Thursday 28 February 2019

A raptor's downfall, naval gazing and an upload to the Cloud

Our Lass was full of cold at the weekend, an 'I should've had a holiday a fortnight ago, then I may have been less stressed and not caught this flipping bug' one. It meant that we had to cry off a planned trip to Hoy to go and watch Mountain Hares whilst they were still in their white Winter coats. Not to worry... next year.

However, undaunted, Our Lass still wanted some fresh air, so I had to come up with a plan for some easily-accessible scenery which wasn't too taxing for an ailing body. I opted for the Bay of Semilie and a gentle saunter along the clifftops, which meant a short two mile car journey, although happily we managed to score a pair of Shovelers en route.

Once stood on the low clifftops, taking in the sights and sounds of an unseasonably mild February morning, it did lift our spirits. Fulmars were whizzing by at head height, Oystercatchers and Curlews were rock-pooling in the bay, and three Starlings were sat on a nearby stone wall, busily doing cover versions of  just about every other bird call from the Orkney play list.

We ambled eastwards, making for a low vantage point where we could scan the higher cliffs for seabird activity. On the way, we set several Rabbits and Brown Hares running, and watched a steady stream of corvids flying to and fro along the ridge inland from the path. I hadn't quite figured out what they were, until we began to hear a regular 'chack, chack' call which identified them as Jackdaws.

When we reached the spot where we could see the larger cliffs, it was obvious that, so far, only the Fulmars had moved in for the breeding season, no auks of any description yet.

Suddenly, a cloud of Jackdaws took to the air from the next unseen inlet, all chacking like the blazes. Looking for the one shape that wasn't a Jackdaw brought a Peregrine into view, which wheeled away after an unsuccessful raid, circling higher above the cliffs and then returning in a lazy arc. It began a controlled descent with the intention of landing on a rock near the top of a cliff, but what it didn't know was that there was an unsighted Raven perched just below this spot. In the moment when the falcon was flapping its wings to a stall and with its legs fully extended, the Raven decided upon the big reveal, which brought about some embarrassment for the Peregrine and an ignominious retreat to a piece of air far away that didn't include a huge and angry corvid.

We will try to check this area more frequently this year. It isn't the biggest seabird colony in Orkney, but it is the closest to Tense Towers.

Later in the day, I was busy washing vehicles, when Our Lass announced that there was a Navy ship in Scapa Flow. This turned out to be F83, HMS St Albans, a type 23 frigate. She spent the afternoon and evening in the area, possibly whilst the crew were looking for her sails?

Monday morning brought a pleasant if short-lived surprise in the form of some lenticular clouds over West Mainland. They didn't manage to attain the pile of plates/UFO look, or catch the light in a particularly photogenic way, but it made a change from cotton wool and fluffy sheep.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Life (and death) is a beach

One afternoon last week, I had the opportunity to accompany a colleague on a wildlife survey. So far, so normal. The difference was that it was in a habitat I don't routinely frequent, looking for species which I often struggle to ID, and what else, oh yes, they were dead. Welcome to the UK beached bird survey, a long-running project aimed at calculating the seabird losses due to chronic oil spills in the North Sea and beyond.

This project has been running for nearly 3 decades, although the first such surveys were carried out in the 1920s. In recent times, Orkney has been more regularly monitored (monthly) than elsewhere (annually), due to the presence of the oil terminal on the island of Flotta, ship-to-ship transfers in Scapa Flow and the general proximity of the oil fields in the North Sea. Here's a link to a report of last year's survey.

I met up with Beached Bird Survey regular, Eagle-eyed M, who explained the methodology of the survey, what sorts of things we would be looking for, what else we might see and, quite importantly, wasn't it lovely weather?

The first beach to be surveyed (in effect a saunter along the high tide line, looking at the accumulated sea weed) was in Orphir Bay. We tracked west than east, to cover the shoreline either side of the burn mouth by the footbridge.

I was reassured early on that we were unlikely to find many dead birds, as coastal pollution has reduced considerably in recent decades, and we have not had any huge storms in the previous few weeks. If I was listening carefully, I recall that the survey is carried out in the days around a full moon, ensuring that there has been some very high tides, presumably to keep the target area as small as possible.

It is probably fairly obvious that looking for dead things is nowhere near as joyful an experience as looking for live things. I have to admit, it is also very easy to become happily distracted by all the living things that are flying about (birds and insects) as well as feeling despair at all the marine litter washed up on the shore. We made mental notes to return at some point to tackle all the plastic detritus (plenty of beach cleans in the pipeline for the Spring).

Offshore, we could hear male Long-tailed Ducks calling, busily trying to impress the ladies. Eiders, too, were whoo-oo-ing in their attempts to whoo (sorry!). And then, be still my beating heart, a Great Northern Diver called, that haunting sound so redolent of any soundtrack of wild northern places.

The west side of the bay was clear of avian death, but we found a deceased Great Black-backed Gull as soon as we ventured to the east. A complete carcass, no oil, nor any obvious signs of the cause of its demise. At the most easterly point of the bay, there was a dead Shag (I couldn't have ID'd it from a Cormorant, but I wasn't the expert here). Again, no obvious reason for its passing.

The second survey area was the eastern and northern part of Waulkmill Bay.

Taking the steep steps down the side of the cliff, we emerged onto the sandy beach and tracked anti-clockwise around the bay. Above us on the steep heather-clad cliff, several Stonechats were flitting to and fro, whilst a couple of Wrens sang from cover. Halfway along the strand line on the northern side of the bay, M spotted four small birds which had flown over our heads and had landed on the shingle in front of us. Initially, I couldn't see them, so perfectly camouflaged were they. Eventually, though, a little movement gave them away... Snow Buntings!

And, even more happily, there were no dead birds to record at Waulkmill. Just a few small flocks of very much alive waders, Redshank and Oystercatcher, foraging along the tide line. 

Thursday 21 February 2019

Eyes on the skies

Last Saturday afternoon, I looked across Scapa Flow to the hills of Hoy, and initially thought that there had been more snow. Closer inspection revealed this not to be the case, as the effect was caused by a thin layer of cloud (or mist) hugging the hilltops. Owing to the ephemeral nature of these things, the leisurely progress of the cloud was not matched by my feverish fumbling with my camera.

On Sunday, at about the same time of day, we were treated to a very different set of lighting conditions. I had also fitted a larger lens to the camera, so couldn't fit all of the wanted image into one shot. Cue a stitching together of two photos to show the view of distant hills, Morven on the left and Ben Klibreck on the right.

And then, well, we were blessed with a rather spiffy sunset...

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Blowing the cobwebs away

The weekend which followed the Otter experience also featured an Orkney Field Club walk, this time at Hobbister on the north coast of Scapa Flow. This area is an RSPB reserve, but the Sunday of the walk saw the weather in a wild mood, so there was not much bird life on display.

The group met at Waulkmill Bay, and set off along a clifftop path around the reserve. Several members were keen to look at mosses and lichens and were immediately dubbed the Brothers Bryophyte. The rest of us looked wistfully out into the Flow, in the forlorn hope of catching a glimpse of sea ducks, divers and auks. There were a few Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks, but most of the birds seen were Fulmars. They, at least, were enjoying the blustery conditions, hanging in the air at the cliff edge, in defiance of gravity, meteorology and the concept of giving a jot.

A pair of Ravens were quite conspicuous, too, flying back and forth with occasional tumbles and rolls, which I was advised was probably territorial behaviour. Whilst we stopped at a conveniently-located bench (we weren't exhausted, the bench was in the lee of a small hillock), one of the pair flew by with nesting material.

After our breather, we detoured slightly to look at a small ravine which I had not visited before. This may be why I was volunteered as 'duty womble' to retrieve a largish helium balloon ensnared in some vegetation by its string.

Photo courtesy of Eagle-eyed M
As well as finding plenty of mosses and lichens, the Brothers Bryophyte also discovered a recent Peregrine kill and were able to identify the prey species as a Golden Plover from these few feathers...

The most colourful thing seen on the walk (with the exception of the helium balloon) was a species of Sphagnum Moss.

Also rather impressive was this clump of [reads notes...] Woolly Fringe-Moss.

In one rather water-logged ditch, the group stopped to look at another species of moss, one which goes by the colloquial name of Drowned Kitten Moss, owing to its similarity to the appearance of bedraggled fur. There's not a photo, I'm afraid, for the following reason. At the point where someone suggested it could've been more sensitively named 'Soggy Moggy', I had to walk away before I started channelling the spirit of Mrs Slocombe from 'Are You Being Served?'

As we retraced our steps, we were fortunate to catch a brief glimpse of a Hen Harrier, hunting in the distance but, in truth, the day belonged to the mosses.

Monday 18 February 2019

Quintessential wildlife and cake

Whilst I may have been sat staring at a computer monitor or a tablet screen for much of the last fortnight, none of that activity appears to have had anything to do with writing a blogpost. Sometimes one's work/life balance isn't worth the... weight.

A few weekends ago, the Orkney Field Club organised a walk around Birsay at the northwestern tip of the Orkney mainland. This was to be followed by lunch at the Birsay Bay Tearoom. What is not to love about that arrangement? Storm Erik did his utmost to put a very wet and windy spanner in these works, but he hadn't reckoned with the meteorological talents of Eagle-eyed M, who managed to arrange a suitable weather window for a blustery, but dry, amble along the coast of Northside.

Burns were overflowing, fields were flooded, and the breakers coming in from the Atlantic were huge, but sunlight was catching the waves, such that the rocky shore was a kaleidoscope of greens, blues and whites. Dodging these waves, whilst trying to forage or rest, was the job of a flock of about thirty Purple Sandpipers. These Winter visitors from Greenland, Iceland or Scandinavia are well-camouflaged for their rocky environs but, again, the low sunshine was helping to highlight the birds as they moved from rock to rock. A few Goldeneye and Eider ducks were offshore, the occasional Grey Seal inquisitively bobbed its head to the surface to stare at us. More birdlife was pottering about in the flooded fields, with flocks of Curlew and Oystercatcher busy feeding, their long bills probing the soft ground. At one point, a large flock of Starlings flew by, pausing briefly to give the merest hint of a murmuration. Likely, this flock had been foraging through the tangled masses of seaweed thrown up on the shore, and was now returning to a nearby farm to congregate and socialise.

With an eye on the clock, and not wanting to be late for lunch, our group took a shorter route than intended, which turned out to be very fortuitous. As the track we were using reached the cliff edge by a rocky geo, we paused again to watch a pair of Goldeneyes. Scanning the water's surface, I was aware of a shape that was too brown to be a seal, but too mammalian to be drifting seaweed. At this point, adrenaline kicks in, and as the human brain attempts to resolve a pattern into a known shape, it is all too easy to mis-identify a piece of flotsam and make a fool of one's self. With this in mind, I tentatively approached the walk leader and mumbled, "Er... I think there's... er... an Otter out there."

Reassuringly, nine other pairs of eyes also thought this, and we spent several minutes watching the Otter catch prey, swim to the cliff edge, clamber out onto a shelf and eat its lunch. And, once it had swum out of sight, we hightailed it to the Tearoom for soup, sarnies, scones and cake.

Owing to the forecast, I didn't take my camera. Unfortunately, my phone just wasn't up to the job of recording images of the surf or the Otter. Even in the tearoom, I failed to capture a photo of the repast, but that was because I wasn't quick enough!

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Some Winter skies

Sunday morning, the low Winter sun catches the snowy hills of Hoy
Also available in pink (same view on Tuesday morning)
Hazy Sunday afternoon - not to mind it's blurry (with apologies to the Small Faces)

Sunday 3 February 2019

Stuff On My Phone (23)

OK, this one's very fresh, downloaded within the past hour after hearing a brief few bars of the intro on a TV programme, then spending half of said programme trying to recall what the track was, before finally remembering and letting out a huge sigh of relief.

If you haven't been watching BBC Four's 'Guitar, Drum and Bass' rockumentary series, you have missed a fascinating, occasionally quirky but always entertaining, journey through some pivotal moments in the history of rock music.

We didn't manage to catch any of the three programmes live, but they're all still available on iPlayer (just!), and so it was only this evening when we got around to watching the final episode about the guitar, hosted by Patti Smith's guitarist, Lenny Kaye. It was this programme which contained the background sound of an Echoplexed guitar intro to a song I knew... if only I could remember it [check it out at 2:18 to 2:39 in the programme, if you want to play along].

It's quite difficult, at least for me, to identify a song from 20-odd seconds of intro, when the rest of the programme carries on with one great song after another, so that there's no time to catch one's breath and have a jolly good ponder. Eventually though, enough neurons aligned themselves, a roadie cranked the handle of a portable generator in my subconscious, a band name emerged through the dry ice of decades past and my inner geek handed me a Post-it with the answer written in leaky Biro.

But I won't tell you just yet...

I was shocked to discover how long ago it was that the song had been a hit. Well, minor hit, it peaked at number 25 in the UK Singles chart in 1981 and also marked a bizarre time of my life. Having left school after A levels, I had a belated teenage tantrum and didn't go to university. Through a combination of a passion for motorsport and a school romance which had transcended the limitations of the Sixth Form, I ended up, some months later, in the Army (I know, I know, you're right, it doesn't make sense, but there you go).

Yes, so long ago, in fact, that it pre-dates that fateful and fortuitous meeting with Our Lass later the same year!

But fast-forwarding back to the present, half way through 'On Guitar... Lenny Kaye!', I suddenly let out a yelp, grabbed my phone and searched iTunes for...

The Passions... with 'I'm In Love With a German Film Star'.

Listen to it here.

The 1980s, eh?

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in the Seventies anymore."