Sunday, 5 July 2015

Shetland: Fetlar For Phalaropes?

So to Fetlar once more, and another attempt to get that monkey off my back; the red-necked phalarope. Last time I was in Shetland, not only did I manage to fail to connect with any red-necked phalaropes, but in the pursuit of them, also failed by literally minutes to see a pod of killer whales, that Ian and Kate enjoyed watching for several hours.

An early start to head out across the islands to reach Fetlar, driving through some pretty miserable weather along the way, though the ferry crossings were made in bright sunshine, giving us all hope for the day. Well aware of my desire to see the 'ropes, Paula drove straight over towards Loch Funzie where we bumped into Hugh Harrop's tour and the Urban Birder, David Lindo. Whilst chatting to them, I heard the news I had wanted to hear, phalaropes were around and we'd just missed them on the loch.

Or had we? Because eagle-eyed Lyndsey had spotted them on a small pool near the main loch, and without delay I found myself almost sprinting (a fast walk is my idea of that these days) towards the area, and suddenly I could see one, pottering around in amongst the long grasses of the pool, picking off insects.

It got better, there was another at the back of the pool too. Wonderful!

The four of us then chose sides of the pool to head to, with Andy and I trying to work out where the sun might appear if the blanket of clouds split open, and also whether we could get the birds against darker backdrops. Finally, to get low-level shots, we needed to be almost at water-level, which meant lying down in the mud and wet grass. A small hardship to endure to get the images of these quirky little birds.

Much like divers, I have seen plenty of them, but when they drop into the Midlands, they're rarely in summer plumage and on the odd occasion that happens, the birds are usually a country mile from the viewing position, with crowds of fans wanting a sighting, hence never allowing any opportunity for a closer view. But here, on Fetlar, I had two of them, on a pool smaller than my back garden.

The birds, both females, were happily wandering around the edges of the water, finding plenty of insects to eat, both from rocks and vegetation, and also from the surface of the water itself.

And much like those I have encountered closer to home, they weren't in the slightest bit bothered by us being near them; in fact, they walked so close at times, I felt like I could have reached out to stroke them. I didn't, as I thought that might be pushing my luck a bit too far.

In fact the only thing that seemed to unsettle them were the nervous dunlins also feeding on the same pool, which seemed to take flight every time a skua passed overhead.

Apart from the 'ropes coming too close at times to focus on, the other difficulty when shooting from ground-level is getting a clear line to the bird, and I frequently struggled to get a focus lock on, with grass or small rocks getting in the way. Thankfully the birds remained on the pool and while they came and went in terms of being on the right side of the pool, they gave great opportunities to photo them in vegetation, against light and dark backdrops, swimming and also perched on rocks, out of the water.

I could have spent the entire day lying there photographing the phalaropes, but one low-flying pass from a skua caused panic on the water and they, along with the dunlin and well hidden snipe, relocated elsewhere. Time to look at what else was on offer on Fetlar, now I had ticked one more item from my wildlife bucket list.

Red-throated divers were again nesting on the main loch, though this time towards the back, so I could lie down beside the road at the lochside, and try for shots of them. At times there were four adults on the loch, though never really very close. One drifted reasonably near when preening, and I was ready to grab some shots as it stretched its wings.

Hugh's group passed us again, and he mentioned that the airstrip area was well worth a look, so that's where we tried next. He was right, and within minutes of getting on to the track leading up the hill, we had seen golden and ringed plover, whimbrel and Arctic skuas. Excellent!

Staying in the car, we were treated to close views of the golden plovers as they scampered over to see what we were.

And even better, slightly further along, an Arctic skua perched on a small mound, simply watched us go by, and allowed us to get some frame-filling images.

Last time we were on Fetlar, Paula tricked Kate into taking a walk along a track near nesting bonxies, and poor Kate had had to take cover as one of the massive birds dive-bombed her. It was very amusing for us, at Kate's expense. This time we chose to drive along the track, and the bonxies (great skuas) seemed a lot more at ease with that decision, barely even bothering to look at us, let alone move.

Wanting to try again for some whimbrel shots, we returned to the airstrip area, though this time Kate and I chose to explore on foot, and were soon crawling along low down in the heather, trying to avoid treading on the many vibrant wild flowers dotted around, especially the orchids.

By now the sun had started to find a way through the clouds, and this gave us problems. One could be solved by walking right around the area to get the light behind me, but the other, the haze from the warming ground was not so easy to solve. However with no need to worry about the time, or fading light, it was a case of waiting and being persistent.

What amused me, was the number of times I tried for a whimbrel shot, then glanced elsewhere to find a golden plover had come over for a look.

Rejoining Andy and Lyndsey near the loch again, we turned our attention to a family of wheatears being fed around the ancient stone walls. The two adults were busy pouncing on insects, to take back to the fledglings, and each time, would pose on something high, to look for food. This gave us all great opportunities for images on both natural and man-made perches.

Lovely birds, and never ones to be overlooked in favour of the more specialist species up in Shetland.

That said, when a pale Arctic skua zipped overhead, I did get distracted for a moment. Fantastic predators.

Lyndsey and I then opted to take another look at Loch Funzie in the hope that a diver might have come a bit closer to the shore. On initial inspection we failed to see any close in, so I chose to lie down again at water-level near the road, whilst she tried to get some shots of a gull further along the shore. As she was doing so, I glanced across at her and saw a diver, pretty close in, in front on her. Peeved to say the least, I ignored my temptation to head over towards her, in case I spooked it.

Then, without warning it started to flap and run across the water. The diver, not Lyndsey...

I followed it with my camera and managed to get the whole sequence of it taking off.

It was only when I spoke to Lyndsey moments later that she admitted to having not even seen the diver until it had taken flight, and she was so annoyed with herself. These things happen in wildlife photography!

I stayed put near the loch, and hoped one of the other divers might come close. It did, eventually, but by then the clouds had returned, and I just couldn't get that rich redness of the neck to be captured that well on the shot.

With two ferries and a long drive ahead of us, we had to bid farewell to Fetlar, and head back home. But what a day we'd enjoyed on the island. Phabulous!

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