Wednesday 19 May 2010

Some fine weather - and some fine birds !

For almost a week now, we have had a taste of real spring. Most days have been sunny with the temperature even reaching double figures! On Saturday, I got to go out for a few hours again as the rest of the family were down in Lerwick for the day and as usual, I started over in the north at Skaw. I hadn't been there long when I saw and heard the tell-tale sign of a raptor being around and that was Starlings taking to the air giving an alarm call as they wheeled around. Shortly after I had not one, but two Sparrowhawks coming inland from the Holm of Skaw as if they had just come in off of the sea. Even better, it was a male and a female and as they passed overhead, they soared around in unison a few times and had it been over a woodland down south, I would have said they were a pair.

Down on the beach, Arctic Terns were starting to do food passes but as the light was so harsh I didn't bother to take any pictures. Despite the fine weather, there were few small migrants around, just the odd Willow Warbler or Chiffchaff - probably because most of them have taken advantage of the settled conditions and continued their journey.

Later, down at Haroldswick, I came across a number of feeding gulls amongst the rocks. Pulling up, I could see it was because there were two large salmon on the shore. I positioned my car so I could get some shots and then saw there was a bonus amongst them - an Iceland Gull. After a couple of minutes, two Bonxies came in to feed and they seemed to be keeping the others away. Fortunately, the Iceland Gull wasn't as nervous as the GBB Gulls and came quite close.

Iceland Gull

From there, I made a couple of more stops but didn't really find anything until my last port of call in Baltasound. Here I was really pleased to find a cracking male Garganey which hung around for several days. Unlike the ones I saw when I was down south at Easter, this one was in glorious sunshine.

Sunday was a fairly quiet day as far as birds go as also it was the day my other half went away for a week. The only pictures I took were of the LBB Gulls that come to feed at the back of house - one of them has even got to know the sound of the door opening when I go to put out scraps. 

On Monday evening, I had a text from a friend asking if I fancied a mornings birding  the following day, as it was going to be another nice day - good idea Mike. I picked Mike up at around 9.30am - after our school runs - and then headed off towards Skaw. As we drove along the road above Norwick, we noticed scores of skuas soaring around high above us. It wasn't long before we saw what was causing the commotion - a Sea Eagle. Looking through the bins', we could see it was an immature one and also that it had green tags on the wings, almost certainly the same one I had the other week over our house. We watched the bird for a while as more and more skuas took to the air, and then, in seconds we lost it. Carrying on over to Skaw, we then saw it again over Saxavord, by now we reckoned there were several hundred skuas in the air and if you think a Bonxie is a big bird, see one along side a Sea Eagle.

We sat and watched the bird for a fair time as it soared higher and higher to who knows how many thousand feet, at one point I could only see it with my bins'. The bird then turned and started a long 'flap, flap, glide' sort of flight out to sea in a north east direction. If it carried on, the next land would have been Norway. To be quite honest, we were spoilt too early on in the day as that was the best bird, mind you, it would have had to been something pretty special to beat that.

Last night at about 8pm, I got a call from Rory to say there was a Red-rumped Swallow at Norwick. Now I've seen them in Spain, but not in Britain so I would obviously have to go  and look - wouldn't I ? The kids had just got ready for bed, so it was a quick change for them and into the car. To cut a long story short, we didn't see the bird - which is often the case with 'twitching' and is the reason why I gave it up years ago - or at least I thought I had. Unfortunately for us, it didn't end there. The radiator in my car had decided to over heat and it looked more like a steam engine as we tried to head back home. It got to the point where it was seriously over heating so all I could do was to stop and get some water once it had cooled down a bit. We finally limped home at around 10.15pm - twitching, never again (so he says). Apart from not seeing the bird and my car playing up, it was a magical evening. As we arrived home, the mist was forming with an orange backdrop with perfectly calm water, I didn't turn in to gone midnight and there was still an orange glow in the sky.

 This morning was yet another nice morning, so once the kids were at school (and before I went to do a small piece of work) I went to look for the Rr Swallow again. On the way, I met Rory and despite our best efforts, we didn't find it. I did find 7 'ordinary' Swallows, two Sand Martins and a House Martin though.

3.25pm, waiting for Rona to come out of school, phone goes. It's Mike Smith, 'I'm watching the R r Swallow at Haroldswick'. Did I say I'd given up twitching ? Off again, with the girls in the car, get to Haroldswick - and there it was ! A stunning looking bird, feeding with Swallows over the seaweed covered rocks. Unfortunately, from a  photographic point of view, the light was rubbish as the only place to get a decent view of it was directly in to the light, hey ho. For Unst, it was probably classed as a mass 'twitch' as, including my girls, there were eight of us watching the bird for over an hour.

Red-rumped Swallow

I make no apologies for the picture quality, but I wonder if it will be around tomorrow ?.................


Friday 14 May 2010

'Swanning About'

The school kids up here are very lucky in that they are so close to the great outdoors and have lots of opportunities to get out during school time and learn about and enjoy it. One of these occasions happened on Wednesday at Uyeasound when 'The Swan' came up to take the kids out for a sail for almost 3 hours. 'The Swan' is an old sailing trawler (Fifie) that was built around 1900 down in Lerwick which has now been restored and is used to teach and inform young and old about the techniques on how to sail and maintain her. For much more information check out their website here - . On this occasion, I had been asked if I would like to join them for the trip around Uyeasound. Last year they sailed from Uyeasound up the east coast of Unst to Baltasound, but due to the sea conditions it was decided not to take the children on this route. The day was fine, but not much wind - not good for a sailing ship ! We did managed to get one of the sails up, but due to the age of the children it wasn't really practical to hoist any more up considering the work that was involved. Despite this, we had a very pleasant trip around the sound and out in to Bluemull Sound a short way. Birds were in abundance, Tysties, Gannet, a few Guillimots and loads of Fulmars. We also saw a a couple of pairs of Redthroated Divers and also a summer plumaged GN Diver.  Even though I could take a few photographs, I was also there as an extra pair of eyes to watch the children so using the long lens was out of the question which was a shame as the water was fairly calm.

'The Swan'  (taken in 2009)

Arriving back to the pier, the children disembarked - but I stayed on. I now had the chance to sail (motor) up to Baltasound where she would tie up for the night before taking some children out from Baltasound school. As we headed east out of Uyeasound, I changed the lens for the long one in the hope I'd get some shots of birds taking off from the water as we passed by - not easy from a moving boat that is also rising and falling in the water. No divers alas but I did get a few Tysties.

Tystie or Black Guillimot

The rest of the trip up to Baltasound was uneventful as far as wildlife goes but it was a great experience. I had sailed on an old sailing trawler before a couple of times many years ago in the nineties. On that occasion it was an old Brixham sailing trawler that a time was based on the west coast of Scotland near Oban, she was then called 'Lorne Leader' - My little 'adventure' however, was not yet over. Andrew the skipper, asked if I'd like to go with them on the return journey the following afternoon back down to Lerwick, I didn't need asking twice !

So at 3pm, I arrived at the pier all ready to go. There was also another guy waiting there who was coming down on the trip. He had been coming here for many years on holiday and as it turned out, came from Stratford Upon Avon which is only about half an hours drive from where I originally come from. (Ed and his family, run a number of the boats that carry tourists up and down the river there). The wind had now swung around to be southerly which meant the trip wouldn't be sail assisted sadly (yesterday going to Baltasound it was northerly and had the same effect). The weather was fine with sun occasionally breaking through the fairly cloudy sky and with the wind made it feel quite cold. Shortly after passing the southern end of Balta Isle, I picked out at least 8 or 10 fins breaking the surface some way from the boat. My first reaction was maybe female Orcas, but after a better look, I realized that they were a large dolphin species. I grabbed some pictures - in between the pitching and rolling of the boat - and later came to the conclusion they were most likely Risso's Dolphins.

Further down the coast of Unst, I saw a number of G N Divers congregating offshore. I could only estimate 12 - 15 but in the past 50 or more have been seen in late spring off of Unst. Our route then took us south down between Fetlar and Yell and then onwards to towards the island of  Whalsay. Surprisingly, the numbers and variety of seabirds was quite low, mainly Tysties, Shag, Gannet, Fulmar and the occasional Puffin or Guillimot. Passing through the sound between Whalsay and Mainland, we did encounter a number of feeding Gannets that were plunge diving for fish. Due to a number of reasons (being on a moving boat didn't help) I didn't manage to get any diving but did get a few circling between dives.

Whalsay is always noted as being where the 'millionaires' live on Shetland and judging by some of the large boats we saw berthed I can see why -

The rest of the journey down to Lerwick was uneventful - but it was a great trip all the same. The sun was now getting lower in the sky and the air had turned decidedly chilly as by now the wind had picked up a notch. One of my favourite types of landscape views  is something called atmospheric recession and on the final part of the trip there were lots of views with this as the sun sank in the west. Not all were photogenic and getting a better viewpoint was not really practical on a moving boat !

We arrived back in to Lerwick just after 8.30pm. Earlier on in the afternoon, I had asked Andrew the skipper, what time he thought we'd be back in town; his reply was about 8.30 - that's why he was the skipper !

The last three were taken on my camera phone.

Arriving in Lerwick


Monday 10 May 2010

When WILL winter end ?

Way back in February when we had cold, snowy weather, it was rather nice. Seeing the landscape in a different light and texture was a delight. However, we are now into the 2nd week of May and are still having snow showers ! I have lost track now how long we have had northerly or north westerly winds for - far too long - although the winds did go easterly briefly towards the end of last week. By Friday, my health issues were starting subside a little (hopefully) and I was able to enjoy a few hours in the spring like sunshine and also see one or two migrants. 

The Sea Eagle from the previous day, was seen again on Saturday although I was 'down south' in Lerwick with the children and didn't see it again. While there, I had a call again from Brydon to say that there were two Common Cranes at Belmont on Unst, typical ! We returned mid afternoon and as we boarded the ferry, one of the ferrymen came over to tell me that the 'storks' were still there - maybe I'm still in luck ? As we approached the terminal at Belmont, he said ' they're still there look', looking in the direction he was looking, all I could find was a couple of bits of plastic 'resting' up against the wall ! Maybe they'll turn up again.

Sunday morning saw me working at Burrafirth shore station again and as I arrived I was greeted by the site of another cracking male Snow Bunting, this bird however was a little less obliging and didn't hang around.

After lunch, I stopped off at Haroldswick  by some bushes that seemed to be heaving with small warblers - it's funny that half a dozen small warblers moving around can seem like dozens. As it turned out, there were only 4 or 5 Willow Warblers, a Chiffchaff and two Reed Buntings (one a male). It seemed as though they had come in over night on the front of fine weather despite the northerly air flow.

Willow Warbler

A short while later I was in the 'Final Checkout' and asked a crofter from the south of the island I knew if the cranes were still about and he said they had been around all day and gave me directions to where they had been feeding. I drew a blank and decided to check the spot where they'd been the day before, while on the way, I met the same chap coming the other way and as he stopped he had a big smile on his face and asked if I'd found them. Replying 'no', he laughed and said I should have looked over the wall. Driving back, with in moments of leaving the car, two large, long necked and long legged birds came around in a semi circle, legs down and gliding in to land but unfortunately it was out of sight. A short walk and using a dyke as cover and I could see the two birds (albeit a few hundred yards way) starting to feed in a grass field. I don't know why, but the last three good species I've seen in the last two weeks have all been in to the light when they've been closest. Actually, I do know why, it is time. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to spend to get around the subjects to get a better position - something that can and often does take an hour or more and then, something like a Bonxie flies over and spooks the subject and it flies off, oh such fun.

Common Cranes

I was back at Burrafirth again today for a few hours. I really thought I'd gone through a time machine of sorts - back to February ! Snow showers came through around every 15 minutes or so, sometimes obliterating the view across to Saxa Vord (not a bad thing if you could see what was on top - radar domes) Fortunately for us it doesn't settle for long before it melts or we would have 6 inches of snow by now.

This afternoon brightened up a bit - still rather cool though and I found the warblers again at Haroldswick darting out of cover to pick up a small insect and then retreating back to the shelter of the bushes afterwards. Up near the school, a light shape caught my eye moving in some conifers which turned out to be a lovely female Pied Flycatcher. I watched it for 15 minutes as it fed in the sunshine on the sheltered side of the bushes before I had to resume my 'school run duties'
Female Pied Fly'


Saturday 8 May 2010

Getting things off my chest !

Last week, I posted about a fantastic encounter with a Snowy Owl here on Unst. It has now come to my attention that there have  been comments made on how we may have approached the bird and the results of our encounter. The comments were made on another photographers blog (and also comments relating to the quality of the pictures by a.n.other). Both Brydon and myself agreed at the time, that, the birds welfare should come first and no photograph is worth unnecessary stress. It was a rare moment to savour (anyone can pay a fortune to go and see one in the Arctic or Canada etc)  but to get one in habitat in the UK is something special and one that we wanted to enjoy and also share. If I had wanted to get any closer, then I had with me, probably the best person in Shetland for the job, ie Brydon Thomason. The first encounter was when the bird detected us because it was out of our view but it had obviously heard us. With the following two encounters it moved off because it was being mobbed firstly by numerous Oystercatchers and secondly by GBB Gulls. When we found it again, we again watched it for quite a while - in fact the bird remained there for over 3 hours.

When I returned there the following day, if I'd had the time ie all day and the bird was present in the area, I am sure I could have relocated it. As to the equipment issue, I was using a Canon camera with an EF500+1.4ex lens but still cropped the pictures heavily as we did not stalk it and Brydon was using good Nikon gear. I am obviously not a professional and as far as I am concerned, neither are so called photographers of wildlife who resort to disturbing breeding birds unnecessarily (Schedule 1 species etc) or unscrupulous methods such as using tape lures etc, all in the name of getting a picture !


Friday 7 May 2010

What a week !

What a week indeed for more reasons than one. After the fantastic first sighting of the Snowy Owl up here on Unst for me, spirits were high that it might remain for a while. The following day, I went back there with my youngest daughter (7yrs) to have a good look around. Rona had asked a while ago to walk the ridge along, so I didn't need any further encouragement. It was a lovely day but bitterly cold and once up on the hill there was little in the way of cover (apart from the stone walls) to shelter from the wind. I reckon we walked for a least 4 if not 5 miles in total and although we didn't find the owl, we did see a cracking summer plumage Snow Bunting. The area is quite large and it is quite possible that the bird was hunkered down somewhere out of the wind and didn't see us either. 

Unfortunately, the sun was from behind the bird and getting into a better position was not really an option. 

The following day, a friend on mine also spent a lot of time there and also couldn't locate it. The bird is still probably around, but if you look at the map of Unst, there is quite a lot of open, hilly country for it to conceal itself. While my friend was looking for the owl, I was lucky to come across 3 Ring Ouzels which included a fine looking male. I only managed to get some long distance, large cropped pictures which are purely 'for the record'. It was about this time that I realized that all was not well with my lung problem as I was now getting severe chest pains when I inhaled - another trip to the doctors. It turned out that I now had a mild dose of pleurisy.

Things changed again today, the drugs were working and had alleviated the chest pain a little. As I was getting the kids ready to go school, I had a phone call from Brydon again. This time he was out with a client in the north of the island and had found a Hoopoe at Burrafirth. Surely this must be the most northerly record for the species in the UK? , I'd got to go there anyway this morning so it would be worth a look. Unfortunately, the bird didn't hang about, hey ho, next time. What I did see was a cracking male Pied Flycatcher feeding around the walled garden there. Finally at last, the spring migration of passerines seemed to be getting underway.

Pied Flycatcher male

As I travelled back, I saw another Pied Fly', a Blackcap several Chiffchaffs and a Willow Warbler. A bird that I certainly never thought I would see (I suppose the Snowy was the same), greeted me as I turned in to our driveway as I arrived back home. I looked ahead of me and saw a large number of large gulls, mobbing an even larger bird that was gliding straight over our bungalow - a Sea Eagle ! I knew that there had been one further south on Mainland which had come from the release program on the east coast of Scotland, but never in my wildest dreams, thought it would come this far north, let alone over the house! This bird had a green wing tag on with a No.8 on, which put it as a one year old male. I've seen Sea Eagles before but the size of them never fails to impress me. This bird, started to soar up on a thermal - yes thermal, here in Shetland ! It was a rather warm day with the temperature in the low double figures and it didn't take long for it to soar up to who knows what height - it became just a speck, it then changed course and started a long glide north. I phoned Brydon again who I knew was still on Hermaness and fortunately he saw it again several times. Strictly speaking, as the bird is from a release program, I shouldn't really put it on my garden list - this time I think I will make an exception.

I make no excuse for the quality of the pictures, the first two were almost into the sun and were also taken in a 'bit of a hurry'.

The funny thing is, that while I was at Burrafirth this morning, I was sitting having a cup of tea in the sun with a friend. As we talked, I looked across at the rugged cliffs below Saxavord and said to Tony, 'there should be Sea Eagles over there', well today there was - briefly.


Sunday 2 May 2010

Worth waiting a lifetime for

As I mentioned in the last post, late last evening I had a phone call from my friend Brydon to say that there had been a probable sighting of a Snowy Owl on Unst during Saturday afternoon. At first I thought it was a wind-up, but after a brief conversation I knew it was true and started wondering if I would at last catch up with one of these mythical birds. It would be the last of the three birds on my 'birds from the far north' list - the other two which I've already seen being white phase Gyr Falcon and Ivory Gull - most birders have a rarity list, mine was quite modest. I arranged to pick him up at 7.15am the following morning.

Bang on time, Brydon arrived back after just done a night shift on the ferry and hadn't had any sleep. Looking at the map, we decided on our route up the hill and set off to park the car. To be quite honest, even though I was eager with anticipation at the thought of finding it, looking at the terrain, I was wondering how the heck we would find a bird that could basically look like any other rock ! After just under half an hour, we had reached some flattish ground at the top and started to scan around with the hope of finding a large whitish bird sitting on a rock. Not to be however. We walked on. Then, all of a sudden, as I glanced around to my left a huge ghost of a bird flew off from the base of some rocks. My first reaction was YES

It flew off around to our right and landed again on a large boulder a few hundred yards way. Quickly getting the camera out, I fired off a few record shots and then sat and watched it. We were very lucky to then watch it for quite a time from several places. The photographs below don't really do the bird justice as they are quite large crops and for most of the time it was against the light. I'm sure that over the next few days, there'll be a number of folk that go and take a look and our thoughts are that it will become even more 'flighty' as people try and get that bit closer.

Judging by the number of droppings and pellets we found, it may well have been here for a while. The hills are seldom visited in the winter as there aren't any sheep up there and it was only because a local person was out for a hill walk, that it was found. Lets hope that after the initial interest, it stays around for a while longer. My thanks goes again to Brydon Thomason for the late night phone call.


A morning out with my daughter

 Saturday 1st May -

After a week of rather mixed weather - a mix of strong wind and rain, it was nice to wake up to a dry day. Dry it may have been, windy it still is, but blimey it has been cold ! The wind is currently coming down from the north and is set to be in that quarter all week - bad news for us birders here waiting for the spring arrivals of small birds moving up through Scandinavia that get blown across on south easterlies.

I had promised my eldest girl I'd take her out this morning to see what wildlife we could find and I was amazed  to find her dressed and ready to go at 7.30am (in a camo baseball hat and camo trousers etc) We headed off down to the south end with the intention of a walk, but on getting out of the car, it felt like the cold wind was trying to cut us in two. Apart from a few Turnstones and a Dunlin on the beach and a pair of Red-throated Divers just offshore there wasn't too much happening so we didn't stay long. I decided to take a quick look at Westing beach as with the wind direction it can often bring a few seals in close to the shore where they 'bottle' in the relative calm of the bay. Not much happening there, we headed back to Baltasound and on to Haroldswick.

The tide was on the fall - a good time for otters, so I hoped. Following the road around the shoreline, I soon saw the tell tale shape of an otter floating horizontally on the surface like a lumpy piece of driftwood. It didn't stay still for long a soon dived to fish and as it did so I moved the car to a passing place so I didn't block the road. In certain parts of the island, I wouldn't normally do this, especially a 'busy' times as I don't like to stop other cars passing one another; here however, there's plenty of room. The water was about 10-12ft below us and the wind was blowing from us to him, so there was no point in trying to get any closer as we would quickly be discovered. Sometimes you realize that trying to get a picture is pointless so it's good to just sit and watch. I did take some record shots despite the distance and the lighting as I try and keep a record of the otters I see as they can be identified by the markings under their chins. We watched it for at least 15 minutes until it got to an area where we couldn't watch from the car so we moved on further around the bay.

At the north end, I spotted a diver close to the shore which turned out to be a Great Northern Diver in full breeding plumage. Again, there was a wide passing place closeby so we pulled in to take a look. I think these birds are almost as nice as Redthroated's when they are like this. Sadly again, the light was still not in our favour so I took this 'for the record'

Great Northern Diver

It was at this very same spot where, a couple of days ago, I saw a Coot on the water. It did look odd seeing a bird normally associated with lakes etc, bobbing around on the sea. I did wonder if it was the same one that has been around most of the winter here on Unst, if so, where has it been ?

As I think I've previously mentioned, there have been very few small birds passing through recently, apart from that is, wagtails. The most numerous one here that passes through (Pied's do breed) is the White Wagtail; in the last few days I've seen loads of them. This one below was on the shingle beach just below the car as we watched the GND.

White Wagtail (male)

Heading off again, we went to Skaw - Britain's most northerly beach. By the burn which runs in to the sea a group of a dozen or so Turnstones rested on the grass. Often, if you pay them no attention, you can walk past only 15 or 20ft away from them, but a pause or a turn of the head will often result in them taking flight. When they're resting like this, I prefer to give them a wide berth and let them be. As we walked back up from the beach to the sheep pens, I remarked to my daughter Sula that there should be migrants around, no sooner than the words had left my lips a Chiffchaff flitted out from underneath a pile of timber. 

The last port of call before our return was to be Lamba Ness. The road down is as I've mentioned before, a rough tarmac track, to my girls however, it is a bit of excitement. As it's not really a public road as such, the girls get to stand up with their heads out of the sun roof and pretend they are on safari ! I don't get to see much as their screams tend to frighten stuff off but it then allows me to have more 'proper birding time!

I had meant to post this last night but due to a late night phone call I forgot all about it - see the next blog later today.