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Bird Hide Photography – The Work Behind the Scenes

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 24th July 2014 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, Photography

Bird hide photography is now very well established as an almost prerequisite to an itinerary for travelling nature photographers throughout Europe and beyond. Across a growing number of photo-tour companies there is a plethora of opportunities, subjects and species which can be worked on from hides. The imagery from such innovations of course speak for the selves as they tend to show species, (often shy and secretive) illustrating exciting, intimate and awe-inspiring behaviour- all of which is of course extremely popular to both photographers and admirers of natural history photography.

The whole concept of this approach to nature photography is a huge motivation for me and I find it exciting, emotive and very rewarding. It is this kind of photography I really like to work on as I love the whole process of the assignment, from getting to know how a particular species use a certain site and planning where and if a hide will work. Just to even simply watch wildlife without them knowing you are is simply magical in itself. Then the building of a hide to suit the site and subject. Building the actual hide is just as much part of the overall gratification as the actual taking of images for me.  As a time served joiner/carpenter it is a really good fit to combine these skills and knowledge of species and sites.

Some of the sites I have innovated and established have taken a few years planning and labour, you could even go as far to say ‘blood, sweat and even tears!’ (well nearly at least!) What I tend to do is build semi permanent and purpose built wooden kit hides which can be transported to site using quad and trailer, or even tractor with one of the larger more permanent hides. It has to be said of course that these have improved over the years and I have learned that shop bought ‘pop up’s’ are just not for Shetland – I call them ‘blow aways’ instead!

Two of my hides are constructed and just slide on or off trailer, like my two man diver hide and my one-man-wigwam, which is just small enough to drag/slide across moorland, but over a short back aching distance! Often there is days of work goes into each assignment in the repeated visits to move a hide over a period of weeks which is essential, especially at breeding sites.

Eventually over the past few seasons I have built a selection of hides which I can move around to suit subject and seasons and they can therefore play a very productive role in itineraries and workshops I run or collaborate on. In 2014 for example I really enjoyed working with Markus Varesvuo on Merlin, Red-throated Diver, Arctic Skua and Great Sua. I also had a film crew use my Long-tailed duck hide when we worked on ITV’s Alison Steadman’s Shetland.

Often now visiting photographers who perhaps want to do their own thing are also booking hides for exclusive use, such as the Arctic Skua and Great Skua club sites in the summer which only need a ‘walk in’.  Seeing the potential in this approach to photography and photo-tours and creating a niche here in Shetland is something I have found very exciting and I am very much committed to developing these assignments further and working on other species and seasons.

Read more about opportunities for Bird Hide Photography with Shetland Nature

Alison Steadman’s Shetland

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

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…

Caspian Tern finders account – Quendale, 4th June 2014

Posted by Roger Riddington on Wednesday 4th June 2014 | Birding in Shetland

Caspian Tern at Quendale. Photo by Roger Riddington.

I downed tools at work at about 4.00 pm and set off to Quendale with Ian Cowgill. We made a detour to the south end of Spiggie first of all, where a smart sum plum Slavonian Grebe was still present. Also at least one but probably two singing Common Quails.

En route to Quendale, we pulled in at the usual site to check Hillwell. I turned the car round so I was closer to the loch and started by scanning quickly across the flock of 20–30 gulls (mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls) that were loafing in the field between the road and the loch. The fourth bird from the left-hand end immediately grabbed my attention; facing away, it was taller and bigger, with a black crown, and through my bins I caught a glimpse of a red bill. That prompted a desperate scramble for ‘scope and bean bag, which duly revealed: a CASPIAN TERN!

We watched for about an hour and a half, during which time the majority of the mainland-based birders arrived to tick it off – it was a tick for everyone, Dennis and Okill included, so there was plenty of rubber left on the bends between Mainlands and Hillwell. The bird didn’t actually do very much, it was effectively roosting/loafing for the vast majority of the time. It made one short circuit of the loch quite early on, and one other very short flight to a new part of the field; but otherwise it was pretty static. We eventually left it at about 6.30 and went to check Quendale (which didn’t take long – no migrants and it came on to rain). When we got back to Hillwell, we found only Brian Marshall and John Laurie staring at an empty field, empty of Caspian Tern at least; apparently the bird had flown off north at about 6.45.

Roger Riddington

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

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Haroldswick, Unst May 7th/8th 2014

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 16th May 2014 | Birding in Shetland

Unst resident birder and team member Robbie Brookes shares his exciting discovery of the Unst Yellow-rumped Warbler, which remarkably was proven to be the Orkney bird, found just 24 hours before. His luck didn’t stop there though – just hours later he scored with a Subalpine Warbler while trying to relocate the Yellow-rumped – And as if this was not enough, within a week on the 15th he added Spotted Sandpiper to his spring rarity finding spree! Nice work, keep it up Robbie…

Around 9.30am on the 7th May 2014, I decided to take a drive up the north of the island to look for migrants as we’d been having quite a spell of south easterlies. My first stop was going to be Haroldswick Pools which had been particularly good for some of the commoner migrants over the preceding weeks (Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Brambling etc and also Wryneck and a Hawfinch). Unfortunately as I drove down the hill I could see a small vehicle parked there, so I decided to go further north and check Skaw, Lamba Ness and Norwick first.

Returning back to the pools some time after 11am, I pulled up and within a minute or so, I noticed a small bird at the far end of the Rosa which was facing me with its head slightly turned. It seemed to have quite a pale breast, slightly streaked with a contrasting dark head. I had a feeling it wasn’t anything I’d come across before; so, doing what I always do, I grabbed the camera and managed to fire off a few frames just in time before it dropped down in to the Rosa bushes. Checking the pictures on the back of the camera, I knew was something pretty unusual and had a ‘gut’ feeling it was an American warbler due to its overall ‘structure’. However, my experience of American passerines was limited to just two birds – a Red-eyed Vireo that was at Valyie on Unst in September 2012 and the Cape May Warbler found by Mike Pennington in Baltasound in October 2013.

As I looked through my ‘Collins’ guide and also the ‘Sibley’ app on my iPod, I kept an eye on the bushes for the bird to re-appear; thankfully it did and I got to see its bright yellow rump. Time to ‘phone a friend’ I thought.

The first call was to Brydon Thomason at around lunchtime, who I knew was on the island. Brydon however, was out guiding an Otter Photography itinerary at that time and when we spoke could do little more than whisper as they were watching otters. He suggested I photographed the back of the camera screen with my phone and send him some pictures. This I did, but they just wouldn’t send – probably down to the image sizes and the pretty slow network that we have here. The next call was to Chris Rogers who was also birding around the north of Unst, all I got was his answerphone, so I left a message and hoped he got it. Last but not least, I emailed and texted Mike (Pennington) who I knew would be teaching at the school – maybe he would have time to come down at lunchtime? After what seemed like a long time, Chris pulled up. He was oblivious to what I thought I’d found as he’d not received my call (when he arrived, he took my excitement to be that I’d re-found the Wryneck !) He looked at the pictures and confirmed it was indeed a Yellow-rumped Warbler (plus a few expletives!).

Shortly after, Brydon arrived with his guests and then a while later, several other local birders from Mainland arrived. Most of the time, the bird only showed briefly when it came to the outside of the bushes to feed, before flitting back to cover. By mid-afternoon it hadn’t been seen for a while, so it was suggested to look around the village. I decided to drive up to a nearby croft cottage with a nice overgrown garden. I didn’t find the Y-r Warbler, but I did get a brief view of a Sub-alpine Warbler – too brief to get its race. I phoned Brydon again but we couldn’t relocate it. Thankfully it was re-found later by Brydon and Chris and eventually identified as a ‘western’.

By 5.45pm I had to return home to Baltasound, but a number of people continued to look for the bird, which then turned up back at the Rosa bushes around 7.45pm and was seen by a number of people.

The following morning I was up at 5am to go and see if the bird was still there. By 5.45am, I’d seen the bird and by 6am the news had been put out again by Brydon that it was still present. I then spent most of the morning watching and photographing the bird; on this day however, it was behaving differently. Instead of skulking around, it was now perching on the tops of the bushes, fly catching and even going down on the ground to feed in the open. I checked the bushes again the following morning but it had moved on.

I had seen that there had also been one on North Ronaldsay the day before, but I didn’t think for one minute that this could be the same bird. When I heard later that the pictures of the two sightings had been compared and it was confirmed it was indeed the same bird, it hit home how lucky it was for the bird to be re-found 130 miles away, let alone that it was me that found it.

Robbie Brookes, 15th May Baltasound Unst

Shetland Nature Photo Competition 2013

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 31st January 2014 | News, Photography

We are delighted to announce the results of our 2013 guest photographer competition and thanks to our very good friends at Earth in Focus, (who judged the competition) we have a winner!

All the images entered were really beautiful and showed just how fantastic and exciting Shetland is for photographers. The variety of wildlife, habitats and landscapes were illustrated especially well in the first, second and third choices.George Stoyle, Earth in Focus

Italian photographer Mauro Mozzarelli won first prize, (an exclusive stay in our stunning self catering Shetland Nature Lodge) with his stunning portrait of an Atlantic Puffin entering its burrow with its catch of sand eels, taken on a bespoke one-to-one itinerary in early August.

In second place was Ruth Asher’s atmospheric shot of one of the Gannet Stacks at Hermaness, taken on our ‘Shetland Autumn- Nature, Ligfht and Land‘ workshop.

In third place was Simon Hawkins’ fabulous Otter family portrait, showing the intimate bond between mother and cub as they groom at a grassy headland lay up, taken on a one-to-one Otter Photography itinerary in September.

A review of our 2013 season

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 10th January 2014 | News

So let us begin by wishing a Happy New Year to all. Whilst looking forward with excitement and anticipation of what this season will bring it seems very appropriate summarise our 2013 season with a look back at our main highlights.

We have been delighted and extremely fortunate in our 2013 season to have had our most exciting and indeed busiest season to date. The latter is of course with great thanks and gratitude to all who enjoyed Shetland through us in 2013 (and previously), without this custom and support we would not be so fortunate as to do what we do.

With our sole focus as a tour company being on Shetland, you could say ‘all our eggs are indeed in one basket’ but this is simply because we believe whole heartedly in what we have here and how uniquely special Shetland is and this is why we offer the widest range of tours and opportunities to enjoy Shetland and its wildlife throughout the seasons.

Visitors from all corners of the globe

As well as it being our busiest season in terms of footfall of guests it was also a season where we were delighted and proud at just how many countries these were visiting from. We had guests from as far as Australia, Tasmania, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Slovakia, Netherlands, Norway and France to name but a few.

2013 summer season sightings highlights in brief

So, what did our guests see? It is perhaps best to start with the two Shetland specialities that most visitors have first on their wish lists, Otters and Orcas…

Otters – true to form our experience with our signature species was the highlight for most. We are very proud of this and that we offer a wider range of opportunities to enjoy Shetlands otters than any other, from day trips, one to one photography, bespoke holidays and of course featuring in core season holidays. Our otter experience is unrivalled.

Orcas – with 2012 summer being one of the quietest summers in recent years for sightings of ‘Killer Whales’, it was thrilling to see Shetland return to form for this stunning and magnificent predator. In total we enjoyed encounters on seven trips- eight if you count that one group saw them twice!! One of our groups saw them within ten minutes of arrival at airport- “Quick, grab your luggage; we’re taking you straight to Killer Whales!” Imagine it – that’s what happened, that’s Shetland for you!

To have had such success with such an awesome and to a degree, unpredictable species was truly fantastic.

Other sea mammals enjoyed on our holidays included the summering Bearded Seal, a pod of Pilot Whale, many Minke Whale’s and Harbour Porpoise, White-sided, Risso’s, White-beaked and Common Dolphin. Our guests were lucky to enjoy more sea mammal encounters of more species than any other company this season. Basking Sharks were also seen on a few trips later in the summer.

Debut holidays new to 2013

We were proud to launch these new itineraries to our holiday program, all offering more exciting ways for our guests to enjoy a fantastic Shetland experience. Each of these itineraries went very well and proved to be very popular indeed.

Here are links to reviews of these itineraries or links to the pages with recommendations from happy customers…

Shetland Spring Birding:

Showcasing the thrill and magic of the islands during spring bird migration and also the islands renowned breeding specialities, led by Martin Garner.

Spring Birding guests

Walk Seven Shetland Islands:

The idea to feature three guides with each of us covering our areas of expertise (nature, geology, and history/heritage) proved to be very popular indeed and sold out quickly. Collaborating with two other local companies Shetland Geotours and Island Trails offer our guests a totally unique, authentic and informed insight into Shetland.

Walking group on Fetlar

Wide angle photo of puffins at HermanessShetland Late Summer Experience:

Launched to showcase Shetland in late summer this itinerary, this holiday is also aimed to suit visitors who can’t travel during the core summer season here, which is something no one else offers. It too sold out.

Shetland in autumn – Nature Light and Land photography:

The Shetland Nature Lodge – our stunning new self-catering venture

Taking on this stunning self-catering property, the most northerly visitor accommodation venue in Britain, has been such an exciting and popular venture for us.

We were thrilled at the response and occupancy since we started to promote it at the end of last year. It came as no surprise the consistent delight and amazement of the property and location and word has travelled fast- 2014 summer dates are already just about full from late April through August into September. It has also been encouraging how much interest we are receiving ‘out of season’.

Looking ahead to 2014

We are very excited to launch yet more exciting and unique holiday itineraries and ways to enjoy all that is so very special here in Shetland.

Following the popularity and demand for our collaboration walking holiday we launched ‘Discover Shetland’ for 2014 season and were thrilled to see the debut itinerary selling out so quickly we had to add another date- which has already more than half filled! This is a totally unique holiday experience, with three tour leaders offering an insight into wildlife, history and archaeology, geology and Shetland heritage which you can find in our 2014 program:

Photo Tours

Otters and Puffins

Otters and Puffins

Otters and Gannets

Otters and Gannets

Keeping up with demand in photographers wanting the best opportunities to photograph the best of Shetland we are delighted to launch a new ‘species assignment’ program of photo tours in collaboration with Richard Shucksmith the most popular of which is our Otter and Puffin assignment, which sold out within a few weeks and we added a new date.

Supporting Conservation


As nature professionals we have a major responsibility to wildlife and the environment. We take great pride in communicating and promoting a responsible approach through what we do. Similarly we feel it equally as important that we should support those who manage, protect and support the habitats, reserves and species which feature so prominently throughout the holidays and tours we run.

In addition to supporting the International Otter Survival Fund as corporate sponsors we are also now corporate sponsors of the RSPB (Giving nature a home).

To help raise funds for the International Otter Survival Fund we ran a sponsored Otter search to support their International Otter Awareness day in May.

BBC 1’s Countryfile appearance

It was great to be asked to help out and feature on the program on Shetland and I was delighted to be involved. I was especially proud, (though quite nervous on screen!) to take them out to look for otters….

Our debut appearance at The British Bird Watching Fair

Attending and exhibiting the Birdfair was an overwhelming exciting experience for us and we were proud to be the first and only tour company representing Shetland at such a internationally renowned and important event.

It was so wonderful to have received such interest and support at our stand from so many familiar faces and indeed new ones, all keen to experience a taste of Shetland. Thanks to all who visited us, we will see you next year!

In spirit of helping raise awareness and money to support conservation across the globe we were delighted to donate a place on our Spring Birding holiday in May 2014, which was sold in the Birdfair auction.


So to all who have travelled with us and to all who are doing so in the near future, we wish you a happy New Year!

All at Shetland nature

Shetland Nature Photography – Brydon Thomason 2013 Image Gallery

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 9th January 2014 | News, Photography

A seasonal selection of some of my own photography in 2013. This selection is a mixture of some of my favourite moments, encounters and projects throughout the year here in Shetland.

Needless to say, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have access to such exciting subjects but as is so often the case, I so wish I could spend more time on so many of these – in fact all of them! I really enjoy working on project photography especially and in particular ‘species specific assignments’ and to do so I often innovate hides to work from.

My Arctic Skua bathing hide worked really well this year and was a new build from last years. New to this year was my Long-tailed Duck hide too, which was really awesome. Also new to this year was a Raven hide which was really fantastic but they are so, so sharp; getting into the hide under cover of darkness was essential or they just didn’t come in!

These are all available for ‘day hire’ and can all (and do) feature in the itineraries I lead.

Unfortunately, due to so many commitments and our busiest season so far, although I had a schedule 1 license for my fourth season running, I didn’t manage to continue my work on Breeding Merlin or Red-throated Diver – which I really missed. Both those spectacular species were the highlights of the previous year and I am looking forward to continuing those projects this season and am delighted and privileged to be able to do so.

As well as sharing these images it hopefully gives photographers interested in the one-to-one itineraries I offer the chance to see what subjects are possible throughout the year here. Here are links to a couple of these bespoke itineraries from 2013:

And here also is a link to a gallery of this years Otter Photography guests on one to one itineraries: