Sunday 26 April 2020

Flora Tensensis 20.04.26

The latest wild flower to bloom in the garden at Tense Towers is a lovely delicate pink colour, which somewhat belies its colonising thuggish habits. Our Lass turfs out huge chunks of it every Autumn, but back it comes, invigorated, every Spring. It is difficult not to like it though.

Red Campion Silene dioica


I recall a few years ago when there was a huge influx of Silver Y moths from the Continent, the Red Campion was absolutely alive with whirring wings and frantic nectar-guzzling.


In the face of a global pandemic lockdown, life for pretty much every other species on the planet carries on regardless. All those plants and animals (plus other eukaryotes, bacteria and archaea) can get along just fine, and probably much better, without us. It's a sobering thought. On some level, we're the disease that's afflicting the world. I'm quite sure that House Sparrows, House Martins, House Mice and Carpet Beetles will be able to find a new niche (or whatever habitat they used pre Homo), should the effluent hit the extractor for the human race.

On a more local level, here's a selection of wildlife getting on with the day job.

This small warbler showed up one evening recently whilst Our Lass and I were enjoying an aperitif sat by the front door, taking in the sun and sheltering from the breeze. It's on its way north as part of the Spring migration, and is either a Willow Warbler or a Chiffchaff. I can only reliably tell them apart if they sing. It didn't. The local nature folk on Facebook were similarly split as to its identity. My excuse was that I was on my second G&T.

A pair of Pied Wagtails showed up briefly, earlier that same day. This is the male, I believe, judging by the size of that black bib.

OK, this isn't technically wildlife, but please forgive me an opportunistic sky photo.

On our allotted daily exercise yesterday, we encountered this pair of Wheatears by the springs on the Tieve Road...

and where just about every clump of Marsh Marigolds was playing host to one or more of these hoverflies, Eristalis intricaria, a furry bumlebeee mimic.

In the flooded fields, a brood of Mallard ducklings were staying close to mum.

As we pottered along the coast road, our ears detected a new sound for the year, the Sandwich Terns were back! And as we're in the parish of Holm (pronounced 'ham'), these are obviously Ham Sandwiches.

A Great Northern Diver was foraging for food in the shallow waters of a bay.

Whilst a Lapwing was also busy feeding in the mud of another flooded field, where the week's dry spell has reduced the size of the pool considerably.

We are incredibly fortunate to have this wildlife on our doorstep as, for us, it is essential to our well-being, a need to know that despite the blind unsustainability of our species' rampant over-consumption, Life goes on. I sincerely hope that you all have an opportunity, wherever you are, to notice the natural world, in all its myriad forms, going on around you. It can be a real tonic.

Friday 24 April 2020

A circle of life and death

Wildlife watching during lockdown is a matter of vigilance, attention to detail and timely response. Actually, that's probably a reasonable modus operandi for controlling a pandemic, but I digress.

One morning last weekend, I was stood staring out of the lounge window, when a movement across the fields caught my eye. A large gull was swooping and diving at something, and this piqued my interest sufficiently to warrant more investigation through binoculars. At the far side of the neighbouring field, so about 250m away, a Great Black-backed Gull was chasing a Brown Hare. Now I have witnessed this species of gull eating a young Rabbit whole (a spectacle as awesome as it is gruesome, though maybe not for the rabbit), but the idea that one could catch a hare was preposterous.

The chase went on for some time, so I put down my bins, grabbed a camera and dashed outside to try to photograph the scene. As I began to take shots, I realised that the gull had indeed given up the chase and had flown over the fence from the pasture into a recently-sown field.

My relief for the hare and an 'I told you so' for the gull was short-lived. The gull pounced on something else, something I couldn't immediately identify, but whatever it was it took several moments to subdue. 

Looking back through my images later, it was possible to identify the prey as another hare, due to size and the black tail. However, I have no way of knowing whether this was an injured or sick animal. Gulls, corvids and raptors everywhere are used to scavenging roadkill from our transport system, so after my initial shock, I pondered whether the reduced traffic of a lockdown had forced predators to hunt more actively. I had not previously seen a Great Black-backed Gull take a Brown Hare. I doubt that any other species of gull, even a Lesser Black-backed, could manage it.

One lunchtime in the last week, I noticed a pair of Craneflies mating by our front door. I am guessing that the larger individual is the male, but I could be wrong. Either way, the smaller partner looks as though its wings haven't fully opened, which makes me think that the maturer fly grabbed it for sexual congress as soon as it emerged from the ground. It is not healthy to anthropomorphise this relationship!

Their chosen spot for making out was in the shade of the door frame but, hey, not to worry, they were still at it come sunset, when the golden light of evening washed over the lovers. I have no idea when the marathon romp began but, jings, there's over eight hours encompassed by these images. It is still not healthy to anthropomorphise this relationship!

Meantime, the warm, dry weather coupled with lots of spare time has meant that tasks which have been put off for years are finally being tackled: after being displaced by a shed several years ago, the rotary airer is now back in the ground and whirly-gigging once more; the area that has been tarpaulin and tyres for a similar amount of time has been cleared and dug over to make a vegetable patch (sorry, Snipe); and I have been a bit more forgiving of the Lesser Celandines by mowing around some of their more concentrated gatherings. Currently, the area left of centre in the photo is being excavated for a pond.

Back at the door frame, a Bristletail put in an appearance.

We have learnt that the coming of Spring and the flowering of the Dandelions inevitably leads to Linnets.

And, as is traditional in these parts, several warm days lead inexorably to haar (sea fog), which drifts slowly in on the breeze and can be like living in a dark cloud or, as above, an ethereal glowing diffuseness.

To end this post on a more positive note than I began, here's a very short time lapse film of a recent sunset.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Corenvirons-20, Part 5

I'll not be needing a map for this one...

Occasionally on this blog, if I have included a photo looking west from Tense Towers, a gable end of a large house can be seen. These photos tend to be skyscapes or sunsets, but the most recent image of the 'large house' to be included here was this one of a Skylark on a fence post.

The house is the Free Kirk Manse in Holm, and I will go into more detail about the property and its ecclesiastical history in a later post. This post concerns one of its illustrious inhabitants from times past, Florence Marian MacNeill. She was a daughter of the Free Kirk minister, the Reverend Doctor Daniel MacNeill and his wife Jessie Dewar. Born in the manse in Spring 1885, Florence went on to become a suffragist, an author, a founder member of the Scottish National Party and a social historian.

One of her famous books is a collection of traditional Scots recipes, The Scots Kitchen' (1929). It has been described as the definitive book on Scots cookery. As luck would have it, we have a copy of a later reprint of the book, so I thought the least I could do was try out a recipe for this post.

I decided against Sheep's Head Broth, and opted for the topical recipe for Manse Biscuits (sadly not the manse). Due to lockdown, we didn't have a lemon in the fruit bowl (they're all in the freezer, chopped into segments... for G&Ts), so I substituted some vanilla essence instead. I used the last of our plain flour, and spent ages trying to figure out what 'moderate oven' meant, before I discovered a conversion chart at the front of the book. Then I just had to adjust the time for a fan oven to complete my segue from 1929 to 2020.

And I didn't bother with the dredging.

Corenvirons-20 data

Target: Holm Free Church Manse
Location: HY498018
Distance from Tense Towers (as the dragon flies): 400m
Hazards: Hot oven, conversion of cooking temperature and time from 1929 to 2020
Mission accomplished?: Oh yes
Comments: Nom!

Sunday 19 April 2020

Random images from recent moments

Revisiting a few recent posts, I noticed that some photos had disappeared to be replaced by a 'No Entry' sign. Apologies if you've experienced this, hopefully it's all sorted now, but if anyone finds missing images, please could you give me a shout?

Thank you.

Anyways, here's some random pics from this week:
A black and white photo of a cloud formation on Tuesday evening

A Meadow Pipit on the lawn, early Friday morning

Friday night, with the Venus high in the western sky and the lights of ships and rigs in Scapa Flow

Saturday morning, trying to photograph Groundsel for the wild flower series and missing it completely

Saturday afternoon, a Dunlin foraging in a flooded field

Saturday afternoon, a distant Swallow twittering away joyously

Synchronise watches, in hare time it's ten to two

Saturday evening, the sun has set behind Akla

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Flora Tensensis 20.04.15

Perhaps I should've paced myself better? After splurging three species in the first FT post a few days ago, there's nowt else come into flower. Well, that's not strictly true, as there was a plant I omitted from Post Numero Uno due to the lack of a suitable close up photo. At the time, as I recall, it was late afternoon and the sun had been obscured by clouds, so the flowers were not showing to their optimum (which is only a typical judgemental human assessment of what qualifies as success, I'll admit).

But, better late than never (and I hope you're sitting comfortably), here's...

Lesser Celandine Ficaria verna (formerly Ranunculus ficaria)

Not only is it abundant in the nearby verges and ditches, it has spread freely across our whole site, being present in the flower border, all grassed areas and also the hard standing for our cars. The plant is able to colonise areas so readily due to its knobbly tubers, which easily separate from the root system. According to the unscientific and now discredited Doctrine of Signatures of the 16th -18th Centuries, the tubers looked like haemorrhoids, so the plant was used to treat piles (and an obsolete name from this time was Pilewort).

The 'Celandine' name derives from the Greek chelidon which means a Swallow, the plant being seen as a vegetable version of the avian precursor of a new season. However, as the Lesser Celandine often flowers much earlier than the sighting of the first Swallow, it has been conjectured that this theory was probably based on the Greater Celandine Chelidonium majus, which is a member of the Poppy family, not the Buttercup one. Yet another reason to doubt the wisdom of allowing humans to classify anything.

My thanks to Richard Mabey's 'Flora Britannica' for the floral facts.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Sheds of grey

In the Comments section of a recent post, Sharon from Tabi's Butterfly Mind sparked a reminiscence of mine of a photograph from the past. In fact, the photo was taken so long ago that I may not have been born yet, or at least too young to pay any attention to what was going on (and, yes, I know, there's a case to be made that I still don't pay enough attention!).

The remembering kicked off a mad scramble through countless piles of photographs (not infinite, I hasten to add, I just didn't count them), looking for the image which was lodged in my head. I also messaged my older brother to see if he had more specific details, as I wasn't completely sure where I thought the photo was taken, never mind when.

All I did know was that the photograph featured one of my parents and a corvid, probably a Jackdaw, and I thought it was taken in the garden of the house where I grew up.

[At this point, please imagine an hour of frantic riffling through umpteen albums, plastic bags and paper folders in the search for said image... ]

When I finally found it, I realised two things simultaneously:

1. My memory was quite accurate;
2. My memory was rather rubbish.

Yes, the photo showed my mum feeding a Jackdaw which was perched on her shoulder, but no, it wasn't taken in a garden at all, it was in a yard. Admittedly, the yard was next to the garden, so the location was now known, but how had I confused brick, slate and stone with grass, shrubs and trees? I did briefly ponder whether there's another photo, this time from the garden, but I didn't have the spoons for yet more riffling.

Big Bro came up trumps too. He confirmed the location and remembered the bird being in a back room with some Zebra Finches, not in the same cage, one presumes. Now, the finches I do recall, but not the Jackdaw.

So, what can we deduce from the evidence? Our parents moved to this house in 1959, two years before I was born. Let's be generous with Young Tense and assume that I would likely remember stuff from, say, maybe four years of age? That puts the time frame between 1959 and 1965. Now, I have absolutely no recollection of Jackdaws nesting in the garden, but the house was a big, old, sandstone property with at least eight chimney flues, only one of which was regularly in use. So, conceivably, the Jackdaws may have nested in one or more of those. Then it is not a huge leap to the possibility of a chick or fledgling falling down said chimney and needing rescue. And I would definitely say that this is a young bird. The other possibility is that the nest could have been in a hole of one of the several old trees which lined the lane up to the village. Perhaps the youngster fell out of that onto the road to be spotted by a passing pedestrian?

What else can we infer from the photo? Well, Mum loved nature, so she would've been tickled pink to be this close and involved with a wild creature (although presumably it was quite tame for a while).

And that wooden door? It was the loo. Unheated, unlit (save for a small skylight) and very much not indoors. The storage shed next to it contained a barrel of paraffin for lamps which were used to keep water pipes from freezing in the loo and also to heat a greenhouse. Out of shot to the left of that was the coal shed, where I was allowed to chop sticks. Yeah, I couldn't have a bike, they were too dangerous, but here, son, make yourself useful with this axe!

Sunday 12 April 2020

Corenvirons-20, Part 4

In contrast to much of the UK, today in Orkney is cold and blustery. The weather is now coming from the north, so with windchill, our heady 7 degrees Celsius feels nearer to freezing. To be honest, I don't even fancy venturing out into the garden, much less potter around the local area.

But not to worry, I thought this might happen, so I recently took a photograph of part of the view from Tense Towers. I should probably qualify that remark... I was stood by the front door, with the camera on x30 zoom, and then I cropped the resulting image to finally end up with this:

OK, there's quite a bit going on in this photo, but it's a shot which I take periodically so have already had to carry out some research and I should be able to talk you through it.

Starting at the bottom of the photo, the first stretch of water is Kirk Sound, the bit of North Sea where the German U-boat made its entrance and escape that fateful night in 1939.

The island above that is Lamb Holm, which is the location of the Italian Chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war during World War 2.

The next water body is Skerry Sound in Scapa Flow, and the next bit of land is another island, the uninhabited Glimps Holm. After that is Hunda, another uninhabited island, but there is a ruined dwelling on it.

Then comes Sound of Hoxa, towards the southern entrance to Scapa Flow, with the car ferry mv Albert sailing though it, which is operated by Pentland Ferries between St Margaret's Hope in South Ronaldsay and Gill's Bay in Caithness on the Scottish mainland.

The next piece of land is, surprise, surprise, another island, Switha, with the lighthouse of Cantick Head in South Walls just behind it.

That pretty much sums up the Orkney part of the photo, leaving just the topmost feature, the snowy Ben Klibreck in Sutherland.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Flora Tensensis 20.04.10

It has always been likely that all this extra time spent at home during the lockdown could well see some strange effects emerging or, at the very least, lead to surprising unintended consequences.

As threatened mentioned here a few weeks ago, I was contemplating whether to catalogue the wild flowers which grow in our garden (as opposed to the cultivated ones which we have deliberately planted). To put things in a bit of context, here's a reminder of what the garden looked like six years ago when we moved in...

During the intervening time, there's been very little management, other than mowing whatever condescended to emerge, in a partially-successful attempt to limit the spread of Dock (Rumex spp.).

So, armed only with a small compact camera and an enthusiasm bordering on insanity, here's what I found yesterday:

Dandelion Taraxacum officinale

Many gardeners spend a huge amount of time, effort and herbicide on controlling this plant. However, the Dandelion is one of the early flowers available to queen bumblebees when they come out of hibernation, looking for an urgent nectar/pollen hit. Once the flowers go to seed, finches will move in for a feast. At Tense Towers, that'll be mainly the House Sparrows.

As a brief aside, did you notice the other wee plant in the above photo? I am rather hoping that it is a Cowslip.

Hairy Bittercress Cardamine hirsuta

This year, the bittercress seems to be having a whale of a time, as Our Lass's flower border has several large patches of it. A local forager explained that the leaves can be used in salads, so I will endeavour to report back later. [Edit: hmmm, they're kinda cressy/rockety] I have to confess that I initially mis-identified this plant, blithely assuming it to be Common Whitlowgrass. What a muppet 🙄

Daisy Bellis perennis

At the end of last Summer, we removed an area of old carpet which had been acting as weed suppressant in an area which was designated as the new home of the rotary airer. During the Winter and Spring, the bare soil has gradually evolved into a forest of Daisies.

The day's-eye