Monday, 20 November 2017

Talk to the animals

There's a house I've visited a couple of times recently, carrying out some work for the owner. In the course of this work, I have needed to go in and out of the house many times, and usually did so through a conservatory leading into a kitchen.

The household includes a cat, which is usually found in the conservatory, either scoffing food or having a snooze. As I am a stranger to the home, said cat normally scarpered when I journeyed through his (I think) world, escaping via the hole where the cat flap should be or hiding in some dark recess of the conservatory.

Every time I visited the house.

Every time I walked through the conservatory.

I even took to talking to the cat to reassure him that I meant no harm but, presumably, the cat assumed that this was a bluff and was having no part of it.

Exit cat, stage right or left, take your pick.

But the very next time I went back through the conservatory... every single time... the cat would be back again.

Today, the story was the same, despite the fact that I now knew the cat's name (which I will not reveal here to save his embarrassment). Personalised and placating banter from me cut no mustard with the cat.

Until the very last time, as I was leaving the house at the end of the task, I said goodbye to him and he sat still, didn't even move a muscle. Smugly thinking to myself that I'd built some bridges with the animal, I was just about to close the door on my way out, when I heard a noise.

Slowly turning around and gently opening the door once more, I looked at the cat. Yup, he was still there. Obviously awake. Not scarpering. Then I heard the noise again. It wasn't coming from the cat.

I scanned the room slowly. At the opposite end of the conservatory, perched on a shelf, was a Blackbird. Moreover, a Blackbird whose state of anxiety had just gone up a notch or two, with the addition of a human to its list of woes.

Leaving the door wide open, I stepped over the now-rooted-to-the-spot cat, moved around to the other end of the room and managed to coax the blackbird towards the door, hoping that in its fear of me, it didn't forget the greater danger from the cat. As luck would have it, the bird was all over that plan and made good its escape, bursting forth through the doorway and alarm calling as if every Sparrowhawk in Orkney was on its tail.

I looked at the cat, who gave me a stare in return. A stare that said, "See that hole where the cat flap should be? That flippin' bird hops in here every day and pinches my food!"

Sunday, 19 November 2017


Here in Orkney, there has been one gale after another of late, such that many folk were feeling the onset of cabin fever, or at least in need of some respite from the horizontal weather. This morning was much calmer, with plenty of blue sky and a generous helping of golden sunlight.

As we ate breakfast and gazed out of the lounge window, we spotted a solitary sparrow-sized bird perched on a wire fence. As it was on its own, we surmised it probably wasn't one of the local House Sparrow flock, and so it proved. Recourse to binoculars revealed a male Chaffinch (can't remember the last time we had one of those in the garden), who was very interested in the habitat created by the local community allotment.

It was chilly, certainly cold enough for a bit of frost, so we wrapped up well and, by heck, it was great to be outside, simply for the sheer joy of it. We wandered down to the shore, passing a field that contained a big flock of Golden Plover and a few Lapwing. After all the recent rain and hail, there was still quite a lot of standing water, especially in the pastures near the old kirk.

Around one of the temporary pools we counted thirteen Moorhen, all intent on searching for their own tasty morsels, but keeping an eye on each other in case someone else struck gold.

As it was nearing high tide, the birds on the shoreline were quite close to us, giving good views of Snipe, Turnstone, Redshank, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover. A flyover by a large helicopter heading out to the North Sea put up into the air all manner of birds: geese, waders and ducks, the latter including a small flock of Red-breasted Merganser.

Turning down a track, we followed this for a while, in the company of a pair of Stonechat, who flitted in front of us, between fence and ground, for a good few hundred yards.

On the return journey, the sun was at our backs, so the views were much improved.

Above is a photo of Castle Howe (left), the site of a possible Iron Age broch, with the old kirk further around the bay (on the right). The hills of Hoy, across Scapa Flow, can be seen in the distance.

And here's a closer view of the bay and kirk. Did I mention that it was great to be out in the fresh air?

The rest of the day was filled with gardening (Our Lass), washing the van (Me) and sorting out the recycling (also me), before the lowering sun brought a chill to the air once more and we retreated back indoors for a welcome mug of hot chocolate.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Stuff On My Phone (7)

The delicate skill of awakening someone from their slumbers is not an art that I've needed to perfect or have previously required. At Tense Towers, I'm usually the first out of bed in the morning and blundering kitchenwards to fire up the kettle. You would probably have to ask Our Lass how she is normally roused from her sleep, but I've found that the soundtrack to my losing a slipper in the pitch black, stumbling into a door frame, creating a disco lightshow as I struggle to find the correct switch and clattering about with kettle and taps will sort of do the trick.

Last night we had a guest staying over who remarked, in passing, that her alarm clock woke her gradually by serenading her with the song of a Blackbird. To be fair, there can't be many finer ways to regain consciousness. No pressure, eh?

So... whilst stood by the boiling kettle, I mused that, y'know, I have a few audio clips of Blackbirds on the Voice Recorder of my phone. Cue tiptoe-ing along the corridor to the door of the guest room, transporting a bluetooth speaker and a cheeky grin.

Once I was ensconced out of the way, at a safe distance and at the allotted  time, I opened up the audio file, checked that the phone and speaker were connected, and pressed 'Play'.

I now know that Voice Recorder doesn't work through Bluetooth, or at least not when I'm driving it at 7am in the morning.

But, better late than never, here's a Blackbird, accompanied initially by a Nuthatch, with plenty of other twitterings in the background.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Stuff On My Phone (6)

I've probably mentioned before that the song list on my phone has one quirky rule... no artist can feature more than once. This paints me into a bit of a corner if a band has several tracks I like or, as in this case, several albums' worth of tracks that I adore. Yep, for those big movers in the Tense Towers CD shelves, it's a whole other order of difficulty to choose just one song. Often, I will opt for a track that wouldn't be my usual first or second choice but is, instead, a song that best captures the spirit of the band or artist. To my ears, anyway.

As this has been a weekend of remembrance for the fallen in too many wars, and as the thought takes a hold in national consciousnesses that all death in war, both military and civilian should be remembered, my choice of Rush track will perhaps not be too much of a surprise.

Coincidentally, and bringing things right up to date, as I type, Second Born is actually in China on a work assignment.

'Territories', by Rush, is from their 1985 'Power Windows' album. The lyrics resonate through the centuries. One day I hope they will be unnecessary.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Autumn colour

Two weeks ago, I journeyed south to Stevenage, in England, for an equipment familiarisation course. It was a ten day training block condensed into 4 days, and was consequently pretty full on. By the end of the fourth day, my head was swirling with information - specifications, procedures, equipment IDs and protocols. Unfortunately, there wasn't the opportunity to take in much wildlife to free my mind, although whilst sat at breakfast in the hotel one morning, a Magpie and a Carrion Crow quartered the car park looking for tasty morsels. The short commute on foot from hotel to training establishment was invariably sunny and dry, so at least I could take in some Autumnal colour. Sadly, after a day in a basement staring at presentations, the return journey back to the hotel was in darkness.

The only other wildlife I can recall was my room mate for the week...

Back in Orkney, the weather wasn't long in reminding me that those four degrees of latitude encompass a broad range of temperatures. Here's a selection of images from the last week.

A mid-morning shower (right) offers a tantalising arc of rainbow (left of centre).

A near-dawn view west prepares us for a roller coaster day of weather with this helping of candy floss.

Late afternoon and a shower tracks its way between Cantick Head lighthouse (left) on South Walls and a WW2 searchlight control tower (right) on Flotta.

Another morning shower, this time of hail, driven on by a gale force westerly. Notice how I stayed indoors for that photo.

And, finally, an afternoon hail shower over Scapa Flow.

Today feels icy and raw, so after a brief sojourn into Kirkwall for lunch, we're now sat snug in our lounge, trying to catch glimpses of the Snipe in the field over the road. They're keeping hunkered down and I don't blame them. Meanwhile, a flock of Redwings are bathing, yes, bathing, in small puddles of water and then sitting on a wire fence to preen. A hardy bunch, those Scandinavian thrushes.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Stuff On My Phone (5)

Back in the day, I was a bit more of a petrolhead than I am now. However, owing to a huge deficit of driving talent, my motorsport prowess was largely confined to the navigator's seat, in various forms of rallying from competitive forest stages to tarmac 'night navigation' exercises.

Later in life, when First Born gravitated towards picking up a map, I was enlisted to move over to the steering wheel side of the car and, together, we enjoyed some success at local club level.

My final motorsport foray, years ago now, was back in the co-driver's seat for an all-nighter in the lanes of the South Midlands with one of the local club's young guns. It was a fitting challenge to bow out on, borderline legal and really good fun. However, since then I have drifted away from burning fossil fuels for entertainment, although I do still sneak a peek at the World Rally Championship highlights package offered by Channel 5, when opportunity presents itself.

What has this got to do with my phone?

Well, to someone of my vintage, rally highlights on the telly were synonymous with one song... Propaganda's 'Duel', a remix of which became the BBC's theme tune for their rallying coverage.

Here is the original, but take care, it's very 80s...

And here's some rallying footage from the same era, kicking off with the tune.

Bringing us up to date, and inspiring this blog post, Wales' Elfyn Evans won the British round of the World Rally Championship last weekend.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Early or late?

I have to travel south for a few days soon to attend a training course, so we thought that having lunch in town today would be a nice treat before I go. There were a few things to do beforehand, but once we'd visited the Post Office, the bank and a few other shops, all our immediate 'messages' had been taken care of. Our Lass is hunting for a new pair of shoes to go with an outfit for an upcoming wedding, but even after that, there was still loads of time before our lunch reservation at the Italian restaurant in Victoria Street.

And so, we found ourselves wandering further along the street to have a peruse around William Shearer's, an agricultural and general merchant emporium, which seems to stock just about everything.

As we reached the front door, we noticed a sign stating that the Christmas display was now open on the first floor. Now, regular readers will know that I have the occasional pedantic moment, and might be expected 'to go off on one' at this point, but I have to admit that I can suspend my pedantry when it comes to long, dark, stormy nights and short, dull, stormy days. Yes, this far north, a bit of brightness is needed to dispel the gloom.

Well, the clocks go back tonight, so where's the harm, eh?

Climbing the narrow, bare, wooden staircase to the first floor, we emerged into the sights and smells of a festive Aladdin's Cave. Logs crackling in a cosy open fire, sumptuous provender, decorations of all hues and the scent of pine and spices. To be fair, it was a bit weird listening to Bing Crosby when we've not e'en had Hallowe'en yet. But Orkney definitely can't hold back pre-Christmas once Bonfire Night's been and gone, so we're only a week early.

Once back home and much later in the afternoon, I suddenly had a hankering for some fruit cake and cheese (perhaps it was subliminal thoughts of Christmas cake and Wensleydale cheese?). As there wasn't any cake in the house, and my cheese intake is severely reduced on doctor's orders, this was a bit of crisis. However, Our Lass saved the day by reminding me that there was last year's Christmas Pudding lurking at the back of a kitchen cupboard. So, armed with a microwave oven, a couple of bowls and a pair of dessert spoons, disaster was averted.

Festively, I'm still considering whether being very early for 2017 and very late for 2016, on the same day, cancels each other out in some karmic temporal vortex?