Monday 29 June 2015

Shetland: The Start Of A Wonderful Break

The Shetland Isles, a group of islands located about 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland, home to some of the most interesting wildlife on offer in the UK and to great friends of mine, and a place I have longed to return to, after enjoying a week or so there back in 2011. To say I was pleased as the aircraft touched down on the tarmac at Sumburgh Airport was an understatement, and despite being slightly overdressed for the day (thanks to the ludicrously tiny luggage allowance, I was wearing most of my camera gear) I was struggling to hold back an enormous grin as we strolled towards the terminal building, having already spotted Paula waving from the window.

As before, she would be our host for the break, though this time, instead of sleeping in a cosy but slightly draughty caravan, I would be sharing the luxury of Cheyne House, initially with Kate who had travelled up with me on the Friday morning, and from the Saturday, with Andy and Lyndsey Howard.

Not wanting to waste a moment, Paula took us up to the top of Sumburgh Head, where we saw puffins, fulmars, gulls, wheatears and rabbits, though my attention was immediately taken by the Arctic and great skuas hunting the skies nearby.

The light wasn't great, but after the weather Paula had warned us about, we were relieved to be dry and relatively warm. After a very tasty steak and onion baguette in the local hotel, we drove north to our digs for the break, and what a place it is. Close to where Paula and Magnus live, the accommodation overlooks a wide inlet, with both a fish hatchery and mussel lines nearby. The latter attracts flocks of eiders which are one of Kate's favourite birds, and the exposed cliff-faces along the coastline provide many places for fulmars to nest; a favourite of mine too.

The place was alive with bird calls, from the sharp calls of concerned oystercatchers and redshanks, to the subdued quacking sounds of divers as they passed overhead, going back and forth to the open seas to bring back food for their young on the inland lochs. Curlew, gulls and terns cried out as well, whilst the fulmars seemed to drift by in silence, perhaps enjoying the atmosphere as much as I was.

A brief visit to Paula's place to see her pig families, before we set off for what was supposed to be a short stroll along the headland. The weather had calmed down completely, and the sun had come out. It was definitely one of those "Stop the world I want to get off" moments.

Paula had recently seen a family of wheatears along the track from her house, but they had fledged by the time we arrived, and wouldn't pose for pics. Thankfully the local fulmars were quite happy to sit still; perhaps content to absorb the rare warmth of the sun!

When it became clear we had walked a bit far, Magnus kindly agreed to pick us up to ferry us back to the house. But with the sun now out, I was keen to make the most of the light, and went for a look around the immediate area. Both common and Arctic terns were dancing over the bay, dropping like arrows into the water to take fish that had strayed too close to the surface.

Despite the evening not closing in, what with it being so close to the longest day, we were shattered, and the day ended with a take-away meal with Paula and Magnus, some beer and great banter. Closing the curtains on the first day on Shetland seemed strange, as I could see it was still very light outside despite the late hour!

After settling into the digs, Paula kindly drove us around the west side of the mainland, as it is an area often overlooked by visitors, and somewhere Kate hadn't been to before. Taking a route through some moorland, Kate managed to spot a mountain hare sat up in the heather, looking rather surprised as our car pulled up alongside! I had just enough time to grab a few shots before it shot off at speed and into deeper cover.

Didn't take long to see another though, further up the hillside. This one watched us carefully before settling, and briefly cleaned before we left it in peace. The colour of their eyes is quite different to those we have photographed in the Cairngorms, with these being more yellow than brown.

We followed a road until it reached the shore, which was again fortunate as there was a handful of waders scurrying along the beach, taking advantage of the insects attracted to the decaying seaweed.

The longer I stared at the beach, the more birds I started to see. There were ringed plovers, sanderlings, dunlins and also a couple of turnstones.

As became a common theme for the trip, Paula bumped into someone she knew who lived there, and enjoyed a good chat, while I tried to grab a few shots of the sanderlings in particular.

Arriving back home, we saw that Andy and Lyndsey had joined us, though they had already scuttled out to look at the local wildlife, returning to tell us about a family of fledged wrens feeding on the rocks around the shoreline. I decided to have a look myself, but was quickly distracted by a pair of ringed plovers nearby.

Initially they were spooked by my presence, but by crouching down, and approaching in a slow and deliberate fashion, I got pretty close, and once in a spot I wanted to be given the light direction, it was a case of waiting for the birds to come to me. Didn't take long!

They are so easy to lose sight of when they pause amongst the boulders.

But once feeding on the seaweed, they were easier to track. Picking off insects and small worms from the weed and under small pebbles, they didn't seem to struggle to find food.

The tranquility was broken by the loud call of a wren along the shore, and I backed away from the plovers, and took the long route back to the area near the wrens to avoid disturbing the small waders. Creeping slowly along the wall behind the shore, I quickly located the fledged wrens, and then it was a case of being at the right angle to get a shot.

The parents were still around and bringing in food, much to the delight of the rather fluffy-looking youngsters.

By now both Andy and Lyndsey had returned to join in the fun, trying to anticipate where the tiny brown fluff-balls would appear from next.

Climbing up from the shore, Lyndsey and I stopped in our tracks when one of the fledged wrens zipped in and landed on a fence post near us. Scrambling to the top it sat there, looking this way and that for a good few minutes.

Then suddenly it flew down and landed on my tripod! Then up and on to my hand, before fluttering up to the lens cover. Daring not to move, I was even more surprised when it whizzed up to my shoulder, where it sat for a few seconds! Then it was off, and back to the safety of the wall nearby. But it left us both grinning from ear to ear.

The day ended in style with a hearty BBQ laid on by Magnus. The long day coupled with excitement and beer (of course) meant we'd sleep well, to be ready for the next adventure on Shetland.