Sunday, 23 April 2017

The pain within patience

It is that time of year, when places far south are already experiencing the verdant delights of Spring whilst, in the north, there is still an amount of patience required before the full spectacle of greening and singing and fluttering ventures forth.

This is the moment of greatest difficulty for me because, despite a trickle of returning Summer migrants, despite roadside verges glowing a vibrant floral yellow, nothing quite assuages the longing for dragons. And, ironically, St George's Day is a month shy of the typical first emergence date for Large Red Damselfly in Orkney.

So it is now that the yearning is at its keenest, with a palpable absence of some missing thing, some sight or sound to put the world back on an even keel, to end this misery in an endorphin-fuelled natural high.

It is said that you always remember your first time, but in truth, I cannot. There is no recollection of my first acknowledged odonate. This is quite strange, because I've always been interested in Nature and could travel in time and space to show you the when and the where of quite a few first species sightings: my first Corn bunting, atop an Ash tree on a lane near my boyhood home; my first Swallowtail butterfly, in a garden of a small village in the hills of Rhodes; and my first (and only) Black woodpecker, which flew past the trench I was stood in, within a German forest. It's a list full of pleasant memories: Basking shark, Otter, Waxwing, Marbled white, Edmonston's chickweed; but for the life of me, I cannot pinpoint the exact moment of the inaugural ode.

A childhood steeped in natural history was strangely bereft of their colourful lives. I noticed everything else, surely I would've seen one and remembered, if they had been there? Then, living abroad, where there's more of absolutely everything, still nowt, though I 'clocked' Black woodpecker, Black kite, Black redstart. Perhaps dragonflies were just too colourful?! It is so strange and perplexing to think that I had some sort of odo blindness, some blinkering effect that rendered them invisible to me but did not hamper an appreciation of other wildlife.

And so, it was not until well into my fourth decade that the scales were finally lifted from my eyes. The first actual memory, but I'm pretty sure not the first dragonfly sighting, was in the mid 1990s, with a Southern Hawker in the small garden of our home at the time. An early evening in Summer, a sun trap concentrating insect life and, for the dragonfly, a fast food restaurant. Me, mesmerised.

Yet it was still several years before I joined the British Dragonfly Society, a few more until I began recording every dragon and damsel seen, and yet more before I felt confident enough to acknowledge that they were an all-encompassing passion. Now, with four weeks to go to the beginning of the local flight season, the crushing weight of waiting presses hard upon my shoulders.

Soon, lad, soon. Not long until the bonds to an aquatic life are severed, until the ungainly emergence of new from old, an unfolding of wings, a burst of heat to flight muscles and the light of three hundred and fifty million years flashing in those all-seeing eyes. Soon, lad, soon.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A splendiferous Sunday

With only one free day available over the Easter weekend, we were fortunate that Sunday was dry and bright. This gave us an opportunity to head across Orkney to look for some Springtime wildlife.

Our first port of call was Marwick Bay on the west coast. We walked south for about half a mile to some old fishermen's huts, where boats and equipment used to be safely stored above the high water mark.

As we returned to the car park, a Wheatear was flitting to and fro along the rocky shore and a skein of Pink-footed geese flew over our heads.

A little further inland, we tarried for a while in the bird hide at The Loons RSPB reserve. This was probably our most productive visit ever.

We saw our first Little Grebes and Shovelers for the year, and had smashing views of Gadwall, Teal and Reed bunting.

On the way home, we stopped off in Finstown and wandered into Binscarth Wood. The air was full of bird song from Wrens, Robins, Chaffinches and, another first for the year, Willow Warblers. The banks alongside the footpath were thronging with white Ramsons, yellow Lesser Celandine, Pink Purslane and a few early Bluebells.

The invasive Salmonberry was trying hard to recover its reputation by being the flower of choice for bumblebees. I managed to capture an image of this one, possibly a queen Buff-tailed bumblebee, with my phone. I'm not sure I could have done any better with my DSLR.

Then it was back home for that other traditional Spring activity... the first cut of the lawn. With the added responsibilty of being very careful to mow around at least some of the patches of Celandines.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Wildlife last week

We didn't lead a very wild life last week or, indeed, see much wildlife. Between the stormy weather and, er... rumblings of a more internal nature, we were laid low and bereft of our natural highs.

I made it back to work on Friday, with the result that my first meaningful wildlife encounter of the week occurred not in the gloriously open vistas of an Orcadian Spring, but in a dark, cramped loft. It was a close encounter, although regular readers can probably predict the actual words I uttered at the time. It's a spider from the genus Steatoda, more commonly known as a False Widow spider.

By Saturday afternoon, we were feeling better, so took a trip down to the old kirk. As soon as we stepped from the car, we spotted a male Wheatear perched on a grave stone, quietly running through his musical repertoire in sub-song. This was our first Wheatear of 2017.

In the ditches by the roadside, the Coltsfoot, Dandelions and Lesser Celandines had been joined by Marsh Marigold. A profusion of golden yellow welling up from the ground in a floral homage to the warming sun.

More signs of Spring were visible on Sunday with a fly-by Sand Martin as we wandered along a West Mainland track. However, the highlight of the morning was a distant view of a food pass between a male and a female Hen Harrier, way over on the opposite side of the valley. The below photos aren't great, just horrendous crops of images that weren't in focus anyway. For reference, the male is predominately grey, whilst the female is mainly brown and sometimes only visible against the background due to the white patch at the base of her tail.

The male approaches across the hill side, bearing a gift of food.

The female appears, seemingly from nowhere, to investigate the suitor's offering.

She closes in as the male extends his legs to offer the gift.

Food pass complete, the male banks away.

He resumes hunting (top) as she carries away the gift to consume elsewhere (bottom). Presumably, she is also testing that the male is a sufficiently attentive partner and a good hunter, factors that will have a beneficial effect upon her raising a brood this year.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Something in the air

Afternoon on the 1st April saw us enjoying some fresh air by the shore near to home.

Here are a couple of panoramas. Above is the panoramic view of Howes Wick, a small bay within Holm Sound, whilst below is another panoramic view, at Wester Sand, just around the corner from the Wick.

The kirkyard of St Nicholas' Kirk can be seen in both views. As can Our Lass too, as she continues her convalescence from recent surgery.

Spring was very much in the air, with pairs of Oystercatchers and Brown Hares feeling rather amorous. We are eagerly await the arrival of 'our' returning Summer migrants, as the whole breeding season gets into gear and releases its clutch.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

We're not at home to Mr Prickly

As hinted at by the blog name, on occasion, I am not without a small amount of tetchiness, with a side order of grump. I know, I know, it's unbelievable, eh? Because surely I'm the epitome of sweetness and light? OK, maybe not.

Some warm weather at the weekend was enough to turn a body's thoughts to contemplating the arrival of Spring and the imminent commencement of lawn mowing duties. But first there was the small task of checking the vast grassiness for weeds. To be fair, the whole garden is 'weeds', as nary a single seed of cultivated grass has been sown. This means that within the uncouth thatch is a riotous mixture of dock, buttercup, plantains, celandines and heaven knows what else. I am not too worried by this cosmopolitan assemblage as, apart from the areas left deliberately uncut, the mower blades seem to keep all in check. Apart from the thistles.

You see, the thistles have this thing going on where, for the first year they don't grow upwards, they grow outwards, producing a large but rather low rosette. Very symmetrical, very prickly, very below the radar of the mower.

So, in pleasant sunshine, I wandered to and fro, hither and thither, across the garden, searching for elusive thistles hiding away in the lengthening sward. Scarlet pimpernels they are not.

After a goodly while my eyes were beginning to ache but, eventually, me and my trusty trug trudged wearily back to the starting point, satisfied that a significant proportion of surreptitious spikiness had been rendered safe.

Coincidentally enough, although I was wearing stout gloves, I did not emerge from the encounter unscathed. Elusive Thistle = E.T. = Ouch!

Friday, 24 March 2017

Private investigations

Yes, it's true, I have been in dire straits. Not 'in' Dire Straits, mind, that's a whole other kettle of fish.

Ever since we moved to our lowly hilltop, whenever the atmospheric conditions and the weather have allowed it, a mountain has been visible from our lounge window, over the Pentland Firth, on the Scottish mainland. Early mornings or late evenings often give the best views, as does snow at higher altitudes.

It looks to be a long way away. So far away.

For several years, I have deployed compasses and maps in an effort to identify this mountain. I have tried to calculate angles and lengths of lines using trigonometry. I have even 'driven' along likely Scottish roads in Google Streetview, hoping for a glimpse of topography that matches the shape we can occasionally see from our window. Online searches for others with a similar need to identify a distant bit of geography have proved equally fruitless, as has asking people I randomly meet.

Actually, that last bit's not true. Last year, whilst walking on a West Mainland beach, I bumped into one of Orkney's more well-known beachcombers. The conversation wandered far and wide, eventually pitching up on the subject of my troublesome mountain. Not a problem, says my acquaintance, I'll send you a link.

And he did. Though I am ashamed to admit that I forgot about it.

This week, however, we have been visited by Second Born. Yesterday she asked about all the various peedie islands we can see from Tense Towers. With the help of the OS map for Scapa Flow, I was able point out and name all the islands and some of their features. And this is when I remembered the mountain and the web link.

Here's a photo of it from the end of January, just after dawn...

In case you're wondering, it's the white pointy triangle, just to the right of Cantick Head lighthouse. On the extreme left of the photo, is Dunnet Head lighthouse on the Scottish mainland.

And here, after a bit of tinkering with parameters, is the internet's answer to my conundrum, courtesy of Ulrich Deuschle.

So, Ben Klibreck it is, in central Sutherland. All 962m height of it. At a range of 116km.


The panorama-creating programme can be found here. It's not too difficult to drive, after all, I managed it!

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Faces of Hoy

 A work trip to Hoy often requires an early start to the day. But, at the risk of missing the ferry, I had to stop to take a photograph of the snow-dusted hills in the distance, beyond the Hall of Clestrain in the foreground, and the island of Graemsay nestled in the middle.

Later, after the task was completed, this blooming Redcurrant bush, tucked away in a sheltered valley of the Mill Burn, caught my attention as I trundled along the road. When the verges are yellow with daffodils, Coltsfoot and Lesser celandine, the shock of pink always surprises me at this time of year.

Waiting for the ferry back to the Orkney mainland, just staring at this solid structure was giving me metal fatigue.