Thursday 31 October 2019

Purple patch

Photographically, Autumn is a bit tricky within the environs of Tense Towers. We're not over-endowed with trees, in fact we're pretty under-dowed with anything taller than our low dry stone wall. So not for us the majesty of a vista aglow with red, yellow, orange and russet.

But there are compensations. The recent few days have been sunny and, whisper it quietly, calm. Still cold, mind you, but very pleasant, nonetheless.

Yesterday did present some photo opportunities, too.

Early morning, and the clear air produced excellent visibility.

In the afternoon, half a dozen Redwings were pootling around the garden.

And a casual glance towards mainland Scotland seemed to show we'd inherited an extra lighthouse! Further investigation revealed the drilling platform Stena Don out in the Pentland Firth.

After sunset, a thin crescent moon (all of 63 hours young) emerged against the darkening sky.

And the south western view delivered some lovely hues.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Almost on the right track

By rights, this should be a Stuff On My Phone post but, perhaps unforgivably, despite the musical thread, it is not.

I awoke to darkness and the sound of a howling gale. As I attempted to gather my thoughts, a keyboard riff played across my consciousness, and what passes for my brain at five in the morning was off on a wild goose chase. I don't know about you, dear reader, but these mental gymnastics in the wee small hours are often a fruitless and exhausting exercise in not being asleep. Gah.


I was in two minds which, although I do not have any truck with astrology, I am told is just typical of a Libra. On the plus side, it was only two minds, as any more and I'd maybe require counselling with something from the chemist.

But getting back to that 'So... '

A name began to emerge through the swirling veils of the past... something alliterative... Jimmy? Jimmy James? Could be?

Oh, hang on, no, here's a chorus... "Waiting for a train"... Hmmm, that sounds too 'pop' for the soulful intro I had in mind.

Ah, no, wait a minute, there are two intros with the same tune. Nice one, brain, no point in making this easy, eh? OK, let's just run through our options here...

Intro 1

Intro 2

Yup, they're not of the same vintage, are they? The first one I now recall from a mix tape which my brother made for me when I left home in 1980. That must be Mr Alliterative Name, but is it Jimmy James? The second one is definitely later, but for an answer, I will have to wait until morning and a more polite time to hit the internet.

[Later, after removing some madly-flapping silage wrap from the wire fence of the adjacent paddock, and watching a thrilling rugby semi-final] OK, pop pickers, the second song is by Australian band Flash And The Pan, and is, as several synapses had earlier figured out, "Waiting for a train" from 1983.

But the original riff I had remembered was "Why Can't We Live Together?" from 1972 by...

Timmy Thomas!

Alliteratively close, but no cigar.

Incidentally, the song writing duo behind Flash And The Pan, George Young and Harry Vanda, had been former members of The Easybeats in the 60s. They were the first rock and roll band from Australia to score an international pop hit, with "Friday On My Mind". If the words 'Young' and 'Australia' are sparking the neurons in your cerebral cortex, then yes, George is the brother of Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC. And George occasionally helped out his siblings in their band. But it'll be a few more hours yet before I will be Back in Black at 5am.

Thursday 24 October 2019

Forget everything you thought you knew

The news that scientists in the United States have taught rats to drive tiny cars is quite astounding enough, but the finding that the driving helped lower the rats' stress levels is a whole other bucket of strange.

Nicked off the internet
No longer can we describe those speeding, convoluted, back street journeys to avoid rush hour traffic jams as 'rat runs'. Well, we could, but they would have to be carried out far below the mandatory speed limit, whilst listening to gentle birdsong and inhaling the sweet aroma of neat lavender oil.

And I guess that we'll all now be trying to join the 'rat race', just as soon as these endearingly-intelligent rodents have negotiated the rights to a global single-seater championship and secured a sponsorship deal with Kalms.

Inevitably, not all of us will be able to de-stress sufficiently to maintain our progress at a whisker under the legal limit, so it is likely that rat traps will be deployed to catch the perpetrators. These will take the form of large metal rats positioned by the kerb along roads. When triggered by a speedster, the metal rat shoots out from the roadside to connect firmly with the offender's vehicle. The design prototype is called Ro-dent-i-side.

It is rumoured that the next series of The Grand Tour will feature a self-important Capybara, a nervous hamster and a Coypu which hordes Lego.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Static bird, moving birder

On Monday morning, before I had left the office, I noticed that someone had reported a small flock of Waxwings in the village of Finstown, over in the West Mainland. The description of the location was 'across the road from the village shop'. Now, this statement made me chuckle because, when we lived south, a handy piece of urban fieldcraft to use in the finding of Waxwings was to visit a supermarket car park. The landscaping of such places always seems to use trees and shrubs which attract these colourful and dapper Winter visitors from Scandinavia. So, for Waxwings to appear next to Baikie's Stores sort of fits the modus operandi for the species!

Here's Google Streetview's view of the location from 2014.

When, later in the morning, I happened to be driving through Finstown, a glance to the right at the treetops brought the pleasant surprise of several Waxwings silhouetted against the sky.

And here's a post from a colleague who is on leave this week so had time to turn up with a camera on Monday. Well done, Alastair!

Tuesday 15 October 2019


It's what they do.

A bit of footage shot whilst walking by the shore on Sunday.

Saturday 12 October 2019

Blink and you miss it

Some recent photos of ephemeral moments...

Just after sunset on 4th October

A pair of Pied Wagtails bathing in a puddle

A Song Thrush on migration, 10th October

Just before sunset on 10th October

Monday 7 October 2019

Blustery bluster

There's a south easterly gale howling outside. The view is slowly being obscured as salt encrusts the windows. But, for the moment, I can still see the vegetation in the garden, flinging itself around in some sort of toddler tantrum at the unfairness of an all-to-brief Summer and now... this!

Ferries are cancelled, access to causeways is under review, I shall not be putting out the recycling bins for collection but, from across the fields, Redwings, in ones and twos, are battling headlong into the gale, driven by the need to keep moving. Zugunruhe, it's called.

I am not going anywhere near a ladder today.

Sunday 6 October 2019

Book review, 70 years late

Hmmm, that post title makes it look as though my To Do list is a tad lengthy, but please let me explain. Despite my curmudgeonly exterior and 'born old' ethos, I do try to keep on trend to some extent. In the dragonfly world, this sees a photo ID guide of local species loaded onto my Orkney dragonfly group in Facebook and the page also has a general gleaning of exciting Odonata news from home and abroad. I will admit that 'exciting' is defined as 'exciting to me'.

A new specialist second-hand bookshop opened up in Orkney recently, and what with the length of my To Do list, I've only just got around to visiting it. The property used to be the home of Fluke Jewellery, who we visited on our first ever holiday to Orkney back in 2006. Now the modernised and extended premises house shelf after shelf of carefully-labelled books, in a multitude of categories including science fiction, history, nature and many more.

I was not expecting to find anything which would give me a frisson of interest, but tucked away in the Nature section was a small volume entitled 'The Dragonflies of the British Isles' by Cynthia Longfield. It was a second edition from 1949 (the first edition was published in 1937), so my interest was a historical one, rather than for a current ID guide.

Cynthia Longfield was one of the outstanding dragonfly enthusiasts of the 20th Century. When the British Dragonfly Society was formed in 1983, Cynthia was elected as the first Honorary member. Sadly, she died in 1991 at the age of 94, several years before my own interest in dragonflies took to the wing.

Although Odonata have been around for more than 300 million years, and the seventy years since the publication of Cynthia Longfield's ID guide is less than the blink of an eye by comparison, there have been noticeable changes. Between 1949 and 2019, the number of species of dragonfly and damselfly in the British Isles has certainly fluctuated. In 1949, there were 44 species altogether, 27 dragons and 17 damsels. By 2019, there were 52 species altogether, 32 dragons and 21 damsels. But these changes are not as simple as may first appear.

Firstly, for dragonflies, we lost the Orange-spotted Emerald, which went extinct in the British Isles in the 1950s, most likely due to a pollution incident on the Moors River in Dorset. The Highland Darter has since been 'lumped' in with the Common Darter by taxonomists, so technically another species lost, but there have also been additions of Southern Migrant Hawker (1952), Vagrant Emperor (1970s), Green Darner (1998), Lesser Emperor (1996), Scarlet Darter (1995) and Large White-faced Darter (2012).

Then, for damselflies, we lost the Dainty Damselfly, which went extinct in the British Isles in 1953, when a storm surge on the east coast destroyed its breeding site in Essex. However, the species was rediscovered in 2010 in Kent. Another loss was the Norfolk Damselfly, not recorded since 1958, its disappearance again linked to habitat loss. New additions include Willow Emerald Damselfly (2007), Southern Emerald Damselfly (2002) and Small Red-eyed Damselfly (1999).

The overall trend, then, is upward, which looks like a biodiversity win on the face of it. But the extinctions have been due to loss of habitat and pollution, factors which still threaten much wildlife globally. The new species which have begun to colonise the British Isles, are taking advantage of climate change, as rising temperatures bring new opportunities for expansion. However, paradoxically, this factor also poses a threat to northerly-adapted species, as they will be forced further north, until they run out of British Isles.

In 1949, many of the British odonates did not yet have common names, with some of our most abundant species only being referred to by Genus with an English modifier e.g. Common Ischnura for Blue-tailed Damselfly, Ischnura elegans. Others have had their Genus changed e.g. Beautiful Demoiselle, Calopteryx virgo, was an Agrion virgo back in 1949.

One unfortunate inclusion in the book, which caught me by complete surprise, was in a useful table of the principal colours of the insects' bodies. Blues, greens, reds, purples, blacks and whites were all described with subtle descriptors for each change of hue. However, the browns included a shade which I will not reproduce here, but simply say that it was not subtle and I will acknowledge that it was written in a different time and place. As well-travelled and enlightened as she was, I guess that the author was using language which it was expected her readership would recognise. I would like to think that the world is above and beyond all that now, but sadly, we know this is still not the case.

More happily, the second edition did include 12 colour plates not in the first edition. These were illustrated by W. F. Evans and first published in 'British Libellulinae or Dragonflies' in 1845, over one hundred years beforehand. The artist's grandson gave permission for the plates to be used.

Friday 4 October 2019

Small unexpected joys

Well, it's all a bit yin and yang, to be honest. Looking back at some phone and camera images taken during the past few weeks (an exercise in displacement activity as regards Botchit), I thought I saw a bit of a trend...

Some days we have a period of bright sunlight for an hour or so just after dawn, and if we're really lucky, another short solar blast at sunset. In between, it is a very mixed bag, with the results somewhat unbecoming of a G2V type yellow dwarf star. This image was taken through cloud at tea time, for safety reasons using LiveView rather than looking through the camera lens.

Of course, if we can't manage a fix on the Sun, there's always the Moon...

That early morning light, which I mentioned above, does often pick out random objects in the Orcadian landscape.

I repeated the shot about 11 hours later, from the exact spot by the front door but, unfortunately, handheld isn't great for such light levels.

Recently, I was working away from home, and began to experience the first sign of a migraine, which, for me, is a tingling or numbness of the extremities (fingertips and tip of my nose). With a day's work ahead of me and a ferry trip back to Orkney to contemplate, I wasn't in the greatest of humours. To be fair, I very rarely have full-on migraines these days (with added visual distortions and stomach-wrenching nausea), and even the '72 hours of eye ache' version is much less frequent. But these initial symptoms were worrying, especially in the circumstances. Seeking advice from a fellow sufferer, I was astounded to learn that she uses caffeine as part of her treatment, which is why, after a swift trip to a chemist and some pharmacist advice to take the medication with food, I was to be found in a tea room with a huge slice of cappuccino cake (the hot chocolate with soya milk was optional). Well, that's my excuse, anyway.