Wednesday 26 January 2011

Dawn of a new day

A 'New Dawn'

  The sunrise last week (19th Jan) was not only a beautiful sunrise on a new day, it was also significant as, while I was taking the shot across Balta Sound, a removal lorry was about to arrive at the house in the centre of the picture with our furniture from storage. After several frustrating months of waiting for surveyors, Christmas holidays etc etc, we are about to embark on new chapter here on Unst. We've bought a large old house (part of it goes back 300 years) with just over 8 acres of land (grassland, wet marshy ground and frontage to the rocky shoreline) Apart from it being a fantastic family home, the wildlife possibilities are going to be great. During the first visit in early October, Catriona and I walked down to the shore, only to see an otter feeding on the small stone jetty totally unaware of our presence - it must have been an omen of good luck. Returning there again just before Christmas with our girls, Sula and I walked down there and saw two otters (a mother and mature cub) which were most probably the two that I see over the other side of the sound at Buness on a fairly regular basis from the roadside. Hopefully over the next few months I'll get some shots off them and then I can compare the facial markings of the animals. Apart from jobs to do on the house, I've got a number of 'projects' to undertake outside in the (very large) 'garden' - I'll post more on these as time goes on.

  The day started with a lovely sunrise, and ended with a beautiful moon-rise - which was full. I'd not heard of it before, but the full moon in January is called the 'Wolf Moon' by some native Americans - from the packs of wolves that howl outside of their villages. Sula had been invited to go back to school to view it through a large telescope that the school had been lent, so I stayed at home to try and get some shots. While it did show quite well, there was a constant drift of thin cloud which reduced the clarity a bit. Unfortunately for the children at the school (which is only 6 miles away) it was totally obscured by cloud.

  It's one of the many great things about Uyeasound school, when anything interesting or exiting happens like this, then the teachers/parents will let them experience what ever the occasion is. Whether it's dolphins in the bay, frog-spawn in a nearby pool of water or even a nice sunny day, they'll often go out and enjoy it - and learn something at the same time. Last summer, the school was inspected by the HMIE (school inspectors) and passed with flying colours - coming out as being amongst some of the very best schools in the whole of Scotland. Now as I write, the school is threatened with closure by the SIC (Shetland Isles Council), sometimes, things just don't make sense ! Please find some time to sign the petition here to try and keep it open .

  As far as unusual birds go, it's business as usual here. The Little Auk and Velvet Scoter are still at Norwick, the Glaucous Gull is still around Lamba Ness (also one at Uyeasound) and the Coot is also still at Uyeasound. At the weekend, the girls and I went out for a while in the car and while we didn't find anything rare, we did come across another one of what is becoming one of my favourite birds - a 'blue phase' Fulmar at Lamba Ness. I saw one there a while ago and this one performed just a well, constantly coming back around past us along the cliff line giving Sula some really good views. The pictures below are from the last sighting a few months ago..........

'blue phase' Fulmar

  This morning (25th Jan) after a meeting at Uyeasound school, I took a quick look at Westing bay. The wind had changed direction so now there were no gulls feeding in the breaking waves and it was quite calm. I was surprised to see a winter plumaged Red-throated Diver fishing in the bay not far from the shoreline. It seemed to have a feeding pattern in that it moved around the shoreline to a certain point and then it would return to the other end and do it all over again. After it had returned to the far end for the 2nd or 3rd time, each time it dived, I made my way down to the kelp on the waters edge and waited hopefully. I've seen before, even out of breeding season, Redthroats' can be quite shy and will move away if it spots you, so I didn't hold out much hope of it coming very close. I was very pleasantly surprised when the bird came and fished not too far away and even though it could clearly see me, wasn't too bothered. How nice it would have been with the sun shining !....................

Red-throated Diver in winter plumage

  As I sat amongst the kelp, a number of Turnstones fed along the shore and a several more were using a regular high tide bathing pool for a 'wash and brush-up'. With these little waders, I've often found that if I'm sitting down waiting as they arrive, they often don't bother too much apart from the occasional little call if they think they've walked too close to me.

  Last week I had to go to Mainland to get a couple of things sorted on one of the cars, when I do take the car in I've always had a courtesy car and that day was no different. What was different however, was that I didn't have anything pressing to do in Lerwick. For over a week a Rough-legged Buzzard had been showing well almost daily near the ferry terminal at Toft so I decided to go and spend the time (over 3 hours) having a look for it. Despite, the weather being quite good, there was a fairly strong breeze blowing and it was also quite cold. I was not alone, as there were 5 or 6 other birders looking out for the bird - the more eyes the more chance of it being seen I suppose. Sadly, on that day it didn't show, but it was seen again several times over the next few days.

  For me, Wednesdays are the best day for going off island, as both girls are at the same school for the day which gives me a bit more time between the school run. This morning (26th Jan) I had thought about going down to Toft again but in the end decided against it. Returning home around 2pm, I had a call from Brydon to say he'd just seen a Rough-leg' below Valla Field over on the west side. Despite a migraine, I didn't need to give it any thought ! The old track up there (which used to go to a radar dome) has now been officially closed as the surface is not in a good state of repair - some very deep pot holes etc - and not a place to be if you're not in a 4x4 with good ground clearance ! Driving some of the way, I parked up and went to the cliff edge to look down into the valley below. I thought that if the bird was perched I'd not have much hope of finding it as the ground and vegetation (heather and rough grass) would easily camouflage a perched bird from this distance. I started to cast the bins' over likely looking vantage points - ie fence posts, boulders etc, finally I found the bird sitting on the gable of a ruined croft hundreds of feet below me and also some way away from the base of the hill. I took a couple of 'record' shots and decided to put the telescope on the tripod for a better look..............

Full frame, 500mm+1.4 converter - it's the blob on the right gable !

  As I looked at the gable through the scope', I could see the bird had gone - blast ! Scanning around again with my bins' I was suddenly aware out of the corner of my eye, of a large bird coming along the hillside to my right, it was a Rough-leg'. Surely it couldn't have gained this much height and travelled this distance in such a short time ? In my panic to get some pictures, I'd not got the focusing set to how I normally use it and so, I kept loosing the focus on the bird as it soared at eye level in front of me - double blast ! The bird flew south along the hillside and fortunately for me, it turned and came back again. By now I'd got the camera on the tripod again and tried to compose myself let alone the camera ! I managed to get a few shots in focus as the bird turned and flew south again. This time it was joined by another bird - another Rough-leg'. The birds soared for a while until one flew south and the other headed off down to the sea cliffs far below............

 I'd never seen a Rough-leg in the UK before so this was an especially good occasion, so many thanks to Brydon (once again) for going back there again to look. For photography the light wasn't particularly good - I was looking and photographing into the light which was fading, so, if the weather is good for tomorrow, I'll certainly go and give it another go.


Sunday 16 January 2011

  Just a quickie today as I've not really been out and done much - and won't be, as over the next few weeks I'm going to be VERY busy!

   Just a mention of a new Simon King (and others) website that's just gone live called 'Wildlife Whisperer'. I'd been given a shout that it was about to go live by my friend Brydon who is one of the 'Wildlife Whisperers'. Take a look here and see what you think, from what I've seen so far it looks really good.



Tuesday 11 January 2011

Back to 'normal'

   Well, it's back to 'normal' what ever that is - the kids went back to school after almost 3 weeks off (several extra days due to the weather) This morning  (10th Jan) was looking like it was going to be a cracking day, looking out as it got light around 8am, it was clear and frosty - magic. After a change of plans, I thought I'd take a trip up north and see if the Little Auk and Velvet Scoter that Brydon found yesterday  were still at Norwick. Going through Haroldswick, there were double figures of Common Seals around the north end of the beach with a number hauled out, I parked on the roadside and watched them from the car for quite a time. I really hope that they continue to do this later in the year when the sun moves around as at the moment they are often back-lit. The ones below were taken yesterday at the same spot in not so nice weather.............

  Arriving over at Norwick later, the Velvet Scoter was still present but unfortunately some way off shore out in the bay, so the pic below is just a 'record' shot............

female type Velvet Scoter

  Whilst looking at the scoter, I picked up the Little Auk in the bins' just off of 'The Taing' (a small island close to the shore) Making my way around the back of the island I managed to get a bit closer and also get some more record shots. If the tide had been right, I'd have stayed longer with a hope that it may have come closer but I didn't want to get cut off by the incoming tide.........

 Little Auk

  Despite that it was now still only 2pm,  the sun was quite low and down at Easter Loch in Uyeasound there were some lovely colours on the loch. The Whooper Swans were now restricted to a relatively small area of unfrozen water to feed and so were quite aggressive to a pair of Mute Swans that were also on the loch............

On such a beautiful still day,  the calling of the swans is one of natures most evocative sounds, even more so when its a family 'discussion'............

  Most of the other duck species have moved away and only a few Goldeneye remain, some going onto the sea nearby to feed. I'd even noticed the swans pursuing these ducks from patches of open water.....................

Drake Goldeneye

  Returning back north for a while, I set off out again mid afternoon to get my eldest from school in the south of the island. Taking an indirect route, I went around the north side of Balta Sound just as the sun was going below the hillside....................

South over Balta Sound

  Today, was also another fairly nice - although cold -day. I went and tried for some more shots of the Little Auk but despite hiding myself amongst the rocks there, it didn't come over to my side of the bay. The Velvet Scoter was also around along with a Redthroated Diver, but they were even further out than yesterday. The Little Grebe was still around Buness and the Coot was still down at Uyeasound - regular but uncommon birds up here. One of the few pictures I took today was of this Curlew at Buness. The ice is on the seaweed as the tide goes out.......

Curlew at Buness


Thursday 6 January 2011

More Snow

 Sula went back to school yesterday and Rona was due back today - well at least she was due to be, until we got 'the call' this morning. Just after eight we had the call to say that due to snow being forecast for this afternoon, there would be no school on Unst today - Baltasound or Uyeasound (I don't know about the rest of Shetland) So, once the disappointment had subsided (by us and the girls) we set about a few chores around the house including the taking down of Christmas decorations. We'd had a bit of snow but not really enough to close the schools as far as we were concerned. It looked like it was going to brighten up so at around 10.30am we set off out in the direction of Westing. There'd been a sighting of a Hen Harrier there yesterday so that was as good as an excuse as anything.

  The was quite a blow coming in from the west, creating quite a swell and large breakers on the beach there. Around the bay were 150+ gulls of several species - Herring, Common, Black-headed, Great Black-backed and a solitary immature Glaucous Gull. This bird was very obvious due to its uniform biscuit colour and no black wingtips. The gulls were obviously attracted by an abundant food source in the water, but I've no idea what it may have been.

Glaucous Gull

  As we sat in the car watching the gulls, I caught a fleeting glimpse of an otter diving just out beyond the gulls, it appeared to be moving away from us and so I assumed we'd been rumbled. Fortunately I was wrong, not long after the otter appeared again but with a flat flatfish and was heading for the shore.................

  It came out on the beach not too far away and gave my girls and I a great view for 15 or 20 minutes as it fed on the fairly large fish.

The salt spray is a pain on the camera lens

The ever attendant 'Hoodie'


  Once the otter had fed for quite a while and also the girls had been watching it for a good time, I decided I'd try and get a bit closer and if in doing so I spooked it, at least it would have had a good feed. The was very little cover apart from the shingle bank but at least the wind was right (but not good for blowing the salt on the front lens element though) and also I could approach  from the right side and be hidden until the last moment when I put the camera over the crest of the shingle bank. Unfortunately as I crawled to the edge and looked over, most of the feeding otter was obscured by shingle in the foreground and raising my self higher was out of the question. I took a few pictures until when, after the otter had finished feeding, it looked up my direction and then retreated in to the sea (must have seen my outline). It didn't got too far out and instead of disappearing completely (as they often do when disturbed) it swam slowly down the shoreline and out of view.

Rumbled !



Tuesday 4 January 2011

And a Good Time was had by all !

Firstly, a Happy New Year to everyone.

  Just after Christmas - fortunately due to a cancellation by someone else - the four of us headed off down to Sumburgh Head to stay in the self-catering, old lighthouse keepers cottage. Sumburgh is well known for its breeding birds in the summer (particularly Puffins) but what would it be like in the depths of winter ? Well, thankfully, the snow had thawed just a day before we were due to go there which enabled us to actually get up to it - a very difficult task if there is snow or ice on the very steep hill towards the top. The cottage was very pleasant, warm and cosy and once inside there was virtually no feeling of a gale going on outside. It sleeps seven (2 per room and 1 single) and during the season is very popular due to the puffins and other seabirds being literally just outside the cottage windows. Reading through the visitors book, there were generally many favourable comments but several did stand out. One was saying that the facilities were very basic (not at all), another was bemoaning the lack of a pub (I reckon they put that in for a joke) and another was complaining about the lack of puffins - in NOVEMBER !

  We had three days of quite good weather (it was the end of December after all) and managed a walk every day. Bird wise, I had two Woodcocks, a flock of Fieldfare and a Waxwing heading southwards out to sea (towards Fair Isle) Down below, there were the every present Fulmars, a few Gannets flying past and around 40 or 50 Guillemots both over the sea and on one of their nesting stacks (apparently they normally start to return in January).

  Whilst there, I got the usual call from Brydon, he'd found a good bird on Unst, typical ! This time it was a Rough-legged Buzzard. They are pretty uncommon up here and I'd never seen one in Britain let alone Shetland although I have seen them in Denmark and Sweden. Lets hope it's still around on the 1st Jan which will be the first chance of getting out to look for it. Whilst at the lighthouse, we had a number of 'drop in' visitors which was really nice and added to the festive season.

  Returning home on New Years eve, it was a fairly quiet evening with just two friends coming around to see in the New Year along with the four of us (even our girls managed to keep awake until midnight).

  Jan 1st arrived and off I went in search of the Rough Legged Buzzard. Up at Valla Field (a high ridge on the west side of the island) it was blowing a hoolie and very cold. I had a quick walk around the top (only a solitary Snow Bunting) and then decided to head down to Westing and maybe look at the hill from below. There was nothing much doing and time was running out so it was off back home just before lunch time. Just as I arrived back home I got a call from Brydon, he was now watching TWO Rough-legged Buzzards from below Valla Field. Sula and I headed off back up there and within 20 minutes we were standing at the edge of Valla Field high above the coast looking down on Brydon who was giving us directions to where he last saw the birds. Sadly, despite much searching, we didn't see them; the birds had 'melted away'.................

Somewhere out there ? Looking south from Valla Field (camera phone)
 Over the next couple of days I spent a number of hours up there - including one day where I got very, very wet. I was always led to believe that raptors don't like flying in the rain, so maybe it was hunkered down somewhere watching me. In the end, the only birds of note from several days of wandering around up there and looking were 3 Woodcock and a Snow Bunting......................
Sunset towards Bluemull Sound

     Wandering around the coastline it never ceases to amaze me at the power of the sea. On this particular occasion along a cliff top north of Westing, I came across a piece of timber about 10 feet long and about 6 inches in diameter (like a short telegraph pole) It was high on the cliff top and had clearly been thrown up by a storm. I don't know the height of the cliffs there but from the camera phone pictures below, it may give you an idea..........

  This morning (4th Jan) looked promising, beautiful clear sky and a frost. There was a solar eclipse forecast but due to cloud on the southern horizon we couldn't see it.  At 9.30am, Sula and I went to fill up with fuel before heading up the hill again. With the fuel increases recently - and another one due in the near future - we are now paying £1.45 ltr for petrol and diesel is a bit more ( and people think it's steep down south) such is the price to pay for living in 'paradise' !

   Up on the hill it was a relatively windless morning, but cool. Sula and I sat down on amongst some rocks with a good view up and down the coastline for around an hour and a half and nothing showed. All we say was another Woodcock as it rose up from a track-side ditch. Along the escarpment, lots of Ravens called as they displayed to one another and chased off intruders who ventured into their air space. Sadly it seems like the buzzards have moved on, maybe just a bit further up or down the coast. Over the next few days, I'll have a look around the north west corner of the island and who knows I may come across one. Fingers crossed.