Friday, 28 March 2014

And finally.....

  ... 'and finally' ? - I think that was a phrase that was (or still is) used at the end of the ITV national news each night when they had an item of an often less serious nature. In my case the 'good news' was that we at last have had some really nice weather !

  Well what's been happening up here over the last 3 weeks or so ?  - it's been busy in one way or another. On the 7th, I was out having lunch with Catriona when my mobile went but I as I didn't recognize the number, I let in ring so as to maybe get a message. Shortly after, I checked the phone to hear a message from Dick and Ali Foyster to say that they'd had a Red Kite over near Burrafirth. We didn't hang about and before long I'd re-found it, sitting on the ground several hundred yards from the road. Not very good pictures, but a nice record and both an Unst and a Shetland 'tick'.....

 Red Kit at Sotland Unst

  Also on that day, I had one of my first Red-throated Divers of the 'spring' on the sea at Westing.....

  and a Gannet riding the waves.....

  A couple of days later in the late afternoon (9th) I got a call from Brydon to say that two Sperm Whales had been found down at Muness on the south east corner of Unst. Getting down there half an hour later, I have to say I was stunned as to the size of them. I paced it out and one was around 15 of my strides so it was roughly 40-45ft long and, so I was told later, around 35-40 tons ! The theory is that one came in which was ill and the other then beached itself a short distance away, very sad. Over the next two weeks, lots of people went to have a look - I even got a mention regarding it both online, in the paper and a very embarrassing interview on Radio Shetland - that's enough of that then!

 It was thought that one had been ill and had come inshore and got wedged in a small Geo and died and then the other one had followed it in and then died on the beach.

  The 'powers that be' had decided that they couldn't be left there and had to be buried. Both how they were going to be moved and where they could be buried was going to be a logistical nightmare and after much deliberation it was decided to tow them by boat to a remote beach in the south of the island. Over the period, I made a number of visits to the site and also to their final resting place and I have to admit it was very moving (no pun intended). I could write the whole of this blog about them etc, but as time is against me, pictures will have to suffice.....

........gone but not forgotten.

  On one day during the first week that the whales were at Muness, I was on my way through Uyeasound, when I saw  Brydon down at the pier. Going down, I discovered he'd seen the King Eider close-by to some of the nearest salmon cages. He had a quick word with one of the salmon boat guys and a few minutes later, we were off to have a closer look. It was one of those occasions when you make a decision and then later regret it. I decided to put the 1.4extender on the 500 thinking we wouldn't get that close to the flock of eiders (which included the King'). As we gently moved around them in the boat, the King took off and flew directly towards me, the lens magnification was now too much and I just couldn't lock on to it as it turned and flew parallel past me; most of what I got was out of focus :( Brydon however had a his zoom lens fitted and got a cracking shot as it flew past efforts......

King Eider at Uyeasound

  Over the next few days I had one or two nice wildlife encounters, some photos of which are below....

Water Rail at Haroldswick Pools

Great Black-backed Gull at Baltasound pier

Fulmars at Snarravoe

'Blue' Fulmar at Lamba Ness

  For many years ever since I first saw an aurora here in Shetland, I (along with many other no doubt) have had the dream of photographing one over the iconic location of Muckle Flugga - the lighthouse at Britain's most northerly point. Last week there was a forecast for two, fairly low strength ones; one over Sunday night, the other over Tuesday night -Wednesday morning. 
  One of the concerns with the location is obviously the safety factors due to the cliffs and open moorland etc; but also the conditions need to be perfect ie cloudless sky, no wind and no forecast of rain as it's an hours walk either way from the car park. 

  On the Sunday, I decided to walk out there in the afternoon (with Rona), set the camera up, turn on the remote and then collect it the following day - hopefully with a card full of auroa pictures. Alas, something didn't work with the remote (it had been tried before hand) and on getting the camera the following morning, not a shot had been taken :( 

  Right, the next chance was not going to be missed. I contacted Brydon to see if he was up for it (which he was), but due to him being off island, we wouldn't be able to head off until after 9pm. As far as I was concerned, the shortest route 'over the top', was out of the question due to the difficult terrain - lots of peak hags, muddy pools and an indistinct track. We headed up the boardwalk and then followed the cliff-top north - keeping well back from the edge I hasten to add. We finally arrived at our already decided location around 10.30pm and set up the gear. I was using my 7D and Brydon had his recently acquired Nikon D4 - which he readily admitted - wasn't familiar with. Around 11pm, a glow started to show in the north, unfortunately it wasn't that bright, so I had to up the ISO (which my 7D definitely doesn't like). One other problem was the beam from the lighthouse. It was a bit of a trial and error situation to get the timing right as to when to release the shutter. The problem I had was due to my slow shutter speed, the beacon light would rotate several times during the exposure and cause problems, I over came this by momentarily putting my hand in front of the lens as it passed. Brydon's F4 was much better at dealing with noise which meant he could use a higher ISO and in turn a lower shutter speed and was thus less affected by the lighthouse beam. 

  We were up there until just before 2am, in that time I only took 36 or so pictures and of those, 34 were ruined by wind vibration (it was probably only a F2 if that) unfortunately, out there - unlike at Lamba Ness - there is no shelter at all. I could have taken a heavier tripod but was reluctant to carry it on a 5 or 6 mile round trip - I'll now know better for next time. Overall it was a fantastic experience, probably one that not many have seen whilst sitting right at the top of Britain over looking Flugga'. Below is one of my pictures (one of the last I took as it began to subside) and also a couple of links to Brydons - which are 100 times better than mine :) and he'd only recently started using his D4 and he'd never photographed an aurora before !

Aurora over Muckle Flugga 26th March 2014


Monday, 3 March 2014

More 'Mirrie Dancers'

I doubt that there were many people that didn't hear about the recent aurora ( or Mirrie Dancers' as they are called in Shetland) or see them. I gather that at least the glow could be seen as far south as the Home Counties and across to south Wales and even down to Jersey.

I was on the pc around 7pm and took a look at and saw that the map for the north pole was 'red hot' - ie signifying a strong aurora; going outside I could see it was already pretty strong. As Catriona was away (and the girls were at home) I couldn't go out for long, I headed up to Lamba Ness with the idea of setting up the camera to do a time-lapse and leave it there for the night and hopefully get some pictures. There are several draw backs of leaving the camera unattended and they are,  i) the batteries only lasted around 6 hours, ii) the exposure is set no matter what the light levels are, and iii) the view point is also fixed - obviously. I'm still no expert at doing auroras or time-lapse, but believe me, the first ones I took 5 years ago are pretty rubbish. I mentioned in my last blog about the settings that I use, but one thing has changed since then and that is the battery life. What I have now is a battery pack which has a huge 6000mAH life per charge. (On this evening in particular, I started the camera at around 8pm and picked it up the following morning at 10am and the camera was still going strong - although the images were being over exposed by then).

Setting the camera up in a water proof plastic box which I had converted for the purpose, I headed off home. In the first picture around 8 minutes after I pressed the cable release, you can the trail of my car lights as I drove home.

By the time I had reached home, it was really beginning to 'kick off' so to speak. I called the girls and we stood outside for quite a while watching it going on all around us. What did concern me though, was that most of the 'action' was going on to the south west of us, very little seemed to be in the north - which was the direction my camera was pointing in ! I then found out my 40D in order to take some shots around the house, bearing in mind (as I'd mentioned before) that it's not good at high ISO's and also that as my wide angle was with my 7D, I'd have to use either the 24-105 (not really wide enough) or use the 18-50mm 'kit' lens which is at the best, pretty awful as far as I'm concerned. Hey ho.

I can't really describe the sight and feeling of an aurora like this one, it was by far the best I'd seen up here. I first saw it just after 7pm and it was still going on (although fading) at 2.30am when I headed to bed. It was difficult to know which direction to look as at its height, almost every direction had swirling curtains which faded in and out, often changing colour  from green to red and then back again. Below are a few pictures from the evening/night............

My car lights as I leave Lamba Ness at 8.45pm

From home looking west at 10.30pm (with 40D)

Looking towards Baltasound sometime after 1.30am (40D)

The ones below are from Lamba Ness on the 7D while I was at home, with the last one as dawn was breaking....

At Lamba Ness the camera took 1500 exposures but the last 300 or so were overexposed due to it being set on manual. Like I said earlier, I'm no expert at time lapse and there's still a lot to learn but its also a bit of fun to do. Below is a YouTube link to the images, there are several dark sections but bear with it if you want to....

The pictures below are a few more from the last couple of years......

 From Ordaal Jan 19th 2013

 Ordaal Jan 22nd 2012

 Ordaal 'star trail' March 2011

 From Ordaal Jan 2012

 From Ordaal Sept 2011

Star trail from Ordaal Sept 20th 2013


Saturday, 22 February 2014

Wild seas and Auroras

  Yet another month or so between blogs, it's simply not good enough ! To be honest, there hasn't been too much going on apart from the weather. There had been wind and rain almost daily since the 2nd week in December, with just the odd let-up where either it didn't rain or the wind dropped below F6. On the wildlife front, the main interests have been a number of Little Gulls (brought in by the gales) and good numbers (for Shetland) of Bean Geese. I've also been lucky to have seen several auroras.

  I've been busy around the house as well, finishing off the dinning room (well almost ) and then repairing/improving the utility room which is at the east end of the sun-room (conservatory). It makes my blood boil when I have to repair or replace something that is only a few years old which is leaking or rotten because of dodgy DIY work - ie not done properly in the first place (that's a general situation throughout the house). 'Changing Rooms' and the like has a lot to answer for - ie giving some folk the idea of maybe tackling a job which they aren't either qualified or skilled enough to do but think they are. Despite all of the bodges done here by 'clever fools', I wouldn't swap it for anywhere else.

  As I've just mentioned, we have had a lot of weather over the last two months so below are a few pictures of the storms in January/early Feb.......

 The road at the south end of Haroldswick

 Lamba Ness from Norwick

 Lamba Ness from the old road above Norwick

Looking east from Norwick

  As I said at the start, the winds brought in a number of Little Gulls, with up to five around Unst on one day and as the name suggests, it is a little gull and is the smallest of the worlds gulls. The picture below was one of two that were around Haroldswick for a few days and I also found two at Westing...

 Little Gull at Haroldswick

 Little Gull at Westing

'Tundra' Bean Geese in Baltasound

  I think I've mentioned in previous blogs that this year is supposed to be a peak in solar activity or the 'Solar Maxim' as it's called. The science behind it is over the head of a 'country carpenter' but basically it means that there is a 12 to 13 year solar cycle and usually at its peak, there should be much more auroral activity. Obviously having a clear sky is major contributing factor to seeing it, but also as far as photography goes, having little or no wind is also very important due to the long exposures often required. I have been out several times - on one occasion until just before 3am. While I don't always come away with decent pictures, just being out there and taking in the sight is enough........ The first four are from Lamba Ness (by moonlight)

 Skaw by moonlight (and a slight aurora)

From Ordaal by moonlight

  There are many problems that are encountered when trying to take pictures of auroras often due to the low light levels. The main one for me is the digital 'noise' caused by a combination of having to use a high ISO and long exposures. Generally, my standard settings are 800 ISO, 30 seconds exposure @ F4, manual exposure and manual focusing. If I go higher than 800, my camera tends to show more noise if there are a lot of dark areas in the image. Also, even a shutter speed of 30 seconds, the 'streaking of the stars caused by the earths rotation is obvious (at this slow speed, the slightest breeze will also produce a blurred image). At higher latitudes where they occur, they are usually much brighter which enables the photographer to use a lower ISO (the digital 'film speed') and shorter exposures. 

  Another way to get pictures other than going out and spending hours in the cold (and I can go to bed), is to use time-lapse. This can be done in several ways, either by using an intervalometer release to trigger the camera after a set delay (which could be hours or even days) and then take pictures continuously or with a predetermined space between each shot etc. The other way - which I tend to use more often if I'm not going to stay with the camera - is to set the frame rate to 'continuous', take the first shot and then lock the remote release on and then the camera will take pictures until either the memory card runs out or the batteries die on the camera. With two batteries and an 8gb memory card and the camera taking Jpegs, that should give me over 800 images; however, the batteries usually die at around 600. I had started using an app' on my Ipod which was easy to use and worked a treat; however, about a month ago I 'misplaced' it - or rather it somehow disappeared from the dashboard of my car, never to be seen again.

  Despite that I am lucky to see otters virtually daily, I don't tend to go out and look for them to get pictures very often. On one of the few sunny and relatively still days in January, I did notice the mum and mature cub along the shore from our house. As the wind was in my favour, I took a couple of shots as they rested on the seaweed, occasionally looking up in the direction of one of out neighbours barking sheepdogs......

  I know that most 'wildlife enthusiasts'  have a favourite bird etc, I have several - ie bird of prey would be Merlin, seabird would be Gannet etc. When it comes to British ducks it's a difficult one and it has to be between Smew and Long-tailed Duck (both being the male plumage's). Long-tailed Ducks are present here each winter especially on Bluemull Sound but are difficult to get photographs of on the water due to the distance from the shore - and just as difficult  in flight as they move very fast !

  Smew are fairly scare winter visitors to Shetland and males especially so. So when a male turned up on Snarravoe a few weeks ago I really wanted to get a picture. The problem here is often there's not a lot of cover to approach something without it taking flight - however careful you might be. On this occasion I was lucky in that the bird was feeding not far from a wall that went from the road down in to the loch (several hundred yards) so I was able to use this as cover, moving when the bird dived for food. All I had to then was wait - which was around half an hour - for the bird to move back in to view. Unfortunately, it had decided  to cross back over the loch away from me, I did think it may have seem me but when a number of Goldeneye  came a started feeding by me, I knew I hadn't been sussed by the Smew......................

........Not as close as I'd have liked

.............Long-tailed Ducks

  I do like to take a regular walk along the beach at Skaw but it often takes longer to drive over than the time I spend there (my conscience is always telling me I should be at home putting 'Bodge the Builders' work right). A couple of weeks back, I walked down to the beach there and saw a gull fly - quite determinedly - in towards the base of the low cliffs at the north end. Thinking there may be something dead (bird or seal etc) I headed along the shore; I then crossed some tracks  coming out of the sea which seemed to head for the spot where I'd seen the gull.  Finding nothing at the end of the tracks in the sand, I glanced around to my right and saw a 4ft long immature seal apparently wedged in between to large rocks. I couldn't see its head but it didn't move, so I assumed it was dead. Going around the the 'front end', I quickly discovered that it was far from lifeless as it swung it's head around and half barked, half snarled at me ! On returning from getting my SLR, it had turned around so obviously wasn't wedged in at all. As long as I didn't go too close (5-6ft) it settled down and seemed ok with me being there. ( I did check the following day and it had gone)........

  Last Wednesday (19th Feb) was a really nice, relatively windless day with - sunshine ! Not to miss an opportunity like that, I took a few hours 'off' and headed for the cliffs of Hermaness, my first proper visit of the year (I did go there a month ago for a walk). Considering we are only in the 3rd week of February, I was really (pleasantly) surprised how may Gannets there were on the cliffs - and even more on the sea below or wheeling around. It certainly didn't seem like over four months since I was last there watching the numbers dwindle on Saito. As I sat there in the sun, it felt warm on my back and yet it was only 6 degrees - I don't do 'hot' anymore :)

 Last year when I was down amongst them, I photographed a ringed bird and manged (by taking several pictures from different angles) to get the ring number. I then submitted it to the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and they have now come back with the details of the bird. Not surprisingly, it was ringed on Hermaness  just 3km from where it was now nesting, - 2607 days after it was ringed as a nestling......

 Towards the 'Neap' Hermaness Feb 19th 2014