Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Shetland: Hermaness

There are I am sure, many wonderful areas of Shetland that we didn't reach on the last trip, but one of the more obvious targets for wildlife was Hermaness. It involves a pretty long walk to reach the cliffs, and as that would have ruled Ian out from getting there, we chose to avoid it. But not this time.

It was quite a long drive from our base on the Mainland, but with fair weather along the way, it was even enjoyable just being sat waiting for the ferries, as the gannets would be diving close to the shore, and if successful, they had to avoid the attention of the bonxies waiting in the wings.

The reserve is on the northern end of Unst, and after driving right over the island, it's a case of parking up and then making the walk across the moors to the cliffs where the majority of the action is. Thankfully there are now boardwalks leading the way over the rather boggy ground and along the way, the route bisects a colony of nesting bonxies, which provides a great excuse for stopping for a rest!

The boardwalk eventually peters out and it's a relatively gentle slope up to the cliff tops; the view alone is worth stopping and breathing in for a short while. I can imagine that on a wild day it would be pretty terrifying up there, but it was breezy and sunny when we arrived, with blue skies and richer navy seas below. Gorgeous.

And greeting us as we arrived was a puffin, who had popped up out of a burrow to welcome the new visitors.

Having been before, Andy advised which way to head for the various bird colonies, which is where we broke up into groups. Having had my annual fill of gannets at Troup Head earlier in the year, I wanted to look at bonxies, fulmars and maybe more puffins. The fulmars were everywhere, and surprised me several times by appearing right in front of me, floating on air-currents, rising up the steep cliffs.

Finding a sheltered spot out of the wind was an issue though, and in some places it was difficult to keep steady, even when kneeling down and using the tripod for support! As such, trying to track the puffins as they hurtled in from fishing, usually low down then up at the last moment, was near impossible. I tried using my 100-400mm for a while, but it just didn't seem able to consistently lock on to the birds against the changing background, and I chose to head elsewhere for slightly easier targets. Besides, my eyes were already stinging from the wind.

With all the flowers decorating the slopes, Kate and I had hoped to get some shots of the birds amongst the vibrant colours, but getting a good view to the birds was also tricky. We could see them from afar, but by the time we were close enough for a shot, the angle of the shot would be either awkward or the cliffs themselves made the shot too dangerous to reach for.

By the time I had ambled along to where the Muckle Flugga lighthouse comes into view, the others were heading back. Kate had already decided to meet Paula again where the gannets were skimming the cliff tops, and both Andy and Lyndsey had struggled to find the numbers of puffins they'd seen on their previous trip, and were going to try further back along the cliffs where we'd first arrived. I wanted to look over the end of the cliffs before also returning, so trudged onwards. The views of the massive gannet colonies on the rocks jutting from the sea here were fabulous, so I sat down for a while, to eat lunch and simply enjoy the spectacle.

Some of the fulmars amused me too, when they reacted with real venom to any strangers arriving at their nest sites.

It was time to make the walk back, and with it being such a remote reserve, there was hardly a soul around, at least at this far end of it. I had noticed though, about 200 yards ahead of me, a couple had struggled to cross one of the many boggy channels leading down the slopes and by the time I reached it, I could see that the mud was deep and I'd not be able to skip over whilst carrying so much gear. So I tried higher up the hill. There was plenty of boggy areas all around, with the bright green sphagnum moss covering it over, but jutting out into one area was a strip of grass. Safe to cross here, I thought.

With hindsight I should have prodded it with a tripod leg, but I didn't, and stepped on to it. The grass immediately gave way and my foot, and then leg sank into the bog, stopping halfway up my thigh. Desperate not to drop my camera in, as it was balanced on my shoulder, I had to lean back and that put my other leg in too. Great. It was vile, wet and cold.

And there was no-one nearby either. Carefully choosing a soft area to drop my camera and chuck my rucksack on to, I then tried to pull out my right leg. It was stuck. I could move my left, but it felt like I'd lose my boot if I tried any harder. What an utter pillock, I thought.

No service on my phone of course, I realised I'd have to get out without any help. Not that the others would have helped, having admitted later that they'd have taken a photo of my predicament instead!

By twisting myself over, I was able to start to pull my leg out, and by grabbing tufts of grass, I eventually unplugged myself from it, and crawled free, standing to assess the mess I had made. Both boots were full of bog-water and my trousers were covered in mud. Stylish.

This of course made the walk back delightful, having to stop every 15 mins or so to remove my boots and wring out my socks. But the strong wind blowing was now a benefit, as it helped dry out my trousers!

After rejoining the others, and they'd stopped laughing, we strolled (and squelched) back to the boardwalk to photo the bonxies for a while. Most of them seemed to be sat on eggs, but we were fairly sure some had started to hatch, judging by the sounds from the nest sites, and the actions of the parent birds. For such fearful birds, the bonxies were so gentle and tender with each other and with what was going on amongst the cotton grasses at their feet.

They were also keen to keep clean, and made good use of the many small pools around the area to wash in.

Unfortunately, while the boardwalk helps people safely reach the cliffs, it doesn't allow for alternative routes, so while we were all lying flat on it trying to photograph one bonxie as it washed, another visitor inadvertantly spooked it as he walked up the path. Such is life!

We turned our attentions to another pair nearby, and enjoyed watching them preen, stretch and yawn, as well as reacting to other skuas passing a bit too closely overhead.

It was getting late though, and with two ferries to catch back to get home, where Magnus was preparing one of his legendary lamb roasts, we needed to get going.

It was difficult to drag myself away from watching these awesome birds, let alone persuade Andy too, but I was starting to feel slightly chilly after my mud-bath earlier, and needed to be sat down for a bit.

Hermaness is definitely somewhere I would like to return to again, and Unst in general too. Yet more reasons to return to Shetland... and the meal from Magnus? It was absolutely scrumptious!

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