Archive for January, 2011

Bogs, Hags and Hares

31 January, 2011

Shetland is a good place to see Mountain hares and, if you’re out on a moor, can afford close up views. “Out on a moor” might mean in a car getting a lucky sighting or, like I was last Saturday, crawling on my hands and knees through a somewhat damp heather moor in the central Mainland. It was a beautiful sunny day though there was a strong breeze, unfortunately coming from almost the same direction as the fairly low sun. The issue there of course was that, whilst I was downwind of my quarry, my visibility was significantly lessened by the glare. However, that was only a problem from time to time since the wily hares had me running round in circles! They do that by each running in opposite directions to almost the same distance as each other, so you never know which one to try and get closer to!

At this time of year Mountain hares are in their winter coat, which is mostly white, sometimes with greyish areas on the flanks whilst still retaining brown on their nose and ears that have a black tip. When there’s no snow this makes them easier to spot against the brown heather, though they still manage to hide under the peat hags and occasionally startle you. All in all I probably saw at least a dozen Mountain hares that day but only got anywhere near 3 and only close enough to photograph 1. Meanwhile, I saw plenty of hindquarters from hares that, had I known were just beside me, could have made excellent photo subjects!

I’ve tried to get a decent photo of Mountain Hares on a number of occasions over the past couple of years and I’ve tried different tactics. Firstly I tried to get a decent shot from the car, using it as a hide. I had reasonable results but I just don’t have  a long enough telephoto lens so I gave up on that approach. The past couple of times, including Saturday, I have practised my field craft, observing what the hares do and trying to use the humps and bumps in the landscape to hide behind, often crawling or walking on my knees over a hundred metres or so, then crawling flat on my stomach for the last few metres. Meanwhile, in many cases, the hare takes advantage of the fact that I cannot see it to do a disappearing act! But, just occasionally, it’s still where I last saw it – though within a second or two of it spotting me it heads for the nearest hill, often running in stages each a couple of hundred metres.

The other difficulty in creeping up on the hares in this way, particularly on the moor where I was on Saturday, is that it’s badly hagged in places (eroded by livestock that causes large gashes, gullies and areas of bare peat) meaning it’s not possible to crawl over these areas. Additionally, it’s quite boggy with numerous pools and small watercourses running through it so it can be quite difficult to keep a low profile over any significant distance.

After about 2 hours it was time to go – I had other commitments that day. But, as sometimes happens, I got my best photo of the day within the first half hour! But I’ll be back some other day, hopefully before the end of this “winter coat” season.

Mountain hare, Shetland

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And then there were two – Polar Bears

30 January, 2011

As part of our January trip to see the Siberian Husky Club‘s annual sled dog rally at Glenmore Forest Park near Aviemore we visited the Highland Wildlife Park to see the wonderful animals there. We’ve been before but hoped to see some animals we hadn’t seen on previous visits, notably the wolf, perhaps the lynx and the new Polar Bear, called Walker. Last time we visited there was quite a lot of snow on the ground, which gave my photos of the first Polar Bear at the Park, “Mercedes” an authentic looking environment. No such luck this time, though there had been a hard frost, which stayed all day and the pool was covered with thick ice – with the Highland environment, it looks reminiscent of tundra, if one ignores the trees and shrubs!

The Park is a wonderful place to see animals that most folk would not normally ever get to see as well as a few that are common in the Highlands, such as the Red deer. There are smaller enclosures in the walkabout area where Scottish wildcat and Red panda can be viewed but the large animals, such as European bison and Bactrian camel have large enclosures in the drive through area. Some of the animals might seem bored and, from looking at other visitors’ photos on the web, clearly exhibit repetitive behaviour, but the Park is part of a number of captive breeding programmes and, without such programmes, many of the animals would be extinct.

I particularly wanted to try out a fantastic new lens that I had hired – on previous visits I had found that some of the animals in the drive through area are just too far away for a decent photograph with my own kit so I dug deep and hired a 500mm super telephoto for the visit. I wasn’t disappointed by the results because it’s an absolutely amazing piece of equipment and was ideal for use in the car. I didn’t use it in the walk about area though because, at about 4.5kg including the camera, it’s just too heavy to carry easily. Also, the animals are that much closer in that area. The only exception was for the lynx, where I took most of the photos with the 500mm lens because the pair was at the back of their enclosure, which is fairly large.

So what were the highlights? Well, for me, getting good photos of the lynx has been an ambition for some time and I hadn’t been lucky enough to see these big cats on previous visits – and they are fantastic! I’m really pleased with the results and these shots alone make the lens hire worthwhile for me. Of course, it was great to see Walker, the new Polar bear and I got some good shots of him shaking water off, again with the 500mm, and I added to my collection of photos of Mercedes with a few really nice shots, though my favourite photo of her remains one I took last year in the snow. We were lucky this time to see the wolves – they had been hiding from us on our previous visits – this time they are in their new home, opened late last year. I’m always thrilled to see the Scottish wildcats, partly because they make such stunning portrait photos but mostly because they are one of the world’s rarest cats and the only wild cat in the UK. Another favourite is the Red panda – they are truly amazing. On our last visit they remained curled up in a ball high up on their platform and the time before that the light was so poor that I couldn’t get any decent photos. This time however, they were more obliging and the light was better too so I added to my collection of Red panda portraits, which includes some I took in China.

We didn’t see the Amur tigers this time or the snow monkeys – we simply ran out of time – but I wasn’t too disappointed because I’ve got good photos of them from previous visits and, hopefully, we’ll visit them another time.

So, what about the Polar bears? Folk have asked me if they’re getting on now; well, it’s hard for me to say anything about that because, when we were there, Mercedes was lounging about dozing at one end of the enclosure while Walker was having an argument (or playing a game) with a big blue barrel. In fact he seemed determined to bury it beneath the ice on the pool – though he hadn’t quite managed it by the time we moved on!

There are a few photos here; I’ve uploaded a rather larger set to my website.

Horizontal Eclipse

14 January, 2011

Apologies for the lateness of this post, I went down with flu later on in the evening of this day and didn’t fully recover until well into the New Year!

The alarm went off at 5AM and I awoke to full moonlight streaming through the bedroom window; “fantastic”, I thought – and more than I dared hope for after the past 3 weeks of snow! It was the morning of 21 December 2010 and a very special morning because, not only was it the day of the solstice but also, a total lunar eclipse was due to happen.  Such combinations of events are rare indeed; the last time a lunar eclipse occurred on the winter solstice was 21 December 1638 – over 400 years ago! I had planned for the event without much hope of seeing it, for a number of reasons. Firstly, winter here in Shetland can bring some very changeable weather and it’s very difficult to forecast clear skies (or any kind of skies) with certainty. Secondly, the eclipse was due to occur as the moon set – this fact meant that cloud, haze or fog on the horizon was a possibility, even if the rest of the sky were to be clear. Thirdly, further snow overnight could have restricted my ability to travel to my favoured location and restricted how much of the event I could have seen because I needed to go a reasonable distance to get an uninterrupted view to the west/ north-west, where the moon would be. On the positive side, Shetland had the potential to offer some of the best views in the UK. This is because its northerly location means that sunrise is later here than further south meaning darker views of the moon that could be lost in daylight much sooner elsewhere. In fact, the moon wasn’t due to set here until just about the end of totality, after sunrise at just after 9AM. A lunar eclipse that occurs when the sun is above the horizon is known as a horizontal eclipse, though sunrise would be obscured from my view by a low hill.

There had been a further slight fall overnight and I considered my options carefully since I only have a two-wheel drive car and the roads wouldn’t have been cleared by the time I needed to be at my proposed vantage point. I decided to set out and see how far I got, laden down with photo gear, as usual. I travelled to Trondra, in some places doing no more than 20 mph but I made it and looked for a place to stop. I needed to park at my viewing site so I had the car as a refuge from the cold, but that meant pulling onto the verge, something I hadn’t previously thought about. The verge was about a foot deep in snow but I managed to pull off into a previous vehicle’s tracks but as soon as I stopped I realised I wouldn’t get out again without a struggle – more of that later.

Despite my early start it was 6:30AM when I parked, the eclipse was due to start in 2 minutes! The sky was still clear and the moon was stunningly bright against a black sky. I set up as quickly as I could but I couldn’t take my first photo until 6:35AM, by which time the earth’s shadow had taken a noticeable “bite” out of the Moon. It was cold and the snow crunched underfoot but all the activity of setting up, marvelling at the event and taking photos kept my mind off the cold for quite a while. I took a series of photos and when the shadow reached part way across the Moon and the redness started to appear I adjusted the exposure and it began to clearly show on the LCD screen. I took a few photos of the general scene showing the increasingly red Moon hanging in the sky over a very cold and blue pre-dawn landscape. I was most impressed to catch a red glow on the water below the partially eclipsed Moon – though this faded as the Moon dimmed and daylight began to approach.

Whilst it was still dark a big white van pulled up alongside, the driver concerned for my wellbeing. Turned out it was my friend Frank and we chatted for a few moments about what was going on. In passing I said I would have great difficulty getting off the road verge; no worries he said, take this shovel and get it back to me later – I was so glad he did because in my excitement earlier I’d forgotten mine. Amazing – where else could this happen?

Strangely, I had considerable difficulty getting a sharp focus, but the reason became apparent later and shouldn’t have caught me out. The lenses were fogging slightly, even though they were cooled by this time. The reason for this became apparent when I was packing up and I noticed hoar frost had formed on the barrel of the telephoto lens – it’s metal, whereas the other lens I was using is plastic. Because it was dark until shortly before I packed up, I didn’t see the ice forming! I learned a salutary lesson there and shall remember to use a cover for the lens and camera – the irony is that I had one sat in the camera bag!

Totality occurred at about 7:40AM and the Moon was still readily visible at this time, though by now the sky was dark blue with approaching dawn. I continued to take photos, though by this time I was getting cold and had to resort to sitting in the car with the engine running to keep warm! I had hoped to continue taking photos of the Moon until it set and the continuing clear skies led me to think that might be possible. However, by mid-totality (about 8:15AM) the rising sun and increasing daylight overwhelmed the Moon, which was very dim and barely visible. I managed photos until just before mid-totality but by 8:15AM I could no longer find it in the viewfinder and could only just make it out with my eyes.

I decided to pack up and it was at this point I noticed the frost on my lens. I dried it off and packed the camera and lens combination in an airtight plastic bag to prevent condensation as it warmed up. Getting out of the deep snow on the road verge was a challenge and I was really grateful for the shovel! I dug channels to the road but, even so, I had to rock the car back and forth to get enough momentum to get out. I also had to deepen my channels a bit more but eventually got out!

A short while later, I photographed the sunrise (though it had been up for nearly half an hour by then and, in the early afternoon, a fantastic sunset again over Trondra. That time there were hordes of snappers out. Quite an achievement to capture both sunrise and sunset on the same day in midwinter in Shetland, even more amazing on the same day as a lunar eclipse!

2010 in review

3 January, 2011

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 25 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 31 posts. There were 216 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 30mb. That’s about 4 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was September 13th with 127 views. The most popular post that day was Please choose your favourite image.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, austintaylorphotography.com, astrochat.co.uk, shetlandmylove.blogspot.com, and kozetland1.blogspot.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for austin taylor, austin taylor blog, austin taylor photography, hilary seatter, and austin taylor photos.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Please choose your favourite image September 2010
12 comments

2

Entangled Humpback Whale, Lunning, Shetland September 2010

3

‘Vyeshch’ a Textile Installation by Hilary Seatter May 2010

4

Best Aurora for 2 years April 2010
2 comments

5

Face to face with a frog July 2010