Tuesday 27 September 2011


  As said in the last post, we had a spectacular aurora last night. It started with a green glow and a few 'curtains' which then transformed in to a single line across the sky from the east to the western horizon. If it hadn't been for the fact it was green, it could have been mistaken for a very wide jet vapor trail. This then changed in to a sort of rosette almost immediately above the house with long streamers hanging down in all directions. Gradually, almost the whole of the northern half of the sky turned green and then over in the east a narrow column of red and pink appeared. This then also grew. I think in future I'll set up two cameras, one to take time lapse and the other to just take single pictures. Last night, there was so much going on and there were so many possibilities for trying to get images, one camera wasn't enough - time to dust off the 40D I think.

 The pictures below don't do it justice or convey the 'out of this world' experience, I had hoped to put up a short avi (video) of it, but for some reason the pc just won't process it this time. The pictures were taken using a tripod, 30 seconds exposure @ f5, ISO800, 10mm wide angle lens. The last one is 174 images 'stacked together using 'Startrails' - I'm not too happy with the result but very happy to get the opportunity !........................

'First light'

174 'stacked' images

  From looking on the internet, here in the UK it was visible at least as far south as Northumberland. With more auroras forecast, I'll certainly be looking skywards. Last night I turned in sometime after midnight as it had clouded over, so was very surprised this morning to see a relatively clear sky at sunrise - and what a sunrise it was (but it didn't last). I grabbed the camera just as it was coming up over towards Balta Isle at 7am....................


Monday 26 September 2011

  Well the weather and winds did produce a few rare birds around the place but not here. A few more Yellow-broweds' were around the place and that was about it for Unst, the rest were birds that had been around for a while and had stayed put. Over the weekend I also stayed put so to speak as Catriona was working and I was to be 'in charge' of the kids. I took advantage of that and did a bit more fencing in the field for next year when I want to plant a few more trees and maybe a few berry bearing strubs. Putting in the strainer posts (9 inches in diameter and 7ft long) is very hard work in most of the ground here; no machinery for me, just a long metal bar and a post hole tool - like a long pair of tongs but with a pair of narrow spades at the end. Some of the posts (I've got ten to put in) took an hour and a half to 'plant' due to the rocks, thankfully I've only got four more to do.

  While outside, I saw a small wader fly in to the tidal pool at the eastern end of the field, it was quite along way off but I couldn't put a label to it. Going back to get the scope, I returned to discover it had been disturbed by the otters - I never thought I'd be annoyed at otters being present ! However, one of the cubs was calling, so I assumed it had lost its mum. I was wrong, it had lost its brother or sister as mum was there also. Both of them were anxiously looking and the young cub was constantly calling. They were heading in my direction and as the wind was wrong I was going to be rumbled no matter what I did; even if I retreated back up the field, they'd still catch my scent. I lay in the grass and just hoped the wind would carry my scent over their heads, but no, even though they didn't see me, they got a whiff and headed back eastwards - but not in a panic but still all of the time looking around for the lost one............

  Later on in the afternoon, I saw a small wader again over near the pool. Fetching the camera, I managed to get a few shots of the bird in the now very poor light. It certainly looked like a Dunlin, but it wasn't really behaving like one. As it moved around, it would constantly move its head back and forwards in the same rhythmic manner as say a wagtail would move its tail or a Common Sandpiper would bob up and down. It was a piece of behaviour I'd not seen before.........

  Not long after seeing the Dunlin, I heard the call of the otter cub again, the cub and mum were still looking for the other one, lets just hope they get reunited before too long. I've now done a short compilation of some of the otter trail cam videos which, for the moment is here on Youtube
  This evening (26th Sept) at around 9.45pm, I looked outside as there was an aurora prediction. Sure enough, there was a green glow to the north east with a few 'curtains spreading down so I went and set the camera up facing north east. Over the next hour, to an hour and a half, I, along with Sula, had a wonderful sight of the aurora from east to west directly over Ordaal. I can't really describe it but it was almost a 'Joanna Lumley moment' as we now call it - like when she saw the aurora in northern Lapland in a tv documentary a few years ago and was spellbound by it. It's now 11.30pm and the pictures are downloading to the pc, so I'll post a picture etc tomorrow evening.


Tuesday 20 September 2011

What storm ?

  Last week, we were all getting ready for gales, which, according to the weather folk, were on their way. They were due to come from the south east and so, some folk at least, were rubbing their hands with the thought of some wild weather bringing some wind blown rarities to these islands. Wind, what wind ? It passed us by, heading out in to the North Sea much further south and all we got was a force 5 and a bit of swell. There's another weather warning for this weekend, again from the southeast which is then going to swing around to the northwest, we'll see if that happens or if anything turns up.

  On  the wildlife front it's been a bit of a mixed couple of weeks up here. There has been a few things around but much of it is stuff that's been here for a while. The day my father in law left and Catriona went away for a few days (last Tuesday), I took a quick look around up north for an hour and found a female Pintail in the pool at the end of Lamba Ness and four Snow Buntings (the 1st for me for this winter) and also a few Bonxies sitting around in the rain...........

Female Pintail

  Going on down to Valyie, I found a Yellow-browed Warbler, Barred Warbler and later on in the fading light, I had a Yellow-browed in the garden at home - another garden 'tick'.

  By the following morning, the Yellow-browed had departed from the garden which was a shame as it should have been relatively easy to get some good shots of it. It was forecast for another windy couple of days and the wind was to be in the south east again, so maybe a few more migrants ? While up at Lamba Ness watching the passing Gannets as they sped past in the brisk south easterly, I saw a whale feeding a few hundred yards off from the headland. There was something about the way it was surfacing which didn't seem to be like I've seen Minke Whales behave. Instead of it briefly showing its head and then going 'over' in a quite fast dive, this one seemed to hold its head up and slightly out of the water, leaving it exposed for several seconds before dropping back down below the surface. When I've watched Minke feeding, there often isn't enough time to get a headshot before they disappeared again. There had been a Sei Whale down at Firths Voe, North Mainland a couple of weeks ago, so I'm wondering if this could have been the same one. If it was a Minke however, maybe it was the sea conditions that caused it to surface like it did, I'll have to try and find out...............

Minke Whale ?

  In many parts of the country down south, House Sparrows are in a steep decline; however, the same can't be said for here on Unst. Since I started putting food out for birds in the garden last January, the numbers of House Sparrows coming has steadily risen from just two to over twenty at a time.  The seed feeder I use is a six port one (around 18 inches long) and that often gets emptied by lunchtime - often only 5 hours after  filling it up. Hopefully these birds may bring in a passing Tree Sparrow - they do turn up annually despite the lack of lots of trees. Quite a number of crofters grow oats for their ponies and when it is cut, the oats are stacked in the traditional way in stooks. These also attract quite large flocks of sparrows and other finches and also Skylarks that forage around the bases.

House Sparrow on an oat stook

 Around the garden, the willow 'whips' are doing really well and are growing at a rapid rate of knots. Some of them in the better soil, have now grown between 12 and 18 inches since they were put in back in early May. It's been suggested to me that in October I should cut them back hard in order to encourage growth lower down the stem. The thought of this is quite hard to take on board considering how long it normally takes plants to grow up here, however, seeing how these have done this year, I think I'll give it a go.

  I still get a visit from a solitary otter past the trail cam; at the moment however, it seems to be coming past in the same direction each day so it spends less time in view than if it were travelling the other way. I could move it, but then I'd have to either cross its run to get to the camera or take a long walk around and along the shore to get to it. I think I may try the second approach and leave it set for a week. I saw the otter family again today along the shore. They seemed to be really enjoying themselves playing down in the water but due to the strong southerly wind, I resisted trying to get close as they'd have picked up my scent a long time before I'd got close.

  I was recently talking to someone about some of the large vessels that we see travelling past the island. Apart from some rather large cruise ships (which are usually either going to or from a visit to Lerwick) there are some pretty impressive working craft that we see off shore. Three of the largest I've seen so far have been in the last twelve months or so. The first one was a mobile drilling rig called the Stena Carron, which is one of - if not the - largest mobile drilling rigs in the world. It was this ship that Greenpeace members attached themselves to the anchor chain last year in protest  to drilling exploration - more here, and more info on the ship is here ................

Stena Carron (no apologies for the quality)

 The next one which was around for a while  was the 'Audacia' which was laying gas pipes to both east and west Shetland - more info here ...........................

'Audacia' in Yell Sound

   Finally the last and most certainly the biggest, was here on the east side of Unst on the 1st July this year. It was the Saipem 7000 floating crane and is the 2nd largest in the world. I woke up one morning and looked out over towards The Keen of Hamar and this thing was showing above it (the Keen of Hamar is 89 metres at the top). I then went around to Haroldswick to take a look and to be honest was amazed at the size of the structure.............

Saipem 7000

  I'm not really in to engineering stuff normally, but when I read the specs' and see the scale of these things I find it amazing.  The ship alongside is the 'Normand Cutter' which is 127.5 meters long and is 10,979 tonnes; so to put it in perspective, the Northlink ferry the Hrossey is 125 metres long and is just over 11,000 tonnes and can take 600 passengers and 140 cars. For more facts about this have a look here .


Saturday 10 September 2011

Calm before the storm ?

  After having a few good birds around during the past couple of weeks, this last week has been relatively quiet. We've had my father in law staying for a week so although I've still been going out daily, we've not seen that much around. The wind has been mostly north or westerly and generally cloudy with showers. At the start of the week, we headed over to Skaw and Lamba Ness and had over 20 Sanderlings and a Bar-tailed Godwit at Skaw and a new Shetland bird for me in the shape of a Grey Plover out on the headland at Lamba Ness.................

Grey Plover

  The Pallid Harrier has still been on the island for most of the week although it eluded us - Ian (my father-in -law) particularly would have liked to have seen it. However, from N-in-S sightings it seemed to have moved down to the south of Unst around Snarravoe. This area is quite large and isn't easily accessed, only by a long walk from either the Westing road or down by Belmont.

  We did get a few other birds though, namely Rosefinch, Barred and Wood Warbler, Spot' Fly' and a Whitethroat at Skaw. It was this last bird that caused me (yes, I'm happy to admit it) a few identification problems for a while - until I was brought down to earth by a friend ! When we saw it a Skaw it looked very pale and, as is often the case when you see something out of context, I thought it must be something unusual. However, looking back, we should have really noticed that it does indeed have a - whitethroat !   ..............

  Back at home one morning, I was out by the shed when I heard the faint sound an otter calling from down towards  the sound. Going down to the noost, I could see them along the shore some way away to the east. Both cubs (which are now quite large) were playing amongst the seaweed as mum fished just off shore. In the past I'd have gone  straight back for the camera but as it would be quite difficult to get close with out disturbing them, I decided to just watch them instead - the otters welfare must always come first. After five minutes or so of play, mum came ashore with a fairly large Lumpsucker fish, it was immediately grabbed by one of the cubs, which was then chased for another five minutes the other cub who wanted a 'piece of the action' so to speak. After five more minutes I left them to it, still chasing around amongst the seaweed.

Friday 9th September

  The morning of the 9th of September was a lovely morning. It was also my birthday. I wasn't allowed to get up around 7am as I normally do, today I was to have breakfast in bed, made by my eldest daughter Sula (with help from Rona). So I waited, and waited, until around 7.45am she arrived with a freshly made pancake - and very nice it was too. This was all well and good, but it was also a beautiful still, calm, sunny morning and I could see otters out in the sound - they too must have known it was my birthday. Finally, just after eight I managed to get outside. I was on my way to check the Rosa for any possible overnight migrants, when I saw the otter family down the bottom of the field, just over the wall. The kids were still playing (the otter cubs that is) and mum was constantly scenting the air and looking around in the direction of any nearby loud noise - which on this still morning could have been half a mile away across the sound. I could have watched them for ages as they fished just off shore, however, a quick look at the time and sadly it was time to do the school run. (returning an hour later they were still in the vicinity)

  The rest of the day was spent either out and about with Ian or, later at home enjoying a nice birthday meal and then time outside with the family as the sun set over towards Valla Field at around 7.45pm. It was a lovely evening, as the sun sank down, Grey-lag Geese circled around calling, silhouetted against the orange glow and Curlews called from down by the shore. The temperature had a distinctly autumnal feel about it - any warmer and the midges would have been out - the calm before the storm maybe ? (gales are forecast)

  Returning in later, I checked my emails to discover an aurora warning from here which is one of several sites I check, the other which I've mentioned before is this one - http://www.spacew.com/www/aurora.php. In early September I wouldn't expect to see an aurora as if it was to be a clear night, there could still be light from the setting sun until quite late, plus on this night, there was an almost full moon. I looked out again later around 11.30pm (after several whiskeys - well it was my birthday) to see a definite glow to the north. I wasn't seeing things, there was an aurora although not particularly spectacular. On any other occasion I'd have gone up north to Lamba Ness, but due to the 'night cap', I thought it best not to. While I certainly wouldn't encourage drink driving, we are still without a policeman here after more than a month - but soon to get a new one.

  As it turned out, the aurora was actually quite a good one - but as I said I didn't see it for long. This evening while we were out for a meal, I met a couple on holiday here who I'd met last year over at Lund. The had camped (in a Landrover) over at Norwick last night and had seen the auroral curtains and all, they said it was fantastic show. (by coincidence, they now live 2 miles from where Sula and Rona went to school in the Cotswolds - small world).

8pm looking west from home