Saturday 27 November 2010

Winter's here

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

Water Rail at Skaw

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

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

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

 Looking SE towards home at 11.45am


Tuesday 23 November 2010

Another 1st for Brydon !

  It happened yet again, going off island on Sunday and another good bird turns up (someone said maybe I should go away more often). Not long after getting back from picking Catriona up from Lerwick after her trip away, I get a call from Brydon saying he had an interesting pipit at Norwick - it was now just after 3 and the light was starting to go. Getting over there 15 minutes later - the sun had gone down behind the hill - and Brydon and Mike P were dashing around trying to relocate the bird, it was a Water Pipit. Water Pipits are regular visitors down in southern England, but this was a first for Shetland (the 446th species apparently) They soon re-found the bird  feeding amongst the seaweed up on the beach. The light was very poor -  1600 ISO only gave me around 1/10th second exposure, useless for a long lens even on a tripod. Maybe in the future, I can tell my kids that this was from my 'creative phase'    :)

 ISO1600, 1/4 second @ f5.6

  Going over yesterday, on arriving I discovered that the bird hadn't been seen for over a hour, I thought it was going to be a long morning - and it was ! The bird basically gave everyone the run around and for some, it took them almost 3 hours to get to see it well. When it did return to the beach it was constantly harassed by the Rock Pipits which then made the bird fly off over into the marshy area of Norwick Meadows. The light was again pretty poor and even at midday I was only getting 1/160 second @f5.6 using 1600 ISO. Also having to crop it didn't give me much chance of a decent picture.

Water Pipit

  Going over to have another look this morning, when I arrived Dougie was already there having a look around, shortly followed by Mike S. We did see the bird but it was even more flighty than yesterday - even more Rock Pipits on the beach - which resulted in not getting any shots or seeing the bird well like yesterday. The wind was bitterly cold coming in off of the sea with frequent showers of rain, hail or sleet which didn't make for pleasurable birding. We stuck it for a couple of hours and then headed off for a cup of tea.

  Despite the low light, there were a few opportunities to get a few landscape type shots - although I often tend to just quickly grab a few shots before moving on as its usually when I'm heading off on the school run. Below are just three from yesterday and today.

The Houb, Baltasound
Buness House, Baltasound
Belmont House from the road to Westing


Friday 19 November 2010

Quiet times .................

Well, it is November !

  Bird wise it's now fairly quiet - if you discount the noise made by the hundreds of Greylags' around the island. There was a Great Northern Diver in Balta Sound at the weekend which I presume was the same one from last week, this time I managed to get it on my garden list - in fact I saw it from the living room. The only other bird of note for me was a Moorhen near the Houb in Baltasound at the weekend. I've seen numerous sightings of Merlin around the island, and all of them were either immature birds or females. I saw two individuals one day, one was sitting  on the Uyeasound road sign and would have made a nice photo if only it had been earlier in the day when the light was better - it was at 3pm and the light was going rapidly. In over two years of being here, I think the number of male Merlin I've seen is probably still in single figures.

  Last Thursday evening (11th) at around 10pm, I got a call from Brydon to take a look outside as the aurora was starting to show. Sure enough, over behind Baltasound there was a green glow in the sky with faint 'curtains' of white light hanging down. Ten minutes later I was off over to Lamba Ness with the idea of trying to capture something on the camera. For quite a while now I've had several other locations in mind, but tonight I decided to head for Lamba Ness. The only problem with Lamba Ness is that looking north, there is a marker light over on the end of the Holm of Skaw which would ruin any pictures due to it flashing every minute or so. My way around this is to use one of the several ruined buildings at Lamba Ness to block out the light from it and also to provide a silhouette to add foreground interest . So, camera set up on the tripod, continuous 30 second exposures, ISO400, f5.6, lens set at 18mm focal length and then off back to the car. It was really nice to see - the best I've seen yet - but unfortunately I got the exposure wrong! It really did seem a bright sky but sadly the pictures were under exposed by several stops. Also what I hadn't noticed was a bank of cloud that had crept in from the east out of my line of vision (the camera was placed down the hill and out of view) It is a learning process and I learnt quite a lot that evening. As I left at around 12-30am, the light show was fading although there was a final flurry of white 'curtains as I drove up the road. The picture below is one of over a hundred taken at Lamba Ness, not very good but it may give you a bit on an idea - must keep practicing.............

   I was talking to a photographer down on Mainland at the weekend and he was saying that when there is a good 'show' he is often able to shoot at around 1/8th second @ 400 ISO as there is so much light. Some photographers who shoot auroras suggest that the norm' would be to shoot in JPEG and not Raw as processing several hundred Raw files would take too long, others say the opposite so I'm going to experiment with both. There a several things that can be done with the results - if they come out :) - either individual still shots, stack all of the pictures together to produce 'star trails' (not so effective for auroras) or combine a series of shots to produce a short avi film. I was experimenting with this last night and 284 images produced an avi of around 17 seconds (this also depends on the 'frame rate) To do these things doesn't take a genius as that's been done already by the software developer who produced this free piece of software called Startrails. As I'm 'grounded' this week - Catriona is away again in Ethiopia (hi Catriona) - I set up the camera outside the house try a different exposure - I changed the ISO to a higher one. It's not an ideal location as there is quite a lot of light pollution from the village (far too many street lights) and the neighbours security light went on and off at the slightest gust of wind, but again it was good to experiment. The 'test' exposure  from by the house is here

  Like I said earlier, bird wise its pretty quiet and after seeing scores of Snow and Lapland Buntings last month, it's now down to just the odd one or two around the island. There seems to be an awful lot of Greylags around at the moment, a fact which is now causing concern amongst some of the crofters as more and more birds are staying on to breed rather than heading back north. From what I've been told, it is the breeding birds which are eating the fresh green grass in the spring which is normally eaten by the livestock that is causing a problem. There are suggestions now that there should be firstly a systematic count this winter and then, if needed maybe control of some sort.

Greylags on a sunnier day !

  Photographically it's been a quiet week as well. The weather has been rather dull, very windy and occasionally wet. There had been a prediction for an aurora a few nights ago but it didn't really materialize - thankfully as it was a fairly cloudy night. Tonight (19th Nov) was the third night there has been no Northlink sailings between Shetland and Aberdeen due to rough weather. The problem has been the wind direction in Aberdeen rather than up here. At Aberdeen, if the wind is in the south-east and there is a large sea swell, getting in to the harbour can be very difficult or even dangerous. I believe that in the last 24hrs, only 2 or 3 ships have been in or out and these were powerful north sea oil rig supply boats. Up here on Unst, off of Lamba Ness there was quite a swell which according to Magic Seaweed  was only around 10-14ft but it certainly looked higher than that at times.

A 'nice' Autumnal day at Lamba Ness

Skaw, Unst


Wednesday 10 November 2010

Birds and Football supporters

  What on earth have they got in common I hear you ask ? Directly not a lot, indirectly they do have something in common. Like football, birding (or birdwatching) has thousands of followers who go about their 'passion' without causing any problems to others and you never hear anything about them. Then occasionally there is trouble at a 'match' and the whole 'game' gets tarnished with the same brush so to speak. This is also true with birding. There are thousands of amateur birders who go out recording birds, their movements, breeding etc whose data has been invaluable in widening our knowledge of the bird world. Then, there are the fanatical twitchers. I am not going to knock 'twitching', each to their own and I certainly do go and look at rarities here in the North Isles; however, like football there are a few that spoil it for the majority. I don't know how many people saw the BBC4 program the other week on twitching, but personally I think that program will do a lot of harm to birders in general as anyone who has an interest in birds will be classed as a manic twitcher ('we' already are by a lot of folk !) During the last 6 weeks, there have been a lot of visiting birders up here as September and early October is the prime time for migrants passing through Shetland (if the wind has been right). Even though we've only been here for three autumns, this year seemed busier than the last two and many folk said it was one of the busiest times for many years. The general prediction is that Shetland is going to become the 'new Scillies' ie more and more folk will come here looking for rarities than go to the Scilly Isles which has been the norm' for many, many years.

  I was up in the north of the island in early October with a friend when a car pulled up. Three guys got out, they then walked straight  through the gate in to the croft - and the crofter was at home ! I suggested that it maybe wasn't such a good idea and thankfully they agreed and said they hadn't 'thought about it'. On another occasion a friend of mine was returning home in the south of Unst one afternoon, on going around to the back door of her house, she discovered several guys with binoculars and scopes standing in her garden. The guys were very embarrassed and apologetic and while she didn't mind birders looking in her garden, she'd prefer to be asked first. She also pointed out that while she didn't mind, there are a number of folk that wouldn't have been happy about it. Generally, most folk are happy with the birders that come up as it brings a much needed source of extra income and in fact at one location, there is a sign up, pointing folk up to a good birding place by their house. The opposite has happened at another place where a crofter has said he is going to stop 'twitchers' going on the land around his croft (that would be difficult under the Scottish access laws anyway). As the numbers of visiting birders increase, I think there is going to be much more 'friction' before things get better. What's the answer ?, I'm not sure. There is already a 'Code of Conduct' at the Nature in Shetland website, but how many people would bother read this before arriving here is anyones guess - but they should.

  Another story I heard recently, was regarding a bird photographer who was photographing a rare shrike. The story I heard was that shrike had a 'food larder' (I think the prey was a Blackcap) and had placed it in the middle of a bush. So I'm told, the photographer then moved the prey to the outside of the bush and then pruned off distracting branches from around it. It's not something I'd be happy about doing, maybe it's the 'done thing' nowadays ?

 Things have been quiet here the last few days (apart from the weather a couple of nights ago). I went out on Sunday and saw 3 Slavonian Grebes in Balta Sound (this is now 4) and also a Great Northern Diver. I went out again yesterday (9th Nov) and took a walk around the head at Lamba Ness and found a 'blue phase' Fulmar soaring around on the updrafts at the cliff edge. I believe this race is much more common as you move north and it was one of the birds on my 'hit list' when I first came here. For me they are a sort of 'mythical' bird and although it's my second one here (I had one in the same place last December - maybe it's the same one?) it was a real treat to see. It didn't stay around for long however, but I did manage to fire off a few shots in less than favourable light.

'Blue' Fulmar

  Also here was the Glaucous Gull that had been around for a week or so, but it took off with a large flock of other gulls and then landed again half a mile away.

Wednesday 10th Nov

  After dropping the girls at school, I had a quick look at Westing (ten minute drive) there were only a few seals bobbing around and a flock of Starlings and two Hoodies feeding on the beach. Heading back along the road, an LBJ caught my eye as I passed a fence post close by the road. Pulling up quickly, I saw the bird briefly and identified it as a female 'start' - but which one, either a Redstart or a Black Redstart ? - the latter is more likely for this time of year. Unfortunately, as I got out of the car, the bird took off and flew across a field and out of sight - another one that got away ! Back up in the north of the island, I saw the Shore Lark which has been around Haroldswick for a couple of weeks at least. The light was pretty flat but I did get a few shots (largish crop)

Shore Lark

  Heading over to Lamba Ness, I drove down the road slowly checking the fields as I went. I hesitated where the road passes between two walls (no gate) and there siting on the wall less than 30ft away was a cracking 'brown' Merlin (either an immature or female bird). I managed to get the passenger window down but, as usual, I couldn't get the angle and after around 30 seconds the bird flew off to a distant fence post. At the end of the road, I saw 9 feeding Snow Buntings and also a solitary Mealy Redpoll. Later in the afternoon as I was heading home, I saw the flash of a white rump on the roadside not far from the house, it was a Wheatear. It must be one of the last ones for the year up here, I saw one last week in Haroldswick - possibly the same bird ?

Looking south over Norwick Meadows

Monday 8 November 2010


Just a quickie for now. Just been browsing and came across this - about Waxwings on Fair Isle. Makes me green with envey.


Saturday 6 November 2010

The last of the Phals' ?

Thursday 4th November

  I went back to Westing to check if the Phalarope was still there, fortunately it was. The breakers coming in were throwing it around all over the place, but obviously due to the birds life style the bird took it all in its stride. The light was pretty good so I spent quite a lot of time sitting amongst the kelp (and getting funny looks from the sheep that were feeding on it) watching the bird feeding and taking lots of pictures. Below are a couple of my favourites from the morning that I think helps to create an impression of the conditions in which it feeds..........

Also along with the ever present Starlings were numerous Rock Pipits that seemed to be quite comfortable with me sitting there.

Rock Pipit

Friday 5th November

  The strong winds of the last few days have dropped off quite a lot, which is probably why the phalarope had gone from Westing. However, checking at Haroldswick later, I was surprised to see the other bird back there again. The sea was calm and the tide was out so I didn't stop to take any pictures. Going over to Skaw for the first time in over a week, I was really saddened to see a dead owl hanging from one of the electricity pylons. Taking a few pictures for ID purposes, it turned out to be a Short-eared Owl - which saddened me even more  as I don't have one on my Shetland list ! On the way back, I went to check a location that has been a roost for a Long-eared Owl in the past (the last two autumns at least). No L-e-O, but there was a cracking Merlin sitting in the lower branches less than 20ft away from the roadside. I drove past, turned around and got the camera ready. Rolling back down the road, the bird was still there but I couldn't get the angle from the car window. The bird didn't hang around and flew off along a ditch and landed on a fence post. Nonetheless, a favourite bird of mine and it was worth just sitting and watching it for a while.

Saturday 6th November

  I returned to Westing again this morning (no Phal) and headed off for a walk along the coast. It was quite a cold morning with occasional sleet/hail showers which really stung my face. When the sun did try and break through the light was really nice - but it didn't last for long until the next shower came through. An hour later on the way back, I spotted an otter fishing just off shore in some pretty wild water. I was sufficiently far enough away not to have been seen so, between dives, I moved down the cliff and also down wind of it. Not long after I got in to position and got a couple of pictures, it caught a crab and came out of the water but out of sight. Several minutes later, it climbed up to the top of the bank to where I'd past about 10 minutes previously. It had'nt even reached the top when it lifted its head and scented the air - I'd been rumbled. Once it had put its head over the top of the bank, it didn't stay long before quickly re-entering the water.

  Heading off back to Baltasound I had a brief view on the way back of an immature Peregrine - a scarce bird in these parts. Later I had a look up north and saw two Snow Buntings at Lamba Ness, two Chiffchaffs at Baltasound and a Shore Lark and a Lapland Bunting at Haroldswick.

Snow Bunting
  Later in the afternoon, I took a walk along the end of the road from our house just as the light was starting to go (4pm). Here I saw two otters together and a third one out in the sound. Even though I was down wind of the two otters, I was rumbled as they saw my outline and departed pretty quickly - I hadn't seen them emerged from the water to my right.


Wednesday 3 November 2010

Phalaropes and Otters

Tuesday 2nd November

  It was another nice start to the morning, so, once I'd dropped the kids off at school, I popped over to Haroldswick to check if the Phal' was still around. I was thinking that if it wasn't there again today, then it would probably have moved on. Scanning the shore as I drove around the bay, I was starting to think it had gone as there was no sign of it, then as I reached the north end of the beach I spotted it feeding with a few other shorebirds. Parking the car up, I made my way down through the huge pile of kelp that had been washed up by the rough weather to the waters edge. It was another one of those situations where I wanted plenty of light to give me a good shutter speed, but there was too much of it ! With the camera mounted on the tripod, I sat down in the slippery, slimy mess and waited in the hope that the bird would move along the waters edge towards me as it fed. Gradually the bird got nearer and I was treated to some cracking views as it fed vigorously in the breaking waves. The direction of the sun wasn't ideal but I didn't have any choice, if I waited until afternoon until it had come around for a better angle, the tide would have gone out even further and I'd not be able to get anywhere near enough. Hey ho. The one below is one of my favourites from the morning.

Grey Phalarope

  As I sat there amongst the rotting kelp, a number of of other birds passed by including this Purple Sandpiper. It passed me within 10ft and seemed totally at ease with me sitting there. I've seen waders with various 'deformities' to their bills before but not quite like this one - I know that the bill tips are quite flexible, but I'm sure this is a bit extreme.

Purple Sandpiper

Wednesday 3rd November

  During the night, we had a gale and driving rain for quite a while. I wasn't expecting it to be a nice morning but was surprised to see there was a little bit of brightness in the sky to the west. After dropping the girls off at school, I thought I'd take a look at the beach at Westing because as the winds had been coming from the south west, I thought that there may be something of interest on the beach - even if it was only seals 'bottling' in the surf. Pulling up, I immediately saw an otter fishing just below the turning area. A short while after as I was getting 'kitted up', a white car pulled up and parked close by over looking the beach. My first thought was 'that's b*******d it !'. Fortunately, they didn't stay long - most folk just turn the car around, look at the view, and then drive off again. The otter was still fishing just off shore, so between each dive I made my way along to a large rock for cover. The otter eventually came out not too far from me and luckily there was a strong wind blowing from it to me. It seemed to be following scent of another one and frequently stopped to scent mark etc, before finally entering the water again pretty much where it came out.

 Just to get a half decent shutter speed of 1/250 second to try and stop any movement, I had to set the camera to 1250 or 1600 ISO which didn't help in the quality stakes.

  As I sat there in the wind and, sometimes rain, numerous Starlings and several Hooded Crows came down on to the beach to feed on a plentiful supply of creatures amongst the seaweed on the beach.

Hooded Crow

 After lunchtime, I returned back to Westing to find an otter still fishing and just outside of the bay there was quite a big sea.

  Casting an eye along the breaking waves further along the beach, I had a very pleasant surprise of finding another Grey Phalarope. As I'd seen the one at Haroldswick at lunch time, I'd be very surprised if it was the same one, as Westing was almost 10 miles away. Compared to the relative calm of Haroldswick Bay, the water here was pretty rough and the phalarope was getting tossed about all over the place - certainly a tough little bird.

If you look carefully, the bird is in the centre

Grey Phal' at Westing (found and taken by me)
 You may be wondering why I've got one of my pictures on my blog with someone else's copyright logo on it. Well, often when I post pictures of birds that have been found by my friend Brydon Thomason, I 'repay' the find by giving him a bit of free 'advertising' so to speak. Brydon's logo has now become quite well known (and deservedly so). So much so, that someone has blatantly copied the design for their own watermark  for what ever their reason. As they say, 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'..................................


Monday 1 November 2010

Sunday 31st October

  I've often said that a lot of wildlife sightings here are often a matter of luck or just being in the right place at the right time. Certainly with Otters, unless you go out deliberately looking for them - and in doing so, the wind, tide etc has been checked beforehand - a lot of sightings are just luck. This can be deciding to take a particular route or even passing a place when the tide is just right. This happened this morning when I was on may way to see if the Grey Phalarope was still there. Quite often if a lone gull or crow is standing on a seaweed covered rock on the shoreline, there is usually food nearby and sometimes it's an otter feeding close by. One place where the road goes close to the shoreline, is a regular hunting spot for otters and today was one of those 'lucky days'. A 'hoodie' was standing on a rock with an otter feeding on a rather large piece of fish close by. Unfortunately, unless it's either early morning or late afternoon, you look straight into the light at this place which doesn't always make for good picture taking. Today there was only one 'hoodie' in attendance - often there are several and in the past I've seen 10 or 12 all trying to grab a piece of the action. On one occasion, there were two, each taking it in turn to distract the otter by pecking its rear, while the other one tried to grab some of the fish.

 The otters at this spot are used to cars or rather seeing the shape and will often look towards the road and will then continue - unless they catch a scent.

  Close by a female Redbreasted Merganser was preening on the shore, but once the otter re-entered the water, it kept a careful eye on it until the danger had past.

Female Redbreasted Merganser

  Over at Haroldswick, the phalarope was still there but as there was some dog walkers there I didn't stop although I did also see a late Wheatear.

Monday 1st November

  This morning was a beautiful morning with bright sunshine and hardly any wind. I dropped of Rona at school and was then stopped by a guy from Uyeasound - he'd just had two Waxwings in his garden and thought I'd like to know. As I'd got to go there to pick up my daughters best friend, I thought I'd take a look. Sadly no Waxwings, but the numbers of wildfowl on Easter Loch was growing daily. Returning back to Baltasound, I called in to Haligarth (with a slight hope there might be Waxwings, but none there) although I did see a Chiffchaff. Heading back towards the centre of the village, a bird flew up from the roadside and looked very lark-like. It was a Short-toed Lark, probably the one that's been around the north of the island for the last few weeks. Fortunately, the bird flew back over me and back along the roadside I'd just driven along. Luckily this road is a small 'loop' road, so I drove around to the other side and sat and waited. Fortunately there is a parking place on a bend which looks straight along the road to where the bird was feeding - and moving steadily towards me. It took over 20 minutes for the bird to get anywhere near enough just for a record shot and then suddenly it appeared in front of me and caught me totally by surprise. I hadn't even seen it take off, let alone fly in and land not too far from the car.

Short-toed Lark

  After the lovely start to the day, as I type this at 8.30 in the evening, the wind is blowing a real hoolie and the rain is lashing against the window. What's that saying about a 'red sky in the morning' etc etc ?