Shetland Nature

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Five Star grade awarded by Visit Scotland

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 24th October 2014 | News

Brydon Thomason receiving the award from Visit Shetland manager Steve Mathieson.

We can hardly put into words how thrilled and proud we all are to have recently been awarded a Five Star accolade by Visit Scotland. What makes it all the more special is that we are the first and only company in Shetland to achieve this grade from a national tourism organisation. To be one of only four Wildlife Experiences in Scotland to have achieved such a prestigious Five Star grading is something we are extremely proud of.

Obviously this means a great deal to me personally, but there are more than just myself who have worked hard towards achieving this. First and foremost without the love and support of my wife Vaila, I’m sure none of it would have been possible! It is the support and collaboration of so many others that has helped us continue to grow with the work they do and none more so than Karen Hannay and Gary Bell. But others who lead tours and collaborate on itineraries such as Rob Fray, Richard Shucksmith, Rebecca Nason, Martin Garner, David Tipling, Micky Maher, Allen Fraser and James Tait have all helped towards this achievement.

The wildlife that visitors experience here is second to none and yes, I am understandably biased, but to have the experience we offer our guests accredited to this level, really is something we are all extremely proud of. This is heartfelt not only from a Shetland Nature perspective but in a more holistic sense this is a fantastic achievement for Shetland tourism in general.

Visit Scotland’s Quality assurance scheme

VisitScotland’s world-leading Quality Assurance schemes are highly regarded by consumers as a decision-making tool when planning their breaks. QA provides consumer reassurance as an official rating by the national tourism organisation – a testimonial to what a business provides – and helps them reach their full potential and truly shine.

VisitScotland’s Quality Assurance Scheme currently boasts over 7,000 participants and has been used as an example of best practice with countries all over the world, including Sweden and Namibia.

VisitScotland Islands Manager, Steve Mathieson, said:

“Nature tourism is incredibly important not only to Shetland but to Scotland as a whole. I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to Brydon and his team at Shetland Nature on this fantastic achievement.

“Five-star status shows visitors that they can expect a fantastic and enjoyable experience, whilst learning all about the amazing wildlife offering here in Shetland.

“Our natural environment is the number one reason why people visit Scotland – let’s celebrate it!”

Promoting opportunities for young birders – with A Focus On Nature

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 23rd October 2014 | Birding in Shetland

This season we have been delighted to work with and support A Focus On Nature by offering them the prize of a week in Shetland birding in prime time autumn migration. They used the prize for their University Birdwatch Challenge competition, which we hosted over the first week of October. The two mustard keen young birders were David Hunter, (a 3rd year Zoology student at the University of Reading) and Amy Robjohns (a 2nd year Environmental Science student). Helping and supporting organisations such as AFON create and facilitate opportunities for young birders, naturalists and photographers is something we feel very important and are delighted be part of. Here Amy shares her experience of a week’s Shetland autumn birding with us…

David Hunter and Amy Robjohns

Summarising my recent trip to Shetland is tough as I had a wonderful time with fantastic memories. I’m really grateful to A Focus On Nature and Shetland Nature, as well as their sponsors including Swarovski Optic, Opticron and Wildsounds, for giving me such a great experience. I’d never really been up north before, so to get the chance to go birding on the northern most island in Britain (Unst) during prime time autumn migration has provided me with new experiences and unforgettable memories! I think the 31 lifers says it all, but it’s not all about the new birds. It was great to see mammals too – Otters and Grey & Common Seals – and to see just how different it is in Shetland.

Seeing Grey and Common Seals right outside Tesco in Lerwick was quite something, made even more amazing by the fact that we’d already seen Black Guillemots, a Siberian Rubythroat (Yes – a Siberian Rubythroat!!), Yellow-browed Warblers, Merlin… [the list could go on] and it wasn’t even 10am by the time we’d seen all this (and more) and done our weekly shop! This was all thanks to Rebecca Nason and Phil Harris, the SN team members who met us on arrival and gave us our first taste of the Islands. We had a great day with them, a lovely couple who certainly knew their birds!

Siberian Rubythroat. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

I was then still rather amazed that we continued to travel north… We’d already spent about 10 hours on a train and 14 hours on a ferry, yet there was still more land to cover! The scenery was also something I was struck by. It’s so beautiful, and more wild than down south. There are less trees too.

From Monday to Friday we birded mainly around Unst (the most northerly island in Britain) with Brydon, owner of Shetland Nature. It’s always a good experience to bird with experts and this was no different.  We saw a lot  – mostly common migrants for Shetland, but also some more unusual and scarce species such as a Great Grey Shrike, Bluethroat and Wryneck, oh and Blue Tits – which is bizarrely a rarity in the islands! We got to learn a lot of fieldcraft and improve our birding skills as well as seeing loads of birds.

Great-grey Shrike. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

While we were birding with Brydon, we found some good common migrants but it was the Olive-backed Pipit, a rarity from Siberia and a Black-throated Diver, a rarity on the islands, that was particularly exciting. The excitement of discovering, learning their identification, assessing features and how to separate them from commoner species were all parts which made finding birds so much better than twitching birds!

Olive-backed Pipit. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

We also got to visit Hermaness, the most northerly point in Britain which was great. Some Gannets were still breeding, and the Great Skuas were spectactular, especially when they flew really close to us!

Friday was probably one of my favourite days. It started with 2 Glaucous Gulls from the living room window, and then we were off to Fetlar. There we found a Barred Warbler, Black-throated Diver alongside a Red-throated Diver and just to make the day even better, had amazing views of Otters! After this, we then had another Olive-backed Pipit and a Siberian Stonechat. What a day!

Amy and David at Hermaness. Amy and David looking out to Muckle Flugga.

Saturday was our final day so we slowly made our way back towards Lerwick, birding as we went. This gave us a chance to explore Yell for a bit which was nice, and we got close up views of Scaup – one of many species I’d never seen before, and also Twite. We then finished the day and trip on an Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler. What a way to finish!

On our final day Brydon invited Logan Johnston, a very sharp eyed 15 year old local birder to join us which was really cool and interesting. Comparing notes from each others local patches was quite something!

On our final day Brydon invited Logan Johnston, a very sharp eyed 15 year old local birder to join us which was really cool and interesting. Comparing notes from each others local patches was quite something!

This trip was a great experience for me, especially as I’d rarely travelled up north, so was able to see species that are much less common in Hampshire which was wonderful. Birding with an expert also helped a great deal as I feel I’ve learnt a lot, particularly about fieldcraft which will come in handy for the future! In short, I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity to go to Shetland and loved every minute of it!!

Amy Robjohns

A week on Shetland in July 2014 by Markus Varesvuo

Posted by Markus Varesvuo on Wednesday 30th July 2014 | Photography

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After a week on Unst under Brydon Thomason’s easy-going but unmistakeably competent guidance, I can easily confirm the rumour that Shetland is a terrific destination and Shetland Nature offer a varying and deeply satisfying range of opportunities to take excellent bird photos.

Birds are my perspective as I photograph exclusively birds, but there’s something for every kind of photographer, from landscapes and wildlife to cultural heritage, history and the way life is lived in remote areas, away from the concentrated din and clamor of urban places.

The North has been my favourite region for decades, both in my native Finland and the neighbouring Norway, and Shetland has the same distinct feel and taste that’s characteristic to the northern latitudes: there’s space, air, light, a sense of timelessness, yet it’s vibrant. There’s a lot to do in the north.

As a born and bred Shetlander, Brydon knows his territory, the birds and other wildlife, and what’s especially important, he shares a photographer’s passion and point of view. He shows a genuine appreciation for his guests and wants them to truly enjoy his beloved islands, which gives him a natural ’guest first’ attitude that helps to create a trusting and open atmosphere. Your wishes are heard and the promise in the word bespoke is genuinely delivered. Yet always with the utmost respect to nature; the welfare of the wildlife is not risked.

Brydon has also taken the experience and insight he offers photographers to another level through his self built bird-hides. By using his knowledge of the islands iconic species, some of which he operates under special schedule one license to photograph, he has innovated some truly unique and very special opportunities.

Shetland Nature offer itineraries to suit groups, hobbyists and demanding professionals. For bird photographers, it’s an exciting location as there are many interesting birds, a wealth of locations with differing landscapes and light conditions, and with the sea around, there are all kinds of weather and changing moods to play with.

We stayed in the spacious, comfortable, stylish and delightful Shetland Nature Lodge, which is uniquely situated overlooking a bay with the Hermaness Nature Reserve on the other side. The Lodge is a combination of old and new as it’s an old stone cottage all tastefully done-up and extended. It’s well-equipped with good internet connection making self-catering and lodging easy and relaxing, which all support a photographer’s raison d’être – photography.

A bit about the sites, birds and hides:

Day of Arrival

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We reached the Shetland Islands on the NorthLinks ferry, which was Finns meeting Finns as the ship had been built in Finland. After getting our car from the local Bolts Car Hire, we set on the journey through the Mainland to the island of Yell and then again on a ferry over to Unst.

In Gutcher, Yell-side, waiting for the ferry to whisk us across, I had time to start bird photography. There’s a narrow stone pier, where you can shoot Gannets that come fishing, some really close. I also heard Wren calls and spotted a fledgling on the rocks begging for food and a parent bringing insects to it.

Brydon met us in Belmont on the other side and guided us through the island to its northern tip, where we unloaded our gear in the Lodge and then set out to get acquainted with the place and see some of the birds.

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First glimpses: a hide for Arctic Skuas, by a pond, where they come to bathe; Saxa Vord with Bonxies (Great Skua), a hide on a lake shore, where non-breeding Bonxies came to bathe and party.

Back to the Lodge, where we put the fire on as it was rather grey, wettish and chilly on this day of arrival. One of the island’s many charms!

Merlin

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A great day with Merlins. Good views to young ones near their nest and adults on a vantage post in their breeding grounds. Photographed under licence, from a hide at a distance (long lenses necessary).

In the afternoon I had a good session with the Gutcher Gannets, studying their fishing behaviour. (And while you’re there, why not have a break in the nice Gutcher Goose Cafe at the wee ferry terminal.)

Hermaness

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Two long sessions on the Hermaness Nature Reserve, first in the morning and then again in the evening way into the night, past midnight, and witnessing a glorious, mystical sunset with fog clouds.

Great light, many variations of it, stunning scenery, delightful backgrounds. No lack of birds to photograph.

Skuas

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Morning sessions in Saxa Vord with the Bonxies, afternoon and evening in the Arctic Skua hide.

Gannets in a feeding frenzy, and some Guillemot moments

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Spent the morning photographing feeding Gannets out at sea, and also a sea cliff colony. What a memorable experience, witnessing the big slender birds falling out of the sky in their hundreds, at break-neck speed, piercing water shaped as slim arrows and popping up balloon-like from the depths. You better leave planning and composing aside, shoot pretty much non-stop and hope for the best. It was fast and furious, even for an ex-sprinter.

On the way back we went to check out some Black Guillemots. It was a bleak afternoon with grey overcast skies and the beach looked empty. But Brydon knew his birds, and positioning ourselves on a big boulder we waited a while. Soon the Black Guillemots came flying in, settling close enough for easy shooting.

Red-throated Diver, and then the Moon

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On our way over a smallish moor to and back from the Red-throated Diver hide I caught some bonus birds, which is always nice.

The Divers (shot under licence in a careful and professional setup) are on a pond that is of an ideal size and ideally located for photography – the very last rays of sunlight hit it from behind you.

The male made two fishing trips.

Coming back over the moor at midnight, we had a super moon letting us play with different ideas.

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Day of Departure

On our way back to Lerwick and the journey home we stayed an extra hour in Gutcher to shoot Gannets one last time. It’s good to grasp every opportunity. The Gannets’ diving speed is incredible and to catch the bird in just the right position at just the right time is not that easy. It’s a big bird, so mostly, even if you’ve managed to get it right, you’ve either missed a tip of the wings or a tip of the bill…

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A week is just long enough to get an idea of all that Shetland’s got to offer.

Markus Varesvuo
www.facebook.com/markus.varesvuo
July 2014

Contact Brydon to arrange one-to-one photography assignments: info@shetlandnature.net

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.

Red-throated Diver under license photo assignment

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

Photo by Brydon Thomason.

Shetland is renowned for harbouring many nationally rare and essentially northern breeding species of birds and for many, such as the elegant and evocative Red-throated Diver, it is the UK stronghold. Shetlands hundred’s of scattered lochens and moorland pools harbours somewhere up and around 400 breeding pairs of this stunningly beautiful and birds which is the highest density of the species in the British Isles. It is both their rare breeding status and their sensitivity to disturbance that ensures they are protected by law and listed as a Schedule 1 species by Scottish Natural Heritage.

I have been very fortunate to have spent several summers now working under such a license and lest year for the first time I applied for my license to be extended so that I could offer this fascinating, exhilarating and exclusive experience to photographers on my one-to-one assignments. Although there was rising interest from clients it wasn’t until I had several summers experience of working on these wonderful birds that I felt I was ready to share this truly enchanting and exciting experience and assignment. Thankfully my well established relationship with licensing authorities ensured I was trusted with this quite serious responsibility.

To my knowledge I was the first photographer to be issued with a license to work in this way with Red-throats and so this year’s guests under my strict guidance have enjoyed a privileged and unique experience indeed.

This kind of assignment simply must be done from a hide and it is of course imperative that this is so. This season I set up my hide well ahead of breeding commencing so I could hope to capture and study their courtship and display, which although I was only lucky enough to see on a couple of occasions I did at last nail at least some images of this fantastic behaviour. I also built my diver hide to have a low angle shooting hatch, which took me down to just above water level to get a nice low lying perspective on the birds, particularly on take off.

This is a bird that has fascinated me all my ‘birding’ life. It is a bird that where ever you are in Shetland throughout the summer months you will not be far away from, whether it be a bird flying overhead on route to the sea, a pair on a beautiful calm freshwater loch or maybe the distant haunting yet enchanting calls from a far. So highly regarded are they locally that they are even said to forecast the weather for us in that their calls and or flight direction could indicate rain coming (hence the name I guess!). But let’s be honest, in the Shetland we know and love the prediction of rainfall is not exactly a risky one to make! It is an endearing thought though however that they have been around long enough and have been so highly regarded as to have this association throughout the isles.

Photo by Brydon Thomason.

Views of Rain geese to most are often little more than a dark silhouette in the distance but close observation reveals the most exquisite detail, from the dapper pin stripe of the nape to the ruby red eye and of course the deep and almost burgundy red of their throat patch. All a fore mentioned are highly desirable attributes for any bird or wildlife photographer. To work on a pair on a breeding loch and enjoy behavioural aspect of their breeding few ever see let alone photograph and on a remote Shetland moorland is simply a dream assignment to most.

Photo by Brydon Thomason.

Read more about our Red-throated Diver photo assignment opportunities

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!

View Raven photography opportunities

 

Alison Steadman’s Shetland

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 20th June 2014 | News

When establishing Shetland Nature there were few greater motivations or inspirations than communicating my passion for Shetland and its natural heritage. For me personally and for the many individuals that I am fortunate to work and collaborate with, sharing our knowledge and love for Shetland’s wildlife with guests from all over the world is as rewarding as it is exciting.

On a similar level communication of this passion is perhaps even more exiting ‘on screen’ when approached to work on TV documentaries featuring Shetland such as Countryfile, Simon King’s Diaries, Martin Clunnes British Islands and a few others. Even though I have yet to overcome the preliminary nerves and anxieties when in front of a camera (even a microphone!), working with a film crew and helping to promote Shetland to the nation (and beyond) is always really great fun and something I am always proud to be part of. It was with all this in mind that I was delighted to work with Alison Steadman and the crew back in April on ITV 1’s ‘Alison Steadman’s Shetland’, to broadcast on Tuesday evening on the 24th June on ITV at 21:00.

Well known British actress Alison Steadman, (often described as a national treasure) was great fun to work with and although it is perhaps appropriate to say that the elements were at times ‘unkind’ to us, she really seemed to enjoy her time with us and her stay at The Shetland Nature Lodge, which we were thrilled that the crew chose as their base for their four days on Unst. The crew too simply couldn’t have been better to work with who made it all the more enjoyable for myself and good friend and colleague Richard Shucksmith, who also did some work with them.

Perhaps not surprisingly it was Otters (my lifelong obsession of!) and also my background as a native Shetlander that brought them to me initially. The producer Scott Tankard was also intrigued and excited by the kind of work I did with the hides I build and so it was great to feature that element of the work I do as well.

Fortunately on the one day they had to do Otters out of the three I worked with them, I did find them otters in the morning and evening even though tides and time were stacked against us. I have my fingers crossed that the next film crew we work with ask for the best window when tides are best, which would take away at least a little bit of the preasure!

We hope it comes across on screen as much fun as it was to shoot…

Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Burkle, Fair Isle 27th April 2014

Posted by Deryk Shaw on Wednesday 21st May 2014 | Birding in Shetland

Cretzschmar's Bunting. Photo by Deryk Shaw.

Sunday 27th April was the most beautiful day – blue skies, sunshine, a light south-easterly wind and at 12ºc, the warmest day of the year so far! Perfect for going birding! However, as part of my post-Observatory life, I run a croft and days like these are so few and far between at this time of year on Fair Isle I decided I should really take advantage and do some croft work….

So, it was about 11.30 am and I was in the midst of dosing and feet-trimming my year-old sheep when David Parnaby (the current Observatory Warden) texted me to say there was a female type Red-breasted Flycatcher on the fence at Burkle (my house). That’s great – a garden tick! I returned home just before 1pm to see David and a group of Obs staff lying in the grass just across the road from my garden. I scanned the fence-line where they were looking with camera and bins and spotted the RbF. Excellent!

I went inside for lunch and added species number 151 to the list on the kitchen wall!! Twenty minutes later, I headed back out with my ten year-old son Ythan and my camera to see if we could see it again. It was still present on the fence so we ventured down to where the Obs crew had been ‘sunbathing’ and waited for it to come a bit closer, which it duly did. After a few minutes watching, Ythan headed back into the house and I continued to watch the flycatcher. I had only taken one photo and was just trying to view the uppertail through my bins when in the rough grass below the fence an orange-breasted bird with a grey head hopped briefly into view and disappeared again.

The view I had was long enough for me to suspect a male Ortolan. Nice! It appeared again a few moments later and I was pleased to see that it was indeed an orange-breasted bunting with a blue-grey head, however I was gobsmacked to see that instead of a nice creamy-yellow throat and submoustachial stripe (of an Ortolan) these were reddish-brown!!! I was watching a Cretzschmar’s Bunting!!! Wow!!!! My heart was racing now. I took a couple of quick record shots, in case it scarpered, then phoned the Obs – interrupting yet another famous FIBO Sunday lunch!! Next, I phoned the house and told Ythan to ‘come back down – quickly – and bring your bird book’.

I took a mental note of the plumage details; blue-grey head, lateral throat stripe and breast with a clear demarcation to rusty orange underparts, stout dirty pink bill, white eyering, broad rusty brown tertial edges, pink legs……. Ythan duly arrived and I was delighted to show him my find – just a fifth for Britain, but the third for Fair Isle. He was (nearly) as excited as I was – and whilst it was out of view – he looked it up in his book and I pointed out the distinguishing features.

The bird reappeared and I set about taking photos. It hopped along in the rough grass below the fence, then ventured onto the road verge. I heard a vehicle coming along the road so asked Ythan to stop the car as it came round the corner whilst I continued to try and get some photos. The bird hopped across the road and onto Burkle land – Yes! No. 152! Ythan explained to the two local car owners the reason for the traffic stoppage. Fair Islanders are quite used to being stopped for a bird and are always keen to see the latest cause for commotion – many of them have seen a list of birds that would make the most ardent of twitchers weep!

Unfortunately, the bird had other ideas and suddenly got up, flew across my lawn, past the birdtable and seemed to come down on the far side of the garden. However, by the time we got there it had vanished. The Obs van arrived but all I could show them were my photos!! Suitably gripped and as more people arrived the search began. However, despite a thorough search of the south of the isle right up until dusk, the only thing to be found was a Caspian Stonechat – another fifth for Britain and a stunning-looking consolation nevertheless!! Incidentally, this became species number 153 on the Burkle list a couple of days later!!

Fortunately, the bunting was rediscovered the following day and is still present as I write (Wed 30th) – so far two planeloads of twitchers from south are very happy!!

This is the fifth record for Britain following the first two British records on Fair Isle (10th-20th June 1967 & 9th-10th June 1979), the third on Stronsay (14th-18th May 1998) and most recently the only autumn record on North Ronaldsay (19th-21st September 2008). So currently, the scores are Fair Isle 3 – Orkney 2. All hail the magic isle!

Deryk Shaw