Tuesday 30 March 2010

Hi from down 'sooth'

This below is from my last morning on Unst before our trip south but haven't had access to a pc until now.

Thursday 25th March
This was going to be the last morning on the 'The Island Above all Others' for a couple of weeks, so after dropping the kids off at school, I headed up to Lamba Ness for a bit of piece and quiet. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining and the sky was blue (and for a change, not much wind). The road down to the end, at one time was the access road for the many radio masts that once adorned the end on the headland during the second world war and were used to track shipping and submarines that past around the north of Shetland from the North Sea and on into the Atlantic Ocean. In those times, it was probably a very nice, smooth, tarmac road, however time has taken its toll and now it has become very rough, especially at the final section up to the headland. Here, it is a first gear crawl which has the added benefit of not frightening off some of the birds as you reach the end. Today, I had the company of a pair of  Ringed Plover, the male, looking splendid in fresh, bright, breeding plumage. The birds were't too bothered by the car and only moved a short distance away from the track and carried on feeding. 

I sat at the top for maybe half an hour, watching the to-ing and fro-ing of Fulmars, steady flights of Gannnets as they crossed the bay by Skaw and then on around the Wick of Skaw and onwards for the large Gannetry at Hermaness. After a while - as 'time and tide stands still for no man', I had to go and get ready to leave this wildlife paradise for a while.

Heading back down the road - no, pot-holed track, I past the feeding Ringed Plovers again. As they were still feeding by the 'roadside', I put the camera on the bean bag, engaged neutral, cut the engine and slowly coasted down towards them. Fortunately, the female which was closest, took no notice of the large camoflauged 'drainpipe' sticking out of the window. I took a load of pictures of her feeding and preening in what was, lovely light. What I did see, was something that I'd not witnessed before, and that was a Ringed Plover quickly patting the grass with one foot to entice small creatures to show themselves. I've seen it with gulls - especially Black-headed Gulls, and the theory is it that it is supposed to imitate the action of falling rain. With this bird, it would walk forward, extend one leg forward (a bit like someone testing boggy ground for a sure footing) and then with lightening speed, tap the grass or mud and very often pick up a small meal before moving on to the next spot. For what ever reason, I only saw the female doing this. 
 female Ringed Plover

As I watched the male, it suddenly lifted its head up and elongated its neck and also looked to one side. Then, in a flash, they had both gone off in the direction of the cliffs. I looked around and then saw a 'brown' Merlin flying at great speed up the track towards me, dodging the car at the last second. The plovers must also have incredible eyesight to have seen the bird approaching as it was only about 12" above the ground as it came towards the car.

male Ringed Plover

We left Unst, early in the afternoon for the journey down to Lerwick and the overnight ferry to Aberdeen. By now the sky had clouded in and looked like rain, fortunately for us however the wind had dropped and the crossing looked like it would be a relatively calm one.

I'll not be doing an up date from Unst for another 10 days or so but I may do a quick one from here down south.


Monday 22 March 2010

Spring has arrived ............................and has gone again!

I recently recalled working on St Kilda many years ago and what a wonderful place it was to work (you payed for the privilege to go and work there) well, I was working on Saturday at a place that was very close to working 'on the edge of the world' - a phrase often used to describe the islands of St Kilda (http://www.kilda.org.uk/) I was over at the Shore Station at Burrafirth and despite the gale that was blowing, it was fantastic. The 'Shore Station' is a large white building that used to be used as accommodation for the lighthouse keepers and their families when the keepers were on leave from the Muckle Flugga lighthouse which is just over 3 miles north of there.

Burra Firth and the Shore Station

When the lighthouse became automatic some years ago, the Shore Station was sold and is now used as 4 private dwellings.During the summer months, the firth becomes alive with feeding Gannets, Fulmars, Auks and Puffins. When I was there on Saturday, scores of Fulmar were resting on the water and several Red-throated Divers fished alongside dozens of Shag. During calm weather, porpoise are often seen and on several occasions last summer, Orca came around the coast - I arrived too late sadly.

Muckle Flugga lighthouse is often incorrectly referred to, as Britains most northerly point; this is not the case however, as it is a small rocky outcrop called Out Stack. Out Stack is just beyond Muckle Flugga and is also often referred to as Britain's 'full stop'. This photograph was obviously not taken on Saturday, but was taken last July.

Muckle Flugga

The wind and rain fortunately passed through quickly overnight and so Sunday morning was beautiful - clear sky, no wind and warm - yes warm! I sat in the sun on the south side of our house and the heat from the sun was really surprising, I didn't check the temperature but it would certainly have been in double figures ! Despite the Mediterranean weather, I didn't have time to go out and about as today many of the good folk of Unst were taking part in 'Sport Relief'. Amazingly, for an island of around 700, just over 200 people took part in a three stage walk around the centre of Unst. The length of the walks were 1, 3 and 6 miles and most folk either walked or ran but one person did most of it on a pair of stilts. I did the 6 miles along with another birder (Mike Pennington) and 'birdwatched' around the route. Mike was hoping for 30 species but we managed 32 including 3 Slavonian Grebes, one of which was in breeding plumage. Birding as we walked had its price and that was being amongst the last dozen to finish - but it was worth it as the whole event raised just over £1000.

Today, spring had gone again and we were back to wind and rain again by midday. Hey ho.


Tuesday 16 March 2010

Bath Time !

I had a small job to finish off on Yell today and as I had an hour to kill before the ferry, I went along to Westing to have a look. Over the last week, numbers of Ringed Plovers have been building up and today there were 12 or 15 birds all frantically running around on the narrow strip of sand displaying and fighting over the watching females (sounds familiar)

Also on the beach were numerous Turnstones and a solitary Purple Sandpiper that seemed to be playing 'chicken' with the breaking waves as they broke on the shore.
 I'm sure that I could see the Purple Sandpiper checking for the next wave as it ran down the banked up seaweed looking for food.


At one end of the beach by the car turning area, there are some flattish rocks that only get covered by salt water during storms. After rain, hollows in the rocks fill with rain water and the waders then make regular visits to bath in the fresh water. I'd noticed this last year but didn't try to get any shots. Today, I thought I'd just sit nearby and watch the reaction of the birds as often they're not bothered when they are feeding if I'm quite close. I sat and watched and a number of them came along the strand line and even though I was fairly close, they made their way up to the 'bathing area' and washed. It wasn't the usual pools, but I now know if I use the bag hide I'll get the shots I want. 

Bathing Turnstone

Heading back along the road for the ferry, just before the junction at the main road, something caught my eye in a small pool on the roadside. Stopping the car, my first thought was that it was maybe a Redshank (the most likely candidate at this time of year) but I was totally surprised to find it was a Merlin paddling in the shallow water. After grabbing a few shots, the bird took off and I thought that was that. However, it only flew a few yards and to my surprise it landed in the next - slightly larger- pool.


The lighting wasn't brilliant as it was back-lit, but, for a probable once in a life time experience, I just had to do the best I could. I was then treated to almost 15 minutes as it bathed and then drying itself off before flying off again.



Sunday 14 March 2010

Spring ?

I'm not going to build my hopes up too much, but it feels as though spring is not far away from these shores at the moment - although the cold northerly with occasional sleet or snows showers this morning would have made you think otherwise. Only this week there was the first sighting of frog spawn down in a ditch at Uyeasound and here in Baltasound, the first true spring visitors have arrived back in the shape of two Lesser Blackbacked Gulls.

It has been a fairly quiet few days as far as wildlife goes as I've not been out and about much. Yesterday I did take the girls out to a beach which I don't go to very often even though its only a ten minute walk from the car. If the wind is in the right direction - NE - then there can be some really big breakers coming in to the gently sloping sandy beach which makes for some good photo opportunities. What I was hoping for, was to get Fulmar flying along in front of the breaking waves, putting them in their environment - this isn't an excuse for not getting close enough - as in the picture below which I took last year, I like the picture but the Fulmar is too small.

Unfortunately, yesterday the wind was too strong which caused the wrong type of breakers ie instead of a long single line of breaking water, the breakers were quite erratic in the way they broke as they raced to the shore - if that makes any sense !

Despite not having many opportunities for shooting Fulmars, it was a good chance to sus it out for further visits. I think it will be better once the Fulmars are nesting on the cliffs close by and are passing back and forth more often. I also found lots of otter activity there which is something else I'll look into. I've yet to see an otter up around this part of the coast despite the fact that I've seen footprints both here and at another beach further north. I think that this is partly due to the fact that the cliffs are quite high and the shoreline is much less accessible.

One other reason that I've not been out is that I've now started a website with some of my pics on. Again just like this blog, it's early days, but I hope it will be slightly better organized into galleries than how it is on Photobucket at the moment. The link is still at the side but is here also - Galleries 

What you will notice is that at the moment, a lot of the images aren't labeled - but they all will be with a few days.


Wednesday 10 March 2010

Black is back !

As you will see, the  black template is back and I have to admit it was down to 'user error' as is often the case when technology goes wrong ! I had a friend call in this morning and explained to me how and why it happened so, hopefully, it won't happen again. 

I had a very brief trip over to Fetlar this morning to do a quick job and I have to say that the 'commute' to work was a very pleasant one. Twenty five minutes, on a free ferry, with loads of sea birds and scenery to look at, must make it one of the best journeys to work I've had in many years; - probably only eclipsed by the walk up village street on St Kilda many years ago, to repair the stile into  the kirk-yard. For the first part of todays trip there were loads of Longtailed Ducks, Eiders and Tysties, later this was followed by passing Gannets, Fulmars and Shags. Fortunately the crossing was fairly calm, although hand holding the camera/long lens was difficult at times. I'm sure for the folk that do it every day find it a bit of a chore when its blowing a gale. 

The job only entailed about 10 minutes work but took up two hours of time due to ferry times, it's a pity the weather wasn't better so I could have made better use of the time there.

Returning back to Unst, I had a quick look at Westing and found two Redbreasted Mergs' and a summer plumaged Redthroated Diver fishing in the bay there along with a couple of  'bottling' Common Seals. Around the island, there are now dozens of noisy Oystercatchers and the numbers of Greylag Geese has risen again now the snow has gone. The vast majority of them will move away to breed but it still leaves a quite number (and rising) to breed. Before heading home, I took a quick look at Haroldswick Bay as the wind direction would mean it should be quite calm and good for spotting either otters or wildfowl in the sea. I didn't find either of them but I did see a 1st winter Glaucous Gull as it flew slowly around the shoreline looking for food. Last winter, there were double figures of these large gulls around Unst, but this year there have only been a couple - and this was my first of the winter.

This evening has been another frustrating evening again as far as the night sky goes. The latest auroral activity level for the high Arctic is around 9 out of a possible 10, and so for here it should be at least a 6 - if it wasn't for the cloud! Hey ho.


Monday 8 March 2010

Garden Lists

I would bet that there aren't many birders or birdwatchers that don't keep a list of some sort. Whether it is a garden list, a 'patch' list, county list or life list, most will keep one - even if they deny it. Some will be fanatical about their list(s) and chase all over the country to add another tick to their British list and dream of joining the '400 club'.

For me personally, it always has been the 'garden list' - any bird seen, or heard, in over or from, the house or garden. Back in the Cotswolds, my garden list was 107 species - which took over 40 years - but I was lucky to have a house on the end of a village with far reaching views. In fact, if I remember correctly, the last bird I'd added to the list there, was a Moorhen which was almost 2 &1/2 miles away. Seen through the scope, I thought it was 'fair game' and added it to the list. The list included 10 species of raptor, 4 species of owl. plus things like, Common Crane, Gannet (twice), Sandwich Tern, Corncrake and Quail.

Coming to Shetland, things obviously haven't changed much either. At our previous place 'The Bungalow' a mile from here, in just over 15 months my list was around 54 species - when I say 'around' that's because I know there are a few that I forgot to add to the list at the time and then couldn't remember what they were ! However, on the list were birds that by any normal standard were pretty good, birds such as  Barred Warbler, Yellowbrowed Warbler, Wryneck, Common Crane, Osprey and Hawfinch to name just a few, however this is Shetland and most of those would almost be expected. Probably the biggest surprise however, was a Great Spotted Woodpecker which I saw from the kitchen window one morning sitting briefly on a fence post  probably thinking, ' well, where are the trees?'

The Hawfinch turned up obviously attracted by the several dozen House Sparrows and similar numbers of Starlings that I fed daily on the drive outside, it remained for over a week and was a beautiful bird to see and watch. Once it had overcome its nervousness, it became quite bold and came close to the house. We also had Crossbills feeding on the 'Redhot Pokers' and had Curlew nesting within yards of the garden fence. 

View from 'The Bungalow'

Last November, we moved - as I said earlier - a mile down the road and slightly east of the village to near the old airport. This place is larger and now that I'm used to it, actually has better view. To the north-east we have cracking view over Balta Sound, to the south we have open fields and hills for 5 miles or more. This list, in just over three months, is already at 42 species, this is because we have a better - and much closer - view over the sound. Virtually the first two birds on the new list were Velvet Scoter, Slavonian Grebe, closely followed by Little Grebe and Whooper Swan. I don't think that it will be quite as good for smaller birds, I'll have to wait and see for that. The 42nd species was seen today and that was a Bean Goose in flight - the one that I mentioned recently in Baltasound.

Our new view over Balta Sound

 I've regularly seen Common Seals hauled out on the oyster beds at low tide and it won't be long before we see our first otter - although it will be distant. 


Sunday 7 March 2010

I've been having problems with some of the links not showing, or the archive or comments links only being visible when the cursor is hovered over them, so bare with me and the blue template, until I can get it sorted - I prefer the black version !

Today wasn't really a wildlife day as my kids were taking part in a trampolining comp' down on Yell.  However, this morning when I opened the back door to feed the birds, despite the wind, it felt like spring is just around the corner. On the hills and fields behind our bungalow, I could hear curlew giving out their truly evocative 'bubbling' song, golden plover were flying around giving out their mournful piping call it was all truly uplifting after two weeks of snow and ice.


Friday 5 March 2010

Goosanders and Gannets

Well after almost 2 weeks of wintry conditions, it rained last night and a bit of a thaw set in. Mind you, this morning you wouldn't have thought so, even though the temperature had risen to a balmy 4 or 5 degrees, with the wind chill it felt much cooler. The hillside on the way down to Uyeasound was now a patchwork of light and dark where some of the snow had melted and I think, looked more interesting, now it was no longer a blanket of white.

Easter Loch - which is the large freshwater loch in Uyeasound - now had a large ice free area and so the swans and ducks have started to return to feed. Some of the birds had left the island, some had gone on to the adjacent sea to feed and a couple of swans had stayed and found food around the edges and along the grassy roadside. Amongst the Whoopers, Tufted Duck and GoldenEye were a number of  Goosanders, -2 females and 4 males. Slightly larger and 'fatter' looking than their commoner cousins the Redbreasted Merganzers, Goosanders are scare winter visitors to Shetland.

Male Goosander

In the last post, I mentioned briefly about star trails and the aurora, well I did manage to to get both. Even though the view from our bungalow at night is spoilt by the lights of the village, I have now managed to see a green glow of the aurora on two occasions. The other evening I took a large number of time exposures - 30 seconds for each shot over an hour and a half or so - and have done two things with them. Firstly, I stacked them to produce one image which gives the swirl effect of star trails and then secondly using a piece of software called 'Startrails', I combined them all to create a short movie of around 8 seconds which shows the stars rotating around the Pole Star. It was in this second sequence which showed the brief display of the aurora. When I say I did it, what it really involved was a few clicks on the computer mouse and the software did the rest. They tend to look the best when there there is a silhouette in the foreground, unfortunately all I had the other evening was the roof of our neighbours bungalow, but will give you an idea of what it can look like.

Rotating around the Pole Star

A lower angle

It's in this second image that when played as an avi , the aurora shows up. It's early days yet so I'm hoping for some clear skies as it's forecast to be good for auroras during March. Thankfully, all I need to do, is to set the camera up, press the release and then go and watch the box for an hour or so !

With a bit of a thaw set in, I thought I'd take a look over at Lamba Ness in the north of the island as I'd not been there for 10 days due to the snow. The road up from this side and down the other had been blocked by snow and  had been virtually impassable. This was partly due to the fact in places its around a 1:4 gradient and doesn't get snow ploughed due to nobody living over there full time. Fortunately, a JCB had cleared the road yesterday which enabled me to get over there with no problems.  

Down at Lamba Ness, the wind was blowing from the north and was cold ! Lamba Ness is a headland that juts out from the north east corner of Unst where basically the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Being early March, I knew that there would be lots of Gannets passing the headland on their way around to the gannetry at Hermaness and how right I was. Scores of birds were flying north in to a strong northernly almost as if the wind was behind them, it never ceases to amaze me how well birds adapt to their environment. With the wind in that direction it causes the birds to fly over the headland and provide some great photo opportunities.But this in turn causes a few problems with trying to capture images due to the wind itself. Firstly in anything other than a breeze, both camera and photographer are buffeted about and also the flight paths of the birds are much less certain. I found last year, that getting them in flight at Hermaness was relatively easy due to the predictable flight paths, here however I need a lot more practice!



Wednesday 3 March 2010

Sunshine and Star Trails

It's been a quiet couple of days here as far as any wildlife picture taking goes, even so, the weather has been fantastic.  Despite having had lying snow for 12 days now, the weather has been almost perfect. When the snow has fallen, it has been mostly during the night or, if it is in the daylight hours, the shower quickly passes and the sun is out again. 

Yesterday I went back across to Yell with my youngest to take a look for a Bearded Seal that has been turning up in Mid Yell since early January. After the first visit, it didn't show again until 14th February but is now starting to be slightly more predictable - but not yesterday! Bearded Seals normally live way up in the Arctic Circle and are a regular food source of both Polar Bear and the Inuit. I'll keep trying to see it again as it's a lovely creature, but until then, here's a shot from January -

 Bearded Seal

As the kids are now both back at school, I took the opportunity to go south for the best part of a day. When you say 'south' here, most folk will mean Lerwick on Mainland, if you say 'way down south' then you're going off of Shetland. Sadly, the seal wasn't there again today either, but my friend Brydon was saying this morning that it seems to go off for a couple of days and then comes back for a rest - so maybe tomorrow ? The journey down was great, blue sky, sunshine, white snow and lovely scenery as far as the eye could see, what more could you want ? The snow to go and some green grass that's what ! Only kidding.

I like visiting Lerwick, not only to be able to stock up on things that we can't get on Unst, but because it's also good for birds - well Tysties really (Black Guillimot) . The harbour in the town centre is great because they come right in and fish just below the harbour walls - which enables you to get much closer than you can get around the coastline. Most of them are already back in their breeding plumage (dark brown with white wing bars, bright red legs and bill) which like a lot of sea birds, can make exposure a pain in sunlight. Today though I was very glad of the bright sun. as even though I've seen them swimming under water before, I'd never seen them so deep and still seen them so well. The water was at least 15ft deep and it was like looking into the side of an aquarium as the water was so clear. The spot from where I was watching the Tystie, is also where the local taxis queue and even one of the drivers came over to comment how clear the water was. Apparently a while ago, the council moved the sewage pipes further out in to the sound and so now the effluent is carried out to sea by the current which has made a big difference to the water quality.

 Black Guillimot in winter plumage

Just a short walk from the town centre is a seafood processing plant which is also a good spot for not only Tysties but Grey Seals as well. They (the seals) seem to know when the scraps of sea food are going to be dumped as they will gather very close to the pier and wait for the doors to slide back and the scraps to be tipped in to the sea. The angle from which photographs can be taken is a bit too high but it still makes very entertaining watching as the seals feed, even if you don't take photographs.

Grey Seal

Another 'project' which I'm experimenting with at the moment is night-time photography. I've not seen such clear skies since I was on holiday in Namibia 10 years ago. Despite the fact the Baltasound probably has more street lighting in proportion to the population than a large town (a throw back to the RAF days), we do get some fantastic nights skies. A drive north from here to Lamba Ness and there is only one small marker beacon on a small island and beyond that there are no artificial lights between there an who knows where.

Another spectacle that is seen from time to time is the Northern Lights or Aurora. I witnessed a minor show back in early February and at the moment it is looking good for this evening - http://www.spacew.com/www/aurora.php   fingers crossed it keeps clear.


Monday 1 March 2010

'Garden Birds' and Dunters

One down and one to go - kids back at school that is - but we've still got snow and more is forecast. After the school run, on returning back home and as the sun was shining, I decided to have a go at some of the birds that come to the food I put out. At this house (we moved before Xmas) I generally only get half a dozen species feeding - and not all at once - and the most numerous are Starlings. Others include, Hooded Crow, Rock Dove, Blackbird, House Sparrow and two species of gull (Common and Herring), I  have also had Turnstone and Snipe - although the snipe wasn't strictly feeding on the bird food, more in the ground on which the food was sitting. The main problem with this house is the location where I can put the food, it is facing due south and the only suitable window for photography from is also in that direction. So obviously due to it being south facing, if the sun is out the subjects are always back lit (at this time of year anyhow) Over the last couple of months of snow, the white background hasn't helped much either. One of my favourite visitors is the Common Gull but these birds don't often land if the pieces of food are small enough. Their method is very kite-like in that they would often swoop down and grab the food whilst still on the wing.

Common Gull

After lunch, I had to go off of the island with the kids to Yell for the afternoon which, if the weather is good is always a nice little trip. The ferry crossing over Bluemull Sound only takes ten minutes but can often be good for seeing a variety of sea birds and occasionally cetaceans; such as, Neesicks (Porpoise) or Whitesided Dolphins and both Orca and Humpback Whales (though not by me) and often the ferry will turn and follow them for a short while. At the moment there is a large gathering of Dunters (Eider Ducks) which over the last few weeks has risen to between 400 - 500. Amongst them are one or two of the northern race which have a more orange coloured bill and 'sails' not dissimilar to the ones that male Mandarin drakes have, although a different colour. Unfortunately I've yet to find this avian 'needle in a haystack'. 


If the weather is right and depending on the wind, there are often good opportunities for  photographs from the stern of the ferry as it crosses the sound. Calm conditions are best for birds on the water and windy ones are best for the birds in flight - depending on which direction they are flying of course. Most ducks tend to fly very fast, but, if they are flying into the wind, you do get more of a chance. Also the journey from Unst to Yell is best as the sun (when it is shining) will be behind you, but this then causes problems of its own with it blowing the whites of the plumages. The commoner birds that are around at the moment on Bluemull are Tysties (Black Guillemot), Shag, Eider, Longtailed Duck and ever increasing numbers of Gannets. (The Eider pics were all taken from the ferry with the 500+1.4ex handheld)

Eider or 'Dunter'