Sunday 30 December 2018

Wood 'n' chair

Yesterday, we invited Eagle-eyed M over to Tense Towers for a walk and some lunch. We had been swithering for some time about which day of the weekend to choose, and an ever-changing forecast didn't help. In the end we plumped for Saturday, as it looked to be drier, though windier. As an added precaution, we opted to visit Olav's Wood in South Ronaldsay, which would at least afford some shelter and, perhaps, an unusual wildlife moment.

The drive across the Churchill Barriers was thankfully uneventful, as the wind direction was northwesterly, rather than southeasterly, so no waves to worry about. In the sheltered water on the North Sea side of the barriers, Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers and Great Northern Divers were in evidence, whilst the water-logged fields held flocks of Wigeon, Redshank and Curlew. When we arrived in the car park at the top of the wood, there were no other vehicles present. This was a bonus as the site is quite small and narrow, being nestled in a tiny valley between areas of farmland, and whilst there are numerous paths between the close-planted shrubs and trees, it is difficult to be out of earshot of other visitors. What a complete grump I'm sounding.

Donning wet weather gear (yuh-huh, an Orkney forecast of 'dry' has to be taken with a pinch of salt!), we pottered into the wood, threading our way along the damp paths, keeping our ears and eyes open. Wrens and Blackbirds were the only songsters at this point, but as we began to descend a muddy track and cross over a bridge into a conifer plantation, M picked up the tiny high-pitched calls of Goldcrests. Winding our way through the maze-like paths between the pines, we eventually fetched up by a burn, which was running quite high. We elected not to risk the stepping stones and, instead, used another footbridge to cross over to the opposite bank. Normally, at this point, we continue downstream at the water's edge, but we could see that the path was underwater in places, so we scrambled up a high bank between more conifers, emerging into an area of open rough ground.

From this vantage point, we had a good view of the valley below, which contained flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese. Further east, we could see the cliffs beyond Windwick and the open sea. Keeping to the woodland edge, we continued downhill, hoping to pick up our original path by some thick Rosa rugosa hedges where one of the local bird ringers monitors the local avifauna. As we made our way through the tussocky sward, we came upon a raptor kill, a bundle of wings and feet, less the head and most of the body. Judging by the feathers, this had been a Woodcock.

Back in the valley bottom, the burn was tumbling over rock ledges in an almost waterfall-like manner.

Retracing our steps, we explored more of the conifer maze, before heading back to the top of the wood, on the way catching sight of a small flock of five Greenfinches which were foraging at the woodland edge.

Despite the time of year and the latitude, there were a few splashes of colour to be seen found. Hawthorn and wild roses were still sporting a few red berries, whilst the odd shrub was in flower and catkins were turning purple.

A leisurely lunch followed. Conversation turned to the coming year and what wildlife adventures it might hold. After sunset, M returned home and Our Lass and I had a bit of a snooze, as we had one more bit of excitement to cram into the day.

Now, normally, I'm in bed by 10pm and, at the minute, even sooner than that. But we had booked tickets to see local band The Chair who were playing a gig in the Sound Archive in Kirkwall. The venue didn't open its doors until 9pm and it was after 10 before the support act, Gnoss, finished their set. However, once the massed fiddles, banjo, guitars, accordion and drums kicked in, we were very much awake!

And the people-watching was quite interesting too.

We staggered home at 1am, so have had a very leisurely Sunday morning.

Wednesday 26 December 2018

When the balloon goes up... er... down... no, up

It's a dull, overcast and oppressive Boxing Day. The heavy, dark grey clouds are glowering, pressing down on the land and obliterating all sense of time. The starling flock don't know whether to roost, burble, pre-roost, sleep, chatter, or just generally mill about in confusion. They chose the latter to be going on with. As Our Lass and I wandered out for some fresh air, we passed by a telegraph pole where another couple of dozen birds were congregated. They were doing that massed choir, churring descant thing, some of them unsure of the words, so throwing in plenty of adlibs for good effect. At our approach, they all fell silent, then took to the air in a whir of wings, heading for the warmth of the cow byres nearby.

Other than starling song, only the fluid contact calls from a flock of Curlews disturbed the still air. We've not known such benign Christmas weather in Orkney. Reaching the shore, we gazed out at the foraging waders, dabbling ducks and gently lapping waves. The low clouds seemed to weigh heavy on my limbs, and for a moment I felt as though breathing would be difficult.

Our Lass could hear Long-tailed ducks calling far out in the bay, and as we ambled round the bend by the old kirk, the whistling of Wigeon came to our ears. Pausing again, we listened to a gentle tap... tap, tap... tap, as Turnstones (whose camouflaged plumage made them tricky to spot amongst the piles of seaweed and rocks) were foraging by turning over stones (go figure!).

Although we had rested merry, something was about to dismay us, because near the water's edge, sat atop the tideline seaweed, was a bunch of balloons. Having navigated Christmas Day without an exploding cracker or plastic toy or some other instantly-binnable trinket, this was a sight which brought my mood in sync with the depressing clouds.

Having wombled the offending items from the beach, we set off up the hill to home, also collecting strange glances from folk we encountered on the way. As we neared the farm again, another small flock of Starlings were inhabiting the wires around the top of a telegraph pole. These, too, were happily burbling away, and I was just waiting for that critical moment when they would all fall silent at our presence, before flying off to carry on carolling elsewhere.

However, before that could happen, there was what I can only describe as a starling super nova, when the dozens of birds seemed to go from a single point of Starlingness, to an instantly expanding cloud of wings and squawks. Looking up, we were able to witness, close at hand, the failed stoop of a Peregrine falcon, who had presumably, at the last microsecond, noticed the pillock with the coloured balloons stood just below its intended targets. The Starlings didn't care, they were busy exiting stage, left, right, and any which way, busily trying to be in a bit of airspace that the raptor wasn't. We watched, transfixed as the Peregrine wheeled around and headed off across a field, intent upon finding another unsuspecting bunch of the chattering masses.

With our spirits restored by this amazing wildlife-watching moment, we returned to Tense Towers on lighter feet and with happier hearts.

Monday 24 December 2018

Sashaying cetaceans

Whilst we were on the island of Graemsay on Saturday, local social media reported that there was a small pod of dolphins (species unconfirmed at that point) in the bay by Finstown in the West Mainland. It was dark by the time we returned to mainland so, sadly, we just drove by the location of the sighting.

Yesterday (Sunday), sightings continued, but we were otherwise occupied with pre-festive stuff and didn't make it as far as Finstown.

Today we are both working. Frustratingly for Our Lass, she had to drive by this spot on her way to work, but in the pre-dawn light, there wouldn't have been much possibility of a sighting.

However, for Yours Truly, who, fortuitously, was working out west, my drive-by occurred an hour later at half nine. I don't usually pack my camera equipment in the van, keeping business and pleasure quite separate (wildlife seen whilst driving doesn't come under this rule). However, today I made an exception, just in case this particular eventuality occurred.

A small pod, maybe four, dolphins were swimming in lazy circles, up and down a stretch of water which is an outflow from a freshwater/tidal lochan (known locally as The Ouse or Oyce). 

Current thinking (by those who can ID a dolphin at range) is that these are Common Dolphins, and although this behaviour is atypical for the species and time of year, it has been suggested that they've either followed some fish into the bay, or maybe chased them in. And are now reaping the bounty, much to the annoyance of the local seals! Certainly, the creatures seemed calm and relaxed, not anxious or perturbed, so fears of a beaching and possible fatalities have been allayed.

Between work visits, I popped back for another look later in the morning. The light wasn't as good, but the dolphins were still there, as were plenty of folk enjoying a pre-Christmas wildlife-watching moment.

Sunday 23 December 2018

Working up an appetite

This spell of calm weather continues to provide stunning skies and languid light.

The fields are quite water-logged again after the parching they received in the Summer. On mornings such as these, the puddles look like windows to another world. A world, perhaps, which holds the promise of a lexicon bereft of the word Brexit. It was tempting to take the plunge.

Once we reach the sea wall by the old kirk, we normally head homewards, but this morning we decided to carry on to the cliffs at the Bay of Semolie. With the Sun gaining a little height, the place positively glowed.

After an absence of a few months, the Fulmars are back on their ledges, like Boxing Day Sale shoppers encamped outside the entrances to high-rise emporia.

Whilst with little breeze to carry it away, sea spray hung about the cliffs, as if unsure what to do.

Amongst the yellowing grasses and sedges along the clifftops, rosettes of Buck's-horn Plantain were looking decidedly green and festive.

Our two mile potter had morphed into a five mile hike, so by the time we returned home, it was midday and lunch beckoned. Win, win.

Annual pilgrimage

I began writing this post quite early this morning, certainly pre-dawn, whilst the still air was full of the sounds of cattle lowing and curlews calling.

During the festive period, we usually plan a visit to Graemsay to spend a day with those stars of wonder Sian and Button of Life on a Small Island. This year was no exception.

The Saturday morning boat bound for Hoy and Graemsay leaves the picturesque location of Stromness at 09.30, so as we wandered down to the harbour, the sun was just rising. Several squally showers were pulsing through, which lent a Turner-esque feel to the scene.

As you can see, there wasn't a breath of wind, so the ferry crossing was relatively smooth, only the tidal race into Scapa Flow causing any gentle rocking action (for a topical musical note, think more the Rocking Carol, rather than the Queen stadium anthem).

Once ensconced at Chez Sian, there were a few DIY tasks with which to be helpful, as I feel it's only right and proper to earn one's keep if accepting the hospitality of a small island community.

Then it was down to Sian's beach, a stretch of rocky foreshore fringed with the most amazing shell sand. Whilst Sian and Our Lass pottered to and fro looking for Groatie Buckies (the shell of the Northern Cowrie sea snail, Trivia arctica), Button and I frolicked about, one of us taking photos, the other pouncing on the occasional bit of unruly shell.

Clouds over mainland Orkney

We no longer have to fear the reaper

The white bits are broken pieces of maerl, the hard remains of a cold water coral
As we returned along the main island road, I managed to capture this shot of Button, which almost seems to show her returning from the Community Hall after a night of carousing.

Then it was a contemplative circumnavigation of the walled garden, before settling down to a late lunch. There may have been cake.

After sunset, and as we ventured out for the return boat, the just-past-full Moon was rising behind Hoy High lighthouse.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Big Red down

Whilst it is quite difficult to avoid all the rampant consumerism at this time of year, there's one sure fire way to pause and take a moment away from worrying about the materialistic problems caused by our species.

So, instead of dashing to the shops for a last-minute present, the latest must-have gadget or never-to-be-repeated bargain, I downed tools and just stopped.

It was mid-afternoon on the midwinter solstice, a turning point in Nature's calendar, and a reminder that before we became obsessed with 'stuff', for millennia we had been content with the simple pleasure of marking the 'shortest' day of the year. Admittedly, since we're humans, we've had to dress it up in all manner of ritual and custom (and not all of them were healthy for all participants).

How and ever, yesterday afternoon saw me stood by the front door, gazing southwestwards with a slightly furrowed brow. There was a band of cloud on the horizon, which was going to make it impossible to detect the actual moment of sunset, and I was also fiddling about with my camera and tripod (a combination which rarely sees the light of any day).

A weather app informed when sunset should be for my location, but at the appointed time of 15.15, for all I knew, the sun could've been sticking its thumbs in its ears and waggling its fingers at me.

The local Starling flock were busy going through their pre-roosting ritual over the barn roofs next door, another thing which happens with regularity but which I rarely take the time to observe.

Now that I thought about it, the cloud would probably add a little something to the occasion, so I relaxed and just savoured the still air, the sounds around me and the unfolding spectacle of the solsticial sunset.

Happy sigh.

All the best for the festive season, folks.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

See Harrier

In the two hours since my previous post, I've been frantically writing Christmas cards and have also risked a trip to the Post Office (not because it would be busy, but because the waves are close to crashing over the road). So now I'm treating myself to a reasonably well-earned break and blogging again.

Really, Tense? On a school day?!

Well, there's another gale going through and I don't fancy being up a ladder, or having a van door ripped out of my hand. All work for today is postponed until tomorrow, which will now be rather busy.

Yesterday was a pleasant day, mind, especially after the weekend's weather, and as I was prepping the van, after breakfast, I had a fortuitous moment.

Back in the Autumn, the remarkably-energetic Countryside Tales offered up a challenge. Luckily, this didn't involve me having to run an ultra marathon or wearing Little Miss Happy leggings, but did require me to up my game in the context of photographing Hen Harriers. See the comments to this I&T post.

So, the fortuitous moment...

There I was, delving about in the back of the van, making sure I had everything on board for a busy day of sorting out satellite and internet woes, when I heard the alarm call of a Snipe. Odd, I thought, because if our wadery neighbours are spooked by us, it's normally as we step out of the front door. Swinging around, and looking skywards, I did indeed spot a couple of Snipe, climbing and wheeling away, so the question was, from what?

Scanning about, I saw a shape at the far side of the field over the road. It was low and mainly grey, so could've just been yet another gull, but I wasn't completely sure. With a sudden flick, the bird flashed black wing tips and a white rump, identifying it as a male Hen Harrier. And as it quartered the field, it did seem to be coming closer.

Yay! and Dang! in equal measure! Harrier flybys are always special, always incredibly brief and never when I'm holding a camera. The low morning light from a Winter sun was perfectly placed, if said optics had been in my grasp. Conscious of CT's wager, I threw caution, and a box of connectors, to the wind, dashed inside for my camera and hurriedly returned, shedding lens cap, expletives and hope.

Rounding the van, the harrier was nowhere to be seen. Gah! But I continued looking and spotted it in the next field south, low over the furrows and heading away from me.

All that lovely light and this photo catches the bird in the shadow of the farm.

Umpteen out of focus shots later, the Hen Harrier soared up and turned around, making back for where I'd first seen it. So, sadly, not any closer.

I wasn't sure whether it had prey in its talons or not, but looking back at my images, now heavily-cropped, it would seem that the bird was flying with its legs down. At this point, I wondered whether it was injured. It wouldn't be unusual for a bird which skims field edges and vegetation boundaries to come to grief against a wire fence, especially with the wind speed we have been experiencing recently.

The harrier wheeled around once more, hunting along the fence line at the far side of the neighbouring field. The light was absolutely peachy, but the distance was too great for my 300mm lens (whose brilliant idea was it to remove the 1.4x converter recently?).

After a gale, the fence lines are often home to bits of silage wrap and feed bags, which have made a break for it. Perhaps after today's meteorology, I'll have a surreptitious womble across the field.

Eventually, the Hen Harrier settled on a fence post, and it seemed that it was perching quite happily on both legs. Phew.

I don't think the challenge has yet been met, CT, so you can keep your Dunnocks on standby, as it were. To be continued, at some point...

Cabin fever

After 24 hours of gales, by Sunday afternoon I needed to be out of doors. Seems like I wasn't the only one, as nine folk turned up for an Orkney Field Club walk in Orphir. This was the fourth, and final, nature jaunt in a series of 'Through the Seasons' outings, and this was my only opportunity to attend one. Must try harder in 2019!

We met at the Orkneyinga Saga Centre, by the Round Church and the ruins of a Viking earl's Bu (a large hall), before a bracing walk along the low cliffs at the north end of Scapa Flow, then heading inland to the wood at Gyre, before returning along a track to the bu.

Out in the Flow, there were a few Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebes and Long-tailed Ducks, as well as the more usual Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Guillemots (in their white and grey Winter plumage) and Shags. Fulmars were back patrolling the clifftops, as were a large family group of Ravens and a couple of Great Black-backed Gulls. We found what looked like Otter spraint, by a likely-looking trail through the grass, so I'm guessing low cliffs are not a barrier to this charismatic mammal.

It was still quite bracing!

Once in the woodland (yes, really!), it was much calmer and peaceable. Wrens and Blackbirds called, we looked at tree buds and tried to identify the leaves of next year's wild flowers. There were even a few clumps of Snowdrops just sprouting above ground.

Walking between hedges, we startled a Woodcock, the first I've seen in many a year, and there were several Hares out in the fields, making the most of the last rays of the day's sunshine.

Many thanks to the eagle-eyed M for organising the walk and the weather.

With my fresh air fix satiated, I returned to a cosy Tense Towers and a hot beverage.

Sunday 16 December 2018

Well, ain't that swell

Saturday was a day for being indoors, due to the fifty to sixty miles per hour winds gusting outside. I opted for cosy and warm, rather than chilled and exhilarated.

At least I was able to catch up on emails and unearth the festive faux fir from the darker recesses of the garage.

This morning, with the south easterly wind backing off to gentler, if not totally benign, thirty miles per hour gusts, I risked a peek out of the front door. Sporadic showers are still racing through, so visibility isn't great, but I could see that the garden had taken a beating. Vegetation is uniformly canted over to the north west, whilst patches of grass show signs of wind and salt burn, as well as a few vortex marks where the wind has swirled around against an obstacle.

And one other lingering sign was noticeable, as the memory of the wind howl faded from my ears. In the channel between mainland and Lamb Holm, the waves, driven on by 24 hours of gale, were still dissipating, producing an incongruous image with the local post box.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Stuff On My Phone (21)

Tomorrow sees the latest Classic Album Sunday being held in the Sound Archive in Kirkwall. This month it's Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, so anticipation is rising, adrenalin levels are high and excitement is off the scale.

Released in 1977, the album has been around all my adult life and ever-present in my music collection in various formats. The tales of its recording are legendary, with much conflict within the personal relationships of the band. It is quite incredible to think of two couples breaking up within the pressure cooker environment of a recording studio. But the emotion and creativity this strife unleashed, fed directly into the blossoming of the tracks on the album.

Arguably, the most well known and popular track on the album is The Chain, which may be rather familiar to readers in the UK, as the instrumental section was used for years as the theme tune to Formula One coverage on the BBC and Channel 4.

Meanwhile, on Planet Tense, contrary as ever, the stand out song is Gold Dust Woman, Stevie Nicks' dark exploration of cocaine addiction. Here's a video of Fleetwood Mac performing the song live in 1997, twenty years after the album was released (and twenty one years ago!!).

Have I mentioned I'm looking forward to listening to this tomorrow?

Sunday 2 December 2018

I see you, baby, shakin' that ass

As we enter the festive period, would this make a top tune for an alternative Nativity play? Probably not.

It being December, Our Lass and I went into town yesterday morning, to stock up on provender (her - specific Christmas stuff; me - the weekly shop). However, before we'd even left the house, there was an early morning wildlife moment to savour. The field across the road is usually empty of animals at this time of year, the cattle having been moved into sheds to overwinter. At the moment, though, there are four sheep making the best of the slim pickings as grass growth slows down to zero.

A quick scan of the field with my bins revealed a group of two dozen Golden Plover, hunkered down in the sward, prompting a photo opportunity and a Facebook post highlighting the need for a woolly plover in this weather.

This morning, the plovers were there again (so I'm wondering if they roost there overnight), and with a bit more sunlight, I was hopeful of a better shot. Or at least a better crop of an image that is the result of sticking my camera out of the lounge window.

The plovers were several steps ahead of me. As the sun's liquid honey poured over the landscape, the birds congregated in the shadow cast by Tense Towers. I kid you not, they moved into the 'shade' to, I guess, improve their camouflage. It's likely that they would be a target for a Sparrowhawk, a Peregrine or a Hen Harrier.

So, although the field was lit up left, right and behind them, I had to make do with the murk.

The sun, the absence of any breeze and the hope of more photography lured us outside for a wander around our usual circuit. It was a lovely morning, but the only excitement was a Sparrowhawk being mobbed by a corvid down by the shore. The sprawk, completely unperturbed by the attention, even took time out to swoop down and spook a flock of waders off the beach, before resuming its serene way eastwards.

Back home, and once more staring out of the window, I spotted a pipit sat on the top wire of the fence of the field over the road. As the light was still peachy, I grabbed my bins to inspect the bird's side-lit features. Typically, at this point, it flew to the ground out of sight, so I waited patiently for it to resume its perch. When it flew back up, it wasn't alone, so when my lenses settled upon what I thought was the pipit, I had a bit of a shock.

As did the pipit, if this photo is anything to go by!

The Meadow Pipit is on the top bar of the gate, whilst lower down is a bird of similar size, but which had a beguiling shimmering effect going on with its tail. This characteristic, I knew, meant that it was a species of Redstart (and I wasn't expecting to see one of those at this time of year!).

I managed a few more blurry photos before the bird flew along a dry stone wall and disappeared among the buildings of the neighbouring farm.

You can just make out the red colour on its tail, but it is the smoky brown chest which allowed those who know these things to ID the bird as a Black Redstart. Very unexpected, very pleasing!

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Yet another blatant filler post

Blogging can be a tricky old business. I've lost count of the number of times when I've turned up on this page to apologise for a prolonged absence due to a missing muse or the pressure of Life. One of the lesser side effects of such a hiatus is the consequent reduction in annual blog count, which is not a highly sought after metric, but one which I use to gauge year on year wordage and guff.

I reckon on about eight posts a month which, with a bit of gentle pressure, should yield close to a hundred for the year. Handily, the 'Previously on' sidebar shows monthly/annual output, so there's not even too much heartache in checking whether I'm on schedule, or not.

If I manage the required eight posts in December, but without this particular snippet, I would be one short of the hundred. Cue a filler post to promote the likely not-quite-there 99 to the magic 100. Sad, isn't it?

In my desperation to come up with a suitable topic for your delectation, the word 'Brexit' was typed into the Search facility of I&T, which yielded a whole raft of one post from 2017. It mentioned 'Fin' but not 'La Fin', it mentioned 'whales', but not 'Wales', so you would be correct in thinking that it was more cetacean-based than politician-biased.

Obviously, if you're reading this, that particular search will now have two results!

With a vote due in the House of Commons in a fortnight's time, regarding the acceptance of the settlement deal, or not, let's just say that the threat of an imminent harpoon still hangs over our relationship with the EU.

The only certainty is that anyone who professes to know what will happen in the coming months is most definitely fibbing. And when will that much-prized certainty arrive? Well, you'll need more than the lung capacity of a Sperm Whale to hold your breath for that long.

Saturday 24 November 2018

Autumn turning into Winter

On a Saturday morning with no earthly reason to head into town, we pottered around our local circuit instead, soaking up some brief sunshine, as well as the sights and sounds of wintering wildfowl.

Some Teal

Do you think two dozen Snipe is too large a quantity to be called a wisp?

A splash of Teal (not a recognised collective noun)

Rock Pipits trying to form a Goth band

 A Redshank on the tide line

More Teal and Snipe

A Moorhen upon reflection

Back to front: Cantick Head lighthouse; mv Pentalina; causeway to Hunda; Churchill Barrier number 3

An obliging Rook

Sunshine on a distant Hoy
Just after I'd put my camera away (as it was starting to rain), we walked by a garden with a large Hebe bush in it. A movement caught our eye, which resolved itself into a warbler of some sort. I'd guess, probably a Chiffchaff, brought across the North Sea due to several days of easterly winds. Additionally, this might also explain why we've had another two Robins in our garden this week (technically, we're not due another Robin visit until Spring!).