Sunday, 11 February 2018

Air to ground missive

As the light faded after a cloud-obscured sunset, Our Lass and I stood at the lounge window, gazing out towards the distant snow-covered Hoy hills. In this, the coldest Winter since we moved to Orkney four years ago, the vegetation of field and garden seems to be shrinking back into the earth. Bitingly cold winds and extremity-stinging hail take their toll on all life, both plant and animal.

With the grass gradually leaching its greenness through various shades of straw towards a pale brown, in the field opposite I noticed a darker colouration. Possibly a long dead stump of a dochan, but with the teasing potential to be a Hare hunkered down against the elements. As it turned out, it was neither of these things, my binoculars revealing a raptor, possibly a Sparrowhawk, busy plucking a kill. The failing light made it tricky to be sure but, whilst Our Lass kept her eye on the bird, I risked a dash for the camera. Halfway there, she informed me that the bird had flown, spooked a pair of Hooded Crows. I returned to the window as the Hoodies saw off the bird of prey, and watched as they pottered around the area where the kill had occurred. The raptor must have taken its hard-won prey with it, as the crows found little to reward their mobbing efforts.

Today's fleeting glimpses of the competition for food have brought home just how tough it is to survive in this harsh environment. The waders and waterfowl at least have the shore and the shallows to provide daily sustenance, but the corvids need all their cognitive abilities and cunning, and the raptors their agility and talons, to make it through to the approaching Spring.

Aerial antics

What was I thinking?! It doesn't seem very long ago that I was typing the words 'The local family of Ravens rarely become involved in these shenanigans...' when I was reporting on the corvid on corvid action which could be witnessed from the front door of Tense Towers.

Then, this afternoon, between wintry showers of hail and snow, I noticed two birds locked in aerial combat. They were some distance away, both dark in appearance, with one much larger than the other. It wasn't until I had jettisoned my laptop and picked up my bins that I was able to identify the twisting, turning shapes as a Hooded Crow (smaller) and a Raven (larger). The binoculars, too, were then cast aside as I grabbed my camera and headed for the front door.

The Hoodie appeared to have some food in its beak, upon which the Raven had clear designs. As the dogfight continued, climbing up into the deep blue then spiralling and diving down, I struggled to keep the distant specks in (a) view and (b) focus. Occasionally, the squabble over food disappeared from sight altogether, as the birds dropped down towards the shore and behind a hill, but then they would zoom back skywards to continue the melee.

I could not possibly imagine what it must be like to run pell mell with, for instance, an apple clamped between my teeth and being chased by a burly rugby union centre, intent on relieving me of it. (I so wanted to write 'hooker' in that last sentence, but that would have sent a mixed message and possibly resulted in a different outcome.)

Soft furnishings

I have to admit to a small and rather bijou rant the other day. You're probably wondering, "Can a rant be described as 'bijou'?" Please allow me to explain.

Picture the scene, if you will. A home, a lounge, a two-seater recliner. As they say, sofa, so good.

The seasoned observer will notice the two cushions on the right of the photograph. This is where I normally sit. If your thoughts have moved on to "Really?! Whilst he's not particularly macho, he doesn't sound like a soft furnishings kind of guy?" then award yourself a bonus point.

Continuing the explanation, I should also point out that Our Lass sits on the left, usually with the cushions, but when exiting said seat, the cushions mysteriously end up on 'my side'. Hmmmm.

If you've just heard several clicks, that'll be the sound of First and Second Born rolling their eyes upwards, as they know exactly where this is going.

Perhaps the situation would be better illustrated with a short demonstration? This is the furniture shop scene from an episode of the BBC sitcom 'Coupling', which neatly summarises the main characteristics of cushion rage. Whilst it does share some of my frustration, and a few expletives, it is very worth watching to the end.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Another bout of Rooks v Crows

This morning dawned crisp and frosty with that gorgeous Winter light that is two parts sunny, one part honey. There were several Hares scampering around in the neighbouring fields. 

Whilst I was busy watching the Hares, some Rooks turned up for the latest round of the corvid competition. I'm not sure they knew which game was to be played today, as they sat on the fence looking very undecided.

Eventually, the Hooded Crows put in an appearance (fielding a whole six players today) and proceeded to perform their version of the Kiwis' Haka.

Possibly in acknowledgement of the fact that this weekend saw the beginning of Rugby Union's Six Nations Trophy for 2018, the Rooks were inspired to bring along an appropriately-shaped potato.

Unfortunately, before I could figure out who was playing on the wing, the game had to be abandoned when Team Rook flew off with the ball.

In other news, with wall-to-wall blue sky and barely a breath of wind, Our Lass and I were just happy to be able to spend most of the day outside.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Field of battle

This week has seen the BBC air the latest series of its flagship '[Insert season here]watch' over four consecutive nights. And speaking of knights, were Martin and Chris just a bit too keen to dress up in costume for the corvid showdown that was Game of Crows?

Zim the Carrion Crow won the cognitive ability competition for the smartest bird, but not before Martin discovered that Bran the Raven was a bit of a pecker. It was probably karma for all the references to 'penis' that Martin squeezed into a feature on the mating habits of Lesser Horseshoe Bats... not to mention his description of the roosting female bats as looking like 'hairy plums'. [Facepalm]

Back at Tense Towers, most days are Game of Crows days, when the local Hooded Crows endeavour to see off any Rooks who might be trying to muscle into their territory and pinch anything edible.

Often's the time when I've been drawn to the window at the sight of up to a dozen Rooks, wandering across the neighbouring pasture in their search for tasty morsels. It is never very long before a pair of Hooded Crows shows up and chases them away. For some reason, superior numbers don't appear to give sufficient advantage in this particular battle. Perhaps the Rooks, who forage, nest and roost in large colonies, don't put quite the same emphasis on territory that the lone pair of Hoodies do?

Rook on the lookout for trouble
Today, for instance, four Rooks turned up in the field over the road, and began foraging in a ragged line. From my vantage point, I could see the Hoodies were at the far side of the field, though I suspect the two groups were invisible to each other. However, it wasn't long before one of the Hoodies was airborne, from where the Rooks' sneaky sortie was viewable. As soon as the Rooks realised the game was up, they too took to the air and headed for... er... pastures new, whilst the Hooded Crows made a point of positioning themselves in the middle of the field.

The Hooded Crows are never far away
The local family of Ravens rarely become involved in these shenanigans, preferring to spend their time annoying Great Black-backed Gulls, any passing Herons and the occasional Buzzard.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Stuff On My Phone (11)

Mike Oldfield.

This was always going to be one of the trickiest of choices, how to pick a favourite track from such a vast assortment of music. Whilst not having the full complement of Mike Oldfield albums in my collection, there still remained the uneviable task of whittling down 16 LP and CD's worth of material to a single defining (for me) track. I'd had to discount the two albums which I had on cassette, because even if I still had a player, the tapes were worn out.

So, where did I start on the long road to choosing one Oldfield track? By thumbing through a bunch of CDs with a panicky 'flack, flack, flack' noise, mainly. However, I was able to come up with a shortlist:

North Star (or Platinum Part 4) from Platinum (1979); This is pretty much what's expected of an Oldfield track, fairly standard fayre really, but I like the energy and attack of this one.

Sheba from QE2 (1980); I know, barely a guitar, but heavy on the quirky. I like!

Let There Be Light from The Songs Of Distant Earth (1994); The album is based on the science fiction novel (of the same name) by Arthur C Clarke. In Let There Be Light, the guitars are back, with a whole host of other ambient stuff. More layers than the world's tallest Victoria Sponge cake. Grand!

The Top Of The Morning from Tubular Bells III (1998); Crazy, eh? Not until the third iteration of Tubular Bells does a track make it into my top 5. Again, keyboards driven, with a hint of guitar.

The Doge's Palace from The Millenium Bell (1999). As the world raced towards the year 2000, Mike Oldfield released The Millenium Bell, a swift musical tour of human history. The Doge's Palace finds us in the Venetian Republic. Plenty of strings, but precious little guitar. This shortlist has taken me by surprise.

Finally, a decision had to be made. The one artist, one song rule was biting hard at the hand that downloads. And, as it was a personal choice, the chosen track was one which holds happy memories for me.

During her secondary school days, First Born was in a keyboard band, and often played this piece at home. It never failed to make me smile, whatever time of day it was. The Top Of The Morning.

[Happy sigh]

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ice and snow

A recent spell of wintery weather brought a week of sub zero temperatures, some spectacular skies and the occasional 'interesting' moment as folk tried to go about their business as normal, ignoring the freezing conditions.

Tiptoeing around the island, sticking to main roads where possible, I was pretty much able to continue working throughout. My only "Eek!" moment being one dark evening when, on a particularly snowy single track lane, I encountered a snowplough coming in the other direction.

Here's a selection of photos of the week, taken during work and play.

After a day of being snowed and hailed upon whilst working in Orphir, it was lovely to experience a bit of blue sky just before sunset. At this point, I was still blithely unaware of my impending rendezvous with the snowplough.

A trip to Shetland and a wait for the boat home brought some photo opportunities. This is part of Lerwick harbour, with the small ferry from Bressay about to berth in Lerwick.

Across the other side of Shetland, a view of Scalloway Castle and some cloud reflections.

A panorama from home, looking northwestwards away from the sunrise. Clad only in dressing gown and slippers, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

A more 'gritty' photo than usual. One of the locals brings his work home with him.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Beating the blues with some blue, reds, greens... and more blues

With gale force winds all of Saturday and Sunday, it wasn't much of a weekend for being out and about, let alone taking a leisurely stroll or a wildlife walk. Instead, I stayed indoors and set about compiling the Orkney dragonfly and damselfly records for 2017. This is a double bonus, because not only is it a useful addition to the data sets held nationally and locally, it also means I can spend a couple of days revelling in thoughts of a Summer past, gazing at some fantastic photographs and reading wonderful descriptions of folks' dragonfly experiences. Let's face it, at a time of year when the little loves aren't going to be on the wing again for another four months (at least in Orkney), then it's a small but welcome distraction from the long tail of Winter still to come.

Over the course of the 2017 flight season, which locally was from mid May until mid September, nearly three dozen people sent me 226 records of their dragon and damsel sightings, using all manner of methods. Some forward me their neat and tidy spreadsheets, others post photographs on social media, a few sets of handwritten records usually appear and then personal conversations, phone calls and emails account for the rest. Orkney is a small county, both in area and number of inhabitants, and its latitude also reflects this in the reduced populations of Odonata. However, encouraging folk to go out and look for these insects and then report their sightings are two of the central aims of my largely unofficial remit as the island's 'Mr Dragonfly'.

As you can probably gather from the low numbers mentioned above, compiling the records  is not an onerous task, but each record must be verified to check that an insect has been correctly identified and its location accurately noted. Cartographic errors do occur. Orkney sits astride two 100km squares, so annotating the wrong one puts the record on mainland Scotland or in the sea. It is also easy to transpose northings and eastings in a grid reference, or simply type one figure incorrectly, which will have a varying inaccuracy depending upon which significant figure it is. Correct identification of the insect is somewhat less of a problem, as the archipelago has only eight breeding species which are, thankfully, sufficiently different from one another. Well, for now at any rate. Yes, with the 'warm front' of climate change migrations heading steadily northwards, we will likely receive a few confusion species before too long.

Obviously, local recorders with much larger taxa, like butterflies and moths, have to plough through thousands and thousands of records each year. I really do believe that I get off lightly!

Once the data is compiled and submitted to the various official recording bodies (locally, the Records Centre in the Library, and nationally through iRecord) then I can begin writing up a report of the flight season for the Journal of the Orkney Field Club. I have to remember that it isn't a blog, and so must leave out my terrible puns, awful jokes, made-up words and general references to rock bands and lyrics. This is the difficult part!

And when that is complete, I can turn my attention to matters slightly further afield and create a presentation for an airing at the Scottish Dragonfly Conference in April. This will be my biggest challenge (and audience) to date, but at least it will keep me occupied through the cold, dark nights of February, my head full of dragony delights, facts and figures, and the occasional song lyric terrible pun.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Stuff On My Phone (10)

After the comparative 'highs' of yesterday's mountains, it seemed apt to feature a tune on a similar theme for the latest SOMP blogpost. Admittedly, I may have peaked too soon.

Here's Joe Bonamassa's 'Mountain Time', admittedly not the actual version on my phone, but a more nuanced, extended live version recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 2009.

This track does indeed 'take me somewhere' and 'it's good to be there'. Cue wibbly wobbly lines as we travel back in time to 1982...

In my younger days, I courted a girl who was living on the English Channel coast, adjacent to the South Downs (I could never understand why they were called Downs, when you patently had to walk UP them). Anyway, my 'drive all night' was therefore 'south on 23', rather than 'west on 80'. This young woman did 'live free and easy', 'show me wonders' and 'take my mind', on account of having a very different upbringing to the one I had experienced. What chance did a boy from County Durham stand, eh?

And it's probably a given that regular readers will know 'I hate the city and I love the country', so no surprises there.

However, the lady in question was certainly as wild as eagles and as sweet as honeysuckle, and she still is (especially as she's reading this over my shoulder).

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Yesterday and today

Nope, this isn't a Beatles blogpost, nor a Y&T one, just a straightforward post about two recent and consecutive days.

Today has been sub-optimal for working at height, with near gale force winds and driving rain, so I took the opportunity to catch up with some online training instead. 

Yesterday, however...

Pre-dawn hues
After the sun came up, it picked out several snowy mountain tops on the Scottish mainland, which I was able to capture in monochrome:

Morven, 706m high and 88.4km distant

Ben Klibreck, 962m high and 116.2km distant

Ben Loyal, 765m high and 106.2km distant
Ben Hope, 927m high and 114.4km distant
Then, in the afternoon, there were some more spectacular moments:

And another view of Morven, silhouetted by the setting sun:

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The beginning of 2018

For the beginning of 2018, New Year's Day commenced in a similar vein to the closing of 2017. Until late afternoon it was wet and horrible. However, just before sunset, the clouds began to roll back and some blue sky appeared.

Our Lass and I headed for a nearby hill at a rate of knots.

Panoramic taken above Carnock, with Grangemouth on the left and the Ochil Hills in the distant centre

And in amongst a large mixed flock of (mainly) Chaffinches and Yellowhammers, we spotted a few Tree Sparrows. A small but significant delight.

The end of 2017

Jings, I've not blogged since last year! Best sort that out pronto.

Our festive period was a bit of a blur. Christmas Day itself was spent with friends, sharing a brisk coastal walk, followed by a convivial meal and pleasant company. 

Boxing Day was a much chillier affair, with the features of the distant Hoy hills picked out by flurries of snow. Our Lass and I went for a walk on the beach at Barrier 4, but neither of us felt like hanging around to take photos. However, we did have good views of a Great Northern Diver and a pair of Long-tailed Ducks, all quite close in to the shore.

Then we were back at work for a few days, before a trip south to visit relatives in Fife. It was very icy as we set off pre-dawn to catch the ferry. After negotiating some snowy roads around Thurso, the drive down the A9 went without a hitch. Some grand snowy scenery, mind, but the roads were ok.

In fact, emboldened by the fact that the roads were so clear, we detoured to Loch Garten (just like we would in the Summer, only now there would be no Ospreys or dragonflies and damselflies). However, this diversion was to be just as exciting. A friend in Orkney had mentioned that Winter was a good time to visit the Osprey hide, as there would be lots of Coal Tits and some Crested Tits around, the former coming to the hand to feed and the latter a specialist of Caledonian pine forest and not on either Our Lass's or my life list.

Continuing our journey south, we began to notice that the registration plates of the vehicles heading north were covered in snow. By the time we reached Fife, the last few miles to our destination were the wrong side of 'interesting'.

The following day, we managed a short walk near the village of Carnock, feeling quite giddy at the sight of so many hedges. We were able to see such exotic (for us) species as Blue and Great Tits, Bullfinches and Yellowhammers. Oh, be still my beating heart!

New Year's Eve was dreich. I went to bed at 11pm and slept through the raucous celebrations.