Tuesday 27 August 2019

Feeding frenzy

It was a bit of a peachy day in Orkney yesterday. Whisper it quietly but, after the morning's haar had burnt off, the sun shone brightly and temperatures reached the dizzy heights of... eighteen degrees. Predictably, the day's work was indoors, but by late afternoon I was home and able to change into a pair of shorts. I know!

When Our Lass arrived home, we sat out in the garden, enjoying a cuppa, shelling peas and watching the wildlifey goings on. A family of Pied Wagtails were scurrying about the lawn and dry stone wall, searching for small flies and the like, whilst Swallows twittered overhead, as they gathered insects on the wing.

Suddenly, I was shaken from this reverie by the sight of a 'different' Swallow. Hmmm, that looked larger... and darker... yes, there's another one... and another! We watched entranced as three Swifts joined in the melee of birds wheeling and swooping through the air, seemingly effortlessly catching their prey as they zoomed about the sky. The Swifts were likely on their southward Autumn migration, but they were the first ones we had seen in Orkney this year, as the species does not breed in the county.

Whilst we gazed up into the blue, a flock of Golden Plover went by, headed for rougher pastures on the moorland to the north west, and the occasional call of a distant Curlew came to us through the still air.

Eventually, this food for the soul gave way to a slightly more corporeal need and we headed indoors to see what the fridge might have to offer in the way of an accompaniment to fresh peas.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Small... far away

I hoped that it was going to be a case of third time lucky with a recent trip to the north of Hoy. My previous two visits during the Summer had not been blessed with decent weather, or at least not pleasant enough to coax dragonflies and damselflies into flight. Initial signs were encouraging, although the forecast warned of several heavy showers during the day, and perhaps a thunderstorm.

First port of call was the RSPB’s Eaglewatch, where we had very distant views of the now-fledged youngster. By 'very distant', I would say at least half a mile. And by 'views', I mean squinting at the centre of this zoomed and cropped image. 

We walked west, along the single track road, pausing frequently to look at a flower here, an insect there, or a bird overhead. Whilst we saw few butterflies or moths on the wing, there were plenty of caterpillars to be seen. Top to bottom: Light Knot Grass moth; Fox moth; Red Admiral butterfly; and Northern Eggar moth.

Following a picnic lunch at Rackwick Bay, we had intended to visit a small area of maritime heath behind the dunes at the southern end of the beach. However, in the previous days, Hoy had obviously had much more rain than the rest of Orkney, and the Rackwick Burn couldn’t be forded without the risk of a soaking. Instead, we explored the bog pools further back from the beach, an area that I have tended to avoid, despite its suitability for Odonata, due to the presence of Arctic Skuas and a gull colony. This late in the season, however, the birds were gone, and we were able to find three species of ode.

There were dozens and dozens of Common Blue damselflies, all male, their sky blue colours drifting just above the water’s surface and across the bright green duckweed. Several Black Darters flitted between the smaller pools, again these all seemed to be male, and likely to be looking for a mate. Our Lass found an ovipositing pair of Emerald Damselflies, the male still clinging to the female as she carefully laid her eggs on some submerged vegetation. We watched as she continued to work her way down the plant stem, until she was fully submerged and lost from sight.

Walking back to Moaness over the Old Post track, we were aware of a very dark sky to the south, but we blithely carried on under our patch of blue sky, hardly flinching when a rumble of thunder reached our ears. Fortunately, the storm tracked east through the Pentland Firth and we were able to stay dry. Several Common Hawker dragonflies were foraging alongside the path and, even better, they perched up where we could see them. Top, a male, and bottom, a female.

By now, we were experiencing that joyous Scottish Summer tradition, being eaten alive by clouds of midges. Slightly less annoying, and much more photogenic, were the flying ants which must have been triggered to swarm by the stormy weather.

Before we caught the return ferry, there was just enough time for tea and cake at the Beneth'ill Cafe. What a time to be alive!

Friday 16 August 2019

Stuff On My Phone (26)

An unintended consequence of the rained-off trip to the airshow in July, happened in Haddington, a Royal Burgh town in East Lothian. Calum and I had repaired to a cafe to sift through the wreckage of our day's plans and come up with some different, drier, ideas. We were on the cusp of the decision to ditch the airshow altogether, and as we left the cafe and wandered along the street, the rain turned to something more akin to a monsoon. We dashed into a shop, any shop, just to escape the drenching.

Being a genteel sort of town, this turned out to be a gifts and cards emporium, the lady behind the counter probably hoping for a nicer class of customer than two grumpy blokes, soaked to the skin. We apologised for our 'dancing on the doormat' entrance and I decided we had better buy something to say Thank You for our temporary respite from the weather.

Whilst I rummaged through the greetings cards, Calum chatted amiably with the owner. She had once worked in meteorology for Edinburgh Airport, so was quite forgiving of our plight. As my purchases were rung through the till, I noticed some essential oils, displayed behind the counter (no, behave yourselves, it's not that kind of shop!). "And a bottle of Patchouli oil, please," I heard myself say. It's a scent which turns back the years for me, not that I was ever cool, or did drugs, or even had long hair. I just like the scent. Perhaps it was all those 'Guru' type shops which Our Lass dragged me into since our early days?

Photo copyright Guru (Darlington)
Anyway, the sales lady hesitated for a fraction of a second before her merchandising skills got the better of her. Apparently, they had a range of upmarket perfumes which were based on Patchouli oil, would I like to try one of those? I politely declined, though in my head I was thinking "Nope, I'll just take a bottle of the hard stuff, thank you."

So now Tense Towers has a fragrance to compliment the progressive rock thrumming from its speakers. Although my hair has just about run out of time to be anything other than short.

It's time for a xylophone intro and some weird lyrics... man.

Procul Harum's Pandora's Box.

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Laying a ghost to rest

The last day of Second Born's holiday with us was spent over in South Walls. We caught the mid-morning ferry across Scapa Flow, then drove from Lyness in Hoy down across the ayre which links the two islands. We were headed for the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve of the Hill of White Hamars and, as we parked at Snelsetter, the haar had yet to burn off.

Walking down through damp meadows to the coast was an ethereal experience. All was still, all was quiet. But it was remarkably warm, so much so that a myriad of insects were on the wing, which only added to the sense of weirdness.

Once at the clifftops, the Pentland Firth was unrecognisable, and not just because it was difficult to see. The sea was calm, merely gently lapping the shore. The occasional low groaning moan of a fog horn from a passing ship the only indication of a large body of water separating the islands from the Scottish mainland.

We wandered along the clifftop path, enjoying the profusion of colour from all the wild flowers. The wash of purple from Devil's Bit Scabious was gorgeous and the insects thought so too.

There were countless blooms of Grass of Parnassus, occasional patches of Field Gentian and a couple of places with signs of Scottish Primrose, although the only flowering specimen we found was still soaked with dew.

On the cliffs themselves, the Fulmar chicks looked huge, larger than their parents, as their adult feathers slowly emerged through the downy duvet of the teenager's bedroom.

Returning to the car for a picnic lunch, we began to see an improvement in visibility, as the superstructure of ships could be detected out in the Firth, then the odd bit of Scottish geography, before finally the sun burst through, bringing blue skies.

For the afternoon, we walked around Cantick Head, with occasional forays down onto the rocky shore to see what we could find in the pools.

We returned to the car along a tarmac track by the sheltered bay of Kirk Hope, encountering wildlife in the form of this Wheatear, and wild life in the shape of a herd of cattle, whose bull decided to lumber directly into our path and attempt congress with one of the cows. 

Well, after that, we definitely needed tea and cake, so drove back to Hoy to visit Emily's Ice Cream Parlour. Then, we had just enough time for a trip up Wee Fea to have a quick scout about for dragons and damsels.

At these pools, Black Darters had finally begun their flight season, a Common Hawker was zooming back and forth, whilst both Emerald and Common Blue Damselflies were busy with the task of ensuring the next generation.

We were delighted that Second Born had been able to experience some sunshine and wide open vistas, but predictably the day of her departure was a return to cloud and wind. Even more predictably, the following day (as has happened for every visitor this year) was absolutely peachy. It's uncanny.

Finally, I must mention that this was my first return to South Walls (for leisure purposes, rather than for work) since the fateful Summer holiday of 2008, where I suffered a slipped disc in my neck (mundanely drying my hair after a shower). Following months of pain and with my mobility suffering, I underwent an operation in the Spring of 2009, and it was at the beginning of the subsequent convalescence that Second Born suggested I try writing a blog.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

Weather. Aye.

By the beginning of August, the two significant annual developments in the Tense Towers garden are the blooming of the red-flowered Crocosmia 'Lucifer' and the formation of seed pods on the widespread and opportunistic Wild Radish. Every year, a couple of Greenfinches will appear to devour the latter, but I was able to capture a photo of one of them on the former.

A warm afternoon early in the month saw us take a trip to Stenness for a walk up Russadale. I had heard reports of Black Darter finally making an appearance elsewhere in the county, so thought this might be a good site to check. We were rewarded for tackling the gentle climb with lovely views north to the Neolithic Heart of Orkney, as well as Blue-tailed and Large Red Damselflies and a pair of Black Darters.

A mating pair of Blue-tailed Damselflies

A female Black Darter

The isthmus (centre) contains the Ness of Brodgar dig, situated between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar

Russadale quarry pool

A Meadow Brown butterfly
The following day, Second Born arrived for a week's visit and, as is traditional, the weather deteriorated markedly. Dang. Although the winds were light, this meant that any haar which rolled in off the North Sea tended to hang around.

We visited Stromness and climbed the hill behind the town, but the views back to the harbour were limited. Instead, with the still air, our ears were able to pick up sounds from the streets below, and or noses were tantalised by the smell of baking (from the Stockan's Oatcake factory). Who needs a view?!

This football match appears to be Gulls v Oystercatchers

Still waters in the harbour

Atop Brinkie's Brae

The view back down into Stromness as the haar rolled in again

Common Blue butterfly
One evening, we drove up to Birsay, and pottered across the tidal causeway to the brough. As we began our circumnavigation of the small island, it started to rain, which gradually increased in intensity until it reached the 'no fun at all' level.

A young Wheatear
Towards the end of the week, we ventured to Olav's Wood, sheltering from a strong breeze amongst the trees and bushes. I was hoping to find some Hoverflies (there's not been many about this year), but the few I did see were clinging to vegetation for all they were worth.

Melanostoma scalare (ID'd by LJ)

Windwick Bay

An immature gull sheltering on the rocky shore
When visibility became so bad that I couldn't see any wind turbines to gauge the wind direction, I reverted to that other tried and tested method...

Bovine bottometer.

Sunday 11 August 2019

Airshow no show

Earlier in the year, I had offered to accompany a good friend, Calum, to Scotland's National Airshow at the National Museum of Flight in East Fortune. The plan was to drive down from Orkney on a Friday, go to the airshow on Saturday and return to Orkney on Sunday. So, during the last weekend of July, that is what we did. The drive down was in mostly glorious weather (the only overcast moment was when we stopped off at Insh Marshes to look for dragons), as indeed was the drive back (every time we stopped to look for odes the sun disappeared and the heavens opened).

And speaking of rain, this was Saturday morning... 

Now, Calum had experienced a similar day two years previously, and was in no hurry to spend another six hours in a wet field, waiting for aircraft that didn't turn up. Instead, he took me on an alternative tour of Edinburgh, beginning with his favourite shop. Calum likes building model kits, mainly aircraft.

My model kit days are behind me, but I had to acknowledge that the manufacturers do seem to have kept up with the latest trends in ground warfare. Sadly.

After some targeted clothes shopping for me and lunch in an Italian restaurant, we visited one of Calum's old friends, before heading to Edinburgh Airport for some quality aircraft time (Calum) and potential dragon time (me).

The habitat seemed about right.

There were insects on the wing.

Just maybe not male ones.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any odes at all. Perhaps my radar was off?

The return trip did have one positive flying experience, a Buddleia bush at Helmsdale, covered in Painted Lady butterflies.

And the sun was still shining when we arrived at Scrabster to wait for the ferry back to Orkney. The journey across the Pentland Firth was made all the more pleasant by plunge-diving Gannets and rapid-wing-beated Puffins.