclement weather (think orienteering, off road navigational rallying or most Winter birding trips). And before you say that all tractors have air-conditioned cabs, surround sound and GPS, let me say that most interest seemed to focus upon the sole entrant in the vintage category, who was definitely closer to the elements than his fellow competitors.

As the rigs lined up in the morning, it looked as though there was some scruntineering and judging for the Best Turned Out Rig. It was not, as I first thought, a bid to establish a base line for later in the day and the award for the Muddiest Tractor.

The avian crowd assembled in a nearby field. They must've mistakenly thought "A dozen tractors?! Twelve times the amount of food!"

By 10 o'clock, things were underway in earnest, although it was hardly a level playing field (apologies, I couldn't resisit that pun).

An hour later, it was darker, wetter and oh so very much ploughier.

Big respect to the guy in the old tractor which lacked a cab or any mod cons. I cannot imagine the likes of Formula 1 stars such as Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel taking to the wheel in such circumstances, without a good deal of carping.

The event went on all afternoon, with a few families coming along to watch the action before, one by one, the machines trundled back to their home farms. The following morning brought a brighter, sunnier day and, as I wandered along the road, a thought struck me. In these days of corporate logos, sponsorship from big business and the argument over the amateur/professional divide, just how many sporting events do leave behind a tangible legacy on the ground?

05.02.17 update: the results were featured in the local paper the following week...

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Some afternoon delight

Not that sort of afternoon delight!

An early finish to the working day in Winter is rare. An early finish when there's still plenty of daylight is almost unheard of. But today, as though the planets had aligned, everything fell into place and we were finished by lunchtime. The sun was shining, the air was still and it felt... what's that word? Mild!

Predictably, after a few emails and some accounting, the sky had clouded over, but the urge for some fresh air was too strong. Grabbing my coat and bins, I set off for a walk around the St Nicholas' Kirk loop, the single track road that contours around to Greenwall, descends to the kirk by the shore, then climbs back towards Tense Towers.

The outward journey was rather bereft of wildlife, a small flock of feral pigeons feeding in a field and a larger flock of Starlings going through their dance steps before this afternoon's performance of 'Murmuration'.

As I sauntered down the hill from Greenwall, I noticed a bird several fields away, flying towards me from the shore. As I was gazing into the light, it was initially just a head-on silhouette, so I was unsure of whether it was a corvid or a raptor. The wing beat suggested the latter, and as the words "Hen harrier" formed on my lips, the sun broke through the clouds and I had a wonderful view of a flypast from a beautifully-plumaged male. There isn't a rational way of explaining how some grey, a couple of bits of black and a dab of white should combine to make such a spectacular-looking bird, but they do and it is!

I watched the harrier until it flew out of sight over the hill behind me, then continued down the road to the kirk. At the shore, there wasn't too much about as the tide was in, though a smart male Goldeneye was feeding in the breaking waves and a dozen or so Ringed plover were zig-zagging across the bay.

The kirkyard was thronging with birds. Every time I turned around from scanning the sea, the wall and many gravestones were topped by twittering, tail-flicking pipits. I suspect that the comparative warmth of the day had rustled up a large helping of insect prey.

In the damp fields behind the kirk, a large flock of Curlew and Redshank were gathered. They were quite vocal, presumably due to my presence, but my eye was taken by a movement on the shore side of the road, in the scrubby vegetation above the beach. A pair of Stonechat were flying to and fro, one minute on the ground, the next perched on a fence post. There was another bird, too, which revealed itself to be a Reed Bunting. The chocolate brown feathers on top of its head caught the light nicely.

As I returned to looking at the female Stonechat, a car pulled up, a lady taking her dogs for a walk. The animals barked and I was aware of the Curlews calling urgently, but this didn't spark any alarm bells in my head. Well, not until I was aware of another movement in my binocular gaze. Refocussing the lenses brought the hillside directly behind the Stonechat into clear view, a Peregrine falcon had just landed with a kill. Possibly one of the feral pigeons?

Gah! Always, always, always take notice of birds alarm calling.

After a few moments, the falcon struggled back into the air, lugging its unfortunate victim away to somewhere quieter. The laboured flight meant that it couldn't gain height quickly and, as it disappeared from view, a Hooded Crow was mobbing it at close quarters, presumably safe in the knowledge that it was unthreatened from those talons!

Nearing home, clouds once more obscured the sun, but it threw some rays earthwards to further cheer the heart of this wildlife watcher.

Sunday 15 January 2017

A weekend of work and play

The wintry weather during the working week meant that, once the gales had blown through, there would be an amount of catching up to be done. As it turned out, Saturday was a calmer, though colder, day, easily workable from the viewpoint of Mr Health and Mr Safety, so a trip to the island of Shapinsay was planned.

Early doors in Kirkwall saw heavy clouds over the cathedral and a sprinkling of snow from the previous night.

Upon reaching Shapinsay, the sun put in an appearance. It was ideal (if bitterly cold) conditions for photography and we saw several islanders out for a walk with their cameras.

Our last visit of the morning was along a track and through a wood. Perhaps not much to write home about in usual circumstances, but in a landscape as bare of trees as Orkney, a moment to be savoured.

Sunday dawned dull and grey, but all was calm. Our Lass and I headed into Kirkwall for some urban birding, or at least as urban as you're going to get in this neck of the woods.

We parked opposite a row of supermarkets and set off around the Peedie Sea, an enclosed body of water behind the ayre which skirts part of Kirkwall Bay. There is much local arguing as to the spelling of the name, the OS map goes with 'Peerie'.

Despite being surrounded by roads busy with traffic and footpaths frequented by dog walkers, the Peedie Sea is not your average town duck pond (leaving aside the fact that Kirkwall isn't your average town). At this point, I will apologise for the lack of photos, as my intention was to capture some images when we returned to the car, but low cloud and drizzle put paid to that.

Never mind, back to more avian matters. There are some Mallard on the Peedie Sea, even a few Mute Swans, as well as the usual smattering of gulls. So far, so normal. However, the remainder of the clientele are a little more special. As it's Winter, there were several Goldeneye, small flocks of waders (Redshank, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Turnstone), a few Wigeon and loads of Long-tailed ducks. The males of this latter species are looking splendid in their breeding plumage, and the air was full of their calls as they vied for the attention of the females. To be able to approach so close to such a magnificent looking duck is a real privilege.

Upon reaching the ayre, we noticed that the tide was in. As we walked along the footpath eastwards, several pairs of Red-breasted mergansers were feeding just off shore. And all the while, more Long-tailed ducks were flying in low from the bay, over our heads.

We made our way past the slips and piers for the island ferries, stopping on the Corn Slip to photograph the boats within the inner harbour, before wandering around to the marina road.

From some distance away, we noticed a few waders drop in and land on one corner of the marina. Upon retracing our steps, we were able to identify these as Snipe, counting about fourteen individuals altogether.

Between the dull drizzle and my phone camera, I think you're just going to have to take my word for it! But there are 14 Snipe (a wisp!) hunkered down in the vegetation and the rocks below it at the water's edge.

Friday 13 January 2017

Flock wallpaper

This morning I was sat in the lounge, looking out at the world and rather glad that I was unable to work due to the weather. Despite the gale blowing in from the north west, a flock of Rooks appeared out of the northern sky and, seemingly oblivious to the gusty conditions, landed in the stubble field across the road. Barely acknowledging the wind, they had the good grace to approach sideways, bank to the right and descend in a smooth arc to the cold ground and whatever they could forage.

I scanned the flock with my bins, but couldn't spot any Jackdaws mixed in with the Rooks, though several Skylarks flew through my gaze. Whilst I couldn't see the whole flock due to the contours of the field, there were well over a hundred birds, hungrily marching through the stubble and looking for food.

After ten minutes or so, they were spooked by passing vehicles, and took to the air once more, cutting through the wind as the headed back north.

Apologies, our windows aren't clean, and there was no way I was going outside to take a clearer photo.

Big flocks of Rooks are a Winter treat here at Tense Towers. A seasonal gift of chatty corvids to lift the spirits of a bitterly cold day.

We're all different...

but some of us are just differenter.

Shells collected from the beach at Sandside, Graemsay, with the permission of the owner (of the beach).

Saturday 7 January 2017

Blatant filler post

Blatant filler post... or critical update? You decide.

I was reminded, this morning, of several questions I had left hanging in the air during 2016. Not, I hasten to add, in a deliberate attempt to build up any drama or tension, but merely because I'm an eejit and had forgotten.

Perhaps you will recall the mission I set myself, way back in February 2016, to check upon a possible alignment of three ancient sites near our home? Cursory glances at a map and compass hinted at the possibility of a Winter solstice alignment involving a Neolithic cairn, a ruined broch and a mysterious mound in a churchyard. Now, that was going to be more than nine months of remembering, so quite possibly beyond my skill set. And then, of course, there was always going to be the 'will it, won't it' of the weather on the day. However, worse still than that, December 21st saw me leaving home well before sunrise to be at an appointment on the other side of the island.


Fortuitously, the next day, I was able to check the position of the rising sun, but it was nowhere near the hoped-for alignment, and the theory bit the dust.

So, all I can give you is a photo from November, featuring the enigmatic mound in the churchyard, and a photo from this morning, which was the thing that reminded me to fess up to my poorly-documented failure.

St Nicholas' Kirk, viewed from the east

Kirk in centre, mid distance.
The other topic that needs a bit more explanation was the much-heralded return of our overwintering Snipe in November. In actual fact, after the first sighting, there'd been precious little evidence of their presence, so I was somewhat nonplussed. Despite regular applications of 'standing at the window and scouring the adjacent fields with me bins', not a single Snipe was spotted, prompting me to rename the species Snope.

Today, upon returning home from town and parking the car in its usual place, I received a bit of a shock. As I alighted from the vehicle, something shot out of the flower border right beside me, soared up into the sky and disappeared shorewards. Yup, a Snipe. Gah! 

OK, in an attempt to provide a bit of monthly interest during 2017, there is going to be a Doorstep Challenge! I will try to feature at least one sunset a month, photographed as a panorama from the front door of Tense Towers. My aim is to give some idea of the seasonal movements of the sun, from Winter solstice, through the Spring equinox, Summer solstice, Vernal equinox and back to the Winter solstice.

Better late than never, here's the one for today, 7th January, with the glow just nudging westwards beyond the farm buildings below our home:

And, re the previously-mentioned Snipe, yes, that flower border next to that car.

Sunday 1 January 2017

New Year's Day amble

The downside of travelling sooth for New Year/Hogmanay is that we're absent from Orkney for the annual Field Club ramble, usually around a stunning bit of Orcadian countryside, and often in bracing conditions. Finding ourselves in deepest Fife, we awoke to discover that 2017 was sunny and frosty, with a biting northerly breeze. Perfect for an amble (the less energetic, and more accurate, word for our method of locomotion).

Beginning in the village of Carnock, we followed a yellow road south east, climbing steadily through a housing estate, before the road turned south and ascended up to West Camps. The tarmac was icy underfoot and the verges held little pockets of crystal-coated leaves and white-edged blades of grass.

Before we descended down the other side of the hill, I took a panoramic shot of the northern horizon (from 1 on the map), looking towards the Ochil Hills.

As we negotiated the steep downhill slope, it was pleasant to be out of the cold breeze and bathed in some comparatively warm sunshine. These Gorse flowers thought so too (from 2 on the map).

We made our way onto a disused railway line which had been converted into a track for use by walkers, cyclists and horse riders, following it west for about a mile. This proved to be an excellent wildlife habitat. Initially, the banks of the track were covered in Hawthorn, Dog rose and Bramble, attracting numerous finches (Gold-, Green- and Chaf-), Redwings, Goldcrests and Yellowhammers. This latter species, I failed to see throughout 2016, so already 2017 is ahead of the game.

As we progressed along the track, the vegetation became less shrubby and more woodland, with Silver birch and Hazel being predominant. The latter looked rather resplendent in the golden Winter light, some of last year's leaves framing the new catkins (from 3 on the map).

Here, too, were plenty of birds. A couple of pairs of Bullfinch fed in the birch trees, whilst a flock of Long-tailed tits flitted through the denser stands of trees, their silhouettes flashing through the light and shade.

As we reached the village of Oakley, we turned off the track and headed uphill northeastwards, on a footpath that was so overgrown that the local walkers had taken to criss-crossing it and using the fields on either side. Cue much shenanigans with barbed wire fences and the precarious decisions of whether to go over or under.

Reaching the top of the hill, the footpath became a muddy farm track, skirting a trig point and several small communications masts. In the company of a tumbling flock of Ravens, I stopped here to take in the view to the south which, although partly obscured by the light of the sun, included the Firth of Forth, its several bridges and, in the far distance, the Pentland Hills (from 4 on the map).

Passing through the farm at Carneil, we returned to Carnock, satisfied with our morning's exercise and the abundance of wildlife in such a short distance.

Happy New Year!