Sunday 26 December 2010

Looking Festive

  Like many parts of the UK, Unst looked very festive with a few inches of snow and also several snow showers during Christmas Day. After a very slow start to the morning (kids/Christmas stockings etc etc) we headed out for a walk up the old RAF access road at Watlee Loch. The air was as still as could be, sunshine and blue sky and the only sounds were that of several displaying Ravens over head and the very occasional distant car. After a couple of hours out, headed back home for lunch just as a big snow shower hit north Unst.

Looking north above Watlee

  After lunch, I headed off to a favourite place not far from the house to look for an otter. It was just something I wanted to do - see an otter on Christmas Day. By now it was fast approaching 2pm and the light was starting to go as I reached the point. 

  As I rounded the next headland I spotted an otter out on the edge of one of the salmon cages using it for a fishing platform. After each dive it would climb back up on to the rim and rest for a minute before diving back in................

  The last throws of sun were just catching the base of the salmon cage before the sun sank behind a low hill and it was still only 2.20pm ! I watched the otter fishing for a while when it then started making a bee-line for the rocks I was sitting amongst. It had caught a large Lumpsucker and had obviously thought it would be easier to eat on the rocks rather than the slippery plastic salmon cage frame. The wind was perfect and the animal came out of the water not far in front of me, unfortunately it was for most of the time, obscured by rocks; but I was unable to move to get a better position. Even though by now the light level was very low, I pushed up the ISO on the camera to 6400 to enable me to get a record shot - and not just because it was Christmas Day. As I've said before I like to get headshots of all the otters I see as the markings on the underside of their jaw are quite individual, so with time you can build up a record of indiviuals in any given area..........just for the record .........
6400 ISO, 1/200 sec @ F5.6. 500mm

  The otter spent at least 15 minutes devouring the fish before slipping back in to the water and wasn't seen again.

Looking north over Balta Sound to Hamar

  Boxing Day.

  As it was another nice morning, I took a visit to the same place as yesterday as if the forecast is right, a thaw is going to set in sometime in the next few days and I wanted to have one more go at getting an otter in the snow again. Leaving the car, I walked down to the beach and started to walk east. Almost immediately I spotted an otter fishing 100yds offshore. Between each dive, I made my way down to the shoreline and looked for some cover in the form of a large boulder or two. Suddenly the otter surfaced quite close and I wasn't in a very good position. As it came to the shore, it disappeared from view behind part of an old concrete jetty, this gave me the opportunity  to move slightly for more cover and also hopefully get some shots. Unfortunately, the wind had risen and shifted slightly and this was my downfall. Despite the otter not seeing me, it had obviously picked up my scent and was warily swimming off.........

  Giving it 5 minutes or so, I then carried on around the shoreline, but on reaching the corner where I'd head south for a short while, the wind hit me and was now quite strong rather than the gentle breeze which it was earlier. For this location and for looking for otters, this was not good. The shore ran roughly south, east and then south again which was ok for the wind direction but I was now walking directly in to the sun, not god for picture taking. Reaching the 3rd beach, I sat for a while and then headed back. Several Golden Plovers foraged amongst the seaweed and a Woodcock took off from amongst some rocks. Reaching the 'turning point' again, I heard the call of an otter. It was the mature cub which I'd seen with its mum in the snow the other day. Unfortunately, I was in the same situation as earlier and the wind carried my scent over to it and so I didn't see it again.


Friday 24 December 2010

Lunar Eclipse

  After having a really close encounter with an otter in the snow recently, I was really keen to get out again. The forecast was good for last Tuesday (21st Dec) so on getting a call from Brydon we arranged to meet up after I'd dropped off the girls at school.

  Before this however, we were very fortunate to have a perfectly clear sky here in Baltasound for the Lunar Eclipse.We saw it from our house from 7am until around 8.30 until the moon disappeared in to cloud on the western horizon. I set up the camera outside on the tripod and had a go at photographing the event. The exposure was going to be difficult to get right as obviously there was going to be varying amounts of brightness on the moon at one time. I hope the pictures below give an idea if you didn't see it.....

Lunar Eclipse Unst, 21st Dec 2010

  Later, meeting up with Brydon, we parked one car and set off in the other along the south of the island. Walking the cliffs along back west, we had a number of sightings of otter (5 in fact) but unfortunately none were in a good position for photography. There were plenty on signs and footprints around but alas no otters in the snow. Still, it was a great morning to be out with Brydon who is, with out doubt, one of Shetlands most knowledgeable wildlife guides. In the few hours I was out, I learnt an awful lot more about otters that will no doubt help me in the future.

Fetlar from south Unst
  The following day, I had some work to do which thankfully was in side. Despite the fact it was a lovely sunny day, it was still bitterly cold outside. Even on a journey to and from work, there is always something to see or photograph and on this day it was a curlew feeding along the shore at Buness..........

  The view from where I was working was pretty good as well .................

Looking south west towards Baltasound from Little Hamar

  Recently there was a co-ordinated nationwide goose count including up here on Unst. Unfortunately I was away at the time but the count for the island was around 600 Greylags. The numbers vary a bit and certainly have dropped off a bit since the latest lot of snow. With the all over snow cover, the remaining Greylags have now taken to feeding in every available place, including roadside verges...........

Greylag Goose

  This morning (24th) was another cracking day, so, I decided to head for the 'west-side' to look for otters. Overnight night we'd had another inch or so of fresh snow which would make looking for fresh tracks much easier.Along near to one of the holts I know, there were plenty of fresh tracks both leading in and out of the hole. Judging by the state of the tide (it was high) I presumed that they might be at home, but decided not to hang around - I may have had to wait several hours. Down amongst the snow covered boulders, a Shetland Wren lived up to its Latin name of being a 'troglodyte' (cave dweller) by hunting in and out of the rocks in search of food, often disappearing from view for minutes at a time...........

Shetland Wren

  A little further on, I came across another set of very fresh  footprints on the cliff top; following them, they dropped down on to the rocks where I lost them amongst the boulders. Unfortunately, while I was looking at the footprints, I didn't see an otter surface in the sea not far away and it saw me first and so headed off. I carried on up the coast for a couple of miles and while I saw plenty of footprints and also another holt with prints going in to it, I saw no more otters. I did have a fly over of Peregrine Falcon (a scare bird up here) which was almost certainly the same bird I'd seen down by Uyeasound earlier in the week.

The west side of Unst

  May I say a Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year to all and thanks for reading the blog over the last ten months or so. The coming new year is going to be a new chapter in our time here on Unst in more ways than one. I'm really looking forward to it and not just to a number of new wildlife opportunities that may occur - I'll tell you more about this in mid January. Many, many thanks.


Sunday 19 December 2010

More Otter encounters

  After going to Westing yesterday (Thurs 16th), I thought we'd take another look today as the kids were off school again (don't get me started on that subject) The wind had dropped off quite a lot, but we were still getting snow showers.

  Pulling up at the turning area at the end of the road, almost immediately I saw an otter on the rocks belows us to our left. Unfortunately it had seen (or heard) the car and was now looking up in our direction. I managed to get the 500 fitted to the camera just before it carried a very large Lumpsucker fish back in to the water. Judging by the markings on its chin, I'm certain it was the same one from yesterday. It started to swim off with its prey, but either it was too heavy or it had eaten enough I don't know, but it reappeared further out without it......................

  The otter then swam off around the coast and disappear in to the breaking waves. We decided to walk out to the end of the bay but as it was so cold Rona (the youngest), said she'd walk to the cottage on the beach and then wait in the car. Sula was also very cold but she insisted on coming with me on the walk which would take around half an hour. Down on the foreshore amongst the rocks and seaweed, a small flock of Golden Plovers foraged for food now that the fields were frozen over. The sea seemed to be only half the swell compared to yesterday but was certainly still a force to be reckoned with..............

  Yesterday (18th Dec) after dropping the kids at their friends house (no school) around 11am, I went down to Westing again. The road down the last short hill at the end had snow drifting across (as there's nobody living down there full time it's not ploughed) which fortunately didn't cause a problem - but could do later in the day. Unfortunately there were no otters around just starlings squabbling over a good feeding spot amongst the seaweed and a solitary rock pipit.............

Rock Pipit
  Shortly after I took this picture, a 'rocket' in the form of a merlin shot through along the beach scattering all the small birds, reaching the far end of the beach it pursued one bird but I didn't see the outcome. Heading back along the road, I came across a couple of rabbits in the snow, one of them of the multi coloured variety (of which there are quite a few here), did it's best to try and be a 'mountain hare' and blend in with its surroundings .........................

  .......and a normal one full frame with the 500..................
  After leaving Westing, I headed up north to Norwick. I really wanted to go over to Lamba Ness and Skaw but the road up over there was far too icy (from my experiences last year I thought I'd give it a miss in this weather) On the road down to the beach at Norwick two Common Snipe, sat in a sort of stand-off with one another until they turned and saw me. One took off and flew away, the other just flitted over the fence in to the adjoining field. It was still watching me, hence the birds pose .............................

Common Snipe (of the Faroese race)

  Today (19th Dec) I headed off out to a favourite spot of mine to look for otters and, hopefully get one in the snow. The weather was cold, dull and it looked like snow. I've seen otters in the snow several times in the past, but only once got one in snow with the sun shining. As I approached one of the small bays, I heard one calling and saw two otters down on a small rocky island just a few yards from the beach. I wasn't in the best of positions (being silhouetted against the skyline) at the first opportunity I crawled down to the beach for some cover behind some rocks. I only saw them briefly and after a few minutes, assumed they'd moved on. Crawling over some more rocks, I then saw them below me coming in closer on each wave. As they swirled around in the water below me, one looked up in my direction and I then thought I'd been rumbled. The wind was right, but maybe I was (from their position) up above the skyline even though I was lying amongst the rocks..............

   I lost them again for several minutes until I heard them calling again to my right. Scrambling over the rocks, I could then see them a few yards below me in the next bay in water that was so clear I saw them under water. I watched them swim across the small bay but lost them as they neared the rocks on the other side. Assuming they'd gone, I was just about to leave when they both appeared on the top of the bank and were heading for a large patch of snow. Despite the distance and light, I had to photograph them if I could..............

Otters with a purpose !
.......... the end result !

  They both disappeared under ground and that was that. I didn't have long before returning home - as I'd got to be back by 1 o'clock - but I thought I did have half an hour just to wait and see if they reappeared. Hunkering down in the snow against a weather worn sandbank, I sat and waited. After 10 mintues a rabbit emerged just a few yards from me and I don't know who got more of a surprise me or it. It sat there for 5 minutes before deciding a 'legless' human probably couldn't do it much harm and then started to feed not far away.........

  Suddenly without warning, the female otter emerged and hesitated outside the hole, sniffing the ground briefly before trotting down past me less than fifteen feet away and on to the beach and then in to the sea. I couldn't have wished for a better view of an otter in the snow (apart from the sun shinning that is) and a better end to the morning.......

7D + EF500, 1/1250 @f6.3, ISO 1000, Spot metering


Thursday 16 December 2010

It's Raw............

.............. and not just the camera images !

   It only seems a few days ago that the temperature had risen suddenly and the snow had gone and here we are again with blizzards and during the night we had gales of force 8-9. Off the north and west coast over night, it has had a swell prediction of 25-30ft - which is quite impressive - if you are on shore that is !

  Most of this week it's been pretty dire here weather-wise, grey, overcast and often wet. I was really keen to try the new camera body but I didn't really want to 'test' it by having to use it in less than ideal conditions. I know that is probably the time to try it,  but I'd rather get to know its settings and controls and automatically operate them, than fumbling around in the wind and rain. 

  On Monday (13th Dec) I headed north to Skaw and Lamba Ness to have a look around. The light was pretty bad but, 'if you don't look, you don't find'. On the road down to Lamab Ness I came across a lovely little 'brown' Merlin on a gate post, the angle wasn't brilliant but I took a couple of shots anyway......

............a large crop and 2000 ISO

  Heading back to Norwick, I found a Little Auk 50 yds or so from the beach but by the time I'd got sorted the bird had paddled out a bit further. As the tide was out, I managed to get out on to the small island there and get ahead of the bird as it moved further out, fishing as it went. It was now 11.30 or there abouts and so the light was as good as it was going to get - pretty poor.

Little Auk at Norwick

  The following day looked promising with a little bit of sun showing at sunrise around 9am, that was short lived however as a large bank of cloud moved in from the west. Over at Haroldswick, the number of seals hauling out had risen to 21, but on this occasion due to the viewpoint (from this location you look south) everything was in sillouette.

  Over at Skaw, there were only a few Turnstones on the beach. But those that were there, were very confiding, passing only 6ft away from my feet as I sat in the sand.

 This morning after slow start (kids off school due to the weather) we headed off up to Norwick. It has to be said it was wild - and very cold. Sula and I had a very short walk on the beach before being driven back to the car by the needle like stinging of the snow on our faces. One of these days I'll get around to using the ND filters etc to control the sky brightness a bit....

Winter 'sunshine' at Norwick

  Stopping off at the 'Final Checkout' for a toastie, within minutes, we couldn't see across the car park due to a blizzard. It only last for 10 minutes or so, but on top of the already icy road, I had to drive with extra care when we left. Despite the fact the light was going, we headed off down to Westing as due to the wind strength and direction, I thought the west side would look impressive - and so it did. Out beyond the two small islands in the bay, there were some big breakers coming in, I would certainly have said they were 25 - 30ft at times comparing them to the nearby small islands. Parking at the road end at around 1.15pm, I was very pleased to see an otter feeding in the water below us. I see them there fairly regularly but as I had my girls with me it was even better. They could sit in the car and watch it, while I went the short distance down on to the beach and try for some pictures. I got down to the waters edge (I had waves breaking over my boots as I sat amongst the seaweed) and within minutes I looked like a green and white snowman due to the blizzard. I'm still amazed even after seeing scores of feeding otters in the last couple of years, how they cope with such conditions. The truth of the matter is they don't for long, I believe a 4 or 5 year old otter is considered to be quite old. Also the amount of food they need to consume daily in order to survive is significantly more than their counterparts in the rivers further south. I knew too well that taking any pictures wouldn't result in any quality pictures but I thought I'd give it a go anyway. I was pleasantly surprised how the 7D kept focus on the otter in the rapidly rising and falling of the breakers - I don't think the 40D would have. All of the pictures were shot at 4000 ISO, 1/1250 sec @ F4, using the 500mm and 7D, tripod mounted........................

Finally, where this all took place and the conditions the otter and 'southern softie' had to 'endure'

Westing (no apologies for the quality)


Friday 10 December 2010

One day snow, next day rain.

  Yesterday (Dec 9th), the kids were off school due to the snow (all of the Shetland schools were off) which did surprise us as the roads weren't too bad, but I suppose it's down to 'health and safety' and all that. Sula and I had a dental appointment on Yell, so at 9.30 we headed off for the ferry. It was a cracking morning, blue sky, sunshine and crisp white snow - it was just crying out to be photographed. Unfortunately the appointment had to come first as there isn't a full time dentist on Yell so an appointment there is much sought after. On leaving the surgery an hour later, a bank of cloud had come in and had partly obscured the sun, nonetheless the landscape did look fabulous. We had to go to a shop on the south of the island which is where I grabbed the shot below.

Nr Aywick, Yell

  Heading back to the ferry at Gutcher, we had a short wait before it arrived and were 'entertained' by the 'Gutcher Geese'. These semi wild farmyard geese have been around the ferry terminal for years in varying numbers, dropping down to just three recently. Then more arrived mysteriously, swelling the numbers again to seven or eight (I didn't count them properly). Despite their noise and rather aggressive hissing, they don't bother most folk.

The 'Gutcher Geese'

  Later on in mid after noon, I took a short drive along the shore road as the sun was going down. Near Buness House two seals had hauled out on the old slipway there and seemed to be 'taking some sun'.................

  During the last few weeks, numbers of Grey Herons on Unst have been increasing with with cold weather arriving - some days last winter there were double numbers on Unst. Here at Buness there were four all vying for a good place to fish on the shore-line. Even on cold days when food is hard to come by they are still very difficult to get close to - unless they are obviously weak with starvation. This one below was very tolerant as I passed by in the car as it walked slowly along the shoreline, I took a few photos and then left it alone.

Grey Heron at Buness
  A little further on, a Curlew stalked the foreshore, like the Heron not too bothered by me sitting in the car. I'm always on edge at times like this when food is in short supply as I'd hate to be the cause of a birds demise through me taking pictures. When I was heading south last week, I had a few hours in Lerwick and as I like to have some local fish and chips I took a walk along the harbour to one of the fish quays. There are always loads of gulls hanging around there and this can make for some good photo opportunities. I wasn't using my camera (light was rubbish) but I still threw in an occasional chip into the water for the gulls to fly down and take. I threw in a chip and suddenly  saw in the crystal clear water, a large bull Grey Seal, suddenly appear from the depths and try and grab one of the gulls from beneath. I presumed that the seal had thought the disturbance was due fish scraps being thrown in as is often the case here. Rightly or wrongly I repeated it again to see if it was the case and sure enough, the seal was going for a gull sitting on the water not to where the 'action' was. It would certainly have made a good shot, but I wouldn't try and achieve it by throwing in food for the gulls.

Curlew at Buness
  This morning, the thaw had set in with a vengeance. I had hoped it was going to be a reasonable day so I could go and give the 7D a better try out. Unfortunately it was poring with rain and the road along from our house was under 12 inches of water in places - and we're only 100yds from the sea, such was the 'run off' from the surrounding hills.


Wednesday 8 December 2010

It's good to be home

  After my fairly quick trip (if not quick travelling) south, it felt really good getting off of the Northlink boat this morning in Lerwick. The trip south was a relatively successful visit, getting quite a lot of stuff sorted down south and also buying a new 'toy' (more of that in a minute). If I'd had a choice, I don't think I would have gone considering the weather when I set off, but once down there it was ok.

  The return journey was, as it turned out also good, but at the time was a bit stressful. Setting off at just after 5.30am and looking at the delays and cancellations, I was really unsure if I'd make the ferry in time; but as it turned out, I had an hour to spare before the check-in closed in Aberdeen. The crossing was uneventful - but slightly choppy - and arrived on time in Lerwick at 7.30am.

   There certainly seemed to be more snow here than when I left - despite hearing on the phone the other evening that it had melted. Frustratingly, I saw a lovely otter running across a snow covered roadside field as we headed north but unfortunately I was on the bus at the time.

  I managed to get a lift from Belmont ferry terminal (the usual mini bus was late) and finally getting dropped off at the end of the road some 15 minutes later, a heavy wind driven snow shower greeted me. Despite the blizzard, all I could do was grin from ear to ear at being back in the 'frozen north' as people would keep referring Unst to back south!

  As to the new 'toy', I bought a new camera body - a 7D. I'd been thinking about it for a while now and took the plunge and went to T4 at Witney, Oxon a couple of days ago. I really like the camera and hope I can do it justice. The problem I'll have is that my pc won't like the very large file sizes (my 40D is 10mp - the 7D is 18mp), so, to try and get the best of both worlds I will shoot in both Raw and Jpeg for the time being. Another slight problem I have (and one that I'm happy to admit to) is that when I left down south, I sent a load of stuff up to here via Royal Mail to cut down on the amount I'd have to carry on the train. In the rush to send it off, I put the CDs with the camera software in by mistake and now have to wait for the parcel to arrive, hopefully tomorrow.

  On the wildlife front here, I don't think I missed out on any birds although I have heard of a possible Gyr Falcon - and that's all it was, a possible one.


Wednesday 1 December 2010

A 'quick' trip south

Well here I am, a day and a half travelling from Unst and I've still not got to my destination in the Cotswolds. I left Unst yesterday morning at 8am and now won't get there until (hopefully) 10pm this evening. Of all the times to travel - when the country is covered in snow ! When I've actually got a train, the journey has been quite nice, countryside covered in snow, hundreds of Pinkfooted Geese flying past and even a sighting of Merlin from the train. So, the reason for this brief post ? Well I probably won't be posting for a week. If you have snow and are able, enjoy it; I'd certainly be rather doing that than on a crowded train.


Saturday 27 November 2010

Winter's here

  Winter has set in here with vengeance over the last few days - not quite as much as on mainland Scotland and England, but none the less with the wind chill it is quite cold.  The snow has settled right down to sea level, so if it lasts for long, a lot of birds will move on south. Taking Sula to school on Thursday, I mentioned to her that I wouldn't be surprised to find a Water Rail or two now the cold has set in. Going over to Skaw later, sure enough, there was a Water Rail feeding in the burn there, they're usually pretty nervous and will head for cover as soon as they're disturbed - as this one did. I went and fetched the camera gear from the car and sat down on the bridge using the rails and posts as a bit of cover. It was only a couple of minutes before the bird came out and started feeding again. Despite the fact the weather was quite good, the burn at Skaw doesn't get any direct sunshine at this time of year so it was a case of high ISO again in order to try and freeze any movement by the bird.

Water Rail at Skaw

  For what ever reason, the seals at Haroldswick have changed the area where they haul out and some are even hauling out on the seaweed on the roadside. This has made it a lot easier to get closer - although would be difficult to get eye level to them.

  With the snow and cold weather, thoughts of wildlife from the far, far north come to mind again; especially after last winter with the Bearded Seal on Yell and then a Snowy Owl turning up here on Unst. Last week we heard of one of these turning up here - a probable male Snowy Owl. Unfortunately we didn't hear about it until the following night and by then it was too late to get out. Yesterday (Friday 26th) I took a walk over the hills with a joint idea in mind - a slim chance of finding the bird and to have a good walk. To be quite honest, I didn't think I would see it as it was like looking for a very small needle in a very large haystack - and a white one at that ! Despite this, it was a really good three hours walking in an area I'd not visited before.

 Somewhere out there ............?
  Today (Sat 27th) has so far been a day of bright periods followed by near 'white-out' blizzard conditions. Ideal weather for atmospheric photographs but as my 'Suby' currently has a worn wheel bearing I've not ventured out too far today (also my youngest wasn't very keen on going out for a walk). The car is going in to the garage next week while I'm down south, so hopefully (if the forecasters are right) there maybe some snow around when I get back - assuming I get away that is !

 Looking SE towards home at 11.45am