Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas Presence not Christmas Presents


Barnacle Geese from Svalbard over SW Scotland
The family is descending upon us in various waves over the Christmas and New Year festive period and there is a good feeling of joy and togetherness that can often be missed throughout the course of the other months of the year. Sometimes friends and members of our family who live in far flung corners of the globe travel huge distances to spend some time with us and renew old bonds. These visits also create new bonds when children introduce new partners or friends and sadly, they can also remind us of bonds that we had that aren't always present any more for one reason or another.

As a nature lover and wildlife photographer I also think of our wider bond with the flora and fauna of the natural world around us. It is amazing how often we receive visits from those who live in far off places but perhaps we aren't always as aware of them as we should be. Perhaps we don't pay them a visit or even give them a second thought. I love this time of year as it allows me to reconnect with members of the wider 'world' family who travel great distances to bring their Christmas presence to me. In my little corner of the world that means Whooper Swans from Iceland, Barnacle Geese from the Arctic Circle, a host of wildfowl from Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and a plethora of small birds such as Fieldfare, Redwing and Waxwing.

Whooper Swans from Iceland over SW Scotland
Reflecting on all of this makes me aware that, just as it should be with our own immediate family, its not Christmas presents that are important but rather Christmas presence. For without the presence, so much is missing and so much is lost. It is the bonds, links and connections that are important, even if we don't always realise it. For it is only once we have lost what we have that we realise how important it actually was.

As we talk and reminisce and share over this festive season take a moment to think about the natural world too for it is becoming distant to many of us. Green space is being lost at an alarming rate as man continues to devour every resource this planet has. Species are becoming extinct at an equally alarming rate and it is only once they have gone that we understand how important they were.


A winter murmuration of Starlings at Gretna Green, SW Scotland
There is always a period over Christmas when we need to shake off the cobwebs and 'get some fresh air'. Why not use it to form new bonds or strengthen old ones with the natural world around you. Go and see those amazing creatures that have flown thousands of miles, bringing their new children and friends and partners to your corner of the globe. It is a good way to contemplate what is valuable and important.

After all it is presence and not presents that is important.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Barnacle Geese from Svalbard over SW Scotland


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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Puffins of Lunga


Atlantic Puffin on the Island of Lunga
Firstly, I have to apologise for the delay in posting this latest blog. It has been a very busy summer for a variety of reasons but also a very frustrating one. I had several plans for interesting photography shoots over the summer months but the appallingly wet weather here in Scotland made it all but impossible to find time when the rain had stopped, the light was favourable and I was available. I could have used the time away from my camera to write more but I was missing the photography that for me is so much an integral part of what I write about.

I did manage a few days here and there and latterly spent some time with my macro lens photographing dragonflies and damselflies along the fringes of midge infested ponds. As I discovered, that posed a few interesting challenges. However that is a story for another day.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to come second in the Scottish Wildlife Section of the annual photography competition held by the Scottish Seabird Centre. A photograph of three Icelandic Whooper Swans secured that runner-up place for me. My prize was a weekend with professional photographer Philip Price of Loch Visions. He is based near Oban on the west coast of Scotland and when he isn't taking photographs he offers a variety of wildlife photography workshop experiences  From the available options I selected a trip to the island of Lunga, one of the Treshnish islands off the west coast of Mull. 

So it was that on a Saturday morning in July my wife, eight other photographers and I joined Philip and his assistant Renate at Oban harbour for the sail north through the Sound of Mull to the Treshnish Islands and on to  Lunga. This was one of the few trips that worked for me during the course of this year with the sun shining kindly and the wind and rain ceasing for at least one of the two days of the weekend!


Portrait of an Atlantic Puffin
It was a two hour trip stopping at Tobermory on Mull on route. Once safely on Lunga we made a short climb to a grass plateau at the top of some cliffs and then further to a rock pinnacle known as the Harp Rock stack. There we were presented with the stunning sight of thousands of breeding Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags and Puffins amongst others. It was so incredible that staying focused on the purpose of the trip was harder than focusing on any given subject. Birds with beaks full of sand eels and fish were within touching distance and seemed unfazed by the arrival of the paparazzi! It wasn’t difficult to see why these islands are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and also a Special Protection Area for the conservation of wild birds. 

Puffin with a beak full of fish
After hundreds of shutter ‘clicks’ we sat on the cliff tops eating a superb picnic lunch prepared, I believe, by Philip’s wife and his mother; many thanks. Curiosity finally got the better of the Puffins and they gathered around their nearby burrows providing several hours of incredible photography.


I opted for this particular trip because first and foremost I wanted to photograph puffins. It was many years ago but I have never forgotten the moment I saw my first puffin. It was at Auchmithie, a small fishing hamlet on the east coast of Scotland, birthplace of that culinary delight the Arbroath Smokie! I remember watching the waves rolling in from the north sea when a bird with a very unusual orange bill flew past. It was immediately recognisable as a puffin.

Puffin with a beak full of fish
Puffins belong to the Auk family and there are three species found in the North Pacific Ocean but only one in the North Atlantic Ocean. Slightly larger than a pigeon, the Atlantic Puffin is the smallest and most common of them all. Sometimes referred to as ‘Clown of the Sea’ or ‘Sea Parrot’, on account of its unusual beak and head markings, it has been characterised in animations, comic strips, book illustrations and on postage stamps. Widely distributed, it can be found from eastern America to northern Russia and from northern France to Iceland but falling numbers in recent years is giving cause for concern.

Approximately 10% of Atlantic Puffins breed in the British Isles with Scotland playing host to large colonies on some of its rugged coastlines and islands. The birds, which are monogamous, arrive at their breeding grounds towards the end of March and pairs begin reinforcing the bond between them with much rubbing of their bright orange beaks. They are highly social birds, living along the edge of cliffs where they create their nests by digging burrows in the soft earth.


They lay a single egg and parents share all responsibilities including burrow digging, egg incubation, fishing and feeding the chick that will hatch around June or July. The main sources of food are sand eels and sprats and catching these can necessitate swimming to depths in excess of 50 metres! Once hatched, the pufflings as they are known, will fledge by making their way alone, usually under cover of darkness, to the cliff tops and then to the sea below.

Portrait of an Atlantic Puffin
It would be reasonable to assume that by living in remote locations puffins are protected from many of the dangers affecting other birds. Sadly, this is not the case and they are especially vulnerable to environmental disasters such as oil spills or the introduction of a predator, such as a mink or rat to remote nesting grounds.

North Atlantic Puffin numbers have fallen significantly over the last decade although some colonies are presently doing well. Overall, there is reason for cautious optimism, but concern is such that at present the Atlantic Puffin is on the Amber list of UK Birds of Conservation Concern. 

Razorbill with Sand-eels
Apart from photographing the puffins of Lunga there were also guillemots, razorbills and shags by the dozen. The photography was fantastic but I have often said that getting the photograph is tremendously satisfying but witnessing the moment is far more important. I witnessed so many 'moments' on Lunga that the ones I captured in the photographs here represent just a fraction of them. The rest will live on in my mind and that is why I love wildlife and nature photography.

It was a terrific trip and a great opportunity and I hope to catch up with Philip Price again on another of his workshops in the not too distant future.  



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Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Seeing Red!

Ask anyone to conjure up an image of Scottish wildlife and the chances are that the first thing they will think of is that great monarch of the glens - the Red Deer. Undoubtedly the Red Deer has inspired poets and artists across the generations. Standing stately on heather clad hills with antlers probing through the all too familiar Scots mist it has become the embodiment of the spirit of a nation. In reality it is well established with a healthy population spread across the country. At the opposite end of the scale in terms of size is another of Scotland's great wildlife icons.  It also has the red 'Celtic' hair but its future is far less secure. I am talking of the Red Squirrel.

Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)

The Red Squirrel has been part of Scotland's natural landscape, and indeed the landscape of much of Europe and Asia for centuries. Hence it is more correctly known as the Eurasian Red Squirrel or, to give it its latin title, Sciurus vulgaris. Yet in Scotland the survival of the Red Squirrel is hanging precariously in the balance and it would take very little to push it into extinction. That is not an exaggeration. It is the harsh reality of where this beautiful little creature finds itself as a consequence of man's interference in the natural world.

Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)




The story goes back to the late nineteenth century when wealthy Victorian landowners could enjoy easy access to the far flung corners of the globe. It was a demonstration of wealth and status to be able to populate the gardens of large country mansions with what was perceived as exotic flora and fauna from distant lands. It is for this reason that Scotland is fighting today to control several invasive species that have adapted all too readily to their new home and have spread out of control. There are too many to name here but the list includes, Japanese Knotweed, Rhododendron and Himalayan Balsam. These species alone cost Scotland millions of pounds per annum to clean up and to deal with the environmental damage. The problem isn't restricted to plants but also encompasses a range of fish and animals that were prized for their novelty value. This included the north American Grey Squirrel. It was the importation of this little creature in the late 1800s that sadly now is ringing a very deafening death knell for its distant cousin, Scotland's native Red Squirrel.


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)
Grey Squirrels were introduced in both England and Scotland but what wasn't known at the time was that those introduced in England carried a deadly disease whilst those imported to Scotland did not seem to. This may have hindered initial thinking into what was causing the decline of Red Squirrel numbers across England. What is known is that someone suddenly wakened up to the fact that large areas of England were devoid of the once commonplace Red Squirrel. As ecologists prepared maps of those areas of the UK where Red Squirrels could still be found and where Greys were largely in control it became evident that England's green and pleasant land was dominated by Greys and there was hardly a Red to be found. Today, the Red Squirrel is virtually extinct in England save for small numbers in isolated locations in the north of the country. As the Grey Squirrel march is a northwards one and the Reds are rapidly succumbing to the alien advance, Hadrian's Wall, the Roman legacy that marks the boundary between Scotland and England has once again become a very important battle line.


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)
Squirrel pox is a particularly nasty virus that is carried by Grey Squirrels that have developed immunity to the disease and appear unaffected by it. Red Squirrels have no immunity and the effect is devastating. Once a Red Squirrel comes into contact with the virus it will develop weeping lesions and sores around the eyes, nose, mouth and genitalia. These will spread and the animal will have difficulty in seeing properly or feeding. Death is slow and painful and will take place about two weeks after initial infection. There is no cure and at present it is believed to carry a 100% death rate. Since 2005 there have been localised squirrel pox outbreaks with devastating results at several locations just inside the Scottish border. Rapid action halted these outbreaks but the fear is that other Greys may have slipped through the net. Southern Scotland is on high alert for any suspicious deaths of Red Squirrels. 


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)
Squirrel pox is certainly the principle factor in the decline of Red Squirrels but it is not the only one. Grey Squirrels are larger, live longer, eat more and are able to travel across open land more easily than Reds which generally need areas of linked woodlands in order to spread. They out-compete Reds in almost every way. Wherever Grey Squirrels appear Red Squirrels seem to disappear irrespective of disease. Squirrel pox just makes the process more unpleasant and much faster.


Scotland does have the advantage of seeing the danger looming rather than reacting once the damage has been done but it needs resources and commitment to halt the problem. Ecologists and vets are working hard to find solutions. It is by no means an easy task. At present things may be under control but it won't take much for that situation to change. It is not scare mongering to say that this icon of Scottish wildlife could disappear from the country in the course of the next couple of decades. 


Let's hope that we all keep seeing Red for a very long time!


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)



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Friday, 24 February 2012

From Svalbard to the Solway Firth

Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis)

Last month I wrote about the Whooper Swans that migrate from the Iceland to the UK every winter with a good number of these beautiful birds coming to take advantage of the rich feeding on the merse and farmland around the Solway Firth. About the same time that the swans visit there is usually a significant number of geese. Perhaps the most famous to be seen around the Caerlaverock Nature Reserve on the Solway Firth are the huge numbers of Barnacle geese that overwinter here.

Barnacle Goose in its natural wetland habitat
Typically, there can be as many as 30,000 of these birds in the area during the winter months and that's an astonishing number considering the fact that the Barnacle population was down to some 300 or so birds in the period immediately after WWII. So what has brought about this incredible increase in numbers? The answer is quite simply good conservation and land management skills. Prior to WWII the shooting of ducks and geese, or wildfowling as it is know, was becoming an increasingly popular sport. The need to hunt and eat is recognised and accepted but around the Caerlaverock area there were no clear zones designated for shooting. Consequently birds were being hunted indiscriminately across a wide area of the landscape. The continual movement of humans accompanied by the sound of loud guns was also detrimental to the wildfowl that did manage to escape being shot. Their natural habitat had become an uncomfortable one and it became an environment to be feared. Wildfowl numbers dwindled.

That wasn't the only problem though. Fishing was on the increase from both shore and boat and that brought further disturbance. The natural landscape was also being taken over by local farms. Advances in technology, new drains, new crop methods and fertilisers etc meant that ground, largely unusable previously, could now be claimed for additional farmland. Given that the land immediately around the Solway Firth is often waterlogged and marshy by nature the chance to grab extra fields was a great opportunity for many farmers. The available natural land diminished in quantity and it was the natural land that provided the rich feeding and brought the wildlife. As it diminished in size so did the flocks of winter birds.

Finally, both world wars had also taken their toll on this beautiful corner of Scotland. Along the northern edge of the Solway Firth were significant numbers of munitions factories and Ministry of Defence buildings. Weapons were manufactured and testing was undertaken across a wide area. Collectively, all these things had a devastating effect upon the wildlife. In the immediate aftermath of WWII Barnacle geese numbers had slumped to about 300 birds.

Barnacle Goose on sentry duty





Thanks to the famous, and influential, conservationist Peter Scott and the Duke of Norfolk, who owned the land, Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve was established in 1957. For the first time, a policy of managing disparate land interests - agriculture, wildfowling, fishing and conservation - was agreed. Further assistance came when the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) took over Eastpark Farm on the edge of the Reserve in 1970, and began expanding and consolidating the area's natural habitats. Today, we reap the benefit of such vision with some 30,000 Barnacle geese wintering in the area alongside Pink-footed and Greylag geese.

All the Barnacle geese that visit the Caerlaverock area come from Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Circle. Depending upon the severity of the winter the birds, many with young that were born in Svalbard just a few months previously, will fly south around November. Most will work their way down the Norwegian coast before making the big flight across the North Sea. Timing is critical. Judge the weather correctly and the odds of a successful migration are in the birds' favour. Get it wrong and the consequences can be disastrous with birds being lost at sea. Tired and hungry, birds will often pause on the east coast of the UK before continuing on to the Solway Firth. Once there they will spend some 5 months building up fat reserves ready for the long flight back to the Arctic.

Barnacle geese feed on green shoots of leaves, grass and crops. They are sociable birds, gathering in large numbers on land and in the air. They are easily recognised with a very distinctive black head, neck and chest with a white face. Their wings and backs display a beautiful striped monochrome pattern.

Barnacle Geese in Flight
(the bird on the extreme right has a radio transmitter fitted)

Life has become increasingly difficult for the Barnacle geese in Svalbard. Changes to the Arctic ice floes mean that Polar bears cannot easily access their usual food source of seals and, in desperation, they are traveling further afield. Barnacle geese lay their eggs in nests on the ground or on rocky cliffs. The eggs and the young chicks make a small but essential contribution to the Polar bear's diet when times are tough. The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust are undertaking a study programme to get a better understanding of these birds amidst concerns that Polar bears are causing serious damage to future generations of Barnacles.

I have spent the last few months photographing these birds and as you read this I will be making the most of their last few weeks in Scotland to get some more shots before they disappear back to the land of the midnight sun.

Barnacle Geese in flight

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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

From the Real Iceland

Two Whooper Swans in flight
Having met up with some visitors from Iceland in December I have yet to arrange my visit to their homeland to photograph the penguins and polar bears. If you think I'm going mad check out my last blog for it seems that Iceland offers some pretty amazing wildlife photography opportunities. Maybe I shall put it on my list of possible destinations for next winter. Of course, the alternative is that Iceland's wildlife comes to visit me in Scotland. I guess the polar bears will struggle to cross the vast expanse of sea and it's probably too far for the penguins to fly but it certainly isn't too far for one of my favourite birds, the Whooper Swan. As I write this, there are several hundred of these magnificent birds on the Caerlaverock Nature Reserve and surrounding area in SW Scotland.

A Whooper Swan tries to keep warm in winter
Every year some 25,000 Whooper Swans fly from Iceland to overwinter in the UK. Although Iceland can get very cold in winter it is also one of the most volcanic places on the planet. Consequently, warm volcanic springs in some parts of the island mean that not all Whooper Swans have to migrate to escape the cold. Around 2,000 birds will remain in the warmer parts of Iceland all year round. Their natural habitat is a wetland one. Nests are constructed near to good clean water sources that provide the main food source of aquatic vegetation. They live in family colonies and larger groups, becoming territorial mainly during the breeding season. Interestingly, not all adult Whooper Swans breed and only a small percentage account for the perpetuation of the species. Three or four cygnets is the norm with occasional broods of five or six. Generally birds will pair for life and whilst 'divorce' is uncommon it does occur occasionally.

A young Whooper Swan gliding to land
Around mid October as the winter chill spreads south from the North Pole the Whooper Swans prepare to head to warmer climes. Some of these family groups will have youngsters that are only a couple of months old. Calm, moonlit nights are a favourite for the migratory flights. Birds will gather and characteristic whooping and head bobbing signals their intention to fly. Running on land or water to gain speed they stretch those huge white wings and lift off. They don't fly particularly high in the sky and tend to stay close to the surface of the sea. With almost silent wing-beats and only the occasional whoop cutting through the silence of the night they make their way to the Scottish coastline. It is a perilous journey and not all of the birds will make it. Some will become separated from their family groups and others may perish in bad weather having been blown miles off course. This is not a journey of choice but of necessity and survival. If all goes well many birds will rest on the Isle of Lewis before heading further south.

Some 500 Whooper Swans come to the Solway area near to Caerlaverock with around 300 taking up winter residence on the reserve. It is always exciting to see parents arriving with new offspring, for the same birds tend to return each year. However it is a sad occasion when a bird known to have left Iceland remains unaccounted for. Once here, they are sometimes seen alongside our resident Mute Swans but, with their distinctive yellow and black bills emitting frequent ‘whooping’ noises, they are easy to distinguish.
 
A Whooper Swan on an icy pond
Each winter at WWT Caerlaverock the reserve wardens and scientists catch large numbers of Whooper Swans to enable them to further their research and understanding of these birds. The swans are weighed, measured, have blood samples taken to check for viruses and toxins, and ringed.

With international law now protecting Whooper Swans it would be reasonable to assume that the birds should reach their normal lifespan of 10 – 12 years without facing significant danger. Sadly, this is not the case; lead shot is still a major problem. Although banned in the UK it is permitted in Iceland. Shot from spent gun cartridges or fishing is swallowed by the birds and just 3 pellets will cause a prolonged and painful death. Despite international protection a staggering 14% of Whooper Swans have lead  pellets embedded in their bodies as a consequence of being shot. However, despite all of the hazards the swan population is actually healthy and growing steadily to the extent that WWT no longer regard Whooper Swans to be a conservation concern.

Long may the current optimism continue for these wonderfully vocal birds are part of the Solway scene and somehow winter would never be the same without them. 

Three Whooper Swans in flight


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