Tuesday 26 February 2019

Well that was 2018 !

   Well that was 2018 and it was quite a busy year in one way or another !

  The first 'highlight' was an email early in the year, to say that two of my pictures had been shortlisted in the environmental category of the Scottish Nature Photography Awards - here , then just over a month later, I got the news that I'd won 1st place and 3rd with the two images below (I'd had 2nd place in 2014). The 1st place prize, was a weeks stay at the Treshnish and Haunn holiday cottages on Mull  - here. (We took the holiday in Nov 2018 and a few pictures from then can be seen here on my FB page). I have to say that its a fabulous place to stay, and would thoroughly recommend it.

 1st place

3rd place

(A follow-on from the competition was that in June, the pictures were used on BBC Springwatch) 

  The next 'bonus' for me, was a trip with Sula to the Black Isle for a week at the end of May and into June. One of the main reasons for the trip, was a day in a hide with the hope to see and photograph Pine Martens with Black Isle Nature Photography We we were't disappointed and despite having to wait for a few hours, we watched a mother and her kits feeding just feet in front of the hide in full daylight. 

Pine Marten

  There are more images from the Black Isle trip here.


  The 3rd 'treat' of the year - and the best - was a family trip to Finland in late July and in to August. It was a brilliant trip and would take far too long to put it all up here, but THE highlight for me, was the almost 14 hours in the hide at Martinselkonen,  watching Brown Bears.

  After a long drive from the 'cabin in the woods' where we were staying, we arrived at Martinselkonen in the late afternoon. After a late afternoon meal, we set off in the mini bus for a short drive to the parking area in the forest, followed by a short walk of around a km to the hide. I had asked what was the odds of seeing bears - thinking we might see one or two - and got a reply 'you'll see bears'. As we arrived at the hide, there were bears just yards from the door ! The hide was more like a log cabin than a hide; as, not only did it have the viewing windows and camera openings, it had bunk beds and a chemical toilet, such luxuries !

  Over the following hours (actually, many, many hours) we saw lots of bears feeding, grooming, resting - at one stage, there were 17 in front of and around the hide. (Over the whole evening/night/early morning, our guide reckoned we could have had over 40 individuals in front of the hide !)

 There are a lot more photographs of our summer holiday on FB Here


  With modern digital cameras, HD camera-phones and the like, it has become so much easier to capture images (whether still or video) of the natural world. When you see a picture or a video, the time and effort that is often required to capture the subject isn't obvious - or overlooked. It's only in the last few years on some of the fantastic David Attenborough programs, that the producers have shown how some of the iconic images have been captured and how long it takes.

  I have had first hand experience of this sort of thing with a short time-lapse I made back in 2016. I first had the idea of trying to get an aurora over the gannet stacks way back in 2012 - or maybe earlier - and even then I knew a lot of luck would be required to achieve my aim.

  There were a number of things that would have to fall in to place to achieve the desired effect; these being, a possible aurora, a clear sky, moonlight, little or no wind - and if there was, it had to be from the right direction and last but not least, Gannets ! All of these things put together, somewhat limited the opportunity to attempt it to either March/April, or mid August to mid September.

  Due to the camera location and the 2.5 mile walk (each way) it wasn't really feasible to go there at short notice at night - safety being one of the reasons. The first few attempts failed, partly to 'user error' and partly because of the weather or the aurora predictions had changed. I mentioned earlier about the wind direction; well, the image below is what happens when it's not taken in to account - the lens got covered in Gannet 'crud' !

  So, gradually I got the camera settings side of things sorted and practiced so that it was almost 2nd nature getting set up. Finally, after countless walks (and miles), going up to Hermaness in the late afternoon and then returning the following morning to retrieve the camera, it all came together in September 2016. The conditions were perfect, the aurora forecast was for a '4' (strength), there was a half moon, it was clear and the wind was light; all it needed now was for me to make sure I got my part of the equation right !

  Arriving at the location in the early evening, I set up the camera gear, programmed the small time-lapse invervalometer - which controls the shutter times,  the delay between the exposures, the delay before starting,  overall time etc. and then left, fingers crossed.

  Returning the following morning, I was full of anticipation. I knew there had been an aurora, but had everything worked ? I was very reluctant to look at the back of the camera as I'd been there before so to speak - full of hope, but something had then gone wrong. Anyway, thankfully this time it had worked ! My only regret was that I'd wished I'd let the camera run on for longer so as to get the aurora finishing as the dawn broke; hey ho, I was VERY lucky to get what I did ! 

  So, after several years of keeping it 'under wraps' so to speak, it was recently used in an hour long documentary called 'Wild Shetland' on the BBC, which was produced by Mara Media ; - well worth watching for the incredible footage of some of Shetlands wildlife if you get a chance.

  The image below is one frame from the time-lapse and is now without doubt, my most favourite picture I have taken.

Hermaness, Unst Sept 2016



Wednesday 14 November 2018

A New Start ?

   It’s been almost two years since I last wrote on my blog. I wondered at the time wether I would ever get around to continue it - or even if there was a point to it ? After writing off both my 7D2 and my 500mm in the summer of 2017 in an unfortunate ‘wash’ in the sea, I did loose a bit of interest in wildlife photography - although I did still have the 5D3 and 100-400mm (plus several other lenses). So for a while, I concentrated on landscapes and also spent more time trying to improve my night time picture taking. Although I haven’t done the blog for quite a while, there are quite a few images on my Facebook page ‘albums’ from the last two years. Over the next few weeks or so, I’ll update the  page layout, so bear with me 😀

  After the ‘success’ of a hide I’d built down at the shore, I’d started to think about another one to enable me to get a bit lower down and nearer to ‘eye level’ with potential subjects. What I had noticed from the house was that, either side of a rising and falling tide, mergansers and several species of duck ( plus a few waders etc) would come in to the muddy pool at the bottom of our field. My idea was to make a hide I could lie down in which, at the highest tide the camera could potentially be less than 12” above the water level. What this meant, was that the outside of the hide would have to be completely water tight and that the timber hide would have to be on a raft that should potentially be able to float during an extreme high tide. 

  So, with the plans ‘drawn up’ in my head I set about construction. The hide itself, was to be around 8ft long, by 30” wide by 30” high. The hinged entrance door at the rear was around 30”x 24” and the camera ‘port’ was around 12” high by 20” wide ( three sided for flexibility). The raft consisted of  two plastic pipes filled inside with solid round polystyrene tubes and then sealed at each end. The hide then sat on 4x2 timbers securely bolted to the tubes (prior to the pipes being filled and sealed). The inside of the hide was insulated and then covered in thin ply, with carpet and foam to lie on - very snug indeed ! The camera port also had scrim netting to cover the lens.  The outside had heavy duty polythene underneath and 6” up the sides (folded, not cut to keep it water tight) which then had two layers of roofing membrane to keep out the weather and fixed by timber battens. The last job was to make a towing frame to attach it to the quad for moving it around - I was surprised how heavy the whole thing had become !

The tow bar for the hide and floats
  So, in early October 2017, I towed it into place to where I thought would be a good position. The quad did struggle to start with, but once moving, it went ok. I then left the hide in place for a few days so the birds could get used to it - which coincided with a forecasted high tide in a few days time. 

  Well, the first time I used it a few days later, was part of a learning curve which often goes hand in hand when using anything new for the first time. Firstly, while the location was ok, it wasn’t ideal - after watching the Mergansers fishing at the far end of the pool, I knew I’d have to move the hide. Secondly, I was going to have to learn to have faith in what I’d constructed! As the tide rose, the water level got nearer and nearer to the camera port-hole; in fact, it was just 2” below ! It gave a great view over the water, but I was more concerned about getting flooded out - having had a previous experience of mixing salt water with camera electronics. I decided to leave - just in case the hide was too heavy to float - but in the process I got very wet as by now, the hide was surround by over a foot of water. A few days later, I moved the hide to a better location - where it has remained - and has proved to be very successful. 

  Later on in early December, we had another very high tide which coincided with a gale (Storm Caroline ) which in turn gave us an even higher tide. I was worried  that the gale could maybe roll the hide over,  so, not only did I strap the hide down to the raft, I roped the whole thing down to posts into the ground. That last piece of action turned out to be a mistake as, when the tide rose, it did in fact stop the hide floating which resulted in water getting inside through the camera port hole (it took ages to dry out) . 

A little bit more water than I expected 😀

  While the hide was proving to be very effective at allowing very close views of a numerous number of birds - Common & Jack Snipe, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Turnstone,  Red-breasted Merganser, Curlew, Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Greylag Goose and several other species, it was frustrating, as although I could still use my old 500mm, it was only on manual focussing, which restricted the types of shots quite a lot. 

A panoramic view from the hide on a very high tide.

The height of an ‘average’ tide.

  Using the ‘coffin hide’ as it’s called by some (due to its shape, not - hopefully - because of what one is normally used for) can be quite time consuming. Depending on the forecasted tide height, the time in the hide can be from just a couple of hours through to five or six hours ! While lying down for 5 or 6 hours has quite a few positives, there is one negative - answering the call of nature ! 

  Below are a few images from the hide over last winter with my old 500mm lens and also a couple from earlier this autumn with my replacement 500mm. 

Common Snipe

Female Red-breasted Merganser

Drake Wigeon

Water Rail


Grey Heron

Greylag Goose

Drake Teal

Drake Wigeon

  This blog update has been done using ‘BlogTouch Pro’ on my iPad rather than using my pc at home. If it doesn’t look right on the webpage, I’ll edit it in a few days time.
Robbie. Nov 2018

Monday 26 December 2016

End of the year 'catch up'

  Well as I sit here typing this over Christmas, the wind is picking up again - F7 to 8 at the moment and storm 'Barbara' is well on its way closely followed by 'Connor' *. The chances are the lights will go out and that will leave us wondering for how long for ? I can't praise the power guys enough when it does considering the conditions that they have to work in to fix it - they deserve every penny they get as far as I'm concerned.

  August was another generally good month with lots of fine weather apart from at the start when there was a day of rough (for the time of year) weather.





Sand of Inner Skaw

  The fine weather continued in to September and on the 3rd, I wished it was actually cooler ! While out in the garden at home, I heard an unfamiliar 'Golden Plover' call - it was a similar (but slightly higher) two note call which the bird made as it flew past going eastwards at a fair pace. I didn't have any binoculars with me, but it appeared to descend down towards the mussel shed some distance away where there's a wader roost at high tide. As I drove along, I listened to some wader calls on 'Collins' and thought that it could possible be a Spotted Redshank - a garden tick for me. Scanning through the birds, I could see Redshank, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit . Black-tailed Godwit but nothing unusual. I then noticed a very pale plover on the shore several hundred yards away to the west. Unfortunately, just as I got the scope on it, it took off but thankfully I had just enough time to see it was a 'golden' plover type - maybe an American' ? I headed off along to the Houb which I thought was a possible place for it to drop down again which thankfully it did and it was indeed an American Golden Plover. As I said earlier, it was one day I wished it was a lot cooler as the heat haze took the edge of the picture :( 

American Golden Plover on The Houb in Baltasound.

  Over the past couple of months, there had been numerous sightings of Orca around Shetland with possibly 12 or 15 individuals in one pod. Unfortunately for us on Unst, most of the sightings had been down around Mainland or them passing through either Bluemull or Yell Sound. We did have one sighting of them off of Lamba Ness but by the time we'd got there, they were several miles out to sea. However, on the 7th (two days before my birthday) I had a call from Brydon at 7.30am to say there were Orcas on the east side of Balta Isle and that they could possibly be heading south. So, just after nine, I headed down to Muness in the south east corner of Unst to take a look.
  Shortly after arriving, I noticed a lot of gull activity above the coastline some 7 or 8 hundred yards away to the east. I grabbed the camera and tripod and ran further around towards the SE with the view that they might follow the coast around. Just as I arrived on the coast, several large Grey Seals slipped in to the water off of Hunts Holm and started following me along the coast. My first thought was that they could be heading straight in to the jaws of death just around the corner. Whether they sensed the Orcas I don't know but they turned around and went back to the safety of the small island. Shortly after, I was totally stunned by the sight of a large black dorsal fin rising up out of the water probably only fifty or so feet from me - it was so close that its fin almost filled the frame of my 7D & 500mm. For a short while - maybe 5 mins - the four or five Orcas swam around the island obviously aware of the seals there, but couldn't get near to them as it was low tide and a large area of floating kelp stopped them. 

  After what seemed like ages, they headed off west towards Uyea Isle, leaving me still numb with what I'd seen and also chuffed that I'd had this all to myself - what a place Shetland is ! .....

  During the month there were a number of commoner migrants around, made even nicer by the good weather......

 Pied Flycatcher at Vaylie

 Wryneck at Westing

 Barred Warbler at Haroldswick

 Red-breasted Flycatcher at Vaylie

 Icterine Warbler at SHE

Little Bunting at Lund

  Even though I'd already had a good month, firstly with the Orca's and then several nice migrant birds around, what really was the icing on my birthday 'cake', was a picture that I'd been trying to get for a long time.

  On September 19th, there was a forecast for a minor aurora - maybe a 3 or 4 on the 0-10 scale - it was also clear and there was also a moon. I headed up to Hermaness to try and get a shot that I'd been attempting for 3, or maybe 4 years - an aurora over the gannets, lit by the light of the moon. To achieve this, quite a few things needed to fall in to place - gannets being present, aurora, moon light, clear sky, little or no wind - or if there was, it had to be coming from an area south of the east/west line. I'd attempted it before, not taking in to account the wind was coming from the NW and had the lens covered in all sorts of Gannet 'crud' - downy feather fluff and brown 'mud' which was probably Gannet poo ! The camera was set up, and I left before dark, fingers crossed. (NB the location the camera was in, is not a place to be in the dark !) .

 I don't know the total mileage and time I've spent  going there in the last few years , but the walk there and back this time  (twice) was round 8 miles and the time spent of this occasion was around 6 hours in total was, I think worth it..... 

  The first couple of nights of October also started with a slight aurora, giving us a nice arc of green to the north of Baltasound; it didn't last long but I did manage to get a picture from down at the shore....

  Late in the afternoon of the 6th October, I got a message to say there was a Siberian Thrush down at Uyeasound. As it was a 'lifer' for me I set off, but also realizing that there would certainly be a lot of visiting birders there (I don't like crowds). Sure enough, there were at least 40 or 50 other folk there, but as I'd not seen one before, I decided to stick it out and see if the bird showed. After a few minutes, it took off from some bushes in a back garden and flew SE over the heads of everyone. After this, it was the action of some of the gathered crowd, that confirmed why I don't like twitching; it was something akin to a New Years Day sale when the doors are opened. There was an almost total disregard (by some, but not all) for the near-by sheltered housing for the elderly, it made me feel ashamed to be a birder; I'd seen the bird fly, so I left.

  The following morning, I assumed that everyone would be down in Uyeasound looking for the thrush, so I headed to Skaw thinking there would be less folk about. Just as I arrived, Dave C and his family turned up having the same thoughts. As we stood talking by the cars, a large thrush flew up from the sheep pens, came over our heads and headed up west over the burn. Literally a spit second ahead of me speaking, Dave shouted ' White's Thrush' ! - another 'life tick' for me :) We all thought the bird had gone, but a few minutes later, it returned to almost the same spot from where it took off. Well, to cut a long story short, I spent the rest of the day watching the bird that I'd been wanting to see for a long time, it was a cracker........

White's Thrush at Skaw

  While siting there, I was treated to a lovely little Jack Snipe feeding down by the burn, either not seen by the other birders or just ignored......

Jack Snipe at Skaw

  A few days later, I headed off south for a couple of weeks to - hopefully - pick up another car for Catriona and also to see friends and relations.........

Aberdeen beach- on my return leg home

  The following day not long after I'd got home, I got a message to say that Dave C had had found a Siberian Accentor at Lund - the first for Britain was discovered on Mainland Shetland at Mossy Hill on the 9th October - it turned out that scores of them turned up in Western Europe over the next few weeks.....

Siberian Accentor at Lund on Unst

  Towards the end of October, there were a few Waxwings that started to turn up in Shetland. The following day, I hung up and apple in the garden and within a couple of hours, I had a Waxwing on it......

Waxwing in the garden

  A few pictures from November.......



 Looking north from home

 The Skidbladner at Haroldswick


  As far as wildlife sightings/observations/spectacles go, December will take some beating - only a Walrus on the beach at Skaw would come anywhere near it ! On the 2nd Dec, I had a very short notice call from Brydon to say to get down to Uyeasound for 11am for a boat trip out with Peter Hunter. I assumed it was to look for the drake Surf Scoter we'd seen a few days before - how wrong I was ! After a quick look at the Dunters (Eiders) south of Uyeasound, we headed off further south - to look for some Humpback Whales that had been around for a few days !

  Well it wasn't long before we found them and for several hours we had them close to the boat, 'spy hopping', tail and dorsal fin slapping and even breaching - which I missed due to being on the wrong side of the boat :(    ........

 'Spy hopping'

 'Dorsal fin slapping'

 To give a scale how close they were

'Tail slapping'
  My thanks goes to Brydon Thomason, Peter and Brian Hunter and Emma Ramsay for this memorable experience.

  I'm sorry for the length of this 'catch-up' (if you've got this far), normally I'd do it in a couple of posts but I particularly wanted to finish it today.
  Today would have been the 90th birthday of my late father-in-law Ian. Ian sadly died in September after succumbing to prostrate cancer. He had a great love of the natural world and was very knowledgeable on the subject and also loved visiting us here on Unst over the last 8 years. He was also a regular follower of the blog and would often give constructive criticism from time to time.
RIP Ian.
Robbie, 26th December 2016.  

* Storms 'Barbara' and 'Connor' came and went, giving us gusts of wind of 90+ mph for a while, we didn't have any damage and the electric stayed on :)