Sunday 29 March 2020

Bunting high and low

I am reading a book about local history at the moment, Sheena Wenham's 'A More Enterprising Spirit - The Parish and People of Holm in 18th Century Orkney'. Perhaps that is why I found myself looking at a late 19th Century map of the area (or at least pre-World War 1), and pondering about a milestone shown adjacent to St Nicholas Kirk, the one on our daily circuit.

Now, readers with sharp eyes and even keener memories, may recall a photo similar to this one from 25th December last year:

showing a stone embedded in the sea wall opposite the kirk. Today, although it was nowhere near as pleasant to be out, I paid a bit more attention to this particular stone.

It's a tough ask of a lump of sandstone to spend 120-150 years being battered by the North Sea without showing some signs of weathering. Is that the remains of a carved '8', do you think? My guess at how long the stone has been there was vaguely informed by an article on the web which stated that roads in the county were built in the latter half of the 19th Century.

It wasn't a day for photography, or even hanging about, as a brisk westerly was bringing wintry showers in off the Atlantic. However, whilst we pottered back up the hill towards home, we kept or eyes peeled for some Reed Buntings, which we think are back on territory in the reed-lined ditches hereabouts. They are not particularly spectacular looking or sounding birds (perhaps not even to each other), but they are being rather skulky and flighty, which has only served to heighten our interest. Perhaps not evolution's finest hour, then.

Anyway, today we managed to see at least one female, perched briefly on a fence, and at least one male, hopping about in a ditch bottom, out of the weather and searching for food.

I took countless images of the male, and this was the 'best' of the lot, the others being either out of focus, obscured by vegetation or [sigh] out of shot.

Returning briefly to the milestone theme, there is a further stone which I could visit on my allowed daily perambulation, but please try to contain your excitement at this thrilling prospect!

Saturday 28 March 2020

Friday 27 March 2020

Light exercise

If you were thinking, dear reader, that during January and February, I&T wasn't keeping up with the expected number of posts, then you would be correct. You would also be forgiven for speculating that if this trend were to continue, Old Tense was going to be in a spot of bother come December, what with his arbitrary annual 100+ blogposts rule.

However, you're very not allowed to say "Thank Goodness for Covid-19 and the global lockdown, now Tense can up his game!" That would be bad, very bad, but thanks for the unsettling and unnerving sentiment.

This morning I used my allotted quota of 'temporarily leaving the house for a walk' to potter around the old kirk loop, not in the company of Our Lass (as she was working), but with a new set of bins. Don't worry, my trusty old set are still fine, but looking at their objective lenses (the big end), the housing around one of them is a very mis-shapen oval, rather than the eminently more preferable circular. They're on borrowed time, I would say.

To be honest, I was hoping for some rare and spectacular migratory bird to fill my field of view, so that the bins could be properly 'christened', somewhat like the Woodchat Shrike which Eagle-eyed M managed on her first foray with new bins last year. It's ok, I'm not bitter, I'm completely over it and barely mention the incident more than twice a week.

As it turned out, despite news of Wheatears in other parts of the island, there wasn't too much to report, but the sun was shining so I just soaked up plenty of photons reflected off feather, fur and flower.

On the lichen-encrusted cemetery wall of the old kirk, a couple of Starlings were sat, looking rather resplendent in their glittering sequined costumes. I've heard it said that when their bills change colour for the breeding season, the base of the male's is blue, whilst the base of the female's is pink. No idea if that's true or just a fanciful meme, but this photo seems to show both colours. However, in these gender neutral times, we'll just have to jolly well go on wondering, eh?

Heading for home, as the road climbed up from the shore and between fields, there was a noticeable increase in Lapwing activity on the rough pasture. The birds were calling and displaying more, and a few individuals were a bit nearer the road in a wet flush. Still nowhere near enough for a decent photo, mind, but with the peachy light I thought it worthwhile trying to capture an image.

Iridescence! [Happy sigh]

Thursday 26 March 2020

Quacking weather

Our Lass and I had only walked around the local kirk circuit a short time ago, but what a change in the intervening few days. Non-human changes, that is.

Where, on Sunday, we struggled to see a Coltsfoot in flower, yesterday there were verges teeming with them. And there was a hardly a breath of wind, so photography was possible. 

The Lesser Celandines have been out for a while, but looking very battered and bruised due to the equinoctial winds and lashing rain. So, again, it was lovely to find pristine examples.

As it was such a glorious afternoon, and because we're all having to stay at home, it is difficult to synchronise one's daily allotted exercise with the rest of the parish. Cue much social-distancing malarkey and a busier (though not exactly crowded) amble.

Behind the old kirk, there is a flooded field, and we took the opportunity to use the kirk boundary wall as cover to look at the wildfowl gathered there.

Gadwall, Shoveler, Shelduck and Teal

Shoveler and Shelduck

Teal dabbling (those gold triangles are a dead giveaway)

Teal and Mallard
Today it is very sunny and I've even had all the windows open! The Met Office are predicting 9 degrees C, feeling like 6 degrees C. So not quite shorts and sandals weather just yet!

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Lockdown, don't look up

On Monday afternoon, I gathered the staff (me) together in the board room (lounge) and after the formal announcement, and subsequently brief question and answer session (me, me and me), the message went out that the business was on hold for all non-essential work.

Predictably, the next morning, well before 9am, a phone call came in requesting help with a property which had no tv signal. I was halfway through my apology, when the voice on the other end of the phone politely cut in and explained that the property was empty, as they weren't moving in until Saturday. As the conversation progressed, it became obvious that there was a clear need in this case (for reasons which won't be explained here), and so together, the caller and I hatched a Covid plan which would allow the job to go ahead.

In a nutshell, it entailed us never meeting, a bunch of keys, numerous door handles, lots of hand-sanitising wipes, an emailed invoice and a bank transfer payment. My quote for the job was based on the customer's knowledge of the probable history of the property, but when I arrived on site and garnered a proper understanding of the existing infrastructure, another solution presented itself. As this was also considerably cheaper, a further phone discussion was had and this option agreed. Everyone (well, maybe not my bank manager) was happy and, more importantly, safe.

My journey to and fro produced a Stoat sighting (reported to the Orkney Native Wildlife Project) as a furry blur rocketed across the road in front of me. In flooded fields near the customer's property, there were four Shelduck by a pool, and close by,  a small number of Pink-footed Geese tucked in amongst a larger flock of Greylags. The roads were much quieter than normal, many businesses were shut, and consequently there were swathes of empty car parking spaces in town.

So, with a much-reduced means of generating income, I, like many folk, are contemplating how to fill the unforgiving minute. My immediate list looks like this:

1. Design a webpage for the business - this task never made it to the top of a To Do list during the first five year plan, so now seems the perfect opportunity to broaden my skill base (and probably my repertoire of expletives);

2. The lawn mower has never had an oil change in six years. I suspect it is going to be a busy little machine in the coming weeks, so best I give it some TLC;

3. Email storage - I have one unread email which needs replying to, but more significantly, there's 1.5Gb of archived mails which I'm sure could be trimmed massively;

4. Source petrol, see 2. above;

5. As I drove by a farm last week, I was treated to a thrilling murmuration by a small flock of Starlings (hundreds, rather than thousands). To be honest, the van was less impressed than I was, due to the prolonged burst of brown paintballing - wash van thoroughly.

How are you all coping with the changed circumstances?

Sunday 22 March 2020

Dawning realisation

This graph was included in an article on the BBC News website on Sunday 22nd March 2020. I was initially puzzled by the fact that adding the Recoveries and Deaths together didn't match the number of Current cases. Then I remembered that anyone who thinks they have symptoms of Coronavirus should self-isolate for 14 days. Looking at the graph again, it dawned upon me that the sum of the latest numbers of Recoveries and Deaths matches the Current cases from 2 weeks ago.

So, in another fortnight, the Recoveries and Deaths columns are going to do what the Current cases column is doing now i.e. triple. Am I reading that correctly?

And it doesn't look like that Current cases slope is going to be levelling off any time soon.


Love is a social disease

Unexpectedly finding myself in the category of 'key worker', through a contract with a national company, was one of the more surprising developments of this past week. I guess that with 'everyone' self-isolating, having access to tv and broadband is seen as essential.

So, it was fortuitous that there were also plenty of wildlife moments to take my mind off things. Let's begin with an area of rough ground in an industrial estate in Kirkwall, which is becoming well known as a good vole hunting spot for Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls. As an aside to a fellow blogger, does this release me from my pledge, CT?

All the above shots were taken from a vehicle (and the resulting photos subsequently cropped). The following afternoon, I had a few hours spare, and the light was much better, so I returned to the spot to try and capture flight shots of the owl. I also had to get my lazy arse out of the car!

This Pied Wagtail was NOT happy

Later in the week, Eagle-eyed M suggested a walk at Brodgar, with the hope of some quality otter time. As we skirted around the perimeter of the Ring, the air was filled with the sound of birdsong. Skylarks were 'ascending', trilling their flurry of notes from on high like some avian stream of consciousness. Meadow Pipits were fluttering skyward before parachuting back to earth in an audio visual display of territoriality. In the distance, on some shallow pools, wildfowl were gathered to feed and loaf: Shelduck, Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal, Wigeon and... my 100th species for the year... Pintail.

As we neared the shore of Stenness Loch, I spotted a dog Otter on a spit of land. He soon moved into a small bay to hunt, so we quietly crept around the lochside path to get a better view. He was finding plenty of eels (I think) and although we weren't close to him, the lack of a breeze meant that we could hear all his splashings as he constantly dived and resurfaced.

Early yesterday morning, as has become the custom of late, the first birdsong we heard was a Skylark. Sometimes the wee guy is airborne, but occasionally he takes the easy option and sings from atop a fence post.

Later that afternoon, Our Lass and I took a walk at Mull Head in Deerness. There was a stiff southerly breeze which felt colder than it ought, but it was good to be out in the fresh air and we were careful to socially distance ourselves from the only other two people we met.

Seabirds are returning to the cliffs for the breeding season, so we sat and watched the Guillemots for a while.

One ledge in particular attracted our attention, as there was an obvious space in the serried ranks of auks, and even as new arrivals alighted on the cliff, this gap was maintained. Zooming in with my little camera, I realised that there was a Fulmar at the back of the ledge, who was intent on claiming the ledge for albatross-dom. Perhaps with current affairs in mind, I couldn't help but think of this scene as a failed attempt at giving a lecture on the merits of social distancing. You know you've lost your audience when they start having sex.

As we wandered back to the car, there was another reminder that Spring is in the air, and that there's only one species on Earth which is particularly preoccupied with pandemic. Way, way in the distance, a couple of Brown Hares were chasing and boxing, in a possible prelude to procreation.

Now, after all that smut and shenanigans, go and wash your hands.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Careen afore us

Our journey back from the holiday in Inverness went without a hitch. As usual, we had allowed time to pop to a supermarket on the mainland, before catching a ferry across the Pentland Firth. Having used up all the perishables from the fridge at Tense Towers before we left, there were a few essentials to buy to see us through the rest of the weekend until Monday morning. Whilst in holiday mode, we had been vaguely aware of all the malarkey surrounding folk stockpiling goods due to COVID-19, so I wasn't quite prepared for the blatant opportunism of the supermarket chain. At the end or corner of just about every aisle were displays of loo roll and handwash. But the icing on the cake was this shelf sign, which I am positive must have a typo in it.

I had to pop up to Shetland (6 confirmed cases, all self-isolating) for work on Friday. Once the ferry had docked, I headed north from Lerwick through occasional flurries of snow and I marvelled at the icicles which had formed below the banks at either side of the road. As they say, it was proper Baltic!

The return drive to Lerwick was notable for a Red Grouse, spotted feeding at the side of the road (another first for the year).

Whilst waiting for the ferry back to Orkney (no confirmed cases at time of writing), I had a wander along the harbour front, then climbed one of the many flagstoned alleys which wind steeply up to Hillhead, then along past the building which is famous as the Police Station in the crime drama Shetland, before descending once more back to the harbour front.

 A bird box on a telegraph pole - Great Tits and megabits
There were plenty of tourists about, but I couldn't see a cruise ship anywhere, not at a berth in Lerwick, nor out in the sound between the mainland and Bressay. With a bit more time to kill, I drove to the Knab, a ness with views of Brei Wick and, sure enough, there was the ship, the Magellan, busy transferring passengers to and fro to the town in a fleet of small tenders.

Yesterday afternoon, just as Our Lass and I were contemplating a walk, we received a message from Eagle-eyed M asking much the same question, so we met up and drove down to Rose Ness at the southern tip of Holm. It was bracing to say the least, with the waves at high tide sending foam up over the clifftops. By the small modern-day lighthouse there were 5 Ringed Plovers hunkering down out of the wind, and on the return walk, M found a few wing feathers, which I pocketed for ID later.

This Shag seemed to have a penchant for extreme sport

Back at Tense Towers, over coffee and biscuits, we examined the feathers, which were mainly brown with a pale stripe on the leading edge. Probably too small for a wader, but too large for a pipit, we were a bit stumped as to who the unfortunate owner had been. The salt-laden clifftop location and rough moorland didn't seem right for Blackbird, so I began leafing through a book of bird signs (footprints, skulls, feathers etc). When I eventually found a match for colour and size, we were amazed to learn that the feathers were from a Starling. Really?! Aren't they all black and sparkly?! But the book indicated that the secondaries would begin to have a blue-greenish gloss by S3 and, would you believe it, they did.

Then we checked the base of the feathers, where the quills had been broken off. So, not moulted, not plucked by a raptor, but chewed by a mammal, which would either have been a feral cat or a non-native Stoat. Satisfied with our nature detective work, we had another cuppa to celebrate.

Today dawned was wet and grey, but by mid morning the wind had dropped to nothing. Our Lass and I had a potter around the kirk loop, spying the occasional and distant Brown Hare, before stopping by the kirk to have a really good look at the Starlings on the roof.

Well, well, well. They do have brown feathers at the leading edge of the wing!

The pools by the kirk contained Teal, Shelduck and Gadwall, and then we scanned the fields behind these for any other wildlife.

In the far distance, we could see another hare hunkered down in the long grass by a fence line. And whilst watching this, I spotted a pair of Snipe a little bit nearer in the same field.

The walk back uphill towards home was rudely interrupted by a shower of rain, driven on by northerly breeze which had suddenly sprang up. There was only one thing for it...


Monday 9 March 2020

Stuff On My Phone (30)

Sadly, welcome to one of the 364 days of the year which aren't International Women's Day.

My teenage years were the 1970s, I grew up in a rural part of the North of England, and back then public places were often boozy, smoky and unremittingly sexist. It's easy, at this remove, to simply dismiss it all as so much 'Life On Mars', but that is too simplistic a view. I hope that I have been able, in some small way, to redress the balance of that culture during (so far) my adult life. I am not perfect by any means. No angel, and much angst, especially after a poorly-judged spot of innuendo - there's a long list of those, I'm afraid.

But I reckon there must've been glimmers of redemption to be seen in my younger self, at least from Our Lass's standpoint, or we wouldn't be where we are today. And we have been equally blessed with two wonderful daughters, though as a father, I certainly wish that the world had made more progress, and sooner, along the road to equality.

By the mid to late 1990s, I was working for a small firm that had a reasonable gender ratio, and by 'reasonable' I mean that women were present in some senior roles. Let's face it, any meeting held in a boardroom full of blokes will practically always descend into a pissing contest, which doesn't strike me as an efficient or healthy way to run a company, a national organisation or a government.

So, this small firm... featured characterful folk, both female and male. And the ladies introduced me to Alanis Morisette's 'Jagged Little Pill'. Jeez, that album should be compulsory in our schools. It brought things into focus in a way that I hadn't seen before, and certainly made me more of a feminist.

Obviously, I cannot fully understand these issues as a woman, there's no way I could properly appreciate the dead weight of centuries of misogyny, violence and abuse, but I think I definitely had my eyes opened to more of the picture. All to the good.

Before you rush to turn the sound off, don't worry, I'm not about to play 'that' sweary track. No, one of the more defining moments was 'All I Really Want' (though just about any track would qualify for that label).

All I Really Want 

Do I stress you out?
My sweater is on backwards and inside out
And you say, how appropriate
I don't like to dissect everything today
I don't mean to pick you apart you see
But I can't help it
And there I go jumping before the gunshot has gone off
Slap me with a splintered ruler
And it would knock me to the floor if I wasn't there already
If only I could hunt the hunter
And all I really want is some patience
A way to calm the angry voice
And all I really want is deliverance
Do I wear you out?
You must wonder why I'm relentless and all strung out
I'm consumed by the chill of solitary
I'm like Estella
I like to reel it in and then spit it out
I'm frustrated by your apathy
And I am frightened by the corrupted ways of this land
If only I could meet the maker
And I am fascinated by the spiritual man
I am humbled by his humble nature, yeah
And what I wouldn't give to find a soul mate?
Someone else to catch this drift
And what I wouldn't give to meet a kindred?
Enough about me, let's talk about you for a minute
Enough about you, let's talk about life for a while
The conflicts, the craziness and the sound of pretenses is falling
All around, all around
Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here can you handle this?
Did you think about your bills, you ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you're going to die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?
And all I need now is intellectual intercourse
A soul to dig the hole much deeper
And I have no concept of time other than it is flying
If only I could kill the killer
And all I really want is some peace man
A place to find a common ground
And all I really want is a wavelength
And all I really want is some comfort
A way to get my hands untied
And all I really want is some justice
And so I will close with a memory of those times and a normal day at the office...

Don't have nightmares!

Sunday 8 March 2020

One last esker-pade

Our last full day in Inverness was spent touring around a couple of sites to the east of Loch Ness. However, first port of call was the Iron Age hillfort atop the hill, Craig Phadraig, behind our accommodation. Standing on the remnants of the fort ramparts afforded views of the Beauly Firth and the mountains beyond. A Red Kite slowly glided overhead and numerous twitterings from the surrounding woodland suggested a healthy population of tits, finches and Goldcrests.

Next up was RSPB Loch Ruthven, a breeding site for the rare and spectacular looking Slavonian Grebe. Whilst we see these birds in Winter in the waters around Orkney, they are not in breeding plumage at this stage, so we were hopeful of some early returners to the loch. Sadly, it was not to be, much of the loch was frozen over, but we did see and hear some noisy Little Grebes, trilling away for all they were worth. Also present were three Goldeneyes, a big flock of Teal and a small flock of Wigeon.

As we walked disconsolately back along the shoreside path to the car park, my eyes were drawn to a patch of something on a tree trunk. It would've been hidden from my gaze on the way in,  but now stood out as worth investigating.

Early thoughts were that it may have been constructed by a spider, but I was reluctant to poke about in the hole at the top, because... reasons. Obviously I wouldn't want to disturb any creature therein, especially on such a cold day. Yes, that was why.

Later, I pinged a few photographs of the structure to L back in Orkney, as she is a dab hand at identifying this sort of thing. I was amazed by her answer. It was the cocoon and eggs of a Vapourer Moth. The wingless female had emerged from the cocoon last Summer, mated with a winged male and then laid her eggs in situ. Later this Spring, the eggs will hatch and little caterpillars will disperse to feed on the surrounding greenery.

Continuing the walk back to the car, we realised that the temperature must have increased ever so slightly, and the wind, too. The thin coating of ice on the loch surface was on the move, and where it met the shore, it was shattering and breaking. Whilst in no way as spectacular as scenes from Canada and the United States, where they have bigger lakes and thicker ice, it was a fascinating thing to witness. See here.

After lunch, we needed some more exercise, and headed to Littlemill, a Forestry Commission Scotland site. Although now wooded, during the last Ice Age, other things were happening here. Meltwater, flowing through tunnels within a glacier, carried along sediments. When the glacier melted, these sediments were deposited on the ground as distinct sinuous ridges, now known as eskers. Some of them are still taller than a house. They weren't easy to photograph, but below are a panorama across one, then a few shots along different ridges.

Also on this site were several kettlehole lochans, where huge lumps of ice were deposited and buried. As the ice subsequently melted, the holes left behind filled with water. This wood isn't too far from the A9, and we will certainly think of visiting it during dragonfly season!