Monday, 31 May 2010

Migrants and moons

Spring is trying to appear, and every now and again there is a lovely day of sunshine, with the wind dropping enough for you to feel the warmth coming through. The flowers seem to have noticed, Early purple orchids, Spotted heath orchids, Spring squill, violets are all flowering nicely, and the bumble bees are busy gathering nectar and pollen. The Sycamore trees are flowering too, and at Halligarth woods the canopy is buzzing away with bees and other insects. Calling Halligarth a wood may be pushing reality slightly, but it's the closest thing we have up here, measuring about 50m by 50m, it is the remains of an old agroforestry experiment. The Sycamore trees are of a reasonable size, in the centre they are around 10m tall.

Bill-tapping Puffins

Puffins are incubating, or at least, I think they're incubating! As they are down their burrows I can't see, but they havn't started bringing in fish yet, fingers crossed for a good year for them. Earlier this month it was the perfect time to watch these highly amusing birds bill tapping. I spent an evening sitting on the cliff-top with the Puffins wandering around me, curious as to what I was, tugging at my shoe laces, and coming far too close for my camera, I ended up using my phone camera.


I found a nice male Crossbill over at Norwick, feeding on old rose hips, it's always slightly strange to see these birds when you would usually associate them with coniferous forests.

Although there havn't been huge numbers of migrants, we have had a few nice birds. A Red-rumped Swallow was spotted at Norwick, but then dissapeared. Fortunately it appeared in Haroldswick the next day, and a group of us were able to sit on the coast and watch it feeding on insects over the seaweed, with a group of Barn Swallows. Getting photos was quite tricky, the fast flight and sudden changes of direction made things difficult, but persistance paid off with a few good shots.

Red-rumped Swallow

Little Ringed Plover

A Little Ringed Plover visited Skaw beach for a few days, this is the first time this species has been recorded on Unst, so it was a great bird to be able to see.

Yawning Puffin

Bonxie (Great Skua) displaying

The Bonxies displaying quite a bit at the moment, protecting their territories from other birds. Their calls and the white wing patches really stand out on the hill. I have just completed the first part of their monitoring, mapping out all the territories within a specific study plot on the side of Hermaness hill. Numbers are good, and have been stable over the last few years.

The recent full moon is named after the flowers that are all coming into bloom at the moment, and it made a nice appearance through the clouds across burrafirth the other night. There also seems to be plenty of aurora activity at the moment, but the light nights now obscure it which is a bit of a shame, but brings it's own special night-time magic.
Flower moon

I can't believe that May is pretty much out! Monitoring carries on as normal, and I'm actually going away for a weekend! All the way to Cambridge for a reunion of the descendents of members of Scott's expedition to Antarctica. It promises to be a long weekend, but hopefully worthwhile, I'll get to see family too which will be great. Take care everyone.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Working in the sunshine, what an office!

It's on days like this (Friday) you really know why you do a job like this. Glorious sunshine, a gentle breeze, birds migrating and birds getting on with breeding. I have to admit, having this view for an 'office' is pretty good.

The section of cliff that has been crumbling into the sea over the last couple of years seems to have remained fairly intact over the winter. The nice new signs that I put out last year seem to have attracted quite a bit of attention though. Beak marks can be clearly seen in the tattered remains, some of the signs have corners missing, and some have come off completely!

Monitoring work is under way, the Gannets have started laying eggs, Kittiwakes are on their nests, Guillemots and Razorbills have taken up residence on the ledges and amongst the boulders, Puffins have come back to their burrows, and the Bonxies are ever watchful for their next meal!

Each year monitoring takes place at fixed study plots at different places on the cliffs, these are photographed and each nest numbered. Each nest is followed through the breeding season so productivity can be measured.

 Gannet Study plot

 A beautiful Gannet surrounded by human rubbish

Migrants are still coming through, Willow Warblers and Chiff Chaffs are flitting through the bushes, and they have even been singing in the sunshine which is a nice sound of spring that doesn't happen all that much up here. One impressive bird to get this far north is a Hoopoe. Brydon Thomason spotted one at Hermaness and immediately put out the message to locals and came and got me to go and find it. Unfortunately it had disappeared, but it was an excellent record. The Shore Station garden was living up to it's reputation as a sheltered place for the occasional migrant. As well as two Chiff Chaffs (one singing) there was a nice male Pied Flycatcher who was happily feeding from the bushes while I watched quietly from behind the wall.

Male Pied Flycatcher

Early in the day a local birder/photographer and friend Rob Brookes had spotted a Sea Eagle flying over his home so the rest of us were keeping our eyes peeled. On the way back from the cliffs I got a quick call from Brydon to say that there was a Sea Eagle just heading over the hill from the reserve carpark. It was coming my way and the first I knew was that all the Bonxies were all up in the air, not something that happens often as they are usually the top of the food chain. The Eagle flew across the reserve, and came directly over my head, I could see it looking down at me, and he circled a few times before heading off North East and gaining some impressive height. This bird is tagged as number 08 from a reintroduction project, you can see the wing tags in my photo.

 Juvenile Sea Eagle

Writing this unfortunately it's turned cold again, but hopefully it'll brighten up again very soon and give the migrants a chance to pass our way!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Return to Shetland

With the onset of spring it is again time for me to follow the lead of the birds and migrate northwards for the summer. This will be my third year as warden of two National Nature Reserves, Hermaness and the Keen of Hamar.

Before the monitoring work really kicks in there is a bit of time to get everything at the visitor centre sorted out. This year required more work than usual having had a new roof last year, part of the visitor centre had to have a new ceiling and be re-plastered. After a good day of cleaning though it all looked respectable again.

Black-tailed Godwit

Whilst there are lots of summer birds arriving in the UK, up here things are not surprisingly a bit later. There are Wheatears, Willow Warblers, Chiff Chaffs, Black-tailed Godwits, Ring Ouzels, Redwings, Fieldfares mostly passing through on their way to Scandinavia.

Great Norther Diver in summer plumage

One of 3 Ring Ouzels


A number of the breeding birds are getting down to business, Curlew can be seen on top of rocks and grassy hummocks, performing display flights and calling out with their beautiful bubbling call.


Lapwing in irridescent summer plumage

For me there have been some more speciel arrivals too. My first ever Snowy Owl, literally 5mins drive down the road. A really magnificent bird to see, it was a little distant and there was a lot of heat haze too so not great for photographs, but a treat none the less.

Snowy Owl

The end of a period of sunspot minima sees more sunspots, and more solar flares and coronal mass ejections. If they burst out in the right direction, towards earth, then we are in for a treat in the form of aurora. Over the last few days there have been some incredible solar storms, unfortulately it has been cloudy in Shetland so we havn't been able to see them. Back on the 24th April however it was clear, and we were able to see the aurora borealis. It is a real treat to be able to step out of your back door and see the magical light dancing in the sky.

Aurora borealis and star trails. The hill to the left is Hermaness
and to the right is Saxa Vord with the military radar station.