Watching the Waves, March 2019

It would be fair to say that quite a few of my Shetland blog posts could have a subtitle of “Watching the Waves”.  

Often the waves are the side attraction that goes alongside watching the birds, spotting the otters and hoping for whales.

Last weekend was, however, pretty choice wave watching weather.  Unusually, both for Shetland most weeks and for the rest of UK on this particular weekend, there wasn’t much wind around at the south end of Shetland.  There was however plenty of wind further out at sea, so the waves when they made it to shore were pretty dramatic - and also somewhat unusually (must have been something to do with Storm Freya making her way around the southern parts of the UK) the winds changed direction, so for part of the weekend waves rolled in from the southwest and later were hauling in from the east.

Waves from the southwest (Ness o' Burgi)
Waves from the southwest (Brei Geo, Scat Ness)
St Ninians, Crowds
Calm days (Grutness Voe)
Waves from the east (Grutness Voe)
Waves from the east (Grutness Voe)

Although the weather was pretty benign (on shore at least) I did find a few reminders that it's not always plain sailing around Shetland.

In 1993, the Braer, an oil tanker, came unstuck at the south end of Shetland - eventually breaking up on Garth's Ness on the west side of Quendale Bay (and it was only by a series of extra-ordinary coincidences that the pollution was as localised as it was).  Most of the wreck has over the years disappeared, and now only the mast is still visible, lodged in a narrow channel on the other side of Quendale Bay.

Last traces of the Braer

Other shipwrecks stick around much longer than the Braer has done.  Over the years there have been 30 or 40 ships lost in Quendale Bay, some disappear completely, others get covered by sand and just very occasionally reappear.

West end of Quendale Bay, March 2019
West end of Quendale Bay, January 2007

So, what of the other cast that might distract me from waves watching? I certainly didn't spot any whales this time.  However, the birds are starting to regroup on the cliffs (plenty of guillemots and a few razorbill, but it's still too early for the puffins).  And I did get the bonus (even if it was a long way away, and in near darkness) of watching an otter in Quendale Bay searching for this evening meal.

Guillemots at Sumburgh Head
Otter in Quendale Bay

Seven Book Challenge

Just the covers.  No explanation. No reviews.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7

Exploring with Camera

(From The Oxford Times, 14 February 2019)

Misty morning at the C S Lewis Reserve

There is probably no better time than Spring to explore the numerous BBOWT reserves around Oxford - and one of the delights of that exploration is to share it with family and friends.  You can always tell them what you’ve seen, but they’ll get an even better flavour of your visit if you’ve got some photographs to share with them.

So, how do you go about taking the picture that shows the best of your local BBOWT reserve?. 

When you first get into one of the reserves there is often a temptation to rush round trying to capture an image that says “I’m here!”, but once you’ve done that it’s worth slowing down, taking a deep breath and just watching and listening to what’s around.  What birds or mammals are there?  What flowers are in bloom?  What’s the light doing - is there bright sunlight or is it a more overcast day?

The next step is to quietly explore the reserve.   If it’s a reserve you’ve visited before, you might already have an idea what you want to photograph. If it’s a new reserve to you, wander around so that you can start to get an idea what photo opportunities it might provide.  I’m particularly drawn to ponds and streams - so I’ll always look for some water when I’m exploring a new reserve.

Rivermead Nature Park 

Once you’ve seen something that looks interesting, you can then start to think about how to frame the image in the camera (or on your phone).   If it’s sunny, try and make sure that the light is   behind you (so that the sunlight is on your back rather than on your face) - your eye is very good at adjusting to dark and light areas in an image, but the camera isn’t so good.  If you have the light behind you’ll have the best chance of getting a well lit picture.  If you’re taking pictures of other people make sure that their faces are in sunshine rather than in shadow.

Try holding the camera at different heights - there’s a temptation to stand with the camera at head-height, but there might be an even better picture if you kneel down or even (if it’s not too muddy) lie down before you press the shutter.  You might want to try turning the camera sideways - people with camera phones often take ‘portrait’ pictures and those with traditional cameras usually take ‘landscape’ images - in both cases it’s worth experimenting with holding the camera the other way round.

When I’m framing up an image on the camera, I often try and imagine the story I’m going to tell about the picture once get home.  In some cases you might want to zoom into the image - was it the little group of moorhens in the middle of the image that you wanted to be able to show in the picture.  In other cases, it might be the sweep of the trees along the riverbank that was the main feature in your story so you would want to zoom out to show lots of trees.

If you’ve got a camera where you can adjust the settings, you can fine tune what the camera is doing.  If you want to capture a fast moving insect or bird, you will need to set a very short exposure time (or some cameras this will be called a ‘sport’ mode) - that will freeze the action in your picture.

My final tip for capturing a great image on a BBOWT reserve is to visit at different times of day - the light will be different at dawn, in the middle of the day and at dusk.  If you’re lucky (or pick the right day) you’ll get to take pictures in the soft light that photographers call ‘the golden hour’.  You’ll also get to see different wildlife early and late in the day - and you might just capture that special image.

Still Winter, February 2019

One of the challenges - some would say opportunities - of travelling between Oxford and Shetland is not knowing what the weather is going to do when you get there.  Some (for example, work colleagues) would quite reasonably assume that if the weather is cold and bleak in Oxford and if one was to travel, say 562 miles, due North you could expect it to be rather colder and bleaker.

But it just doesn’t work like that.  

The seas around Shetland certainly make a difference but it seems to be more than that.  In fact, generally, it seems that the simplest way of guessing the weather would be to assume ‘the opposite’.  If it’s cold and icy in Oxford then it’s likely to be mild on Shetland.  If it’s blowing up a storm in central England, there will be crowds on the Shetland beaches.  If it’s hot and sunny in the Thames Valley, then the fog and mist will have descended around Sumburgh Airport.

So when one heads off from on a cold and icy Saturday morning from Oxford, it would be entirely reasonable to expect to need beach attire (*) when you get to the south end of Shetland.

Quendale Beach 
Quendale Beach

One of the other bonuses of being of on Sunny Shetland (as opposed to Overcast Oxford) at this time of the year is that it’s always Golden Hour - that magical chunk of time sought out by photographers when, around sunrise and sunset, the light takes on a lovely warm glow.  

When the time between sunrise and sunset is short (as it is on Shetland at this time of year) the sun never gets very high in the sky, so you’ve got a good chance of getting golden light at anytime during the day.

Golden Light on Scat Ness

The other (OK, maybe only) thing about Shetland weather that can be promised is that it is going to change.  If on one day the seas are smooth and flat, you can be sure that there will be waves rolling in on the next day.

Calm Seas around Mousa
Waves on Scat Ness

No guarantees mind, this is Shetland weather we’re talking about. 
Snow Clouds over Fitful Head

*In this context "beach attire" means one fleece plus walking boots and a woollen Fair Isle hat.

The Many Days of Wild Christmas

It's not easy keeping track of things during the extended Christmas/New Year holiday season.

Common wisdom would have us believe that there are 12 Days of Christmas (starting with Partridges and Pear Trees and rattling through to 12 drumming drummers) - but that does clash with the retail model where Christmas starts somewhere around 10th October and the Christmas party season that kicks in at the start of December. (Disclosure: my office Christmas lunch was on the 6th December this time round).

And even if you do try stick to the idea that there are only 12 Days of Christmas, who knows when they start - some folks insist that 25th December is the first day, others that they start on the 26th - meaning that the 12th day is either the 5th or 6th of January

This year it got even more confusing (in my house at least) by the introduction by the Wildlife Trusts of the 7 Days of Wild Christmas.  At least the Wildlife Trusts were clear when the 7 Days of Wild Christmas started and finished.  Day 1 was 25th December, Day 7 was 31st December.

However, I can now officially reveal that there were (this winter, at least) 16 Days of Christmas (mostly wild) starting with sunrise on the morning after the winter solstice and finishing on 6th January.

Day 1: 22nd December - Solstice Sunrise at Sydlings Copse
Day 2: 23rd December - C S Lewis Nature Reserve
Day 3: 24th December - Headington Hill Park
Day 4: 25th December - Rowan Berries, Headington
Day 5: 26th December - Sydlings Copse
Day 6: 27th December - Feeding the Birds, Headington
Day 7: 28th December - Warburg Nature Reserve
Day 8: 29th December - Mesopotamia
Day 9: 30th December - Shotover Drive
Day 10: 31st December - Magdalen Quarry Nature Reserve
Day 11: 1st January - Pyrford Woods, Surrey
Day 12: 2nd January - Mesopotamia
Day 13: 3rd January - Snow Berries, Oxford Brookes University 
Day 14: 4th January - South Park
Day 15: 5th January - C S Lewis Nature Reserve
Day 16: 6th January - Milham Ford Nature Park
Happy New Year.

And roll on 30DaysWild in June.

2018 - in numbers and pictures.

2018 ticks by - another 365 pictures of the day (and another 12 pictures of the month - see below).

A year in which I clocked up over a hundred days in Scotland, including almost 70 on Shetland.  I've taken another 25000 pictures and walked over 1900 miles.  I've also traded my 57 mile commute up the M40 for a 15 minute walk along the London Road in Headington.

For the first time in about 15 years I've not been outside the UK over the last 12 months; a consequence of wanting to progress my 'Scottish Landranger' project (still a work in progress) and wanting to spend more time on Shetland.  A good outcome of that is I've 'only' clocked up 3300 flying miles.

I've made the time to do more hands-on volunteering work with BBOWT, with Trees for Life and with the John Muir Trust. And I've finally clocked up my 25th blood donation.

This is my 28th blogpost of the year - and my most heavily read post (by a big margin) was my celebration of my many visits over the years to Sumburgh Head (and, in recent years, to its cafe).

It doesn't feel like a good time to be making predictions about what the New Year has to hold.  I keep hoping I'm going to find that the whole saga turns out to be a bad - if somewhat protracted - dream.

I suspect my personal coping strategy for the next year is going to involve getting my hands dirty doing more conservation-related volunteering and spending quite a lot of timing hanging out around the cliffs and headlands of the south end of Shetland, mostly with a camera in hand.

12 Pictures of the Month

January - snow on Fitful Head
February - St Ninian's Isle
March - Walking the Thames Path
April - Just Arrived - Puffin at Sumburgh Head
May - Ullswater Reflections
June - Fishing Season, Sumburgh Head
July - Edinburgh
August - Shetland's Crowded Beaches - St Ninian's
September - Autumn Storms - Scat Ness
October - Gannets - West Voe of Sumburgh
November - Glen Affric
December - Calm Winter Morning on Scat Ness