Well thankfully the weather has been steadily improving, although it really isn’t summer yet. Still nippy and a few showers, but at least a little sun. On Orkney we had a pretty gorgeous day actually, and even got to see a rare meterological phenomenon, a total solar halo. Absolutely gorgeous and managed to get some great photos. I led a short bird walk around the port area, and we had some nice views of common terns surface plunging on a small pond, with a few other bits and bobs. The afternoon was primarily then a bus tour of the historic sites of Orkney, such as Skarra Brae, Maeshowe, etc. I had visited most of these places last year with Noble Caledonia on the M/V Island Sky, however, this was my first visit to Maeshowe. This site is a Neolithic burial chamber mound, one of the best preserved in Europe. You enter through a stone corridor about 10m long, but only about 1.3m tall so you have to crouch to get through. When properly inside you can stand up and it has lights in it so you can see the construction properly. Basically it is constructed from stone with no mortar in the original version, it really is pretty impressive. However, I think the coolest thing is all the Viking graffiti which happened well after the mound was constructed, when Vikings raided the area, and broke into the chamber, probably hoping to find valuables. They basically inscribed runes in a bunch of different places on the stone, and it really gives the whole place an even more atmospheric feel. I doubt that in time to come we will be viewing street graffiti in the same way, but you never know.
There were a few birds around the place, with skylark and meadow pipit at some of the sites, and a lot of rook, lapwing and oystercatcher in the fields as we drove. Didn’t manage to find any hen harrier or short-eared owls this time (as I did last time), but did get dunlin, redshank, and ringed plover at a loch near Skarra Brae. So we had the solar halo for about ½ hour in the afternoon and then visited the house where John Rae was born, on the shoreline just out of Stromness.
Back at the ship for the evening with a bunch of local musicians onboard. A good friend and fellow ship expedition staff member, Russ Evans, joined us with his wife Kate and little daughter, and so it was good to catch up with him. We actually had a curry in town, before then catching some more of the local musical talent back onboard the ship. We ended up sailing out towards Shetland on a lovely calm evening around 11pm.
Next day we arrived off Papa Stour on the west coast of Shetland early in the morning. It was a little drizzly and cool, but the wind wasn’t too bad, although there was a little swell at the platform for disembarking the passengers for a zodiac cruise. I radioed the Bridge to just ask if there was any chance of manoeuvring the ship to lessen the swell at the platform. However, this got completely misconstrued and before I knew it the Bridge was talking about totally repositioning the ship! Not my intention! So then Capt Peter ends up on the stern looking down at the platform (which of course had calmed down a bit), and together him and the Boson completely took the mickey... So needless to say we stayed where we were and embarked the first load of passengers. We did two awesome zodiac cruises along the coast of Papa Stour which has these incredible sea caves. Some of them were several hundred metres long, with openings in the ceiling, others long and winding and opening right out at the other end. We went into one cave which would have been at least 300m+ long with several tight turns in the middle. This meant you had to use a torch to see as it was pitch black, and I managed to get right in to a point where you could see the other end, but it was just a little too rough with swell coming right in from the other side. Very very cool, and probably the best place I have ever done a zodiac cruise with sea caves. Those on Bear Island (between Norway and Svalbard) are great, but this was something else. Another of the caves we went in to went back about 100m, and the first cruise we went into it and the tide was up a little, but the second time the tide had dropped and there must have been a chamber that had become exposed because with the waves it sounded like the whole cave was breathing. The booming from the waves at the back of the cave was so loud and deep it reverberated right through your body, almost sounding like the heart-beat of the island. But the rushing of air through the cave which sounded like breathing was so loud and intense it was making my ears pop. An absolutely incredible feeling! There were a few birds around as well, with shags nesting in and near the caves and small numbers of guillemots, razorbills, puffins and kittiwakes around the cliffs. A couple of Arctic skua near the island were our first of the trip. Back at the ship the Captain presented my with a certificate for ‘Zodiac Bravery’, - made out to Dr Brenda Stephenson, along with a lovely pink Clipper Odyssey polo shirt and new name badge (Dr Brenda Stephenson)...next time I think I will just shut up!
We repositioned over lunch to Foula, where we went ashore at the main settlement. The weather improved slightly for most of the afternoon, with a small shower towards the end of the day. We did a clifftop walk with a chap called Andrew Grieve who spends a good amount of time out on Foula birding and doing surveys. He took us down to a small garden near the landing which had a vagrant wood warbler, as well as chiffchaff, house sparrows, etc. He mentioned there had been a male brambling earlier in the day, and when I went back after the walk was lucky enough to see it. A beaut bird in stonking breeding plumage, my first for the UK. Along the cliffs we spotted a few of the usual suspects, where they were nesting along the ledges, etc. A few common eiders and a non-breeding great northern diver were nice, and then heading inland we passed a loch where there was a sizeable ‘club’ of non-breeding great skua, plus a red-throated diver. There were lots of nesting great skua around, as well as a few pairs of Arctic skua, curlew, and oystercatcher. We also made a discovery of the very rare Foula meerkat, a distinct sub-species which has only been photographed once or twice before (ha ha ha).
We headed back to the ship for dinner, again with a few of the locals heading out for dinner with us, and then enjoying a bit of musical mayhem. It was another good night and an absolutely gorgeous atmospheric sunset with the town and island in the semi-showery weather, and the sun setting behind it. Got some great photos.
Next day saw us off the shore of Mousa, this time on the eastern side of Shetland. We went ashore to see the largest broch in Europe, which this island is renowned for. The smell of storm-petrels breeding in the broch was incredible, with the odd touch of wing or tail visible in some of the cracks between the stones. The construction of the broch is incredible, again with no mortar. I led a bird walk, and again there were a lot of nesting great skua around, with the odd one showing people they meant business if they got too close to the nest. We managed to avoid any irate skua, and on the other side of the island found there was a large Arctic tern colony, as well as grey seals, common eiders and a few dunlin. Nesting redshank, oystercatcher, and Arctic skua were about, and a wren obviously had a nest in one of the stone walls near the shoreline as it was collecting mouthfuls of moths and flys to feed to its chicks. One of the evocative sounds of spring in some places is the ‘drumming’ of snipe, and a sound I haven’t heard for many years. So I was excited to find at least two male common snipe zooming around their territories ‘drumming’. Basically the males fly around their territories at some height, and frequently make small dives, at the same time spreading their tail feathers, and as the air rushes through the tail over the feathers it causes them to vibrate and make a loud buzzing noise. At one point there were two males obviously in neighbouring territories whizzing around the sky doing it, a real sight to behold and I even managed a couple of photos.
Back onboard we again repositioned over lunch, and early afternoon saw us just off North Haven in Fair Isle. We zodiaced ashore and then the birders headed up to the puffin cliffs near the observatory, whilst others headed off to the community centre, etc. There was a bit of cloud around, but every now and then the sun came through, and at times the light was just perfect. The puffins were in full force and we had an absolutely awesome time with about 2.5 hours spent on the cliffs with these little ‘clowns’. A few chicks had obviously hatched, with some birds coming in with small fish in their bills, but mostly they were still incubating, and some seemed to still be going through the motions of lining their nests etc. The thrift was still in flower and a gorgeous back drop for photography, and it was just a great time to really get some good shots of this species. I’ve been to a bunch of puffin colonies before, but this was the first time without wind, rain, fog, or some other form of inclement weather, and so I pretty much went crazy! I ended up taking approximately 2174 photos of puffins! By the end of it I think I had photos of puffins in almost every pose, and the light and backgrounds, etc were just stunning. Capturing some of the puffins running with nesting material was a lot of fun, and one bird in particular was in just the right spot to capture him running up and down a slight slope around his burrow. I got some really nice shots which I am very happy with, some of them are posted below. I’m definitely still looking forward to puffins in Iceland though, as by then they will be in full swing feeding chicks and bringing fish back to the colony.
I headed back down to the landing site, spotting a very confiding rock pipit on the way and getting a few shots of it on the cliff top, and again against a backdrop of thrift and sea. Back onboard we again had some locals from Fair Isle come to the ship for dinner and more musical madness.
The next day we awoke just off of the Scottish coast north of Aberdeen. We went ashore in a small fishing port called Gruden and joined busses for a short drive in to Aberdeen. We had free time at the botanic gardens (got some shots of mallards and gulls), before more free time in Aberdeen itself. I ended up at a small pub checking email and doing some work, before getting back on the bus and heading to Dunnottar Castle, just south of Aberdeen. This castle is set out on a small lump of rock which is only just connected to the mainland by a small amount of land. By now there was beautiful sunshine and the views up and down the coast from this castle were absolutely stunning. The castle itself is basically a collection of ruins, with no roof or windows in most of it, but set in an amazing landscape. There were a lot of herring gulls nesting on and around the ruins, and kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills down on some of the cliffs and stacks nearby. I was shown a herring gull nest down low in one of the sections of the castle and managed to get a few cool images with my wide angle lens.
We then headed on down the coast and rejoined the ship at the main port in Montrose, a small seaside town. It was the Captain’s Farewell party and then a ‘Variety Show’ afterwards. There was much merriment and a few drinks, before a crew party down in the crew mess...needless to say I was feeling a little slow the next morning during disembarkation! A good night! We had disembarkation of the Adventure Canada group in the morning, and then Capt Peter and I headed in to town for some lunch. Back onboard in the afternoon it was time for the next group to come onboard, with a Zegrahm’s group arriving around 1630. More ridiculous security checks, and then we sailed at around 1800. Lucky for us the seas were really flat, with light breezes, and as we headed out into the North Sea it was hard to believe we were in a place renowned for horrendous weather. We saw a few of the usual suspects as we headed out – puffins, gannets, razorbills, guillemots, a few Manx shearwaters, and sandwich, common and Arctic terns. It’s off to the Baltic we go!
|Northern lapwing on Orkney, fairly common...at the moment
|Early purple orchid on Orkney
|Common redshank getting pantsy
|Common cotton grass
|And a close up
|Meadow pipit on Orkney
|Oh yeah! Full solar halo! And a stunning Aaron Russ as a model!
|Cave on Papa Stour
|And again, the beautiful Mike Beedell in control
|More in the caves of Papa Stour
|Northern fulmar bathing off Foula
|Northern fulmar off Foula
|Northern fulmar flying off Foula
|Northern fulmar taking off at Foula
|Marsh marigold on Foula
|Squills on Foula
|Spotted orchid on Foula
|The VERY rare Foula meerkat!
|Arctic skua on Foula
|Shetland pony pony!
|Shetland pony pony and mum on Foula
|Sunset on Foula
|Sunset on Foula
|Beads of rain on the railing of the ship in sunset off Foula
|The broch on Mousa
|Black guillemot in the broch on Mousa
|Great skua on Mousa
|Ha ha ha...that kiwi is a funny guy!!
|Great skua in flight on Mousa
|Arctic tern on Mousa
|Mr Wren coming home with food for the berns!
|Common snipe drumming
|The broch and ship on Mousa
|The broch on Mousa
|Puffin with fish for babies on Fair Isle
|Puffin! You're so boring!
|Puffin! You're so boring!
|Puffin! You're so boring!
|Aaron Russ and Mike Beedell trying to find the elusive puffin!
|Puffin strutting his stuff!
|Puffin and fish
|Puffin and flies
|Mike Beedell at work
|Rock pipit on the edge
|Mallard...just for Sav cos' I know he loves ducks!
|The gateway...near some castle on the Aberdeen coast
|The castle south of Aberdeen
|'Mongst the ramparts!
|Apparently a chapel
|Herring gull on the lookout
|I'll bite you!
|My certificate of bravery...cheers Capt Peter!