Sunday 29 September 2019

The epitome of wildlife and cake

The past week has been quite busy on the environmental and wildlife front. Last Sunday, we helped out at an event for the Great British Beach Clean 2019, a Marine Conservation Society project. Then, on Tuesday evening, a Dutch researcher, Dr Jan A van Franeker,  kindly gave a talk for the Orkney Field Club about his work investigating the effects of plastic pollution on the Fulmar population of the North Sea.

On Friday, I carried out a monitoring survey at a local site, looking for evidence of the Orkney Vole to help determine the level of the population in the archipelago. That evening, Our Lass and I attended another talk, this one about the island of Papa Westray, given by the island ranger, Jonathan Ford.

Today we went along to a walk organised by the Field Club. This was part of the 'Through The Seasons' programme, which for 2019 is at Brodgar. We spent a couple of hours wandering the shores of Harray and Stenness Lochs, either side of the Ring of Brodgar. The highlight was an Otter foraging in Harray Loch, but we saw all sorts of other wildlife too.

Egg-shell slime mould

A Puffball species of fungus

One of several hairy caterpillars seen on the day, species unknown

The thin red line of a fungus created by two lichens battling over a territory

A Metellina species of spider

Another Metellina species of spider

Parrot Waxcap fungi
The bonus treat for the day was soup and sandwiches at the nearby Standing Stones Hotel. For a change, we had opted for a vegan lunch, which was an absolute taste sensation.

And there were cakes afterwards. What's not to like about that?!

Monday 23 September 2019

Climate struck

I have to admit that I did not manage to attend any gathering for the Global Climate Strike on Friday 20th September 2019. Nearly, but not quite. I was working in Shetland that day, and didn't finish the task in time to hotfoot it back into Lerwick for the noon meeting at the Market Cross, attended by about 100 folk.

I did, however, find time later in the afternoon to visit the Why Waste shop to purchase some less environmentally-damaging cleaning products and cosmetics.

The previous evening, before heading out to catch the night boat to Shetland, I had managed to capture another ephemeral sky moment across Scapa Flow. Later, pondering how to caption the photo, the words 'there's a hole in the sky' came to mind, which I recalled were sung by Ronnie James Dio on Run with the wolf, from Rainbow's Rising album. However, I decided to research the phrase anyway, in case there was a more apt use of it in the musical canon.

Oh boy, was there ever!

Up until this point, I knew very little about the Grateful Dead, other than they were a band that began in the mid 60s. My lyric search turned up the line 'there's a hole in the sky where the light pours in' from a song called We can run from the 1989 Built to Last album. This seemed a neat fit for my image. Then, oh jeez, then, I read the remainder of the lyrics...

We don't own this place, though we act as if we did,
It's a loan from the children of our children's kids.
The actual owners haven't even been born yet.
But we never tend the garden and rarely we pay the rent,
Some of it is broken and the rest of it is bent
Put it all on plastic and I wonder where we'll be when the bills hit.
We can run,
But we can't hide from it.
Of all possible worlds,
We only got one:
We gotta ride on it.
Whatever we've done,
We'll never get far from what we leave behind,
Baby, we can run, run, run, but we can't hide.
Oh no, we can't hide.
I'm dumpin' my trash in your back yard
Makin' certain you don't notice really isn't so hard
You're so busy with your guns and all of your excuses to use them.
Well, it's oil for the rich and babies for the poor,
We got everyone believin' that more is more,
If a reckoning comes, maybe we will know what to do then.
All these complications seem to leave no choice,
I heard the tongues of billion speak with just one voice,
Saying, "just leave all the rest to me,
I need it worse than you, you see."
And then I heard,
The sound of one child crying.
Today I went walking in the amber wind,
There's a hole in the sky where the light pours in
I remembered the days when I wasn't afraid of the sunshine.
But now it beats down on the asphalt land
Like a hammering blow from god's left hand
What little still grows cringes in the shade like a bad vine.
Songwriters: Brent Richard Mydland / John Barlow
We Can Run lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.
The echoes of these words from 1989 are still as fresh and even more urgent, thirty years later. If you have not yet done so, can I please ask that you watch the short film Protect, Restore, Fundfeaturing Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot. Thank you.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Stuff On My Phone (27)

You know how it is, a gale rips through the county and the very next day you have to make a journey on a small plane to visit a small island.

We flew westwards from North Ronaldsay into a bracing westerly, headed for Papa Westray and its runway which is aligned pretty much north/south.

Sat in one of the back seats, I was able to film our approach and landing, although it looked and felt more like a sidling than a landing, as the pilot expertly angled the aircraft into the wind until the very last second.

You don't actually have to picture the scene, here's the video.

Friday 13 September 2019

Towards the Knap of Trowieglen

Across the sheltered anchorage of Scapa Flow, the evening light delicately highlighted the contours of the island of Cava and, beyond it, the distant Hoy hills. The furthest horizon is the Knap of Trowieglen.

Apologies for my attempted arty selective crop of a larger image similar to this one.

I do love a retreating horizons picture.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Hunting for flying insects

Yesterday, I was working in South Ronaldsay, not far from some bog pools which hold several species of Odonata. As it was a sunny day with only a light breeze, I reckoned that it might be worth taking along camera and bins, just in case.

With the job done and it being lunchtime, I parked near the pools and wandered along the track which runs between them. There were loads of bumblebees buzzing about, several butterflies (a Painted Lady and a Red Admiral) and many, many crane flies, but no dragonflies (this is a Black Darter site) or damselflies (Blue-tailed or Emerald) to be seen.

Painstakingly, I scanned the waterside vegetation with my binoculars, willing an odonate shape to come into focus. I stared at the wider landscape hoping to catch the sparkle of light reflecting from a delicate wing. I searched in the lee of a small willow plantation, where the air was still and warm, and there were plenty of insects here, just not a dragon or a damsel.

Forlornly, I headed back towards the van, pondering whether this would be a year when I wouldn't be able to find Black Darters at these pools, when a distant movement caught my eye. Across an enclosure, sat on the wire of the far fence, was a bird. As the Autumn migration is now well underway, my initial thought was that, to the naked eye, it was quite large and pale for a warbler. Looking through my bins, I realised my error, as the bird was a flycatcher of some sort. Trying not to wonder what it had just eaten, I fumbled for my camera but, in that split second of inattention, the bird disappeared. Gah!

Flycatchers do not breed in Orkney, so this was a bird on passage from wherever it raised a family this Summer, en route to its wintering grounds in West Africa.

I went back to staring at the wider landscape again, in the hope of catching another glimpse. I was quite sure that it wasn't a Spotted Flycatcher, as there were white stripes on its wings, but my knowledge of flycatchers wasn't up to being any more positive than that. After spending some time ambling to and fro along the track, I caught a brief view of the bird behind some willows, as it took to the air to catch an insect, and then plunged back behind the bushes. This was why I had lost sight of it. The initial view had been across low vegetation, mainly heather, but the remainder of the fence line was masked by a stand of willow, and this was where the bird was hunting, making forays into the air for prey and returning to its hidden perch on the wire fence.

Continued staring brought the occasional flurry of wings (and presumably the certain death of a small invertebrate), but did little to help me identify the bird. Eventually, I decided enough was enough, and I opted to skirt around the southern flank of the enclosure by climbing over a gate and quietly creeping along the edge of the willows until I could see back up the western fence line.

There wasn't a bird there.

There were two. Yay!

Both were flycatchers and both were busy living up to their name, feeding hungrily on their journey south and not particularly bothered about my presence. Now I could see their wing markings properly, I was still no wiser as to the species, but I was able to take photos for use later.

Recourse to several ID guides brought me to the conclusion that these are female Pied Flycatchers. This pair instantly doubled the number of Pieds I have ever seen anywhere, and it will be well over ten years since my last sighting.

But... there's still that niggling doubt of just what they were eating before I spotted them. 

Sunday 8 September 2019

Muesli with added moo

Regular readers may recall this post from 2015, where I explained about some bovine social dynamics which occasionally occur in the close vicinity of Tense Towers. Well, at the moment, there's another episode of Cowsualty on display, which is at its most noticeable in the early morning. There I was trying to have a peaceful bowl of muesli for breakfast whilst, outside, Tranquillity was packing her leather suitcase and Ubering a taxi to "anywhere quieter than this!"

Yup, the continued rivalry between an Aberdeen Angus and a Shorthorn bull doesn't lessen just because it's Sunday morning.

The black bull is in a paddock with a few cows and calves, the brown bull is in a larger field with a harem of 20 or so cows. Someone is not happy about this state of affairs.

I'm not sure I dare mention the fact that I've switched to oat milk 😲

Saturday 7 September 2019

Doorstep bird watching

Recently, I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on several occasions, sometimes without even having to leave the house. So here's a few of the birdy highlights from Tense Towers this week.

Swallows are still fledging, presumably from the farm buildings next door, and being fed by anxious parents. Time is running short for them to build up their fat reserves for the long trip south for the Winter.

The local Starling flock never miss a trick. What's this? A temptingly empty puddle? Not for long.

After our North Ron weekend, which was full of Wheatears, it was lovely to have good views of one at home.

And there are still Pied Wagtails about. This one briefly perched in exactly the same spot as the Wheatear!

Friday 6 September 2019

A romantic weekend away

The cancelled trip to celebrate Our Lass's birthday earlier in the year was re-scheduled for the end of August, which coincided with our wedding anniversary. It also coincided with 24 hours of rain, but we weren't going to let a little thing like that put us off. So, on a Friday afternoon, we pootled to Kirkwall Airport, just happy that there wasn't any thick fog to disrupt our travel plans. A member of the airline staff called the eight passengers together for the flight to North Ronaldsay, but instead of heading out onto the apron to board the plane, we were told that the aircraft was overweight, even if we left all the luggage behind. A local workman generously volunteered to make the trip another time, so the remaining seven of us were allowed to clamber into the Britten Norman Islander for the trip to Orkney's most northerly destination.

It was a pleasantly warm afternoon so, after dropping off our luggage in a room at the Bird Observatory, Our Lass and I hit the beach. Well, began walking around the rocky south west corner of the island.

The tall stems of Perennial Sow Thistle were impressive against the blue sky

Of course, the rocky shore is where to find the famous seaweed-eating sheep

Or, indeed, a small flock of them



After an evening meal, shared with other guests and the Obs staff, we ambled out to Nouster Bay to soak up the last of the light.

As mentioned earlier, Saturday was a day of heavy rain. In the morning, we visited a photographic exhibition of island history in the New Kirk, but returned drenched to the Obs for lunch and an afternoon spent each with our nose in a good book.

Sunday was a return to mainly dry weather, so another potter along the beach of Nouster Bay was called for, with only a short shower to contend with.

Before catching our plane back to the Orkney mainland, we explored some more of the west and east coasts of the island.

More sheep

Fulmars and silvery seas

Our Lass and the North Atlantic

A bit more of the North Atlantic

Golden Plover

The New Kirk in the dry. And it's not so new either

Grass of Parnassus (a suitable use of the abbreviation GoP)
The last piece of the weekend's excitement occurred when we landed on Sanday during the return flight. The plane had a puncture, so all the passengers had to disembark whilst a repair was made. The airfield staff responded magnificently, rushing out for a carton of milk to make everyone a brew and offer a choice of biscuits. Thankfully, we made it back to Kirkwall a little over an hour late.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

A day of three halves

Towards the end of last month, there was a day which seemed to have many things going on all at once. OK, there weren't unicorns, but there was pretty much everything else.

It all began with an early morning haar, which was so thick that this Wheatear, migrating back to Africa, stopped off in our garden until visibility improved.

Throughout the morning, the sun gradually burnt off the haar, until by lunchtime it was a lovely warm day. An oil rig was being escorted into Scapa Flow and manoeuvred into place by a small fleet of ocean-going tugs. Presumably it is here for some maintenance work.

I met up with Eagle-eyed M at a dragonfly site near my last job of the day. We were hoping to find some Black Darters, but drew a blank. It took a while, but we did manage to find a few Blue-tailed Damselflies. Then, M did that thing which she is very good at, she found the first Emerald Damselfly for the site. It's happened so often now that I shouldn't be surprised, but I was. One particular insect would fly a short distance and land upon another rush stem. For the briefest of moments, it would hold its wings open at 45 degrees, then close them along its abdomen. The former action is indicative of Emerald, the latter is not. The bright sunlight was washing out the colours of the insect, so all that we could be sure of was that it had a different hue to the 9th segment of the abdomen and some of the thorax. Those features could describe either a Blue-tailed or an Emerald Damselfly. We watched patiently as the insect moved to different rush stems a few more times, repeating the wing movements again and again, as we murmured "Yes it is... no it's not... yes it is... no it's not."

We were too far away to be sure so, in the end, I gingerly waded nearer for a closer look. Yup, it was an Emerald.

In the evening, cloud rolled in, catching the light from the setting sun and producing some photogenic effects. I stood by our front door and played about with my camera, photographing the shipping in the Flow and the hills to the west.

I will look back fondly on this day of beneficent meteorology (in fact, probably quite soon as there's a Force 8 wind due).