Thursday, 29 June 2017

Troup Head

I make a point of going to Troup Head at least once a year.  It is the only mainland Gannetry in Scotland and it is right on our door step. Just15 miles away.  So on 28th June I went for the first time this year.

The views are amazing

Looking across Pennan Bay
 That cliff face is full of sea birds nesting.  Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills

Rosehearty and Fraserburgh
Kinnaird Head Lighthouse is on the horizon.

The bird life is even more spectacular.  I didn't go for the year list, but to get photos.  The first bird I saw was a Yellow/Black Duck

Yellow/Black Duck
Two years ago when I was chair of Fraserburgh Tourism Group we had a campaign all about yellow plastic ducks.  To find out more visit the Facebook page we set up.  The campaign got people going round some of the tourist attractions in the area and it raised over £300 for the Willows Animal Sanctuary.  People were able to bur a yellow duck for a £1 which was donated to the sanctuary.  You can still see some of these ducks around the area.  Coloured ducks were placed at visitor attractions in the area and people were encouraged to find them.  A sort of 'coloured duck trail'.  The one at Troup Head was black and I was surprised to see that it was still there albeit in a rather sorry state.  A special thanks goes to Malcolm Stewart from St Combs who started the whole thing off.  A spin off was Fraser the big Duck.  He has his own facebook page and like the yellow ducks dose quite a lot of travelling.

But enough of that.  This blog is about Troup Head.  Of course Gannets are the birds to photograph at Troup Head.  So that is what I did. 

It is not possible to get an idea of the size of the colony from the cliff top.  The photos above show only a fraction of the birds there.  In 2014 there were 6.500 nesting pairs.  In addition non breeding birds are present as well.  The best way to get a sense of the size of the colony by boat.  There are a couple of boats that do Troup Head trips from Macduff.  The one I have been on is Puffin Cruises.  The colony is growing.  every year there are new nest sites being occupied.  If you go on a boat trip try to get the skipper to go a little further than Troup Head and across Pennan Bay.  Although you might see Puffins at Troup Head (I saw one on this visit) there is a big colony of them on the other side of the bay.

There was a fairly strong North Easterly wind on this visit This created a problem that birds going from right to left went quickly.  The photos were fairly boring

But some had added interest.  Nest building was an ongoing activity

The problem was far outweighed by the benefit of seeing them land into the wind. They had to hang in the air while they picked the landing site.

Add caption
 This grassy area on the cliff top was a favourite place for collecting grass

Getting a photo of a bird feet dangling and wings up in isolation was a challenge but with trial and error, finding the right place and patience it could be done.

There were other shots to take.

More nest material collection

Courtship displays

Young Gannets

And  classic poses that didn't quite come off

Pity about the pole!

Four Feet

Not All in the Frame
Gannets did not have the cliffs to themselves.

Fulmars were equally at home in the air

Razorbills and Guillemots clung to the cliff ledges

Rock Pipits and Humans teetered on the edge

There are two birds I have not mentioned.  One, a Great Skua I  saw as I was on my way back to the car.  Something made me turn round and look towards the sea.  I managed to get on the camera but only just.

The other was an Arctic Skua which I didn't get on camera.  I watched it out at sea through binoculars harassing a guillemot returning from a fishing trip. Both were twisting an turning like fighter pilots in a dog fight.  But Arctic Skua as a year tick.

Total on list 193

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday

The weather in the Highlands was marvellous today.  Blue sky, white fluffy clouds and temperatures well into the 20's.  OK not the record temperatures they got in Englandshire but very acceptable.  It was even hotter in Alexs' car.  For some weeks the engine has been overheating and the only way to keep it cool is to have the cabin heater full on.  The only way to stay just about comfortable was to have the windows fully open as well.  Hopefully some time soon Skoda will deliver the spare part that is needed.

Lochindorb Castle

We had chosen to go to Lochindorb for two reasons.  The first was to get a Quail ticked for our 200 target.  This was a longshot.  When I was there three years ago I had heard Quail.  There had been no reports of Quail there this year.  We did not hear a Quail.  The second reason was to get photos of a Black-throated Diver.  This was not a bird that was new to our year last but our sightings had been of birds in winter plumage which is drab in comparison to its elegant summer feathering.

At our first and second stop along the edge of the Loch the only indication that they were present was a poster.

We also had an eye witness account from someone doing a bird tour for two Americans.  He told us that 'Yesterday they were just here and close to the Loch shore'  If I had a pound for every time I had heard 'You should have been here yesterday/last week/ an hour ago....' I would be able to afford all manner of expensive optical and photo equipment even after I had deducted a pound for every time I had said the same thing.

On our next stop we found the Divers. There were two of them and they were on the far side of the Loch.  But I a got a photo, but it wasn't as good as the one I would have taken if I had 'been here yesterday.'

Black-throated Diver
I dd get photos of some of the other birds that were around.....

Lapwing Chick

Red Grouse and Chick


Common Sandpiper
....and a Toad

I was quite surprised by the number of people driving round the Loch searching for the Divers.  The Divers had disappeared by the time some of them arrived.  At the same time a van load of kayakers arrived and we saw someone getting fishing tackle out of the car.  Its possible that with that sort of disturbance the late bird watchers might not get to see the  Divers and may only go away with 'you should have been here an hour ago' ringing in their ears.

We headed home via Aviemore and Craigellachie Woods NNR which lie to the west of the village just the other side of the A9 Perth to Inverness road. 

It is mainly a birch wood and is the summer home of many warblers, flycatchers and other species.  Alex, who is on 198 birds for the year wanted photos of Pied Flycatcher and Redstart.  I wanted Redstart for my year list.

Once our brains had filtered out the A9 traffic noise it became clear that the wood was full of birds because we could hear the chip, cheep, chirrup of birds coming from all directions.  Occasionally we could identify the sounds - a Great Tit, a Willow Warbler, Wren, Chaffinch and so on.  Even less frequently we managed to see a bird but none were are target species.and sightings were mostly fleeting as they were high in the leafy canopy and highly mobile.

Total on list 192

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Catching Up and the Isle of May

In terms of getting to the 200 birds for the year there is not a great deal to report from the last two weeks.  Only two birds to add.  A Little Stint seen at Cairnbulg on / /17. and a Great Skua seen today from Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh. The Great Skua was too far away for a photo

Little Stint
That's not to say I haven't been out and about finding and photographing birds, just that the ones I have found and photographed I have already seen this year.  Although I have to say that with things like a General Election in the UK, the youngest offspring visiting, a common cold and the weather I have not been out and about as much as I would have liked.

Here is a handful of photos that I have taken

Great Spotted Woodpecker in a Neighbours Garden

Brown Hare caught on a Morning Walk

Sand Martin collecting Mud to Build a Nest

Song Thrush

Tree Creeper

Common Tern


The big trip of the last two weeks has to be Thursdays outing to the Isle of May National Nature Reserve in the Firth of Forth.

Five of us from the NE Scotland branch of the Scottish Ornithologists Club left Aberdeen at 7.00am to get the 9.30 sailing from Anstruther to the Isle of May.  That meant I had to leave home before six to make sure I was in Aberdeen on time.   All these birding trips seem to involve getting up a Silly o' Clock!

The boat, the May Princess  was packed with a hundred people wanting to visit this magical island.  Most were going for the natural history of the island.  We were told on the crossing it was home to 46,000 Puffins.  Many of the passengers were armed, like me, with cameras as well as binoculars.  Needless to say I was 'out lensed' by many of them.  Other passengers were there for the rich Human History of the island.

  Once off the boat we were given a briefing by the Scottish Natural Heritage site manager.  He told us a bit about the job that they were doing on the island but mainly he told us to keep to the paths.  There were so many Puffins on the island that is was all too easy to step onto on of their nesting burrows potentially doing yourself some damage but more importantly possibly harming a Puffin or its young in the burrow.  His second piece of advice was to wear a hat or some other head covering.  The reason for this became obvious when we walked from the jetty to the visitors centre.  On either side of the path there were nesting Arctic Terns.  Despite the fact that everyday during their breeding season a hundred or so people take that path and don't do them any harm they insist on vigorously defending their nest and its contents.  This involves them in dive bombing and striking nasty blows on the visitors heads with their hard and pointy beaks.  Some go the extra mile and defecate, with precision on the intruders.  They do all this while making a lot of noise, initially a loud clicking noise of warning then ringing and rattling noise of the attack.  The only way to warn them off is by waving a stick or even an arm above your head.  Though this, I know to my cost does not stop the dedicated defecating Tern.

Coming in for the Kill

Arctic Terns on the Attack
The staple food for the birds of May is Sand Eels.  The Terns take then one at a time

Arctic Tern with a Sand Eel
The Puffins take a bigger beak full

Puffin with Sand Eels
The other birds on the island don't show off their catch.  Puffins in particular are great show offs.  Clearly they are aware that the black and white plumage topped with the colourful bill and large overly made up eyes are eye catching at the same time as being slightly comical.  They are obviously proud of their ability to hold lots of sand eels in that gaudy beak.  All the birds I know collect food for their chicks,  some like the Thrushes and Blackbirds can do the same trick as the Puffins and hold many prey items at once, but then immediately take the food the their nest and fed the chicks.  Not the Puffins.  They stand around on the cliff tops for ages before taking the food down the burrow for the chick, (they are called Pufflings).  This gives the photographer plenty time to get the perfect pose.

Not this one.  Wings are a little awkward

Better but still not right

What about one without showing the wings.  Background is a little fussy.

This one might do

This is the one

Getting a shot of a Puffin in flight with Sand Eels is a different matter.  One of a puffin in flight is not too difficult.

This one has Sand Eels but is not sharp

Add caption
 This one is better but could be better still.

The shot I didn't get was the classic one of a Puffin coming towards the camera just about to land so its undercarriage (feet) is down and with a beak of Sand Eels.   I did try but they were all out of focus.  The bird is coming forward quicker than the auto focus.  The only way I can think of to get the shot is to have a camera with a high burst rate.  Mine at 6 frames a second is too slow.  There must be good light so you can get a fast shutter speed in order to freeze the movement but still have a low ISO to maintain picture quality and get a decent depth of field to ensure all of the bird is sharp.  The image above had a shutter speed of 1/1600 of a second and the wings are still blurred.  You have got to be sure where the bird is going to land so you can set up the camera on a tripod and pre-focus then using a remote shutter get the burst of images as it flies towards the camera. Hopefully one of the shots will be in focus, if not repeat the process.  Finding the right spot for this may be tricky.  The Puffins land into the wind and from what I saw onto a cliff top that already has Puffins making it difficult to separate subject bird from the rest.  Here are a couple of my attempts at that classic shot.

  Some of the same problems occur when trying to photograph the Terns in flight.  Stationary Terns don't present to much of a problem.  Getting the eye to standout from their black cap needs to be addressed.

Arctic Tern

In flight it is different.  Their flight path is much less predictable than the Puffins and above your head so using a tripod is not really an option.  As with Puffins the classic shot is one with the bird coming towards you, but in attack mode rather than with food.  Whether it was my preference or the birds behaviour I don't know but most of my shots have the sun behind the bird. This produces dark shadows.  While these can be lifted in Lightroom (other imaging software is available) I did wonder whether fill-in flash would have been useful or even ethically the right thing to do.  Generally I am not in favour of using flash for wildlife photography.

 With only just over two hours on the island and this being my first time. There was not enough time to work out all the solutions, even if I had taken all my gear.  The other option for photographing these birds was to go for the comic....

Puffins on top of a Bird Watching Hide

'Peek a Boo' Puffin

 .....or the experimental

Arctic Terns en mass.  Taken with a slow shutter speed 1/10th sec. and panned

One well known bird/natural history photographer was staying on the island as a volunteer at the Isle of May Bird Observatory. He would have been able to find time to get things right.

While the flatter parts of the island was taken up with Puffins, Terns and Gulls the cliffs held different species.  Here are a few of them





Shag and Chick

    And finally.....

Lesser Black-backed Gull Chick
Total on list 192