Monday, 13 July 2015

Shetland: St Ninian's And Sumburgh Head

Thursday was forecast to be sunny and almost warm, which given the temperatures during the trip so far would be a pleasant change. While it hadn't been cold as such, for me, after my week in Menorca days before flying up to Shetland, it was quite a change to the system!

None of us had any plans for the day, so Paula said she'd drive us to some of the prettier areas of the isle to make the most of the sunshine. After a quick detour to see if any long-tailed skuas were around (they weren't), we headed to St Ninian's Bay. Before we even reached the parking area, we'd persuaded Paula to park up so we could jump out to grab the view from above natural tombolo, which is a sand causeway, with sea on either side.

In the bright sunshine, the beach and surrounding sea looked gorgeous and had it been located down south, no doubt would have been littered with families of sun-worshippers. Thankfully up here, it was almost deserted and begged to be photographed.

I had spotted some divers on the water, so hoofed off across the strip of sand for a closer look. More red-throated individuals, and slightly annoyingly on the side of the bay that was backlit. But it was sunny and warm, and I was stood, slightly overdressed, in the most glorious and tranquil scenery one could ever hope to see. With barely a breath of wind, the water was calm, with small waves rolling on the one shore, and merely lapping on the other side. Heavenly.

I had expected Kate to have followed me, but she'd vanished from sight. I wondered if she'd found something interesting to photograph, so headed back to where we'd first scrambled down to the beach. She had. The cliffs were inhabited by fulmars, and they weren't in the least bit bothered by us being so close.

Though Kate was more interested in a ringed plover scurrying around on the shore, amongst the rather foul smelling seaweed, attracting numerous flying insects for the plover to catch.

Lying on the sand, I started to get some low-level shots myself, until the plover walked right past me, well within the limit of my lens. I had to simply smile and watch it potter past me.

Also nearby, very well hidden on the rocks near the shore, were several families of eider ducks, with about a dozen ducklings in tow. The female eiders blended in so well with the rocks, they were almost invisible when they stopped moving. They seemed to be spending their time either soaking up the sunshine or taking to the water, for a quick paddle around, before drying off again. Somewhat human-like traits, when beside the seaside on a sunny day!

The fulmars divided their time between being sat on the nest, flying up and down the headland slopes, or flying out on to the bay, to bob about on the water. It was fun trying to photo them as they flew along the hillsides though.

Arctic terns danced along the shoreline, targeting any fish along the way, dropping down like darts into the water to take them.

Such a fabulous spot, it was difficult to drag ourselves away from it, but Paula was keen for us to head to higher ground, to get even better views. Well worth it too!

Driving onwards, Paula pulled over above a small bay, as she said there may be common seals below. Not in the numbers she had thought, but there were about twenty either chilling out on the beach, or playing in the sea.

Given our lofty viewing position and the clarity of the water, we could see them gliding along underwater, surfacing and also coming ashore, rolling around together as they did.

We were slowly heading south, with the intention of revisiting Sumburgh Head. Along the way though, we stopped to admire a family of whooper swans drifting serenely across a loch. I'd never seen whooper swan cygnets before.

And after bumping into Hugh's tour group again, and some more amusing banter, we made a beeline to Sumburgh, where we found Andy and Lyndsey already there, enjoying the antics of the puffins on the slopes.

Puffins are such expressionate birds and are thus, very photogenic. The bright sunlight made it difficult to get a good balance between the white and black feathers on them, to retain detail on each. With the 500mm lens, I was able to concentrate on portraits of the puffins, as well as capturing individuals or pairs sat amongst the sea pinks (thrift) on the slopes.

As the path follows the cliff edge, it is pretty easy to move to get different backdrops to the birds, such as the bright sandy slopes, or the lush blue sea beyond.

By angling the lens so it was in line with the steep slope, I was also able to get the sea pinks in the foreground, though it did involve a lot of waiting for the puffins to be looking the right way for the shot I wanted.

Whilst waiting, I had noticed that the one side of the cliffs was being used as a highway for the fulmars, gulls and occasional kittiwake to zoom up from the sea, to the taller cliffs by the lighthouse. And they were only a couple of yards away as they soared by.

This meant I could get a focus lock on as they approached and retain it until they were really close.

Something Kate soon spotted too, and joined in. The fulmars were definitely looking at us as they drifted past.

Then it was back home for a fine meal prepared by Andy and Lyndsey, with Magnus and Paula over too. Another glorious day on Shetland, with more fantastic images and memories to treasure.

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