Tuesday 30 August 2011

Pallid' take 2

  I did say I wasn't going to post for a few days but after this morning I couldn't resist it !

  It was a fine morning and after having two trips to Uyeasound school (Sula forgot her fiddle, but at least I did see two Slavonian Grebes on the 2nd trip) I headed around to the shop in Baltasound for some milk and stuff. Just as I was leaving, Willy - the crofter from Northdale - pulled along side and said he'd had a harrier there down by the burn. Asking 'how long ago?' , he replied 'about 10 minutes' - I don't need telling twice, I was off !

  Getting down there, I started scanning the fields and fence posts but to no avail. Driving along to the pull-in by the burn, I scanned the fields and marsh again, straining my eyes to the distance in the hope of seeing the bird but to no luck. After a further 5 minutes I decided to drive on up to the croft and have a look around there. Just as I was about to start the engine, I looked in front of me (as you would I suppose when you move forward in a car) when suddenly it hit me. There in front of me less that 50yds away was the Pallid Harrier, it was sitting quietly on the small dead tree at the side of the burn preening. When Willy had said it was down by the burn, I presumed he meant it had been flying along by it ; when he drove down the road, he would have been less than 12ft away from the bird. I had been totally engrossed in looking across the fields and marsh I'd not seen it right under my nose.

  All I had to do now was to try and get the car door open without spooking the bird, easier said than done. With the door open and the bean bag resting on the hinge point, I managed over 60 shots in around 5 minutes, all with the bird totally at ease. I don't think it can get any better than that, a quality experience..................

Juvenile Pallid Harrier


Sunday 28 August 2011

Wet, Wet, Wet..........

........ although not as wet as 'across the pond'.

Two posts today as I'm just trying to get up to date with stuff - so there may not be another for a few days.

Saturday 27th August

  Just as it was forecast, it has been a very wet and windy weekend here on Unst. It was a great shame as it was the annual Unst show here in Baltasound and a lot of time and effort had gone in to the event. My two had been planning for months what they wanted to enter in to the various competitions and as always, they left it until the last few days to actually do anything about it !

  The morning started off reasonable - drizzle and a force 4 or 5, however, by midday it was pretty horrible and I felt for the folk who were exhibiting livestock outside. I had 'volunteered' to do a stint on the burger stand (inside a largish covered trailer) for two hours but that was cut to one after I had been asked and then me offering, to stand in for the photographic competition judge who couldn't make it.

  I'm not sure of the number of entries for the photo comp, it must have been 70 or 80, so I take my hat off to those who judge 100s at a national level. The standard was quite high with all sorts of sizes, mounted and unmounted, colour and black and white entered in to the nine competition categories. Even though there were no names on the pictures obviously, I knew a number of the photographs from either the subjects ie their children or even one or two, by the style, so that didn't help either.By far the highest number of entrants was for the sea scape category with around 30 images.

A couple from a very wet Unst show

Sunday 28th August

  Another wet day with wind still in the north and is set to be so for most of the week, although the strength will die back. As it was the monthly Baltasound farmers market today, the kids were up early doing some baking to help Shalder House crèche as they were providing 'tea and fancies' (cakes etc) in the hall. As usual they were a bit behind with their timing so I went to set up the trail cam' down the field. I'd not had it set up for a few days due to the heavy rain as I tend to get too many false triggers from the rain in front of the motion sensor.

  Walking on along the shore, I reached the remains of the old wall which formed part of a shed by the noust (a cleared part of a beach where boats were hauled up). Suddenly I had a very strong smell of fish being wafted towards me by the north wind, carefully I looked over the 4-5ft wall and saw two otter cubs feeding below me in the seaweed with the female not far away on the slipway. I returned to the house to fetch the camera hoping they'd be still there when I returned - which thankfully they were. Taking a few pictures (and some video) I didn't want to be discovered as they've only recently started using this piece of coastline. As I watched, I suddenly realized that one of the cubs had come up on to the grassy bank just 10 ft away and was looking me in the eye. It turned in a flash and was back in the water, blast ! Fortunately it didn't spook the other two and was soon back by its brother or sister, then moving over to its mum to groom just beyond the sheep fence by the jetty.

  At that moment, my phone rang. Double blast ! At least the sound of a Great Northern Diver as a ring tone is less likely to spook them than a piece of pop music or similar. They carried on as before fortunately. Next I heard one of the kids calling from up the field, it was Sula and she was running down the field, triple blast! I managed to tell her (without me shouting) to be quiet and so she then had really good views of the family. as well. We left them to it and went to the farmers market...................

Feeding Otter cub

  Despite the weather, I didn't want to spend 2 hours at the market and as the girls were helping, I decided to go over to Skaw for a quick trip (15 minutes each way didn't give me long). On the way over, Mike P sent me a text to say he'd just had the Pallid Harrier at Northdale, which was good, so maybe one or two other folk may get to see it. Reaching Skaw, I walked over the bridge and up the hill past the croft, a Barred Warbler took off and circled around below me shortly followed by the Yellow Wagtail which I'd seen a couple of days ago. I then saw a very pale warbler fly off around the back, time to go and get the camera. A few minutes later and I'd 'nailed' the bird, but what was it ? I'd had to hand hold the long lens, so I hoped that it would be sharp enough for a semi decent picture considering the lighting etc. The bird turned out to be a Booted Warbler, almost certainly the pale bird that both Brydon and Mike had seen last week but didn't manage to pin down for a positive ID....................

Booted Warbler

  Booted Warblers breed from central Russia to western China and winters in the Indian subcontinent as far south as Sri Lanka, so it is quite a long way off course.


'Fall' time?

 I believe that in the States, 'The Fall' is the autumn when the trees loose their leaves, well for me here on Unst where large trees are non existent, 'The Fall' could or should be when the autumn migration starts. From now on at this time of year, almost all birders up here on Shetland are watching the weather forecasts with a hope that the winds will be in the south east quarter to blow migrants heading south down through Scandinavia (and further east) across to the islands. The forecast for part of the week was just that and coupled with a forecast of rain, gave hope for a 'fall' of migrants - when more than the usual numbers appear. After a couple of days of fine weather early on in the week, Wednesday night provided the rain and so for Thursday it looked promising. Late on the Wednesday evening I got a call from Brydon to say he'd had a brief view of 'something different' at Skaw, a warbler of some kind but he wasn't sure what as he couldn't pin it down in the fading light.

  Thursday morning was fine and bright, the rain had passed through, so after the school run I took a look up north to Skaw hopeful that there maybe a few migrants in. There were certainly migrants around - mainly Willow Warblers and Wheatears - but also Garden Warbler,  Reed Warbler, Whinchat, 11 Sanderlings, Common Sandpiper and a Cuckoo; but no 'unusual' warbler................



  Leaving Skaw, I had a quick look in at Valyie down in Norwick. The garden and surrounding vegatation there is a real magnet for migrants. Its' on a south east facing, hill side gully which is sheltered from most cold northerlies, hence the abundance of shrubs and small trees - planted by generations of crofters living there. The wind had dropped off considerably so now there was the midge menace to contend with. So on getting sprayed up with 'skin so soft' (best midge repellent as far as I'm concerned) I headed off up the hill. Up in Valyie I had Spot Fly', Garden Warbler, a brief view of a Barred Warbler and a stunning close up of a Wryneck as it fed 15ft from me on a fence post. 

  Returning to the car, I then heard the unmistakable sound of crows mobbing something. Looking across Norwick Meadows (roughly south), I saw 3 Hoodies mobbing a harrier and they were heading straight for me. Fortunately, they came right over my head which gave cracking views and also enabled me to fire off a load of pictures. It was no 'ordinary' harrier however as the underside of the body was very orange in colour and un-streaked. The only harrier recently recorded on N in S was a juv' Pallid down on Noss a few days ago, maybe. just maybe this was the bird? Unfortunately, as I was in the Audi, I didn't have a guide book with me so I phoned Brydon for his opinion, he agreed - as I'd hoped - that it sounded like the Pallid. The only other harrier it could be due to the colouring was a juv' Montague's which however, is subtlety different. Montague's Harrier is even rarer on Shetland than Pallid despite there only having been around 27 or 28 sightings of Pallid in the UK. On getting home later, I checked the books and was convinced it was a Pallid but was even happier when it was confirmed by Mike and Brydon later. It's without doubt, that without me having a digital camera with me at the time, the bird would have been recorded as a 'possible' record.

   Digital photography has revolutionized bird recording enabling quicker and more detailed identification of the trickier species. I have since learned that two of the key ID features of juv' Pallid Harriers are the pale neck collar and just behind it the dark neck 'boa', so without a picture I'd certainly not have picked up on them. But then that also comes down to experience with a species or groups of species. Someone I know who is the editor of a bird journal, said a while ago that with the arrival of digital SLRs, peoples ability to write a good description of a sighting is being lost. All I can say is thank goodness for digital as I wasn't very good at doing that in the first place !

   Back at home, I was just as delighted to get two more garden 'ticks', namely a Pied Flycatcher and a Wryneck...........


  The nice weather was not going to last however as there was heavy rain and very strong northerly winds forecast for Friday night and Saturday; time to get the grass strimmed and mowed. The afternoon was spent (school run aside) at home mowing and waiting for the boiler man to come as we have problem with the boiler. Thankfully, despite opinions from local folk that he wouldn't show (he has a reputation for being VERY difficult to get hold of) he did arrive and is hopefully coming back on Monday to repair it. At least it started playing up now rather than in the middle of winter. I had discovered from the previous owner that it hadn't been serviced in years, a case of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' ? There is a regulation for gas boilers that (if the house is rented out) they should be serviced every year, maybe it should be the same for oil ones to ?


Monday 22 August 2011

'The best is yet to come'

17th August

 Getting back in to the 'swing' of life here, I spent most of the afternoon cutting grass and doing a spot of strimming. While I want to keep a lot of the land around the house fairly wild (some would say abandoned) I still need to keep some of it under control otherwise the front lawn etc will soon be back to how it was. During a quick trip to the garage, I came across a rather nice Ruff near Buness. At first it was quite nervous but soon started feeding again and came relatively close to the roadside....................

  By Unst standards, it was now quite warm - at least 17 degrees! - so even some of the birds were 'taking some sun', the two birds below were quite un-bothered by me......

Immature Blackbird

Immature Wren

19th August

  I can't remember who sang it, but I can remember a pop song with a tag line something like 'it can only get better' or words to that effect. Well at the moment it'll take some beating. I went out mid morning and watched an otter at Haroldswick that just seemed to be enjoying in the water, it was rolling around and just lying on its back in the still, blue sea without it seemed, a care in the world. Returning home, I got a text from my friend Brydon, 'did I fancy a boat trip?' , too right I would. So, getting my 'pass out' for the afternoon from Catriona (thanks Catriona), I met up with Brydon at just after two pm. I then had a shock to find I'd lost two 8gb cf cards, I couldn't believe it as I'm usually so careful about such things. Oh well, looking for those will have to wait, we were off to Burra Firth.

  Brydon had arranged for the two of us to go out with Peter Hunter from Uyeasound for a few hours off of Muckle Flugga and try and get some shots of the Gannets/Bonxies etc and maybe Minkie whales which had been feeding there over the last couple of days.

  At around 2.30 we set off out from the Shore Station jetty and across to the east side of the firth. Across there is a very large sea cave/tunnel that in very calm conditions can been sailed through and today was one of those days. It wasn't our intension to go through it, but on arriving at the larger entrance, Peter decided to go for it, all I can say is WOW. Putting the wide angle on, upping the ISO to 1000, I thought it would do the trick. I was wrong and hadn't allowed for how long the tunnel was, so the shots were a little shaky to say the least.

Going in, we were already under a large overhang

Coming out the other end

  I can't begin to imagine what the force of the water must be like coming through there during a winters storm. From here we rounded the Hermaness headland and headed down the west side to the gannet cliffs around The Neap. As far as I'm concerned, these gannet cliffs are only bettered by those of the St Kilda group, so these are pretty good. Seeing them from the sea gives a totally different perspective and this alone makes trying to capture them in a picture even more difficult..................

  A couple of shots of the west cliffs, the place most photographers go to get in-flight shots is the right hand end of the lower picture (do you recognize it, Graham and Sue ?)

  I took this using the 500 from the boat (not easy). Overall I was unhappy with the pictures of the birds in flight as the pictures looked almost blurry despite the fact I was using at least 2000 second shutter speed with the 70-200. Dave C mentioned on his blog a while ago that he was wondering about the image stabilizer sometimes making images un-sharp. I'm wondering if this was the case here, combined with being on a boat as well. Peter had brought along a large bucket of fish to try and get the gannets to dive near the boat but unfortunately they were quite reluctant and only the odd one or two dived. Bonxies however weren't quite so shy..............

  The experience of hundreds of gannets and scores of Bonxies overhead is impossible to convey here so here is just two pictures taken with the wide angle...........

  After the best part of an hour, we headed back up past 'the Flugga' to have a look in the area that the Minkie's had been feeding the previous evening. Sadly they were nowhere to be seen. We headed back towards the lighthouse to have look around that area.............

Muckle Flugga lighthouse

  This is where another line from a song comes to mind - 'the best is yet to come' (from a Clifford T Ward song I think). As we got closer to 'the Flugga', Peter asked if I'd ever been on there, 'no' was my obvious reply. We then headed for a rusty vertical ladder on the side of small rough concrete wall that descended in to the calm(ish) blue water. Double Wow !

  Landing would have been a lot easier if I'd had the use of both hands as my right hand was holding the camera - I don't usually use a neck strap, preferring a hand strap. Once up the ladder, it was a short walk along a concrete pathway, down a 5ft rocky step, another short walkway and then a climb of over 300 steps up a galvanized stairway to the top. Landings on Flugga don't happen too often due to the weather and any swell from almost any direction can make things quite tricky. In the days when it was occupied and before helicopters, men could be stranded there for several months if the conditions were against them. The task of building it must have been a colossal undertaking, more info about it can be found here . We only had around 15 minutes on there, but it will be 15 minutes I'll remember for the rest of my life............

The landing point with Out Stack in the background

The route up (marked red)

Looking back to Saxa Vord and Hermaness

  In no time at all, we were soon down and back on the boat and heading away from Flugga, Peter opened the throttle of the engine and we started to speed back towards Burra Firth. Suddenly he shut the engine down and shouted to us, there was a Basking Shark just next to the boat. We grabbed a few shots as it swam towards some rough water between Flugga and Out Stack and it was then soon lost. A brief encounter but a great way to end the day. Thanks guys...........

Basking Shark


Saturday 20 August 2011

15th August - another early start

  After several days back in the Cotswolds, it was time to start our journey home. Over the last few days I managed to catch up with a number of my friends and even managed a day out in the Brecon Beacons birding with the NCOS (North Cotswold Ornithological Society - soon to have a website, watch this space). There along with Tony, Martin, Nigel and myself, we managed 6 raptor species along with Ring Ouzel and a number of other hill birds.

  I had decided that we should leave Moreton early to give us plenty of time for the long drive to Aberdeen for the 7pm ferry back to Shetland. So, getting up at 4.15am, we had breakfast and loaded the car. Saying our farewells to my sister, we were off almost on time at just after 5am. It was a clear sky, full moon and the promise of a good sunrise.

  The usual busy stretch from Birmingham to Liverpool was just that, busy with a lot of traffic. However once we'd past the turn off for the Lake District the motorway became much quieter. I have to admit to not really wanting to do the trip up in one day but practicalities made it more sensible. We made good time and arrived at Stonehaven sometime around 1pm or maybe 1.30 and to fine weather. Aberdeen was now only a few miles away so we had plenty on time to have a walk around town and to go to the supermarket.

  As is usual, the Northlink left on time at 7.30pm (no stop off at Orkney tonight) and as we left the harbour, 5 or 6 Common Dolphins showed at the entrance, although too far for any reasonably sized pictures. The journey was fine, almost flat calm and as we arrived in Lerwick the following morning, the sun shone brightly.

  What I hadn't prepared for - or expected - was a welcoming partly. As we walked across to catch the bus we were swamped by hundreds, if not thousands of MIDGES ! It was horrible, welcome back to Shetland.

  The journey back to Unst by bus (Catriona needed the car down in Lerwick) was rather pleasant - going across Yell Sound was almost like a lake crossing - but the 'wee beasties' as I've often heard them described - were still relentless in their pursuit of a meal. As we waited at Gutcher for the 'Bigga' to leave, we were treated to a number of Gannets diving not far from the stern of the boat. We were too close for any chance of shots of them diving (I was using the 500) but I did manage a few as they took off..............

  It was an almost perfect day, flat sea, blue sky and hardly a breath of wind. I suggested to the kids that after lunch, we should head up to Lamba Ness as I thought it was a good day for looking for Minke whales. Two hours later and there we were watching at least two, possibly three feeding off shore from the headland.

 Minke whale, Lamba Ness

  One of the problems with trying to photograph cetaceans is that often they are only visible for a couple of seconds at the most and then are down for several minutes and can then re-surface anywhere. I've found it much easier to have the camera mounted on the tripod when land-based but unfortunately on this occasion I didn't have it with me so had to make do with hand-holding the 500. We sat and watched them for what seemed like hours (but was probably only an hour) and was later joined by Rory.
   Returning home, I then had another bonus of a new garden tick for Ordaal in the shape of a Garden Warbler. It was good to be back.


Spain 10th August

Today three of us head back to London - Catriona and the girls leave tomorrow. It's a stunning morning with a clear blue sky and just a slight breeze and already at 10am it is quite warm. There seems to be a movement of hirundines through the high part of the valley. For the first time this week I saw a small group of House Martins feeding around the house and fields, they spent an hour feeding and then they were gone.

I mentioned before that the valleys around here are very important migration routes through the Pyrenees for birds. In September there are quite large numbers of raptors move through - especially Honey Buzzards. Again as I mentioned before, the main interest in the autumn (apart from fungi) is the annual passage of Wood pigeons through the mountain passes. One of the traditional ways of taking them is by using large nets set up through the lower woodland valleys. To ensure they descend down, the hunters hide in their tower hides (Palomeras) and as the birds fly over, the hunters throw dinner plate size flat discs out over the birds which cause them to drop down in to the nets in the valleys below. That's the general idea from what I could glean from the translation !

A Palomeras

Late morning, Catriona, the girls and I took a walk up the hill behind the house. There was a brief flyby of a Red Kite and a couple of Griffons soared pass high overhead. Lower down, we had numerous lizards, small brown butterflies and large unidentified dragonflies.

Bracken cut and stacked to dry

This fly was at least an inch and a half long and looked quite menacing

 Returning back an hour later we had lunch before our departure time of 5pm for the airport.

The time went quickly and it was now time for Liz, Lily and me to head for Bilbao airport. Saying our farewells to both my family and our hosts, we headed off up the narrow road which then leads to the main (but still narrow) mountain road down into Extalar. It was here that we had a shock. Just around the bend from the junction were 8 or 10 Civil Guards, complete with automatic weapons across their chests. Asking us to stop (which we were only too happy to do) I quickly said 'Ola, English' and they waved us on. Sitting in the grass beside the road was a rather seriously looking 'stinger' - the sort of thing the police throw across the road to puncture tyres - they certainly meant business ! Further down the road was another vehicle, but no road block. Thankfully the rest of the journey to the airport went without a hitch, arriving at around 7pm and soon having a cool beer . The flight left on time and in what seemed like no time at all we were arriving at Stanstead, just before midnight.

After the rioting that had been taking place in London over the last couple of nights, we were wondering what we were going to find. Things looked fine apart from one group of four police officers patrolling the street on foot.

Getting to my bed at just after 1am was a really nice feeling I have to admit.


Thursday 18 August 2011

Spain 9th August

Blimey, here we are already at the last full day here in Navarre, the time seems to have flown by. I went out for a walk up the hill behind the house for an hour or so which was really refreshing - I didn't even take the camera bag. I saw my first flock of small birds foraging just above the house and amongst them I got my first full view of a Crested Tit of the trip. Up on the hill, I was glad to finally ID a pipit I'd seen up there a few days ago. By a process of elimination and seeing some key features, I came to the conclusion it was a juv' Tree Pipit.

Walking on around, I passed someone looking for fungi up in the woods. Finding fungi is taken very seriously here and it seems everyone is always on the lookout. Our friend and host Javier, is also very keen and went in to great detail to explain the differences between the various species and what are and are not, either good or safe to eat.

 This is good to eat, locally it's called a 'Cep' or something like that

Whereas this is a definite 'no no', it's a Death Cap

What would be thought of as a poor mornings fungi foray

And something we couldn't identify (even by the local) it looks like a carnivorous plant of some kind

Back at the house I sat on the balcony and had breakfast while watching the family of Black Redstarts and also several Serins feeding in the field below. Views from around the house.....
 The house in which we were staying, is the large one lower right

And the view from behind the house looking towards where the previous picture was taken

Later in the morning, we all headed off to the coast for the afternoon to a town called Hondarribia While the others went to the beach, I took a short walk of a couple kilometers around the coastline. It was now rather too warm for my liking and probably also the birds. Despite there being lots of scrub and pine trees I only saw a few birds and only one of those was a new species for the trip, that being a calling Cetti's Warbler.

 Returning back to the harbour, I heard the unmistakable calls of several Sandwich Terns searching the harbour for food.

Getting picked up by Javier, we returned to town for a late lunch (it was now 3.45pm) with the others. The remainder of the afternoon was spent walking around the old part of town which has some splendid traditional buildings and also outdoor escalators which seemed a little 'over the top' - no pun intended !'............

....... there aren't any escalators on Shetland !