Monday, 8 August 2011

Shetland: The Last Few Days

After failing to see a red-necked phalarope on our first trip over to Fetlar, we decided to give it another go. With fair weather, perhaps it would be more suitable for seeing them? We'd only just started driving on Fetlar after disembarking from the ferry when Neil spotted some fins off the shore. Dolphins! Rapidly we scrambled from the cars and set up, to try for some shots, albeit somewhat distant. Still great to see, and served as reminder that on these islands, you really need to carry a camera at all times, as you just never know what you might see around the next corner.

At Loch Funzie, the Arctic terns were hovering again over the edge of the pool, diving for small fry, the fields were littered with juvenile wheatears using rocks and old walls to perch upon, and nearby on a fence post, a snipe was taking a break from its tiring drumming flights.

As I wandered around the loch, I spotted a sleepy dunlin, sat right beside the road. Even when I set up and took some shots, it only bothered to keep one watchful eye on me.

Once more, we all spread out around the area in search of the elusive phalarope, but as before, there was no sign. While we searched, Kate set up near a nest of starlings, and as the star attraction was hiding, I joined her. The starlings were bringing back masses of grubs for the nestlings, posing on fences and nearby rocks before disappearing into the hidden nest.

Keeping a watchful eye on us and for skuas, a whimbrel perched high on a rocky outcrop, close enough for some reasonable shots. Telling curlews apart from whimbrels was a source of conversation during the week, as some birds seemed to have characteristics suggesting they could be either. I'm pretty sure this one was a whimbrel though, as the head stripes are plain to see...

Whilst having our packed lunches, I spotted a pair of Arctic skuas nearby, and tried for some shots, but they have a habit of flying fast and very low, making it very tricky to get a lock on. Plus they blend in so well, once they've lost the sky as a background, they almost blend into the surroundings.

With still no sign of the phalaropes, Paula got word of killer whales that had been seen off the coast, on the mainland at Esherness. Also at the same time, Kate, who'd been for a look down at a nearby beach, returned with info of a local loch, known by a resident to have phalaropes on it, seen daily by him.

Now given the facts at the time, a choice of seeing one of the birds I'd come to Shetland for, or driving back in hope of seeing orcas, that might well have swum off, I chose the birds. Had I known all the facts, I might well have gone for the whales...

The party split, as Ian and Kate desperately wanted to try to see the whales, whereas Neil and I wanted to see the phalaropes. It was a fair old hike away - about a kilometre to the loch, and as we discovered, mostly up hill! The loch itself was nestled in a hillside, and surrounded by marshland. Neil went one way, I went the other, scanning the reeds and hoping.

It just wasn't going to be our day. Nothing. I even missed an Arctic skua fly over my head as I was busy trying not to sink into the mud at the time, and then we heard from Ian... the whales had been there all day. Had I known that, and thought there was a genuine chance of seeing them, I might have gone with them. As it was, we tried to get back to see them also.

It was a race against time, that we lost. Having to wait over 90 mins for the 2 ferries, cost us dear, as upon arrival, the tide had started to go out, and taken the orcas with it. We missed them by a mere 5 mins. As I said, just wasn't our day. That said, the two people in our group who most wanted to see them did, so that was all that really mattered.

And besides, the sea food meal Magnus had prepared and then had to hold on to while we chased whales, made up for missing out. What a feast! Like all of his meals we enjoyed, it was scrumptious!

With nothing then planned for the final days of the trip, and with gloomier weather, I tried to absorb the atmosphere of their cottage, the view, the sounds as much as possible, as I knew I'd miss it when I had left. To be able to stand on their driveway and watch gannets diving for fish, divers flying over, back and forth to the nests, terns crying out, dancing across the sky, and perhaps the sighting of an otter, made it so special. I'm not sure I could put up with the winters, but during the lighter months, it is certainly magical.

Unlike my attempts to photo a gannet diving... which were all dreadful. A bit distant and it was raining too (excuses, excuses), I did witness gulls attacking a gannet. The gannet seemed to have "caught" something a fisherman had discarded, but no sooner had it taken off, the gulls, mainly great black-backed, launched their assault. Grabbing the gannet by its tail, the gannet dived into the water (like they do when skuas attack), but lost the catch doing so. The gull promptly stole it, and left with other gulls in pursuit. All very dramatic, and all within a few yards of the cottage.

As was becoming the norm, the day ended with yet another otter sighting, this time with close views of one swimming near us. Was very glad of the noise control of my 7D, as I'm sure images from my 50D would have taken hours of filtering to get usable images from, given how gloomy it was then.

And so we reached the end of a fantastic stay, watching Neil and Kate depart at Sumburgh Airport, leaving Ian and me to potter around new areas of Shetland we'd not seen before. Needless to say we found a certain rude village name for a photo, and managed to spot another otter when Ian was looking for a merganser! This one was a rather tatty looking one - a few fights perhaps?

Enroute back to the cottage Ian saw a curlew perched on some purple heather which made for a great image, despite the weather. And we even found some woodland, which didn't fit with the rest of the island!

As when we arrived, we left Lerwick in the rain and gloom, which is better than leaving it in glorious sunshine, as we'd have felt worse than we already did. For us it wasn't the end of the trip, as we still had a few days in the Scottish Highlands to enjoy, though after Shetland, its beauty, wildlife and the company we'd enjoyed, it was never going to be quite as good.

I raise a glass to toast a successful trip, and to Paula and Magnus, and the PINK tour, for making it so very, very special.


Paula Moss Photography said...

Pete you made me cry... it was such a pleasure having you stay and yes it could have been a nightmare, but how fantastic did it work out. I think I have made friends for life, thank you guys for making it so special as well. Our front door is always open for you. Much love Paula and Magnus.

Pete Walkden said...

Hi Paula - we almost cried when we had to leave. Even seeing ospreys and eagles in the highlands couldn't cheer us up!

Was such a fab trip - say "hi" to Magnus and Timmy from me.