Saturday 30 November 2019

Not Llamas in pyjamas

Today, we had a lazy start to the morning. Well, at least right up to the point where, still in bed, I noticed a post on the local cetacean sightings page.

It said that there were Orca off the coast of Holm (our parish), by the salmon cages of a fish farm in Scapa Flow. Now, some of these cages are just visible from Tense Towers, and although there was no indication as to which direction the Orca were headed in, I think one could be forgiven for casually sauntering towards a window, clad only in a dressing gown.

If we were to be in luck, the whales would have to head south. At this distance, later measured at 3 miles, how big would an Orca be? As it turned out, through 8x42 bins, big enough! Ladies and Gentlemen, we can now add Orca to the list of wildlife seen from the lounge window.

Hurriedly getting dressed, whilst the whales' trajectory took them temporarily out of sight, I arrived at the front door just as the Orca broke into clear view in Scapa Flow. At three miles, the 420mm lens on my DSLR just couldn't hack it, so in desperation I tried again with the tiny compact Panasonic. It's x30 zoom just about revealing enough detail to show a huge dorsal fin that couldn't be anything else other than a bull Orca.

OK, we're awake now!

A trip to Shapinsay

Wildlife watching has been a bit thin on the ground of late, so I was most pleased to be invited along on a trip to the island of Shapinsay, a short ferry journey from Kirkwall Harbour.

Here we are on the Upper Deck of the Thorsvoe, ostensibly hoping to see wildfowl and cetaceans during the crossing, but I bet we were all secretly yearning for a trip in the RIB
Here's the Thorsvoe berthed at the pier in Balfour Village on Shapinsay. The local seals are quite approachable and, seemingly, often just as interested in us as we are of them.
This was the local gasworks until the 1920s, built in a mediaeval style as befits the Scottish baronial architecture of the nearby castle on the island.
This stone, dated 1725, predates the structure and is said to have been taken from Noltland Castle on Westray.
In a field by the village school were a flock of about 30 Whooper Swans, busy feeding amongst the stubble.

This is a northerly view from the bird hide at the RSPB's Mill Dam reserve. Plenty of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye to be seen.
And this is the southerly view from the same spot. We spent ages watching a Hen Harrier quartering the ground, likely hoping to spook a Snipe into the air.
The inter-isles ferry Varagen, heading back to Kirkwall after a trip to Sanday. Here she is passing a gun emplacement at Salt Ness, built during World War 2 to help protect Wide Firth.
More Whoopers, this time on the small lochan of Vasa Loch
More of the same
Cathedral, castle and Highland Cattle (Caption courtesy of Eagle-eyed M)
The views on the walk back to the village were into the low Winter sun, but we spent a good deal of time framing different scenes and identifying distant landmarks. 
Balfour Castle in the foreground, St Magnus Cathedral in the middle distance, an oil tanker in Scapa Flow, then Scaraben and Sron Gharbh in the far distance (101km).
Here, above the masts of Kirkwall Marina, are the flare at Flotta Oil Terminal, Flotta's community wind turbine and, again at 101km distance, Morven, the highest point in Caithness.
Sron Gharbh, cathedral, Morven.
Balfour Castle
Elwick Bay in late afternoon sunshine
'Golden Whiskers' soaking up the last of the day's rays.
Although the morning was chilly and bracing, the wind dropped in the afternoon. As well as the harrier, we had seen a Sparrowhawk and a Merlin, watched a huge flock of Common Gulls whirling like a snowstorm, and had brief views of a small group of Snow Buntings.

Winter's here.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Stuff On My Phone (28)

The quiz mentioned in the previous post ended, as is traditional, with a craft round. There are big points on offer, so it often pays to have a few 'creatives' in your team, not just quiz geeks. I can say that because one of the reasons we were hosting the quiz this year was the fact that we won last year. This was due in no small part to building the tallest free-standing bird sculpture out of newspaper, feathers and other such lightweight and unsturdy materials. Our winning bird was taller than several members of the team!

But on to this year. AG, our organiser-in-chief, had devised a carbon neutral,  environmentally-friendly task, which was revealed slowly to the teams. First, each team had to select a tray of vegetables...

Photo courtesy of AG
before being informed that they needed to build a vehicle, which would then be trundled down a ramp to see which one went the furthest.

As I had spent countless hours downloading tracks for the music round, I was tasked with providing some suitable backing sounds for all this malarkey, with the only additional instruction being "Make sure it includes the theme tune to Wacky Races!"

Reader, it was no chore 😀

Apart from the afore-mentioned cartoon, there were appearances from Yello's 'The Race', the Beach Boys' 'Little Deuce Coupe', Fleetwood Mac's 'The Chain' and Propaganda's 'Jewelled' mix. The latter two having been the theme tunes for Formula One and the World Rally Championship.

However, for me, the biggest trip down memory lane took me back to the early 1970s. I recall watching a documentary about, I think, a whitewater raft journey down, I again think, a South American river. It was probably an episode of 'The World About Us', remember that?! Anyhow, the backing track to some of the fast-paced frothy action was an amazing bit of electronica (was, still is, will be forever!), Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn'. I didn't know that at the time, obvs, but as the song became more famous, it wasn't long before the album was added to my collection. It didn't make me the coolest dude in school, but at least it was an album graphic I could draw. Which I did, a lot, everywhere. Note to future self - "You'll be one of the quiz geeks, not one of the creative ones (this will make more sense in 2018)".

So, here's a live version of the single track, inevitably found on Youtube.

Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn'.

Back in 2019, here are some of the veg vehicles...

Photo courtesy of AG
The winning car had a bit of a tracking problem, steering right, but successfully managed to go the furthest despite thinking it was an oval racer!

The vegetables were later re-used or composted, whilst the knives (from a charity shop), were returned to said charity shop, in a neat circular economy version of the winning lap.

Saturday 23 November 2019


I really do not know why I get so hung up on blatting out a hundred posts in a year. It's pressure I do not need, it can result in wordy froth that readers may well not need and, although I doubt Blogger's servers would begrudge me the storage space, the world will not end if 2019's count peters out at a miserly ninety nine.

It is not as if I worry about other, arguably more meaningful, milestones. I have never climbed to the highest point in any country, anywhere. And whilst I may have completed several long distance walks (Pennine Way, 286 miles in 14 days; Wittekindsweg, 56 miles in 19 hours), let's be honest, we all know I would rather potter about for a couple of hours nature watching, then hightail it to a tearoom for cake.

So why the big deal with blogposts? I dunno, it is bafflingly stupid.

Mind you, up to the end of October, everything was going swimmingly, having breezed through the ninety posts mark a whole month ahead of schedule. But in November, I have virtually hit a brick wall, in part due to lack of head space, and also with other calls on my time. This past week I have spent more hours than usual on Orkney Field Club activities, with a committee meeting on Monday, a quiz night on Wednesday and a guest speaker giving us a talk yesterday (Friday).

The quiz was the annual event for local environmental groups, which this year was being hosted by the OFC. Eleven teams entered: (apologies for all the abbreviations) RSPB, SNH, ONWP, HES, OIC Environment Department, OIC custodians, SGRPID, ICIT Heriot Watt, CES and local firms Aquatera and EMEC. As a small volunteer run-charity, the Field Club relied heavily upon committee members for catering and quizzing duties, but the fifty two participants who came along seemed to have a great time.

I contributed a couple of rounds of questions: a perennial favourite, the music round (animals and plants in band names or song titles), as well as a more fiendish taxonomic round entitled Hemi-homonymy. It was difficult enough to pronounce, but infinitely worse for competitors.

You may recall that Carl Linnaeus set up a system of biological classification in the 18th Century, such that every living organism has a unique identifying name made up of its genus and species. Critically, this only applies to living organisms in the same kingdom, and so we have a situation where botanists and zoologists have inadvertently created taxonomic labels which are mirrored between plants and animals. For instance, there's a rare spider in the jungles of Belize whose genus is Erica, the same as several species of Heather. Or the genus for Mulberry trees/bushes, Morus, which is the same for the group of sea birds, the Gannets.

The teams were given a sheet containing ten photographs: five plants and five animals. All were species which can be found in Orkney. Some had the same common English names, some had the same genus names. The teams had to identify all ten species, then work out how they were paired across the animal and plant kingdoms.

What I did not reveal was that one of the common English names is used three times (two plants and an animal), whilst one of the animals does not have its paired species within Orkney. As the round progressed, it dawned upon me that it was possible that I wouldn't leave the building alive.


Numbers 1, 3 and 8 are Redshank (an arable weed, a moss and a bird).
Numbers 2 and 9 are Knotgrass (plant) and Knot Grass (moth).
Numbers 4 and 10 are both Genus Prunella. Selfheal (plant) and Dunnock (bird).
Numbers 5 and 6 are both Genus Oenanthe, Hemlock Water Dropwort (plant) and Wheatear (bird).
Number 7 is a nudibranch or sea slug Tritonia lineata, which has its identically-named twin in the form of a lily from South Africa.

I tried really hard to give the music round a more broad appeal, featuring genres as diverse as classical, blues, rock, easy listening, pop, hip hop, acid croft and avant-pop.

Thankfully, these mental workouts for the competitors did not affect the overall outcome, as the winning team played their joker on a round they completely aced, identifying 12 languages by their phrase for 'Merry Christmas'.

Sunday 17 November 2019

Always with the weather

I have raided my Facebook feed for the last few weeks, to come up with a few images which haven't made it to the blogosphere as yet.

At the beginning of the month, Our Lass's two sisters visited for a long weekend. The ladies booked themselves into a cottage on the harbour front in Stromness and proceeded to concentrate on swearing about the weather (they'd landed in a gale) and demolishing Orkney's gin stock.

At Sheila Fleet Jewellery in Tankerness

At the Lynnfield Hotel, Kirkwall
Meantime, I was at home making the acquaintance of several crane flies who were braving said weather and clinging to which ever surface they could find.

Earlier this week, I had to attend a training course in Galashiels, so flew into Edinburgh one evening, before staying over at a hotel near the training venue. As I had arrived in the dark, and the course began at 8.30 next morning, there wasn't much opportunity to go wildlife watching. However, the loo in my accommodation more than made up for that!

It was lovely to experience a bit of Autumn colour and a crisp calm morning. The icing on the cake was a Nuthatch heard as I ventured outside.

Back home, the following morning, and facing away from the dawn, a setting Moon descended towards candy-floss clouds. It mightn't have been fun, but it was fair.

Unlike later in the day, when hail showers powered through on a northerly breeze. Fortunately, the day's installation was on a southerly gable, so I was neatly sheltered from the worst excesses of little icy bullets.

Friday 15 November 2019

Don't have nightmares!

Well, one is never too old for new life experiences, I guess.

I went to bed last night, read for a while, then turned out the light to engage slumber mode. Then it happened, a thing that I had read about in books but never experienced. And, no, it wasn't that sort of book. Or that other one.

Infrequently, maybe a few times per year, just as I'm falling asleep, I have a 'tripping over the kerb' sensation, a leg shoots out to maintain my balance and I'm awake again. It wasn't that. But this morning I discovered that the kerb trip is known as a hypnogogic jerk. I've been called worse.

Nuh-uh, this was a whole other order of strange, but one from the same stable. I was suddenly aware that I couldn't move, not an arm or a leg, nothing. My vision felt as though I was looking through a large sheet of tiny bubble wrap, or a huge tv wall from a great distance. This gave way to some dancing motes of light, and when I realised that my eyes were closed, I opened them (so something could move), which made absolutely no difference to the view. I was wondering what the unseen presence to my left could be, as I could hear Our Lass breathing on my right, and just as I was thinking "Oo, I've read about this sort of thing!", I woke up.

So, sleep paralysis, wow!

Sadly, no succubus, but that was probably for the best, eh?

In less enlightened times (not that I'm suggesting that 'now' is particularly enlightened), there would have been all sorts of fantastical explanations for the experience. And plenty of weird reactions to it, some of which may have been more scary than the actual event. Somewhat prosaically, I suspect a rare mug of coffee, rather than possession, anything occult or plain old fruitloopery.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Blue is the colour, rockfall is the game

There are several small piles of rubble dotted about the hard-standing of Tense Towers. They are a mixture of rocks and stones unearthed whilst digging and weeding or, more loudly and scarily, mowing the lawn. They are also a source of significant marital disharmony.

My official line is that they are a ready supply of building stone and infill to repair the dry stane dyke which borders one side of the garden. This reasoning is somewhat undermined by the lack of actual repair work that has been carried out in the past five years (just two small sections fettled), but, hey, I'm getting around to it. Our Lass remains serially unimpressed.

Today, however, I have discovered their true purpose, but I am rushing ahead with the tale, so let me just take you back to yesterday afternoon.

At a quarter to two, I was leaving the house to catch a bus to Stromness in West Mainland. I needed to collect my van from the garage which had been Waxoyling it. However, my phone pings with an alert of a rare bird, a Blue Rock Thrush, which has been seen in a nearby quarry. It is a calm, sunny day, perfect for a spot of bird watching, but I really do need to collect the van. Predictably, by the time I return home, the bird has reportedly disappeared and with clear skies overnight, it is presumed to be heading south. Reading online forums in the evening, it appears there is some dispute (it involves birders, of course there's some dispute) as to whether this is the first or second official record of the species for Orkney. Either way, I have never seen one, so it would've been a lifer for me.

An hour after sunrise this morning, keener folk than I were on site to check out if there was a possibility of the bird still being present. It was. Messages were texted. Within Tense Towers, a bowl of muesli was thrust aside and a dressing gown was discarded in favour of fleecy trousers and umpteen layers of coats. I should explain that the nearby quarry is a mile and half from home (though it is on a small island, so there's a stretch of water in the way), and the opportunity (again!) to record a new species for my life list, virtually on my doorstep, was not to be sniffed at.

By the time I arrived on site, the bird had disappeared once more, so I spent a freezing hour in the company of the original finder (Thank you, DS) and a few hardy souls in the hope of its return. We saw several Robins, a couple of Meadow Pipits, some Redshanks and many Starlings, but nothing particularly thrushy. Eventually, the brisk easterly breeze and occasional showers meant that folk began to lose hope and drift away, so I headed home to finish breakfast and thaw out.

Forty five minutes later, and there's another shout. At least this time I had the good fortune to be correctly dressed and properly awake. Bundling my gear back into the car, I high-tailed it around the coast road, over Churchill Barrier One, and across Lamb Holm to the quarry. About a dozen of the local Birderati were assembled by the cabins on the quarry floor. Telescopes, binoculars and camera lenses were all pointed to a spot on the western rock face where, helpfully, the Blue Rock Thrush was perched near a snow white feral pigeon, as I was kindly shown its location (Thank you, AL). I should point out that at this time of year, 'Blue' is a relative term, the bird's colour being more grey, resulting in excellent camouflage in a rocky terrain. The bird was busy feeding and spent the next half an hour or so moving around the quarry walls and scree slopes.

OK, this cannot be called a twitch!
Although the species is resident in southern Europe and east as far as Japan, it is a very uncommon visitor to northern and western Europe. It was most pleasing to watch this individual unconcernedly hunting for insects in an industrial site, undisturbed by excited birders. Everyone kept a respectful distance, which is my way of saying that my photos are poor, but I am looking forward to seeing the results from some of the big lenses which were present, which will hopefully emerge on social media later.

Oh, my rubble piles? Hey, as the Blue Rock Thrush flies, one and a half miles is nothing. I have created the perfect habitat.