Saturday, 24 April 2010

Tammie Nories and Bonxies

Well for once the weather forecasters got it right ! I checked the Northern Isles Weather website last night and it said that over night the wind would die down, the sky would clear and that it would be a fine, bright, dry morning. Also, that by lunch time the cloud would increase and that would bring in rain - they were spot on.

I had arranged to go out for the morning with friend Brydon Thomason, who is undoubtedly one of Shetlands most knowledgeable wildlife tour guides. (Click his banner on the right if you want to find out more) I picked him up at 7am and the biggest decision of the day was where to go. After several possibilities, we decided for Hermaness in the north west corner of Unst as it is home to thousands of Gannets, large numbers of Puffins and over 800 pairs of Bonxies (Great Skua).

Arriving at the car park, I was slightly dismayed to see it was full of crofters 4x4s with trailers and numerous quad bikes. They were there to round up the sheep on the hill to bring them down for lambing.

As we set off, I soon realized that I'd still not recovered from my lung infection and was soon puffing and panting as we made our way up the first part of the path. Crossing a small gully with a burn in the bottom, I was really surprised to see icicles that were at least 8 inches long, hanging down from one of the peat banks - it is the 3rd week in April isn't it ?

April Icicles

 Over the last two winters, the old wooden boardwalk has been replaced by a continuous re-cycled plastic one in a subtle chocolate brown colour. Some may not like the idea of a plastic one in a nature reserve, but it is far more environmentally friendly than a wooden one which only lasts a few years sunk in the almost permanently wet peat. The old boardwalk only bridged the hollows and wet areas and this often led to folks then creating new boggy patches as they walked around the muddy bits etc. The new one gets over this by being continuous and also considerably reduces the time it takes to reach the cliffs.
Carrying on up the boardwalk, it was now very obvious that the Bonxies were back in force as all around us were numerous birds calling and displaying. Two thirds of the way up, we stopped by a pair of Bonxies that were close to the path. Often if you approach carefully, they'll stay put and some good close-ups can be obtained. However, once breeding gets under way, like most birds, disturbance should be kept to a minimum and away from the pathways its a protected area anyway (although there are some that ignore this) If a Bonxie flies over another pairs territory, the birds on the ground will raise their wings high and call as they throw their heads back. Considering how aggressive Bonxies can be, they have an incredibly feeble call when they dive, just an 'ehck' or similar.
After a considerable number of exposures, we carried on up to the cliff top which was only a short distance away. On the cliffs were quite a number of Tammie Nories (Puffins) sitting around, 'bill tapping' and generally taking it easy - I suppose I would be also if I'd spent the winter out in the Atlantic bobbing around at the mercy of the weather. Unfortunately, even though it was an ideal day for photographing Bonxies, it was far too sunny for photographing Puffins. When facing me into the sun, I was needing almost 2 stops of underexposure to stop the whites being blown, but this then caused problems with the back ground and the rest of the feather details. In situations like this, I prefer to go in very close and get head-shots by either using a long lens or moving in close to these very confiding little birds. We must of spent several hours with the Puffins but unfortunately for me, the only keepers I got were the ones I took with either the 300 or the 500 as my 18-200 wasn't focusing properly - a trip for a service me thinks !

'Bill Tapping'

' If I hide behind here, can you still see me?'


Friday, 23 April 2010

Waders and Wheatears

Yesterday, I got a call from the local ranger to say that he'd seen a Rock Pipit of the Scandinavian race up in the north of the island so, with an hour before the afternoon school run, I thought I'd go and have a look. Unfortunately as is often the case, birds unlike public transport don't run to timetables and this bird hadn't hung about - or if it had I couldn't find it ! I sat down on the rocks in between the snow showers and watched a pair of wheatears feeding amongst the boulders. They are one of my favourite passerines and had probably recently arrived or were just passing through to travel on even further north.

Male Wheatear

Like a lot of migrants, at first there are just a handful around and then as if by magic, there are scores of them all over the island.

Checking the watch, I had to leave so as to be in Uyeasound to pick my eldest up from school. As I passed Haroldswick, I saw three Black-tailed Godwits feeding in a grass field close to the road and fortunately for me, there was a small track leading off which allowed me to get even closer. The birds were fairly unconcerned by the presence of my car and apart from looking up briefly they continued to feed which is always a good sign. I did wonder if they were part of the 8 that I'd seen the other day at Lamba Ness.

Black-tailed Godwit

Checking the  watch again, I really did have to get down to the south of the island now - I just hoped nothing showed up on the way down !

Today, I thought I'd take another look at Norwick again just in case the 'littoralis' Rock Pipit was around. Passing through the north end of Haroldswick, I was surprised to see a Common Snipe feeding on the roadside verge. The reason I was surprised, was that it is usually when the fields and boggy areas are frozen that I've seen them feeding there. I rolled the car to a stop (window already open and bean bag in place) in the hope it didn't fly off. The bird could obviously see me but did really take much notice, even when I put the long lens out of the window.

'Grab' shot, full frame,, 500+1.4ex

Once I'd got a couple of record shots, I tried some more to get the framing right - which isn't always easy from the constraints of a car.

virtually full frame

Alas no show of the pipit , just a Pied Wagtail, a 'normal' Rock Pipit and two Wheatears. Also there were two noisy Redshanks and a number of Turnstones who were turning into their breeding plumages.

Returning back to Baltasound, I was very surprised to see an Otter crossing a field in broad daylight which was several hundred yards from any water. Unfortunately it saw my car and fled back in the direction from where it came.

Passing back along the road to our house, the Brent Geese were still there and one was feeding close to the road. Window down, out of gear and rolling to a stop, I managed a number of pictures of the bird as it walked slowly back towards the waters edge.

Brent Goose


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

It's a hard life - if your an Otter

After a gale and driving sleet/snow last night I was wondering what sort of day I would wake up to this morning. Opening the curtains at 7am, I was surprised to see a fine, sunny morning with very little wind. At the back of our house, the Rock Doves were lined up waiting for some food - I'm still feeding the birds with seed but only get the aforementioned plus a few Sparrows and Starlings. Just before we left the island last Wednesday, I had a brief view of a small bunting as it flew off from the seed. I'm certain it wasn't a Reed' as it didn't seem to have enough white showing in the tail. My 'gut' feeling is possibly a Little' but unfortunately I'll never know, but it would be nice if it did briefly come back.

Catriona was coming back on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, so I was heading down to Lerwick to pick her up once I'd done the school run. In Uyeasound at the south of the island, I saw a Pale Bellied Brent Goose feeding on the shore and wondered if it was one of the ones that I saw yesterday in Baltasound as it they had now moved on.

Returning back home this afternoon, I took a drive along one of the foreshore roads and a number of Hooded Crows caught my eye on an old stone pier. I reckon there were at least a dozen or more and several Great Black-backed Gulls. It soon became obvious why they were there - an Otter had caught a rather large fish and was feeding. A gull flew in and took quite a large piece of fish and this bird was followed by half a dozen hoodies, the remainder staying by the Otter. I've seen it several times where several crows will taunt a feeding Otter by pecking at its rear end in the hope it will distract the animal and then one of the other birds will dart in an steal the food. The picture below is one occasion from last winter.

These below are from today and in better light.

Once the feeding had finished, it re-entered the water and carried on fishing, catching several small fish in the process. It was then joined by another otter and headed in my direction to where I was parked in my car. Fortunately the wind was in my favour but it still knew something was there. Most of my otter encounters are lucky 'chance' encounters as I don't have the time to spend hour after hour waiting patiently - but saying that, I do have quite a lot of 'chance encounters' !

'I know you're there, but I can't see you'


Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Back home at last

After almost 3 weeks of travel and travel disruption caused by a variety of things, it was good to get back home again yesterday. I had been due to fly from Birmingham on Saturday morning but as everyone knows, flights were canceled due to the large 'fireworks' over Iceland. I then received a message from Flybe to say that if I got to Glasgow for Saturday lunch time then I could travel as normal on to Shetland. Setting off from Birmingham at 7am on the train, I was feeling hopeful of getting home that day. An hour later I received an e-mail saying the flight had been canceled, so all I could do was to head for Aberdeen and hope to get the ferry on Sunday night. This I managed to do, but as the ferry was full there was also no sleeping options available apart from the floor or seats in one of the lounges. It was a long night !

Sailing up past Sumburgh Head at 6.30am, the hills had a light covering of snow which, considering I'd just come from down south where I'd been in a T shirt, looked quite cold. Even though I'd got in to Lerwick by 7.30am, I still had to get back down to Sumburgh airport to pick the car up which was an hours bus ride away. I must admit to being very pleased at being back in Shetland despite the 1.5 degrees c on the cars thermometer and the regular snow showers as I travelled back up through Mainland, on to Yell and then at last up through Unst.

This morning, once the kids had been dropped off at school, I decided to combine seeing a couple of people about some work and going around some of my favourite spots up here. First 'port of call' was Skaw in the north which is good for migrants. Not today however as it was bitterly cold and also the sheep there were being attended to so I kept away as I didn't want to scatter them after the crofter had spent so long rounding them up. Living here as I do, I have now got to know many of the local crofters who in turn tell me what they've seen around. Its a good situation to be in but is sometimes tainted by less thoughtful or less caring birders or folks with cameras. This happened last summer over at Skaw in early June. I found a Subalpine Warbler which turned out to be of the race 'Moltoni' (not confirmed by me I hasten to add) in vegetation by the burn at Skaw. As this bird was a really good find it proved to be popular - some folks travelling up from Liverpool to see it. The crofter then requested that people didn't enter the Spearmint where the bird had set up a territory which we happily accepted. However, in the middle of the 3rd week the bird disappeared and it was then obvious by a track through the vegetation that someone had walked in to it. I've watched wildlife all of my life and the track could have only been made by a selfish, thoughtless person probably on a tight schedule and wanting to see it. It is one thing disturbing the bird, but it is a totally different thing breaking the trust of the crofter. No 'tick' or photograph is worth it. I have seen and heard of a number of situations involving inexcusable behaviour when photographing wildlife up here which I may come back to at a later date - some even involving Schedule 1 species. Fortunately for us, the crofter concerned realized it wasn't one of us but it may spoil it for any visiting birders etc.

Subalpine Warbler - race 'Moltoni'

After Skaw, I then headed down to the headland at Lamba Ness - when the wind is right, its a great place for watching gannets and fulmars passing close to the head. As I stopped at the top, a group of waders near the cliff edge caught my eye. Raising the bins', I saw there were in fact 8 Blacktailed Godwits looking splendid in breeding plumage and were almost certainly of the Icelandic race (probably unaware of the situation up there, I would imagine) When they reached the cliff edge, they stopped feeding, lifted off and were taken back over me by the very strong wind and disappeared from view in seconds. Also near here, I found four Pinkfooted Geese feeding with a flock of Greylags' probably also heading back north for the summer.

 Blacktailed Godwits

After a brief detour to Burrafirth to talk work, I returned to Baltasound and found 3 more species of geese - Canada, Whitefront and Brent - five species in a morning not bad for up here.

Brent Geese (pale bellied)

The last 'new' bird of the morning was a Green Sandpiper feeding in a burn in Baltasound, it was a nice bird to find and even though I've found them over wintering down south, it felt too early for up here given the fact it was snowing at the time.


Monday, 12 April 2010

Back home - briefly

Well, after two weeks of rather hectic travelling, we arrived home yesterday to some really nice weather and a few migrants around - Wheatear, Swallow, Chiffchaff and Bonxie. Last night we were even treated to a brief showing of the Northern Lights but I was just too tired to go out beyond Baltasound (and no light pollution) to get a better look.

During the first week away, I did manage to get a day out with my friend and photographer Martin Dyer to several nature reserves in the Midlands. Sula (my eldest) and I had a few hours at The Cotswold Falconry Centre near Moreton-in-Marsh, Glos and had a good chat with Geoff (Dalton) the owner and as always, Sula ends up helping with part of a display. The weather wasn't good - cool and flat light, so I just took a few close-ups of the birds.

'Xena' the Golden Eagle

I know the focus point should be on the eye, but I liked the POV and thought it looked effective.

I then headed with my eldest daughter down to the New Forest for a couple of days where we met up with the rest of the family at my in-laws. After that, it was back to the Cotswolds for a couple of nights before heading to Oxford. Whilst in the Cotswolds, we did manage a few hours at Slimbridge and despite the weather (cold and rather flat lighting and rain later) I did manage to get some good views of two pairs of Garganey. One pair we did get to see at very close range from one of the south lake hides but by this time it was now raining.

male Garganey

On reaching Oxford, it was where my 'enjoyment' of our trip south virtually ended, I ended up in the John Radcliffe hospital having a chest x-ray for a lung infection. I won't bore you with details but the following week was literally a pain. Instead of heading north on the Thursday of the 2nd week, we left on the Tuesday for Liverpool to stay with friends for two nights, quickly followed by two nights in Edinburgh. The downside of the shortened visit south was not being able to visit friends that I'd planned to, so a big sorry to you all.

Fortunately the boat journey back from Aberdean was as calm as a millpond and all managed a good nights sleep.

As the title suggests, the return back to Unst is to be a brief one as there has been a bereavement in the family and Catriona and I have to return south again for 4 days. Please bear with me and 'normal service will be resumed as soon as possible'