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Breeding Ravens photo assignment

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 25th July 2014 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, Photography

Raven with chicks. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

The bird family group corvidae or more commonly known in English as corvid’s are truly fascinating and much admired. Generally speaking, crow’s in particular carry something of a symbolic status through the histories of many and in fact probably most cultures. There is something very powerful, even mythical about their demeanour and this is especially so for the Raven. When researching and writing an article on them last year I came upon a fantastic piece of writing by Jessie M. E. Saxby in 1893, which includes notes by W. A. Clouston, which I felt summed them up beautifully:

“Those who have studied the Raven can well understand how the Sea-kings of the North took him for their emblem in preference to all other creatures”.

“The lordly bird, dwelling aloof in some inaccessible precipice, floating silently on black wings over the heads of more common creatures, dropping with stern, implacable ferocity on his prey, calmly croaking of doom when the sun shines, rejoicing in a storm, haunting the footsteps of death, feasting on the dead: well might he be taken as the symbol and companion of Sea-rovers, whose sable flag was the terror of nations, whose Raven ensign seldom drooped before the banner of a foe. The Raven was held sacred by the Vikings. When setting out on marauding expeditions, the Raven was, with many ceremonies, let loose, and where he led the Norsemen followed, believing that their Bird of Omen would lead to some scene of triumph”

Raven at nest. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

It is a combination of this iconic status, their sharp witted nature and their undeniable beauty that make them such an appealing subject for a photo assignment. Here in Shetland we are fortunate to have a fairly good population breeding, estimated at over 200 pairs just over a decade ago. Each year I see many pairs nesting at various sites around Shetland and have had my eye on several nest sites which are suitable for hide work and this spring worked on a cliff-nesting pair here on Unst.

Nest sites/territories range from the high sea cliffs, inland quarries, steep-sided and heathery inland gullies and even pine tree plantations so a good deal of thought and planning needs to go into choosing a suitable site and this site is ideal. Quite remote (but within a reasonable walking distance) on cliff face about 20m high with an opposite facing cliff where my little self-built one man wigwam hide sitting facing it around 30 to 40m across from it. As is the case for nearly all my hide work, I use my own purpose/self-built constructions to work from and at a site like this especially sat on the edge of a Shetland cliff top is no place for a pop-up built for a woodland!

This kind of work takes weeks of work before you ever even look through your lens. Thankfully I already had a hide built (my one-man wigwam) which was ideal for the task but even then I had to get it to the site, which without ‘blood, sweat and tears’, (well, almost all three of those!) and of course quad and trailer-would not have been possible. Even the logistics of getting the hide to the nearest ‘end of the road’ and then the quad there too, takes time and then there is the graft of rumbling the hide on and off. As is the case for any hide work, especially nest site work, I start off at least two to three times further away from the nest as I plan to end up positioning the hide. Then I move it closer in stages, maybe a week between. This allows time for the birds to accept the wooden box and to date; this has always worked with several different species now.

I personally find Ravens, or ‘corbie’s’ as we call them here, extremely fascinating and exciting and also enjoy working on them at close quarters, from a hide during winter. That was indeed an exciting assignment to watch their behaviour when flocking in to feed on the carcass of dead sheep. But in many ways this was just the beginning of the story I wanted to tell. What I love to do is tell a story, a ‘circle of life’ of each of Shetlands most iconic species through a portfolio of images of their behaviour.

Fully-feathered chicks. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

Without a hide no right minded Raven would come back and land at their nest. ‘Walk-ins’ are essential to try to trick nesting birds into thinking that a human has just walked to the hide and then walked away again. I have someone walk to the hide with me, in I go and then they leave. I have often heard it said that corvid’s can actually count so therefore can’t be tricked in this way. Thankfully, this pair seems to have no better grasp on maths than I do and so the walk-in and walk-out method worked a treat.

It really is fascinating to watch how such a sharp witted, notoriously unforgiving predator and a scavenger as the Raven can show such an attentive and sensitive side. I find it such a thrill to watch and photograph such intimate behaviour as the parents tend to their chicks. This behaviour something that is simply not possible without working from a hide and so yes, all that hours, days and even weeks of work and planning are worth every pain staking moment!

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