Sunday, 4 December 2016

To be shore, to be shore, to be shore

Over the course of this weekend, I have visited the coast near home on three separate occasions. The first two were walks with Our Lass, as part of her ongoing convalescence from knee surgery, the circular trip featuring a good mix of ascent and descent in its two and a bit miles. The final visit was me on my own, with just a camera for company.

Have a guess when I saw all the good stuff?

Saturday saw us postpone lunchtime until we'd walked down to St Nicholas' Kirk, by the shore of Holm Sound. It was a better day than forecast, with much more sunshine than expected. Not particularly warm, mind, but with only the gentlest of breezes. As we neared the kirk, flocks of birds were taking to the skies from the shoreline, a sure sign that something had spooked them. Sorting through the gulls, waders and ducks, we eventually spotted the culprit, a Peregrine falcon, which made several passes along the beach in an attempt to grab a meal.

As we began the climb back towards home, some pools in an adjacent field contained a couple of dozen Teal, the males looking especially resplendent in the low Winter sunlight. Turning our gaze back to the road, we just had time to see... something... disappear into the grass verge. It was probably a Moorhen, but in the brief view available, my instinct said Water Rail. I've not heard the call of one of these elusive birds in Orkney, never mind seen one, but this occasion would have to be chalked up to 'Unknown'.

Hardly had we recovered from that when, in the field on the opposite side of the road, we spotted a stoat running hell for leather towards cover. It disappeared into the verge for a while, before reappearing on the road and then scampered up the hill in front of us. This was the closest sighting to date to Tense Towers. When we eventually lost sight of it, it was headed for the wet pasture where, in a few months time, waders will be breeding. Not a happy thought. Further up the hill, a small flock of Golden Plover were sat in a meadow. As with the Teal, the light made their plumage positively glow. Absolutely gorgeous!

Today (Sunday), we repeated the walk, though a little earlier in the morning. Again, as we approached the kirk, we were rewarded with the sight of a cracking bird, a male Pintail, preening on the rocks just offshore. A little further along the road, I stopped to listen to a pleasantly calming sound, the rhythmic clacking of stones and pebbles, as a flock of waders prospected for tasty morsels on the beach below. They don't call them Turnstones for nothing!

By the time we returned home, the skies had clouded over, but after lunch things brightened up once more. Needing no further inducement, I grabbed my camera and headed back kirkwards. The tide was in, the light was better than ever, but there was no sign of the roll call of birds from the previous two visits. Gah!

Not to worry, there were still signs of life to be enjoyed...

Bath time for the Starlings

A pair of Stonechats

A wee Wren

Winter work trip

At this time of the Orcadian year, the working day with sufficient available light is much shorter. The most important tool in my toolbox ceases to be a 13mm spanner and becomes a head torch. And dragging oneself out into the darkness of a Winter's pre-dawn is slightly less enjoyable than skipping out into a mid-Summer blaze of sunshine.

One day this week saw us headed to Westray for some dishy action (satellite tv and broadband installations). The ferry departed Kirkwall at 07.20, so here's a photo taken as I potter along the harbour at about 7am. The inner harbour is where the pilot boats berth, as well as the RNLI lifeboat (just out of shot to the left).

The weather was calm and dry, allowing good progress to be made. This is important, not just from a business and financial perspective, but also because if there's time during the day, I like to pop in to a general store on the island. The eclectic (and necessary) mix of goods and provender in quirky juxtapositions never fails to cheer me up. On this particular day, I was not disappointed.

As luck would have it, although it could've been due to skill and teamwork, we were finished before sunset and sat waiting expectantly at the Rapness pier for the return ferry to Kirkwall. There's always a small doubt in the back of one's mind that it might not appear...

Sunday, 27 November 2016

It's mud news week!

In our 21st Century lives, it's often not possible to distinguish the cycle of the year in any tangible sense, beyond a vague notion of what is being marketed by retailers. Easter eggs? Must be January 2nd. Santa hats? Probably mid September.

One of the joys (and occasionally that phrase is uttered between gritted teeth in the brunt of some horizontal weather) of living a more elemental Orcadian life is that the cyclical nature of the seasons is much more obvious.

There's the rather prominent effect of the passage of the setting sun back and forth along the western horizon. There's the holiday time-share experience of summer and winter migratory birds: skuas swapping skies with berry-ravenous redwings; and long-in-the-beak oystercatchers giving way to long-tailed ducks.

But this weekend, a more subtle change occurred, close to Tense Towers and close to our hearts. The muddy field entrance, just over the road from our front garden, cattle-poached and unprepossessing, has brought a little piece of Winter to our doorstep. And although these birds are resident in Orkney throughout the year, only during the colder months do Snipe choose to visit our immediate vicinity. They are very welcome.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Boat blogging

Any plans we may have had for Saturday were ripped up when I received a request, late on Friday, to attend a problem with a client’s customer in Caithness, across the Pentland Firth on the Scottish mainland. Our lifestyle, though occasionally idyllic, means that I cannot afford to miss out on a work opportunity when it arises. So, after running a local errand this morning, I was able to catch the lunchtime ferry out of St Margaret’s Hope, then drive from Gill’s Bay to Thurso, arriving on site by early afternoon. An hour and a half later, the problem was rectified, I was bidding farewell to a happy customer and heading out into the sunset.


Outside the customer’s premises, looking across Thurso Bay towards Orkney (centre).
Or litorally…

From the edge of Castletown, looking across Dunnet Bay.

From the top of a dune by Dunnet Bay.
For sure…

From Dunnet Head (which we can often see from Tense Towers if the visibility is good), with Orkney tucked away behind the lighthouse complex.
By the time I reached Gill’s Bay, darkness was creeping over land and sea, the temperature was beginning to drop and a slippery frost was forming on the damp ground. The ferry wasn’t due for another two hours. Reason enough, then, to repair to the terminal building for a bowl of hot soup, a slice of cake and several mugs of tea.

It’s all in a day’s work.

This post has been written (though not uploaded) aboard m.v. Pentalina, as she makes her way northwards, back across the Pentland Firth. In another few weeks, it will be three years since I made this self-same journey to become a resident of Orkney. I must admit, if anyone had said to me, four years ago, that our lives would be as they are now, I would have thought it utter madness. But in a very good way.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Round up

It's almost the middle of November and there's not much bloggage to show for it. This is normally indicative of a loss of muse (as opposed to 'mouse') or, as in this case, a chap just being so busy with consequential stuff that there's not been time to put finger to keyboard.

Yes, I do type that slowly.

Any road, here's a quick digest of my month so far, as seen through the eyes of my phone.

Eday can be windy?
A panoramic view of Kirkwall harbour and bay
Our Lass would like to get all shabby chic with this cabinet...
but the last person to lay a brush on it was my grandfather.
A sunny and showery day on Hoy...
when I attended this event.
The lowdown on the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Mus musings

Folks keep asking me about the mouse. Maybe it's to take their minds off other stuff, y'know, focussing on something inconsequential to prevent the dread thoughts from breaking through. Whatever they might possibly be?

Well, there have been developments on the rodent front. By the end of October, no mice had been harmed in the writing of this blog. In fact, by that point, several days after the new carpets were fitted, I was only giving the traps a cursory glance to confirm either the presence or absence of an ex-mouse. Life was good: the house was cosier, our feet were warmer and commensals were fewer. Then I thought to check that the bait was still in the traps (yeah, you're right, I was checking first thing in the mornings, before my eyes were properly dialled in). Guess what? Nothing. Clean as a whistle. 

So I'm pondering "Can a mouse lick off all the peanut butter without springing the trap?" and "Wood lice? Do they even like peanut butter?"

As there had been no further mouse scat, we couldn't immediately answer those questions, so I reset the traps (by this time they were located in the garage, rather than the lounge) with good old-fashioned cheese. Within a few hours, we had us a dead mouse, and we blithely wondered whether that was the end of the matter.

On the following Friday, after several days of zero readings on the mouse-ometer, I retired early as I needed to be up at six the next morning to catch a ferry. As I went to switch off the bedside light, something scurried from under a wardrobe and dashed behind a chair. Bearing in mind that we'd just been watching a tv programme featuring a tarantula, my reaction was reasonably calm.

Yep, it was a mouse. Oddly, decades of wildlife watching can't be unlearnt in a trice, so we spent an interesting half hour contemplating our options, whilst the mouse explored the room. When it sat in one of my slippers and stared back at me, I felt that the time to do something was probably now. Chuntering about lost sleep, rodents with an unerring sense of bad timing, and much else besides, I brought the traps from the garage and placed them in the bedroom. We then spent another half hour watching the mouse run over the traps, dislodging the cheese and caching it under our bed.


My next plan wasn't rocket science, but I needed something to work in a hurry so I could get some shuteye. In fact, forget rocket science, a rock would've been simpler, though the cleaning bill may not have been. I shut all the doors to the corridor in the centre of the house, save for our bedroom and the hall. Once the mouse was herded (ok, maybe not 'herded') into the corridor, it was reasonably easy to trap it in the hall, then open the front door and chase it out. A very temporary solution, I'll admit.

Now, my trip to Caithness (hence the early ferry) turned into an overnighter, so that Our Lass spent Saturday night alone. Almost. She was awakened in the night by a clattering in the corridor, which manifested itself as a mouse repeatedly trying to run up a small set of stepladders (the 3 step variety, just bought, unwrapped, but not put away). As we live in a bungalow, this meant that she could now legitimately sing "I saw a mouse. Where? There on the stair. Where on the stair? Right there!" a la 'A windmill in Old Amsterdam'.

Having taken advice from Sian on Graemsay as to how to catch a mouse in an emergency, Our Lass deployed an empty cereal box to good effect and released the wee beastie in the field over the road. Let's upgrade this solution to the status of 'mildly temporary'.

My return on Sunday was to tales of night time derring-do armed with only a cardboard box, plus pyjama-ed excursions to the Great Outdoors. I don't think either of us were expecting this to be the end of the matter.

Right about now, I recalled the umpteen lectures on hygiene that First and Second Born received when they were out with the RSPB, as teenagers, on mammal trapping surveys. Always wash your hands after handling mice/shrews/voles. It also hit home that the problem might be bigger than we had first thought and that it needed to be nipped in the bud. Harsh, but true.

So, confirming that the garage wasn't mouse-proof and probably impossible to make so, I ensured that the door from the garage to the kitchen was mouse-proof, and also rebaited the traps in the garage with walnuts. Firmly tied to the triggers.

Sure enough, after at least eleven days on the run, in and around Tense Towers, the Bonnie (or Clyde) of Mus domesticus tried one raid too many, its slipper snuggling days were finally over.

I can't say that I blamed it for trying, clogs must be quite chaffing in comparison.

Sunday, 30 October 2016


Red, Green, Blue, the primary colours, or a video format.

These things weren't foremost in my mind when Our Lass and I went for a short walk this morning. However, that changed as we wandered along a muddy track, across some rough pasture and onto a seaweed-strewn beach.

First up was a female Redstart, at the edge of some willow bushes and frequently flitting down to the ground with a beautiful tail shimmer. Then came a pair of Greenfinches, feeding in a weedy area of Docks and Thistles. And finally, the hoped-for colour match, a Bluethroat hopping through the seaweed, looking for invertebrates, in the company of several pipits.

There were one or two Starlings present as well...

This is just a few of them. It all got rather dramatic when a male Hen Harrier flew by and a huge murmuration suddenly gathered to confuse the predator. There was one unsuccessful 'talons out' lunge towards the Starlings, but it seemed as though the tactic of 'strength in numbers' paid off.

Further along the coast, a battle of a different kind was in full swing, as two species of lichen struggled over ownership of a rock.

Near the Brough of Deerness, Our Lass stood on the clifftop, contemplating the waves, the solitude and what the heck is he doing with his phone?

I was trying out the Panorama function, which didn't result in a fly-on-the-wall documentary exposé of some politician's wrongdoing, but did look like this...