Tag: photography

 

We are delighted to announce that we have yet again won an award, this time in the Travel & Hospitality Awards 2024……more coming soon with a press release. THANK YOU!!

 

 

 

 

“Not what we were expecting when we woke up yesterday morning……A BELUGA !!! a high Arctic marine mammal in the sub-zero winter wonderland Shetland is currently experiencing, to get to the site was hard enough, but worth every freezing moment for a once in a lifetime wildlife sighting”

A stunning ivory white BELUGA whale was spotted off West Ayre in Hillswick yesterday morning by Margaret and Jeff Tungatt who contacted the admin of the local Cetacean WhatsApp page with the sighting, then made public mid-morning. Phil, Ayda (8) & I tried to head out north but the weather with pure arctic conditions, thick snow & drift made our plans impossible & we turned back. However around 1pm, the weather improved & we again set of north in our 4×4. We made a diversion to pick up good friend & ace cameraman & drone photographer Richard Shucksmith & made it to West Ayre, Hillswick about an hour before dark. The sea was very dark & skies ominous as we scanned the bay, & almost immediately picked up the incredible sight of a ghostly ivory white large BELUGA, regularly surfacing & clearly visible at distance contrasting against the dark water. The large, active animal appeared healthy, feeding & regularly diving for a few minutes at a time, we could even follow it’s white shape below the surface. Beluga apparently feed on various fish species as well as crabs, octopus, squid & snails & this one could be seen up-ending to feed on a couple of occasions.

Richard captured breath-taking drone footage of this rare Arctic & Sub-Arctic marine mammal (seriously doesn’t get better than that please check it out!! LINK here: https://fb.watch/pEVp-PJU8G/ & it was hugely exciting for all four of us to not only watch the animal surfacing & see it’s iconic ‘melon-head’ shape & beautiful tail shape at distance, but also enjoy it ‘live’ via Richard’s drone camera. I got some distant record shots & a nice little video which serves as a perfect memory of Shetland’s 6th BELUGA. It was a very special moment for all of us at Shetland Seabird Tours – The Noss Boat, & one we will remember for years to come. Rebecca has previously seen Beluga in Spitsbergen whilst guiding there is 2012 but it was a world cetacean tick for everyone else. It is still present today 18th January 2024 & we hope if the weather improves many others will get to enjoy seeing they spectacular, iconic Arctic species as the weather improves. It is difficult to know exactly why the Beluga is here in Shetland waters, along with the 5 other Beluga records, we have also had Bearded Seals & Walrus on the Isles of the the last few years. These are all high arctic species & we must consider that these rare but increasing sightings are highly likely the result of climate change & the aptly named climate catastrophe we are faced with today. The strong northerly storms & arctic weather front we have been experiencing of late, may also have caused the Hillswick Beluga to have become disorientated & separated from it’s pod, & of course although it looks healthy, we never really know if there are more serious individual, internal health issues at play. We hope it will feed well whilst here & be able to make it’s way back further north as soon as possible.

ON THE BELOW LINK FOR OUR VIDEO OF THE BELUGA SURFACING OFF HILLSWICK.

https://www.instagram.com/reel/C2N-dtCxOoY/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igsh=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==

 

Loch Ness Monster or …… A BELUGA!
BELUGA BAY – West Ayre Bay, Hillswick.
Shetland in spring.
25/05/2023
Rebecca Nason/SHETLAND SEABIRD TOURS – THE NOSS BOAT
Shetland in autumn is a special place for local and visiting birders. It is undeniably the place to be, sharing its gold status only with the warmer, comparatively tropical and long-established destination of the Isles of Scilly, in the extreme south-west of Britain (see Birdwatch 351: 42-44). But Shetland is now on every birder’s radar as the leaves curl brown, and exciting, volatile weather systems start to form.

Shetland’s ‘mega’ status in autumn has developed over the years due it to producing unparalleled extreme vagrants, from both Siberia and North America. Being a string of more than 100 small islands isolated in the North Sea, it is the perfect location to host off-course, lost vagrants and create a hotbed of excitement for anyone out looking for them. Of course, the islands are also landfall for more expected common and scarce autumn migrants, often in large numbers, moving to warmer climes and more accessible food sources further south, away from the harsh northern winters.

The number of birders visiting Shetland in autumn has never been higher – partly because of its illustrious recent birding history, which serves as a magnet for teams to undertake annual pilgrimages north, but also as a welcome movement for more ‘local’ travel over long-haul destinations with the climate crisis firmly on our minds. There was also the knock-on effect of more enforced localised travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether through restrictions in travel, logistical difficulties or a new-found sense of enjoyment, with what’s on our doorsteps with ‘staycations’ favoured over foreign birding. Shetland has never seemed more appealing as a get-away destination for those wanting to enjoy some quality autumn birding. But it shouldn’t only be synonymous with autumn. Perhaps not as widely known about is that we do spring here, too – and it can be rather more spectacular than you might imagine!


A classic Shetland scene: a Puffin, with sandeel snack, sits pretty against the looming backdrop of the cliffs of Hermaness. Late spring and early summer can be brilliant for producing rare migrants across the isles, with the added bonus of thousands of breeding seabirds to marvel at (Rebecca Nason).

If you think you know Shetland from your previous autumn visits, think again – experiencing the islands in spring is a world away from the ‘fifty shades of brown’ you might be used to. The whole ‘feel’, as well as climate, are different, making it seem like a totally separate destination and experience. From May onwards, the islands are an explosion of colour, of seabirds, of waders and – of course – exciting migrants to keep all who visit on their toes and with hands firmly on the binoculars.

Seabird Central

More than a million seabirds call Shetland home in the relatively short summer season. The islands become a raucous hive of activity with 22 breeding seabird species, 18 of which are found in internationally important numbers. Shetland’s vast coastline and rich, highly productive waters create the perfect breeding grounds and a wildlife spectacle hard to beat in Europe, if not the world.

May is the month that seabirds return in big numbers and when breeding activity starts in earnest, reaching fever pitch into June. The cliffs burst into colour, with pink Thrift and blue hues of Spring Squill lightly swaying on the warm sea air. There are few stretches of coastline without Northern Fulmars cackling as they enjoy the air currents, and several hot-spots will see you eye-to-eye with Puffin, Razorbill, Guillemot, Kittiwake, Arctic Tern, Great and Arctic Skuas, plus the resident Black Guillemot.

The majority of seabirds have, as elsewhere in the UK, suffered declines in recent years, in part at least due to the lack of sandeels, on which many depend. Conversely, Northern Gannet and Great Skua numbers have increased across the isles, due to a less restrictive diet and ability to adapt in the face of increasingly fast environmental changes. Shetland still remains a stronghold for many seabirds and these form at the very least a background highlight for any birder’s spring trip.


Common Snipe is a common and familiar breeder across Shetland, with noisy birds displaying from fence posts (Rebecca Nason).

The biggest seabird colonies are found on Fair Isle, Foula, Hermaness on Unst, and Noss, which is off Bressay; the last two are home to huge and increasing Northern Gannet colonies set in breathtaking scenery. There are ample opportunities to enjoy seabirds at close quarters both as a birder and photographer in Shetland, not least by taking a walk up to the heady cliffs at Hermaness, where you will be greeted en route by Great Skuas and arrive to an amphitheatre of gannets and Puffins in spectacular surroundings.

As an alternative, taking the Noss Boat tours from Lerwick to experience more than 25,000 gannets from sea level, nesting on towering weathered sandstone cliffs and rocket-diving for fish around the boat, is hard to beat. The 2,000-year-old Mousa Broch monument is alive with European Storm Petrels at night during the summer months, most arriving back in May, and an evening Mousa Island boat trip is a special experience not to be missed.

For those seeking the most photographed seabird in the world, Puffin, then Sumburgh Head is the best location, being a firm favourite site with locals and visitors alike thanks to the added bonus of a lighthouse, marine exhibition centre and café – and it can be a great place to find rarities!

 

Abundant waders

Away from the coast in spring, the moorlands and globally important blanket peat bogs take on attractive mauve tones, broken by swathes of Cottongrass and damp flushes. These wonderful northern habitats, and the historically less-intensively managed croft lands, are home to a wealth of breeding shorebirds.


A trip to Shetland in late spring and early summer should produce the delightful Red-necked Phalarope, which breeds in small numbers across the archipelago (Rebecca Nason).

You cannot fail to notice the sheer number of waders between May and the end of July. The densities are a reminder of what other parts of Britain were once like before widespread post-war agricultural intensification. Thirteen species nest in total, often in an abundance hard to match in other parts of Britain – 11 are found in internationally important numbers.

Common Snipe is a regular sight and evocative sound of a Shetland spring, from bold strategical fence-post podiums to the drumming vibrations filling the wide skies alongside displaying Northern Lapwing, Common Redshank, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Eurasian Curlew. Other moorland and peat bog sites, particularly in the outer islands, provide favourable habitats for breeding Dunlin and European Golden Plover, as well as forming the nesting grounds for more than 95% of the British population of Whimbrel. Ringed Plovers enjoy a plethora of undisturbed beaches and Common Sandpipers bob along stream fringes. Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwit are rarer breeders, with neither confirmed annually.

Red-necked Phalarope is an iconic feature of the isles that returns from wintering grounds along the west coast of South America in May, with the highest densities on Fetlar. A visit to Shetland in spring is surely not complete without a visit to see these stunning waders. If you are lucky, you may come across phalaropes at other sites in the isles, particularly on ‘feeding lochs’ as they make their journey back to Fetlar and other isolated breeding localities. The RSPB has been highly successful recently in improving targeted habitat management for these birds at key sites, particularly at its flagship Fetlar reserve.

On the multitude of lochs across the isles, two other rare breeders are quite easily encountered. Red-throated Diver is perhaps the most enigmatic Shetland breeding species in summer, with many paired up on lochs by late May or commonly seen fishing offshore. Whooper Swans also nest in small numbers.


Northern Gannet is one seabird species that is thriving in Shetland, with particularly impressive colonies on Unst and Noss. Boat trips give brilliant opportunities to see them up close (Rebecca Nason).

So, with a backdrop of frenetic breeding-bird activity across the isles, visiting birders in spring and early summer will have plenty to occupy themselves when migration is slow or winds are unfavourable. With so many birders taking to photography these days, there is a bounty of opportunity at every turn. Another big plus in spring is the light, with very long daylight hours when compared to the frustratingly short days of autumn. Light combines with more settled weather to provide a real advantage – even doubling field birding hours compared to the autumn. You can bird until teatime and well beyond!

Migration Season

What can you expect with spring migration across the isles? Movement starts in March, though only really picks up from the beginning of May onwards – spring is much later here in the far north of Britain. It’s also worth noting that there are smaller numbers of birds than in autumn, when many youngsters will be making their way south for the first time. However, the birds you do see have the added glamour of being in fine breeding plumage. Many will also show incredibly well, with limited vegetation cover and disturbance, meaning plenty of spring highlights can be enjoyed at close range and without the crowds.

On top of a host of common migrants, classic scarce overshoots by mid-May (given suitable weather conditions) could include Red-backed Shrike Bluethroat, Wryneck and Common Rosefinch, with regular visitors such as Rustic Bunting, Thrush Nightingale, subalpine warblers and Marsh and Icterine Warblers all tending to be much more regular here than anywhere else in Britain.

Spring Blyth’s Reed Warbler records have notably increased in recent years, too. Other scarce or rare migrants typical of this time may include Red-rumped Swallow, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, European Nightjar, European Bee-eater, Woodchat Shrike, Citrine Wagtail and Paddyfield Warbler. Interestingly, the mega-rare Green Warbler has now been recorded five times in Shetland in spring or early summer out of a total of just eight national records.


A colourful array of typical late spring and early summer scarcities that may be found in Shetland include Red-backed Shrike (top) and Common Rosefinch (James Hanlon / Helen Perry).

The majority of Shetland’s scarce and rare spring birds are found after periods of south-easterly winds. Even light winds will bring in migrants, either propelled north from southern Europe or pushed west as they head for Scandinavia. But there are also increasingly regular records of American vagrants making landfall in Shetland in spring, just to add to the honeypot of possibilities!

Then there are the ‘big’ birds – the extreme vagrants that visitors may dream of. History tells us that they happen here with regularity. Who can forget the Pallas’s Sandgrouse at Quendale in May 1990 – a bird that was widely twitched from the mainland. Another very popular bird was the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater in June 1997, with other standout finds from various points of the compass including Caspian Plover at Skelberry on 3-4 June 1996, Rose-breasted Grosbeak at West Burra on 3-4 May 2016 and Black-and-white Warbler at Aithsetter in late May 2020.

Of course, Fair Isle and its constant coverage stands head and shoulders above the rest, boasting an unforgettable list of extreme vagrants in May that includes Brown-headed Cowbird, Thick-billed Warbler, Song Sparrow and White-throated Sparrows, multiple Calandra Larks and Collared Flycatchers, and Steller’s Eider. Migrants keep appearing well into June, with later highlights having included Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Hermit Thrush, Myrtle Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and the famous Citril Finch of June 2008.

Spring birding days can be fabulously varied and frequently brilliant across the isles. The quotes below are surely enough reason to get the pulses racing and a spring trip to Shetland firmly on the staycation radar.

Rob Fray wrote in the Shetland Bird Report 2018: “All of this was a prelude to possibly the most remarkable 24-hour period in the long history of Shetland birding: late afternoon on 14 May produced Shetland’s first Marmora’s Warbler at Baliasta, Unst, a Black-faced Bunting nearby at Norwick, and Shetland’s first Eurasian Crag Martin on Fair Isle. By mid-afternoon on 15th a Song Sparrow on Fair Isle, a Terek Sandpiper at Virkie and European Bee-eater at Sandwick had been added to the roll-call (along with ‘also-rans’ such as a Garganey at Melby and the first of spring’s six Red-breasted Flycatchers at Sumburgh Head).”


Shetland has a long and enviable list of mega rarities that have appeared in late spring. Among them are these two gems from Fair Isle: June 2008’s Citril Finch (top), which was a first for Britain, and a Thick-billed Warbler in mid-May 2003, which the long daylight hours allowed for a twitch from the mainland on its first day (Rebecca Nason).

An extract from The Birds of Shetland: “Potentially one of the most exciting months of the year is May. A fall in May can be a colourful event, and it is all the more enjoyable as it is likely to occur in bright sunshine. Alongside the duller Tree Pipits, Garden Warblers, Willow Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers may be resplendent male Common Redstarts, Whinchats and Pied Flycatchers, or classic Shetland migrants such as subtly plumaged Wrynecks, bandit-masked Red-backed Shrikes and stunning male Bluethroats of the red-spotted form.

“Some extremely unusual birds have been found in early May, including three Dark-eyed Juncos, and Shetland’s only Black Stork and Marsh Sandpiper. But in the second half of the month, almost anything can turn up – American Kestrel, Common Yellowthroat, Myrtle Warbler or White-crowned Sparrow from North America, Black-winged Pratincole, Calandra Lark or Little Swift from southern Europe or south-west Asia, or even White-throated Needletail from Asia.”

It goes on to cite June as “an excellent month for extremely rare vagrants”, before naming Lesser Kestrel, Bimaculated Lark and Cedar Waxwing on an enviable and mouth-watering list of possibilities.

So, why not give Shetland a go in spring? There’s plenty of breeding birds to see at this vibrant time of year. Plus, if you’re in the right place at the right time, and with the right weather, who knows what you might find!

 

  • This article was published in the June 2022 issue of Birdwatch.

Shetland Seabird Tours – The Noss Boat, are delighted to see the photographic side of our business really take-off over the last few years alongside our regular, popular scheduled tours. Since we started our boat tours back in 2016, we have collaborated & enjoyed working with some amazing names in the photographic and film industry, honing our skills to be able to offer a professional, knowledgeable boat platform to help others achieve outstanding results. In the 2nd of our showcase posts, we celebrate the wonderful work of Professional Wildlife Photographer, Natural History Author & Tour Leader Andy Howard. Check out his amazing portfolio of images on his website: www.andyhoward.co.uk

 

Andy has been coming to Shetland leading wildlife & photography tours for many years & has been collaborating with us to offer his clients bespoke photo tours to Noss throughout . We were already well aware of Andy & his wonderful photography before we met him, it has been wonderful to help provide a stable, comfortable boat platform to create super imagery from, for part of his bespoke Shetland photographic group experiences. We are enjoying our Early Bird Boat Tours with Andy & guests this week & look forward to seeing more of his Shetland imagery soon. Andy has written 3 highly acclaimed books (shown above), the latest being his Otter book The Secret Life of the Otter published in 2021. Andy is well known for his extraordinary images of Mountain Hare & Red Squirrel, many of which can be seen in his other publications in the same series, The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare (2018) & The Secret Life of the Cairngorms (2019).

Andy says ….

We fell for the charms of Shetland and its friendly and welcoming people a decade ago and have made return visits every year since. Each and every time have returned from our travels with stories to tell and memory cards full of images. It’s without a shadow of a doubt my second favourite destination to photograph wildlife, outwith my beloved Cairngorms”.

Extract from Andy’s Bio on his website:

“A major part of my life as a professional entails running workshops, masterclasses and photo-tours. I love doing this and relish the opportunity to improve and encourage my guests/clients to improve their photography skills whilst at the same time capturing images they can be proud of. Many of my guests/clients have gone on to win competitions with images taken whilst out with me including a category win in the BWPAs!”.

 

© Andy Howard

Check out Andy’s Social Media Pages:

Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Andy-Howard-Nature-Photography

And Instagram: www.instagram.com/hare_whisperer

And Twitter: twitter.com/highland_andy

 

www.henleyspiers.com

Shetland Seabird Tours – The Noss Boat, are delighted to see the photographic side of our business develop so well over the last few years alongside our regular, popular scheduled tours. Since we started our boat tours back in 2016, we have collaborated & enjoyed working with some amazing names in the photographic and film industry, honing out skills to be able to offer a professional, knowledgeable boat platform to help others achieve outstanding results. We have regularly collaborated with the incredible underwater photographer, ecologist and Shetland resident Richard Shucksmith who has brought some outstanding photographers aboard bespoke workshops and tours all catering for different styles and requirements from amateur to professional. In our first of many showcase posts, our first highlights the latest photographic successes of the awesome Henley Spiers, who we welcomed aboard last year for the first time and who will be joining us again in 2022. Henley recently won 1st and 3rd places in the UPY 2021 British Waters Wide Angle category, see below. Henley has also written a fabulous illustrated article on his Shetland experiences last year in this months COAST magazine.

Gannet Success: 

With the @upycontest results just released and now whizzing their way across news outlets worldwide (no joke), I’m glad to report that a couple of my frames made the final collection. Not having left British waters in 2021, it’s great to see a couple of my favourite marine moments appreciated by the judges, picking up 1st and 3rd place in the British Waters Wide Angle category.

The category winner is entitled ‘Gannet Storm’ and as an extra bonus it’s also the cover shot for the UPY 2022 Yearbook:

“A northern gannet swims in an artistic hail of bubbles created by diving seabirds. 40,000 gannets visit the nearby cliffs annually to lay and care for a single egg, fishing for food nearby. Hitting the frigid water faster than an Olympic diver, these incredible birds have evolved airsacs in the head and chest to survive these repeated heavy impacts. From underwater, the sound was thunderous as streamlined, white torpedos pierced the surface. I wanted to create a novel image of these handsome seabirds and resolved to try and capture their movement through a slow exposure. The speed of the gannets led to innumerable failures but in this frame we retain strong eye contact with the gannet, even as the scene is artistically softened. With great thanks to @richardshucksmith , without whom this encounter with the gannets would not have been possible.”

Here’s what judge @alexmustard1 says: “That eye and this moment. A powerful picture. Diving gannets have won this category before, but we’ve never had a portrait like this, that reveals both the personality of this predator and the energy of the action.”

You can read all about Henley’s successful trip to Shetland in 2021 in this months COAST magazine!


ABOUT

Henley Spiers, half British and half French, is a renowned photographer, writer, and trip leader who has fast become one of the most highly decorated underwater shooters in the world.

Starting his professional career in diving as an instructor, working in the Philippines, Indonesia and Saint Lucia, he later fell in love with underwater imagery and made the transition to full-time photographer.

Since then, Henley has amassed a prolific series of award-winning images, including two category wins in the Underwater Photographer of the Year, winning first prize in the Black & White category of Nature Photographer of the Year, and winner of the Ocean Geographic David Doubilet portfolio award.

Henley’s photography has been published in the likes of The Sunday Times, Der Spiegel, and Sierra Magazine, and frequently graces magazine covers.

As an accomplished (and bilingual) writer, Henley’s words often accompany his images, and he is a regular contributor to DIVER magazine (UK), EZ Dive magazine (Taiwan), Plongez magazine (France), and Hakai magazine (Canada). Readers enjoy Henley’s conversational writing style, delivering insight without pretension and usually with a touch of humour. Notably, he has also written for Asian Diver, Outdoor Photography Magazine, bioGraphic, and Black + White Photography magazine.

In 2019, Henley co-authored Black is the New Blue Vol. II, showcasing blackwater diving. His latest book, the Guide to Cebu, co-written with wife and frequent collaborator, Jade, showcases the very best of diving in their former home. Available in the Philippines, the international launch for Guide to Cebu has been delayed due to the current pandemic.

Henley also leads trips to see incredible underwater wildlife encounters, specialising in small-group adventures to rarely seen locations and events. Sought-after as a teacher, Henley’s coaching on these trips has seen a number of attendees go on to become award-winning photographers in their own right.

Although he would be the first to admit that he can still do more to help, Henley has so far enjoyed collaborating in the field of ocean conservation with Blue Marine, Mission Blue, Bertarelli Foundation, Marine Conservation Society, Devon Wildlife Trust, Cornwall Wildlife trust, and Thunnus UK.

In 2019, Henley was honoured to be invited by Blancpain to the Edition Fifty Fathoms Ocean Commitment programme, joining a select group of the world’s foremost underwater photographers.

 

We were thrilled to find out in July that we were named as 1 of the top 10 best boat tours in the UK published in The Guardian & voted for my readers. Please click on the link below to see the article.

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2021/jul/08/10-great-uk-boat-trips-scotland-cornall-london-chosen-by-readers

 

 

 

 

Shetland Seabird Tours – Wins 2021 Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Award!

Shetland Seabird Tours today announced on Saturday morning that it has again been recognised as a Travellers’ Choice award winner for 2021 The Noss Boat. This achievement celebrates businesses that consistently deliver fantastic experiences to passengers from around the globe, having earned great traveller reviews on Tripadvisor over the last 12 months. As challenging as the past year was, Shetland Seabird Tours stood out by continuously delighting its customers.
Congratulations to all the winners of the 2021 Travellers’ Choice Awards,” said Kanika Soni, Chief Commercial Officer at Tripadvisor. “I know the past year has been extremely challenging for tourism businesses. What has impressed me is how businesses adapted to these challenges, implementing new cleanliness measures, adding social distancing guidelines, and utilising technology to prioritize guest safety. The Travellers’ Choice Awards highlight the places that are consistently excellent – delivering quality experiences time and time again even while navigating changing customer expectations and new ways of working. Based on a full year of reviews from customers, this award speaks to the great service and experience you provided guests in the midst of a pandemic.”

“We are delighted to be be recognised again for this award. We take trip advisor as a benchmark for good, honest feedback by our valued customers & our consistent No.1 place since we began in 2016 is testimony to our hard work & dedication in giving our passengers a top Shetland wildlife boat experience. Thank you to all our passengers. We hope to continue giving the best boat, the best wildlife experience, the best guides & the best value for money for years to come” …… Quote by ©Rebecca Nason 2021

PURPLE PROS  with OLYMPUS

Purple Sandpipers or ‘purps’ as birders affectionately call them, are gorgeous and rather enigmatic waders that are a regular feature of Shetland’s coastline in the autumn and winter months…….

Purple prose, as Wikipedia describes, is often referred to it a literal sense as “text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work. Purple prose is criticised for desaturating the meaning in an author’s text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/800 sec, F5.6. with C-AF (continuous mode).

Ah, okay, my lightbulb moment of naming this post Purple Prose will hopefully not flagship the meaning of the term in a literal sense…and yes, I am the first to admit I can be a little flowery in my writing at times and stray from the point in question. But in this instance, my purple patch is the current arrival of the delightful Purple SandpiperCalidris maritima, a wader that has been migrating to & through the Shetland Islands from their high arctic breeding grounds in the last couple of weeks. The storm battered beaches, strewn with seaweeds ripped from their sandy beds, and peppered with Dunlin & Turnstone, are now joined by subtly mauve-toned birds heading south, many for the first time, to escape the harsh winter ahead – my ‘purple passage’.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF (continuous mode).

In fact around 7% of Britain’s Purple Sandpipers actually over-winter on Shetland, not that you would realise this when out in the field, with so many areas of suitable habitat for these waders in inaccessible remote rocky islets & geos. Many high arctic breeding waders travel a long way south for the winter, but Purple Sandpipers are not known as long distance migrants, remaining as far north as possible in the winter months. They are very conspicuous on the sandy beaches where they loosely associate with other tideline shorebirds, though less so on their favoured rocks where they become incredibly camouflaged.

When time has allowed & with social distancing not a problem on these wild Shetland beaches in November, I have enthusiastically headed out, camera on shoulder, to face the challenges of finding & then photographing the hardy, tidal zone dependant Purple Sandpipers. In the last two weeks I’ve encountered small groups from just a couple to over 20 on beaches in South mainland Shetland. Weather conditions of late, have not been pleasant to put it mildly; our neutral, overcast skies have been good but the heavy rain & very strong gales really put me off wader photography (actually any kind of photography) as I’m not too keen on sand in my face or my equipment!

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/400 sec, F5.6. with C-AF (continuous mode).

High winds often put the waders off their usual feeding behaviour & with the birds on extra high alert, the opportunities to get close are minimal too. With favourable conditions however, waders here can be incredibly approachable given time and patience. Of my recent photo sessions, I ended up being no more than a couple of metres away from them as they soon lost interest in the thing on its knees in the seaweed edging towards them. With no shutter noise at all with my Olympus set up, there was a wonderful silence apart from the waders little peeping notes and the tidal flows.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF + TR (continuous autofocus tracking mode).

As well as being found searching for food amongst seaweed clad rocks or running the sandy tideline with other waders, Purple Sandpipers will readily take to the water as they did when I spent time with them, virtually swimming in the breakwater and effortlessly running through the foamy shallows, occasionally up to their necks. This provided me with some amazing opportunities to take images that reflected a different side to their behaviour.

Taking to the water…..Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF +TR.

Although planned photographic projects have taken a back seat this year, photography for me has in some ways been my most enjoyable for years due to changing to the Olympus mirrorless system back in January. Nature photography brings me such happiness, a strong sense of creative achievement and is a welcome mental sanctuary in a particularly anxious, chaotic world. Perhaps too, I’ve had a stronger awakening to appreciate and enjoy the environment and nature closer to home, on my very own doorstep, instead of hankering for far-flung destinations across the globe.

Purple Sandpipers are a regular feature of autumn and winter on Shetland along much of our wave-pounded rocky coastline.  I moved here in 2014, but it is only now I have found time to concentrate on finding their favoured haunts and on working with them photographically. It’s a reminder that we should take the time to appreciate what’s on our own doorstep  – I live in am amazing place and am surrounded by wildlife. I’m fortunate indeed.

Now for more on taking the shots……..

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens and 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 1600, 1/250sec, F5.6. with C-AF.

The flexibility of the Olympus gear in the field is one of the biggest advantages for me. Walking a couple of miles along the coast to reach shorebirds with the E-M1X,  300mm f4 pro lens & 1.4 converter over my shoulder, I forget I’m even carrying anything. After time stalking through sand & seaweed bent low or on my knees whilst shooting, I feel no discomfort or physical limitations at all. With a rather weak back after years of flogging heavy gear around & with advanced osteoarthritis in my hips & knee, my ‘relatively young’ but worn out body revels in this new gear, allowing me to just keep on going, rather like a duracell battery! The only thing that halted these wader photo sessions was high tide when the birds retreated to offshore roosting spots.

Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/2000 sec, F6.3 with C-AF + TR.

With these wader encounters I had quality time with my subjects constantly passing me with repetitive activities and light conditions.  Subjects like this for prolonged periods enabled me, at last, a chance to try out and compare some of the exciting new modes and set ups that my mirrorless, hi-tech camera system has to offer.

You can read up on as many camera features as you like, but nothing beats getting out in the field and practising to really see what works best for you, your subject matter and style.  For bird photography, much of which is very opportunistic on Shetland outside of summer hide work, I shoot in (M) manual mode, often keeping the speed high whilst maintaining a low depth of field, usually around f5.6 to achieve my favoured out of focus, clean backdrops. Both these of course set against a manual ISO choice, depending on any given situation. I try and stay with low ISO’s but, particularly on Shetland, this is not always possible so anywhere between ISO 500-1600 is standard for me. I use Autofocus, with Continuous C-AF MF mode a favourite. However, these wader sessions gave me a chance to enjoy two other options, that of C-AF + TR tracking mode and Pro Capture.

Pro Capture (L) Mode ……Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/1600 sec, F6.3.
Pro Capture (L) Mode. Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/2000 sec, F5.6.

The C-AF Tracking mode produced many good, fast, sharp hits, particularly with running tideline waders, see this purple sandpiper in action. As long as the backdrops are pretty clean and uncluttered, this feature works very well and stays glued to the subject, tracking it seamlessly without being distracted. This feature takes the pressure off the photographer tracking the subject and makes the camera do most of the work. You can also select a subject to help your autofocus tracking within the cameras customised menu. The subject list is found by navigating through the custom menu to A3 Tracking Subject. (Intelligent Subject Tracking). Up to now I have practised using the airplane mode or having the tracking subject feature turned off. BUT . . . .Olympus has just announced an exciting new ‘bird’ tracking option to be added to the list through upgraded firmware available this coming winter!  There are already options for Trains, Motorsports and Airplanes but a new Bird tracking feature is bound to send professional and amateur nature photographers alike clambering for the upgrade.

Pro Capture (L) Mode. Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 800, 1/2000 sec, F5.6.

I like to think I’m quite quick on the draw with tracking my subjects after years of practise, but there are always times when you just miss that moment, maybe the sudden unprovoked attack of one wader to another as they pass each other on the shoreline, or the sudden perfectly still, raised-head-side profile pose between frantic head-lowered feeding. The Pro Capture mode allows you the ability to capture those moments which has already gone by holding images in a buffer zone whilst you half press the shutter and follow your subjects around. What a feature, a camera that can act faster than my brain can react and take shots I would otherwise have missed!  Fully pressing the shutter from half way to full down as soon as you see the action happening captures those shots from that instant as well as the images held in buffer from before you reacted. A massive bonus, especially with action and behavioural wildlife photography. I use Pro Capture Low which allows for continuous autofocus, a must when photographing birds on the move.

P.S Card Alert: Watch out for your memory cards filling quicker than they ever have before. Is there anything worse than an incredible photographic situation and the ‘card full’ flashing on the monitor? Even with space for two cards in the camera, you are not safe in Pro Capture mode and its whopping 60 images a second capabilities.  I’ll be ordering a couple more cards to add to my day bag ……

By Rebecca Nason – November 2020

Striking a Pose. Pro Capture (L) Mode. Olympus E-M1X with M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 Pro Lens & 1.4 converter, hand-held. ISO 640, 1/2000 sec, F5.6.

 

I have not yet had too much opportunity to enjoy or put my new Olympus gear to the test, after switching from Nikon to Olympus at the end of January. With appalling weather in February and the world health coronavirus crisis and lockdown since…time spent behind the camera has been minimal. Plans are afoot to resurrect my garden hide set up before species other than House Sparrow and Starting start to move through as well as concentrate on more macro work in the short term at least. In the meantime, I’ve just been looking back at a couple of pre-lockdown Olympus sessions out into field on Shetland. The first early opportunity was on the westside of mainland Shetland, where, after a couple of failed attempts at approaching a very nervous Mountain Hare, I found another more confiding individual. Mountain Hare in early spring are still white, beacons against the harsh browns and dark peatlands of rural Shetland which rarely has any serious snowfall so little need for white camouflage ( or indeed any camouflage as predators are few and far between here). Given the culls of Mountain Hare on mainland UK, I think Shetland’s populations are probably the luckiest in Britain.

The upright-hoping-she-can’t-see-me approach, before settling a little lower in the heather. My first ever wildlife shot using the Olympus E-M1X with 300mm pro f4 lens & x1.4 converter hand-held. The conditions weren’t great, but I took this at ISO 640 at 1/400sec, f5.6. My initial thoughts I remember were being delighted to be able to take shots with such a lightweight set up which enabled me to nimbly move across boggy peatland to approach my subject. The set up actually felt almost toy like to hold and shoot with after lugging around my Nikon DSLR for so many years.
What a beauty…. The other immediate benefit was that I could so easily feel confident in my manual exposures (I always shoot manual) in a situation which was a little tricky with a white subject on a dark background. The ability to look through the lens and visibly watch my exposure changes and tweaks on the image in front of me – in LIVE exposure meant that when I took a shot – what I saw is exactly what I got – no need to check after or worry about over exposure (EVF).  The resultant image was as I had seen it when I took it. What a benefit.
The level of detail was astounding I thought at ISO 640 and with the 1.4 converter…..here is a similar shot to the image above but at 100%.

The changing topography of my approach to the hare meant that actually I ended up a little closer than I had intended to achieve a clean shot. In hindsight I’d have removed the 1.4 converter and given my fury subject a little more space – but in this instance I took what I could in the given opportunity. Mountain Hare are numerous and often approachable on Shetland. I can’t wait to go to a few of my hare hotspots after the lockdown finishes.