Saturday 28 October 2017

Early or late?

I have to travel south for a few days soon to attend a training course, so we thought that having lunch in town today would be a nice treat before I go. There were a few things to do beforehand, but once we'd visited the Post Office, the bank and a few other shops, all our immediate 'messages' had been taken care of. Our Lass is hunting for a new pair of shoes to go with an outfit for an upcoming wedding, but even after that, there was still loads of time before our lunch reservation at the Italian restaurant in Victoria Street.

And so, we found ourselves wandering further along the street to have a peruse around William Shearer's, an agricultural and general merchant emporium, which seems to stock just about everything.

As we reached the front door, we noticed a sign stating that the Christmas display was now open on the first floor. Now, regular readers will know that I have the occasional pedantic moment, and might be expected 'to go off on one' at this point, but I have to admit that I can suspend my pedantry when it comes to long, dark, stormy nights and short, dull, stormy days. Yes, this far north, a bit of brightness is needed to dispel the gloom.

Well, the clocks go back tonight, so where's the harm, eh?

Climbing the narrow, bare, wooden staircase to the first floor, we emerged into the sights and smells of a festive Aladdin's Cave. Logs crackling in a cosy open fire, sumptuous provender, decorations of all hues and the scent of pine and spices. To be fair, it was a bit weird listening to Bing Crosby when we've not e'en had Hallowe'en yet. But Orkney definitely can't hold back pre-Christmas once Bonfire Night's been and gone, so we're only a week early.

Once back home and much later in the afternoon, I suddenly had a hankering for some fruit cake and cheese (perhaps it was subliminal thoughts of Christmas cake and Wensleydale cheese?). As there wasn't any cake in the house, and my cheese intake is severely reduced on doctor's orders, this was a bit of crisis. However, Our Lass saved the day by reminding me that there was last year's Christmas Pudding lurking at the back of a kitchen cupboard. So, armed with a microwave oven, a couple of bowls and a pair of dessert spoons, disaster was averted.

Festively, I'm still considering whether being very early for 2017 and very late for 2016, on the same day, cancels each other out in some karmic temporal vortex?

Thursday 26 October 2017

Bookish blogpost

Late last year, I was given a lovely gift, 'Seasons', a compilation of poetry and prose charting the changing year from a natural history viewpoint. The pieces chosen spanned several hundred years, from the 1400s right up to 2016, and with a broad range of styles.

Some authors' work I was already familiar with, including Gilbert White, Amy Liptrot, Roger Deakin, John Clare and Mark Cocker. However, I hoped that the collection would also signpost the books of authors with whom I was unfamiliar. In this respect, I was not disappointed.

The first piece to grab my interest was from Olivia Laing's 'To The River'. It is the story of the author's journey on foot from source to sea of the River Ouse in Sussex, the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. The intertwining threads of literature, nature and a personal journey were woven with a sensitivity that appealed to me.

A very different book of nature writing was Neil Ansell's 'Deep Country'. Here, the author lived for five years in a remote cottage, with no transport and no phone, documenting the wildlife and landscapes he experienced. For me, the time he took watching animal behaviour provided some fascinating insights, as can only be gained by long term study in the field.

I would recommend both books unreservedly, the actual volumes more than living up to the promise of the small samples from the 'Seasons' compilation.

Monday 23 October 2017


A small flock of Brambling put in an appearance yesterday morning. They seemed to be spending time in a community vegetable plot which is located in the corner of a cereal field over the road from Tense Towers. I guess the combination of discarded seeds from the cereal crop and invertebrates tucked away amongst the brassicas probably feels like a motorway service station to a flock of hungry birds on migration.

When they perched on the fence by the vegetable plot, we counted at least seven individuals, although I couldn't capture a photograph of more then six at any one time. It was a grand sight, though, as I don't believe we've ever seen this many Bramblings all at once.

I was a bit miffed that the RSPB distribution map didn't acknowledge the possibility of Bramblings occurring in Orkney on passage. Perhaps the birds' normal route to the UK in the Autumn is to fly south from Scandinavia and then head westwards across the North Sea, rather than the more direct route taking in Shetland, Fair Isle and Orkney? Or maybe the strong easterly winds we've been experiencing had blown the flock slightly off course?

Either way, calmer conditions in the afternoon probably enabled the well-fed Bramblings to continue their southwards migration, as we did not see them again. Readers in the rest of the UK may want to check their bird tables and Chaffinch flocks for imminent arrivals!

Saturday 21 October 2017

Inadvertently avoiding thrush leads to positive outcome

It's been another quiet wildlife-watching week at Tense Towers, with little opportunity of spending time 'out in the field'. Which is not to say that I haven't had a few chance encounters with Nature as I went about my day-to-day business.

On Wednesday, whilst working in Shetland, I saw my first Whooper Swans of the Autumn as I drove by a loch, and this sighting was quickly followed by a pair of Goosander near Scalloway.

Orkney had a huge fall of thrushes on Thursday, a fact of which I was oblivious as I left home in the dark. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Redwings, and Ring Ouzels were everywhere apparently, along with smaller members of the chat family, such as Redstarts.

So, on Friday afternoon, as I unloaded my van at home, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Robin flitting about the front of the house. Yay! Our seasonal visitation from a single Robin! No sooner had I unleashed that thought, when a mewling call from the field opposite attracted my attention. A pair of greyish birds were headed towards me, very low to the ground, the second one hell bent on mobbing the first one. As they neared, I realised that the mobber was a gull, whilst the mobbee was a male Hen Harrier. The resulting flyby put up a wisp of eight Snipe, who circled overhead alarm calling, before heading for safer pastures. Shortly afterwards, Our Lass returned home, and whilst I recounted the birdy news, she spotted a flock of something heading our way. With a bounding flight and countless 'tseep' calls, a big (at least several hundred) group of Redwings performed a slow circuit above the house and disappeared back in the direction they had come from.

This morning, I spotted a lone Hare loping across the field opposite, and so grabbed my bins to watch it. During this action, my gaze picked up a Redwing perched on a wire fence. When it subsequently flew off, I scanned the rest of the fence and was delighted to find two Bramblings in amongst the local House Sparrow flock. I think this is a first for us of this species at Tense Towers. As our attention was now fully occupied with staring out of the window, we also spotted a pair of Song Thrushes.

Perhaps the current easterly winds are bringing more birds in, or keeping in place the ones that are already here.

Sunday 15 October 2017


Since returning from holiday at the end of September, I've not had much chance to be out in the garden. Mostly, this has been due to inclement weather, either strong winds or heavy rain, often both, as well as too little time to fit in a spot of gardening after work (the double whammy of a busy schedule and shortening daylight).

Today, for instance, I had plenty to do to prepare for the week ahead, so much so that I hadn't even started on the list of work things I was supposed to be doing. However, the weather was better than forecast, and it seemed like an ideal opportunity to mow the lawn, especially seeing as how it had been neglected for over a month!

Migration-wise, our little corner of Orkney doesn't make the headlines or even the local 'bird alert' text service, but we're still seeing the occasional Swallow and, this morning, a couple of Redwings flew over, as if to highlight the changing seasons.

This week's main excitement was caused by the Aurora Borealis, with a good showing of the Merry Dancers on Friday night. For once, even aurora lightweights like us were able to view the Northern Lights, as the 'show' started as soon as it was properly dark, which was before 9pm. It was a blustery evening, so I didn't bother taking my camera outside but, fortunately, plenty of other folk did.

The local Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook is a useful resource for alerts, updates, technical info and some fantastic photography.

Friday night was no exception, as 'Steve' put in an appearance. Let me explain. There is an aurora phenomenon that doesn't, as yet, have a scientific name. It had previously been thought that it was a sky feature known as a proton arc, but apparently not, and so an aurora group in Alberta christened it Steve.

To the naked eye, the colours are never quite as vibrant as those seen by a camera as, on a long exposure, the camera is able to pull in more light than our eyes. So, for Our Lass and I, Steve was more of a grey colour, a weird, long, thin cloud emanating overhead and trailing off to the east (we're usually just looking north for the Lights). 

However, one of the local aurora hunters, Amanda Ruddick, captured this amazing image of Steve (see here).

Sunday 8 October 2017


Dragonflies and damselflies have amazing eyes, especially the former, with their huge, almost wrap-around, pair of peepers. Their compound eyes can be comprised of as many as 30,000 facets, known as ommatidia, which give them an almost 360 degree field of view.

A male Southern Hawker
This is because each facet points in a slightly different direction, but the insect processes the partially-overlapping images to create near-surround vision. If that wasn't impressive enough, dragonflies have many more types of light-sensitive proteins, opsins, in their eyes than compared to humans. We have three, so are tri-chromatic, whereas some insects have quadruple that and some dragonflies have as many as thirty. This allows them to distinguish many more colours than we can, and they are also able to detect in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, as well as polarised light.

Different portions of a dragon or damsel eye may be tuned to certain frequencies of light, so that when we look at the insect, its eyes seem to be of two, or more, colours.

A male Red-veined Darter, sadly deceased. From the top, its eyes are brown.
Whilst from below, they're blue
But enough of the science.

Have you ever wondered why a dragonfly always appears to be looking at you, no matter where you are in relation to it? OK, technically, it is always looking at you, what with all the 360 whatnot going on, but take another look at the Southern Hawker at the top of the blogpost. Do you notice anything?

Yep, it looks like they have pupils, even though we know that they don't possess eyes like ours. I think this is due to the absence of light being reflected back out from those facets which are facing us, which makes them appear black and gives the 'pupil' effect.

And because of the wrap-around malarkey, wherever we are in relation to the insect, this will happen. No matter whether we're in front...

Common Darter
 to the side...

Common Darter

Willow Emerald damselfly
or below...

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
it will still seem to be staring straight at us.

I am always on my best behaviour around dragonflies. Just in case.

Saturday 7 October 2017

South to North

Our return journey from holiday, back to Orkney, was a similar trip to the one which had taken us to Norfolk. We re-visited Second and First Born, spent a few days with my brother and his family in Middlesbrough, visited my dad and then, once back in Scotland, dropped in on Our Lass's sister and her family.

Whilst in Milton Keynes, and clutching a £10 off voucher, I went on a pilgrimage of sorts, to pay my respects to the factory shop of a certain clothing manufacturer.

Meanwhile, at Second Born's abode, the Harlequin ladybirds were gathering on all surfaces, seemingly trying on all manner of clothing... 

Whilst in Middlesbrough, we visited RSPB Saltholme in warm Autumnal sunshine, finding plenty of Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers.

The view from one of the hides was a little unusual, as a work party were busy with a spot of habitat maintenance. I took the below shot and cheekily sent it to the RSPB with the message 'A flock of Shovelers'. 

The following day, the photo appeared in one of their community blogs, with the accompanying article being written in a similar vein!

By the time we returned to Orkney, the isles' weather was going all traditional, with the usual equinoctial gales. However, fast-moving and horizontal meteorology can make for great photographic opportunities.

Friday 6 October 2017

A halcyon day

For our last full day in Norfolk, we headed to the north bank of the River Yare and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, via Fairhaven Garden on South Walsham Broad. Our Lass wanted to see a Kingfisher, because they are only very occasional visitors to Orkney.

As luck would have it, as we neared the gardens, in a village called Pilson Green, a streak of electric blue shot across a roadside pond, disappeared briefly behind a stout wooden bus shelter, before it re-emerged immediately ahead of our car and headed off down the lane in front of us.

"There you go," I said, "We've seen a Kingfisher, shall we go home now?"

If that wasn't enough, whilst in Fairhaven Garden, we could hear plenty of high pitched piping (often the only indication that there's kingfishers about) and were treated to a millisecond's worth of view as one flashed across a footbridge.

Fortunately, as it was dull and overcast, the dragons were a bit more obliging on the photographic front than the birds. We watched a male Southern Hawker searching the water's edge for a mate, and there were several Common Darters in the market for some free warmth, courtesy of my hand.

I take great heart from the fact that dragons like this Common Darter do not view humans with any other thought than that we're slightly warmer than the surrounding habitat. Wise ape? Self-proclaimed pinnacle of evolution? You can keep it!

After lunch (the real reason for visiting Fairhaven), we made the short journey to Strumpshaw and set off around the Fen Trail, eyes pealed for wildlife.

In fact, our first nature moment was very relaxed, as for once the subject wasn't flying or running away. I'm guessing it's an Inkcap mushroom of some sort.

As we wandered beneath an Oak tree, a brown shape came flying low towards us along the trail. At the last minute, it hauled back on the stick and disappeared up into the branches of the Oak. It wasn't, as I first thought, a Sparrowhawk, but a Jay. I tried to take a photo of it, but there were just too many leaves in the way, and the light wasn't great either. So, we turned our attention to a nearby pond, which had a couple of darters ovipositing in tandem. After watching them for a while, we turned back to the trail, and I noticed the Jay again, busy collecting acorns. I managed a couple of photos before it disappeared once more. The first image was just a blur, the second was this...

So, the only two decent photos I've taken of Jays over the years, have both been in Norfolk, but on opposite banks of the Yare from each other. See here for the other one.

Walking along a track called Sandy Wall, we noticed several dozen Common Lizards lounging on the wooden edge to the path, trying to eke out as much heat from the wood as possible. Oddly, I wasn't so keen to pick up one of these, especially when a few had already shed their tails, presumably in response to being attacked by a predator.

Also on this stretch of the reserve were very many Guelder Rose bushes, laden with the shiniest and reddest of shiny, red berries. Some winter-visiting thrush will be grateful for all that bounty.

Turning off the main track, we made our way to a hide overlooking a small pool within the fen. As we entered, another chap was leaving and whispered that the Kingfisher was showing well.

Like we needed our "Excited" buttons pushing!

So, we sat in a hide full of folk brandishing more optics than a pub supplies exhibition, and waited. A distant Marsh Harrier briefly piqued everyone's interest, a Little Egret caused a bit of a flurry and then I whispered "Water Rail!" Cue much snapping of photographs. Me included, though I was only in single shot mode, not continuous like my fellow residents.

After a bit more of a wait, we were finally rewarded with an appearance from a Kingfisher, who ignored the wall-to-wall shutter clatter coming from the hide and flitted between several suitably-located posts.

At one point, it flew further away and hovered over a particular patch of water. And hovered, and hovered, then hovered some more. In all honesty, it hovered for longer than just about all my previous views of Kingfishers up to that day. A-maze-ing, darling!

Our Lass was really pleased.

We finally dragged ourselves away, so that other folk could enjoy the spectacle and carried on around the fen. There were many Spindle and Wayfaring trees along the path, some still bearing fruit, but most with their leaves turning red. It was in one of these latter (I think) that we found three Migrant Hawkers roosting, though it was difficult to approach closely for a photograph, as I didn't want to trample any vegetation.

And Strumpshaw was no exception to the Ivy league, with towering drifts of the climber gloriously a-buzz with insects. Here's what all the fuss was about...

If I had planned it, I couldn't have laid on such a sumptuous extravaganza of wildlife watching. The fact that it was all left to chance made it so much more exciting and it was a fitting end to our Autumn break.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Stuff On My Phone (4)

About a year ago, I shot this video one morning whilst working in the West Mainland of Orkney.

Skeins of Pink-footed Geese were passing over on their southward migration from their breeding grounds in Spitzbergen, Iceland and Greenland, to spend the Winter in the UK.

A couple of nights ago, during a lull in the weather, we heard the tell-tale sounds of this year's goose migration as we lay in bed.

A relaxing Saturday

Following our wanderings all around the Loddon area on Friday, the next day was a much more sedate affair. Once again, we left the car to its own devices and bimbled about in the immediate vicinity of the cottage.

Sisland has a lovely wee church, some of its structure dating from the 12th-13th Century. We walked around the graveyard, browsed the historical literature in the... whatever the religious equivalent of the foyer is, and then looked around the interior of the church.

As it still wasn't lunchtime yet, we walked a small loop through fields to the north of Sisland.

With a small diversion for a 4G moment.

During the afternoon, we sat and read, just read. I felt hugely guilty that we weren't 'doing anything', until I realised that on holiday it is ok to just 'be' and relax.

However, at 4pm, everything stopped for tea.

This kind of tea...

If 'doing something' is required, I can heartily recommend this particular pastime.

Wednesday 4 October 2017

A 'no car' day

One of the big plus points about our chosen holiday venue was the availability of walks from the door. The tourist info at the Owl Barn also encouraged holiday-makers to consider leaving the car at home for the occasional day, and we were only too happy to oblige.

Our chosen route used lanes and tracks to head east into the small market town of Loddon. From here we planned to explore some of the Wherryman's Way, along the River Chet, before looping back through Loddon to Sisland.

Thanks to my OS map for holding steady during the photo.
As it was a hot day, we were travelling light, Our Lass with a DSLR camera and me with my bins. However, I did have the camera on my phone.

I love this pic

Y'know, it's funny, but by the time we ambled into Loddon, our talk had turned to the topic of Elevenses. It's uncanny, isn't it? What were the chances? We could remember a lovely little eatery from previous visits, but not where it was or what it was called. And so we traversed the main street, hoping to find that it was still in business. Indeed it was, hello Spoon Cake!

Following refreshments, we picked up the Wherryman's Way route and headed towards the River Chet. Before we reached the waterway, however, we discovered that the route was subject to some diversions due to emergency repair work. No matter, we decided to chance our arm (well, legs) and see how far we could go.

A suitably odo-tastic ditch on the flood plain
After little more than a kilometre, which happily did include Migrant Hawkers, Common and Ruddy Darters, we came up against a path closure and had to use the track for Chedgrave Common Farm to retrace our steps.

Fortunately, this meant that we could experience a wonderful hedgerow. As Orkney residents, we don't have much in the way of hedgerows to savour, so this was a nice surprise. The stand-out plants were the copious bushes of Ivy (Ivy? Bushes? Really?) which were just a-buzz with insects. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Ivy was a real holiday highlight, every clump was very much audibly alive. 

We didn't see many Ladybirds in Norfolk, but look at those pollen baskets on the bee.
After returning to Loddon (Oh, look, lunchtime!) and another visit to Spoon Cake, we revised our plans and headed south of the town, then circled round clockwise back to Sisland.

Another cracking hedgerow
As we walked along a field boundary by Loddon Hall, a distant movement caught our eyes. Way, way up ahead, we could see something running about and jumping in a puddle, if all the splashing we were witnessing was anything to go by. Through my bins, I identified the mystery animal as a Stoat, and we watched for ages, not daring to move, as it bounced and somersaulted around. After one last frantic bout of mad dashing, it disappeared into a crop of beet and we were able to creep up to the puddle to look for stoat signs.

The only tracks visible were these ones, photographed by Our Lass
On returning to Sisland, I spotted this post box in a wall, which would appear to date back to Victorian times.

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Wheatfen Broad revisited

For several years, before our move northwards, we occasionally made the journey to Norfolk to visit Wheatfen Broad. These trips were invariably in June, in the hope of seeing Swallowtail butterflies (but we didn't), although there was always plenty else to see (which we did).

Our accommodation was not very far from Wheatfen Broad, so there was little doubt that we would pay it a visit. Whilst it was now the wrong time of year for Swallowtails, we were hopeful of a different experience with a new cast of players. Wheatfen Broad is maintained by the Ted Ellis Trust, who are maintaining the habitat as the naturalist and broadcaster would have wished. In one of those interconnected, holistic moments that occur occasionally, we discovered that one of our friends in Orkney, Anne, used to visit Wheatfen as a small girl. Her mum was friends with Ted's wife, Phyllis, and as the ladies chatted and drank tea, Anne would mooch around, dabbling in the ponds with Ted, which I'm sure has played a large part in her lifelong enthusiasm for nature and wildlife-watching. And Ted would be very pleased, too.

Back to the present and, as soon as we set foot on a boardwalk, it was apparent that it was going to be a good day. There were butterflies and bees and hornets, a few wasps and distant glimpses of hawker and darter dragonflies. A Cetti's Warbler sang from the undergrowth and the harsh cackle of a Jay could be heard from nearby woodland.

I think it would be fair to say that Wheatfen is a gem of a place, what ever the time of year. Here are a few views from our balmy day in September:

But what of the wildlife?


Whilst I was photographing this spider (which, as a confirmed arachnophobe, I only appreciated for the sunlight catching its body), Our Lass was busy making an important (for us) discovery.

Firstly, the spider,

And, secondly, Our Lass's excellent powers of observation in spotting this...

A Willow Emerald damselfly, a 'lifer' for the pair of us. It is a species that is slowly spreading west, north and south in the UK, since colonising south east Suffolk as recently as 2007.

We walked around the nature reserve all morning, seeing no-one else save for the warden, and just kept encountering more and more wildlife. It was magical, although I know it isn't magic, it's about maintaining sufficient suitable habitat through sensitive management. But it felt like magic.

Common Darter

Marsh Harrier

Grass Snake

Bumblebee species

Migrant Hawker


Brimstone butterfly

Cricket on 5 (it had a leg missing)
After a spot of lunch at a nearby pub, we returned in the afternoon to soak up more nature. The warden happened to mention that it was high tide (and particularly high, due to the time of year and a new moon). I was initially puzzled, as during all our previous visits, this had not been a problem. Perhaps it was just luck. Because Wheatfen is a tidal marsh (it borders the River Yare), at times such as these, the water table rises and some of the paths are underwater. So we certainly soaked up more nature than we bargained for!

An impressively-large bracket fungus
Back at the Owl Barn, I discovered a male Migrant Hawker, sunbathing in a Beech hedge, a lovely end to a splendid day.