Sunday 23 February 2020

OK, I'm a windbag

Yesterday morning, an app on my phone pinged and I read the words which very much seemed to be the first line of a really good book:

"I have hailstones in my slippers."

Ah, the syzygy of heartfelt concern for a cat, a sudden hailstorm and the opening of a front door... it could only be our good friend Sian, from Life on a Small Island blog.

Now, if Orkney can be relied upon for weather (and believe me, it can), one of its more consistent features is its inconsistency, the changeability of said meteorology. We might have extremes, indeed wildly swinging extremes, but never for very long. So, it has been a little unnerving for the inhabitants of the archipelago to be subjected to weeks of the same sort of weather.

OK, you will have had your Ciaras and your Dennises (Dennii?), so far so traumatic, yet weirdly, these storms did not impact unusually upon Orkney. In UK terms, we got off lightly, with winds which barely registered above normal for these parts. However, this weekend, we have experienced gales measured, in places, well above 100mph, accompanied by thunder, lightning and hailstones. Hence Sian's icy footwear.

We had been wondering when Winter would show up, now we know.

Hail on window at Tense Towers

Obviously, weather such as this, affecting only a small proportion of the UK, doesn't have an official name. Why would a storm moniker be wasted upon such a trifling area? This reminded me of a snippet sent to me by Second Born, which is from a James Robertson book, 365 Stories:

The News Where You Are
That’s all from us. Now it’s time for the news where you are.
The news where you are comes after the news where we are. The news where we are is the news. It comes first. The news where you are is the news where you are. It comes after. We do not have the news where you are.
The news where you are may be news to you but it is not news to us.
The news may be international, national or regional. The news where we are may be international news. The news where you are is never international news. Where you are is not international. The news where you are comes after the international and national news.
The news where you are may be national news or regional news. However, national news where you are is not national news where we are. It is the news where you are.
If the news where you are is national news it is only national where you are.
The news where we are is national wherever you are.
On Saturdays, there is no news where you are after the news where we are. In fact there is no news where you are on Saturdays. Any news there is, is not where you are. It is where we are. If there is news where you are but not where we are it will wait until Sunday.
After the news where you are comes the weather.
The weather where you are is not the national weather. The weather where you are comes after the news where you are, and after the weather where you are comes the national weather. Do not confuse the national weather with the weather where you are. The weather where you are comes first but is lesser weather than the national weather.
Extreme weather is news. However, weather that is more extreme where you are than where we are is not news. Weather that is extreme where we are is news, even if extreme weather where we are is only average weather where you are.
On average, weather where you are is more extreme than weather where we are.
Tough shit.
Good night.
Which just about sums it up perfectly.
Coincidentally, at least I hope it was coincidentally, I recently revisited Duran Duran's Rio album from the early 1980s. With all the meteorological stuff buzzing about in my head, the opening lines from Hold Back The Rain rang rather true:
We're miles away from nowhere
And the wind doesn't have a name
So call it what you want to call it
Still blows down the lane
For a bit of local context, older Orcadians can still recall what would today be tabloid-termed a 'Year from Hell'. Whilst strictly more of a 13 month period in 1952 and 1953 (apologies for my pedantry), the reports are harrowing and a flavour of the time can be found in several pages on the About Orkney website, here and here.
I cannot step aboard a ferry these days, including the latest incarnation of the SS Earl Thorfinn, without thinking of the horrendous conditions experienced by the crew on their unscheduled journey to Aberdeen.

Friday 21 February 2020

Blowing 'ot and cold

On a sunny but blustery morning, I ventured over to the West Mainland to meet up with Eagle-eyed M at the RSPB's Brodgar reserve (co-located with the slightly earlier Neolithic stone circle).

A stiff south westerly breeze, with firm intentions of career advancement to gale, made conversation difficult and progress slow. As we wandered by the stones of the Ring, it was possible to hear snatches of song from a Skylark, as it sang territorially as if it was a calm day. The pools to the north of the site contained flocks of Wigeon and Shoveler. M spotted a pair of Shelduck too.

Dropping down to the shore of Stenness Loch, we turned south to walk along the bank, with the wind making waves of the brackish water, in this normally sedate water body. Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Mallard and Red-breasted Merganser were busy either courting or were already paired up, a sign that the cycles of Nature pay little heed to local weather conditions.

We paused by a bench at one end of a small bay. Across the other side of the bay, a lady in a high vis waterproof was walking her dog. Well, ostensibly she was walking her dog, but at that particular moment she was staring intently at the water's edge from her vantage point atop a low bank.

M quickly scanned the opposite shore and soon found the focus of the lady's attention... an Otter, who seemed reasonably unconcerned by the presence of a human and a dog.

Rather than create extra disturbance and jeopardise the moment, we stayed put and watched from afar. But when the dogwalk continued, we took our opportunity to make our way around the shore to a similar position.

The Otter was nowhere to be seen, and try as I might, the waves of the loch made it impossible for me to locate the animal swimming in deeper water. It didn't help that we were facing into the wind and my eyes were actually watering.

Fortunately, though I suspect fortune played no part in it, M was able to locate the Otter, and we watched incredulously as it swam straight towards us. We crouched down (thank heavens I had put on waterproof trousers!) to mask our outlines behind the tussocks of grass at the edge of the bank. Certainly, there was no possibility of our scent reaching the Otter.

The animal came ashore on a small islet and proceeded to eat whatever it had caught. Although it was aware of our presence, it did not seem put off from its meal in any way. The buffeting of the wind made photography difficult, but I was able to take a few images that weren't obscured by flailing, out-of-focus grass.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Stuff On My Phone (29)

One of the problems of driving around in a roof-racked van with multiple ladders, is that the radio aerial has a shorter life expectancy than a World War Two fighter pilot. So, when the occasion arises where I need some aural pleasure, I turn to 4G or WiFi internet access on my phone. Binge listening, a grateful sanctuary from the tedium of ferry travel (waiting on piers and plying the high seas), usually centres around topical news satire and science documentaries.

There's not much radio I would willing listen to these days: news coverage is either too shouty or just too polarised (honestly, if balance is a couple of folk from either end of a political spectrum cancelling each other out, where's the moving towards a solution?); talk shows are just soul-crushingly depressing (the only thing worse than no-one being able to have an opinion is everyone having an opinion - and again, from the outer reaches of the topic de jour); music, for so long a go-to option, has left me cold (such that now, along with many other folk, I rely on downloaded playlists); and sport (at least for a Middlesbrough supporter) is too much of a roller coaster ride.

There has always been the calming influence of Test Match Special, but synchronising my work with international sporting fixtures is not a schedule for financial success.

However, last week, I had a bit of a revelatory moment when I fortuitously discovered the BBC's 'Fortunately' podcast with Fi Glover and Jane Garvey. This podcast began in 2017, so I was able to gaze rapturously at a list of 127 episodes, and look forward to the pleasant thought of mellowing out on plenty of upcoming journeys, listening to these two amazing ladies.

Sunday 16 February 2020

Post Ciara constitutional

After several days of indoor work, the departure of Storm Ciara meant that I could venture outdoors again. An early start saw me slip sliding my way to the van, with the pair of us then tiptoeing into Kirkwall through the first appreciable snow of the Winter here. Two hours later, when the ferry berthed in Westray, it was still very cold, but bright and reasonably calm.

Thankfully, my customer was soon on hand with a warming brew, but he and I quickly realised that I'm not completely over Middlesbrough selling Adama Traore to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

With the task completed, I had a few hours to kill before the return sailing back to Kirkwall, so ventured to Grobust beach to see what was about. The answer was mainly waves, although there were Oystercatchers and Curlews in the fields behind the dunes, and a flock of Purple Sandpipers on the rocky shore.

There was still evidence of the previous night's snow and hail showers...

but this doesn't count.

Did I mention the waves?

As I began the walk back to where I'd left the van, a small movement at my feet caught my eye. There, walking over the accumulated hailstones, was an insect. Despite the cold, it wasn't hampered by lack of mobility. Indeed, I struggled to photograph it, so quick was it to avoid detection.

Whilst waiting for the ferry, I wandered to the breakwater by the pier. A couple of birds were perched on the rocks, and I puzzled over their ID for a while before throwing the question out onto social media.

Ummm, not sure, could be a Cormorant, could be a Shag?

With a steep forehead, this is defo a Shag

The two together, apparently showing a distinct difference in foreheads. However, I wasn't certain that this was enough evidence to make the right hand bird a Cormorant.

Facebook reckoned that it was probably a young Shag (thanks, AF).

Monday 10 February 2020

The laziest storm chaser

As I sit here typing this, occasionally gazing out of the window at the weather, I ponder what it must be like on a two hour ferry journey. Hopefully, Our Lass will tell me later. Yup, it's all a bit meteorological at the moment, eh? Countless folk from slightly nearer the Equator have contacted us to ask if we're ok, and we are, as I don't think Orkney has had the brunt of this storm. Another glance out of the window reveals another wintry squall scudding across Scapa Flow. Once it has hammered on said window, in a brief and confused flurry of snow, sleet and hail, there will be a chance to take in the scenic outline of Hoy, with a frosting of snow on the hilltops.

And repeat. But there have been more pleasant interludes during the last few days.

Early Friday morning, when I opened the lounge curtains, there was a moonset in progress behind Wideford Hill. It was probably asking a lot of my little point-and-shoot camera to capture the moment, but at maximum zoom and very little light, it managed this image.

Later that afternoon, in bright sunshine and a very brisk breeze, I ventured back to Evie Sands with the recce team from Wild Orkney Walks. The conditions made photography difficult, but in the shelter of a bank at the top of the beach, we were able to watch several groups of waders, including this Redshank.

We had a slow start to Saturday, at least until a bird call filtered through the bedroom curtains and the duvet was flung aside in a mad dash to the window. The Skylarks are back! Not in full song, mind, but it was lovely to hear their flight calls, a pleasing mixture of chirrups and gentle warbles. Perhaps in response to this, shortly afterwards, Our Lass noticed a bird sat in the ploughed field opposite. It could have just been a feral pigeon or a Rock Dove, but it wasn't.

Nope, a female Merlin was hunting on the ground, so presumably for lesser fare than larks and pipits.

By mid-morning, the sunshine had tempted us outdoors, despite the chilly wind. In a few sheltered ditches, the first stirrings of Spring were making themselves known, with Marsh Marigolds and Lesser Celandine beginning to show.

Strongest gusts here at Tense Towers were on Saturday evening, or so it seemed, as we struggled the short distance from car to front door, wondering why some unseen assailant was turning the garden hose upon us.

Sunday was a wet, windy day, but pretty much standard fare for these parts. It looks as though we will have another few days of strong winds yet, before a brief and welcome respite.

Monday 3 February 2020

Bad form?

If I'm honest, it was the hare. Stick a picture of a hare on a box and it's a nigh on certainty that Old Tense would buy it. So what if it's a 1000 piece jigsaw? Who cares there's lots of white... and black... and enough shades of grey to give anyone a libido-sapping headache?

All I saw was the hare.

And so, on Christmas Eve, at right about the time the sherry and gin began to flow, we made a space at the end of the dining table and opened the box.

From the off, it was obvious that this was a jigsaw in a different league. OK, we found the four corner pieces pretty quickly, but only one of them could be located with any certainty.

The bottom edge was the obvious 'way in'. The other three sides took much longer.

In fact, even when the perimeter was completed (after recourse to the tape measure, because two sides were the wrong length for a while), there were several mistakes in the top edge which wouldn't come to light until much later. 

But hey, there's a lovely picture of a hare on the box.

And at least that bit is done!

The twiggy bits were slowly taking shape...

Very, very slowly...

OK, painfully slowly. And with all the white areas done, it was time for the greys and blacks.

However, tonight, after 42 days, and with 999 pieces in place, I arrived at the final piece of the puzzle. 

It didn't fit!!

Yup, there was one more mistake to rectify.

Phew! Can we change the tablecloth now, before someone calls Environmental Health?

Sunday 2 February 2020

[Happy sigh]

It was a cold, crisp morning, and the Winter light was gorgeous. We were keen to be out in the fresh air, so after the fairly rare experience of scraping the ice from the car windscreen, we headed across to West Mainland.

We left the car by the Broch of Gurness and walked back along the single track road by Evie Sands. The calls of dozens of Long-tailed Ducks came to us from out to sea in Eynhallow Sound. Shags and Red-breasted Mergansers were busy fishing in the bay, whilst a Slavonian Grebe drifted through on the tidal race.

On the beach, there were plenty of waders foraging along the strand line and the water's edge, and a Grey Heron patrolled the shallows on the hunt for fish.

A flock of around 28 Snow Buntings were busily exploring the beach, argumentatively chirruping amongst themselves and squabbling over any interesting finds.

As we wandered inland along the banks of a burn, we encountered several pairs of Stonechat. Here, a female was sufficiently puzzled by my presence to hang around for a few photos.

In the distance, a male Hen Harrier quartered across a patch of wetland, hoping for Snipe, I guess. As it continued on its way, a large flock of gulls in the next field all took to the sky, rather than risk being caught on the ground. Their Greylag Geese neighbours, being somewhat larger and out of the harrier's league, simply watched the raptor fly low overhead.

We turned along a rough puddle-strewn track, the night's chill having given each one a coating of ice. The track crossed over the burn and then skirted the shore at the other side of the bay. More waders were present here: Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone.

It wasn't a long walk, but the wildlife moments were top notch.