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Breeding Merlins photo assignment

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 29th July 2014 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, Photography

Female Merlin with brood. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

There are perhaps few ‘family groups’ of birds better or more widely recognised than birds of prey. Whether it be an eagle, a buzzard or a falcon these species carry a charisma and iconic status through all cultures of the world. The Merlin is one of Europe’s best known and Britain’s rarest breeding birds of prey. Yet with this iconic status it is a bird few see for more than a few seconds let alone get the chance to photograph. How often do you ever get the chance for example to watch a Merlin through binoculars or telescope? More likely the view you get is of its sleek and petit profile hunting as it darts across the moorland, or maybe a fleeting glimpse as it lifts from a roadside fencepost as you drive by. From a personal perspective this species is a firm favourite and has been so since childhood. It is not just their pure beauty, especially the male, but also their stealth and elusive nature which accredits them with something of an enigmatic appeal.

In the UK they are protected by law and a special schedule 1 license authorised and issued by Scottish Natural Heritage (or English Nature) is imperative to work on them at breeding sites, a privilege I have been authorised for several seasons now.

This season for the first time however (for this species), I applied for an extension on this license so that I could offer this very special assignment to photographers on my one-to-one assignments. To my knowledge I am the only photographer licensed to work with clients on breeding Merlin in Scotland (and most probably the whole of Britain) and so it is a totally unique and exclusive opportunity and one that I am very proud to offer. My sense of pride with this comes not only from the fact that I am trusted with such a responsibility (something that is quite an accolade for a nature photographer in this day and age) but also that I can share such a very special and fascinating insight into bird behaviour in a responsible and controlled way that without this license, would simply not be possible.

Photo by Brydon Thomason.

Merlin is one of Shetland’s rarest breeding species, with somewhere in the region of 30 pairs recorded each season. Their preference for remote and often difficult locations is renowned. The pair I worked on in this assignment was no exception. Logistically this site was probably about as challenging as it could possibly be, miles from any main road and over a half an hours walk across open moor and rolling hills. Then was the difficulty of using and erecting a hide on the face of a steep sided valley! From an authenticity angle however it was perfect, an unspoilt wilderness many miles from civilisation and about as secluded as it could be, nothing for miles around but the moorland they would hunt to raise their young.

Stringent caution and care is essential when working on such a species/assignment. With experience and success with them previously I do however feel a quite a level of confidence with them.

It is imperative that work must be done from a hide and the hide must be moved in stages so as they become accepting of it. Not only that but every visit I needed to be walked in and the person with me seen to leave. This season I have to give a huge thanks to Molly Michelin, a photography student on internship with us for her second season, who facilitated these over the project. It’s amazing how simple and yet how effective this technique, (which is used on species all over the world) works.

Male Merlin on post. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

This year I was also able to work with a nice and authentic looking ‘plucking/perch post’ which worked very well, especially for capturing the very handsome male. This was an image I have dreamt of capturing for many years now – I hope that next year I can capture the food pass from him to her – an aspect of their behaviour I have never seen an image of but watched happen several times this season. Unfortunately however this takes place on the hillside, even once only two or three metres from the hide but moving the lens is not an option as they are so sharp any movement is sure to give the game away. My lens needed always to remain static on either the post or the nest. It’s always good to have something to aim for and now I can think of no better an image of these awesome little falcons, role on next summer…

It is heart-warming and extremely gratifying to say that this pair had a very impressive 100% success rate this season, laying five eggs and fledging five young.

For information on booking this assignment in 2015 visit our Merlin Bird Hide Photography page.  Please note availability for this specialist one-to-one assignment is limited and solely for serious and experienced nature photographers.

Merlin fledglings. Photo by Brydon Thomason.