Long Days, Short Nights, June 2019

In the winter on Shetland it gets light very late in the morning and dark very early in the afternoon - it's quite possible to set off for a walk at dawn and get back after sunset without getting very far at all.

In June comes the payback - Shetland isn't quite far enough north to see the midnight sun, but it really doesn't get properly dark at this time of the year.  The local name for it is Simmer Dim (the summer dimness) - and unless you're staying somewhere with decent curtains the light will soon start to mess with your body clock.

Over the last few days I've taken quite a lot of photographs (no surprise there, I hear you cry) - the earliest was at 04:50 and the latest at 22:55.

Early Start 04:50 looking out onto Quendale Bay
Late night (22:55) clouds over Quendale Links

So what to do with all those intervening hours?

As with any time on Shetland, you keep your fingers crossed that the weather is going to co-operate.  In the summer you might well get 18 hours of sunshine between dawn and dusk, but you might also get 18 hours of brightly lit fog.

Sunshine and Waves on Scat Ness
Quendale Bay - on a good day you can see Fair Isle 25 miles away


But, assuming the weather co-operates (which it mostly did for the last few days) you're going to want to do things like puffin spotting (lots of other bird life is available), Shetland Pony watching and (if you've got everything crossed) you might get to see one of the passing pods of orca.

Puffin in the sea pinks at Sumburgh Head 
Shetland Ponies - in front of the Sumburgh Hotel
Passing Orca - taken at The Taing, just north of Grutness Voe

The ponies are there all year round - just keep your eyes open as you walk or drive around Shetland - at this time of year there are lots of foals around too.

The puffins appear in mid-April and stick around until late July or early August - there are puffins in lots of places around Shetland, my favourite puffin spotting place is Sumburgh Head at the south end of the Shetland mainland.  Some days you'll see lots of puffins coming and going (and sometimes just hanging about on the cliff-tops), other days you might need to be a wee bit patient.

The orca are the real lottery ticket item.  Shetland doesn't have a resident pod of orca (much to the relief of the local seals), but it does have several visiting pods who spend time as far north as Iceland and as far south as the Scottish mainland. The orca do often work their up or down the Shetland coast line so you will often get a heads-up that the orca are around via a local Facebook page that a pod has been sighted.  This will result in crowds of both locals and visitors gathering along the coastline hoping that the pod will pass by close to the shore. Last week the pod took almost 8 hours to travel the 20 odd miles from near Lerwick (where they were first spotted) down to Sumburgh Head hunting fish and seals as they went, and providing a wonderful spectacle for lots of people

And if you don't spot any ponies or the puffins are too busy sitting in their burrows or spending time fishing at sea and the orca just aren't around, you'll just have to stick with wandering on the crowded beaches and busy headlands. Which isn't really such a tough call.

Quendale Beach
Scat Ness

There are more pictures from the last few days in a Flickr album.

In Search of Puffins, May 2019

It happens almost every year about this time.  I suddenly get the urge to pop up to Shetland because it’s time that the grass got its first cut of the year.
Actually, this is just a thinly veiled excuse.

The real reason is so that I can check in on the newly returned puffins around Sumburgh Head.

So last Friday morning at 04:00 I was standing at a bus stop in Oxford, waiting for a coach to Heathrow and about 8 hours later I was standing at the lighthouse on Sumburgh Head waiting for puffins to appear.

So, did the puffins appear?  Yes, but only in limited numbers.  

I got the impression that there were quite a few birds around but they all seemed to keeping to themselves rather than gathering in gangs on the cliff tops.  Maybe, despite the bright sunshine, the temperatures just weren’t quite high enough for sun-bathing.  The puffins I generally spotted were either flying straight in to the burrows, or were emerging and heading straight back out to sea.

Puffin and razorbill discussing burrow ownership
Puffin at Sumburgh Head

One observation suggested that there might be another reason for the puffins being reluctant to sit around on the cliff tops at the moment.

As I was packing up on Saturday evening,  I got beckoned over by a local couple to one of the spots from where there are a set of fairly visible burrows - usually a good spot for watching puffins loitering.  

Just outside one of the burrow entrances was a young otter busily tucking in to a freshly caught puffin.  The otter clearly wasn’t happy to have an audience for this Saturday night dinner and he (or she) soon dragged the puffin remains down into the burrow.  I waited around trying to keep sight of the burrow the otter had darted down (hoping that it was one of the simple burrows with a single entrance) and eventually it did reappear to see if the coast was clear, it took one look at me and disappeared again and I didn’t see any further evidence. 

Otter 1, Puffin 0 
Did any one notice?

I gather there have occasionally been otters sighted around the lighthouse but I’ve not seen any other pictures of them around the puffin burrows.  There are also stories of predation around the guillemot colonies, which are generally much closer to sea level, where I’d expect the otters to be found.

I’m willing to travel a long way to spend time with either otters or puffins - but I really would prefer it if the former wasn’t eating the latter.

In between fixes of puffin (and otter) spotting I was able to spend time on some of favourite headlands and beaches at the south end of Shetland.  

As the spring draws on the regular summer visitors are reappearing. 

The  guillemots always get back early and by mid-May they're sitting on eggs, and I was pleased to see more razorbills than remember from this time last year. 

Guillemots at Sumburgh

The bonxies (great skuas) are back patrolling the cliffs (they’re happy to take a puffin given the chance), the wheatears are around and the tirricks (terns) are getting in their early season harassing-visitor practice.  And the air is filled with the sound of bird life too - from the bubbling calls of the guillemots and puffins, to the trill of the skylarks and the endless peeping of the oystercatchers.

The tourist attractions are also getting back into operation - the Sumburgh Head visitor centre re-opened for the season a few weeks back, and there is again coffee and splendid cake on offer (although not yet in the wonderful Stevenson Room, which is still getting some TLC).  I was also delighted to hear that Old Scatness is opening much more regularly this summer - it’s always been one of my favourite bits of Shetland archeology - I’ll get there next time I’m back.

Sunny Scat Ness
All calm at the West Voe of Sumburgh
Low tide at Quendale Bay

And yes, I did get the grass cut.

Half Cut

Bluebells, April 2019

It's been a good year for bluebells.

Around Oxfordshire there are always bluebells around at this time of year - and I've found clumps in lots of places - parks, gardens, riverbanks, hedgerows.

Stoke Place, Headington
Mesopotamia

But this year some of the bigger woodland areas have been positively dramatic - I don't know of the freakish weather over recent weeks has pushed all the bluebells into flower at the same time (I did read that the weather had compressed the pollen season to the evidence discomfort of the hay fever sufferers).

I took the chance to visit several woodland bluebell sites over the last few days - and they really have been breath-taking.  If you get the opportunity, I'm sure there will still be plenty around this weekend.

Harcourt Arboretum
Harcourt Arboretum
Greys Court
Sydlings Copse
Sydlings Copse

There are more pictures from these sites in a Flickr Album.

Best Foot Forward

Today (5th April) is Walking to Work Day, so it seemed like a good time to review how far I've walked this year.


At the start of 2018 I signed up to walk 1000 miles in 2018. 


I very quickly realised that since I'd walked just over 1300 miles the previous year this wasn't a very ambitious target, so I set myself a revised target of 1500 miles, which later got updated to 2000 miles.


By year end (and I'm blaming the rubbish weather in November and December) I actually clocked just over 1927 miles.


One thing that changed during the 2018 was my working pattern.  I changed from working limited hours but with a long (car-based) commute, to a few months where I had lots of time away from desks (and thus lots of time for walking) to a job where I worked more hours but I could walk to work.  This meant I had more time for short walks but less time for long walks.


So how's this year going? By this point last year I'd managed to clock up about 550 miles, this year I've only got to 410.

Must try harder - or at least further.







Weather All-Sorts, April 2019

Even a quick trip to Shetland usually offers a pretty good range of weathers.

Over a few days, particularly at this time of year, you'll get plenty of offerings from the weather selection box.

You'll probably see some dry weather, some rain and if you get really 'lucky' a spot of snow too.

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse - complete with blue skies and sunshine
Spring Snow
Watching Seals in the rain, on Scat Ness

You'll probably see some sunshine, and you'll certainly see some clouds.

Dunes on Quendale Beach in the sunshine
Scat Ness waves 
Watching the showers rolling across West Voe of Sumburgh

You'll probably see some still days (or maybe just hours) but you'll almost certainly see some windy days too.

Wind-ripped waves at St Ninian's Beach

But, this being Shetland, the weather doesn't usually get in the way - you just put on an extra layer (and a Fair Isle hat) before heading out.

Shag on the Rocks at Scat Ness
Running Wild at Grutness

If need a few photos from the south end of Shetland over the last few days - there's a Flickr Album.

Fog. Where was the fog?  You can't claim to have had full set of Shetland weather without fog.

Well, maybe next time.

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