Archive for the ‘Shetland Wildlife’ Category

Grey seal pups

31 October, 2011

Every year in the autumn, grey seals pup in remote locations and offshore islands around Shetland and it’s my great privilege to help count the pups as part of ongoing survey. Regrettably this is also one of my busiest times in the run up to Christmas, so I don’t get out anywhere near as many times as I’d like. However, a couple of weeks ago I was very fortunate to go and count seal pups with two experienced colleagues on one of the offshore island breeding sites.

As you can see, the pups are pretty helpless and the task of the observers is to disturb them and the breeding females as little as possible – so these photos were taken quickly as we worked, using a long telephoto lens to get in for some close portraits. These pups are no more than a day or two old or, in the case of a couple of them, no more than a few hours old.

Dead in the water

23 October, 2011

Whilst on the way to Whalsay a few weeks ago I spotted something about a mile off in front the ferry that looked at first like a bouy – a gull stood on it. As we came closer I realised it was a dead animal floating and, presently, the skipper manoeuvred hard over to get a closer look. I think it’s a seal – what do you think?

Hegris at Uyeasound

11 October, 2011

This post should really have made it into September but didn’t! It was in the last day or two of September that I had a very early job on in Unst that warranted me getting the first ferry on the Yell Sound that day heading north. But I also ended up being in time for the first ferry on Bluemull Sound too, which meant I arrived in Unst before sunrise, so it was still too dark to properly see what I’d come to photograph! “No matter” I thought, and went off to Uyeasound to watch the sunrise – and very nice it was too. But, whilst there, I caught sight of 3 fine herons, feeding amomg the kelp and low tide. It was very still and quiet but they let me get quite close. Unfortunately, the light was poor so these were all shot with a fast ISO that has resulted in a slight loss of detail but they’re all quite pleasing and, in any case, these are some of the closest shots I have of herons!

Waxcaps, Shetland

27 September, 2011

I’ve always known Shetland to be a pretty good place for waxcaps but I’m sure this year has been better than usual. Maybe it’s just my imagination? Anyway, here is a small selection of photos taken this year. When I get round to it I’ll put a proper selection over on Austin Taylor Photography

Sei whale at Firths Voe, Mossbank

8 September, 2011

Updated: ID confirmed as Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) by Dr Tom Jefferson, an acknowledged world cetacean expert and a visiting scientist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries in the USA. (NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific agency within the United States Department of Commerce focused on the conditions of the oceans and the atmosphere). Dr Jefferson very kindly confirmed the species following a request from the cetacean expert I contacted; and I have appended his statement below.

Dr Tom Jefferson said:

‘Yeah, I think (this is a) sei whale. I don’t know how reliable the color of the baleen plates really is, and I would be very reluctant to make an ID based only on that. But, a much more telling feature here is rostrum shape. This whale has a rostrum with a downturned tip, which is very characteristic of seis, and I have never seen it on minkes. I would say I’m 100% sure (this) one is a sei whale’.

Other additions/ updates to original post:

Date of previous confirmed Shetland sighting: 27th August 1993
Additional information about items used in making ID added
Additional details about sightings added
Additional general information about this species added

On 1 September I received a notification that there was a Minke whale in Firths Voe and it seemed to be hanging around. By lunchtime I had decided to go to try and see it because I had only seen 2 Minke whales previously and both had stranded and died meaning my experience of them was both limited and rather sad. So the chance to see a live and healthy Minke whale was one I couldn’t miss; the weather was good and I hoped to get some photos too.

I got to Mossbank as quickly as I could and found my friend George watching the whale; he had first let me know of its presence. I was very hurried because I had to get back to work; it was humid and still and the midges were awful – but the visibility was good and the whale wasn’t far offshore, often swimming in circles or up and down between 20 and 50 metres away. It was large and dark and I particularly noted its long, dark body, though I didn’t see its tail fluke above the water. I only saw 2 or 3 blows whilst I was there, these were fairly low and bushy – but not particularly powerful. It was a quite distinctive sound that carried in the still air.

The whale was feeding and, as it swam through the water it created quite a series of waves that rolled up against the rocky shore; there were 3 or 4 seals anxiously watching from a safe distance – though they were never in any danger from this animal. It fed in two ways, firstly in an upright form, powering forward at quite a good speed with its mouth open and just the pointed top of its head and front part of its baleen out of the water. It would then dive just below the surface and repeat that before arching its back, showing its dorsal fin and then going beneath the surface. The other way it fed was far more dramatic because the whale was on its side and showed its huge mouth, much of its baleen, its eye, throat grooves and pectoral fins – in this mode it became clear just how much the throat expands as it ploughs through the water scooping up water and whatever it was feeding on.

All too soon and, regrettably, I had to go. The consequence of that was, not only was I in too much of a hurry to get all the photos I wanted (the blow and a fluke shot are the ones I most regret not waiting for), but also I completely forgot about taking any video. None of this seemed too much of an issue at the time – I was just glad to get photos of what I thought was a healthy Minke whale!

It was a few days before I could process and review the images but when I started looking at them it was soon obvious this wasn’t like the two Minke whales I had seen previously; it was much larger, appeared dark all over (apart from the light colour under the throat that included some striking pink blotches) and some of the things I noticed at the time started to become quite obvious. The dorsal fin was larger and more upright, the pectoral fins were dark on top and underneath – both the two previous Minkes I had seen had light patches underneath and this is confirmed by the Evans and Cawardine guides I consulted. I estimate the whale to be in the region of 15m long, though that’s no more than a guess because I never saw more than a glimpse of body behind the dorsal fin and I didn’t see the blow holes and dorsal fins out of the water at the same time, though they came tantalisingly close on a number of occasions; this is, apparently typical of this species. I also didn’t see the tail stock or fluke.

I reviewed a number of websites to see if there were any definitive ID features and kept coming back to the pectoral fins, Minkes’ fins should have white bands underneath, though apparently this is variable. Coupled with the size (even if my estimate is wrong, I’m quite clear it was much larger than either Minke I had seen before), the colour, movements, all dark pectoral fins and strongly sickle shaped dorsal fin it seems to me that we saw a Sei whale.

At exactly the same time I was reaching my conclusion, George had received word back from Neil, a mutual friend much more experienced in identifying whales than I and he had concluded it was likely to be a Sei whale from George’s photos. Over the next few days I sought further opinion with the result that Sei whale is the confirmed ID of this animal.

Additional information that became known to me during those few days concerned the blow, the colour of the baleen plates and the rostrum (the beak-like upper jaw). Apparently, the blow of a Minke is seldom visible at all, even when heard, so the fact that it was visible at all was more important than I realised. Also, I later found out that, when leaving the Voe 2 days later the whale gave one large blow that was clearly visible from quite a distance; this information was recorded by another observer. In the case of the baleen plates, these are generally black in Sei whale and cream coloured in Minke whale. Finally, as noted above by Dr Jefferson, the distinctive rostrum is quite different to that found on the Minke and was decisive in identifying this animal.

One other thing that seems to be noted for this species is skimming for small prey, which may explain why it seemed to spend quite a lot of the time I saw it on its side, mouth open, before gently slipping just below the surface. In fact, this initially caused me some concern because I have witnessed other cetaceans swimming on their side that perished very shortly afterwards – though these were dolphins and a pilot whale.

Sei whales were hunted and, in common with other large whales, their population was heavily depleted, however it would seem that Sei whales have recovered somewhat more successfully from hunting than other large baleen whales. Their status is listed as “Vulnerable” by IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).

Images are here:


31 August, 2011

This is a rather belated post for June, with a few photos. I’ve been really busy these past summer months so not had much chance to post photos or update the blog due to various trips south, the Tall Ships visit, very busy with my photography business and, well, just summer stuff. It’s perhaps a good thing that I’ve spent less time in Shetland than I usually do this summer because the weather has been pretty poor here this year. I achieved a few firsts for me this June, including my first trip out to Uyea, where I walsked out one fine day with my daughter. On the way I managed to get a couple of good photos of a Dunlin and, later in the month got my first decent photo of a Shetland bumblebee – though, of course, I’ve seen many of these. I also saw some noctilucent clouds and we visited Unst, where I managed to photograph Muness castle in the sunshine – almost another first!

Also in June we headed south to a wedding of some good friends in Devon and while there captured images of dipper, water boatmen and dunnock; I had previously not photographed any of these before. I’ve also included photos of a few other animals and birds, not all of them wild and some that we saw whilst at the Eden Project.

Long-finned Pilot whale at Garths Voe, Shetland

14 May, 2011

I got a message in the morning of 12th May about a pilot whale (also known as caain’ whale in Shetland) in the Houb of Scatsta but shortly afterwards another message to say that it didn’t look well. Given its location and its suggested condition I decided not to go and look. However, further news came through today that, whilst it had stranded, it had subsequently freed itself and was now “50m out” from the head of the voe so I thought it sounded a bit more promising and decided to take a look – me and a lot of other folk!

When I got there it was soon obvious that it was in poor condition and not at all well. The rear part of its body behind the dorsal fin seldom came to the surface and its fluke hardly emerged at all. It’s body seemed somehow slightly curved laterally and it was as though lack of buoyancy was pulling it down at the rear – its fin was fairly low in the water much of the time and leaning over slightly. The poor animal did little more than swim round anti-clockwise close to shore (sometimes within 5m) whilst I was there.

I have posted some photos and aim to update here if I get any further news.

Long-finned pilot whale at Garths Voe, Shetland

Sunny day in the Bonnie Isle (Whalsay)

10 May, 2011

As those of you in Shetland will know, Whalsay is known as the Bonnie Isle and I went there today, for 2 reasons. Firstly, I am attending a craft fair there in a few days’ time and I wanted to update my stock of images – it’s quite some time since I had been to Whalsay and the forecast was good. Secondly, I’ve been so busy in April that I didn’t even have time for a blog post so I decided to take a few days off and I love roaming the countryside at this time of year – well any time of year, really!

So there you have it – a short blog post especially for those readers who like short blog posts. I would just add that I was delighted to see group of red admiral butterflies at Whalsay Kirk – not what I’d call a swarm, but quite a few, nonetheless. The other photos are some of the views I captured.

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.