Sunday, 10 December 2017

Strictly

I'm afraid I don't dance, much to Our Lass's frustration and eternal regret. She's a long-suffering gal, but I think even my Beloved would agree that apart from having two left feet, a chronic lack of confidence, whole body arrhythmia and absolutely no talent, I'm a shoe-in for a perfect score of four tens.

Nope, I don't dance. Well, not unless they allow head-banging, which I don't think they do.

How and ever, at least we have 'Strictly Come Dancing' on the Beeb. Yes, of a Saturday and Sunday evening, Our Lass and I can sit down together and watch folk who can dance in the company of other folk who maybe shouldn't or who strive to or who are surprisingly ept at the whole sashaying across the floor thing.

And on Monday to Friday evenings, too, with 'Strictly - It Takes Two'. Honestly, at this time of year, nothing gets done around Tense Towers.*

Ok, so it is often just so much kitsch, a bit hammy in places and of no great consequence in the grand scheme of things, but... but, to be honest, there's so much consequential shit going on in the world, that a bit of Strictly lightness is required to see us through the dark times.

And, for all my protestations to the contrary, I do enjoy it. All the humour (good and bad), the banter between the professional dancers, most of the theatre and, now, as we approach the final, the emerging edge of competition.

I have always become somewhat 'emotional' when witnessing someone's personal achievement, whether it's at a wedding, at a sporting event, watching an underdog striving to win or someone coming through adversity to triumph in the end. I do, I well up, silly sod that I am.

Strictly is the same. I tend not to root for the best dancers, but the ones that are working so hard and surprising both themselves and us, punching above their weight in a medium that isn't their own. For that alone, you have to applaud them. Jeez, I'm getting teary just typing this.

Yesterday was a case in point. Mid-morning, I returned home from a trip to the supermarket to find Our Lass listening to a Robbie Williams cd. So far, so normal. But then the melody of 'Beyond The Sea' floated from the speakers and I was transported back to a fortnight ago when Susan Calman and Kevin Clifton were eliminated from Strictly, following their American Smooth to the Bobby Darin classic. That started the klaxons blaring in my head, so I was probably at a low emotional ebb when the semi-final began in the evening.

Alexandra Burke and Debbie McGee should, barring any Speedo or tutu swapping between the judges, make it through to the final. That's only right and proper, they have previous experience (though in Debbie's case, a long time ago) and they have consistently put in amazing performances. Which two of the other three semi-finalists should join them in the final isn't so clear cut. Joe McFadden has been a revelation this series, but had a bit of a wobble in one of his dances last night, and there's little to choose between Molly King and Gemma Atkinson, who are somewhat mercurial. But, yep, I was punching the air and wiping away the tears at the Tangos (Tangoes?) of both Gemma and Joe.

Whatever happens tonight in the dance-off and in next weekend's Strictly Final, I'm likely to be watching the Glitterball through a watery veil of emotion.


* At other times of year, there are other reasons!

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Big tree, little tree, cardboard box

Can we pun it? Yes we can! And that, you will be relieved to hear, is the limit of my knowledge as regards Bob the Builder.

The Woodland Trust organise a competition every year to find Scotland's favourite tree. For 2017, the honour of the country's most loved woody plant has been bestowed upon a two hundred year old Sycamore in Albert Street in Kirkwall.

I happened to be in town this morning, as work was cancelled due to Storm Caroline, and took a few photos of the 'Big Tree', as it is affectionately known locally. Admittedly, a dreich day in December is never going to offer opportunities to capture the most picturesque view of anything, let alone a deciduous tree in an urban street.



As can be seen in the latter image, there's a large metal support keeping the tree upright, but the branches do still fill with leaves in the Spring, so the old Sycamore is certainly putting up a fight.

If you're wondering 'why the heck did they plant that there?', well, as it happens, they didn't.

Here's an old postcard from 1890, by Tom Kent, which I found on the BBC Scotland website, showing the tree inside a walled garden. Apparently, there were once three trees, but two were felled during the widening of the street, before a public outcry saved the third, our Big Tree.

Copyright Tom Kent
The next few images were taken by Sandy Windwick in the 1980s, and are now held in the Orkney Image Library. Up until 1988, the Big Tree still had its original 'head of hair', but it was pollarded soon after, as Sandy's 1989 image shows.

Copyright Sandy Windwick
Copyright Sandy Windwick
I made the 'hair' remark, as the shop just by the tree is Hazel's Hair Stylist, presumably not named with any dendrological accuracy!

As mentioned previously, due to storm force winds, I opted for discretion over valour today. In fact the only ladder I climbed all day was this one, as I used the time festively to decorate a somewhat smaller tree.


And the cardboard box? Well, I had ordered some stuff from south last month, which hasn't yet appeared on our doorstep. Enquiries with the retailer revealed that the box had taken a inadvertent detour to Shetland, but was now back in Aberdeen, awaiting the next cargo vessel to Orkney. Again, however, due to Storm Caroline, we won't be seeing the parcel before the middle of next week. Oh, fix it!

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Found it!

Better late than never, as they say...

Here's the link to the Beatles' programme mentioned in yesterday's blogpost:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08tb97f/sgt-peppers-musical-revolution-with-howard-goodall

If you've not seen it, but would like to, there's a week and a half left to watch it on catch-up.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Song cycle

A few weekends ago, I was searching through catch-up tv for something interesting to watch, when I spotted a documentary about the Beatles, originally broadcast in June this year. I don't know how I missed it at the time, but no worries, that's the beauty of catch-up services.

The documentary was about the making of the Sergeant Pepper album, which is now 50 years old, and was presented by Howard Goodall. From the old Victorian poster found by John Lennon in a shop in Kent (which became the lyrics to 'Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite') to the invention of the variable speed tape machine to allow two takes at different speeds to be mixed together ('Strawberry Fields Forever'), it was a very interesting programme. The band's producer at Abbey Road studios was George Martin, who was an integral part of the creative process of recording such an innovative and ground-breaking album. Sadly, I can't find the link to the programme now, my apologies.

Then, the other evening, I was browsing through a social media feed (OK, it was Facebook), when I happened upon a link to CRMK (Community Radio Milton Keynes), which was broadcasting 'Between Two Worlds', a progressive rock show, hosted by an acquaintance from our time in MK. There was an eclectic mix of tracks, none of which I had heard before (I hadn't even heard of the bands!) and I think I will be 'tuning in' more regularly in future. Some of CRMK DJ Kev Slaymaker's shows are available on Mixcloud.

This morning, my thoughts turned to another formative music programme on the radio, Radio One's Friday Rock Show which ran from 1978 to 1993 and was broadcast between 10pm and midnight on a... you've guessed it... Friday evening. For much of the show's time, it was hosted by Tommy Vance (TV on the radio) and was essential listening after lights out. Today I have been reminiscing with the show's theme tune, 'Take It Off The Top' by Dixie Dregs and also the tune which accompanied the weekly quiz, the Friday Night Connection, 'Theme One' by Van Der Graaf Generator.

In listening to the latter, I learnt that 'Theme One' was originally written and recorded by none other than George Martin, also 50 years ago, for the launch of Radio One. Should I have known that? Probably not, I was only five years old at the time.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Stuff On My Phone (8)

I mentioned, a few SOMPs ago, that thinking of my favourite bands or artists, it is a difficult task for me to narrow down the track selection to a single song. This scenario is further complicated when, having finally made a choice, the track in question isn't then available from the media library with which one's mobile phone is aligned. This is a problem which requires a creative solution (rather than purchasing a different phone, as that would just be pandering to global consumerism).

Back in the day, when picture discs were all the rage, I bought the most pop-tastic, tune-catchingly commercial, multi-layered rock album of all time (possibly), 'Hysteria' by Def Leppard.


The Leps are a Sheffield band who were at the forefront of the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) in the late 70s and early 80s. They have gone global, had more than their fair share of tragedy and disaster, and are very much de rigueur in the Tense clan.

Certainly, as youngsters, First and Second Born were keen to explore the mysterious environment that was their dad's LP collection, and I can only assume that this picture disc was responsible for some of what followed. I suspect that if Second Born was asked to state her religion, she would devoutly admit to worshipping at the altar of Def Leppard.

Oddly enough, my favourite Leps track isn't on the 'Hysteria' album, though there are some stonking tunes on it (and seven hit singles). Nope, the song that holds me in its thrall is 'White Lightning' from the 'Adrenalize' album of 1992. This album was the first one released after the death of guitarist Steve Clark, and so featured some of his ideas and songs. His great friend and fellow Leps guitarist Phil Collen had to mimic Clark's style on the latter's guitar parts, in what must have been a poignant time in the studio.

'White Lightning' was an unfinished Steve Clark track, so Def Leppard used it to create their own tribute to their lost bandmate and his tortured soul. Whatever our temptation: alcohol, drugs, gambling or pleasures too numerous to mention, there's a salutary tale here for all of us. And a sonic smorgasbord of spine-tingling riffs from the one they called White Lightning.

But, as I said earlier, I can't download that track so, instead, it is a web link to a Youtube page (at least whilst there's still a Youtube).

Shown for illustrative purposes only - does not play (try the link above).

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

Outside!

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?

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Bookish blogpost

Late last year, I was given a lovely gift, 'Seasons', a compilation of poetry and prose charting the changing year from a natural history viewpoint. The pieces chosen spanned several hundred years, from the 1400s right up to 2016, and with a broad range of styles.

Some authors' work I was already familiar with, including Gilbert White, Amy Liptrot, Roger Deakin, John Clare and Mark Cocker. However, I hoped that the collection would also signpost the books of authors with whom I was unfamiliar. In this respect, I was not disappointed.

The first piece to grab my interest was from Olivia Laing's 'To The River'. It is the story of the author's journey on foot from source to sea of the River Ouse in Sussex, the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. The intertwining threads of literature, nature and a personal journey were woven with a sensitivity that appealed to me.

A very different book of nature writing was Neil Ansell's 'Deep Country'. Here, the author lived for five years in a remote cottage, with no transport and no phone, documenting the wildlife and landscapes he experienced. For me, the time he took watching animal behaviour provided some fascinating insights, as can only be gained by long term study in the field.

I would recommend both books unreservedly, the actual volumes more than living up to the promise of the small samples from the 'Seasons' compilation.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Brambling

A small flock of Brambling put in an appearance yesterday morning. They seemed to be spending time in a community vegetable plot which is located in the corner of a cereal field over the road from Tense Towers. I guess the combination of discarded seeds from the cereal crop and invertebrates tucked away amongst the brassicas probably feels like a motorway service station to a flock of hungry birds on migration.

When they perched on the fence by the vegetable plot, we counted at least seven individuals, although I couldn't capture a photograph of more then six at any one time. It was a grand sight, though, as I don't believe we've ever seen this many Bramblings all at once.



I was a bit miffed that the RSPB distribution map didn't acknowledge the possibility of Bramblings occurring in Orkney on passage. Perhaps the birds' normal route to the UK in the Autumn is to fly south from Scandinavia and then head westwards across the North Sea, rather than the more direct route taking in Shetland, Fair Isle and Orkney? Or maybe the strong easterly winds we've been experiencing had blown the flock slightly off course?

Either way, calmer conditions in the afternoon probably enabled the well-fed Bramblings to continue their southwards migration, as we did not see them again. Readers in the rest of the UK may want to check their bird tables and Chaffinch flocks for imminent arrivals!

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Inadvertently avoiding thrush leads to positive outcome

It's been another quiet wildlife-watching week at Tense Towers, with little opportunity of spending time 'out in the field'. Which is not to say that I haven't had a few chance encounters with Nature as I went about my day-to-day business.

On Wednesday, whilst working in Shetland, I saw my first Whooper Swans of the Autumn as I drove by a loch, and this sighting was quickly followed by a pair of Goosander near Scalloway.

Orkney had a huge fall of thrushes on Thursday, a fact of which I was oblivious as I left home in the dark. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Redwings, and Ring Ouzels were everywhere apparently, along with smaller members of the chat family, such as Redstarts.

So, on Friday afternoon, as I unloaded my van at home, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Robin flitting about the front of the house. Yay! Our seasonal visitation from a single Robin! No sooner had I unleashed that thought, when a mewling call from the field opposite attracted my attention. A pair of greyish birds were headed towards me, very low to the ground, the second one hell bent on mobbing the first one. As they neared, I realised that the mobber was a gull, whilst the mobbee was a male Hen Harrier. The resulting flyby put up a wisp of eight Snipe, who circled overhead alarm calling, before heading for safer pastures. Shortly afterwards, Our Lass returned home, and whilst I recounted the birdy news, she spotted a flock of something heading our way. With a bounding flight and countless 'tseep' calls, a big (at least several hundred) group of Redwings performed a slow circuit above the house and disappeared back in the direction they had come from.

This morning, I spotted a lone Hare loping across the field opposite, and so grabbed my bins to watch it. During this action, my gaze picked up a Redwing perched on a wire fence. When it subsequently flew off, I scanned the rest of the fence and was delighted to find two Bramblings in amongst the local House Sparrow flock. I think this is a first for us of this species at Tense Towers. As our attention was now fully occupied with staring out of the window, we also spotted a pair of Song Thrushes.

Perhaps the current easterly winds are bringing more birds in, or keeping in place the ones that are already here.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Steve

Since returning from holiday at the end of September, I've not had much chance to be out in the garden. Mostly, this has been due to inclement weather, either strong winds or heavy rain, often both, as well as too little time to fit in a spot of gardening after work (the double whammy of a busy schedule and shortening daylight).

Today, for instance, I had plenty to do to prepare for the week ahead, so much so that I hadn't even started on the list of work things I was supposed to be doing. However, the weather was better than forecast, and it seemed like an ideal opportunity to mow the lawn, especially seeing as how it had been neglected for over a month!

Migration-wise, our little corner of Orkney doesn't make the headlines or even the local 'bird alert' text service, but we're still seeing the occasional Swallow and, this morning, a couple of Redwings flew over, as if to highlight the changing seasons.

This week's main excitement was caused by the Aurora Borealis, with a good showing of the Merry Dancers on Friday night. For once, even aurora lightweights like us were able to view the Northern Lights, as the 'show' started as soon as it was properly dark, which was before 9pm. It was a blustery evening, so I didn't bother taking my camera outside but, fortunately, plenty of other folk did.



The local Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook is a useful resource for alerts, updates, technical info and some fantastic photography.

Friday night was no exception, as 'Steve' put in an appearance. Let me explain. There is an aurora phenomenon that doesn't, as yet, have a scientific name. It had previously been thought that it was a sky feature known as a proton arc, but apparently not, and so an aurora group in Alberta christened it Steve.

To the naked eye, the colours are never quite as vibrant as those seen by a camera as, on a long exposure, the camera is able to pull in more light than our eyes. So, for Our Lass and I, Steve was more of a grey colour, a weird, long, thin cloud emanating overhead and trailing off to the east (we're usually just looking north for the Lights). 

However, one of the local aurora hunters, Amanda Ruddick, captured this amazing image of Steve (see here).

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Dragonfl-eyes

Dragonflies and damselflies have amazing eyes, especially the former, with their huge, almost wrap-around, pair of peepers. Their compound eyes can be comprised of as many as 30,000 facets, known as ommatidia, which give them an almost 360 degree field of view.

A male Southern Hawker
This is because each facet points in a slightly different direction, but the insect processes the partially-overlapping images to create near-surround vision. If that wasn't impressive enough, dragonflies have many more types of light-sensitive proteins, opsins, in their eyes than compared to humans. We have three, so are tri-chromatic, whereas some insects have quadruple that and some dragonflies have as many as thirty. This allows them to distinguish many more colours than we can, and they are also able to detect in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, as well as polarised light.

Different portions of a dragon or damsel eye may be tuned to certain frequencies of light, so that when we look at the insect, its eyes seem to be of two, or more, colours.

A male Red-veined Darter, sadly deceased. From the top, its eyes are brown.
Whilst from below, they're blue
But enough of the science.

Have you ever wondered why a dragonfly always appears to be looking at you, no matter where you are in relation to it? OK, technically, it is always looking at you, what with all the 360 whatnot going on, but take another look at the Southern Hawker at the top of the blogpost. Do you notice anything?

Yep, it looks like they have pupils, even though we know that they don't possess eyes like ours. I think this is due to the absence of light being reflected back out from those facets which are facing us, which makes them appear black and gives the 'pupil' effect.

And because of the wrap-around malarkey, wherever we are in relation to the insect, this will happen. No matter whether we're in front...

Common Darter
 to the side...

Common Darter
behind...

Willow Emerald damselfly
or below...

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
it will still seem to be staring straight at us.

I am always on my best behaviour around dragonflies. Just in case.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

South to North

Our return journey from holiday, back to Orkney, was a similar trip to the one which had taken us to Norfolk. We re-visited Second and First Born, spent a few days with my brother and his family in Middlesbrough, visited my dad and then, once back in Scotland, dropped in on Our Lass's sister and her family.

Whilst in Milton Keynes, and clutching a £10 off voucher, I went on a pilgrimage of sorts, to pay my respects to the factory shop of a certain clothing manufacturer.



Meanwhile, at Second Born's abode, the Harlequin ladybirds were gathering on all surfaces, seemingly trying on all manner of clothing... 




Whilst in Middlesbrough, we visited RSPB Saltholme in warm Autumnal sunshine, finding plenty of Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers.



The view from one of the hides was a little unusual, as a work party were busy with a spot of habitat maintenance. I took the below shot and cheekily sent it to the RSPB with the message 'A flock of Shovelers'. 



The following day, the photo appeared in one of their community blogs, with the accompanying article being written in a similar vein!

By the time we returned to Orkney, the isles' weather was going all traditional, with the usual equinoctial gales. However, fast-moving and horizontal meteorology can make for great photographic opportunities.


Friday, 6 October 2017

A halcyon day

For our last full day in Norfolk, we headed to the north bank of the River Yare and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, via Fairhaven Garden on South Walsham Broad. Our Lass wanted to see a Kingfisher, because they are only very occasional visitors to Orkney.

As luck would have it, as we neared the gardens, in a village called Pilson Green, a streak of electric blue shot across a roadside pond, disappeared briefly behind a stout wooden bus shelter, before it re-emerged immediately ahead of our car and headed off down the lane in front of us.

"There you go," I said, "We've seen a Kingfisher, shall we go home now?"

If that wasn't enough, whilst in Fairhaven Garden, we could hear plenty of high pitched piping (often the only indication that there's kingfishers about) and were treated to a millisecond's worth of view as one flashed across a footbridge.

Fortunately, as it was dull and overcast, the dragons were a bit more obliging on the photographic front than the birds. We watched a male Southern Hawker searching the water's edge for a mate, and there were several Common Darters in the market for some free warmth, courtesy of my hand.



I take great heart from the fact that dragons like this Common Darter do not view humans with any other thought than that we're slightly warmer than the surrounding habitat. Wise ape? Self-proclaimed pinnacle of evolution? You can keep it!

After lunch (the real reason for visiting Fairhaven), we made the short journey to Strumpshaw and set off around the Fen Trail, eyes pealed for wildlife.



In fact, our first nature moment was very relaxed, as for once the subject wasn't flying or running away. I'm guessing it's an Inkcap mushroom of some sort.



As we wandered beneath an Oak tree, a brown shape came flying low towards us along the trail. At the last minute, it hauled back on the stick and disappeared up into the branches of the Oak. It wasn't, as I first thought, a Sparrowhawk, but a Jay. I tried to take a photo of it, but there were just too many leaves in the way, and the light wasn't great either. So, we turned our attention to a nearby pond, which had a couple of darters ovipositing in tandem. After watching them for a while, we turned back to the trail, and I noticed the Jay again, busy collecting acorns. I managed a couple of photos before it disappeared once more. The first image was just a blur, the second was this...



So, the only two decent photos I've taken of Jays over the years, have both been in Norfolk, but on opposite banks of the Yare from each other. See here for the other one.

Walking along a track called Sandy Wall, we noticed several dozen Common Lizards lounging on the wooden edge to the path, trying to eke out as much heat from the wood as possible. Oddly, I wasn't so keen to pick up one of these, especially when a few had already shed their tails, presumably in response to being attacked by a predator.



Also on this stretch of the reserve were very many Guelder Rose bushes, laden with the shiniest and reddest of shiny, red berries. Some winter-visiting thrush will be grateful for all that bounty.



Turning off the main track, we made our way to a hide overlooking a small pool within the fen. As we entered, another chap was leaving and whispered that the Kingfisher was showing well.

Like we needed our "Excited" buttons pushing!

So, we sat in a hide full of folk brandishing more optics than a pub supplies exhibition, and waited. A distant Marsh Harrier briefly piqued everyone's interest, a Little Egret caused a bit of a flurry and then I whispered "Water Rail!" Cue much snapping of photographs. Me included, though I was only in single shot mode, not continuous like my fellow residents.



After a bit more of a wait, we were finally rewarded with an appearance from a Kingfisher, who ignored the wall-to-wall shutter clatter coming from the hide and flitted between several suitably-located posts.




At one point, it flew further away and hovered over a particular patch of water. And hovered, and hovered, then hovered some more. In all honesty, it hovered for longer than just about all my previous views of Kingfishers up to that day. A-maze-ing, darling!

Our Lass was really pleased.

We finally dragged ourselves away, so that other folk could enjoy the spectacle and carried on around the fen. There were many Spindle and Wayfaring trees along the path, some still bearing fruit, but most with their leaves turning red. It was in one of these latter (I think) that we found three Migrant Hawkers roosting, though it was difficult to approach closely for a photograph, as I didn't want to trample any vegetation.



And Strumpshaw was no exception to the Ivy league, with towering drifts of the climber gloriously a-buzz with insects. Here's what all the fuss was about...



If I had planned it, I couldn't have laid on such a sumptuous extravaganza of wildlife watching. The fact that it was all left to chance made it so much more exciting and it was a fitting end to our Autumn break.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Stuff On My Phone (4)

About a year ago, I shot this video one morning whilst working in the West Mainland of Orkney.

Skeins of Pink-footed Geese were passing over on their southward migration from their breeding grounds in Spitzbergen, Iceland and Greenland, to spend the Winter in the UK.

A couple of nights ago, during a lull in the weather, we heard the tell-tale sounds of this year's goose migration as we lay in bed.

A relaxing Saturday

Following our wanderings all around the Loddon area on Friday, the next day was a much more sedate affair. Once again, we left the car to its own devices and bimbled about in the immediate vicinity of the cottage.

Sisland has a lovely wee church, some of its structure dating from the 12th-13th Century. We walked around the graveyard, browsed the historical literature in the... whatever the religious equivalent of the foyer is, and then looked around the interior of the church.




As it still wasn't lunchtime yet, we walked a small loop through fields to the north of Sisland.


With a small diversion for a 4G moment.

During the afternoon, we sat and read, just read. I felt hugely guilty that we weren't 'doing anything', until I realised that on holiday it is ok to just 'be' and relax.

However, at 4pm, everything stopped for tea.

This kind of tea...



If 'doing something' is required, I can heartily recommend this particular pastime.