Thursday 31 August 2017

Subtle signs of the changing seasons

Working on the outskirts of Kirkwall yesterday, I was packing away the tools ready to move on to the next task, when something fluttered past my nose, which can be a bit disconcerting when you're carrying a three-section aluminium ladder. After securing the ladders, I went to see if I could find the flutterer. Sure enough, on a low southerly-facing wall, was perched a Painted Lady butterfly. Not the only one I've seen this year, but always a joy to experience one this far north.

With only my phone to hand to capture the moment, I crept carefully forward and took a couple of shots. To my untrained eye, it looked to be an absolutley pristine individual, so I wondered if it had emerged locally.

There were also plenty of Red Admirals around, again, dressed in the best finery.

I was beginning to realise that the customer's garden was a bit of a nature hotspot!

In the evening, I was gazing out of the lounge window at Tense Towers, when I spotted a movement in the field over the road. With the application of a coat of looking at through my bins, the activity resolved itself into three Wheatears, busy foraging through the grassy sward. Apart from the local blackbirds, we don't see many members of the thrush family for most of the year, just the occasional Robin, Song Thrush or, as in this case, some Wheatears on migration.

Yep, here we are at the end of August, and all manner of species that came north to breed during our Summer, are turning their thoughts to heading back southwards. This may even include the morning's Painted Lady, which just seems such an incredible undertaking for a wee creature that must only weigh a few tenths of a gram.

Stuff On My Phone (1)

In what I hope will be the first of an occasional series, Stuff On My Phone looks to shed a spotlight, or at least a few photons, upon the multimedia files residing on my mobile phone. Whether they be pictures, sound recordings, videos or music tracks, often there is a story behind why they are stored there. Perhaps a tenuous link, or a mere whim, nothing earth-shattering, you understand, but there'll be a reason that resonates deep within the Tense psyche. Scary, huh?

So, first up is a music track by Chris Rea, a Middlesbrough-born singer/songwriter. It is 'Stainsby Girls' from the 1985 Shamrock Diaries album, a particular favourite song of mine, which doesn't seem to have dated one bit. Although the same can't be said for the music video linked above! 

In December 1981, in a chance encounter, I met a girl on a train which was leaving Kings Cross station in London. We were both travelling back to the north east of England for Christmas and spent a happy few hours chatting to each other. She was different, out of reach, had attended a private girls' school and was now studying on the south coast, hence our paths converging at Kings Cross.

I still recall her first words to me: "Is that seat free?"

When, in 1985, Chris Rea's track was released, it brought back fond memories of that train journey... sigh.

Over the next few decades, there were various, ever more expensive, ways to store music and, sadly, I never caught up with this Chris Rea track. So, when I finally dragged myself into the 21st Century with a smart phone, it was pleasing to be able to download 'Stainsby Girls' and transport myself back to the 80s. 

Fast forward to the present day, and all I will say is:

"Happy Anniversary, pet!"

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Graemsay gig

Back in early July, a trip to Graemsay aroused some local interest in the damselflies breeding in a quarry pool on the island. From this tiny spark, Sian (from Life on a Small Island), gently fanned the flames of enthusiasm with regular reports of sightings of Blue-tailed and Common Blue Damselflies.

Photo of the quarry pool (S. Thomas)
A male Common Blue Damselfly (S. Thomas)
Following a chance conversation whilst travelling on the ferry between Graemsay and Stromness, Sian had realised that the island's children were keen to learn more about dragons and damsels.So, shortly after National Dragonfly Week had ended, she asked me if it would be possible to come to the island to give a talk. How could I possibly refuse a request such as that?!

And so it came to pass, last Friday, Our Lass and I caught the early evening boat to Graemsay, armed with a laptop, a bag of assorted craft materials and some empty larval skins in sample tubes. Oh, the glamour!

Not long after we arrived at the tiny Community Hall and started setting up, the audience began to arrive. For an island that has a small population, perhaps because it has a small population, the turn out was impressive. Not least due to the age range, a multi-generational crowd such as anyone would wish to see. One of the perceived problems with natural history is a dearth of young blood at meetings and events where, too often, a worried sea of grey is the overwhelming impression. Not here on Graemsay, I thought to myself, much relieved. It fair gladdened the heart.

The view from the back of the hall (S. Thomas)
The view from the front!
My brief was to keep it light and short, but the intended 20 minute talk (with a much-pruned Powerpoint presentation) sort of morphed into over an hour of random tales of dragon hunting, before a short question/answer session and then some crafty diversions making dragonflies from pipe cleaners. Once I'd finished waffling on, the children soon got into the spirit of the occasion, with competing dragonflies having aerial dogfights and colourful dragons decorating their hair.

Dragonflies under construction
Then it was time for supper, with a wondrous spread laid on by the islanders.

Having attended various seasonal functions in the hall on Graemsay (it's amazing what the islanders can cram into such a small space), it was lovely to be able to give something back to the island, and the fact that I've now 'gigged' the Community Hall is a treasured memory I will savour for many a year. My thanks to all involved in making the event a success, and especially to Sian for her hospitality and photos.

For an alternative view, please see:

Sunday 20 August 2017

Shedding tears of joy

Following the success of a second knee operation and her subsequent physiotherapy-filled recuperation, Our Lass decided that the endpoint of her convalescence needed marking in some small way. After several microseconds of thought, it was decided that the purchase of a garden shed would be a good way to celebrate the return of positive perambulation.

Cunningly, Our Lass had scoped out a suitable shed during a local gardening show in May, so all that was now necessary was to decide where to locate it and place an order.

The most appropriate site appeared to be in the lee of the house, offering protection from westerly gales, and not too far from the back door to the garage. The only down side of this plan was that our rotary airer would need to move. We measured out a suitable new site for the airer (see left hand pile of old carpets and tyres) and then tried to shift the airer pole. It didn't budge an inch, no matter what the instructions said about it being possible to remove it from its ground socket and relocate to a new socket (already ordered over the internet). We decided to see if the shed supplier/installer had better ideas or heavier tools to shift the pole.

Installation day arrived, as did an afternoon of persistent rain, and play was suspended for the day without much progress.

The following day brought more benign weather and, in the late afternoon, we returned from work to discover the new shed fitted in position. The airer pole had to be dug out, and its relocation has zoomed to the top of the 'To Do' list.

Our Lass set about moving in to the shed, and I set about tidying the garage as the horticultural paraphernalia was removed. A bit of a win/win scenario, I guess.

Saturday 12 August 2017


As an addendum to the previous blogpost about our wildlife triangle, a keen-eyed Our Lass spotted this today...

which would appear to be a Corn Marigold.

Just the one!

I suspect that it is from seed harvested in MK in 2013, and only sown this year, rather than from the local seed bank.

Tuesday 8 August 2017


Earlier in the year, I blogged about one particularly unkempt bit of our generally unkempt garden, the wildlife triangle. Since then, the area has been left to manage its own affairs as Nature sees fit, which isn't the same thing as us planning what happens.

To be fair, after we went all postal on the dochans, there's pleasingly few to be seen, just one or two to provide somewhere for dock-centric wildlife to call home. Due to the disturbance of the soil, Nettles have been a big winner, so too the Mystery Brassica, whilst there's also loads more Fumitory. But mainly it's grass, very long grass, which swamps everything else. Our Lass has written 'Grass' at the top of my 2018 Wildlife Triangle To Do list.

So, what of the stuff we hoped would grow? Well, one or two clumps of wanted 'good for pollinators' flowers have appeared, which is heartening.

Phacelia and Mystery Brassica



A species of Fumitory, a hoverfly and some Phacelia

A Carder bee, I think

Probably a White-tailed Bumble bee
Meanwhile, in another part of the garden, even less managed, but also with very much less in the way of nutrients, some Purple Loosestrife has put in an appearance.

Monday 7 August 2017

A brief round up

The last month has gone by in a bit of a blur, what with all the dragonfly goings-on. So here's a round up of other happenings from July and the first week of August.

July 10th
Photo: Alan Nelson
Now that she has two new knees, Our Lass fulfilled a long-standing ambition to walk across Hoy to Rackwick Bay.

July 21st

Prior to a trip to Rousay, Alan and I popped into the local Co-op store to stock up on provender for lunch. On leaving, I noticed a moth on one of the automatic doors.

Circled in red for reference
However, as soon as I approached the door to take a photograph with my phone, this happened...

Cue much merriment and giggling.

Alan solved the conundrum by using the zoom function on his camera...

Photo: Alan Nelson
It's some sort of Plume moth, I think.

Same day, on Rousay, different moth...

A Garden Tiger, always a treat to see.

August 2nd

The Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth paid a brief visit to Orkney to mark the centenary of the first successful landing of an aeroplane on the deck of a ship. Here's a few photos of her entering Scapa Flow early in the morning.

August 5th

During a day of gardening, we had some interesting birdy encounters. Firstly, a very rosy bird perched on a wire fence in the field over the road...

which turned out to be a potato, left there by the allotment folk who have a vegetable plot in the next field.

Then, in the afternoon, whilst I was mowing the lawn, a Swift put in an appearance, for time enough that I had the chance to nip indoors and grab my camera.

August 6th

An afternoon stroll along the clifftops in South Ronaldsay, to look for damselflies in an abandoned quarry, was unsuccessful. However, there were a few distractions.


Common Blue butterflies

An ichneumon of some sort

Larva of a Great Diving Beetle, with lunch
Well, that's us up-to-date, for the time being.

Saturday 5 August 2017

The End of the Show

The ninth and final day of National Dragonfly Week was a leisurely jaunt to an old quarry in West Mainland. No boats, no planes, just a gentle car drive through a rural landscape and by a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Instead of turning right for the archaeological Mecca that is the Ness of Brodgar, we turned left up a single track road and, after a couple of miles, parked at Happy Valley, a small croft with a follied garden.

To be honest, in the run up to Dragonfly Week, I had wondered whether the whole idea of visiting a different island every day was pure folly but, in the end, I was happy to say that it had been a fantastic undertaking. There were folks on each visited island who now knew how to find and ID a dragon or a damsel, which was ample reward in itself. But the extended week had also been a wonderful experience, seeing new sites and many, many odes.

So here was the finale, a pleasant walk up Russadale to look at the pools of the old quarry. With me today were Linda, Barrie, Brian and Alan, plus numerous midges and horse flies. These latter characters provided me with a bit of an ethical dilemma. On a dragonfly walk, searching for odonatalogical gold, is it ever appropriate to wear this... ?

We had a quick look at the relatively new pond which had been created in a meadow adjacent to Happy Valley, but we only managed to find a single Large Red Damselfly. However, a bed of pondweed was beginning to develop in this water body, which bodes well for the future.

Up at the old quarry, in reasonably warm conditions, we searched the pools but only found a few Large Red and Blue-tailed Damselflies. This was a surprise, as I would have expected a greater abundance of these species at this time of year, as well as Common Blue Damselfly and Black Darter Dragonfly.

Russadale pool. Photo: Alan Nelson

Russadale pool. Photo: Alan Nelson

Russadale pool. Photo: Alan Neslon
The day was saved when Alan discovered an ovipositing Common Hawker, and the whole group was able to have great views of her as she laid eggs into moss at the water's edge.

Common Hawker female ovipositing. Photo: Alan Neslon
Big dragons are always impressive and, with evidence of breeding behaviour, this was the perfect way to end the week. I must say a big Thank You to all the folks who helped out with the isles' tour, whether hosting or ferrying us about, and to all the people who came along to learn about dragonflies, often in very inclement weather. And an especially huge Thank You to Alan, Buckinghamshire dragonfly recorder, who spent a week of his Orkney holiday following me about, taking photographs and making copious notes, so that I didn't have to. It really wouldn't have gone half so well without his dedication and enthusiasm.

Hmmm, what to do for 2018?

Dragon Central

As National Dragonfly Week entered its second weekend and its eighth day, it was time to visit the island of Hoy. I often refer to Hoy as Dragon Central, and with good reason. All eight of the breeding species in Orkney can be found there, and some in good numbers. OK, 'good numbers' is a bit imprecise, but let's just say that the abundance is good for Orkney. The weather, too, was very Orkney, cloudy and dull for the morning, but with brightening prospects for the afternoon. Hey, after some of the days we'd had, I was happy with that!

The group (Alan, Jenny, Brian and myself) met at Houton pier in Orphir, to catch the ferry across to Lyness in Hoy. As the planned walk was up a hill very near Lyness, we didn't need to take a vehicle across and, once on Hoy, we were joined by islander Trish.

Heading up the rough track that leads to Wee Fea, we passed a derelict military building, before making our way to a set of shallow pools on the southern flank of the hill. As with most of the week's trips, due to the logistics involved I had been unable to recce any of the walks, but for some unfathomable reason on this day I was particularly apprehensive. Perhaps it was the thought that Hoy is the shining light for Odonata in Orkney and I was feeling some pressure to deliver wonderful, yet unpredictable, wildlife moments? The contours of the hillside meant that the pools could not be seen until the last few yards of our approach. With the low cloud adding a sombre dimension to the occasion, we crested a rise and could finally see our destination. Phew, the pools were still there, not flooded out, not dried up, and looking good for odes. I allowed myself a happy thought of relief, but was aware that the rest of the group were wearing expressions of concern. Perhaps it was a case of "Is this it?" Or maybe "There're no signs of any insects at all!" So, without further ado, I set about looking for damsels and dragons in the soft rushes that bordered the pools.

Acidic pool habitat, Wee Fea. Photo: Alan Nelson

For some reason, there always seems to be a period of 'getting your eye in' when looking for odes in sub-optimal conditions. For species that are brightly coloured and strikingly marked, you would think that they would be easy to see. Eventually, a Large Red Damselfly was found, clinging to a plant stem, then a few Common Blue Damselflies tucked away amongst the soft rushes. As we progressed along the pool edge, we hit a sweet spot, with maybe a dozen Black Darter dragonflies nestled in the vegetation, along with more Common Blues. With the reassurance and confidence that these sightings gave, we also began finding some Emerald Damselflies and a few Blue-tailed Damselflies. This was more like it!

The sun was still struggling to burn through the low cloud, but the temperature was slowly rising. At the point where even us humans could feel the warmth on the backs of our necks, it must have hit a critical point for the dragonflies. Suddenly, all the Black Darters were lifting into the air and jostling amongst themselves. Common Blue Damselfly males were out over the water, scouting for mates and chasing competitors. It was a magical, if brief, moment. Then the cloud covered the sun again and all became calm once more.

Black Darter dragonfly. Photo: Alan Nelson

Checking the ID guide for differences between genders. Photo: Alan Nelson

A recently-emerged Black Darter with exuvia

A Large Red Damselfly makes short work of a moth

Large Reds ovipositing. Photo: Alan Nelson
As well as clear evidence of breeding by the Black Darters, Large Reds, Blue-tails, Emeralds and Common Blues were all busy mating or egg-laying.

A sudden shout by Alan alerted the group to a Common Hawker dragonfly, which was flying along the water's edge, either looking for lunch or love. Alan even managed a flight shot in the tricky conditions.

A Common Hawker dragonfly. Photo: Alan Nelson
After a picnic lunch, we made our way back down the hill, stopping at another pool in some rough pasture, as the sun put in an extended appearance. Here, again, we saw six of the eight Orkney species, the highlights being several Common Hawkers, a pair of mating Black Darters and a host of Emeralds in love.

Emerald Damselflies in tandem. Photo: Alan Nelson
All too soon, it was time to return to Lyness to catch the ferry back to mainland, but the trip had been a resounding success. In five hours on Hoy, we had seen as many odes as we had seen all week on all the the other islands. Dragon Central, indeed.