Monday 29 April 2019

Dash in the attic

For one of the blog landmarks of recent weeks (1000th-ish post and 10th anniversary), I had wondered about posting something a little different. One possible idea evolved out an interview I did with the local BBC Radio station for the Orkney Field Club, and the interviewer had offered to release the mp4 file of the article, should I wish to share it.

Tempting though this was, I wasn't sure that the world was ready for such a thing, and anyone following the blog probably didn't deserve having my dulcet tones ruining their day.

But I felt a pang of regret that I hadn't marked either occasion with something a little... suitable.

Fast forward to today, and an opportunity presented itself whilst I was at work. I routinely end up in loft spaces, perhaps running cables or fitting an aerial, often in cramped conditions, wearing all of Mr Health and Mr Safety's PPE, whilst trying not to notice all the spiders.

But not today. This might not be the most luxurious loft on the planet, but it had a certain something that I felt compelled to share.

No spiders were harmed in the making of this movie. And the customer's permission was politely sought and kindly given to post this particular video clip on my blog.

Life imitating art

With a few hours to kill last week whilst the Tense-mobile (an actual car, not the dragonfly ornament) went for an MoT, I visited a tea shop and an art gallery (very much in that order of priority) in Stromness.

Still recovering from my bout of under-the-weather, I took a gentle stroll around the sheltered harbour of Hamnavoe, refuelling in Julia's Cafe, before ambling into the Pier Arts Centre where there were several exhibitions in progress.

Many have said that I am a bit of a philistine in these matters, although I heard the phrase as 'fils en Tyne' so I wasn't too upset. See? I can do cultural jokes. Although I was actually born by the River Wear.

With my lack of couth, I was momentarily flummoxed by a broken window, wondering whether it was part of an exhibition, a bit of ongoing street theatre or an actual smashed pane. However, it did prompt a sudden experimental urge to explore my Mondrian phase. Thank goodness I wasn't carrying a red felt tip pen.

In a corner of one gallery was an old wooden chair. As I perused various serially-baffling artworks, I couldn't help repeatedly glancing at the chair. It was very familiar. I don't mean that it sidled up to me and tried to borrow a cigarette and twenty quid, but I had the distinct impression that I had once owned it. If this was art, it was freaking great art, because it was speaking to me!

Y'see, years ago, we inherited a set of chairs like this one, from an old lady who had been a big part of my formative years. Although the chairs didn't sit well with our more modern furniture, their provenance gave them unconditional space in a conservatory, where they were pressed into occasional use when we needed additional seating. Being completely anti-social scrotes, this wasn't very often.

When we moved to Orkney, the down-sizing nature of our plan meant that some serious decisions had to be made. Not quite as harsh as 'if you haven't used it in the last six months, it goes', but not far off. So, all but one of the chairs were donated to an environmental charity who had a re-use yard in Stromness, with the remaining chair relocating into the garden shed in case Our Lass ever stopped being a horticultural whirlwind for five minutes and needed a sit-down. To date, dear reader, she has not.

This means there's a real possibility (although this style of furniture must've been manufactured in their thousands) that the chairs had indeed found a re-use, and I had once been very well-acquainted with this very chair. Does that make me an arse-supporting supporter of the arts?

One of the exhibitions concerned landscape, and I was rather taken with the works of the late Bet Low. Her depictions of Orkney landscapes were uncomplicated and often quite simple, but were able to communicate some essential quality of the scene to this unseasoned heathen.

There was one I really liked, it was huge and I couldn't stand far enough back from it to take a photograph. Instead, I tried to photograph a smaller painting of hers, but the light was against me, which I think may be ironic in a painterly way.

It is called Red Rysa, which shows a view of Rysa from, I think, somewhere in Scapa Flow, with several of the hills of Hoy in the background.

Here's a more viewable version of it (scavenged from the interweb).

And in one of those strange quirks of Fate, that has you questioning your faith in free will over destiny, as I wandered back to the garage to collect my car, I bumped into a retired lighthouse keeper who was, and probably still is, a regular customer of the re-use yard. I don't think there was a day went by when I worked there that he didn't pop in for a look around. Stromness is that sort of place.

Sunday 28 April 2019

Angel with a broken wing

Many moons ago, we received a gift of a dragonfly mobile, which for a long while has hung in the lounge window and has therefore featured in many a photo on this blog. What won't be obvious without very close scrutiny, is that one of the dragonflies has a wing missing, the result of an accident during transit. It's the fourth one down from the top.

Today, expert modeller and supreme wielder of a glue-laden cotton bud (or cocktail stick, if you prefer) C arrived to carry out remedial work.

"I counted them all out, and I counted them all back."

Saturday 27 April 2019

Stuff On My Phone (24)

I was sat in bed this morning, reading the paper (well, the online version), and vaguely aware of birdsong flowing in through the open window. The sounds were more varied than might be expected, not because of a huge number of choristers, but more for the exploits of a particular Starling.

It is possible that this bird's mission in life is to bamboozle my brain, but today it overplayed its hand. One short and unmelodic refrain was clearly a Corncrake, sadly, a species so unlikely in the environs of Tense Towers that I instantly knew it wasn't a Corncrake, but a mimicking Starling. My very next thought was...

"How does it know a Corncrake's call?!"

Whilst there are usually small numbers of this skulking and secretive bird present in Orkney during the Summer, I was not aware of any birds being recorded as holding a territory (and therefore calling) in East Mainland. So, was the Starling a visitor from somewhere else that does have a Corncrake territory, or has the call been handed down through the Hurtiso Starling flock from generation to generation, like some avian oral tradition?

And on the subject of birdsong, the latest music track I have downloaded is (incredible though it may seem for such a 60s/70s/80s guy) a just-released one, the RSPB's Let Nature Sing.

Melodic and for a good cause, win win.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Small and Imperfectly framed

Well, as Bank Holiday weekends go, at any time of year, this Easter weekend has been rather spectacular, with bright sunshine and record-breaking temperatures in many parts of the UK. Even here in Orkney, always tempered by a sea breeze, it has been really peachy.

So I was keenly anticipating that I would be bringing you several reports of wildlifey adventures from the lands beyond the north wind, but I'm afraid all I can offer is this paltry effort. I've barely ventured from the house for four days, completely lacking in energy and reduced to gazing out of the window at the pleasant Spring days. All very odd.

However, I did have one small natural history mystery to contemplate, because on Sunday morning I ambled to the back door to stand in the sunshine, and happened to notice a tiny insect climbing up the wall by the door frame.

This peedie creature is all of 3mm in length, and is a species of weevil. As there are more then 600 species of weevil in Britain and Ireland, and my insect field guide shows less than 30, identifying the wee scrappit is proving difficult. Various local gurus are trying to nudge me in the right direction, but I'm beginning to suspect that for a definitive answer, we will require (a) better photos, for which I don't have the apparatus, or (b) dissection, for which I don't have the inclination. Even when I'm bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (if that's not showing too much of a mammalian bias).

There are several excellent identification keys online, but I come up short as regards level of microscopic detail and knowledge of beetle anatomy. So I will battle on, looking through a plethora of photographs in the hope of at least narrowing down the options to a single Genus.

One joyous consequence of my enforced inactivity, is being able to watch a flock of Oystercatchers, perhaps a couple of dozen strong, as they roost and forage in the fields over the road. They have been around for at least a week, and I do not recall this happening in previous recent Springs. Yes, a pair will normally set up a territory close by, but this big bunch of boisterous birdness is filling the air with their piping, night and day. Yesterday morning, particularly, there were several ear-splitting flybys, right above the garden, the flock resplendent in black and white plumage and orange bills against a wonderful azure blue sky. I think even Our Lass would forgive them the 1am piping for that spectacle.

And speaking of bird calls, I have been hearing, but not seeing, Golden Plover quite a bit of late. These birds are still around, so it is possible that the sound is coming down from high-flying flocks, but try as I might, I have not been able to spot them. I am now wondering if one of the local Starlings has caught me out, yet again, with the latest addition to his repertoire.

UPDATE: Local guru LJ has suggested a probable ID! A species, Leiosoma deflexum, looks to match the size, shape and colour, and crucially feeds on Buttercup, of which we have plenty.

Monday 22 April 2019

To go, or not to go? That is the question

Recently (well, when I began writing this post, it was 'recently'), over on Coastal Ripples, at the end of a post about a foreign holiday and whether the stress was worth it, Barbara asked the blogosphere for its opinion about travelling. In my head, I had an off-the-hip, top of my head, gut reaction (now can you see why I did not fare well in Biology?), which amounted to 'I'm minimising my carbon footprint'.

But then... but then, I wondered if that was just a big fib I told myself so that I could stay at home.

Cue wibbly wobbly, timey wimey lines as the Imperfect and Tense blog goes back to the 80s and the first forays into holidaying sans parents. It will probably come as no surprise, bearing in mind that at that time I lived in the north east of England (and not to mention all you have learnt about me since), but the location of choice for a little downtime was Scotland. Several girlfriends (no, not at the same time!) were treated to genteel jaunts around picturesque Caledonia. Once serious courting began, the dedication required to maintain a long distance relationship (Yorkshire/West Sussex) meant that a goodly proportion of a weekend was allocated to driving from A to B and back to A again. This was not only time consuming, but quite expensive too, so there wasn't much in the way of an incentive for holidays, other than just to be together. One or both of us always seemed to be on a training course for something or other, which again limited opportunities for vacationing.

Our honeymoon was probably the first time (just stop it at the back there!) that I had flown for pleasure, as opposed to having to travel for work. What was, even at the time, a relatively modest distance to Corfu, seemed very adventurous to us (OK, me).

With training courses completed, and after a further year of long distance love (now West Germany to West Sussex), we were finally together and beginning our family. Energy was now the limiting factor, with financial considerations also taken into account when travelling back to the UK with tiny bairns to visit family. This usually involved a four hour blast across Germany and Holland to catch an overnight ferry, sometimes to Hull, other times to Sheerness, and then another motorway blast to wherever we were headed in Britain.

As you may begin to see, for us, quite often the journey wasn't really part of the holiday, it was a stressful covering of as much distance in the shortest and affordable time as possible. Even when we returned to the UK to live, with a young family and a burgeoning mortgage, holidays remained a tour of Britain, visiting relatives and friends.

By the time we were a little more financially secure and with First and Second Born keen to explore new places, we began a series of holidays to south Shropshire. This was a two to three hour drive from Milton Keynes, eminently do-able in a day trip, never mind a long weekend or a proper break. The hills between Ludlow and Shrewsbury became a second home to us, and there was time, also, to visit places along the way as we trundled back and forth on our journeys.

Air travel was still just something occasionally required for work projects.

When we planned that last big family holiday before the girls went off to university, Orkney was the chosen location. Taking several days to drive through England and Scotland, I finally began to understand that the journey could be an intrinsic part of the experience, as the view changed with the miles, and the scenery became ever more rugged.

After that, Our Lass and I, as I'm sure you know, continued to holiday in the northern isles, although the driving was becoming a little tedious. We did experiment with flying, but if anything it was too quick! Does that make any sense? Whilst we gained several days of actual island holiday, we missed the changing landscape and generally hated hanging about in airports. By the end, we went back to driving to Orkney, helped by picking rest halts which coincided with wildlife watching opportunities (e.g. Garten, Leighton Moss).

I was reminded of the above sentiment when reading Neil Ansell's 'The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence', where the author states, much more eloquently than I have done:

"It would have been quicker, and possibly cheaper, to fly partway. But I like overland travel; it gives a sense of where I am in the world, while flying feels more like teleportation. I step into a box, and when I emerge a few hours later I am somewhere utterly different, having gained nothing but a little time, and perhaps a feeling of guilt for having flown at all. No sense of progressive change in landscape and climate."

Bizarrely, now that we live in Orkney, we probably fly more than we have ever done, with the comparatively short hops across to the Scottish mainland, usually to Aberdeen or Edinburgh. With the seemingly ever-increasing list of things that could interrupt a journey, travel has not become less stressful for me (well, with a blog name like mine, I guess that's a given), but at least I now know that I have a choice about how we plan the journey. If we have to be somewhere in a hurry, then we fly, if a more relaxed approach is available, we sail and drive.

But this isn't the whole story, as it was dawning upon me as I tried to answer Barbara's question. And I suspect that it rather feeds into my approach to watching wildlife. I'm not that bothered about covering huge distances to go and see a rare so-and-so, preferring to stick to the immediate area and what might turn up there. It's the same for holidays. Yes, on the face of it, there's a virtually inexhaustible supply of fascinating places in the world to go and amazing things to see, but... well... folk are still finding species here which are new-to-Orkney. Admittedly, none of the folk are me and most of these species are invertebrates, but somehow that rates higher in my estimation than six depressing hours in a Departure lounge. In some respects, this also manifests itself with natural history programmes on the television. I can become quite grumpy with the director's fixation upon iconic and exotic fauna (often furry and predatory mammals) slinking surreptitiously through a lush habitat in some far flung (and, admittedly, stunning) corner of the globe.

So, yeah, in a way, my glib comment about carbon footprint is part of the answer, but it goes deeper than that. Think of it this way... there's the old saying "It's great to go away, but it's so much nicer to come home." And there's also the oft-repeated "Oh, it's so good to be back in my own bed." Well, I'm just cutting out the travel bit.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Fenestral finches

It is Spring in the northern hemisphere which, in our tiny bit of the half globe, means that it is time to cut the Wildlife Triangle, the small area of unkempt herbaceousness at the lower end of the front lawn. Following a Winter where the long grass gradually turned a paler golden colour, dochan and umbellifer stems collapsed under the strain of resisting gale force winds and annual weeds just plain old shrivelled up and disappeared, it was badly in need of some TLC (that isn't an abbreviation for any chemical product, by the way).

Lacking the presence of any herbivorous megafauna in the area (or, in the vernacular, a load of aurochs), this is a task which falls to Yours Truly.

[Unnervingly, just as I finished typing that sentence, there was a loud "Moo... !" from close by. Dashing outside, I discovered a few of next door's coos and calves critiquing my work]

Yup, whilst the lawn generally has a short cut, the Wildlife Triangle has its annual severe cropping. This entails gradually dropping the mower blades a bit at a time on repeated passes until the metal/earth noises become too scary.

And every year, like clockwork, a pair of Linnets show up to take advantage of the bare sward, patches of soil and the weed seeds contained therein. They're a bit flighty, so my attempts to photograph them are through a window (of varying cleanliness).

They spend an inordinate amount of time in there, I guess that, to them, it is as if a bit of Winter stubble has just appeared.

Yesterday morning, I wandered into the lounge and glanced casually out of the window, just as a bird flew behind a small pile of rubble. Several thoughts crossed my mind, echoingly, some wearing boots:

"It looked like a... no, it couldn't be... "

"What if I don't see it again?!"

"Dare I leave the window unmanned and dash for the camera?!"

I did opt for the camera, and after a short (but nervous) wait, the bird appeared again, hopping about on the edge of the flower border and the hard standing.

I don't think I had seen one of these birds in Orkney, and certainly not in our garden. Apologies for the hurried images taken through a window which I thought I'd cleaned.

A female Bullfinch! Wow!

Whilst writing this post, there's been another slight interruption, as I spotted my first Swallow of 2019, hawking for insects over the adjacent meadow. It's all starting to happen! So, the big question is, dare I leave the window view to go and make a cup of tea?

Update, later in the day: I mowed the lawn again this morning. By the time I returned the mower to the garage, the Linnets were back on the patch! Then, when I walked back out of the garage, a few seconds later, a warbler had appeared on the lawn (Chiffchaff or Willow?), and after I returned from taking the green waste to the tip, Mrs Bullfinch turned up again. But don't worry, I have made time for tea and cake.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Prime irk

My laptop computer is probably the hardest working device in my toolbox, just don't tell the hammer drill. The computer has to suffer the ignominies of being chucked about in vans, boats, small planes, building sites and fits of owner's pique. And it shows. The screen is a bit temperamental, the battery life is poor and... come to think of it, we're very alike!

A couple of weekends ago, I took the plunge and decided to upgrade it. As the laptop is nearly 6 years old, I had anticipated things being much more whizzy now, such is usually the way of technological progress. So I was rather surprised to see the same chipset still in use for mid-range computers, and storage capacity smaller (though more expensive). What the actual... ?

Closer inspection showed that hard disc drives are now old hat, with solid drives backing up to the Cloud being all the rage. As I can't always guarantee finding a connection to the internet whilst out and about, this wasn't a direction I was wishing to explore.

Happily, by choosing a slightly smaller screen size (from 17" down to 15.6"), I was able to find a slimmer and lighter computer (I won't be so alike with this one!). In fact, so slim that I had a momentary panic that there wouldn't be room for the port in which to plug an ethernet cable. It turns out that it is just possible to squeeze in one of these RJ45 connectors, by hinging a piece of the body of the laptop. Phew.

Having now decided upon a specific model, predictably, the cheapest one was to be found on Amazon. In my haste to place the order, I somehow triggered a free Prime trial. Gah! It took me bloomin' ages and many different webpages to cancel the subscription, although I was stuck with the free 1 month's trial. Why so prim about Prime? Well, there's not much point in building up my hopes for a next day delivery when you live in the back of beyond. And so it proved, the parcel took a week to arrive (although the new laptop bag I ordered several days later did arrive several days sooner, go figure).

Yesterday, I had allowed a whole day for tracking down a cable fault in a hotel, but I was fortunate (or skilled?) and managed to solve the problem before lunch. This meant that I had half a day free to begin sorting out the new machine. All was going swimmingly (I even managed to transfer over my Office 2013 package) until I decided to try loading Windows Updates. For some reason, although everything else was happy downloading (anti-virus, malware protection etc), and although the computer knew it needed updates, it would search for ages and then give up. After several reboots, more attempts at updating and a couple of forlorn trips through Troubleshooting, I bit the bullet and contacted Microsoft.

I could either wait 10 minutes to speak to someone, book a callback or be first in the queue for live chat. I opted for the latter and was put through to a person who didn't really deserve me (or at least my problem) in their day. For as it transpired, it wasn't an easy fix, even once I'd taken the scary decision to allow remote control from the Microsoft end. Eep! After about an hour, in which I sat and watched various windows being opened and closed, drop down menu selections being altered and DOS commands pinging about right, left and centre, my computer was restarted. This was where I realised I should've written down the ticket number on my problem! Fortunately, once rebooted, the Windows Update facility was working, so after a further 30 minutes and 24 updates, I logged back on to Microsoft to give some glowing feedback and much gratitude.

Although I was pretty sure I had never used the Cloud, within seconds of me signing in to er... um... it could've been Google... or maybe Microsoft... the new laptop was displaying the background screen from the old machine and showing me photos from late 2013 and early 2014. In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream "Where did that come from?!"

Saturday 13 April 2019

Editor's choice

I'm afraid that I have spent the afternoon procrastinating, looking back through time to 2009, to come up with a retrospective decadal list of one blogpost per year. Some are happy, some are sad. Most contain more emotion than I anticipated revealing when I began writing them. They are mainly about wildlife (not so unexpected) and cake (ditto), but also feature a eulogy (one of several through the years) and a treatise on the duality of character of the author (we're still arguing about that one).

To keep things simple, I haven't curated them into any particular order, other than presenting them chronologically. Over the course of the ten years, some things have changed. For instance, MGLW (my good lady wife) in the early days, is now Our Lass, same long-suffering person, different appellation. But on the whole, for better or worse, I don't think my writing style has changed very much. Hmmm, that does hint at a certain lack of progress, doesn't it?

So, here they are, a brief perambulation through a decade of Imperfect and Tense:

2009 - When the prose was more sugary than the cake

2010 - An insect blogpost that nearly doesn't mention dragons

2011 - A typographically-challenging insect

2012 - "The bells... the bells!"

2013 - Moving swiftly on

2014 - Cake

2015 - "A man is not dead while his name is still spoken."

2016 - Dragons as a religion

2017 - It's a calling

2018 - Self-improvement

Several favourites didn't quite make the cut, so you have been spared the music/Land Rover extravaganza that was Disco no more, the revelatory Life of Pi, and the classic wildlife and cakefest that was Food for the soul.

I know, I know, that makes thirteen.

Decks, ducks and a decade

It's been a funny old week, three different installations, interspersed with a morning volunteering for wildlife and also a chores-y/admin-y day.

Tuesday morning dawned brightly, the light picking out some of the shipping in Scapa Flow. It was a particularly busy day, with ship-to-ship transfers and ocean-going tugs preparing to accompany an accommodation platform out into the North Sea oilfields.

Maersk Laser and Siem Pearl

As above, plus the tankers Nansen Spirit, Scott Spirit and Caspian Sea

On Wednesday evening, the platform was ready to set off on its journey, after a Winter-long stay in the Flow.

Maersk Laser with a line to the Safe Caledonia platform, plus the pilot launch John Rae

On Thursday evening, the light was gorgeous, so I pootled down to the old kirk by the shore, to see what was about in the pools and fields.

A male Teal busy feeding

Three Gadwall... there's gonna be trouble

One of the males makes a show of strength to scare off the intruder (whilst his potential mate is more interested in feeding)

She wasn't as impressed as he had hoped she would be.

My first Wheatear of 2019, one of three seen in a ploughed field just near the shore
Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog. For a project which was begun to while away a convalescent period following an operation, it's probably fair to say that it has somewhat exceeded its mission profile.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

An inordinate fondness

Yesterday was a lovely day, which was rather fortuitous, as a few members of the Orkney Field Club committee had volunteered to help out with some habitat management tasks on a small piece of RSPB land in the West Mainland.

A small plantation had been planted up years ago, no-one was sure exactly how long ago, and the only verifiable way to confirm the trees' ages seemed to be cutting one down and counting the rings. We did not do this!

This being windswept Orkney, the trees were not of any great size, so although some trunks were easily 6" in diameter, the topmost branches were only just above our heads.

We began with a wander around the plantation, which was helpful, as I had not previously visited the site. The planting was a mix of deciduous trees, mainly Birch, Alder, Rowan and Willow. Walking was quite difficult, pushing through whippy branches and stumbling over tussocky grass, so an obvious solution presented itself for our maintenance task... create a path!

Whilst the Field Club folk marked a meandering route, pruned the trees along the way, built brash piles with the cuttings and removed any tree guards from young saplings, the RSPB staff set about brush-cutting the marked route to remove the worst of the tussocks.

Rabbits were obviously seen as Public Enemy Number One back in the early days of the plantation, such that damage to the trees was prevented by erecting a stout fence around the perimeter of the site, as well as several internal fences too. These inner fences could be crossed by stiles, but they were feeling their age, even if we could find them amongst all the tree growth. A decision was taken to open up gaps in the internal fences, which the new path would use, thereby making the stiles redundant (although one became a handy seat!).

The tussocky sward was full of the runs of the endemic Orkney Vole, which was fascinating to see. The voles themselves were staying well out of the way, but I was minded to perhaps mount a camera trap in the area, as there must be herds of the flippin' things!

After a morning of healthy exercise and jolly conversation, we all sat down for a picnic together and Field Club thoughts turned to the latest club newsletter which is about to be published, with details of our Spring and Summer activities. The conversation went something like this:

OFC Secretary: "There's a bit of space left at the end of the draft newsletter, has anyone got a short paragraph on some topic of wildlife interest? 

Everybody else: [Silence]

OFC Secretary: "Or perhaps a photograph?"

RSPB staff member: "A photo of today's activity would be good!"

OFC Secretary: "Ah, it would have to be black and white, that's the trouble. How about some beetles in silhouette?"

OFC Chair: "Well, if you want black and white... and beetles... there's really only one image that would fit the bill."

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Milestone missed

In non-Brexit related news, I had been quietly looking forward to telling you all about my one thousandth blogpost (of which, only 900 had the word 'serendipitous' embedded within). At the moment, Imperfect and Tense is hovering at the 989 mark for published posts, although there are a couple in draft (I haven't forgotten, Barbara, honest!) and, at time of writing, this one.

Oh, but hang on a minute... tucked away in a remote backwater of the Blogger page are the additional 18 posts which were written about dragonflies under the auspices of Odometer, between 2013 and 2016. Dang, that's scuppered my maths.

And if I'm being very strict, there's also the four posts loitering over on Wordpress under the Contrarie Tydes banner (2016-2017), but as those were written to be self-supporting without photographs, and now there's adverts plastered all through the blog, I've lost the will to continue it.

So, welcome to my 1012th post!

Sunday 7 April 2019

Cliff riches and auk extra

It's been a few weeks since we've had time to visit the seabird colony on the nearby cliffs. Since our last trip, a few local Facebook groups had mentioned auks returning all around Orkney's coastline, so yesterday we were hopeful that we would see a change!

Still plenty of Fulmar action, but also, as can be seen from this close-up image...


Shags were busy nest-building...

often with what ever was to hand (beak?).

A bemused-looking Rock Dove.

And did I mention the plethora of Fulmars?

On the way back home, we took a moment to look across the Bay of Semolie...

which necessitated a quick scramble down the cliffs to recover a balloon.

Once down on the shore, it became obvious that, despite last weekend's Orkney-wide annual beach clean, it is a huge and ongoing task to remove marine litter from the environment.

Friday 5 April 2019

Cryptic camouflage

Perhaps mindful of the fact that it was no longer 2018 (and therefore not my Small Year), Eagle-eyed M invited me along on a jaunt to the island of Eday to see a Snowy Owl. This bird, a male, has been around Orkney for several years, mainly on Eday, but I had dutifully not been to see it because it felt like twitching. The species occasionally crops up in the UK (there's a female Snowy in Shetland at the moment, I believe), but is usually to be found at higher latitudes where the ground is much whiter.

In fact, it was this very bird, in all probability, which had produced the pellet I dissected last year, and wrote about here.

The trip over to Eday was pretty uneventful, with little swell from an easterly breeze, apart from one incident where... perhaps an image would help to better describe it...

Quite why the ferry needed to take a 90 right (as us rally navigators would call it), was not made clear.

However, we arrived safely at the pier on the southern end of Eday and proceeded to drive to the north end, a distance of about 5 miles. When we reached the likely area, Eagle-eyed M piped up with "There it is, exactly where it was two years ago, when I last came to see it."

As I hadn't yet unpacked my bins, all I could see in the distance was a white plastic bag stuck against a wire fence (an occupational hazard for much of Orkney's lightweight plastic coverings). Once I had donned boots, waterproofs and optics, I realised my error. It WAS the Snowy Owl.

I guess if you're going to spend your time in an environment where your natural camouflage is of no earthly use to you, then pretending to be an ubiquitous fertiliser/feed/shopping bag trapped on a fence is a nifty evolutionary step. At least in a windy place like Orkney.

After creeping a little closer, to snaffle the above image (and about 50 others that were even more rubbish), we carefully retraced out steps and dropped into the local shop/community centre for a cuppa and to plan our next move.

As the easterly wind had quite an edge to it, we reckoned that going over to the west side of the island would be a good idea (both for the wildlife and for us). En route, we stopped off to investigate a small ghyll which opened out directly onto the shore. Unfortunately it was bereft of birds, save for a recent victim of a raptor, judging by the sad pile of feathers M found. Before returning to the car, we wandered along a track to some dunes, where we discovered that we weren't the only ones to have walked there that morning.

Otter tracks! We also found some spraint, some of it rather fresh.

Over on the west side, M had recalled a place where the single track road ran between a small thicket of bushes and trees. This looked an ideal spot to find birds sheltering from the weather, possibly even some early Spring migrants. However, as we pottered along, looking and listening intently, all was strangely quiet. At least until we disturbed a Sparrowhawk, which was why everything else was keeping a low profile. Now, Blackbirds, Wrens, Robins and a Song Thrush emerged from their raptor-imposed silence, so we could enjoy their songs within the calm shelter of the thicket.

A flitting movement between the bare branches of one of the taller (not very) trees, alerted us to the presence of a warbler, taking the opportunity to rest up and feed, before continuing its migration north. It was difficult to be sure, but we thought it likely to be a Chiffchaff. Suddenly, an owl shot out of nowhere, and in the brief few seconds' view we had of it, we reckoned it was a Short-eared Owl (which breed on several of the Orkney islands, including Eday). I managed one photograph, but it was from a strange angle and not remotely crisp as an image.

We returned to the shop/community centre for our picnic lunch, taking the opportunity for another hot brew, before we ventured back to see our mate Snowy, and then on to the north coast, where deteriorating weather made for an interesting walk. We skirted Carrick House, then along a low clifftop, before heading up a steep slope towards Vinquoy Hill. The wind and rain were... invigorating. We discovered a chambered cairn, of which I had not previously been aware. Through a small metal gate, the entrance tunnel was floored with wood, so at least I didn't get soaked as I crawled in on my hands and knees. Inside were four chambers, presumably for different families of Neolithic folk. Since those days, the corbelled roof of the cairn had acquired a skylight, which both I and the ferns appreciated.

Retracing our steps, we headed back past the Snowy Owl, which was now being mobbed/harrassed by a Buzzard. Although it was raining, I managed a few shots of the encounter, as the persistent Buzzard annoyed the exasperated owl.

We returned to the thicket on the west side of the island, reasoning that the wet weather might have increased our chances of some migrants. Indeed, this proved to be the case, with a couple of Goldcrests, some Dunnocks and more Robins. We, again, saw the Sparrowhawk, at distance, but managed to ID it as a female.

Wandering further along the track, we watched some wildfowl and waders on a small lochan by the shore, before heading back to the car. As we approached the thicket once more, several Blackbirds, thrushes, Robins and Dunnocks were alarm calling for all they were worth. Guessing that it wasn't in response to our presence (we were some way away), we reasoned that there must still be a raptor about. Just before we reached the car, an owl again burst out from the cover of the trees. Hmmmm, we thought, perhaps our ID of Short-eared was a bit premature. We spent a bit of time looking at the one image of the bird I had managed in the morning, comparing what few features were visible with out field guides. The only certainty was that we couldn't be certain. But it might've been a Long-eared Owl. The habitat was right, the time of year was ok, some Long-eareds had been seen recently, so it was a possibility.

Driving back to the pier, Eagle-eyed M spotted what was definitely a Short-eared Owl, hunting over the heather moorland. It was flying close to and parallel with the road, so we trundled alongside it at slow speed for ages, before we had to turn off.

Aboard the ferry once more, I was able to search the internet for images of both birds in flight. As my photo was side on and slightly from behind, the big clue, eye colour, was no use to us. Wing colouration too was impossible to tell. We were left with the size and quantity of the barring on the tail, as well as a glimpse of orange on top of the head, which might be a flattened ear tuft. In the end, we couldn't decide, so back home, I threw the question open to social media and those who have more knowledge of both species of owl. Quite quickly, the answers came back. Long-eared! So this bird was a 'lifer' for both M and I. The Snowy Owl was a lifer for me too, so all in all, the day was an incredible three owl bonanza.

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Tense rolls out the 'serendipitous' word... again.

Of late, work topics have crept into the blog, mainly, it has to be said, as that's where I happen to be when I see some particular facet of natural history or a photogenic bit of landscape. But is it ok to talk about work on a blog that purports to be about wildlife and cake? I mean, it'd be a legitimate topic if I was Mary Berry (cake) or David Attenborough (wildlife) or Chris Packham (cake and wildlife... aw, c'mon, you've seen enough Watches by now to know it's a thing).

Perhaps contrary to the available evidence, I do actually worry about this type of stuff. One wouldn't want to be seen as overtly commercial, or to be peak geek about the wrong topic.

It's a conundrum, right enough. Should I, or shouldn't I?

Today, however, there was a [drum roll... here it comes...] serendipitous moment when my work/life balance worlds collided (Astronomical note: if actual worlds actually collided, I freely admit that it wouldn't be the happy occasion suggested by the 's' word).

There I was talking technical stuff about phones and internet and what have you, when the potential client asked "Do you write the dragonfly blog?" As it's not the flight season, and I hadn't written much in the way of dragons recently, I initially assumed that it must be some other blog, so said "'No." But then, a few minutes later, potential client's partner asked the same question and I thought, hang on, do I project an odonatalogical aura?!

Enquiring as to which specific blog was being talked about, I was stunned to be told that it was Imperfect and Tense, and how much they enjoyed reading it. Well, you could've knocked me down with a feather! I&T doesn't have a wide readership, so to meet someone out of the blue who knows it exists, never mind appreciates it, was just mind-blowing.

My day was well and truly made.

Mr and Mrs B, this one's for you.