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