Sunday 28 May 2017

Burns nigh

After several days of pleasantly warm weather, here in Orkney, I received a report of Large Red Damselflies on the wing. A little later than 2016, by a few days, this first record for the year was most welcome, and came from a sheltered glen on the island of Hoy.

Suitably encouraged, Our Lass and I ventured to a more local spot, the Burn of Wideford, to see if we could kickstart our flight season. Parking by Inganess Bay, we made our way upstream along the burn, serenaded by Sedge Warblers and treated to close views of Sand Martins.

There were many insects busily going about their lives: butterflies, bees, hoverflies and crane flies, so we knew that conditions were reasonably favourable. As we reached the bridge across the burn that carries the main road to the airport, we increased our level of intensive staring, as here was a sunny spot with shelter from the southerly breeze. Ample bankside vegetation tumbled down to the water's edge, providing perching possibilities for any insect wishing to bask in the warmth of a Spring morning.

Our persistence paid off, as a movement near some fern fronds resolved itself into a Large Red Damselfly adjusting its position. Yay! and Phew! Aligning itself along the central vein of the frond, the damsel had been virtually invisible, we wouldn't have spotted it, if it had remained motionless.

Once across the road, we continued along the path, now flanked by a few trees. These provided a bit more shelter for lush undergrowth, which in turn gave plenty of sunny perches for resting insects. Before long, we found another five damsels.

We then decided to try our luck on another short stream, actually a canalised drain, which flows from the town of Kirkwall into Scapa Bay. A trail runs adjacent to the burn, allowing decent access to monitor the water and vegetation. It's not the most wild of places, but I have recorded damselflies here in the past. Sadly, we drew a blank as far as odes were concerned, but we had a flypast from a Sparrowhawk, spotted a long-jawed spider (I think) and, bizarrely, a Common Eel.

Week end

Walks and squawks

A cancelled job on Thursday afternoon meant time in the sunshine with Our Lass, who is enjoying some grand weather during the remaining few weeks of her recuperation.

We journeyed to Yesnaby on the west coast to explore the maritime heath along the clifftops. Specifically, Herself wanted to see some Spring Squill, a delicate, little, blue flower which prefers such habitat. We were not disappointed.

Amongst all the Squill, there were also plenty of Thrift, Sea Campion and Birdsfoot Trefoil. We were treated to a raucous flyby from several Arctic Skuas and a fragile, high-pitched cliff-face chorus from half a dozen Black Guillemots.

Meanwhile, back at Tense Towers, the garden is filling up with recently-fledged Starlings...

Tuesday 23 May 2017


In my previous post, I mentioned that we had booked to go on an event at the Orkney Nature Festival. Despite having lived here for several years now, neither of us had managed to attend a Nature Festival event at all, mainly due to work commitments.

However, the Northlink Per Mare Nature Cruise 2017, aboard the mv Hamnavoe, was on a Sunday afternoon and beckoned welcomely. This vessel is one of the regular ferries between Orkney and the Scottish mainland but, for the Nature Festival, Northlink add in a trip up the west coast of Orkney, to look at the scenic cliffs and wildlife, plus a buffet. What. Is. Not. To. Love.

We arrived in Stromness just before lunchtime, to see the Hamnavoe entering the harbour on her normal run from Scrabster.

Before too long, four hundred eager foot passengers were aboard, comprising wildlife watchers, sight-seers, locals, tourists and folk just wanting some nosh.

After leaving Stromness and rounding the Ness, we cruised gently up the west coast of the Orkney mainland, and I tried to work out the landmarks from the opposite view.

This wasn't easy, especially when we passed by this stack which I'd never seen before. I think it's the Castle of North Gaulton.

I learnt a great deal during the trip. The main lesson was not to leave the image stabiliser on my camera switched off. At some time in the recent past, I had been using it on a tripod, so had switched off the I.S. I didn't realise until we were back home. Gah!

Further up the coast, was Skaill Bay, and a distant view of Skaill House (circa 1620AD) and Skara Brae (circa 3180BC).

Just north of the bay is a farm. Painted on a pair of barn doors, and not visible from the road on the landward side, are some Arctic Terns. I think that this is the area which is written about so evocatively in Amy Liptrot's 'The Outrun'.

On the bridge of the ship, a crack team of wildlife watchers were assembled, tensed like coiled springs, ready to spot anything interesting and communicate it to the passengers. Thank you, Emma (Sanday Ranger) and Alison (RSPB)! As we cruised ever northwards, we were treated to some fantastic cetacean activity...

Risso's Dolphins and...

Harbour Porpoise.

However, the three (yes, three!) pods of Orca which were being reported from around the archipelago did not grace us with a visit.

By the time we reached the north west corner of Orkney, it was time to have a look at the Brough of Birsay from a new angle.

On our very first visit to Orkney, back in 2006, we were stood on those cliffs, looking out to sea, at roughly the point we were now, and seeing a whale!

The cruise then surprised us by heading along the north coast of Orkney, all the way to Costa Head. This gave us a view back along the coast to Birsay.

At this point, Our Lass and I repaired to the buffet for a late lunch and some chat with friends. By the time we popped back on deck, the Hamnavoe was nearly back to Stromness. This just left a small opportunity to photograph a couple of buildings on the island of Graemsay. Buildings normally to be found within the blog pages of Life on a Small Island.

Top: Sandside
Bottom: Community Hall

And just to prove that we didn't spend all the voyage ensconced in the buffet, here's a shot cribbed from the Northlink Facebook page:

Saturday 20 May 2017

Roving clouds and a well-camouflaged carpet

During the past week or so, I've seen about half a dozen rove beetles scurrying around Tense Towers. Lounge, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, they're everywhere. Each one has been carefully encouraged onto a piece of paper and relocated outdoors, and I'm pretty sure that it isn't the same one six times.

Being vaguely aware that there's a lot of beetles in the world, I was still surprised how difficult it was to key this one out to a positive ID. Folk with much more idea than I, hazarded a few guesses from my phone photo (below), but the only certainty seemed to be that it belonged to the genus Philonthus.

Those gradations are millimetres, by the way.

The most recent days have been sunny and warm with pleasingly light winds. However, immediately preceding this fortuitous meteorology, there was a bit of a sploosh. Talk about brooding and leaden!

Yesterday, at work, I was attaching some cable to a wall, when a movement caught my eye. To be honest, if it hadn't have moved, I wouldn't have seen it!

I'm reliably informed that this moth is a Garden carpet.

Today is dreich. Constant rain and poor visibility, so there's not much enthusiasm for wildlife watching. Tomorrow promises much better weather, so we've booked ourselves onto an event at the Orkney Nature Festival. Fingers crossed!

First impressions

I stopped mid-sentence, listened intently for a second or two, then dashed through the doorway and out onto the lawn. It was an unmistakeable sound, the courtship call of a Redshank, usually accompanied by a soaring and gliding flight. Although Redshanks do breed in some of the rough pasture about half a mile from Tense Towers, it was unusual to hear a male setting up a territory right next to our home.

Scanning left and right, then up and down, revealed very little, other than a deeply blue sky of emptiness. There wasn't the slightest sign of a loved-up wader in full-on mating mode, despite the fact that I could still hear the call. At this point, Our Lass, with better sound locating abilities than myself, nodded in the direction of a Starling perched on a fence post at the bottom of the garden. Gah!

Yep, the oldest trick in the book, and I had fallen for it again.

Starlings. They're a bit of an enigma. In some places they're vanishingly rare, in others they're still remarkably abundant. Seen in numbers, they can be a murmuratingly wonderful spectacle or an annoying poop-splattering extravaganza. If we think of Starlings at all, and probably many of us don't, we are most likely to consider their extreme behaviours.

Yet, arguably, a Starling's most amazing attribute is its ability for mimicry.

As a young Tenselet, growing up in rural County Durham, I can recall the ivy-encrusted terrace of houses near to home, which seemed to be a huge audio wall of Starlings and House Sparrows. Aye, those were the days when many species were still abundant and able to provide a spectacle. So whenever I was playing outside, and in those pre-electronic gadgetry days that was a lot, I was surrounded by the sounds of Starlings going through their repertoires. Of course, in an inland rural setting, the source material was very different to the current wader-orientated one. You could say that I learnt a different Starling language. Back then, I was more likely to hear samples of song from garden, hedgerow and farmland birds, but one particular call does link time and place, that of the Curlew. Whilst I doubt that the haunting, bubbling call of a Curlew can still be heard near my boyhood home, it is still in my memory, my waking thoughts in Orkney and the mimicry of both populations of Starlings.

I did have one electronic gadget, now that I think about it, a battery-operated cassette recorder, with which I did occasionally record the sounds of rural 1970s County Durham. But sadly, although bird song was part of those tapes, I think that Starlings would've been too obvious a choice. Who would record those? They're so abundant, we couldn't possibly lose all that cacophony. Sigh. I remember one Spring morning, waking really early, and sneaking out of the house, armed with my trusty cassette machine. Not long after dawn, the air was fresh and cool, the sun was shining and, within a few minutes, I was walking through the dappled light of some mixed woodland. To my young ears, it felt as though every bird in the world was singing its joy at being alive on such a glorious morning. Which, in some way, was exactly what they were doing!

Another auditory escapade was of a very different flavour. For all of my fear of the dark, my over-active imagination and the fact that when it gets dark in rural locations, it is pitch black, I decided to attempt a recording of owls. These would be Tawny owls, which I had heard whilst walking down the shadowy, tree-lined lane between the village and home. They had sounded quite close to the lane, maybe at the opposite side of an adjacent field, so I grabbed my recorder, headed out into the enveloping night, back up the lane and across the field. It was only as suitably owly sounds were being pleasingly committed to magnetic tape that it occurred to me what was actually at the 'opposite side' of the field. Where I was now stood. The local cemetery. A-a-a-a-r-r-r-g-g-h-h!

Happily, I survived the experience and, in the intervening time, in Milton Keynes, I also learnt another handy Starling trick. They have a particular alarm call for raptors, usually a Sparrowhawk, so that once your ear is tuned to it, it is possible to have an early warning of an incoming Sprawk. I have seen so many more of these fabulous birds of prey than I would've done, all thanks to the local Starlings.

And for that alone, I can forgive them everything.

Thursday 18 May 2017

More sowing, less needle

At the end of last month, in the closing remarks of a blogpost, I mentioned that we were going to try a new approach with the 'wildlife triangle' that sits at the bottom of the front lawn. The latest plan for the fifty odd square metres of unkemptness was to sow it with annual wildflowers, rather than try to create a full-on meadow. Technically less hassle, more pollen and nectar for insects, more enjoyment for us humans.

Well, the intervening fortnight didn't bring much in the way of free time, decent weather or the necessary inclination, but the past two days have been absolutely peachy, so some progress has finally been made.

Admittedly, we haven't stuck to the plan, but that's not such a surprise, eh?

After repeated mowings on progressively lower blade settings, the wildlife triangle was looking rather shorn and bereft. There were patches of bare earth where the blades had discovered that the ground wasn't so smooth and level, whilst the remains of clumps of coarse grass looked more like pale yellow stepping stones. Within a few days, new shoots of dock were springing up right, left and centre from all the root tops which had been exposed by the whirling mower blades. Here was the change of plan. We decided that we could live with the rough grass, the thistles, the buttercups and, heck, even the nettles, but most of the docks would have to go. This weeding process would also have the happy side effect of creating yet more patches of bare, as well as disturbed, earth.

Time to get all mediaeval with those docks!

I can confirm one thing straight away. There was way more in there than I thought. I haven't been counting (because that would be a waste of dock-busting energy and time), but so far there's about ten trugs of dock root which have appeared from the ground, and there's still about forty per cent of the area to go. Meantime, Our Lass is following along behind, sowing drifts of wildflower seed in the bare patches. At the moment, we're continuing to exhaust stocks of seed harvested from Castle Cornflower (Corn cockle, Cornflower and Field poppy), but we will soon be moving on to newly-purchased goodies like borage and Phacelia.

The borage and Phacelia seed left over will then go into big blocks of sowing in a border, along with some Echium seed. That is going to be one heck of a lot of blue.


Hearteningly, there are good numbers of worms in the ground, a fact that I haven't shared with the local Blackbirds. And all manner of grubs/caterpillars/larvae of heaven knows what insects. All left well alone for the resident Starlings to find.

I know what you're thinking, "What about the Linnets? He's not mentioned the Linnets yet? What's he done with the Linnets?"

W-e-l-l... here's the funny thing, and Our Lass and I were discussing this very point earlier (ok, Our Lass was patiently listening to me ramble on for ages), the Linnets aren't an obvious factor at the moment. They are about, because we hear their calls from dawn to dusk, but they are not causing me any angst. I can only presume that, as we're planting really late compared to last year (about a month behind, I reckon), then the Linnets may already be incubating eggs. This would have the effect of halving the number around at any one time, and even when the eggs hatch, I'm guessing that the new parents will be looking for soft and squidgy invertebrates rather than dry seeds to feed their young.

We can but hope.

I have contemplated bribing the Starlings to guard the plot from the attentions of those fickle finches. There are lots of grubs in the soil, y'know, hint, hint.

Oh, and I saw a Common carder bumblebee in the garden this morning, so we need to crack on creating plenty of nectar and pollen.

Monday 15 May 2017

Not the foggiest

At the moment, birds migrating north for the breeding season continue to transit through Orkney. This weekend's weather had the local birders all of a-flutter, as several days of south easterly winds were followed by Saturday's island-wide fog, ideal conditions for a 'fall', where large numbers of migrating birds seek landfall.

Messages on social media hinted at the treasures liberally sprinkled across the isles: Red-rumped swallow, Bluethroat, Avocet, Dotterel, Wood warbler and Marsh harrier. Meanwhile at Tense Towers, our local House sparrows and Starlings occasionally loomed out of the fog.

Sunday brought slightly better visibility and rain, though by afternoon this had turned to showers and sunny periods. With cabin fever setting in, I chose a convenient break in the weather for a wander down to the shore to see what was about.

The grass verge of one property en route was alive with the sound of buzzing insects. Here were clumps of Greater knapweed and Bluebells, providing pollen and nectar for hoverflies and bumblebees. One particular bee, possibly a Buff-tailed, looked quite drookit from the previous shower.

And I think this one is a carder of some sort...

As I walked past some rough pasture, adult Lapwings were alarm calling, a sure sign that there were young chicks about. I did manage to spot a fleeting glimpse of a wee fluffy bundle amongst all the vegetation.

Down by the shore, a pair of terns were newly arrived. But were they Common or Arctic? I studied them for ages, but couldn't decide. Later, I perused my ID books and watched a helpful video on the BTO website, but was still unsure. In the end, in desperation, I posted this photo on social media...

and received several replies confirming that they were Arctic terns. And one reply that just said "That is exactly how I feel about the whole tern thing!"

It was high tide, and at the water's edge were a few groups of waders: Turnstone, Ringed plover and these Dunlin...

They were quite easy to spot, unlike this small flock further up the beach...

Raindrops curtailed my ponderings, so I set off back up the hill as the weather worsened, with my optics tucked under my coat for protection. This was a shame, because a small bird was flitting through the vegetation ahead of me, working its way along the ditch at the side of the road. With the brief views I had, I think this was a Sedge warbler, so I'm now hopeful of hearing its frenzied, jazz-inspired song in the coming weeks.

Then it was back home to dry out and fire up the kettle, before commencing the afore-mentioned tern and ternabout.

Saturday 13 May 2017

Random Access Memory

If you logged on to online news during the last 24 hours, hopefully you will have seen the headline coverage of a global ransomware attack, as opposed to a message demanding payment to release the files on your computer. In the UK, the highest profile victim seems to have been the NHS in England and Scotland, with critical systems disabled such that appointments were cancelled in some areas.

A month or so ago, I became aware of a Health Service problem closer to home, whilst working on Eday. As I travelled between customers, I drove past the newly-built surgery on the island, which had been opened last Autumn. For a recently-completed building, at first glance it looked a little... unfinished. My route allowed me to see three sides of the building as I drove by, and the lower portions of several windows and a glass door were boarded up. The initial thoughts in my head were that, maybe, an irate patient had vented their anger at some presumed slight, or that a young (or at least, not very tall) vandal had gone on a destructive spree. Neither of these scenarios seemed particularly likely, although the truth, when it was revealed on a subsequent visit to the island, was stranger still.

So, fast forward a few weeks, and back on Eday, I mentioned my puzzlement at the state of the brand new surgery. My source revealed that a sheep had escaped from a nearby field and ended up in the surgery grounds. Unfortunately, the sheep was male, and so took exception to the 'other' ram which could be seen through the windows and doors. Rams being rams, the predictable reaction was a stand-off, with neither animal willing to back down. The tension grew until, finally, angry charges and headbutts resulted in the smashing of several panes of glass.

The building is now boarded up to protect the remaining glass, pending the latest windows upgrade.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Rubber goods

Wellington boots.


Call 'em what you will, I've never been a fan of the Duke's eponymous footwear.

As a lad, I could never seem to hit upon the correct number of pairs of socks to allow for a comfortable fit. Too few, and my feet would rattle around in the boots and be cold; too many, and my feet would be so tightly packed in that they were also cold, which surely contravenes some basic law of thermodynamics. Not that I was ever particularly dynamic in a pair of wellies. Then there was the ever-present threat of sock slump. Urgh, is there any sensation in life to rival the dismal sinking feeling and sheer inconvenience of the heels of your socks edging their way relentlessly towards your toes.

The only time when there was any respite from such uncomfortableness would be if it snowed. This always turned Winter walks into the sensory equivalent of a podological white-out, as my feet would be in agony from the icy temperatures, before becoming so cold that I couldn't feel them at all. Returning home meant the bittersweet experience of sitting by the warmth of a coal fire, whilst the nerve endings in my toes grumbled vociferously at their careless treatment.

So, in adult life, whilst I've always possessed a pair of wellies, they have usually been confined to a dusty corner of the garage, fit only as overspill accommodation for itinerant spiders. Over the decades, I have been happy to use hiking boots for any all-terrain activity, be it climbing Schiehallion, hunting for dragonflies or looking after the vegetable plot.

But now, settled in Orkney, a subtle change is in the air. Like many affairs of our new life at 59 degrees North, gardening is on a slightly different scale such that, of late, I have found myself mowing the lawn with my feet clad in a pair of wellies. My strimming activities and habit of cutting without a grass box fitted to the mower, mean that one's trousers tend to suffer disproportionately, so a bit more leg protection courtesy of my wellington boots is welcome. To be fair, despite the flashback memories which my toes might have, I am unlikely to be out with the mower in a snowstorm.

That's right. When it snows, our garden looks as tidy as everyone else's.

A few more signs of Spring

Here's some images from recent days:

As the dragonfly flight season in Orkney nears, it's time to dig out my BDS cap.

The rhubarb season is well underway. At work on Thursday, I was given half a dozen free range eggs by one customer and ten stalks of rhubarb by another. So, cake it is!

The marsh marigolds and lesser celandines are still still in flower.

Sycamore, Olav's Wood

Pine sp, Olav's Wood

More sycamore, Olav's Wood