Monday 30 April 2018

Ocean's eleven

As promised, here's a few shots from our clifftop wander yesterday morning.

It's a rugged coastline, almost worthy of a Poldark galloping horse moment.

This is one of two Bonxies (Great Skuas) which were scavenging a dead auk.

Perched precariously, or calculatedly clinging? A Shag makes the point that anything those mountain goats can do, it can do better.

Another cliffscape. In the distance is Rose Ness with its beacons, which was the destination of last weekend's walk.

This is a Fulmar. When they're not soaring playfully on the breeze, Fulmars like to rest. A lot. Be more like Fulmar.

There were very few wild flowers in bloom, mainly just small clumps of Lesser Celandine. However, this Common Dog Violet was doing its best to add a splash of colour and liven up proceedings.

One of a pair of Ravens which were calling with a much softer note than the more usual 'Cronk!' that we tend to hear.

This is the location where I filmed the 360 degree shot in the previous post.

A couple of pairs of Razorbills. Just loving the yellow!

Heard at a distance, we managed to locate this Peregrine perched near the clifftop. Later, reviewing the images, I was astonished to compare the size of the raptor to the Fulmar (far right). Its small size means it is a male, or tiercel.

Guillemots! No, not the band. If you look carefully, you can see a few 'bridled' specimens, with the white eye-liner (there's at least ten).

Stuff On My Phone (16)

Another weekend, another period of sunny (if chilly) weather, another potter along a stretch of Orkney coastline. This time we used the same car park as last weekend, but turned left instead of right. Our intention was to have a look at the seabird colony along the east-facing cliffs of Holm parish, as we walked north along the Bay of Semolie.

Despite some recent heavy rain, the clifftop path wasn't overly muddy, and the grass hadn't really got going on the growth front. In fact, it was how I imagined it would've looked in February, so perhaps this was a symptom of the harsh easterly weather since then?

There were few flowers in bloom, just the occasional clump of Lesser Celandine and the odd Common Dog Violet. It might technically be Spring, but the Thrift and the Spring Squill aren't having any of it just yet, thank you very much.

Bird life offered more in the way of a spectacle, with plenty of auks on the sea and numbers building up on the cliffs. Similarly, there were a few predators and scavengers about too, like Bonxie (Great Skua), Peregrine and loads of gulls.

There'll be photos of some of these in the next post, but as this is a SOMP post, here's a short (about a minute) 360 degree view of our approach to the cliffs taken using my phone.

Whilst Our Lass scanned the cliffs, I performed a slow pirouette, taking in the Fulmars in the nearest geo, then zooming into a couple of Bonxies (with accompanying gulls) which were scavenging a dead auk in the water (they're all just wee dots, but you can infer the position of the action from the white gull dots). Then it's a pan along the cliff face before zooming back out and continuing clockwise past the island of Copinsay on the horizon, and returning to Our Lass.

Sunday 22 April 2018

And... breathe

The recent spell of warm and dry weather has been gracious enough to loiter around until this weekend. Saturday morning dawned bright and a little breezy, so we headed out into a glorious morning of warm sunshine.

Our plan was a short wander around the cliffs and bays of Rose Ness, a small peninsula visible from our kitchen window. Parking the car in a layby between the farms of Upper and Lower Cornquoy, we made our way to the cliff edge. This is a panorama shot of the Bay of Semolie, with the island of Copinsay on the horizon.

It was lovely to be out in the fresh air, listening to birdsong, gazing at the scenery and feeling those gentle warming rays of sunshine.

As we explored the rocky cliffs, we occasionally found shelter from the sea breeze, and these little areas of micro-climate were so hot, it almost felt like we were on another island. Maybe in the Carabiner?


At the tip of Rose Ness, the small automatic lighthouse stands apart from its beacon predecessor.

The male Eider ducks were busy trying to impress the ladies with their characteristic 'oo-OO-oo' display calls, which rang out around the bay. 

The air was also full of Skylark song, but the singers were much easier to photograph on the ground.

Perched on a rocky ledge, in a small, shadowy geo, a pair of Black Guillemots were calling. Their thin and gentle notes are possibly the highest frequency sound I am able to detect.

As we walked around the headland, there were Pied Wagtails everywhere. I'm guessing this was more than the local population and was probably made up of birds migrating North.

When we reached the Bay of Cornquoy, some Grey Seals were hauled up making the most of the warm sunshine.

Here, in the more sheltered bay, plenty of waders were gathered. This is an Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover combo.

The piles of seaweed at the top of the beach were providing good foraging sites for hungry and recently-arrived Wheatears as they searched for tasty morsels.

Further down the shore, a small group of Dunlin, slowly coming into breeding plumage, were busy probing the mud for invertebrates.

Another Wheatear, this time a female, warily watched us pass, as she fed amongst the rocks at the side of a track.

Way out at the water's edge, a distant wader was evidently not a Curlew, it's slightly upturned bill probably identifying it as a Bar-tailed Godwit.

I must apologise to Curlews everywhere, as Saturday was World Curlew Day, and I omitted to take a photograph of these distinctive and charismatic birds. Their numbers are in freefall, mainly due to loss of breeding habitat, and although they do reasonably well in Orkney, sadly the same cannot be said about the rest of their range. It would indeed be a sad day if the world was to lose the plangent sound of their being. For more info, see here.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Talking and walking

Last weekend, we attended the Scottish Dragonfly Conference in Perth, a biennial event featuring all things Odonata and more besides. We drove down the day before, with the only noteworthy wildlife sighting en route being a Red Grouse sat on a fence post alongside the A9. At breakfast, the following morning, we tried to concentrate on the scrumptious fayre, but our eyes were constantly staring out of the window, as all the garden birds were exhibiting either courtship or nesting behaviour. A highlight for me was my first Long-tailed Tits of the year, a small group of excited apostrophes, punctuating a bush which was just coming into leaf.

The conference was held in a lecture theatre at the AK Bell Library, and a full day of excellent talks had been put together by the BDS's Scotland officer. Yours Truly was on just before lunch, which at least meant that folk weren't too keen to ask me any questions!

The day opened with a fascinating talk about the Bush Giant Dragonfly Uropetala carovei. This species is endemic to New Zealand, and its larvae live in semi-flooded burrows, emerging at night to feed terrestrially. Not too much is known about the life cycle of the larva, so research is ongoing.

As well as all the odonatological interest, there was a talk from Butterfly Conservation about several threatened moth species and the work that is being undertaken to protect them in Scotland, especially now that they're absent further south. For instance, there's no longer any Kentish Glory moths in Kent (or England), and neither are there any New Forest Burnet moths in the New Forest (or England). Whilst climate change might have a part to play in this northward movement, loss of habitat is a bigger threat, so management is now being put in place at the few remaining strongholds of these species to safeguard their immediate futures.

Then it was me. And the story of dragon-y goings on in Orkney during 2017.

After a few scary initial seconds, when I realised that the laptop provided didn't want to engage Presenter View, and so I couldn't access my notes or gauge my timing, I just winged the talk, finishing bang on time 30 minutes later. Phew.

There was some lively discussion in the afternoon, after a talk about a research project to investigate the site preferences for White-faced Darter in Scotland. I only know this species from one site in the Cairngorms, so was blithely unaware that it is very picky about which pools it will frequent. The project aims to monitor a whole suite of parameters to try and explain why this is so. Why, of two adjacent water bodies which look identical to us, the darter will live in one, but not the other?

The following day, we headed back north, stopping off at Bruar to walk up to the eponymous falls. The morning was warm and sunny, birds were singing and a few insects were on the wing. We pottered up the valley, over the lower and higher bridges, pausing a while on a bench to listen to the sound of rushing water and the high-pitched calls of Coal Tit, Goldcrest, Great Tit and Wren.

Then, after a quick detour to purchase a large pork pie, it was back to the car to continue northwards and across the Pentland Firth to home.

My Achilles' heel... all eight of them

Readers of this blog will be aware of my passion for all wildlife or, to be more correct, nearly all wildlife. Plants, birds, insects, mammals, fungi and the occasional lichen all grace these pages without fear or favour. Their life cycles and day-to-day goings on are an endless source of interest to me which I am only too happy to document in my haphazard and meandering way. However, I have often felt a bit of a fraud due to my reluctance to engage with anything remotely spidery, and believe me, the remoter the spider the better, to my mind. I know that I am not alone in this regard, but there’s still a lingering guilt that I’m letting the side down in some way. Yup, my middle name is not Jain.

My conscience has been salved a little over the years whenever I have read of a similar feeling being shared by others, including several well-known, and respected, natural history authors. I might not be able to bang out a book like Simon Barnes or David Quammen, but I might harbour the heretical thought that I am tempted to bang down a book just like they do, when faced with eight legs and eight eyes in close formation. I’m not talking Abba or The Beatles here, but to strain the analogy, perhaps The Who, if they’re singing ‘Boris the Spider’.

In his book, ‘Ten Million Aliens’, Simon Barnes tells the tale of being dropped off at his guest lodgings, a hut in a Zambian reserve, slightly the worse for alcoholic beverages. Once crashed out on the bed, he became aware of the 47 (shudders) wolf spiders foraging over the walls and ceiling, most of them with a 6 inch leg span, and for a fleeting instant, he considered walking the mile back to his host’s accommodation, through the pitch black night and lion territory. What a choice to have to make?

My all time favourite book 'The Song Of The Dodo' by David Quammen features several incidents of an arachnoid nature, each described with scientific accuracy and emotional honesty. However, in his article ‘The Face Of A Spider – Eyeball to Eyeball with the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, published in 'The Flight Of The Iguana', David Quammen admits to his dilemma when faced with a hundred baby Black Widow spiderlings crawling all over his writing desk and office, and the life-changing decision he made that evening. Very life-changing for the spiderlings, and very thought-provoking for the author.

Looking back at the instances of my arachnophobia within Imperfect & Tense, there have not been quite the same levels of life or death moments, and I certainly do not seek out intimate encounters on the web, or yearn for the touch of silk.

Occasionally, in the course of my work, I will find myself in a cramped corner of a dusty loft, concentrating on keeping my balance, whilst juggling a torch and several cable-terminating tools. If I’m lucky, I may catch a glimpse of a soundless movement, between the harsh glare from the bulb and the deep shadows cast by the roof trusses. Well, I say lucky, but only because there’s a few microseconds of warning before the flight reflex kicks in, and as opposed to suddenly finding myself cheek by jowl with a creature that can certainly keep more than one eye on me.

So, you will be forgiven for being as incredulous as I was, this week, when I had the arachnid equivalent of the moment experienced by St Paul, although I was on the internet, rather than the road to Damascus.

A natural history colleague, with a knack of finding ‘new-for-Orkney’ invertebrate species, not to mention proper 'spidey skills', had posted a comment on the social media page of a wildlife group. The comment mentioned the fact that there weren’t any records for zebra spiders in this neck of the woods. On reading those few, simple words, I was transported back in time to every house I had ever lived in before moving to Orkney. Although they were spread across decades and several countries, these homes shared one very definitive experience: zebra spiders in the cloakroom. You read that correctly, spiders in the smallest room in the house. What you might, indeed, describe as a call of Nature. And I was suddenly and unexpectedly very sad, a feeling that hadn't previously troubled that bit of my psyche where spiders were concerned.

You see, there’s something lovable, and I don’t think that’s too strong a word for it, yup, lovable, about a zebra spider. Yes, they’re possessed of the expected eight legs and eyes; yes, they’re likely to move at a speed and in a direction that is unpredictable and, appropriately, gut-wrenching; but for a spider, they are undeniably… look, I can’t help myself here, they are just cute. And, as if you need reminding, this is when you’re sat half naked and likely fully nervous, with your mind on other things. But in zebra spider terms, it’s the best seat in the house.

It was a curious moment, realising that I missed their stripey presence in my life. So I took to the internet to acknowledge the fact, to reconsider my troubled relationship with the arachnid order and to ponder the thought that a journey begins with the first eight steps.

Monday 9 April 2018

Stuff On My Phone (15)

The weekend's Snipe excitement wasn't limited to the solitary individual loitering in our garden. Oh no, not by a long chalk. In fact, not by any length of any calcium carbonate-based goods whatsoever.

Sunday morning was very misty, with the slightest of breezes, so although it wasn't particularly warm, it offered the chance of a pleasant stroll down to the shore. As we wandered along a lane, the sun was making valiant, if forlorn, efforts to burn through the clouds, but only succeeding in delivering sufficient heat to lift some moisture from the fields. Those which had been ploughed, being darker, were absorbing more heat, and consequently appeared to be positively smoking.

By the wet pasture, halfway to the shore, we paused to watch a few Lapwings half-heartedly displaying, but it seemed that the grey skies had affected their mood.

Several other waders took to the skies though, and we soon identified these as Snipe. For the next ten minutes, we stood spellbound as four or five of them swooped and soared over our heads, whilst they sorted out some territorial or relationship issue. Alert readers will know that the collective noun for a group of Snipe is a 'Wesley'.

The audio clip below is a brief taste of the experience, with the throbbing of drumming displays and a plethora of flight calls.

Laying down some rubber

Things were a bit snippy at Tense Towers during the weekend. Oops, apologies, I didn't mean to suggest Our Lass and I had fallen out, that should've read 'snipey'.

About three years ago, tentative plans were hatched to possibly think about maybe having some raised beds for growing vegetables, probably. These first steps were recorded for posterity here.

Since those distant days, the patch has been covered in silage wrap to suppress persistent weeds, and the wrap has been weighted down against gales from all compass points with dozens of tyres. Pretty, it ain't.

However, despite the unnatural setting, House Sparrows and Starlings regularly forage for invertebrates around the tyres, and Pied Wagtails occasionally pop in for a pitstop. This weekend, excitement shifted up a gear, with a visit from a Snipe.

Quite why it prefers this habitat to the miles of actual rocky shore located not very far away is a complete mystery, but we appreciated it! It must be said that, as soon as the Snipe wandered into the tussocky grass, its cryptic camouflage was much more effective.

Monday 2 April 2018

Cultural interlude

Since my previous post, I have travelled south to the north east of England to be reunited with Our Lass. We then went to a niece's wedding in Northumberland, before returning to Orkney over Easter.

This is Penshaw Monument, it was built in 1844 as a memorial to the Earl of Durham, John 'Radical Jack' Lambton (1792-1840). The monument is an adaptation of the Theseum, a Greek temple in Athens. Penshaw Hill, on which the monument stands, is better known as the place where the mythical Lambton Worm would coil itself to rest. This fabulous monster is eventually slain by the young John Lambton, and immortalised in the popular folk song which begins...

"Whisht, lads, hadd yer gobbs, an' aa'l tell yer aal an aaful story. Whisht, lads, hadd yer gobbs, an' aa'l tell yer boot the worm."

The following day saw matrimonial matters come to the fore. The wedding venue was in a sleepy Northumberland village, and the weather was just peachy. The early morning frost slowly disappeared as the sun gently caressed the landscape, providing pleasant conditions for wedding photographs in the afternoon.

Prior to the ceremony, Our Lass and I wandered out for a breath of fresh air, to enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of Spring.

The photo above actually has a pair of Dippers in it (why didn't I take a proper camera?!).

Our Lass even managed to capture an image of two normally grumpy brothers...

The next day and a half were absolutely dreich, as we travelled back north. However, once through the Cairngorms, the weather improved greatly. Here's a few snaps from Helmsdale, where we stopped for a break.

As we neared the top of the Scottish mainland, I remembered a floral treat which I had seen in rainy conditions a few days previously. Near the village of Latheronwheel, the road verge was covered in a multitude of Butterbur flowers.

The plants' leaves emerge later. They are huge and are the reason for its other name, Elephant's ears.