Archive for March, 2011

Holiday snaps

31 March, 2011

Decided to go on a quick holiday to the Highlands; it was a fairly last minute decision but I hoped to do some skiing, walking, visit family and photograph red squirrels, ptarmigan, mountain hare, red deer and reindeer. I managed all but the last 3 and that was due to the fact that almost a metre of snow fell on the day I arrived meaning they were inaccessible! I had planned my stay so as to have a good chance of photographing both the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter (smallest and largest planets in our solar system) and the larget full Moon in almost two decades – quite a long list of objectives for a week; which explains why it’s taken me a while to get through the few thousand images I took whilst away!

The heavy snowfall on the day I arrived meant I had to change my accommodation and also made for an interesting first day photographing red squirrels – it snowed quite a bit more during that day, which was perfect as it provided an opportunity I hadn’t dared hope for – red squirrels in falling snow; hope you like them and I’ll put full set of images over on Austin Taylor Photography soon. Whilst out that day I also caught a few birds but added quite a few more over the next few days including long-tailed tit, snow bunting, siskin, greenfinch, great spotted woodpecker and pheasant, to name a few. Unfortunately no images of bearded tit, though I heard them and saw a few flitting about at dusk one day in Glenmore Forest.

I was lucky with the weather for my astronomical targets too, I had clear skies on the nights of the planetary conjunction and was lucky with the huge full moon; after being cloudy all day the skies cleared (painfully slowly) just before midnight to reveal the full moon.

Finally, I had a day and a half skiing and a good morning’s walk into the Northern Corries, carefully tracing the path crunched in by mountaineers before me for, either side, the snow was waist deep! That day’s walk was made all the more splendid by the wall-to-wall blue sky and sunshine though I was disappointed to see only the tracks in the snow of mountain hare and ptarmigan. Although I didn’t see any mountain hare I was lucky enough to see a pair of ptarmigan the following day whilst skiing and was able to catch a couple of “record shots” to add to my haul of holiday snaps. Overall a great week with a higher degree of success than I perhaps deserved given that I had done hardly any planning ahead!

Aurora for a northern night

12 March, 2011

The buzz started soon after it got dark with Aurora alerts coming in suggesting it should be visible from Shetland. It was partly cloudy and there had been some snow. Wait. Check all the alerting and information services. Yes, activity levels were high enough, the solar wind was blowing. Just need clear skies! It snowed – quite hard and for quite a while but, as it turned out, not to any great depth – it was mostly haily puckles as they say here.

Then it came, first word of aurora sighted in Shetland! I already had my camera, tripod and snacks ready to go and looked out to the north, shielding my eyes against the glare of the town’s streetlights. There! A clearly visible green shape in the sky to the north over Staney Hill. Usually in town I cannot discern colour because of the orange glow of the streetlights and general light pollution but tonight I was sure could see green – fantastic. No more hesitation – aurora, snow; what more did I need to create some photos? Well, the ability to get out of town for one! I was distinctly nervous about the snow on the road – my car isn’t best suited to such challenges.

Gingerly, I drove north and was relieved to see that my car managed the steep hill out of town and I had no difficulties down the other side or on the other hills past Burradale and Tingwall. As I continued north I kept my eye on the other side of the road, checking there remained vehicle tracks and a visible route for my journey back later; the further from town I got the less obvious these became until there was just one track left.

I stopped and turned the car lights off. Wow! As my eyes adjusted the glow came alive, moving and changing shape at quite a speed. Shafts pierced upwards into the twinkling, star-filled vastness of the sky above. Pulses, like huge lumpy waves, raced across the sky one after another at what seemed like millions of miles an hour. There was an arc but it was accomapanied by flowing curtains, the whole display tilted maybe 10° up from the horizontal at the left (west) side. I imagined I saw variations in the colour but realistically it was more likely to be variations in intensity; I don’t think the display was bright enough for the human eye to distinguish colour. However, the camera LCD screen confirmed that there was green and purple visible and this was the most colourful display I have seen since December 2006, when I saw green, red, blue and purple together in the display.

Tonight’s show was more subtle, mostly green with light purple dancing along the top of the curtains. The other colour in the sky was the dreaded light pollution, reflecting off the clouds, even out here 10 miles or so from Lerwick. Apart from the millions of stars there was one other source of light – the moon, which limited visibility of the aurora to the west and I took advantage of passing clouds and a hand cement mixer to partially block its glare. Fortunately it was still less than a quarter full but it’s amazing how bright it is, even at that.

I was aware that the clouds were amassing behind me to the south and had already noted that the further north I had travelled the less snow there was on the ground. After about an hour and a half – by which time I was thouroughly frozen – I decided I had better head back. I wanted to carry on looking for suitable landscape backdrops but decided it was probably too risky to go down any side roads and I convinced myself the display was subsiding anyway – which I think it really was. More to the point I was becoming worried about getting back up the hills towards town if it snowed any more. As it turned out, no sooner had I packed up and set off than the snow started and it developed into quite a heavy shower, which limited visbility and meant I had to drive quite slowly. Fortunately though it was still fairly small and dry flakes and didn’t greatly affect traction or build up to any depth by the time I got back home. Once there I checked my photos and was delighted to have captured some of the essence of the display, shown below with some more over on

Long-finned pilot whales at Victoria Pier, Lerwick

6 March, 2011

Well, mad March is living up to its name for me! Playful otters at dawn on the 1st and today at least 20 long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) delighted the folk of Lerwick for most of the day. First spotted in the early morning it wasn’t long before there was quite a crowd at the head of Victoria Pier, most with binoculars and long telephoto lenses. But such equipment was almost superfluous at that time because the pod was only 50m away at times, giving splendid views. The whales were spyhopping (lifting their heads out of the water, almost vertically) and doing other acrobatics and antics. It was only after about 20 minutes of watching and photographing their carry on did I notice how cold the wind was!

Boats and the Bressay ferry came and went and I would have stayed longer but I had another job to go to at that time. When I came back, mid morning, the pod had moved south off the Knab and some suggested the whales were heading off. I later learned that they had been north through the harbour to North Ness before they went south and wondered if they really were on their way, especially as I saw a lot of splashing and thrashing activity with a sudden assemblage of quite a number of seabirds that suggested to me that the whales were feeding. The whales then turned north again and headed back through the harbour, this time on the Bressay side. I went away again for an hour or two but when I went out again at 2pm the pod was back off the North Ness.

I watched them there again for another hour by which time the whales were in the north of the harbour past the Bressay fish factory and seemed to swimming more determinedly than I had seen them doing all day. The wind now was bitterly cold and, even with hat and gloves on, I’d had enough so left, delighted at my first encounter with long-finned pilot whales.

Otters at Dawn, Shetland

1 March, 2011

I set out early this morning to try to catch a glimpse of a fairly close conjunction of the thin waning crescent moon and Venus, just 2° apart. The moon and Venus both rose at just before 6 AM, while the sun rose about 7:30, meaning that it would be getting too bright to see them much past 6:30. By that time the pair would be about 5° above the horizon, so a clear view of a cloud-free, south-easterly horizon was required. That is to be had a mere 5 minutes from home overlooking Breiwick so that is where I headed. However, I was a bit careless and slightly miscalculated where the moon and Venus would rise. I was expecting them to rise from the sea just west of Bressay light but there was cloud on the horizon so I wouldn’t have seen them if they had risen there.  Except they didn’t and I regretted my sloppiness when, about ten-past-six I saw the pair rising above Bressay, by this time fading into the brightening sky. So I managed to get a few reasonable photographs anyway, just not quite the compositions I had envisaged!

Click to view larger images

Because I hadn’t been paying attention when deciding on my viewing location I had decided to go to Breiwick but, whilst not as good a location as I could have chosen for the astronomical pairing, it turned out to be the perfect location for another pair, which I would have missed if I had chosen another site. Just as I was about to pack my gear away I heard a commotion down by the shore; oystercatchers were upset at something. I looked into the gloom and there was a pair of otters rushing about like mad things, in and out of the sea. Fortunately my camera was still on the tripod with my telephoto lens on so I was able to get a few minutes video footage. It’s too dark to be anything more than a record of the sighting but I was a thoroughly happy chappy as I stood and watched the pair for a good 10 minutes before something disturbed them and they left.

I have often heard tales of otters being seen in this part of Lerwick and seen video of otters elsewhere in the town too but all my own sightings of otters have been in country areas. So in the end I was pleased I’d gone to a less than perfect location to view the pairing in the cosmos because it rewarded me with a quite unexpected pairing on the shoreline! Plus, even though the quality of the video isn’t great, it’s a nice reminder of my little early morning treat.