Monday, 21 May 2018

Hoy gin sauce

This past week has seen the annual Orkney Nature Festival taking place, with events all over the archipelago, showcasing all manner of wildlife. Due to work commitments, we were only able to attend the Nature Cruise on the final day, but had a pleasant afternoon trip around the island of Hoy, aboard Northlink's Ro-Ro ferry, Hamnavoe.

Beginning in Stromness, the journey was an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the island of Hoy, with RSPB staff on hand to help with seabird ID, a cetacean spotter on the bridge (sadly, her skills were not called upon) and a member of the crew pointing out geological, historical and nautical features en route.

And there was a buffet (of which we partook) and free tasters of whisky and gin (of which we didn't) (at least, this 'we' didn't, I can't speak for Our Lass).

As the forecast was uncertain about the potential for precipitation, I didn't take my camera along. Neither did I wish to join in the jostling for a good position at the hand rail, so I stood back from the action and generally waved my phone in the vague direction of the scenery. The following photos have had their horizons re-aligned to somewhere near horizontal!

The stretch of cliffs along St John's Head towards the Old Man of Hoy

St John's Head, one of the highest vertical sea cliffs in Britain

The Old Man of Hoy

Rackwick Bay

Candle of the Sneuk (on the right)

Sea cliffs on the approach to The Berry

Looking across Graemsay towards the Hoy hills

Source to sea

The first report of damselflies on the wing in Orkney came through to me this week. So, the 2018 flight season is underway with a Large Red Damselfly seen in the north of West Mainland. This prompted me to make a couple of visits to a site nearer to home which has often been good for early damsels.

The Wideford Burn trickles off a low un-named hill and within 2.5 kilometres it meets the sea at Inganess Bay. On its short journey, it passes through rough pasture, thickets of gorse and sparse woodland, before flowing under the main road to Kirkwall Airport. As the burn skirts the northern edge of the airport and the water flow slows down, it crosses a stretch of marsh, then tumbless across a rocky shore and into Inganess Bay.

For the purposes of dragon hunting, I tend to visit the sparse woodland, just west of the main road, where the bushes and low trees afford some shelter, allowing insects to bask in any sunshine on offer.


Here we are, on the boardwalk alongside the burn, as it flows through the woodland and under the main road.

Many insects were busy feeding on the abundant wild flowers. You could almost hear the contented slurping! From top: Green-veined White butterfly on a Dandelion; Silver Y moth on a Primrose; and a Common Carder Bumblebee on Water Avens.

Other wildlife was keen to be feeding...

These are Hooded Crow chicks, whose parents were seen hunting for tasty morsels in the surrounding fields.

Within the shelter of the woodland, we also found lots of Pink Purslane and a Nettle with the beginnings of a cluster cup rust.

Wandering downstream, we reached the marshy area, where all manner of wildlife was going about the business of living and creating more life.

From top: Green Dock Beetles; Crane Fly; a new Fern frond unfurling; Brown Hare; and a singing Sedge Warbler.

As we neared the airport boundary, our attention turned to flying things:

From top: Ready for take-off; Hooded Crow; Britten Norman Islander; and a Shoveler duck.

Standing on a wooden bridge over the burn, looking downstream, we can now see the sea.

In times past, the shallow bay was seen as a possible invasion route so, dotted about in the fields, there are still visible remains of coastal defences.

As the end of the walk approached, we watched several families of Mallard ducks on a small lochan. Here too were our first Sand Martins of the year, swooping down low over the water to catch flies or to have a drink.

Lady's Smock, or Cuckooflower, is now in full bloom, as the colour palette of our Spring begins to turn from yellow to pink.

At the burn mouth, a pair of Mute Swans were feeding in the gentle flow where the fresh water met the sea.

And here's the bay, with another relic of coastal defences, a blockship, slowly rusting away but providing a safe nesting habitat for terns. No doubt there's countless marine creatures below the water surface too!

You will have noticed there weren't any damsels or dragons... maybe next time.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Stuff On My Phone (17)

Local duo Saltfishforty have a very distinctive sound. To my ears, there often seems to be more than just a fiddle and a guitar or mandolin playing. There are several tracks on the Netherbow album which could've made it to SOMP, but I opted for the hauntingly beautiful 'A Ring On Her Hand', a song whose lyrics are based upon events which occurred in Orkney in the late 13th Century.

There's not a Youtube video of this track, but here are the lyrics, posted by the band on their Facebook page in response to a fan's question:

28 April 2013
In response to a query from Davey Gordon;
A Ring On Her Hand
[Margaret was a young Norwegian princess who died on her way to Scotland to become queen. The tune is based on a melody from the Balfour Collection called ‘Rings On Her Hand.’]
"Great nobles and kings have met in to decide
And chosen a suitor for the young Scottish bride
Who wants a crown on a long summer’s day?
Would you ask for a kingdom if you had a say?
Farewell to your father the king on the shore
Young maiden of Norway you’ll see him no more
A nation awaiting a queen to command
Leaving for scotland, a ring on your hand
The weight of a black sky a chill in the air
The salt driven through her was more than she’d bear
Sleep wont come easy in a cold cabin bed
And barely the strength for the water and bread
(Be) easy young Margaret the storm is now past
And you’ll have your shelter from the icy sea blast
Cast off into the sunrise you’re still as the sea
No storm and no king now - your spirit is free."

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Slurry and Serendipity

Well, that was an interesting Saturday!

The previous day's forecast had hinted that, maybe, it would be a wet morning, followed by a sunny afternoon, so we went to sleep on Friday night with vague plans for a chores-y beginning to Saturday with, hopefully, a walk later on. Sure enough, the morning was damp and miserable, with little visibility and a cool south easterly breeze. Worse still, the forecast had changed, now suggesting that there wouldn't be much chance of any solar therms.

So, Our Lass hot-footed it into town to visit the annual garden show at the Orkney Auction Mart, whilst I continued wrangling those pesky photograph captions for the Orkney Field Club journal. Come lunchtime, both of us had experienced limited success, but it looked as though the dire predictions were correct, the sun was trying to burn through, but just couldn't shift the cloud (or maybe it was haar?).

Around mid afternoon, a weird thing happened, the cloud did eventually burn off, but a kind of haar remained, just kept in abeyance by the power of the sun. This was obviously as good as it was going to be, so we seized our chance and headed out regardless. It was all rather strange, walking along in bright sunshine, but with distant swirls of fog, being teased by the biting wind.

Our farmer neighbour was busy muck-spreading his fields, which left us with something of a conundrum. Should we walk our circuit clockwise (usually) and pass downwind of the current target field whilst he was away 'refueling' his slurry spreader. Or should we risk going anticlockwise, which would allow more time for the wind to whisk away the aroma, but might mean we were downwind at just the wrong moment. Hmmm, Our Lass took some convincing, but clockwise it was.

Here, we're stood, more or less, at spotheight 32 on the map, just by Vigga, looking roughly south east. The muck-spreading field is through the open gate, and we're about to turn left along Greenwall Road, heading for Greenwall (in red), Orkney's oldest continually inhabited home. Then we will turn right, down The Tieve Road, past the wee shed (in blue) until we reach the shore, where we will turn right again to walk by St Nicholas Kirk (in yellow), before returning up Cornquoy Road, with the wind behind us.

As we pottered eastwards towards Greenwall, I noticed that the recently slurried field was populated by many gulls, a few Oystercatchers and Curlew, plus the odd Hooded Crow. However, we were glad to be hurrying beyond their feeding frenzy and into a cleaner atmosphere!

The Dandelions in the verges were attracting the occasional fly, but with the cool breeze there weren't many insects on the wing. At Greenwall, seven Swallows were busy cavorting on the air, swooping and calling in a melee of twittery aerobatics.

As we turned into The Tieve Road, we spotted a Hare hunkered down in the corner of a field. The camera on my phone wasn't really up to the job of capturing this moment, but I had better luck with a Common Carder bumblebee in a Salmonberry hedge on the opposite side of the road.

As we wandered down to the shore, several fields contained at least one Hare, and a flooded field was the temporary lodgings of a pair of Shelduck. The roadside verges here were angled more to the sun, and benefited from some shelter from the breeze. Consequently, there were many more insects, so I was able to snap a few photos of various hoverflies.

Later, at home, with a hoverfly guide received as a present, I struggled to ID these to Genus (though I managed 2 out of 3), eventually resorting to local social media and the wealth of expert knowledge available. They are all from the Genus Eristalis, with tentative IDs of pertinax, intricaria and, possibly, either arbustorum, abusiva or another pertinax. This is going to be a steep learning curve!

(I did have more success with the bee/hoverfly question posed by Countryside Tales, see the comments on my last post and CT's blogpost here.)

As we reached the kirk, a high-pitched keening call grabbed our attention. We looked at each other and excitedly whispered "Tern!" Our Lass hadn't seen one yet this year, so we scanned across the shore until we spotted a white bird gently bouncing through the air on slender wings. We were looking into the light, so distinguishing bill colour was impossible, but by the general feel of the shape of the bird, I reckoned either Common or Arctic. As we watched the tern, it alighted on a rock next to another one. Yay, a pair. We lowered our bins to exchange a happy grin, and I immediately exclaimed "Another one!" as something flew over our heads. This tern was much smaller, with a yellow bill and not much tail to speak of... a Little Tern, oh joy unconfined. This bird met up with yet another two and they began feeding out in the bay.

Turning our attention, momentarily, to the flooded fields behind the kirk, Our Lass let out a squeal of delight when her bins picked out four tiny Moorhen chicks in the company of one of their parents. Now we didn't know whether to look left or right as we edged along the road! As we neared the original pair of terns, bill colour became more apparent. Red, all red, so Arctic then.

A flypast from a pair of Bonxies temporarily put everything into the air for a while, so by the time all was settled again, we were climbing the hill towards home and stopping frequently to scan the wet pasture to our right. A Lapwing was walking parallel with us uttering the occasional plaintive call, which we reckoned meant that there were chicks about. Persistent use of the bins revealed that, in amongst the tussocky grass, the dochans, and clumps of soft rush, were two Hares, several Snipe and... 

"Oo, hang on, what's that wee shape? Go left from the nearer Hare and down half left from the farther Hare, just beneath that dead umbellifer stalk. Can you see it?"


"It's moving!"


"Underneath the dead umbellifer! It's stood up now. Lapwing chick!"


"Just scan for the movement!"

"Oh, THAT left..."

Twas ever thus.

In the verges and ditches, the Lesser Celandines and Coltsfoots were going over, but the Marsh Marigolds were still looking mighty fine, whilst in the wet pasture Cuckooflower was beginning to appear.

As we reached the top of the hill and the road junction where I took the opening photo, a Meadow Pipit rose skyward, singing his territorial song, before gracefully parachuting back to earth. Bliss.

We turned towards home, as the haar swirled ever nearer, and by the time I fired up the lawn mower, I was cutting the grass in thick fog. That's actual fog, not Yorkshire Fog.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Putting theory into practice

Spoiler alert: there's a photo at the end of the post which some of you mightn't want to see. However, I have put in more paragraphs than necessary, so as to, hopefully, prevent it being the first thing you view.

With a free morning, I wondered what to do with my spare time, although to be fair, it's rarely free or actually spare. There is always that juggling act with what could be done, should be done, needs done or would be the preferred thing to do. Today wasn't any different.

I opted to start of with a bit of housework, firstly emptying the clean clothes from the airing cupboard, and then progressing to vacuuming the floors. Whilst carrying the vacuum cleaner from its home in the self-same cupboard, I noticed a small shadow behind the ironing board, tucked up against the skirting board and the edge of the carpet. Ninety nine times out of a hundred this will be a wood louse but, in this instance, it wasn't. The creature's many legs were too few, too long and too... spidery. Oh bother, what to do?

The arachnophobes amongst you will be screaming "But you're holding the vacuum cleaner!" And I would be fibbing if I said that hadn't occurred to me. However, in the spirit of species identification and record gathering, I opted for a different approach.

Switching on the vacuum light for a clearer view, I could see that it didn't appear to be anything unusual (is that good or bad?) and it wasn't particularly spooked by my presence (is THAT good or bad?!). Cue a feverish few minutes, whilst I searched the kitchen for an appropriate glass and a piece of stiff card. Back at the sharp end, as it were, I was able to place the glass over the spider and slide the card under the glass, all without squishing the animal or amputating any of its legs (probably an occupational hazard for an arachnid in the home of a nervous human).

Now for the tricky bit... the lifting of the whole glass/card/slice apparatus, without leaving any gaps between the two which would allow for er... egress. A further trip to the kitchen saw me brandishing a fish slice and executing a perfect 'slide and lift' manoeuvre, So far so good.

I gingerly placed the whole malarkey on the kitchen table (note to Our Lass... stop reading here...), so that I could photograph the spider, with the hope that this would help with identification.

To be honest, it did look like a smaller version of the house spiders we would see when we lived south, so I fired off a message to the local guru to ask if it was 'just' a small Teg(enaria)? This was duly confirmed, with the added info that it was an adult male and it had nice palps.


With that sorted, I could finally think about releasing the creature, so opened the several doors between the garden and the spider, and set forth with the whole apparatus. Things were going according to plan right up to the moment of release, when a stiff breeze caught the not-stiff-enough card, resulting in a yelp from me, followed by a swift parting of the ways, as human and spider went in opposite directions.

I sincerely hoped.

Monday, 7 May 2018

And finally...

For most of our adult lives, Our Lass and I have lived inland, a long way inland. In fact, just about as far as you can be inland in the UK. We did have occasional trips to the coast, but these were, for us, major expeditions. Up early, back late, with a minimum of 6 hours driving for the day. So not something that can be planned around the unpredictability of whale-watching.

Since we began holidaying in Orkney and, belatedly, living here, we have been harbouring the hope that now... now, we can react to random and chance sightings of cetaceans. The trouble is, we'd either be at work, or on the wrong island, or at the wrong end of the right island, or simply on a trip to the Scottish mainland. For example, two months into our Orcadian adventure, we'd just spent a long, tiring day moving into the house we would call home, when a text message came through alerting us to an Orca sighting. Our choice was to go and take the chance that we would be there in time (and miss the evening meal in a local eatery which we'd been looking forward to all day) or say "Next time" and allow our weary selves to relax with some good food. Manna and maƱana won that particular battle.

And so it went on. Shout after shout went begging, owing to circumstances or availability, until it became a standing joke. You could almost set your watch by how soon the Orca would appear if we headed south on holiday, and then disappeared again as we returned north.

As this was usually the same time of year, for 2018 I cleverly booked a holiday a month later. This cunning plan did have one small flaw though... a niece decided to arrange her wedding for the Orca dates, so I was foiled once more.

Then, just over a week ago, a small pod of three male Orcas was sighted in Scapa Flow and, oddly for these whales in our waters, they've hung around for a good while (9 days and counting). Shouts came and went via text message and social media, until by the end of the week I could bear it no longer. I dropped what I was doing (midway through cleaning a fridge freezer) and hightailed it to the reported location, only to discover that I was too late. Again.

Yesterday, I was under the weather. And there was lots of weather to be under. Not for Orkney the soaring temperatures further south, we barely made double figures Celsius and then subtracted a bit for windchill. By mid afternoon, it had also begun to rain, but I was watching social media for Orca updates, so was handily placed to notice the words 'Echnaloch Bay' and '3 minutes ago'. Another bout of drop everything (Our Lass - the lawnmower, me - my computer), saw us hurriedly bundle waterproofs and optics into the car and head off over the Churchill Barriers towards the bay.

The grey sea was a little choppy with a northerly breeze, but the low clouds and rain couldn't dampen our mood at the prospect ahead. We parked the car as neatly and safely as adrenaline would allow and clambered along the path on the south side of Glimps Holm. From this low vantage point we could look across Echnaloch Bay towards Burray, and held our breath in anticipation.


Saturday, 5 May 2018

The Ghost of Coneymass Past

Four years and a day ago, I posted about a young Rabbit which briefly appeared in our (then) new garden, see here. Since then, our plot has been bereft of bunnies, not so much as a twitching of a whisker or a glimpse of a cotton tail.

Weird, then, that today I noticed a movement by the stane dyke, and assuming it to be the Linnets which I could hear through the open window, was astonished once more to be viewing a young Rabbit. What the... ?

I'm guessing that this date in the Orkney calendar, when the new grass shoots are growing vigorously, is a good time for a young Rabbit to be exploring the wider world. But I can't explain its appearance, when there has been no sign of adult Rabbits in the immediate vicinity in over four years.

2018's version of bunny has an intriguing white mark on its forehead...

Thursday, 3 May 2018


Last month it was revealed that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) had granted a licence for some folk in certain areas of Perthshire to cull 300 Ravens over a 5 year period, as an experiment to see whether said experiment would have a positive effect on breeding wader numbers. Astonishing to many though this was, even more bizarre was the fact that SNH hadn't breathed a word of it to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) or Raptor Persecution UK. These two organisations already have good sets of data for the area, and would've pointed out that it might be an excellent idea to rethink things a bit. This latter fact alone prompted me to sign a petition against the cull.

For a bit more background, see here and here.

Yesterday, I was yet further amazed when the story popped up on BBC Scotland's evening news bulletin... well, sort of...

because that's obviously not a Raven, it's a Rook. If only the Beeb had someone who could check all their wildlife reporting for accuracy, like maybe a Natural History Unit? Oh, wait a minute...

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Mr Fredricksen!

I had to take the day off work today as we were expecting a furniture delivery. Whilst I waited, it was an opportunity to catch up on a task which was way behind schedule, namely the compilation of all the various articles and reports submitted by enthusiastic and knowledgeable folk for the 2018 Orkney Field Club Bulletin. Although there's a standard format for the journal, when it comes to bolting it all together, the fact that we all use slightly different versions of Microsoft Word usually throws the odd spanner in the works. Hence me being behind schedule.

However, nature outside was providing a convenient distraction from the nature on my computer screen, in the form of the Snipe that first appeared about three weeks ago, and who is still putting in occasional appearances (just not when I have the camera trap deployed).

So there was no real need for a snipe hunt (in case you wondering about the 'Up!' reference), I just had to look out of the study window.

But no squirrels!