Season’s Greetings and 2022 Round-Up
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 21st December 2022 | News
Otter family, by tour participant and long running returnee, Jo Cheetham
Nearing the end of what has been a busy and special year, all of us at Shetland Nature wanted to share a short round-up of this year’s news and highlights – and of course offer our season’s greetings. I begin though by saying just how good it was for things to have returned to some sort of normality. Welcoming so many guests, from so many countries and sharing our islands, history, heritage and especially wildlife again, really did feel special. So we say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has been with us this year.
Our gratitude in this sense is extended even further to those who have carried over bookings for a year or more. The trust, patience and understanding is hugely appreciated and has helped us come out the end of a very difficult period – and bounce back to interest and demand as strong as any other year. To already see the 2023 Holidays and Photo Tours program already not far from booked out really is incredible, especially considering the difficult times we are in.
Whilst mentioning our holidays, as always we are eternally grateful to our accommodation providers at The Sumburgh and St Magnus Bay Hotels, as well as the many self-catering properties and Guest Houses we use. We also must mention here the boat-tour excursions we do with Shetland Seabird Tours and Mousa Boats, who like the accommodation providers go above and beyond to make our itineraries what they are. It is a good opportunity here to highlight the amazing achievement of Shetland Seabird Tours for winning this year’s Best Visitor Attraction Experience at the Highlands & Islands Tourism Awards. By no means least, we thank our team of guides who work tirelessly to make sure our guests visitor experience is everything they hope for and this year, we were very fortunate to have some new faces join our team.
Taken by team member James Rogerson on one of our Noss Gannet charters
with our very good friends at Shetland Seabird Tours
Becoming a Carbon Neutral organization & our Rewilding Support
Over the past two years we have been enjoying and making good progress on our journey to become a ‘nature positive’ business. We recognise that although a small enterprise, we need to take responsibility for any impact we may have on the environment, whether large or small. This year we stepped up the pace on a journey to not only reduce our carbon footprint by becoming a Carbon Neutral Organization and also start supporting the fantastic Rewilding work by ‘Scotland The Big Picture’.
This is a journey that is not straight forward nor in some respects practical. Nevertheless, bit by bit, we are trying, and feel good to be taking responsibility on the areas we can. One such area is promoting awareness on our actual holidays. Here on Shetland, we have brought this journey hands-on into some of our itineraries to learn of the amazing work being done by Peatland ACTION Project.
Visiting one of Shetland’s Peatland restoration projects accompanied by their team, we see the work that is being done to mitigate the impacts of climate and grazing on Shetland’s blanket bog. We learn about the importance of this habitat, not only for Shetland’s unique biodiversity, but also in the global effort to combat climate change. Following the success and popularity of this excursion on our amazing new Kate Humble holiday, we are excited to introduce it to many more itineraries for 2023. We were delighted to work with Kate on this holiday and very much looking forward to 2023’s trip and having not being able to fit in last year’s, we are very excited to welcome back Iolo Williams to lead his fifth ‘Shetland Nature Experience’ with us.
Lastly, for now I sign off sharing news on how amazed we are to see all, (bar a couple of photo-tours) our core season holidays already full! This really is quite remarkable, particularly given the many issues we all face. As always though, please do still contact us as waiting lists are recommended, as people’s circumstances can change and places do occasionally become available.
Interest has been so strong that we are currently in the process of launching a couple of new itineraries, so we may yet have an option if you still hope to visit next season.
We’ll be back in touch on this in January, for now and from each and every one of us at Shetland Nature, have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Nature Positive and Supporting Rewilding
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 6th May 2022 | News
As a small enterprise, it’s easy to imagine that our impact on the environment is insignificant, but for us, being in business carries a responsibility. As such, we’re on a journey to not only reduce our carbon footprint, but to become a ‘nature positive’ business.
We’re delighted to work in partnership with SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, a charity that works to drive the recovery of nature across Scotland through rewilding, in response to the growing climate and biodiversity crises.
Each year, we contribute a percentage of our income to a dedicated rewilding fund that catalyses the creation of new natural habitats, providing a home for species such as red squirrels and pine martens, as well as locking up carbon.
We also offer the chance for our guests to make their own contribution by offsetting the carbon footprint of their travel to and from our holidays.
We believe that by working together, we can help make more rewilding happen across Scotland.
Pine marten (Martes martes) in flowering heather, Scotland.
Ancient scots pine (pinus sylvestris) in old native woodland, Rothiemurchus Forest, Scotland.
Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in mid-air, about to land on pine trunk.
Learn more about SCOTLAND: The Big Picture
Season’s Greetings from Shetland Nature
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 24th December 2021 | Birding in Shetland
A Hermaness Puffin summer sunset, perhaps not the most festive of images, but the closest one I had to fairy lights!
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Along with our season’s greetings, we wish you as happy and healthy a Christmas as the ever-changing pandemic allows.
Briefly reflecting on our season, although there were understandable and expected challenges and changes, we had a very busy and exciting season. True to form, our islands provided a plethora of wildlife highlights, from the usual suspects through our magnificent summer breeding birds and marine life, to the unexpected and exotic- a Beluga Whale and a Walrus! Sharing these again, felt so very special.
It feels appropriate to say here that in early spring, being extra cautious and mindful to protect our clients and communities, and following local transport authority guidance at that time, we made the difficult decision to postpone all our multi-household group holidays, but continue with day tours and bespoke holidays. Hard as that was, knowing of tour companies who had to cut short holidays and isolate participants due to positive cases, we feel that decision was the right one.
We are so grateful to all those who were able to postpone and so understanding in doing so.
Looking ahead to 2022 and continually following guidelines to keep our clients and communities safe, we are feeling optimistic and excited about next summer. Amongst new plans and ventures we are planning, we are very excited to have recently announced a new date for our collaboration with Kate Humble, on our Wild and Wooly itinerary.
We have filled all but one or two spaces across our holiday itineraries next season. Please note across these itineraries we are making some amendments due to accommodation changes, which will be updated soon.
We are also pleased to see an increase in people wanting a tailored and bespoke holiday.
Please do get in touch if you think we can help.
With the very best festive wishes,
Brydon Thomason and all at Shetland Nature.
Wild Shetland: Scotland’s Viking Frontier – Behind the scenes
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 23rd January 2019 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, News, TV Appearances
Wild Shetland – Scotland’s Viking Frontier
BBC One Scotland – Wednesday 23rd January 2019, 9pm
For the last 12 years there hasn’t been a season go by that we haven’t worked on, or featured in TV productions about Shetland. We feel truly humbled by this and see it as a privilege which we do with genuine pride for Shetland, our way of life and especially our natural history.
But this one is really special. From the moment we first met with Maramedia producer, Jackie Savery, myself and Richard Shucksmith put our heart and souls in to help make the film be everything Shetlands wildlife deserved it to be! We were already well aware of their impressive portfolio of award winning films such as ‘Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart’ and ‘Hebrides – life on the edge’, we knew this would be the real deal.
The team we worked with were fantastic, making our jobs all the more enjoyable. Cameramen such as Raymond Besant, Justin Purefoy and Fergus Gill were not only exceptional behind the lens but true gents and better still, great craic too.
The whole team at Maramedia deserve a mention and high praise, from the researching through to the final edits as do Fraser Purdie for the music and indeed Ewan McGregor for the narration – bringing a touch of Hollywood to the production!
The whole film making process is fascinating and extremely emotive. Everyone gets on the same page and gives it their all. Each of us, with our respective areas of expertise collaborating and coming together with ideas and solutions to get the best out of every shoot.
As well as facilitating and advising on many aspects of the film, our main role was as otter consultants and field guides. This was a dream assignment for us – to work on a family from their first few weeks of venturing out of their natal holt, through to the eventual family separation. We work on otters week in, week out throughout the seasons and especially for projects like these, need to know what they are doing, where and when.
It’s crucial we get the crew in the right place at the right time. But there is a balance between what the team might want; what will look good on screen, what’s possible – but most importantly, making sure the wildlife comes first – that is our primary responsibility.
It has to be said here that the Maramedia team were respectful of this at every stage and we were impressed by this from the outset. Many production companies want to push things, which never works with us but they have a very good and responsible understanding of this.
The standard of wildlife film making has moved on to an astonishing level in recent years through the combination of technology and indeed tenacity. Each new documentary series reaches new heights in how wildlife is filmed and brought to our screens and now, through this fantastic film Shetland will stand out like never before.
Many of the sequences shot are truly unique, never having been filmed in Britain before and I am especially pleased for Richard to have some incredible footage in the film as well as a stunning timelapse done by Rob Brookes. It was also great to have Shetland Seabird Tours involved for the Noss Gannet sequences.
This film is a beautiful, exciting and inspiring celebration of Shetland, its wildlife, cultural heritage and natural beauty. It is the result of many individuals and professionals committing whole heartedly to have made it what it is and we, like everyone involved are extremely proud – we hope it’s as much fun to watch as it was to make!
BBC Springwatch back on Shetland – 2018
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 30th May 2018 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, News, TV Appearances
BBC Springwatch were back again for their third time to share or wild secrets with the nation and once again, we were thrilled to be involved.
It was particularly exciting series for us working as otter consultants/guides as Josh Jaggard, on his fourth season working with us here worked as one of their main cameramen. It was pretty cool for myself and Richard Shucksmith to be out with him on that assignment, especially given that’s what each of us do for our clients.
Working together we managed to get some good footage over the few days, perhaps the best of it was Josh’s sequence of a dog and bitch mating! Quite unique behaviour to see in the field let alone film.
The bar was raised when the series producer Stuart Armstrong asked us, “do you think we could get otters on screen for the live show”? A challenge it might certainly be, the tides especially were not ideal but we pulled it off, regardless of how far off in the bay it was!
It was fascinating working on the live show. Intense and exciting with no room for error or the nation knows! But nonetheless, everyone knows their role and what needs done and just gets on with it – it’s what they do!
As always the team and everyone we met were really good to work with, particularly Stuart and the presenter Gillian and Gretta the assistant producer.
I was really surprised to be asked to do a piece to camera about my my love for Birding my local patch, Halligarth right next door to our home. As the most northerly woodland in UK, amidst such a diversity of treeless habitat, annually attracting many exciting migrants it did actually make a nice feature. It turned out to make pretty cool short film and although never a massive fan of onscreen appearances, I was really pleased they pursued the idea – especially as I managed to get the whole family to appear on screen with me, all be it briefly!
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 24th November 2017 | Birding in Shetland, Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog
On Wednesday 18th October Dougie Preston found a Ring-necked Duck on Sand Water, near Gutcher on Yell. A first for the island and Shetlands second in a week- this was in itself a worthy discovery. It was whilst photographing it however that his day was about to get even better. With the RND framed up in his viewfinder, an immature/female type Velvet Scoter shot through his field of view as it landed on the loch alongside the small flock of aythya ducks.
Instinctively he fired off a few frames, then almost immediately it started to dive. Barely two minutes later, at approximately 13:20pm the duck took flight, heading north in the direction of Gutcher and the Bluemull Sound area. He was immediately struck by its atypical head shape and bill profile, especially the latter which set alarm bells off as his as his mind’s eye recalled Birding Frontiers articles on White-winged Scoter! A very commendable shout indeed.
After consulting available literature on WWS Dougie posted a photo on the local WhatsApp group at 14:24pm which read; “Comments welcome… Only touched down very briefly on Sand Water Yell early afternoon“.
The image that got the ball rolling: White-winged Scoter, Sand Loch, Yell, 18 October 2017 (Dougie Preston).
Prior to this and completely unaware of the goings on, I was birding the Belmont Farm area, (having dropped off tour guests at the ferry) when I found a female/immature type Velvet Scoter at approximately 14:15pm on Loch of Belmont. With ‘bins only’ views and at quite a distance from the farm yard I hadn’t much to go on however was intrigued enough to want it in the scope. Velvet Scoter is a scarce enough bird in Shetland that any rarity savvy birder should always want scope views.
Returning to the car at far side of the farm I drove back through the yard in the hope of getting it in the scope however it and the Long-tailed Ducks it had been loosely associating with had gone. A scan of the ferry terminal and closest loch, Snaravoe drew a blank. It wasn’t until back in signal an hour later in Uyeasound that I picked up Dougie’s WhatsApp messages which had certainly sparked interest to say the least. Paul Harvey had been quick off the mark with positive feedback to Dougie’s post and had also contacted him directly to discuss the bird.
I was only five minutes away birding Uyeasound so hurried back, my heart racing as I thought it must surely be the same bird. It had returned to Loch of Belmont and now with scope views and a few hand held, shaky ‘iphone-scoped’ images I could see enough to see the same ‘Surf Scoter like’ appearance with square head shape and flat crown; raised bill profile and ‘broken nosed’ look.
With no signal I had to race down to the ferry terminal for WiFi to call for back-up from fellow Unst birders. I couldn’t get through to Micky Maher however Mike Pennington had already acted on intuition, knowing that Sand Water was just a few miles away (only 2.5 he later found out!), hoping to relocate the scoter and was literally just a few hundred yards up the road scanning Loch of Snaravoe.
Although the light conditions and distance from the bird were far from ideal Mike was keen on its ‘putative’ identity as was Micky Maher who arrived armed with various Birding Frontiers literature on White-winged Scoter identification. As we discussed the bird we shared thoughts and memories of our hugely missed friend Martin Garner, the ‘Birding Frontier’ himself and how he would have loved this bird. He would have been our first call and now always the first thought in such challenging ID’s.
Dave Cooper and Alan Conlin were not too far behind, each also arriving with the same articles in hand – the favoured being Guillermo Rodriguez Lazaro’s article on Birding Frontiers website which we found invaluable.
This was a peculiar situation for us in that although Dougie had already found and flagged it up, with only two previous British records and in a plumage not yet recorded in Europe, this still felt a difficult call to make.
It was now well after 16:00pm and light was poor but with dusk also approaching conditions were challenging, to say the least. It was increasingly harder to assess and be sure of features we thought we could see. At this stage however we were confident that based on its distinctive overall ‘Surf Scoter like’ head shape and appearance and especially bill structure, profile and length that this bird surely could not be a fusca– or at least was not like any we had ever seen but it was a very good fit for deglandi, having also considered Stejnegeri.
In addition to the above we were also struck by the size and position of the large oval shaped nostril, (we all commented that you could see straight through it) and now ‘genned-up’ on finer ID points on the bill feathering-pattern and angle, we knew what to look for. The latter looked to be a good fit and certainly did appear to extend beyond the nostril and more importantly formed a 90-degree angle. However in the difficult light conditions and distance this was not easy to assess with certainty and the unfortunate reality was that we just ran out of light and therefore time!
American White-winged Scoter, Loch of Belmont, Unst, 19 October 2017 (Robbie Brookes).
We decided on a cautious approach. It was agreed that further research of both Velvet and White-winged Scoter was needed and better still- closer views in the morning! We had also considered that realistically with ferry times no one would have been able to make it before dusk and after all news was already out on it.
We discussed the bird at length over the evening and put news out that it had been relocated on Loch of Belmont. I also spoke to Dougie who was naturally delighted that it had been relocated and to hear our opinion, very much in agreement with his. Of course this is said after just about every big birds identification but in hindsight we had enough at that stage for a conclusive identification that afternoon, especially with Dougie’s photograph and our field observations as well as supporting phone-scoped images.
With the chance to divulge and reflect confidence continued to grow later in the evening. Interestingly Margaret Pennington (Mike’s wife), pointed out a distinguishing feature that confirmed for certain they were the same bird. It was a small white smudge on the bill bellow its right hand nostril, which was consistent on all images.
Unfortunately Dougie had commitments the following morning so couldn’t be there with me at first light but thankfully it was still present. Mike and Dave arrived soon after and at last with better views there was a much more relaxed vibe as we watched the bird- helped eventually by shared opinion from Paul Harvey and Roger Riddington, who were amongst the first to arrive. They too agreed how subtle it was and how that in different circumstances it might have been overlooked but especially how well Dougie had done initially.
Needless to say it was quite the performer that morning! This was quite the opposite to our first encounter, allowing for really good images to be nailed which 100% confirmed the key features we’d tentatively noted, leaving many to have probably thought- oh yes, surely that was never a Velvet- it’s obviously a White-winged Scoter!!
The American White-winged Scoter performed much closer on the morning of 19 October and allowed for excellent images to be taken, documenting the identification beyond all doubt. The distinctive head and bill structure are particularly apparent in this photo (Jim Nicolson).
Recently I contacted Guillermo Rodriguez asking him for comment and if we were right in thinking it was a 1st winter male. He responded:
“Hi Brydon, I fully agree with your diagnosis – the bird is a first-year male White-winged Scoter. Key features for ageing are the neat, homogeneous plumage, and velvet-like feathering around the bill, all certainly pointing towards a juvenile; sexing is slightly more complicated as this bird isn’t particularly short/long billed, but the relatively squared head and bumpy bill, and presence of significantly large white spots on the GC tips, all support sexing as male.
I’m leaving now for a trip so don’t have time to look for the originals – just take the pics you want from my post. And I agree Martin would have been super excited about this bird!
Guillermo kindly allowed us to reproduce his composite of first-winter drake American White-winged Scoter images below, alongside an excellent image of a first-winter drake Velvet Scoter, taken in Shropshire in November 2016 by Dave Tromans. We believe these help to illustrate and compare the key features of fusca and deglandi, which were key to the identification of the Unst bird.
- Head shape tends to be more rounded in fusca, whereas deglandi shows a flatter crown and squarer, more Surf Scoter-like, appearance.
- The bill profile in fusca shows a distinct gentle concave profile, scooping downward from forecrown to bill tip, whereas deglandi shows a distinctively convex profile, creating a ‘broken-nosed’ appearance to the upperside. The bill was therefore deeper at the base, appearing to start from higher up on the forehead.
- In fusca the bill feathering stops before the position of the nostril and slopes back towards gape at about 40-degree angle, whereas in deglandi the feathering extends further, reaching below the nostril and forming a 90-degree angle. This is a feature that, although we were quite sure we could see, we found hard to assess at first. Closer views and images made this much easier.
- The nostril size and shape was quite striking; deglandi shows a larger and more oval-shaped nostril which, on the Unst bird, you could see right through, even at a distance, when the bill was in profile. This is in comparison to fusca, where the nostril is smaller and more rounded.
First-winter drake American White-winged Scoters, Crane Beach, Massachusetts, November 2016 (Guillermo Rodriguez).
First-winter drake Velvet Scoter, Telford, Shropshire, November 2016 (Dave Tromans) with the Unst American White-winged Scoter for comparison.
Having fantasized about finding White-winged Scoter in Shetland this was a real privilege to have been part of this amazing bird and team effort, heralded by an impressive bit of impulse ID by Dougie. It was rather amusing that barely a week prior to this I found a juvenile Surf Scoter off Unst and on Twitter I joked that; “it was the third species of American duck on Unst in as many weeks- let’s hope the next one has white in its wings!”. Prior to the Surfie the island had already hosted Ring-necked Duck and American Wigeon.
It is perhaps relevant to add that it was later to transpire that this bird had been identified and actually photographed as a Velvet Scoter off Belmont just a few days before.
Hopefully this bird may serve to encourage/remind birders to scrutinise all ages and sexes of all Velvets, when possible. Having not been seen here since the 22nd of October, might this bird turn up again in a scoter flock somewhere in the country or even perhaps Europe?
The Siberian Thrush, Baltasound, Unst, September 2017
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 25th September 2017 | Birding in Shetland, Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog
I opened our front room curtains about 07:30am. I’d been slow to get up due to your daughter Nula (15 months) having a restless night’s sleep, resulting in me having none! Two Yellow-browed Warblers chasing each other round the trees however was enough to get me fired- I grabbed my bins and set off for my morning circuit next door in Halligarth. The previous fall of Yellow-brows had been cleared out for a couple of days so clearly there were new arrivals. A third followed by two Willow Warbler and two Garden Warbler was enough to prompt a text to Roger Riddington; ‘New birds in!’, I wrote excitedly.
It was one of those flat calm mornings that just feels ‘rare’, that indescribable autumn atmosphere when you feel a monster rare is possible. The above tally was enough to convince me to carry on for an hour after breakfast and putting bairns to school. 12 Yellow-brows and an hour later, it was time to head home- I had work to do preparing for starting ground works with digger arriving next day.
A quick jaunt across Baltasound to borrow a ‘pinch bar’ (for lifting paving slabs), from Robbie Brookes was in order and on route yet more YBW’s caught my eye along the Ordaal road. Two feisty ‘Sibeie’ sprites were chasing each other round a roadside garden, visible from the car so I stopped and pulled over. Id tried earlier, with zero success to photograph one so I thought I’d try again, with a cheeky of the gardens too!
Standing outside the garden on the roadside, I’d been mimicking their sweet little call and probably doing a pretty poor job, but they’d posed nicely. A few frames in the bag, feeling mildly pleased at my efforts a bird flew up from just a couple of feet from me, out of base of hedge, flying straight across garden away from me and landing in a Sycamore only 30-40ft away.
As is often the way, it could only have been a three or four seconds glimpse as it flew across- as fast as mind could process….distinct white corners to outer tail… flashes in the wing…scaly plumage– WHITES THRUSH?? But no, even in such a short few second view I knew before it even landed it was too small and what it had to be. Even though I’d had my camera raised, shooting the YBW’s, I still dropped it to raise my trusted EL 10 x 42’s and man, I am actually so glad I did! There, superbly scaly and ‘superciliumed’, shadowed in Sycamore canopy was a female SIBERIAN THRUSH!!
When writing up a rarity or if lucky a mega, it’s almost customary to describe the overriding surge of adrenalin coursing through the body but strangely, today I was actually rather ‘together’ and level headed, (although my legs did feel considerably weaker than normal!). I think because it was so strikingly obvious, even on this first two views and I had no doubt as to what it was, maybe helped me keep it together? It’s hard to say.
After perching for just a few seconds, it flew out the garden, calling as it went- a beautiful and quite sweet but fairly clear ‘tssi’, rather like a cross between a Song Thrush and a Hawfinch. The wing bars; white outer tips to tail and underwing patterns combined to create a truly sensational sight. Grabbing for my phone to get news out and the lads around was actually when the reality and shakes started to hit me. Now ok, there had already been five Sibe Thrushes in Shetland and the last was only a year ago (and on Unst!) but still, this is a dream Sibe, still one of the ‘big guns from the east’ and although we allow ourselves to dream of such things, I don’t think I ever imagined finding one!
Perhaps predictably EE network was down so I’d have to leave the site and the bird to use a phone but thought hang on, I’ve just found a Sibe Thrush(!) which I’ve only seen for a few seconds- If I risk leaving it I could risk losing it! I had another couple of flushes and flight views as it flew from garden to garden (barely 50 yards apart), but it was remarkably reluctant to show. Over ten to fifteen minutes I felt it appeared settled between the two gardens so legged it along road to use a landline or Wi-Fi signal.
Within five minutes the lads started to arrive and to my and everyone else’s relief, it showed well enough, even if only tantalising flight views for all that made it. With permission to enter its favoured fly-to garden by Mike Pennington I was able to encourage it out a couple of times. We all agreed it best then to leave her in peace and by before 14:00pm, less than two hours from when it had been found, we had all left. Way too often birders put far too much pressure on birds that are reluctant to show meaning they don’t have time to feed and rest.
To my knowledge everyone arriving over course of afternoon managed to see it too and thankfully everyone even behaved!
The images above actually capture the overall experience quite realistically, especially Rebecca’s back-of-the-camera flight shot. It was surprising just how astonishingly good flight views were, especially through bins. Rebecca and I both mocked our own efforts from photographers perspectives but celebrated them from birding ones!
Having refrained from twitching the Uyeasound bird last year and not having seen any of the previous birds, this little lady was all the more tremendous. I had however seen them in China about ten years ago and so could well remember their frustratingly elusive nature and she certainly lived up to that. Over the course of the two hours I was there (including with everyone one else) I only saw her twice actually perched in sycamores in view- never once in full view on the ground, nor did anyone else as far as I’m aware! Unfortunately there was no sign the following day.
This was the 12th record for Britain and the 6th for Shetland. A big thanks to Brian and Beth Edwards for allowing me to use their phone and to Jim Mouatt for being so accommodating round his and his mothers gardens.
A Humpback ID match UK first: Caribbean/Shetland Islands
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 15th February 2017 | Sea Mammals in Shetland
I find it quite incredible to write about yet another chapter in the story of Humpback Whales that spent five weeks this winter between Yell, Fetlar and Unst. Each part of the story to unfold has certainly been worth sharing and now, none more so than this one. It is thanks to a very exciting, encouraging and gratifying international collaboration we discovered that for the first time ever a Humpback Whale has been recorded in British waters from the breeding grounds off Guadeloupe, in the southeast Caribbean!
Back in early December I was able to capture several close-up images of at least two of the five whales tale flukes. In addition to the thrill in nailing images of Humpbacks I would never before have thought possible in Shetland, I could see that potentially for the first time ever in Shetland or even UK waters, good enough images of the detail needed for ID work may be possible. As many who have seen or worked on Humpbacks in UK waters, getting good close up and detailed images of tail flukes are rarely possible. I put some ‘feelers out’ by email and via social media with a couple of images, asking for any help and also to The North Norwegian Humpback Whale Catalogue (NNHWC).
Far from being anything near an expert on Humpback Whales I hoped that the Norwegian wintering populations might make most sense however the NNHWC, as helpful as they were did not find a match. It was on Twitter however that Dan Lettice recommended Pádraig Whooley of The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (http://www.iwdg.ie/). This was where it really began to pick up pace. Pádraig was totally fantastic, a wealth of knowledge about Humpbacks and their movements, especially through their work off Ireland but also his tireless enthusiasm and passion. Straight away he took on to do what he could with their humpback whale photo ID database but more so recommended I send the images to The North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue (NAHWC) at the College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine, USA. (http://www.coa.edu/allied-whale/research/)
As had been the case from Ireland and Norway, they were thrilled to receive images and offer help. From the offset I had cc’d each organisation into the email sent to Maine and so the collaboration began. Each and every one of us was as amazed as the other when word came back- they had found a match! This same whale had been photographed on the breeding grounds off Guadeloupe in the Caribbean!! The first ever match from British waters to their breeding grounds!
It was Frederick Wenzel (NAHWC) who picked out the match from their database, the largest of its kind with >9,000 individual tail fluke images (spanning from 1976 to 2016) maintained at Allied Whale; by Judy Allen, Peter Stevick and Tom Fernald.
Laurent Bouveret, who directs the OMMAG Observatoire des Mammifères Marins de l’Archipel Guadeloupéen (OMMAG) (http://ommag.info/) project, which includes hundreds of photos of whales from the eastern Caribbean was thrilled with the news; “Fred and Tom you made my day!! In attachment, our picture taken by Whale watcher Cedric Millon from Guadeloupe Evasion Découverte company, the 7th March 2015, leeward side of Guadeloupe Main Island N 16.2161111 W -61.814166, an adult accompanied with another adult”.
How amazing was that for the same whale to be photographed here in Shetland approximately 4,500 miles away! Interestingly on the day of the encounter, this whale was again accompanied with another adult. Although I did nail ID images of its tail flukes however, there have been no further matches. I couldn’t help but wonder if it could be the same two whales still together.
Padraig’s response and his enthusiastic ‘sportingly competitive’ banter especially amused me; “Crikey… how’s that for beginners luck? We’ve been sending Irish humpbacks for years to the NAHWC catalogue without a single match to a breeding ground, and our friends in Shetland manage a match on their 1st share- Wonderful news!”
“This really sets the cat among the pigeons as we’ve had something of a working hypothesis that our Irish humpbacks are more likely to be from the Cape Verdes on this side of the Atlantic. This is a great result and an important contribution to our understanding of these iconic animals”
Although this is the first ever match from UK or Ireland to a breeding ground there has been many photographic matches from Norwegian waters to the Cape Verde Islands as well as the Caribbean. At this time, the Irish humpback collection has produced matches to the Netherlands, Gibraltar, Iceland and Norway.
Having had the sharp eyes to pick out the match Frederick Wenzel has conducted photo-ID matching of right whale, blue whales and humpbacks for many years. “I voluntarily curate the Cape Verde Island humpback catalogue, and work closely with Fredrik, Laurent, Padraig and many others in this international collaboration … Wenzel currently works for the US govt. at NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA on large whales, pinnipeds, foraging ecology and bycatch for small cetaceans and seals.
“At times, I can say I have a photographic memory…I recognize flukes. I have seen before…however, in the same breath…I may not remember someone’s name, but I recognize their face”.
In Norway (NNHWC), Fredrik Broms has produced some interesting matches to Iceland, Cape Verde Islands, Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic. The team at NNHWC are currently working on a very interesting project having satellite-tagged ten humpbacks off Tromsø this winter. You can find out more about this at https://whaletracking.uit.no/.
This unprecedented ID match in itself is of course significant and will hopefully perhaps help to grow our understanding of these wonderful creatures and their movements. For me personally I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time to get a shot good enough images to assess by the researchers and organisations. It is however their ongoing commitment, research and perhaps above all collaboration that makes discoveries such as these possible.
Something that I noticed straight away when I started to look to where to send images was that there isn’t actually a UK catalogue/project. Granted of course there are some great organisations doing fantastic and very important work such as Sea Watch Foundation but no one is yet to set up an actual ID catalogue/database. This appears to be something that the international projects already working together are aware of and can see the need for.
But of course a reason for this may well be that as mentioned above there are very few good enough images that exist in British waters but as Pádraig pointed out, it only takes one image to start and already we have a result; “It will be great If interested groups could come together to document these animals in Scottish waters and a good way to pull this together is by setting up a Scottish humpback whale catalogue”.
With the quality of camera equipment used by so many people now and indeed social media there has never been a better time for this to start and as I found out with images from our encounters, anyone can contribute and make a difference. With such a fantastic and growing success story for Humpback Whales it seems quite likely we will have opportunity to enjoy them and hopefully help further our understanding of their movements.
A huge thank you to the following individuals and organisations for their help and collaboration; Pádraig Whooley of The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group; Frederik Wenzel, Thomas Fernald, Judy Allen and Peter Stevick of the NAHWC; Laurent Bouveret of the OMMAG; Frederick Broms of NNHWC and Cedric Millon from Guadeloupe Evasion Découverte company OMMAG https://www.facebook.com/ommag971/ and http://www.guadeloupeevasiondecouverte.com/
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