Sunday 28 February 2010

'Wild Life' - Up Helly Ah

As far as wildlife goes, yesterday was a quiet day. I went out at around 7.30am down to the end of our road, but, like the other day the tide  was high so I wasn't expecting to see any dratsies (otters). Unfortunately at the moment the tides aren't coinciding with the times that I generally have available, so I'm having to just take pot luck. This morning however I did have a bit more time  and had decide I'd stick it out and wait for a while for the tide to drop, and then hopefully they (the otters) would be active again. Since my last visit, the wind had risen to an easterly breeze and was blowing straight in across the sound and on to the beach where I was waiting. Normally, this is an ideal direction and I'd be happy, however today with lying snow and the wind chill, it was rather cold. Another result in the wind picking up from that direction, was the snow had virtually gone from the grass close to the beach, I think this was possibly due to the salt in the wind as the air temperature was still cool.

If you want to read what a really dedicated otter watcher endures, I can't praise a friend of mines blog enough. Brydon Thomason is arguably the best otter person around on Shetland at the moment and after his family, -  he lives for otters. Brydons blog can be found here - Shetland Otter Watching
 There were very few birds around apart from the now increasing numbers of Fulmars which would fly past low over me and then what seemed to be an obvious move, circle around and come even closer and hang on the wind over me, casting their steely eyed stare for a moment before moving on and doing it all over again.
Occasionally they would land close by on the sea, and have a sort of heated dispute before heading off seawards.

It has to be said, that on this occasion, the cold got the better of me and I only stayed there for just over an hour - am I a 'southern softy or what'? 

I decided to take a walk over to the west side of the island where hopefully it would be a little better out of the wind. Westing is a favourite spot for a lot of people for both the scenery and, in the summer, seeing the setting sun. The road along there was still covered in snow (not regularly snow ploughed like some of the roads) and on the way I came across a crofter who'd got stuck. Down at the beach, the tide was still fairly high and the sheep were feeding at the tide line on seaweed. There were a few turnstones doing what turnstones do and flipping over pieces of seaweed and the like to find sandhoppers and other small invertabrates that live there.

Westing beach

The walk around the beach and headland  was a pleasant walk in the cold winter sunshine, the lack of wildlife (apart from a noisy flock of Osytercatchers) didn't lessen the enjoyment in anyway.

Last night  we sampled a different kind of 'wild life' - that of Up Helly Ah. Also called by some as 'The Festival of Fire', Up Helly Ah is a tradition that goes back around 150 years.

The one we attended was one of the last of the season and was at Norwick at the north end of Unst. This was to be our second time of seeing the Norwick one, but this year it was even better as my wifey was in one of the squads. 

The evening starts (for the general public) when a signal flare is sent up in to the night sky, this signals for the squads to light their torches and the procession begins. The squads will then walk along a route, with the Guizer Jarl and his squad taking the lead with a replica Viking boat either being pulled by the squad or by a vehicle. These are the men dressed as Vikings. Following behind are numerous other squads dressed up in a variety of fancy dress which will be linked to their 'act' which they will perform later in the evening.

The procession

On reaching a predetermined spot, the galley stops and is surrounded by all of the Squads -

After the Up Helly Ah song has been sung, the Guizer Yarl will signal for the boat to be set alight -

Burning of the Galley

 The Guizer Yarl 

Once the boat has been burnt, the squads will move on to a local hall and the Guizer will make his speech etc. -

The Guizers Yarl's Squad

Speech over,each of the squads will perform their 'act'. Their acts or dance routines will all have several things in common, ie something to do with the Guizer such as interests, hobbies events, his personality etc etc (a lot of which can't be repeated here !) and also topical events or happenings relative to either Unst or the people of Unst.

 One of the Squads 'acts'

All of this can make a very long evening and usually after the acts have finished there will be a dance until the early hours. For someone who has only recently  arrived, the jokes etc about some of the locals made by the squads, can go totally over your head if you don't have your 'finger on the pulse' on what has happened on the islands over the last 12 months.

Up Helly Ah on Unst is relatively small compared to the main one down in Lerwick. For instance, last night there were 116 Guizers, where as in Lerwick there is often between 800 - 900 in the procession - all carrying flaming torches, quite a sight. For a much more detailed description at all of this I'd recomend looking at the official website here - Up Helly Ah
(You may spot that a couple of the pictures look out of place - that's because they were from Norwick last year and I put them in to 'complete' the picture. )


Friday 26 February 2010

Yet another fine day (kids still off school) but sadly most of the morning was spent around the house with just a short trip to Skibhoul Stores for milk etc. - although I have to admit the journey there is pretty good as far as scenery goes etc.

Every day since we had the first snow over Christmas, there has been a small flock of Greylags' that I pass. I'm now sure they are getting used to my car as I slow down to check that they are all just Greylags and that a less common one has turned up. This was the case last month when a Tundra Bean Goose turned up in the village amongst them. To start with it was a bit wary, then as the cold spell took hold, the bird would just carry on feeding in one of the few wet areas with fresh grass near to the Houb. In the UK, we get two distinct races of Bean Goose, 'Tundra' and 'Taiga'. The Tundra  has a stubby bill with a narrow orange band and the Taiga has a longer narrow bill with a broader orange band. Neither are particularly common visitors to the UK but there are two regular sites way down south in mainland UK where the Taiga winters but the Tundra is less predictable and usually turns up in 'grey geese' flocks. Saying that, at the moment the number of Tundras on Shetland are in double figures.

Tundra Bean Goose
 At this same location at the village end of 'our' road, there are a number of small burns that run down in to The Houb and then on into Balta Sound. The water margins are usually good for small waders (depending on the season) such as Greenshank, Redshank, Dunlin, Turnstone, Curlew etc. However, when there is a covering of snow, the most frequent wader is Common Snipe. As we passed one of these burns today, we were lucky to have one on the roadside next to the car. When taking pictures in this situation, I never wind the window down straight away but either drive on or reverse back depending on how far the nearest space to pull over into is. This done, I can then check the camera, put the bean bag on the door and then drive back to the spot and coast to a standstill. For me, this method works on most occasions.

 Common Snipe
Despite now having had a week of lying snow, I'm still seeing the occasional Robin around the island and it makes me wonder what on earth are they feeding on. They are fairly common passage migrants here but scarce winter visitors and very rare as breeding birds. This winter on Unst I know of certainly three individuals around the island and unlike their mainland cousins, they are often shy and difficult to get close to.

As well as wildlife, I'm always looking out for sort of 'abstract' type pictures using natural features or objects. I don't usually move any of the items around within the frame preferring to shoot 'as is'. Again, the recent icy conditions have provided some interesting shapes and subjects over the last few weeks or so.



Thursday 25 February 2010

 Overnight we had another fall of snow - driven by the wind - which blocked several roads and caused a small amount of disruption, - another day and another day of the schools being closed, this is now getting tedious. I was out for an hour in the morning doing shopping etc and so managed to grab a few shots of the snowy scenery around the north of the island. The place pictured below is tidal and a lot of the sea water there is frozen.

 The Houb, Baltasound

Like almost all habitats with wildlife, there are always numerous pairs of eyes on the lookout for a possible predator or danger. In woodland, it is usually the clatter of a Woodpigeons wings or the raucous call of a Jay that signals the approach of someone creeping through the vegetation; on the coast it is no different. The two main birds here - and which are a total pain - are Redshank and Great Black-backed Gulls. The former, flies off calling with such a load call that even the sleepiest seal will lift its head and check whats about, the GBB Gull however is a totally different kettle of fish so to speak. Just a casual walk along the shore will cause one to take to the air and constantly circle telling the world and his wife that an 'undesirable' is there. Numerous times I've been hunkered down in camo gear, well hidden (or so I thought) when one will take off from a long way off and come and circle overhead constantly calling. One thing that I have found that does work from time to time, is to raise the long lens like a gun and 'take aim', quite a few times now this has caused them to fly off.

Great Blackbacked Gull
After lunch today, I took the short drive along to the end of 'our' road for a quick walk around my favorite beach. Shorebirds are still the main species around at the moment (not counting the ever present Greylags') and today I had a pair of displaying Ringed Plovers, a feeding Snipe and the surprise of a Woodcock which flew up from amongst the seaweed between some rock pools. These birds must really be finding it hard at the moment and I often wonder what the mortality rates are. During these hard spells one of the few species of bird that thrive because of the food shortages is the Raven. Like most parts of the country, they are doing well up here (too well for some folk) and can be seen almost anywhere feeding on dead rabbits, sheep,seal carcases or other fatalities. I actually quite like them despite their reputation for the damage they inflict on new born lambs etc.I have driven past them on the roadside numerous times and they don't fly up, but drive past with the window down and they are gone like a shot !

Hopefully after this weekend, the roads will be back to normal, the kids will be back at school and I can find some different wildlife.


ps Please bear with me on this I'm having a few formatting problems :) 

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Sunshine, Snow and - Sledging

It was another stunning morning here today - clear blue sky, another dusting of snow and no school again ! The kids were feeling better so it was off down to the south of the island for some sledging for them and for me hopefully a chance to take a few pictures. The lochs were completely frozen over again and the wintering wildfowl that had been using them - Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Longtailed Duck and Whooper Swans had moved on again - after having only recently returned after the snow over the Christmas period. The Unst folk have said several times to me that it's very unusual to have snow for this amount of time as it only usually lasts for a couple of days. Despite the snow, the first signs of a far away spring are already starting to show. Oystercatchers are returning here after leaving Unst for a couple of months and Fulmars are now returning back to their nest ledges. Having been used to seeing Fulmars nesting on cliff faces, it seems strange to see them on roadside hillocks and peat banks. I think this partly due to there being relatively few mammalian pretators - otters are known to take them and I'm sure a cat would have a go if it managed to avoid the foul regurgitated fish that Fulmars spit out when threatened.


One area that I've sadly neglected over the last 18 months has been landscapes. Unst, like most of Shetland, is a landscape photographers dream. I pass many locations on a daily basis and think 'that would make a good shot' but seldom stop, take out the tripod, and get some shots. The lighting here is fantastic and often within the space on half an hour a scene can totally change. One such place that I pass regularly on my way to the ferry, is the old ruined crofts at Snarravoe at the south end of the island. As it happened, this was near where my girls were sledging today and so I stopped and took some shots. A 'landscaper' would have made a better job of the picture taking, but at least it made me stop and look. The light on these old buildings changes by the hour and some days go unnoticed, but today the approaching snow storm made me look - so maybe sometime in the future I'll go across there and explore them more.


Despite the snow and despite the forecast, when the sun does come out there is now a little warmth in it and is strong enough to melt the ice. The daylight hours are now starting to increase with the sunrise at around 7.15am and the sunset is now around 5.15pm, but the Simmer Dim still seems a long, long way off.


Tuesday 23 February 2010

Tuesday 23rd Feb

More snow over night has now given us around 8" of lying snow, not much in the grand scheme of things, but it has continued to keep the schools closed and the kids at home. For the local wildlife it has caused problems for some of the ones that have remained after the last lot at Christmas. The situation they now face is do they move south and use up valuable fat reserves or stay put and hope the snow soon goes? There are a lot of truly wild Greylag Geese around at the moment and as the days go by they are becoming less wary and often stay put when I drive past them in my car, whereas previously, they'd take flight as soon as I showed any interest in them at all.

Greylag Goose

As both of my girls were off of school again (and feeling unwell) I didn't manage to get out until after lunch time. I decided to head back down the road again to one of my favorite spots and hopefully see the otters. I wasn't too hopeful however as the tide was high and they would probably be below ground. It was a cracking day anyway and I was glad to be able to enjoy the walk around the shore in glorious sunshine.

As I thought, there were no otters out but plenty of signs of their earlier activity in the snow. I didn't have time to wait for them, so took a short walk further around the coast. Another sign of the continuing snow cover was a small flock of Golden Plover, resting on a small seaweed covered skerry just off shore. They are usually seen here in the close grazed sheep fields near to the old airport or nearby crofts, however their food source was now under 6 to 8 inches of snow. On one of the small sandy bays a Ringed Plover fed along the tide-line and as it wasn't too bothered by my presence, I led down in the sand and snow and watched it feeding for a while.

Ringed Plover

I turned back for home and noticed that the wind had become colder and had also changed direction, the sky had also clouded over and more snow was on its way. The only birds on the way back were several feeding Oystercatchers, a Redshank and a Snipe which took off from the rock strewn shoreline.


Monday 22 February 2010

First Post

Having now been here on Unst at 60 degrees north for over 18 months, I've finally got around to starting a blog of our time here in Shetland. I will try and update on a regular basis, but it probably won't be every day - but I'll try ! So bare with me while I get used to this and over the coming weeks I will add to it bit by bit.

During our time here, I have been very lucky to witness some fantastic sightings and savor some wonderful experiences and through this, I hope I can share some of them.

22nd Feb 2010

It's snowing again today, this in turn has meant that the schools are closed on the Northern Isles and so the kids are at home and so this means no solo wildlife watching today.

I did manage to get out over the weekend however with the hope of getting to photograph some local otters in the snow. When I did finally catch up with them, the cloud had rolled in and it then snowed heavily for a while making the lighting very 'flat'. They had emerged from a holt but only spent half an hour fishing before returning below ground as it reached high tide.

The following day, I returned to wait to try and see them again. No otters but several waders visited the beach during my one and half hour wait, including Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher. The beach had several inches of frozen sea water on it which reached down to the waters edge and I am sure, gave the birds a surprise when they tried to feed in the solid ice.


I moved on around the shoreline and heard the distinctive sound of an otter 'bickering'. I soon located two otters on a small skerry just off shore and presumed that it was the mother and cub having a squabble. Watching for a short while, they parted and one headed to some rocks near to where I was lying. The wind was in my favour but I think that it had heard the camera and so didn't hang around for too long. On looking at the pictures later I discovered it wasn't either of the two I'd seen the previous day due to it having a scar on its nose.

Hopefully, with snow forecast for all week, I'll be able to get out and catch up with them again.