Thursday, 27 November 2014

Gannets Galore - Pt 2

  In the first part of this which I did here back in July, I said I'd hoped to get up to see the Gannets until mid October (at least);  well, unfortunately my last visit of the year (while there were Gannets present) was on September 9th - which was also my birthday.

  Continuing on from the end of the first part, the next visit to the Gannets was on July 18th. On this occasion I headed to the south end to The Neap and Saito. Going around to Saito, I noticed offshore to the west, hundreds and hundreds of Gannets circling. Thinking that maybe there might be a whale or some Orcas feeding below, I scanned the area with my bins but quickly saw the reason for the soaring birds and that was four kayakers paddling along the base of the cliffs. They really did create a good scale to the scene before me.........

The same image cropped in

What you looking at ?

  It wasn't until 4th August (which also happened to be the date I'd started work as an apprentice joiner 40 years ago) that I returned 'down the banks'. By now many of the young Gannets - or gugas - were now covered in white fluffy down. The day was sunny with a few white 'cotton wool' clouds,  but what I wasn't expecting was what happened  an hour or so after I arrived. I'd been sitting down watching and photographing the birds using the 500 when suddenly it started to rain (the wind was blowing from behind me). The wind picked up and for 15 minutes, it poured down - or rather almost horizontally; I got completely soaked from head to toe, inside my clothes and boots and out ! Despite this, there were some interesting pictures to be had; however, the 500 was on the camera sitting on the tripod and my bag was quite a few yards away. If I moved or tried to change the lens, then water would almost certainly have got into the camera lens throat so I made do with what was attached to the camera body. It was a sad sight to see the young birds with their once fluffy down, now looking like very wet sheep's wool. The conditions for photography were horrible, for quite a few minutes the rain was that heavy that it gave a 'soft focus' effect, not because of rain on the lens, but because of the shear volume of water that was coming down.......

Once the rain had past, the birds soon dried out and things got back to normal.......

  I went back again the following afternoon and believe it or not, it was too hot ! So much so that some of the ewes and their large lambs, were using the east side of the stack for some shade - much to the annoyance of some of the nesting Gannets.......

  I did see another all too frequent sight, of a bird bringing in plastic for their nest. On this occasion however, it didn't remain for long as a few days later I'd noticed it had gone - probably blown off by the wind - but still in the sea no doubt......

   It was around ten days later that I was next up to Hermaness, but I didn't spend long down with the Gannets. This time I wanted to carry on to the northern end of the reserve and go down a long gully which leads to a boulder beach - which really is Britain's most northerly beach. Care has to be taken though as after very heavy rain, quite large amounts of soil gets washed down the 45 degree slope.

  As I rounded the side of the hill I was amazed to see what must have been several thousand Gannets feeding in the stretch of water between Flugga and the end of the reserve - although nearer Flugga than to me. As I watched, the numbers of the birds grew and also the area in which they were feeding. Over the space of 15 minutes or so, the flock of birds moved across the sound and towards the small bay at the end of the gully. I scrambled down and within a few minutes I was sitting on the rocky beach watching the birds feeding just metres from me. Some of the birds were diving in to only a few feet of water and occasionally one would overshoot and land on the shore just feet from me. It was now that I regretted taking on-board some advice that Brydon and one of his guests had suggested recently and that was to reduce the amount I carried in my camera bag. On this occasion I had just two lenses (instead of the usual four) they being the 500 and the 10- 20 wide angle zoom. One was too wide and the other was too much magnification - even the 24-105 would have been enough. Below are some shots with the 500mm and a link to a video which lasts around 30 seconds....

A wide angle view as the birds moved in to the bay

The link to a short hand held video - here

  After 40 minutes or so, I left and climbed back up to the grassy cliff top to head back. I'd only gone a few yard from the top, when I saw two people in red coats (why to folk where bright red coats to a nature reserve is beyond me) come hurrying over towards me. I'd seen them earlier from a distance - well they were quite obvious - and quickly discovered they were French. They both seemed pleased to see me and straight away asked if I was the warden, obviously replying 'no' I asked why they wanted to know. They said they'd seen a Gannet caught in a net and wanted some help so I followed them back along the cliff top (bearing in mind we were around 50 metres above the sea). They turned and pointed out to the sound towards Flugga and there, some several hundred metres away, was a Gannet drifting in the current, tangled in some fishing net. Asking what they were expecting me to do, they said 'can I get a boat ?' Explaining that the nearest boat was Baltasound and was probably at least an hour away and that nobody would come out for a Gannet, they were not convinced. I also explained that either the bird would drown fairly quickly given the current or Bonxies would get it in that time. I spent the next ten minutes trying to convince them helping the bird was not an option and so from their joyous first meeting they were now quite upset, the woman almost in tears.

  I  left them looking out at the sound and I continued my walk back south, it was a lovely afternoon and I made the decision to return that evening. My idea was to set up the camera and leave it over night to do a time-lapse. Back there by just before seven pm, I set up the gear and hoped everything would work as planned.

  Returning the following morning, I retrieved the camera and checked the images. There were over 800 frames but there were a couple of things I hadn't considered the previous evening - a strip of cloud on the northern horizon and the direction of the slight breeze. The wind had brought the cloud in and in turn the wind had helped deposit a lot of dust and bits of down on to the camera lens ! ......

An unintentional soft focus effect.

  Going back up there yet again that evening, it was very atmospheric with the birds starting to settle down for the evening and lots of Puffins also coming back to their burrows high up on the cliffs.......

  My last visit to Hermaness while the Gannets were in residence was on September 9th - which was also my birthday. The gugas were now well developed although there still quite a few in down feathers; but due to some recent rain, they weren't looking their best........

You're how old ? :)

  Probably my last visit of the year (unless we have some snow) was on November 20th. The morning was fairly still and sunny - even quite warm at times - at around 10 degrees. The hills were quiet with just the occasional sound of a Raven or maybe some Grey-lag Geese flying over. Up at the cliffs obviuosly there were no Gannets, but there were scores of Fulmars either soaring around or sitting on nest ledges cackling at one another. I do find the cliffs an eerie place out of season, but at least the Fulmars do keep it 'alive' so to speak. ........

November 20th 2014


Thursday, 23 October 2014

   Something I omitted from the last post, was a very special occasion that Rona and I had at Lamba Ness in July. We were walking around the headland, when I saw an otter fishing in the sea below us.  As the sea was very still and the water was very clear, we were able to watch it fishing under water for around 20 minutes as it swam around the coastline. It was something I'll not forget for a long time.......

   I ended that last post by mentioning the northern lights, well a week later and we had our first one of the end of the summer. It wasn't particularly strong, but it was nice to see none the less and then a few days afterwards there was another. On the evening of the second one, I'd thought about going out, but the sky was cloudy and there was a very bright moon, so despite there being an alert for one, I turned in around 10pm. Not long after, my mobile lit up with an alert, I looked out and saw a fairly clear sky and a glow to the north.

  Heading out, I set off down to the standing stone at Lund, where I had an idea for a picture. Quickly setting up the camera in the moonlight, I managed a few pictures of the stone lit by moonlight and a dim aurora in the background. Because of the directions of both the moonlight and the aurora, I filled in some of the shadows on the stone, by 'painting with light' using a small LED torch. The aurora soon died away so I set off for home, unfortunately as often happens (will I never learn - or maybe its too late ?) the display peaked again with a few 'curtains'. I turned and went back but it didn't continue..........

Aurora over Baltasound August 28th 2014

Standing stone at Lund 5th Sept 2014

  By the time early September arrives, thoughts of migrating birds arriving are at the top of the list so to speak. With the wind direction (south easterly) during the early part of the month, it was hoped there would be a good 'fall' of migrants. There were a number of 'mega' rarities both here and down on Mainland, several of them arrived when I was in the 'wrong place at the wrong time'. One was a Swainson's Thrush which turned up in Norwick on the day I was down at Sumburgh and then a White's Thrush turned up the following day down on south Mainland when I was back on Unst. There was also a Yellow-rumped Warbler down near Sumburgh which showed really well and allowed folk to get some cracking pictures of it. I would have liked to have seen the White's Thrush but I don't twitch birds off of Unst unless I'm going there anyway. As to the Yellow-rumped Warbler ? I've seen one of those already this year :) see here

  It was a good autumn for my 'lists, adding Firecrest, Blue Tit, Treecreeper, Little Stint, Temminck's Stint and Great-grey Shrike to my Unst list (255 species) - five of those also went on my Shetland list (270 species). I also added 3 birds to my 'garden' list - Blue Tit, Rednecked Phalarope and Jack Snipe, taking the total to 135 species. My Shetland lists aren't particularly high, but I think its ok considering I don't twitch off island very often and we've only been here for six years or so. Below are a selection of some of the birds from this autumn........

Blue Tit at Clingera
Bluethroat at Clingera
Eiders at Buness
Great Grey Shrike at Northdale
Great Tit at Clingera

Greenshank at Haroldswick

Red-necked Phalarope at Haroldswick

Little Bunting at Skaw

Little Stint at Skaw

Long-eared Owl at Vaylie

Red-breasted Flycatcher at Burrafirth

Ruff on Hermaness

Subalpine Warbler (eastern race) in Baltasound

Temminck's Stint at Haroldswick

Tree Pipit in Haligarth

'Northern' Tree-creeper in Haligarth

Rough-legged Buzzard at Gunnister

  Away from the wildlife - although it is difficult to totally switch off - I have been busy at home. One of the main jobs has been to make the old stable (which is now my work shop) more water proof. It was never done properly and has always let in water both through the doors and, when the rain is blown by the wind, also through the horizontal boarding. So I've now replaced two of the sides (lining it with building paper first) and also made two new doors. It is now very nice to not have to duck under the top half of the stable door when I go in to the shed. The only other job (for now) is to replace the roofing felt - which I'll do as soon as we have a decent calm day !

  Now in the 3rd week of October, the main migration season is virtually over and any rarity is likely to be a gale blown bird from afar. Strong winds and big seas will probably be a common sight for the next few months but hopefully there will also be some still, sunny days - fingers crossed.

'Big Sea' at Westing a couple of weeks ago


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

  As I sit here near the last week of August, I'm thinking 'blimey what's happened to Spring ? Then, when I look back over the last couple of months, the reason it seems to have flown by is that things have been pretty busy. As well as the usual jobs around the house and garden etc, I've had a few days guiding for Brydon's Shetland Nature tour company. These are usually just around Unst, but this year there were also several trips to Fetlar.

  For one of the Fetlar trips, I decided to take the 7.05 ferry from Unst  and then the 7.25am ferry from Gutcher. This would give me almost 3 hours on Fetlar before I was due to meet the clients as they drove off the next ferry to arrive at the island at 10.50am. It was a beautiful flat calm sunny morning as the ferry went down Bluemull Sound. I was the only passenger, and as I chatted to one of the ferry crew at the stern of the boat, he pointed down at the wake at the starboard side of the boat. Looking down, I saw a Porpoise riding the wake of the boat. I don't normally expect anything to be this close to the boat, so I had the 500 attached to the camera - far too much magnification. Dashing to my car, I quickly changed the lens to the 70-200 and returned to the stern of the ferry. Thankfully it was still there and continued riding the waves for what seemed like ages but was probably only 5 minutes or so.....


  As well as my visits to Hermaness to see and photograph the Gannets, I also spent time exploring the coastline looking for different viewpoints and possible locations for getting views of Guillemots etc. I did find a few places I'd not been to before and so over the next week or so, I visited at different times of the day - although some of the pictures could have been taken anywhere around the cliffs of Hermaness .........

  It was on one of these visits, that I was right at the north end of the reserve taking pictures over-looking Flugga. As I climbed back up out of a gully, two people (who turned out to be French) came hurrying over looking 'relieved'. Firstly, they asked me if I was the warden and on replying 'no', they then went on to tell me that they had seen and Gannet caught up in a fishing net and could I possibly help. Following them a short way to the cliff top, I asked where was it and they then pointed to a bird some 200yds away - out in the sound between Flugga and where we were standing ! I then asked what they were expecting me to do - 'can you get a boat?' came the reply. I then had to explain that dozens of Gannets probably die like this here every year and that with the number of Bonxies around, it wouldn't last long. Also it would take at least half and hour to get a boat and, in the unlikely event that someone was willing to come, by the time they had arrived, the bird would have been taken out a long way on the strong current that was going through at the time. They weren't convinced and continued to want something done about it for at least ten minutes - by this time the bird was almost opposite the entrance to Burrafirth. I left them looking a lot sadder than when we first met.

Flugga 10.15pm 5th August 2014

 From the last week of July, until the 3rd week of August, I was 'home alone' so to speak for most of the time - unless you include 4 chickens and 2 cats. Catriona and the girls had headed south (youth camp, theatres in London, Commonwealth Games, Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow to mention just a few !). While I was still getting stuff done around home, I also made the most of the hours by getting up and going out early and also by staying out late. We did have some cracking weather, with lots of still, calm days - and sunshine ! I did a few sunsets with the gannets (more of that in another post) but also continued looking at different locations. One of these was below and to the north of Saxa Vord hill to have a slightly different view of Flugga. The usual view of Flugga from Saxa Vord is cut off by the cliffs at the end of Hermaness, However, venturing just a little further, I got this view...
Flugga from near Ruska Kame
Out Stack
High level Noctilucent Clouds over Baltasound

  Black Gullimots - or Tysties as they are know as here - are a common sight all year round, but here on Unst can sometimes be difficult to photograph on the cliffs. One well known place to do this, is over on Yell and for several years, I've been meaning to go to the site. Five weeks ago I was going down to Mainland, so decided to have a couple of hours photographing them. Below are three of my favourites from the session......


  A few months ago, on our trip to Denmark, I had the misfortune to lose my wallet. As I have said in a previous blog post, a kind person handed it in and eventually I got it back. Recently the role was reversed and on two occasions I found some lost property. The first occasion was on Lamba Ness when two visitors drove off leaving a small rucksack behind. I saw it after they'd driven a mile up the road, but decided to take chase anyway. I finally caught them up near Saxavord Resort and pulled along side holding the bag up. One of the guys said 'yes, its mine, its got my phone and wallet in it' - and that was it ! I wasn't expecting anything more than maybe a quite appreciative 'thank you', it wasn't even that, some folk eh? 

  The second occasion was when I was on Hermaness one morning. I sat down on the cliff top, looked down and saw three plastic cards lying in the wet grass. Fortunately one was a driving license with a name on it, one of the other two was a credit card. Later back at home and wondering what to do, I thought about putting the name in to a Facebook search. Thankfully a name came up and also matched the nationality, so I sent him a message. By the end of the day there was no reply, so I looked to see if his travelling companion was a FB 'friend' - Brydon had seen a couple up there that day. I saw that the 'companion' was actually his wife - and there were pictures on FB of Hermaness from the day before - so I sent another message, but again no reply. It was here that luck played a part again, Brydon saw them leaving the ferry at Toft, went over and asked them if they'd lost come credit cards. Needless to say, I think they were surprised that a complete stranger should know this. Now at least we had a contact number.

  Initially, I was going to post them back to them in Norway as they were going to be leaving Shetland on the Saturday lunchtime. However, I did need some timber from Lerwick, so I decided to go down and deliver the cards in person. It did feel (and probably looked) a bit dodgy, several strangers meeting in a supermarket car park and handing over a brown envelope ! I certainly wasn't expecting anything for my 'troubles', so thank you to Oddgeir and Ranveig for your 'gratitude' - and Face Book !

  On any day during the summer months going up to Hermaness, its impossible to go there without passing the Bonxies - Great Skua - as you walk up the board walk. These birds have a fearsome reputation for protecting their offspring - stray too near and you can easily feel the full force of one as it dive bombs you from out of the sun  - if its shinning of course :)  Only recently, I was sitting on the boardwalk photographing a Sundew plant when a mother with her son stopped to ask whether or not it was safe to walk on up to the cliff top because there was a Bonxie sitting on the pathway. Unforunately, for whatever reason, Bonxies don't appear to have had a successful breeding season this year - although some folk will be pleased......

  One species that has been successful on Unst this year was House Martin. I believe that there have been only 3 or 4 breeding pairs in Shetland in the last ten years. The Unst birds raised at least 3 youngsters.....
House Martins
  Last night (20th Aug) was the first aurora of the season to be seen over Shetland now that the nights are drawing in. I had a look out a 11pm and saw a glow through the clouds and that was that. A sure sign the seasons are changing.  Hopefully we'll see a few like these again this winter.........