Tuesday 28 February 2012

  Towards the end of last week we had a couple of days of pretty horrible weather. Strong winds and rain from  the west resulted in a gale and a big sea running in at Westing. I went over on Friday to take a look and found a few gulls feeding in the breaking waves, amongst them were a couple of Iceland's, a Black-headed  with the rest being mostly Common and Herring Gulls. The wind direction and state of the tide was just right for watching them feeding - westerly and it was at high tide. Unfortunately the light wasn't, it was from behind the birds which meant most of the time their heads were in shadow. Black-headed Gulls aren't particularly numerous around here so I wanted to get some pictures of it feeding..................

  and the sea at the edge of the bay taken with the 500.................

  By early evening it was blowing a real gale - but it was a lovely clear night. An hour or so after sunset, over to the south west from our house, I could see the lovely sight of Jupiter, Venus and the moon in a perfect (if diagonal) line. I would have loved to have taken a photograph of it but as the wind was almost taking me off my feet, putting a camera on the tripod was out of the question. Unfortunately, the way our windows open, I couldn't even do it from inside through an open window.

  The following morning was one of those days you step outside and feel 'wow' - there was no wind, not a cloud in the sky and .............. sunshine ! We decided to have a family walk and Catriona suggested that we could leave the car at Helliers Water and walk over to the deserted village of Colvadale and then up the east coast and back to Ordaal............

Helliers Water looking north west to Valla Field

  Helliers Water is where Unst's water supply comes from and from here it only travels a couple of miles to the tap and in my opinion it's some of the best tasting drinking water I've ever had. As we approached one of the old croft cottages at Colvadale, a small herd of Shetland ponies came to give us the once over. These incredibly hardy ponies spend most of the year on the hills in all weathers. I have heard of a story of a person (who lived on Unst a while ago) regarding Shetland ponies. The person concerned had a horse of her own and basically reported several folk for leaving their ponies out in the fields and on the hills during cold weather without putting a blanket on them (the ponies that is). Needless to say, nothing was done about it by the animal welfare people...............

 Sula, our eldest and 'friends'

..... the wall is over 5ft high

  My father built dry stone walls in the Cotswolds so I know what goes in to building a traditional wall down there. The ones up here - also called drystane dykes (or versions like it)  are like nothing that you can see down south in the Cotswolds. All of the walls down there are built in 'courses' ie each course is a similar thickness stone and are laid in a horizontal line (the next course is often stones of a different size to the previous course) and then usually finished off with vertical 'toppers' across the width of the wall. The ones here are totally different and I can't begin to understand how long it must have taken to build the wall in the picture above. Without wanting to sound rude, I think it could be called 'random rubble' - which is in fact a type of walling technique.

A Shetland dyke

  Continuing up the east coast of Unst, we had a cracking walk, I even had my coat off for an hour and it must have only been 7 or 8 degrees, but due to the lack of wind it felt warmer. As far as wildlife goes we only saw one 2 Iceland Gulls (plus a variety of other common birds) but I also counted 10 Great Norther Divers between Colvadale and home..................

........... not a bad place to be on a sunny day.

  Later on in the early evening it was still clear, this gave us good views of Jupiter, Venus and the moon. However, they were no longer in a line but still looked good but alas didn't make for a good picture, so I took one of Venus and the moon instead for the record. By March 12th/13th Jupiter and Venus will have converged to be only around 3 degrees apart..............

Venus and the moon

  Another event occurred on Sunday which will bring a bit of piece and quiet to our shoreline for a while (hopefully); one of the neighbouring crofters has moved their sheep back to their croft over to the west of Baltasound. For much of the winter during very low tides and also after the fence was destroyed in the Christmas gale, its been an almost daily chore of rounding the sheep up and sending them back along the shore. Due to the weather and low/high tide times (sometimes low tide was during darkness) I'd not manged to repair the 'sea' fence, thus the animals would come along to our grass - well they do say the 'grass is always greener' etc etc. What this has meant is both the birds (Merganzers etc) and otters have been disturbed on a regular basis - I only hope they settle down again quickly........................

'Go home' - or words to that effect !

  My next job down there will be to take down the existing fence and relocate it a hundred yards to the west where it's less rocky and also less seaweed (the combination of the weight of seaweed on the fence wire and the wave action is what wrecks the fence). While I'm doing that, I'll also reinstate a 5ft length of post back in the water by the jetty ready for when the Arctic Terns return at the end of April or early May.

  Today (28th Feb) I went to Lerwick with Sula so she could get some physio' on her  knee which she hurt last summer during sports day. As with all trips to Lerwick, we try and do a multitude of shopping tasks etc and today was no exception. My Subaru Forester is in need of an MOT at the moment and one of the things needing doing is a new cat' converter for the exhaust. Getting one through the Suby' dealer  would be rather expensive - at least £250 + so I thought I'd get one through one of the other tyre/exhaust dealers in town. I ordered one a couple of weeks back and as it was due to arrive at the end of last week, I thought I'd pick it up today. Going in this morning, the guy looked rather embarrassed and then said he was sorry that he'd had another Forester in yesterday needing one, so he put it on that one instead !  Sometimes I do wonder if folk in Lerwick actually realize that Unst isn't very far away and that yes, we do have phones up here. Needless to say, I was not a happy chappy.


Tuesday 21 February 2012

First taste of winter

   After the very, very wet Up Helly Aa night, it was almost a relief to have a forecast of snow for Saturday/Sunday. I'd already said if we did have any, then I'd head back off over to Hermaness and try and get the Gannets in snow. During Saturday evening, I could hear the snow on the windows and so from time to time I checked outside. During one of these times, I noticed a definate glow to the north, was I seeing things? - surely it can't be an aurora as there wasn't a forecast for one. Unfortunately I seemed to have missed the peak at around 10pm on Saturday evening, but I kept checking for a clear sky and around 3am, I could see the glow to the north of Balta Sound. Unfortunately, by the time I'd got dressed and got the gear set up outside, it had started to fade. Another problem was that as the wind was blowing quite strong from the north. I couldn't shelter the camera and tripod from the gusts of wind which resulted in most of the images being blurred - a 30 second exposure time and a force 6 wind doesn't bode well for sharp pictures. If it had of been brighter it would have been nice as we had snow on the ground.................

....... I wish someone would turn the lights out !

  Sunday morning and we had snow - or rather a covering of it. Despite the thermometer only reading minus 2, with the wind chill it was more like -6 or 8 - this caused my car door to freeze up for the first time in ages.

  To this 'southern softie', it really did feel cold and instead of a gentle walk up to Hermaness,  it felt like I was back in the days when my friends and I used to go to the Highland mountains in winter and be quite happy in temperatures of minus 15 or so - and camp on occasions. Not long after leaving the car, I had a very brief view of the Rough-leg' as it flew north along the cliff top of the west side of Burrafirth. I know you should always 'expect the unexpected', but on this occasion I hadn't got the camera out and despite looking I didn't see it again. In a recent post I mentioned the relatively new board walk - here - well, when they designed it, they obviously hadn't thought it would get used much in the winter. All I can say is that it's lethal to walk on when its icy. After a couple of too close an inspection of the frozen moss and grass, I decided not to use it...................

Hermaness can be a bleak place in winter

A snow shower approaches Muckle Flugga
  As you can see from the picture above, there was very little snow on the cliffs and what Gannets were around on the cliffs, were keeping their heads well down in the rather strong, cold wind. Despite the cold wind it was a good walk and one I hope to do many times this coming spring and summer.............

  I've said it numerous times before, one of the great things about being here (like many places) is that you never know what you might come across when you're out and about. One place I do go to frequently is the headland at Lamba Ness. Often its just passing Gannets or Fulmars, Turnstones feeding in the clifftop turf or flocks of Starlings that I see; but, I always think I could see something different. In the past that has been Orcas or Minke Whales or a scarce bird or two. Earlier today just after I'd done a quick bit of work, I had the same thought going through my head as I walked around the headland. I then noticed a strip of sheep's wool right at the edge of the cliff where I know the turf is undercut and is certainly not a place to walk..........
  Going around to another piece of the cliff to get another look (thinking a sheep had gone over) I then saw something down below in the water. My first reaction was 'it's a sheep' but on closer inspection with my binoculars, I could see it was a fairly large dead fish. It was wider than it was long and had a very large mouth. Not knowing my sea fish, I took some photos and on checking them at home it looks to me like an Angler Fish (also called Monk Fish) - not as common around Shetland as they once were apparently  - according to the internet..............

  Apart from the sad people that sit in front of a pc and create computer viruses, one other group or type that really annoys me are the ones that copy or 'cut and paste' articles from the net and pass it off as theirs. This maybe from blogs or forums or even bird club newsletters etc. A bird club I belong to down south once had some of its sitings and articles almost pasted word for word in to another 'local' newsletter without even an acknowledgement or credit. A while ago, I came across some of my pictures (and article) that I'd done for a couple friends blog that had been copied on to another website again passing it off as his. On investigation by Martin and Dave, this guy had been ripping off loads of their stuff - here. It seems that this sort of thing has now progressed to Facebook, I heard only yesterday of a person gleaning (copying ?) wildlife sightings and information from one wildlife Facebook page and putting it up on another with no credit - which is certainly different from 'sharing' on FB. I don't know how the guy sleeps at night.


Saturday 18 February 2012

It's 'Up' time again..........

..........'Up' being Up Helly Aa

 Last night,  (17th Feb) was the first of the two Unst Up Helly Aa celebrations for 2012 - the first one being Uyeasound. Although preparations have been going on for months and months, there is one thing that no-one can control or organize and that is the weather. Last year was fine but very windy, this year was very windy and VERY WET ! Catriona was in a squad again and had been concerned all week if she would be able to take part at all as she has had a very painful back, thankfully on the night it had eased up a bit. However, as it turned out, the weather stopped them taking part in the procession as the wind and rain would have possibly destroyed their costumes etc. I must admit to wondering why on earth we were turning out to stand in the wind and rain for almost an hour (or more) and then go and sit on a hard bench for 3 hours in the village hall. I think it's because of the community spirit, the atmosphere and the spectacle that scores of people of all ages turned out. Due to the weather, the procession was cut short and only went from the galley shed down to the replica boat that gets burnt by the shore. Below are a few pictures from the evening although I don't have any from inside the hall this year. This is due to the camera getting completely misted up with condensation which didn't clear in almost three hours in the hall. I did think about going in to the gents and using the hand drier on it - only knows what reputation I would have got if I'd have been seen in there with a camera ! It would almost certainly have made next years 'Bill' - this is what one looks like, from Lerwick's in 2009 -http://www.uphellyaa.org/assets/files/2009-up-helly-aa-bill.PDF.

 The replica boat that is to be burnt later

 Waiting in the rain

 'The Galley'

 The Jarl Squad

 One of the squads

 Burning the replica galley

 The 2012 Guizer Jarl

For a more detailed account of Up Helly Aa, you can find out more here


Wednesday 15 February 2012

  Saturday morning (11th Feb) was a cracking morning again - it won't last - so after a quick look around the pier (still a couple of Iceland's around) I headed back home to see if the family wanted to go for a walk. I'd already thought that a walk to Hermaness would be nice, but would the others agree?, thankfully they did.

  To be honest I wasn't really expecting much to be around, apart from a lot of Fulmars on the cliffs. It was a pleasant walk up the walkway to the clifftop however and despite what some may say about the new 'plastic path', it certainly makes it much easier and quicker now you don't have to 'bog trot'. It's made from recycled plastic and will last for many many years, whereas the old wooden one didn't have a long lifespan due to the local environment. Up at the cliffs, there were scores of Fulmars, both on the cliffs and soaring around them and a little further on, I could also see a number of Gannets. Also much lower down on the cliffs were scores of Guillimots on ledges. As I'd not been to the cliffs in February before, I had no idea if any Gannets would be back or in what numbers. Moving on again to the Gannets main nesting area, I was really surprised by how many were actually on the cliffs as well as the numbers that were soaring around; I can only guess as to the numbers, but it certainly ran in to the high hundreds..........

 A tiny part of the normally very large colony (Rona took this shot)

  Despite the sun shining, there was a cool breeze now coming in off of the sea, Rona had now started to get a bit chilled and also a little fed up with me watching the wheeling Gannets (Catriona and Sula had gone off earlier) so we started to head back. We hadn't gone far when I looked up and saw two birds in the sky some distance away, one mobbing the other. Raising the bins, I could see one was a Hoodie and the other was buzzard-like, then seeing the white on the inner tail  feathers I knew straight away it was a Rough-leg', great stuff. Despite the distance I took a few shots and fortunately for us, the bird came back in our direction - but quite high. It was possibly the bird Brydon had seen over at Caldbeck at the end of last year. The two that were here last winter would often go 'missing' for days without being seen and then show up again. The north west corner of Unst is, although not a huge area, quite difficult to just have a quick look as it's a several hour round trip walk to check it out, so it's almost certainly where the birds were going to last winter..................

Rough-leg' Buzzard

  Back at home, I was greeted by the familiar chuckling of Fulmars that had returned to our chimney pots. Last year, we had a number on a daily basis that would sit up there, calling and displaying for around a month before they disappeared off somewhere to breed. Another sign that winter is starting to give way to another season (but I'm not sure which one it could be) and that is there are flocks of returning Lapwings in the grass fields. During the last two nights, there has been a faint aurora but due to the strong northerly wind and some low cloud in the north I didn't spend too long looking. Looking at the forecast, we are now due wind and rain again well in to next week - like I said earlier, the sunshine wouldn't last. I suppose it's only weather and if time allows, it creates opportunities for pictures.........


Friday 10 February 2012

  Well it's been a funny old week weather wise, some days it's been blowing a real hooly, others it has felt like the first days of an early spring. So much so, that I have had my coat off a couple of times as the temperature was a balmy 5 or 6 degrees and even driving with the car window down ! - it's amazing what you get used to. On one of the calm, still days, I went along to the pier on the off chance either the Little Auk or Little Gull were still around - and they were still there. The Little Auk was just on its way out of the harbour (it seemed to have a routine, heading out in to the sound by mid morning) and the Little Gull was also heading off to the east end. I decided to return home and have another look later on.

  Going back to the pier early afternoon, the Little Gull was back and was feeding nicely just off the pier. Little Gulls aren't particularly rare in Shetland but it's still a nice one to see.

Little Auk about to dive

1st winter Little Gull

  The Iceland Gull numbers here on Unst has now dropped dramatically and on this day there were only 3 around the pier.......

Iceland Gull

  As I was saying earlier, some days it felt like Spring wasn't too far away (in fact it's still several months away) however, the Shalders (Oystercatcher) are starting to return and the Maalies (Fulmar) are back on the cliffs and also congregating out on the water.  Up at Lamba Ness, the numbers of passing Maalies and Gannets has increased enormously and it'll only be a couple of weeks before the first Gannets appear back at Hermaness. Unfortunately for the birds, there is still plenty of time for the weather to turn colder again - and probably will - but so far this winter we've been lucky or unlucky (depending on how you look at it) not to have had any proper snow.  (looking at the Met Office local forecast, it says we are due some on Tuesday -14th)

  I now feel as though we are in a sort of limbo, it could stay mild and start an early Spring or it could also go cold and, like last year, delay spring until May. I noticed this morning (10th Feb) that the Red Currant bush in our garden is starting to show green in the buds and the Daffodils are about 3 inches above ground - but there's still a long way to go !

Rock Pipit at Lamba Ness

From Lamba Ness looking south west (taken with the camera phone)

Skaw beach