Sunday 26 August 2018

Whisky galore

With a free morning ahead of us and rain not due until the afternoon, we headed to Scapa beach on the outskirts of Kirkwall, for a short circular walk to the south of the city (well, burgh, to be exact).

This is the view looking towards Scapa Flow, as we watched the Council's Marine Services tugs heading out to escort a tanker.

Following the road towards the pier, we picked up a footpath that headed east up a short, but steep, ascent. At the top of this, we bided a while to catch our breath and stare across the bay towards the Scapa Distillery.

We continued along a rough track, taking in further views of the Flow...

before leaving it behind us, as we headed eastwards away from the coast.

There was a short section of 'A' road to negotiate, quiet enough on a Sunday morning, before we turned onto a bridle path towards Inganess Bay. On the grass verge of the main road, I had to chuckle at this caffeine-fiend of a snail.

Fast food, slow mollusc.

The bridle path, so the sign said, was created in the early 1980s, and certainly some of the tree planting would corroborate that. The shrubs, for that's all the height they had, did have quite a girth on their trunks. It was most odd, but definitely in a good way, to be walking along between two hedgerows.

We had decided not to continue to Inganess Bay, saving that for another day, so turned north to pick up a track that went back over the top of the brae into Kirkwall. Soon, Highland Park Distillery came into view, perched on a hill above the construction site of the new hospital.

You will notice that the corporate colour scheme of the brand is black, which is evident in the exterior fixtures and fittings of the buildings of the distillery.

Even the stonework seems to echo this branding, which I had blithely assumed to be as a result of the peaty smoke produced during the drying of the maltings. However, I now know, thanks to an excellent article by Derek Mayes in the The Orkney Naturalist 2018, that it is in fact due to the presence of a fungus Baudoinia compniacensis, which grows in ethanol-rich environments.

When The Rolling Stones sang 'Paint It Black', not only were they gathering no moss, they were also encouraging the Whisky Fungus.

Continuing downhill, we joined the Crantit Trail, which follows a burn towards Scapa beach and our circuit was complete.


Monday 20 August 2018

Gravel puss and a solicitous damsel

Following the post where I was extolling the virtues of Wild Radish, I turned to more mundane matters and decided to tidy my van ready for the working week. The Satmobile has a hard life, lugging all manner of equipment to various points of the Orcadian compass, often in foul weather, so it was due a bit of TLC.

After vacuuming the cab, I bent down to coil up Henry's power cord and came face to face with this...

 A Puss Moth caterpillar, somewhat out of its comfort zone, in the middle of the gravel hard standing where we park our vehicles. How it came to be there, I know not, but after watching it for a few minutes, it became obvious that the caterpillar was trying to spin a cocoon.

We removed it to a place of comparative safety amongst the potted trees and shrubs tucked in by the garage wall, and left it to decide its own fate without becoming accidentally squished.

In the late afternoon, the sun eventually put in an appearance, so we drove down to Hoxa Head in South Ronaldsay to look for dragons and damsels at the pools there. Sadly, these were drier than my previous visit, with nary an ode in sight. Checking the old quarry nearby, we did manage to find six Blue-tailed Damselflies, including this bromance between two males.

The flight season in Orkney for this species has now passed its peak, so breeding opportunities will become ever more rare as numbers inevitably decrease. Some males struggle with this concept and will try to mate with females of a different species or, as in this case, with a male of the same species.

The lower male is showing his disgruntlement by flashing and flaring his wings at the other damselfly, which is as about as angry a sign as these insects can muster. For the record, mixed pairings, either of species or gender, are destined to be unsuccessful.

Sunday 19 August 2018

It's a jungle out there

Having had the good fortune to finally identify, after four years, the Mystery Brassica growing in our garden (all we'd needed to do was attend a field trip to look at arable weeds), I thought I would re-iterate why we tolerate Wild Radish springing up randomly within our environs. In a nutshell, or more accurately in a seed pod, the local wildlife loves it.

All manner of insects flock to the flowers: several butterfly species (Green-veined and Large Whites); moths (Silver Y); and all manner of hoverflies, to name but a few. The Large Whites lay eggs on the brassica as the leaves are the food of choice for their caterpillars.

At this time of year, Greenfinches, which have been strangely absent for the rest of the year, suddenly appear to chomp their way through the Wild Radish pods, leaving the ground beneath the plants covered in a neat layer of evenly-sized remains.

Also at this time, the Large White caterpillars set off to find a safe place to pupate, often making quite a journey, as we usually find some on the walls of the house.

Quite whether the effort is worth it is debatable, as most seem to parasitised by a small wasp, whose own larvae emerge from the caterpillars to pupate themselves. Local bug guru LJ reckons these might be from the wasp Cotesia glomerata.

And here, below, is the remains of a past parasitisation with, alongside it, a recently-arrived Large White caterpillar preparing to pupate. It doesn't bode well, does it?

Still, every year, there are Wild Radish plants aplenty, a host of Large White butterflies, several Greenfinches and, apparently, parasitic wasps, so some sort of order is being successfully, if chaotically, maintained.

Interestingly, whilst Large Whites will feed on many types of brassicas, the Wild Radish is actually the favoured food plant of the Green-veined White. As mentioned above, we see these regularly in the garden, but I can't recall ever finding their caterpillars. Must try harder!

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Stuff On My Phone (19)

It's been a while since the last SOMP post, and as other posts aren't exactly queueing up to splurge all over the blogosphere, here's my latest offering.

Last time out, there was a rather scientific slant to the whole thing, what with Professor Brian Cox explaining the creation of the elements within the life cycle of stars. This had me pondering some other scientists and science facts which have been included in popular music culture...

Within the lexicon that is the Tense Towers vinyl and CD collection, there loiters the 1976 Vangelis album, Albedo 0.39, named after the Earth's reflecting ability (39%). The eponymous and final track on the album features Vangelis (I presume) reading out all manner of Earth-centric scientific facts, culminating in the afore-mentioned Albedo 0.39.

In the 80s, of course, there was Dr Magnus Pyke, who featured in the Thomas Dolby hit, She Blinded Me With Science, all waving arms and booming voice.

Perhaps most famously, a sample of the voice of Professor Stephen Hawking was used on Keep Talking from Pink Floyd's 1994 The Division Bell album, having been previously used in a British Telecom television commercial.

However, the subject of this particular SOMP piece is a track found on Combination Head's 2008 album, Progress? Now, Combination Head, a band created by prog keyboard maestro Paul Birchall, aren't particularly famous, in fact, I had to send off to cdbaby in America for their first album, as it wasn't available in the UK at the time. Weirdly, some years later, I received an email to my personal address inviting me to add the sender to my LinkedIn contacts. This was a bit freaky, as LinkedIn don't operate like that, but when I realised who the sender was, it all made sense... Paul Birchall! So here's the track, it's Solid Ground and as well as some good old progressive rock keyboards, it features a few salient facts about the constitution of matter, read out by Lyn Christine (it says in the album notes).

Sunday 12 August 2018

Welcome to I&Tplayer...

Blogging at Tense Towers just hasn't been happening of late, so time to catch up on what you've missed with a rapid round-up of recent romps.

At the end of July, First Born visited for a long weekend of food and frolics...

Ensconced in the Teashop in Stromness 

Watching Puffins at the Brough of Birsay

Our Lass and First Born pose for a sunny selfie

As she left, First Born managed to photograph Tense Towers from the plane!

On the 6th August, the Orkney Field Club organised a trip to Flotta, ostensibly to look for the presence of Emerald Damselfly in a bid to explain the recent spread of the species to Hoxa Head in South Ronaldsay. To break out from the population in Hoy, the Emeralds would likely have needed to travel across Flotta, so if we found any, it would add credence to this theory. An excellent day of general wildlife watching was had, especially as the first damselfly seen was an Emerald!

A fence post with a wig of lichen

Stanger Head, looking across to Switha, Cantick Head and the Scottish mainland

Kirk Bay, Flotta

Yours Truly participating in a bit of a spontaneous beach clean. The huge beach ball seen at the bottom of this cliff had likely come from a passing cruise ship or been blown across the Pentland Firth from the Scottish mainland. Photo courtesy of AG.
On the evening of the 8th August, the Flora sub-group of the Field Club met at a farm to learn about arable weeds. In many places these plants have been wiped out due to the excessive use of herbicides in an attempt to produce monocultures of specific crops.

Fumitories. There are six species in Orkney, two of which can be seen here.

Treacle Mustard

Annual Nettle, the much more potent cousin of the Common Nettle
Then, yesterday, Our Lass and I took a trip to Hoy in the hope of seeing the recently-fledged White-tailed Eagle chicks, the first brood to be successfully raised in Orkney for 145 years.

Looking across to the hillside of the Dwarfie Hamars, where the eagles had nested.

RSPB volunteers were on hand to help visitors spot the birds.

There are two young eagles in this shot, one on a mound towards the bottom left, and the other in a similar position top right.

A male Black Darter basking on a bridge parapet.

A pair of Common Hawkers making out.

A Black Darter perched on my camera lens (Pet, give us your camera quick!)

 And that's us up to date. Phew.