A week on Shetland in July 2014 by Markus Varesvuo
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 protected]