Otter Heaven in Shetland – A visit from Arizona
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 5th November 2014 | Otters, Reviews
A lovely account from guests Fiona Clark and Jim Boggs visiting all the way from America on one of our tailored Shetland Otter Experience holidays in February 2014 along with a couple of images from their trip. Their account communicates perfectly the insight and experience that these itineraries offer for guests wanting to really learn about otters, their behavior, ecology and where, when and how to study them. We run itineraries like these all year round but they are particularly recommended during the ‘night and day’ seasons from late autumn through to early spring. Contact us for details on these packages firstname.lastname@example.org
I have something of a magnificent obsession when it comes to otters. When I lived in Seattle, I spent almost all of my free time (plus a lot of time when I was supposedly working on my graduate studies) on a beach in a nearby park, tracking and then eventually watching the North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) that lived there.
In my quest to learn more about these “river” otters that lived on the coast and did their fishing in the sea, I came across the work of Prof. Hans Kruuk, who had done extensive studies on coastal or marine foraging Eurasian otters in Shetland and on the Scottish mainland. While there are some significant differences, the North American river otter and the Eurasian otter share many similarities, and Prof. Kruuk’s work helped me tremendously in understanding my local otters. A seed was also planted: my husband Jim and I clearly needed a trip to Shetland at some point.
Being typically broke students back then, the trip had to wait for a good few years. But in February 2014, Jim and I joined Brydon Thomason in Unst for four days of otter watching. From searching online and reading about Brydon, his knowledge on otters and work he does it was clear he was our man. I liked Brydon from our very first email exchange: he too was a fan of Prof. Kruuk’s work and was clearly an otter enthusiast of the first order. We soon agreed that February would be a fine time for a trip. As with the otters in the Seattle area, Shetland’s otters are usually active in the daytime. In winter, the otters seem to concentrate their activities into a shorter time period since the days are so short. This can make them easier to find and more fun to watch. An added bonus is that you can stay in bed till a civilized time since it would be too dark to see anything if you got up too early.
Brydon picked us up in Lerwick and we talked otters nonstop all the way to the superb lodge at Barrafirth in Unst. Next morning we found a mother and two cubs at the very first place that we stopped to check for otters. We went on to see a staggering 29 different otters over the course of our four days at various sites around the islands along shorelines Brydon studies. And these were not fleeting glimpses of far distant otters. We spent hours watching some of them.
We also saw some otter behaviour that I had only read about, or inferred from seeing otter tracks on my beach. This included watching (and hearing – they were loud!) a courting couple, and also watching two family groups come together. Jim particularly loved to see the cubs play wrestling, and trying to eat fish that were almost as big as they were. He still talks about being so close that we could hear one of the cubs chomping on a fish. Seeing all of the loving interactions between otter mums and their little ones has also stayed with us: I had seen some of this on my beach, of course, but due to the terrain there I had never had such prolonged views of these mother-cub interactions. Knowing my interest in all aspects of otter behavior, Brydon also took us to see otter holts, lay up areas, and bathing pools so that I could get a much better understanding of how otters in Shetland use the landscape. And what a landscape it was, with miles and miles of deserted beaches, spectacular cliffs, and moorland glowing in the winter sun.
Having spent around seven years trying to learn the habits of the American otters, I knew that finding all of these otters in Shetland, and being able to watch them for extended periods, was no accident. It was the result of Brydon’s deep knowledge of otter distribution and behavior, which comes from his years of fieldwork and his high level of field craft. As one of my wildlife tracking teachers used to say, “animals are not randomly distributed on the landscape.” Knowing when and where to look for otters dramatically increases your chances of finding them. Knowing how to use the wind and the landscape to your advantage allows you to remain undetected by the otters. This allows you to watch them as they go about their daily lives, without disturbing them in the slightest, and to me this is one of the greatest privileges imaginable. Even so, seeing 29 otters in four days was rather extreme, even with all of Brydon’s skills, and is not something that we will be expecting the next time we visit Shetland. We are, of course, going back. Four days was too short, however, so we are going for a week next time.
Five Star grade awarded by Visit Scotland
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 24th October 2014 | News
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…
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!!
Yellow-rumped Warbler finders account – Virkie – 29th September 2014
Posted by Roger Riddington on Tuesday 30th September 2014 | Birding in Shetland
Monday 29 September dawned overcast, with little wind. Opening the mistnets in the garden for a couple of hours seemed like an obvious strategy, just in case the strong SW winds of the past couple of days had brought anything to Eastshore. With a thin rim of clear sky on the eastern horizon the sunrise was beautiful as I padded down the drive to open the net by the gate, although the sun was soon swathed in thick cloud as it rose further.
With one net open I went down to open the other two, and heard a distinctive call coming from behind the rose bushes along the western dyke. A moment after hearing it, a low-flying Swallow appeared and I assumed it must have been the Swallow – another moment later, something with a yellow rump and wingbars flitted ahead of me, into the main bank of trees, calling: an emphatic, rather full and metallic “tchick” call. It was an American wood warbler! Ooooeerr!!
Having always hoped to find an American wood warbler in Shetland, I always imagined that the reality of such an event would be a heady cocktail of elation and terror – ‘it’s a great bird but what on earth is it?’ In fact, on this grey September morning, I knew pretty much straightaway what this one was. The rounded yellow rump patch, the wingbars and tertial edges and a thin slit of yellow in the crown they all added up to Yellow-rumped Warbler!
The bird showed nicely in the trees around the main mistnet ride, flicking from side to side above the furled net. I phoned/texted fellow Virkie birders: PVH was at Sumburgh Head but would soon be on his way, Rob Fray and Gary Bell were asleep and unrousable. Within 10 minutes, PVH and the handily nearby Pierre-Andre Crochet arrived, and soon had views of the bird. Pierre set up his sound-recording gear while we waited for more views – it was still too dark for photos, the light was hopelessly poor (3200 iso, 2/3 under and 1/100 poor). We watched the warbler on and off for another five minutes before it made a flycatching sally into the air but, instead of returning to the garden headed off across the field, and we lost it above the boulders on the beach. And, sadly, that was the last we saw of it!
It wasn’t seen at all for the rest of the day, but what was surely the same bird (it looked identical) was found by Gary Bell the next morning (30th September) at Grutness, about 1.5 km as the crow flies from our garden.
A week on Shetland in July 2014 by Markus Varesvuo
Posted by Markus Varesvuo on Wednesday 30th July 2014 | Photography
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
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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
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
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.
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…
A week is just long enough to get an idea of all that Shetland’s got to offer.
Contact Brydon to arrange one-to-one photography assignments: email@example.com
Breeding Merlins photo assignment
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 29th July 2014 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, Photography
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.
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.
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.
Red-throated Diver under license photo assignment
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 25th July 2014 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, Photography
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.
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.
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
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”
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.
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