Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Light diffuser

OK, I know the physics behind a rainbow is technically refraction and reflection, but we often see one of these short diffuse arcs early in the morning. Any squall working its way along the east coast of Hoy (just visible through the rain shower), or the west side of Scapa Flow, tends to produce this magical effect.

It proper sets you up for the day.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Contemplative morning

A slow start to our day, the lack of a breeze outside reflected in a lazy Sunday morning inside. We sit by the lounge window, drinking in the liquid light that ebbs and flows across the view. Despite the covering of cloud, a few gaps hint at blue sky beyond, allowing occasional patches of distant hillside to glow in warm tones. Here a field on Hoy on our western horizon, then an area of heather to the north in Orphir, followed by intricate patterns of light and shade as the sun's rays pick out the concrete blocks of Churchill Barrier 1.

In the field over the road, we spot a single Redwing perched on a fence. It preens in the golden beams, the deep red of its underwing contrasting beautifully with its cream eyestripe, which make this, to my mind, the most glam-rock of thrushes. Odd that there's only one, though, as we are so used to seeing Redwings in large flocks, or hearing them flying overhead in the darkness, with their short, sharp, high-pitched contact calls.

Another Autumn passage visitor swoops across the garden. A Swallow bound for Africa, which reminds us that we saw one yesterday too, down by the farm, hawking for insects over some grazing cattle. In a few weeks, they will be repeating this behaviour with a completely different group of large herbivores, thousands of miles away from a wintry Orkney.

A movement on the dry stone wall catches our eyes, as a Robin puts in an appearance. Again, this is a bird we don't see very often, just on migration really, so all the more welcome for that. He or she spends a few minutes hopping up and down the wall and across the lawn, before disppaearing towards the farm and, likely, a better chance of a tasty morsel.

The local flocks of House Sparrows, Starlings and feral pigeons, all fairly dependent on the immediate area around our neighbouring farm, go about their business seemingly immune to the changing of the seasons. From a different window, I spot a Starling having a bath in a puddle formed in a slight depression of the black plastic sheet which I'm using to suppress weeds in a proto-veg patch. As I have not yet created a pond, the birds use all means at their disposal to eke out bathing opportunities, the ground hereabouts being rather free-draining.

A small flock of Skylarks fly to and fro across a stubble field, their bouncing flight accompanied by snippets of bubbling calls. Yesterday saw plenty of tractors driving past our window, all fitted with ploughs, so the larks had better make the most of the stubble before the ground is tilled and sown. There's very little Spring sowing these days, great for food production, less so for overwintering birds.

Well, the day's a-wasting, I had better get a move on. Today's big task is to empty a bedroom of furniture, in preparation for the laying of a new carpet. Hopefully, by this time next weekend, the concrete floors of guest bedroom, study and corridor will be hidden once more under a cosy covering.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Despair and research

Yesterday evening, I had to give an update to the members of the Orkney Field Club, who were present at the club's AGM, regarding the progress, or lack thereof, of Scottish Natural Heritage's project to preserve Orkney's wildlife from the ravages of non-native stoats.

I have mentioned the stoat problem before on this and other blogs, and the more I read about island biogeography, the more I worry about the endemic Orkney Vole population and a whole raft of threatened ground-nesting birds.

Indeed, at last night's event, passions were running high. A range of emotions were on display, from sadness at the likely fate of island wildlife if SNH don't get a shift on, through impatience at the lack of proper feedback from the statutory NGO who should be dealing with the issue, to anger that there doesn't appear to be any big movers and shakers engaged with the problem.

It's all enough to make the most optimistic of us weep.

So, to lighten the mood a little, and as it is unknown how stoats first arrived in Orkney in 2010, I have done a wee bit of research into one possible method of transmission.

Remember that absolutely amazing photo from 2015, taken by a chap called Martin Le-May, in Essex?

Yeah, that one.

Well, a brief perusal of the distribution of Green woodpeckers in Great Britain from way back when to the present (as indicated by records submitted to the NBN Gateway) produced the map below, with the most recent records in orange and red.

Whilst perhaps not conclusive proof that stoats didn't arrive in Orkney by this particular aerial means, I think we can strike 'introduction by Green woodpecker' from the list.

Isn't citizen science  wonderful?!

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

When your star is waning

A week ago, I returned to Orkney after a trip south to attend a family event and also a vocational training course.

It's difficult to convey in words just how nice it is to have "Welcome Home!" sunset.

And... breathe.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The emperor's new pose

You know how I'm quite fervent in my appreciation of dragonflies and damselflies? Almost bordering on the religious? Well this blogpost features a second coming, a resurrection and an ascension. Yes, really.

Last month, and twenty four hours after the event, I discovered that a Vagrant Emperor dragonfly, Anax ephippiger, had been seen on South Ronaldsay in Orkney. This species is an occasional Autumn migrant to the United Kingdom, hitching a lift on southerly or south easterly winds from such far flung places as West Africa or the Mediterranean area. Unlike the Painted Lady butterfly, it is not thought that the species breeds in the north and then a new generation returns south to complete the cycle.

Back in September, when retracing the previous day's itinerary, I realised that we had driven within a mile of the location of the sighting. Whilst this was a little irksome from a personal point of view, I was very happy to note the record, the first since 2011, when another Vagrant Emperor had been seen on the nearby island of Burray, reportedly perched on a pair of knickers on a washing line.

The 2016 sighting was made by a lady who not only knew a bit about dragons, but was also a dab hand with a camera. My grateful thanks go to Kim for the use of the image below.

Flight shot of Anax ephippiger in Orkney by Kim McEwen, September 2016
To put the sighting into some context, here's a map of the UK from the National Biodiversity Network Gateway showing records of the species up to the year 2015 (sightings from Autumn 2016 not yet added).

On Friday evening, Our Lass and I attended a talk about peat restoration in the Flow Country which was held in Kirkwall and hosted by the Orkney Field Club. Upon returning home, I flicked through social media and saw in a post from the UK Dragonflies and Damselflies site on Facebook that a Vagrant Emperor had been seen on Orkney. Puzzled as to why this news would re-surface after several weeks, I followed the link to an original post on the British Dragonfly Society Facebook page, where it became apparent that this was a new sighting from the previous day.

Whoa! I'd missed another one.

Yesterday morning, to confirm the details of the sighting, I phoned the lady who had discovered the dragonfly. I learnt that it had been stuck in a spider's web on a shed door in Birsay, from where her husband had rescued it, before photographing it and contacting the BDS. The insect was still with them, though dead, and I was welcome to go and view it.

As I had not previously seen a Vagrant Emperor, I accepted this offer, thinking that taking a few photos and having a perusal of the identification features for the species would be a handy thing. So, despite near gale conditions and lashing rain, Our Lass and I made preparations to drive to the north of mainland Orkney. Just before we left the house, the phone rang. It was Sue, the finder, to say that she had brought the dragonfly into the kitchen and it had started moving! We reasoned that due to the cold weather, on initial discovery the insect had been in a state of torpor, but in the warmth of the kitchen, it had 'miraculously' come back to life.

Double Whoa!

Advising Sue to put the insect back in a cool place, we drove in a controlled manner to Birsay. Thoughts en route surrounded the potential for releasing the dragonfly back into the wild. It was difficult to estimate how long it would survive: food sources are diminishing; as are warm days. With the south easterly winds, next stop from Birsay could well be Iceland (Vagrant Emperors have been recorded there!).

After chatting with Sue, and her husband Graham, we thought it best to release the dragonfly when the winds subsided and the the rain ceased. Looking at the weather forecast, the calmest day would be Tuesday. However, we knew the insect hadn't eaten for at least three days, so it would probably not survive that long. Sue kindly let us take the Vagrant Emperor away, in a plastic container, so that we could take more photos and hatch a plan for the release.

Sunday saw lighter winds and occasional sporadic sunnny spells, so Our Lass and I decided to go ahead with the release sooner rather than later. That way, the insect would have a chance to feed and maybe migrate further. We needed a site that would contain small flying insects, offered some shelter from the wind and had a sunny spot for warming up (the dragonfly, not us). We chose Olaf's Wood in South Ronaldsay, which had these attributes, though I had to studiously ignore the fact that it would also be full of hungry migrating birds.

Once in the wood, we soon found a small glade that fitted the bill. Our Lass gently placed her finger under the Vagrant Emperor and he responded to the warmth of her hand by stepping onto it.

America has Cape Canaveral, Russia has the Baikonur cosmodrome and Europe has the Guiana Space Centre. Welcome to the Vagrant Emperor launch platform, Orkney style.

The dragonfly was approximately 65mm in length, with a 100mm wingspan. The blue segment on the abdomen in an otherwise brown/yellow body is diagnostic for the male of the species.

Although there were some spells of sunshine to help warm up the dragonfly, I was expecting to see plenty of wing whirring, as it tried to generate heat in its flight muscles. Apart from a short burst of a few seconds, this behaviour was mainly absent. I did manage to video some 'pre-flight checks', as it cleaned its eyes, but I totally missed the lift off, because a Blue Tit (a rarity in Orkney!) called behind me at just the wrong moment.

The Vagrant Emperor soared up into the air and disappeared over the tree tops in an instant. Its ultimate fate was now in its own hands wings, and no matter how long, or short, it survives, I feel that is the correct decision for the insect.

The pre-flight video can be seen here.

As I write this, the only other Vagrant Emperors reported in the UK so far this Autumn have been two in the Isles of Scilly, way to the south of mainland Britain.

My grateful thanks to Sue and Graham Wharton for finding the dragonfly, rescuing it, contacting the BDS and entrusting Our Lass and I with its immediate future.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Orkney Field Club trip to Berriedale, Hoy, 2nd October 2016

Leaving Stromness harbour, headed for the hills of Hoy.

A minibus took the OFC group to Rackwick to begin the hike to Berridale.

Rest halt below Grut Fea to savour the berryfest and a passing Yellow-browed warbler (not shown).

In an actual relict native woodland!  In Autumn! Berriedale.

This is what the tiny Aspen seedlings in our garden want to be when they grow up.

Terrain within the dale.

Autumnal colour... and friend.

When we ran out of trees, there was a waterfall.

In fact, it was a bit of a camerafest.

This place must be awesome in Winter.

Looking back down Berriedale and across to the Glens of Kinnaird.

Climbing up onto the tops above Berriedale.

The island of Graemsay nestled between Hoy Sound and Bring Deeps.

Rackwick Bay from Cuilags.

Graemsay from Cuilags (for Sian!).

Sandy Loch and Ward Hill from Cuilags
The descent from Cuilags to Sandy Loch was 333m in less than a kilometre. There were no photos during the descent, or the subsequent amble down the hill to the pier, mainly due to trembling hands (the former) and wobbly knees (the latter).