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Gannets Galore and Puffin Flights!

With a break in the winds that looked like they were going to be present throughout our week here on Shetland, our first day trip with  our ‘Ultimate Shetland’ group was on the Mousa Boat, heading out to the impressive seabird colonies on Noss. Although the wind was relatively low, the crossing was pretty spectacular and quite choppy. As we neared the cliffs of Noss, the mist began to lift, revealing the wonderful spectacle that is a seabird colony. The smell of guano (the droppings of the seabirds) wafted  and their calls filled the air. I’m afraid my lurching stomach meant I did not take many photos as we neared the cliffs… I was content just to watch this spectacle as trying to photograph on the moving boat made me feel rather queasy!

The cliffs here are home to numerous breeding colonies of gannet and guillemot. They occupy almost every space on the cliff, their droppings painting the surfaces like some monochrome work of art. It is truly spectacular and the scale is difficult to capture on a photo.

As if that view wasn’t wonderful enough, the experience was about to get even more spectacular! Darren and Rodney from The Mousa Boat prepare to throw fish off the back of the boat. The gannets know what to expect and start swirling around in huge numbers. As the fish start hitting the water, then the gannets start plummeting from the sky all around us; wings folding and them entering the water at frightening speeds. The sea became a heaving mass of spray, gannets and other seabirds all fighting for the fish prize!

It is exhilarating to watch and a big challenge to photograph! The easiest ploy is to focus where the fish enters the water, then fire off shots at a high shutter speed, hoping to capture something that is representative of the turmoil!….

This year, my aim was to try to capture images of the gannets as they dived, showing the wonderful way in which they fold their wings when entering the water. This happens too fast in real time for the eye and brain to process it. It is only when you look at the photographs that you truly appreciate this wonderful feat. Considering this dive is over in a split second, it is almost impossible to capture in focus, unless you choose one bird in flight and follow it until it dives. That is the technique I tried to follow….. I had far too many failures to mention, but if you take enough images, you are bound to get some you are pleased with….

I captured one image that has to be my favourite. With the blustery conditions, the gannets often turned and stalled for a fraction of a second before diving. I was really lucky with this shot, as it all came together with a symmetrical pre-dive stall and two, isolated birds in the background…

Still buzzing from the whole experience, we landed on shore, had lunch, then headed to Grutness; an area where the arctic terns nest in the boulders. Carefully walking a short distance a long the path, we stopped to watch from a distance, anxious not to disturb these birds, most of which are on nests.

The terns hovered above us like aerial angels; their wings and tail so beautifully framed against the blue skies….

Jumping back in the minibus, it was just a short run up to Sumburgh Head. Again, this is a wonderful place to see a range of seabirds. The cliffs below were lined with guillemot, and arctic skuas and fulmars soared the skies next to the cliffs. The puffins were abundant on the thrift covered grassy banks and they provided ample opportunity for everyone to get good views and take photos. These comical little birds are just so photogenic!

I always like to try to photograph these guys in flight. The winds had dropped, so they were coming into the cliffs pretty fast. They are very rapid fliers and seem to appear from nowhere! A high shutter speed and quick reactions are needed to capture anything in focus!

With some time to recover from the day’s wildlife spectacles , I walked to the beach just below the hotel  and  watched sanderling and eider along the coast..

After supper, we had a few hours before we were off out again at 10pm, to return to The Mousa Boat, this time to head out to Mousa itself, to see the storm petrels. The  Isle of Mousa, with its ancient Iron Age broch and incredible wildlife, is a magical place to visit during the day, but even more special at night. We were visiting to see the storm petrels. Over 6000 of these birds nest here in the rocks and within the broch. They return to their nesting sites in darkness to avoid predation. As we are so far North, it does not get completely dark here in Shetland at this time if the year and it is a wonderful experience.

The storm petrels start calling as soon as it is getting dark and their strange, mechanical calls can be heard from inside the stone walls and rock piles.

The Bushnell night vision was able to pick up these tiny birds, like bats, flying around the ancient Broch and across the rocks, looking for their nesting space. This footage was captured last year with the Bushnell Equinox night vision.

One year, we found an individual nesting very bear the entrance to the broch and I was able to set the Equinox up on a tripod to gain a unique view…

Standing in the half light, with the petrels flitting around you, is a magical experience and we all headed home with our minds full of the wonderful wildlife we had seen in just one day!


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