Thursday 28 July 2011

Lucky or what ?

Thurs 28th July
This morning I had a quick drive up to Lamba Ness to have a quick walk around the headland. I was surprised (and , selfishly a little disappointed) that I wasn't the only one there. Right down at the bottom corner was a car and with it a tent pitched just back from the cliff edge. It's the first time I've seen anyone camping down there and I don't think they'd have done it a few days ago when there was a big north easterly swell coming in. In the past I've seen waves breaking up on to the cliffs there right where the tent was pitched.

Well, here I am now sitting in Lerwick having a cup of tea and recovering from a big shock ! I don't mind admitting to mistakes and I just made a very big one. Sometimes living on a crime free island can lead you to get complacent at times. I just had a quick walk around town before checking in for the ferry and on returning up the hill to the car park I saw a car door open. My first thought was 'that's like our Audi and it's got a roof box just like ours'. Well of course it was ours, not only had I left it unlocked, but I'd left the door open as well ! Thankfully everything was still there (I won't say what was in the car but it was worth more than the car). If it had been at night it would had been a different matter but also if it had happened down south in the daytime I think things would have also been different.
The ferry journey was fairly ok, not brilliant as my cabin was the very last one at the stern of the ship right over the engine room, so all night long there was the very heavy vibration of the engine which kept me awake.

Friday 29th July
The ferry docked bang on time at 7am so I was soon on my way to find the main PO sorting depot on the outskirts of Aberdeen. I had to pick up a parcel which was being held there (more of that another time maybe) and so by 8.15 I was heading south - but feeling rather tired - it was going to be a long day. At first the drive went well as far as the Lake District, from just south of there the traffic built up and from then on it was like a slow moving car park - I'll never moan about the queue for the Bluemull ferry again when there are 20 cars lined up! I've heard it said numerous times regarding driving fast, 'that it's better to arrive 10 minutes late in this life, rather than 10 minutes early for the next one'; well, on the motorway a hearse went past me doing over 90 in the outside lane - at least it was empty I suppose.
I finally arrived in the North Cotswolds around six pm, so with the Aberdeen side trip and the traffic it added just over two hours to my normal journey time.
It was strange being back in the area again - not just the fact that there were trees - but more that it felt like a different country, rather than somewhere I'd lived for over 50 years. I've got two days here before I head for a night in London and then on to Spain.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Heading to the sun

  After several weeks of seemingly endless driving, I'm off for a two week break and even more driving ! Tomorrow I get the over night ferry south, drive south from Aberdeen, two days at my old home, travel to London, fly to Spain and then, HOLIDAY ! - and no driving. We'll be staying in the Spanish Pyrenees for just over a week which I'm really looking forward to. The last time I was in that area was way back in the 80s when I travelled down there by motorbike (a 1100 cc Honda Goldwing).

  Back home, the kittens were sorted with a house sitter (that should be cat sitter) and while I was sorting out the car I saw my first otter from the house in a long time (not counting the trailcam images). I went down the field to try and get some shots but the wind was wrong and it soon caught my scent and swam further offshore. Two nights ago I set the trailcam up and captured a close (and in turn quite brief - it only shows for 8 seconds) view of it down at the pool......

  By the time I return, summer will be over (for the breeding birds anyway) and the first few migrants will start to trickle through. There are already returning waders around such as Turnstones, Sanderling and Knot - last weekend I had an early Purple Sandpiper at Skaw. After that maybe a few Willow Warblers or maybe the odd one or two Crossbills until the autumn migration kicks in during early September.


Sunday 24 July 2011

Large Ships and Tall Ships

  As I mentioned in the last post, Sula was to dance at the Tall Ships opening ceremony in Lerwick and it would involve a lot of driving, well, it did. During the nine days of rehearsing and the actual day of the performance (and some 'side' trips with Rona) we did over 1200 miles - and that is only traveling on three islands, phew !

  While Sula was rehearsing, Rona and I had a few trips around including some trips down to Sumburgh Head. Thankfully, mostly the weather was fine (although not particularly sunny) and the only wet day enabled me to take Rona to Clickamin leisure centre for swimming.

  During the summer months, Lerwick harbour is very good for getting fairly close to three of the auks that occur around Shetland, these being Tystie (Black Guillimot), Guillimot and Razorbill. They often come in to the relatively sheltered waters around the quays to feed on the often large numbers of small fish. This time it was the turn of Razorbills, several were feeding and with a little patience, they would end up quite close to the pier. They had a feeding routine where they would move around the harbour in a rough circle, so, in time they would end up passing where I waited. Waiting would be fine if I was on my own, however this week I had Rona with me who, it has to be said, isn't always the most patient. Thankfully on this occasion, she was very interested in watching the birds and made a sort of game at guessing where and after how long, the bird would surface. This interest was added to by the fact we could see the bird swimming underwater at times pursuing its prey. One thing I did notice was that Razorbills seem to take an obvious breath just before they dive - obviously all diving birds do this, but not all are so noticeable. With the Razorbill, it actually opened its beak, made even more noticeable by its bright yellow gape. With Tysties, I've not seen this just a slight backward movement of the head before they go under..........................

.........on the look out
......deep breath

.................dive, dive, dive.

  Also around the harbour there are usually a number of Tysties although if the sun is shinning I find them a pain to photograph due to their bright wing panel, so I usually go for a head shot or try something different...........................

Tystie (virtually full frame)

  During the 'summer', Lerwick has numerous cruise ships visit the town in various shapes and sizes (and good for the local economy it is too). Last week the 'Marina' paid a visit and looked huge compared to some of the nearby boats, this ship however isn't the largest to visit having only around 1200 passengers (plus around 750 crew) with another ship due soon that can carry several thousand passengers..................

The 'Marina'

  Despite its size, the ship below - the 'Columbus' - 'only' carries 450 passengers ................
  As the days progressed, more and more sailing vessels arrived in port for the opening day of the Shetland leg of the tall ships race. At first it was smaller vessels and then as the day arrived, larger vessels arrived.............

'Pelican of London'
'Alexander von Humboldt'

 'Christian Radich'

  Due to the size of the ships and the obvious space restrictions (I find it difficult to walk on water ) it was quite difficult to convey the shear height of some of these vessels. My other regret (photographically) was to have forgotten my  filters to  help with the overcast sky, hey ho.

Ships at Victoria Pier

  Of the larger ships, they were roughly devided into two groups between Victoria Pier and Holmsgarth (where the Northlink ferry comes in) In all, there were over 50 'Tall Ships' with many other smaller boats taking part in the 'Cruise in Company' for more info have a look here at the website. I know where the saying 'learning the ropes' comes from ........and they all lead somewhere......................

  All of this was leading up to the opening ceromony at around 5pm on 21st July. Catriona had our two guest passes (the other for Rona) with almost front row seats, so I had to make do with viewing from the sideline. As the procession of crews filled in to the front of the stage, the general public gradually got moved further away, although I still had a relatively good view.

......the crews arriving in, many in fancy dress

The end of the opening dance - I videoed most of it (Sula is 'C' - 5th from left)

  Sadly the following day we returned back up to Unst and with it the weather also deteriorated. There was to be a 'parade of sail' today 24th July, but that has now been postponed due to heavy rain and strong northerlies. While I didn't see any ships under full sail, just going down and seeing these magnificent craft (and Sula dancing of course) was worth all of the past two weeks driving.


Thursday 14 July 2011

   Before I went to Orkney, I'd heard a number of people say (and read it in books) that Shetland was known for its wildlife and Orkney was known for its archeology. Well I think think that both places has plenty of both. I've never really been in to archeology, most likely because I could never 'get my head around it' so to speak - or to be more precise, understand it. I suppose it is a bit like wildlife in that it takes time and lorry loads of patience to learn and understand how it all works and pieces together - maybe I don't have quite enough patience for archeology ? Saying that though, I do appreciate it and also the work that goes in to it by both amateurs and professionals alike. 

  As I mentioned previously, we stayed at Skail House and only a few hundreds yards away was the site of Skara Brae. Being rather lazy,  there's a link to it here which will give far more detail than I can put up here. However, here a a couple of pics below from around the grounds..........

 Skara Brae (with Skail House in the background)

Skail House

  Unlike, Shetland - (well at least Unst, as Mainland has Mountain Hares) Orkney has a large number of Brown Hares so it was a common site to see them out in the freshly cut silage fields. Despite them being common, it didn't make it any easier to get close to so when I slowly rolled up in the car, often as not they would hurry away. The one below was one of the very few more obliging ones..................

Brown Hare

  At one of the regular places I'd stop to look for SEO's, I would see a number of Swallows, flying around or perched on a fence. The behaviour was if they were nesting but the only structure was man-made and was a sort of small bunker covered in grass on the roadside. It turned out that they (there were two nests) had built under a small overhang above a doorway that obviously suited their needs.........................

  One sad piece of information I got from Orkney, was that there also, seabirds are doing very badly again this year - especially Arctic Terns -and it is the same here on Shetland. Earlier this week I was down at Sumburgh Head with Rona for a few hours and was talking to a guy who is doing a long term study of the auks there. He said that Puffins, Guillimots, Kittiwakes and nearby terns had had a terrible breeding season with scores either failing (loosing eggs or chicks) or not breeding at all due to the low numbers of Sand Eels - how long can this go on ?

  With being way on Orkney last week and in Lerwick most of this week (and next) I've not spent much time around the house and surroundings. Sula is taking part in the opening ceremony of the Tall Ships visit to Lerwick next week and so we have to be down there every day for rehearsals. This has meant leaving here at 6.15am and not getting back until just before 7pm and with Rona as well it's a long day. Even though I'm not here, the 'trailcam' still is and I've been getting some more footage of a variety of subjects. I've now had the camera triggered by - Otter, Hedgehog, Rat, Rabbit, Cat, Hooded Crow, Starling, Wheatear and a Peacock Butterfly - and off course, hundreds of shots of the wind blowing the grass! The butterfly just shows how sensitive the camera can be - although the sensitivity can be adjusted to suit what ever you need.............

  Once it rains again, the pool will fill up and the number of rabbit 'triggers' will decrease as at the moment they use it to feed on the grass shoots coming up through the mud.

  One problem I have found with the camera, is that if it is placed too close to a background, then the resulting image is 'blown'  and so I'm now wondering if I can reduce the output of the infra red light by using a Ngrad filter or similar taped on the outside of the camera................

The 'action' happens around 16 seconds

  And one final piece from last week while we were away.....................

  As you'll have seen that most of the otter vids are of it sprainting, for the time being this is the easiest way of getting any vids. Later on in the year once the grass dies back, I'll be able to move the camera to another location and hopefully get something different.


Tuesday 12 July 2011

Harriers and an 'Old Man'

  It was without doubt, the biggest treat for me as a birder, was to watch numerous Hen Harriers during the week on the west mainland of Orkney. Beautiful, graceful, stunning; these are just three words that could describe these fantastic birds of prey. I believe they are the only raptors to be still in decline in the UK with all of the others doing relatively well. This is almost exclusively due to persecution on the moors that they often share with Red Grouse. While it is acknowledged that they do take grouse chicks, I believe that is the presence of harriers on the moors that make grouse reluctant to fly when they are being driven by beaters for the waiting guns that make them even more unwelcome. After a serious decline in harriers on Orkney in recent years, the numbers are starting to recover - thankfully there is no organized grouse shooting there. Despite them appearing to fly quite slowly, I was amazed to see how quickly they can cover the ground; with just a twist of the tail and from being 50yds away, one could be half a mile away in no time at all. Below are a few pics from the week, again time limitations made me go for any shots I could. I was a little disappointed with the quality but just to watch these birds in the first place was enough.  The first few were taken late evening close to the roadside at 9.30pm using 3200 ISO.......................

and a 'ringtailed', so called because in the autumn/winter, immature birds can be hard to tell apart from females - although this bird below is showing some grey in the upper wings it could be moulting in to a male plumage........................

.......just a shame it hadn't turned its head a little.

  It obviously wasn't all birding for me and so most days we went out around the island. On one day we had a trip across to the island of Hoy as we wanted to see the sea stack called the 'Old Man of Hoy'............. apologies for the squint horizon !

and my daughter Sula's idea of the 'Old Man of Hoy'.......................
(both the beard and hair have been cut since this shot - but it didn't take long)


Sunday 10 July 2011

Orkney SEO's

  We're now at the end of our holiday to the west side of Orkney and for me what a week it's been. As I mentioned previously it was hh and seo's that I particularly wanted to see and I haven't been disappointed. I have now lost count how many of both species I have seen - certainly between 20 and 30 sightings of each species. In the 2010 Orkney bird report it suggests there were around 80 occupied territories for Hen Harrier and around 35 pairs of SEO's. Each morning I have been getting up and out between 5 and 6am and driving over Birsay Moor to the west of Skail.  When flying in to a light breeze, both species remind me of a balsa wood glider that I had as a child that would twist and turn in the air.  During the holiday, I was lucky enough to see Hen Harriers every day and SEO's most days.

  I soon found out that the best opportunities for sightings was to drive slowly up and down the road over Birsay Moor, stopping for a while in several of the numerous passing places and scanning the surrounding moorland. It wasn't practical to just wait in one place as the birds were far roaming in their hunt for prey and also due to the sensitivity of the species concerned, tramping over the moorland was also out of the question.  By using this first method, often, after only 10 or 15 minutes, I'd get a sighting and then it was a case of seeing which direction it was flying and then trying to prejudge when and where - or if - it was going to come close to the road.

  Below are a few pictures of SEO's from the week, not always in the perfect light or perfect conditions but like a lot of things you take what you can get. As I mentioned before, the most practical time for me was to go out from around 5am to 8am (while the others were still in their beds) although this did mean that even though the angle of the sun was good for lighting, I was often viewing the birds in to the sun...................

  These first two were early morning and as you can see were shot straight into the sun. I slowly rolled towards it with the camera out of the car window as it sat on a roadside fence. Just as I was getting in a position with the sun in my favour, a car came roaring past and put the bird up. Both are only cropped at the sides which gives and idea of how close the bird was. On a coupe of the days it was quite windy which as I mentioned in the previous post seemed to ground the owls. I came across the first one as it sat in the sun out of the wind against a peat bank........

The SEO's could be seen down at 'lower' levels as well, often hunting over coastal reed beds and rough grass around the arable fields. This last one was hunting in a roadside field on our last day as we headed back towards Kirkwall ...............


Wednesday 6 July 2011

A quickie from Orkney

Well here we are half way through our week long trip down south and I must admit I quite like what I've seen so far of the islands. The trip down on the ferry was great, flat calm and clear skies all the way. Arriving in Kirkwall around 11pm, we soon found the youth hostel where we were going to be staying for the night.

The following day we took a slow drive over to west Mainland to Skail House which would be our base for the week. The house is the former home of the person (whose name escapes me right now) who discovered the nearby site of Skara Brae which is an ancient site - 3000 years bc - and is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland - as is the flat in which we are staying.

My main interest in coming to the islands was obviously birds - or more precisely two species, and they are Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier. Orkney is a stronghold for both species and for Hen Harrier it is one of the very few places that they are thriving. Over the last 4 days or so, I've been going out early morning and evening and have had Harriers every time - some have been very close. A male Hen Harrier in flight has to be one of the most beautiful and graceful birds we have here and should be extremely proud of them. During the last two days the wind has now picked up which seems to have grounded the SEOs. I'll do another update later


Saturday 2 July 2011

saturday quickie

Just a quickie for now as i didn't have time to post yesterday. We've just gone away for a week to Orkney so i'll post when i get back. Robbie