Thursday 21 June 2018

Stuff On My Phone (18)

Movie soundtrack albums do not feature heavily in my music collection, it's not a genre that fires my enthusiasm. Perhaps oddly, television programme soundtracks have made more of an impression on me, with the original Due South compilation CD experiencing some serious airtime, blasting out of the speakers as a holidaying Tense Towers family drove to all points of the compass.

But I will save that album until a future post. Or two, he said, teasingly...

However, staying with the travelling theme, but rather in time and space, this morning I had a hankering to listen to the incidental music composed by Sheridan Tongue for Brian Cox's 'Wonders of the Universe' documentary series. Whatever one's feelings about Brian the boy band member/scientist/tv presenter, the documentaries he fronts always contain some sumptuously-explained bit of science magic which I find engrossing.

Can you have science magic? I'm thinking that, maybe, scientists and magicians will quibble over the point, but the rest of us can be amazed, entertained and enthralled in equal measure.

Where were we?, Oh yes, the purchasing of this particular CD was inspired by one sound snippet, 'Mini Solar System', featured at the beginning of an explanation of star death and the creation of the elements, in the episode 'Stardust'. At the time, I was initially a bit bemused as to why Brian was wandering around a derelict prison (which was clearly unsafe!), not wearing any PPE but carrying a can of aerosol paint, and stopping occasionally to spray graffiti on the walls (how very dare he?!). As ever, it was all simile and metaphor for the process being explained (I got there in the end!).

The clip, linked here, is six minutes of gorgeously-filmed, engagingly-told science, from the opening aerial shot of the roof of the prison, to the disappearing of our Sun behind the building, which symbolically precedes the denouement.

And remember, "Every atom of carbon... in every living thing on the planet... was produced in the heart of a dying star."

Wednesday 20 June 2018

A treat for the senses

On Sunday, we visited Olav's Wood, a sheltered valley in South Ronaldsay, where a wide variety of trees have been planted. It isn't a huge site, but its glades are often a haven of tranquillity on a windy day. No need of that for this visit, however, as the weather was exceedingly kind, with warm sunshine and a gentle breeze.

Sat on a bench in the sun, we listened to the songs of Willow Warbler, Blackbird, Wren and Sedge Warbler, whilst all about could be heard the gentle buzz of insect life going about its business.

The Dog Roses (or maybe Rosa rugosa) were very photogenic, both as themselves and as a platform for the insects.

The rose flowers were a heavenly haven for hovers, with the predictable consequence of much discussion later as to their identities.

Helophilus pendulus

Sericomyia silentis

Leucozona lucorum

Helophilus pendulus (front) and maybe a Syrphus or Eupeodes species (rear)

Possibly a Neoascia species, but much debate over this one

Rhingia campestris, never too much trouble with the ID of this one
Later, on the way home, we detoured to Hoxa, to check for Odonata in the roadside pools. About a dozen Blue-tailed Damselflies were seen, several of whom were ovipositing females. Happily, news of sightings from other areas of Orkney indicate that we currently have three species of damselfly on the wing (also Large Red and Common Blue), and it shouldn't be long before the first dragonflies are recorded.

Monday 18 June 2018


Recently, a friend, A, who shares a love of the natural world, remarked on social media that she wondered how gulls kept so sparkly white and clean? As part of the discussion, she pointed out that urban gulls spend a great deal of time on filthy landfill sites, whilst in a rural setting, gulls follow the plough or muck spreader. According to A, even dead gulls on the beach manage to look clean-ish. And now that she lives right by the shore, in a small town full of gulls, she never sees any of them bathing or preening, but they always look pristine.

Well, it's a good question, and one that I couldn't resist answering.

So here it is, the definite I&T guide as to how to wash your gull, by species...

You're welcome.

Saturday 16 June 2018

A wizard week

It's been a funny old few days. Whilst not really having an opportunity for much planned nature watching, I will remember this week.

On Monday evening, Our Lass and I pootled down to the shore and back for a breath of fresh air and a leg stretch, where fledged gull and wader chicks were scuttling through the rough pasture and  damp places behind the old kirk. As we returned to Tense Towers, I froze at the entrance to our property, listening intently. Had I just heard an oddly-familiar 'boop-de-boop' call? With my head angled to reduce the noise of the breeze across my ears, I tried to locate the source of the sound. Our Lass joined in too, and we wandered up the road a few metres, pausing every so often and turning our heads from side to side. As if the neighbours needed proof of our madness.

There it was again, definitely coming from the hay meadow over the road, and very definitely the 'Wet me lips' call of a Quail. I have heard these small gamebirds before in other parts of Orkney and, years ago, in Shropshire, but although I've still not seen one, it was a real treat to hear one calling whilst stood at home.

On Tuesday, I was looking out of the lounge window, when a black shape went scything across the sky, heading south west. No time for bins, no time for a camera, only time for a shouted message to Our Lass who was in another room... "Swift! A Swift's just gone by!" We don't see many of these amazing aerial experts in Orkney, they don't breed in the county, so it was a real treat to witness a flypast at home.

On Wednesday evening, as the weather deteriorated ahead of Storm Hector, a dozen gulls appeared on the 'lawn', searching through the wet grass for, presumably, worms and other invertebrates. They were mainly Commons, but a Lesser Black-backed, a Herring and a Black-headed also turned up. I don't think we've ever had 4 different species of gull in the garden at the same time.

During Thursday, with the wind speed increasing through the day, there wasn't much going on. I couldn't work outside, so spent the time catching up on paperwork and admin tasks. During a tea break, stood at the lounge window, I scored the second Swift of the week, hawking low over the long grass and buttercups of the field over the road, seemingly oblivious to the gusting storm.

Friday went by in a bit of a blur, with my only wildlife memory that of being constantly scolded by a Starling from a neighbouring property as I fitted equipment to the gable end of a customer's house.

This morning, as Our Lass wanted to spend the day gardening and trying to salvage any plant survivors from Hector's attentions, I volunteered to go into town for a few groceries, a couple of prescriptions and a trip to the bank. Less than 250m from home, as I drove around a right hand bend, I had to make an emergency stop to avoid a bird sat in the middle of the road. It was a small raptor, and as my car came to a sudden stop, man and bird contemplated each other for half a second, before the raptor flew a few metres onto a patch of grass. Parking the car in a conveniently-placed layby, I was able to watch as the bird was mobbed by some frantically alarm calling Swallows, before it flew off, right past the lounge window of Tense Towers! My best guess, from the brief views I managed, was that it was likely to have been a Merlin.

Then, this afternoon, whilst taking a break from strimming the fence line at the far side of the garden, I was looking at the flowering border with Our Lass, discussing the winners and losers from the recent inclement weather. A hoverfly that I didn't recognise (and that's a long list!) caught my eye, and I headed indoors for my camera, so I could capture an image for later ID purposes. Just as I headed in through the front door, I was vaguely aware of a strange alarm call, which I logged as coming from a wader, but gave it no more thought than that. Whilst sorting out the camera, Our Lass shouted my name, and as that is an unusual occurrence, I knew something was afoot.

Rushing back outside, I was directed by Our Lass to the airspace above the farm next door, where a bird was soaring and swooping above the roofs of the barns. Was this the Merlin again? Over the next 10 minutes, I watched and photographed the bird, as it sometimes hawked like a Hobby, occasionally stooped like a Peregrine, and generally scared the pants off the local Starlings, House Sparrrows and Swallows.

Again, best guess is a Merlin. Maybe the same one? Normally these small falcons would be chasing Meadow Pipits across heath and field, but I suspect that the recent fledging of several broods of Starlings down at the farm was just too tempting a target.

Edit 17/16/18: After discussions on social media, the bird in the photographs has been identified as a Hobby, a juvenile in 1st Summer plumage. My thanks to MG and AM.

Tuesday 12 June 2018

When the wind doesn't blow

Gardening at Tense Towers is a challenging pastime. Both gardener and plants have to cope with all that the Orcadian weather throws their way, often horizontally. Chiefly, this is the realm of Our Lass, as the nearest I stray to cultivated flowers is ID-ing the wild stuff that pops up around the place. Valiantly, Our Lass has been tending a border which gains some protection from westerly winds by dint of a low dry stone wall.

At this time of year, the border seizes its moment for 15 degrees of Celsius minutes of fame, before the next howling gale shreds colourful petals and topples enthusiastic stems. Here it is in a photo from Sunday...

It's as though the plants know there's not much point in growing above wall height.

And even on a cloudy day, as Sunday was, the border was alive with pollinators. Silver Y moths were still present, the first Large White butterflies put in an appearance, there were all manner of flies and, best of all, several species of bumblebee.

Although the bees were very active and, ideally for ID purposes, I need them to remain perfectly still for minutes at a time, one species was very recognisable. It was a Great Yellow Bumblebee, Bombus distinguendus, a real northern treasure.

Its presence, amongst the alliums, chives, poppies, knapweeds and Red Campion, is a huge vote of confidence for all Our Lass's hard work.

There were also Garden Bumblebees and Common Carders.

And, as mentioned previously, the Large Whites were on the wing, although this pair had other ideas...

The first photo also has a photo-bombing ichneumon wasp, maybe even the heroine of the previous day's blogpost.

All the above photos were taken as we were trying to leave the house to go and buy some bedding plants. We simply struggled to tear ourselves away! Eventually, however, we made it to the car and drove down to South Ronaldsay to a nursery that was having an open day.

I must say, I was still in wildlife watching mode (is there any other mode?), so carried on photographing insects, as Our Lass chose more flowers for the border.

A hoverfly Sericomyia silentis

A hoverfly Eristalis sp, not pertinax as I first thought, but possibly either arbustorum or abusiva

A hoverfly Rhingia campestris
Later this week, we have a weather warning for a westerly gale gusting to 55 knots. We're nervous for the Aquilegias.

Rock candy

Saturday dawned with a bit of a rude awakening. Having shuffled to the bathroom in a not-really-awake-yet manner, I was greeted by a diminutive lady who was sat on the adjacent wall. She was only about half an inch long but, well, an ovipositor like that tends to concentrate the mind.

Once comfortable, I set about putting the insect in an inspection pot, with the plan to ID and release her. After taking a couple of photos, I opened a window and gently shook the pot to encourage the wee thing to depart. She had other ideas, flying back in and instantly disappearing. I should mention that the window was in our bedroom, so now Our Lass was less than impressed. Diligent searching of walls, ceiling and curtains drew a blank, but before I could decide what to do next, the insect again took wing from somewhere upon my person. There may have been an uttered expletive.

Thankfully, she was easy to recapture, but now very reluctant to leave the confines of the inspection pot. In the end, I had to leave the pot on an external window sill, and when I checked it later in the day, she had finally left.

My best guess is a parasitic wasp or an ichneumon wasp of some kind.

In the afternoon, we met up with friends for a walk from Birsay to Marwick along gently-rising clifftops. The weather was cloudy but dry, with a gentle breeze, so really quite pleasant for walking. The clifftops were covered in all manner of wild flowers: from the blue of Spring Squill; through the yellow of buttercups and Silverweed; to the white of Sea Campion and Sea Milkwort. But at this time of year, there are carpets of Thrift (Sea Pinks).

Our destination was Marwick Head, with its impressive seabird colony and the Kitchener Memorial, commemorating the sailors who lost their lives with the sinking of HMS Hampshire in 1916.

Despite all the nesting Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Puffins, I couldn't resist taking a photo of a small fly which was present in some numbers on sheltered rock faces. The local invertebrate guru helpfully ID'd it for me as Geomyza tripunctata, a Cereal Fly.

Monday 4 June 2018

No egrets

We celebrated a birthday with lunch at a clifftop bistro last week. The location is stunning and the glass walls of the establishment provide unrivalled views of the Pentland Firth. If anything, with all that glass, it can be a bit too hot for the likes of me. However, I was very fortunate, a haar had veiled the whole scene in an anonymous grey. We really enjoyed our seafood meal, and as luck would have it, the haar lifted just as we finished dining. And so a postprandial wander along the clifftops was in order.

As it was a special occasion, I had not brought any bins or optics with me (as bitter experience has shown that these items tend to impact negatively on the ambience of the moment). This was a shame, because they would've been really handy in helping to identify this...

The small white dot was a long way off, and the only thing I could think it might be was an egret of some sort. Gauging size over the distance was impossible, so Little, Cattle or Great White? Who knew? I embarrassed myself on social media by suggesting these options, only to be reminded that there was still a Spoonbill in the area from the previous week. Oops.

And once again, my phone wasn't really up to the job of capturing an image of a mobile insect. This is a Great Yellow Bumblebee on a patch of Thrift.

Happily, Spring Squill doesn't move around as much as your average bee, so the above shot is rather better focused.

We returned home, to discover that the haar had burnt off, leaving a gorgeously sunny afternoon. Now equipped with a proper camera, I spent a pleasant half hour attempting to snap some of the insects visiting the blooms in our borders.

Garden Bumblebee

Silver Y moth

Hoverfly - still wrangling over the ID
The next day, we visited a plant nursery, so whilst Our Lass shopped for greenery, I monitored the amount of insect life to be seen. Unfortunately, the ID of this one remains a mystery.

After a pleasant lunch at a nearby tea room, we decamped to Inganess Bay, for another walk alongside Wideford Burn, because now several folk had managed to find damselflies at the location. Here, at last, I was able to begin my Orcadian flight season, with half a dozen Large Red Damselflies and a similar number of Blue-tailed. Oh joy unconfined!

Large Red Damselfly

A very immature Blue-tailed Damselfly
Plus, a few more hovers...

Helophilus hybridus

Sericomyia silentis
Those successes called for another round of celebrations. Rhubarb and ginger cake? Don't mind if I do!

Mappy Monday

I recently ordered a set of maps for a Scottish holiday which we will be taking later in the year. I guess, for me, this is what passes for retail therapy. Whilst I was making my purchases, I wondered for how much longer I would be able to do this. What would be the limiting factor? Availability of the Ordnance Survey series in paper form, rather than in an electronic format? Cost? At £8.99 a shot for a 1:25000 Explorer series sheet, it can become pricey if our destination sits at the junction of multiple sheets. Or, maybe, my health? Perhaps due to failing eyesight or an inability to enjoy the fresh air. For now, at least, I can anticipate the arrival of four liberally-contoured maps, the pleasure of the first browse of their features and, later, the adrenaline rush of setting foot on the ground they describe. Yup, still very much a paper map kinda guy.

Whilst mulling over these words, a memory surfaced from my childhood. I'm not sure exactly how old I would've been, but I recall a large (at least to a small child) map of the world, spread out on the lounge floor. Mind you, back then, it wasn't called a 'lounge', it was the 'kitchen' (the actual kitchen was called the 'back kitchen', go figure). That aside, with a big map and a floor, a game ensued. My parents and I took it in turns to find features or places on the map and give cryptic clues for each other to work out. Dad would routinely deliver clues with terrible puns, and, yes, it is highly likely that my love of maps and awful puns dates from this time.

Growing up, hiking through the dales and over the fells of the Pennines, we (family or friends) were never without an Ordnance Survey map, although it must be pointed out that this isn't the same as never becoming geographically-challenged.

Over the years, I haven't travelled a huge amount, but have always collected maps of our destinations which, due to repeated visits, have become very well-used. 

The orange 1:25000 Explorer series side of the shelf has slowly grown larger than the combined pink 1:50000 Landranger and green 1:10000 Pathfinder series side. There's even one old Bartholomew 'Half Inch' series represented, bought second-hand to show where we lived in Milton Keynes, but from a time before a city of 250,000 inhabitants existed.

But going back to my younger days, once my interest in motorsport was kindled, it wasn't a huge leap to have a go at rally navigation, initially on closed stages then, later, on road events. Route instructions can come in many nefarious forms, but the most familiar will probably be Tulip diagrams (named after the Tulip Rally in the Netherlands where they were first commonly used). In essence, each pictogram represents a junction on the route, with the dot being the approach direction and the arrow being the departure direction.

Here's an example from a small club event which I had the pleasure of organising, showing the route between two Time Controls. Note that although the numbered boxes begin and end in sequence, that isn't true for the whole table. See, definitely nefarious.

Worse still, are Herringbones. In principle, these are quite straight forward, simply showing the route as a straight line, with the unwanted turnings as short lines on the right and the left.

The above example isn't quite so straight forward, as the Start dot is on the right. However, reading from the dot, the instructions are: turn right, turn left, turn left etc. Or to put it another way: miss a left, miss a right, miss a right etc.

Herringbones have developed a fearsome reputation because they are often represented as a circle, which isn't so bad if you know where the start or finish junction is located. But if you don't know, or are unsure whether it's going clockwise or not, or even whether it's a mirror image, then they're definitely hellish.

These sorts of route instructions have to be transferred to a map, ideally before the driver needs to know, but sometimes it isn't possible to plot beforehand. Here's an example of a hastily-scribbled route, pencilled onto the map as arrows cutting through the unwanted turnings.

The eastings and northings numbers were highlighted beforehand to help with the plotting of grid references under pressure.

When we lived in Germany, I really enjoyed using a different type of map. Same scale, but a very different way of describing the terrain and features.

If all this sitting around in vehicles seems a bit... well... lazy, at least from a physical, if not from a mental point of view, then never fear, there was lots of orienteering too.

Often described as 'cunning running', this sport combines a cross country run with a navigational challenge. The trick is to find the quickest time between the checkpoints, which will not be the shortest route due to the nature of the terrain and vegetation. Counter-intuitively, green on an orienteering map is a landscape you have to fight your way through.

Again, there was plenty of opportunity to engage in this pursuit when we lived in Germany, though, thankfully, there was an international standard when it  came to describing the vegetation.

Once I had hung up my compass and bramble bashers (orienteering) and map magnifier and sheets of acetate (navigating), Life became much quieter. These days, I only wrestle with grid references when I'm recording wildlife sightings. And although we live in a bungalow, I still have to remember 'Along the hall and up the stairs', the mantra for plotting the eastings first and then the northings.