Sunday 27 June 2010

Whimbrels and Whales

The day after seeing the Dotterel, we headed for Fetlar with the hope of seeing another pretty wader, Rednecked Phalarope. The day was rather windy (too windy for Phals') and also cloudy (also not not good for seeing Phals' on the Loch on Funzie) so I decided to make the most of it. On Funzie, there were four Red-throated Divers which were, as usual, out in the middle; and, just as I'd thought, no Phals' ! After an hour at Funzie, we headed off to Funzie Bay at the east of the island. While the others took a walk south around the bay, I walked a short distance and sat down out of the wind in a brief spell of sunshine. A few minutes later I was treated to a 'walk past' of a Whimbrel which didn't seem too bothered by me siting down just below the grassy cliff edge. Shetland has around 50% of the UK breeding population of Whimbrel with a large number of them breeding on Fetlar.


Moving on from Funzie Bay, we headed for Tresta Beach. The beach at Tresta is usually very busy with fishing terns, bathing Bonxies and Arctic Skuas on the lookout for a relatively easy meal from the terns. On this windy day however, it was rather quiet apart from the ever present bathing Bonxies in the freshwater loch close by. At the loch, it was another one of those sort of days, the light was from behind me but the wind was blowing down the loch towards me. This meant that the Bonxies were flying in from behind me and then landing into the wind, this meant I usually got a rear view as they landed. If I moved my position, I was then shooting into a rather grey, flat light. Finally the sun came out briefly and I managed to get a few shots - but nothing to 'write home about' so to speak.

Bathing Bonxies

The next day, it was a trip to the airport to drop my sister off. The weather was still the same, cloudy with a stiff breeze which didn't make a good prospect for Puffins at Sumburgh Head. Dropping Carol off (which I think and hope was a successful trip) I went up to the head. There were a few Puffins around but not doing much and those that were flying were moving far too fast in the strong wind. Hey ho.

Last Sunday was Fathers Day and I was given (along with the rest of the family) a treat which was an 8hr cruise on the Yell ferry, the 'Daggri'. The trip was organized by my friend Brydon Thomason and so along with around 80 others we set off from Toft on Mainland at around 10am and headed off along the north coast of Mainland towards Ramna Stacks. The original plan was to head down the west coast of Mainland, but due to the previous few days of strong wind (and resulting sea swell) we rounded Ramna Stacks and then made our way back down the south coast of Yell. There were plenty of sea birds to be seen including Gannets, Bonxies, Puffins and also numerous auks (Black and Common Guillimots and Razorbills). From Yell Sound, we headed north up the coast into Bluemull Sound as far as Gutcher where the ship turned and crossed over to the the south side of Unst and then over to the south side of Fetlar.

 We had been hoping for sightings of cetateans and did get a brief view of a dolphin species that was too far to be positively identified but was probably one of the Risso's dolphins that had been seen earlier in the day. As we headed back across from Fetlar towards Yell Sound, the call went out that a Minke Whale had been seen straight ahead. Eventually we saw the creature but it had now travelled some distance away but lots of folk got to see it. Then without warning it re-surfaced a short distance in front of the bow of the ship, unfortunately for me it was too close (I had the 500 on as I'd been trying for some shots of it further away) and so when more of the whales back was visible, I missed it.

Minke whale

All in all, despite the cool breeze and 'only' seeing a couple of sightings of cetaceans, I know everyone had a great time. The biggest thank you must go to Brydon for organizing it in the first place and also my family for booking my ticket.

My whale searching trips weren't over however as the following day, I had been given the chance of going out with one of the researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Group on a boat called the 'Honesta' to look for Orca's. The full team had been out the previous week, but due to a couple days of bad weather, they were given an extra two days. Unfortunately the majority of them had to travel back south, which left just one researcher (whose was researching Risso's dolphins) so I was to be an extra pair of eyes if any Orcas were around. Our route was to go out from Collafirth on north Mainland, past Ramna Stacks, then take a left turn and head down the coast and finally ending up at Voe. We were out around 4 miles from the coast and despite Silvana (the researcher) dropping in a hydrophone (under water microphone) fairly frequently, it didn't pick up any vocalizations from Killer Whales. Silvana said that if they (the orcas) were calling loudly, they could be heard from up to 30 kms away. What it did pick up however, was the sound of seismic explosions which the 'Honestas' crew thought were at least 70 miles away to the east. These tests are to test the seabed during oil exploration and these were thought to have come from the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. If the hydrophone could pick them up (which were quite loud) it makes you wonder what it does to the underwater life nearer to the tests. Despite almost 8 hours on the water, the only sighting we had was a brief view of a Minke Whale.

The 'Honestas'
The rest of the week was taken up with doing a small piece of work - making a number of 'card looms' for a friend of ours that is also a weaver on the island. I did manage an hour or two out despite the fact the weather was still not particularly nice. On Wednesday I had a quick look at Norwick  and came across two Chiffchaffs which were behaving as though they could be breeding. Nothing to shout about down south, but in Shetland there are only 3 or 4 proven breeding records for the species.


In the afternoon, I called in at Westing on the way to do the school run and ended up watching a family of Dunters (Eider Ducks) feeding on the shoreline and also several confiding Ringed Plovers. June hasn't been particularly good this year, lots of cloudy dull days but not too much rain. I saw on the television the other night that Shetland has had only 7% of the usual monthly rainfall, it hadn't occurred to me that Helliers Water (the water supply for Unst) may well be getting low. Heading back along the road, we did have a brief shower of rain which coincided with me passing a Curlew standing not far from the roadside side which didn't fly up as I stopped.


Part of this weekend was spent down on Mainland in Lerwick for the Shetland 'Hamefarin' (homecoming) which was an event to welcome Shetlanders and folk with Shetland origins back home. Look here for a more detailed explanation - . The culmination of the event was to be a procession of around 300 members of various Yarl Squads and then a ceremonial burning of a replica Viking longship on the Clickimin  Loch, followed shortly after by a closing firework display. It was a great - but late - evening, which finished after midnight. I did take a few pictures using my camera phone, but obviously due to the light levels and the distance involved they weren't up to much. I'm certain over the next few days there will be stuff on the internet if anyone is interested.

Today, we headed of to west Mainland to an area we hadn't been to before called Vementry. I must say that it was a beautiful place and must rate as one of the more remote places we've visited on mainland Shetland. The reason we went there in the first place was quite amazing. When we came here on holiday three years ago, we stayed on north Mainland at a place called Nibbon. On leaving, the visitors book was duly filled in etc and that was that. Then, a while ago, we received a post card from a couple who had also stayed at Nibbon who, amazingly had two girls also called Sula and Rona ! Their parents were staying at Vementry at the moment and suggested we should meet up. The few hours we had there were great, which included a walk which took several hours around the coastline. At one spot, we came across a feeding Otter and had some cracking views as it came out of the water and fed on a very large crab it had caught.


Thursday 17 June 2010

Sumburgh Puffins and Unst Otters

The end of the last week was fairly quiet with virtually no birds around. Both Ian (my father in law) and myself had gone down with a nasty stomach bug which curtailed our wanderings around the island somewhat. At  the end of last week I did a day and a half's work and Ian left to travel back south. Even though he didn't  get to visit either Hermaness, Fetlar or The Keen of Hamar, he was lucky to get seven otters at fairly close range (3+3+1) - which were more than I had seen recently !

On Sunday, I drove down to Sumburgh Airport to pick up my sister who was visiting for a week. The weather down there was rather changeable - sunshine and showers - but it didn't ruin my enjoyment of being there or stop photography. There were a few puffins coming in with fish for their young and there were also quite a few just sitting around in the rain showers.

The next few days were spent taking Carol around Unst and showing her some of my favourite places. The first evening we were lucky to see 3 otters from the house fishing in the bay - although they were distant.

The following day we walked to Hermaness to see the thousands of sea birds that  nest there. The first part of the morning was slightly overcast (better light for photographing black and white  seabirds) but after 'lunch' the cloud cleared it was actually quite warm. On the way back, we were again lucky to see otters but this time at close range as they fed along the shoreline. Returning home after the school run, I had a walk to one of my favourite spots, a place that I'd not been to for several months. The wind (and light) was wrong, but it is always a nice walk anyway. On the way back, I came across a very obliging Arctic Skua on one of the beaches which allowed me a fairly close approach and remained for quite a while until the light had dipped below a hillock and cast a shadow on the beach.

Wednesday morning was taken up with Rona's sports day at school, so we didn't get a walk until after lunch. Sometimes, spur of the moment decisions pay off; this time I thought we'd take a look at Westing before I did the afternoon school run. We stopped at the end of the road and as we chatted and put our boots on, I saw two otters fishing 100yds away along the shoreline. Fortunately for us, they were heading our way and so, grabbing the camera I made my way down the beach each time they dived . Much of the time, the 500 was too powerful unless it was a head shot as one of them ate its catch.

After what seemed like ages but was probably only 7 or 8 minutes, the otters swam back past me (around 20ft away) and then went up onto the beach, past my sister and on into a dense patch of freshwater vegetation. I'm sure that these were two of the three otters that we saw here last week.

For whatever reason I do not know, but when ever I go off of the island, something turns up. Recently it was the Little Ringed Plover at Skaw, this was then followed shortly after by the Black Stork at Burrafirth. As we drove over the top of Coldback Hill down into Baltasound this afternoon, I told my sister this, then shortly after I got a call from Brydon to say a Dotterel had been seen in Baltasound ! Unfortunately by the time that several of us had got to see it, the bird had moved from a roadside beach over to the Houb which is not so close. Hey ho, - a large crop of a lovely bird -


Tuesday 8 June 2010

May seemed like a long month

I can't believe where the time has gone during the last month and that it has been 3 weeks since my last post - very sorry about that. The last couple of weeks in May and the first week in June have been rather busy with both a few visitors and also the better half being away twice. The unfavorable weather continued with mainly westerlies and not too much sunshine, although during the last week it did turn out nice. I didn't do too much in the way of photography, with most of my pictures being 'record' shots of the occasional migrant.

Even though my 'drive' in picture taking is in the broad sense, natural history, I'm always looking for other shots of almost anything. One such picture is below which I took while having my 'taxi drivers hat on' ie ferrying children either to or from friends etc. I was traveling through Uyeasound early one evening when I saw this small boat tied up at the old harbour. The colour and reflections caught my eye, so I grabbed a couple of shots - before the girls upset the residents with volume of the car stereo as they waited for me. Looking at it now, I thing it would have been better if it had been taken 15 minutes earlier to get a better colour on the water, but unfortunately the boat has now been moved. I did have to clone out a few distracting ropes hanging down however.

 A few days later, I was returning from Lerwick with my daughters when I got a phone call from Rory to say there was a Little Ringed Plover at Skaw. It often seems to be the case, when I go off the island, something turns up. It was a rather damp, overcast afternoon, so I was hoping that the bird would remain - until at least I got there ! LR Plover may not cause too much of a stir down in southern England, but up here it was quite a good bird to find - in fact there had only been nine records on Shetland up until 2002. By the time we had arrived back on Unst and I had got over to Skaw, it was gone half five and the light was pretty poor. My first reaction is to grab a few record shots and then given the opportunity, get as close as possible without disturbing the bird. Having got the first few distant shots, I crawled along the beach on my stomach for a least 50yds. I was using a bean bag to support the camera etc but wet sand and camera equipment don't really make good companions, so I should have used my own version of the -   - which is a small aluminum frying pan and does the job just fine. Despite this, I manages to get pretty close to the bird without disturbing it. I think you'll agree that the bird looks pretty miserable.

Little Ringed Plover

Over the next week and a half, we had a number of friends visiting, four of which were keen photographers and two others were on a tour with a certain wildlife tour company from Shetland (who will remain nameless). I went out with Steve, Graham, Alison and Sue as much as I could but school runs and other stuff restricted it a bit. The first trip to Fetlar was rather a washout with total wind and rain making much of the photography difficult. Over the next week, I had return trip to Fetlar (still no Phalaropes showing) and a second trip to Hermanes and fortunately the weather cleared up and (I think) a good time was had by all.

 While calling in to a house to see about doing  a small job in Baltasound, I had the surprise of seeing two Common Cranes land in a ploughed field several hundred yards way. Unfortunately, the sound of the car starting up frightened them and the birds took off and soared skywards. Following their direction of flight, I stopped outside Skiboul Stores and managed a number of shots - unfortunately in to the light.

It's almost certain that these are the same birds that were here before and have also be down on Mainland. Putting on my 'garden listers hat', I quickly drove back to the house to put them on the 'garden list' - job done !

I think that like most photographers  of wildlife, I try and get some behavioral shots of birds etc 'doing' something rather than just sitting. Turnstones are in my top five list of favourite waders so are a target for this type of shot. Recently I was over at Skaw and was watching a solitary one feeding amongst the sea weed high above the tide line. The wind was blowing a little and as the bird did what they are known for doing - turning over stones, sea weed or other beached items, the wind blew it in to the air. Action shot, I thought. Not so easy to achieve though, in a limited amount of time (half an hour). Either the bird was looking away, or there was no catch-light in the eye or the stuff it was turning blew the wrong way. Hey ho. Out of several dozen pictures these were a couple of the better ones. Maybe if I put a catch-light in the eye of one, but then that's cheating - isn't it ?

As I've mentioned in previous posts, migrants have been fairly thin on the ground with only a scattering of birds coming through on Unst. One bird which has caused a bit of a stir has been a Black Stork which arrived last week. This bird, as it turns out, was ringed in 2007 in Hungary and has wandered far and wide in the time, even getting as far as the Outer Hebrides. Amazingly, a bird was seen flying over the north of Skye on the 31st May and then, presumably the same bird was recorded on Unst on the 2nd of June. My first views were of a fairly distant bird on the foreshore at Burra Firth, but over the next couple of days I had more sightings on Unst - one on a roadside loch less than 50yds from the car. We saw it as we were driving to catch the ferry and my first reaction was to get a picture etc, but then when I thought about it I didn't try for two reasons. One was that there was a friend on Unst who hadn't seen it, and secondly, as the window wasn't working in the car that I was driving, it would have meant opening the car door which would have certainly spooked the bird and may possibly have not been seen again.

Black Stork and Bonxie

Shortly after seeing this bird in flight, I phoned a couple of visiting birders (who have been coming here annually for 6 or 7 years) to check what was about. When the call was answered, it was answered in a whisper - 'I think we've got a biggie' . To cut a long story short, Stef and Ash had found a first for Shetland, an Iberian Chiffchaff. Very difficult to identify by plumage alone it is helped greatly by having a distinctive call and song - on plumage alone, I'd have passed it off as a Willow Warbler ! 

 Iberian Chiffchaff in Haligarth

Over the last few days of slight south easterlies, we've had a few birds drop in including at least 3 Golden Orioles on Unst on one day, a first summer Common Rosefinch, several Lesser Whitethroats and a cracking Great Reed Warbler over at Burrafirth. However, it has to be said that most folks only saw it in flight (including me) as it was very flighty.

Yesterday, Dennis a friend of mine from Mainland, Ian (my father-in-law) and I had a day around the island. We had been hoping for maybe seeing the stork again or even the G R Reed', however things don't always go to plan and the best we could find was a few of the more common migrants such as Lesser and Common Whitethroat, Blackcap and Spot' Fly'. The last port of call was Westing and here we did get to have close views of two feeding otters and also saw 3 or 4 feeding Neesicks (Porpoise).