Monday, 15 July 2019

Shetland Interlude - A Whale of a Time

c. Karen Munro
After disembarking from our trip with Shetland Seabird Tours we made for the bustling Peerie Cafe just off Lerwick's seafront for some lunch and to reminisce on our individual experiences with the Gannets of Noss.

On my last trip to Shetland to twitch a Tengmalm's Owl in March this year I met Hugh Harrop who is probably the most well known professional birder and photographer in Shetland and runs a tour group called Shetland Wildlife. We got talking and I mentioned that I planned to bring the family to Shetland in July for a holiday. He kindly told me to let him know when we arrived and he would put me on the local Shetland WhatsApp group so I could be alerted immediately, via my phone, to any bird rarities and even more enticing any sightings of Killer Whales or Orcas as they are now more commonly referred to. June and July is an especially favourable time to try and see Orcas in Shetland although they are still hard to catch up with.

Although enigmatic and with sightings being highly unpredictable and random in Shetland, Orcas are the most widely distributed mammal in the world, second only to human beings. Different populations are found worldwide and in each of the world's oceans with a total population estimated at 50,000 individuals and they are only absent from the Baltic and Black Seas and parts of the Arctic Ocean. Recent research suggests that there could several subspecies and even be more than four separate species of Orca, despite their closely similar appearance. Different populations of Orcas can specialise in different prey with some hunting small whales, others seals and yet others fish. Other prey taken can include seaducks such as Eiders and various seabirds.They are also not true whales but more closely aligned to the oceanic dolphin family and the name Killer Whale with its negative connotations is being more and more displaced by Orca. A pod of Orcas is usually led by a matriarch female despite the male's huge size. Females mature at the age of 10 years but do not reproduce until the age of 21 and have a calf every five years. Males mature at 15 years and an Orca's average life span can be between 30-50 years although males have reached the age of 60 -70 years and females 80 -100 years

No wild Orca has been known to attack a human but captive ones have killed or injured their handlers which is of no surprise to me. These superb social mammals should be in their natural home in the ocean and not trapped in a nightmare of a daily tacky show put on for the idle amusement of paying customers.

Sightings in Shetland have increased in the last two years as visitors and residents alike have become savvy to social media where they can find up to the minute news of sightings, such as on the Shetland Orca Sightings Facebook page or via the WhatsApp group we used. Adrenalin charged chases of Orcas are now not infrequent on Shetland as various pods of Orcas can visit the Shetlands year round and they have even been seen from windows and doors facing out onto Lerwick seafont as they pass through the Bressay Sound separating Lerwick from Bressay.

Scotland does have its own resident pod of Orcas but it is not good news.The pod is considered to be doomed once the existing members die as they have not had a calf in the last 28 years and it is thought that this is due to PCB's still being found in the food chain and still persisting after being banned in the late 1970's, making the Orcas incapable of reproducing. One of the members of this resident pod, a female going by the name of Lulu was washed up dead on a beach at Tiree in the Inner Hebrides in 2012 and was found to have one of the highest concentrations of man made toxic pollutants ever recorded in a mammal - one hundred times above the considered safe limit for damage to occur to a marine mammal.

We had just finished our lunch of Cullen Skink (a soup of bits of haddock and potatoe) in the busy cafe when I looked at my phone and saw there was an alert on the WhatsApp Cetacean Group. There were several postings from just minutes ago stating there were five Orcas in Neap Bay that were just 'messing around' and not moving out of the bay. Normally postings about Orcas tell an all too familar tale of them either moving north or south which means it is usually required to make an ultimately futile madcap dash to try and intercept them from the next possible headland depending on which direction they are headed. This often meets with failure. Just two days ago we had missed three Orcas heading north past Yell by twenty minutes despite a mad dash to several headlands in an effort to see them.

These sightings, just now being reported, would give us a second and last chance to see Orcas before we left Shetland. For them to be just 'messing around' signified a good chance that if we left immediately we might, just might, get lucky and see them, before they moved off, especially as the posts were from only minutes ago.

I notified Polly my daughter and Mrs U of this momentous event. 'There are five Orcas at a place called Neap. Any idea where Neap is?'  Polly looked up Neap on her phone and we saw it was just about thirty minutes drive north of Lerwick. 'What do you think? Shall we try for them? I asked. Polly and Mrs U said 'Let's go!'

None of us had ever seen Orcas. This was our chance to rectify the matter.

We made a fast walk to the car and leaving Lerwick headed north as fast as possible. Whilst I drove Polly checked for WhatsApp updates on my phone which were apparently coming regularly from a small boat out in the middle of Neap Bay and round which the Orcas were apparently swimming quite close. They must have been getting terrific views. Significantly the updates, as we drove, reported the Orcas were still in the bay and showing no sign of moving off. We had a slim chance but were still a long way from them. Any serious delay would be possibly fatal to our chances of success.

Mild frustration manifested itself in the fact that even though we were on an A road it was just single carriageway and we were stuck behind five other vehicles and with the family on board there was no sense in overtaking. I chewed my lip in frustration. Then we came to a sign saying '20mph Loose Chippings' and the white van, why is it always a white van, at the head of our line of cars, promptly slowed  from 50mph to 20mph.There was nothing to do but grin and bear it especially as it became obvious that there were no loose chippings but the signs had not been removed. It seemed to go on forever but after ten minutes we were in the clear again and everyone overtook the white van which for some unaccountable reason continued at a snail's pace and we made good time northwards. The rain which had set in as we left Lerwick was coming non stop now and the wipers were working overtime. 'Not long now before can turn off for Neap?' I enquired of Polly.

Just as I spoke the words we came across yet another '20mph Loose Chippings' sign and the small car at the head of us slowed to 15mph just to be on the safe side. I remained calm although I wanted to scream my frustration. On and on we went at a funereal pace but finally we came to the turning to Neap, left the main road and all the slow moving traffic and joined an isolated, rainswept single track road that the map said led to Neap. The rain continued to fall but we were now on a mission and had resigned ourselves to getting wet once we left the car.

The empty road wound onwards through a desolate, sodden, moorland landscape for considearbly longer than we suspected but finally we came to a dead end with any further progress banished by a metal five bar gate. We were confounded as I had mistakenly assumed the road led right to the coast. Beyond the gate was a grass field full of bedraggled muddy sheep and an obvious grass track which looked like it would lead us to a headland where we could look out over Neap Bay. Both Polly and myself were out of the car in a trice. In the panic and haste I forgot about changing my footwear and realised my trainers were not waterproof but it was too late to do anything about it. Mrs U said 'Just go, run the two of you, I will follow'.

Polly being ultra fit from hill walking and mountaineering and forty years younger was over the gate and running for the headland like a stag. I followed as best I could and we ran up the sloping field, scattering startled sheep, to what we supposed was the headland but it wasn't. In front of us was not the sea but yet another field dipping down at first and then rising to surely what really must be a headland. My trainers and feet were now soaking from the wet grass but to hell with it. We set off down the slope and my left knee gave way. Aaaghhh! It hurt like hell but I ran through the pain continuing on pure adrenalin. Down the dip we went and then up another rise and at last found ourselves looking at the sea but disaster! We still could not see far enough out into the bay due to the contours of the land. So very near but so very far! 'Quick we need to go left and out onto that further promontory'.

We diverted left and cleared another gate and ran up the rise to the end of the small promontory and now we had a clear and full unobstructed view out into the large bay. When I say 'clear' it was through a miasma of  poor visibility and light rain that was now thankfully only coming in fitful squalls.

We looked out into the bay and in the middle, quite some way off we found the small boat that had been posting the messages on WhatsApp but now there was not one but two boats, separated by a small stretch of sea. We looked but I could see nothing. Then Polly shouted 'I can see them. I can see their black fins!'.

With her young eyes she could see the Orcas surfacing between the two distant boats.They were a long way out. I put my bins to my eyes and looked at the area of sea between the two boats. At first I could see nothing but then an unmistakeable huge black triangle of a dorsal fin rose above the water. 'Yeeesss!'  I cried as Polly and myself shouted in excitement that we could see them. We looked in the binoculars as the Orcas surfaced regularly before one breeched clear of the water and fell back with a huge splash.This was repeated several times and we learnt later they were throwing a seal around to stun and disable the unfortunate creature before killing and eating it.

I was concerned about Mrs U but she finally managed to catch up and join us having been delayed sorting out two sheep that had fallen in their panic as we ran and could not get up again. I gave her my binoculars and she too saw them. Now I could truly relax as it would be unthinkable if Polly and myself saw them and Mrs U did not. We watched the Orcas as the visibility came and went with each arriving rain squall and eventually the Orcas started to  move northwards.

A short debate ensued amongst us about what we should do. Return to the car and drive to the next available headland or call it a day? There really was no question. Here was a chance to see more of the Orcas no matter how distant and we had to make the most of it. We returned to the car, clearing two gates and a wire fence. A Twite flew from a wire on one of the fences and a Common Snipe drummed overhead. A dog in the nearby farm barked ferociously at us but did not come near.We got to the car. No time to lose!

Polly got the map out and announced the next headland was at Lunning some way north of our current location. There was just a slim hope the Orcas might follow the coastline but a distinct worry they would go around the far side of a small island called West Linga. If the latter  happened we had no chance of seeing them or if we did they would be incredibly distant. But if they came between West Linga and Lunning we would get a good view of them and certainly closer than at Neap Bay. 'We have got to try'. It was agreed unanimously.

We returned down the deserted single track road to the main road and turning right headed north once more. The next turning we came to would be signposted to a place called Laxo and that was the road that would take us ultimately to Lunning. Again it was a fairly long way to get to Lunning but we would make good time on the main road and maybe we would get to Lunning before the Orcas.It all depended on how fast they were moving north. It was a gamble. We were now twitching not birds but Orcas.

Its crazy I know and the chances were, on the face of it not good at all but if we did not do it we would never know. The single track  road to Lunning  went on and on, winding and dipping  until finally we came to where it rose up a short distance, giving a clear view out into a sullen looking Lunning Sound and we saw quite a number of cars parked on the side of the road. This was Lunning. Getting to the top of the rise I found there was nowhere to park and further up the road was blocked by a 4x4 with the occupants looking out with binoculars to Lunning Sound. I stopped by a man who was standing by his car looking out and down to the sea. 'Any sign of the Orcas?'  'No not seen anything'.

I drove the car back a hundred metres down the short rise and parked in a disused field entrance and we walked back up the road to join the man, who was local and had his 83 year old mother ensconced in his car. Looking down across two steeply sloping rough fields to where some rocks dropped a short way down to the sea we saw the reason for all the cars. Around twenty people were standing on the rocks obviously waiting and hoping, like us, that the Orcas would come our way. I was now feeling the full effects of my injured knee and decided to remain by the road. I had a great view and did not fancy risking anymore possible damage to my knee by descending down to the rocks. Polly however did and set off to join the others standing on the rocks.

Myself and Mrs U stood with the local man and we waited as did the others below us but there was no sign of the Orcas. An Otter put in a brief appearance swimming just off the rocks. At least forty five minutes passed and still there was no sign of the Orcas. The rain came and went and slowly doubt crept into my mind. Had we missed them or had they gone further out to sea?

Some of the people down on the rocks obviously had similar doubts and commenced to leave struggling up the steep sloping fields. First a family of four and then five adults. The 4x4 in the middle of the road left and another car arrived, stopped for five minutes and seeing nothing was happening, then departed.

Mrs U was not feeling too good. She had become chilled by the cold and wet so I said I would hang on until Polly came back up but she should go and warm up in the car.

Polly then came up the slope and joined me. She told me she had met Hugh Harrop and his tour group down on the rocks and made an instant friend of Hugh by lending him her phone, as for some unaccountable reason she had a signal on her phone whereby he didn't. This enabled Hugh to access the updates on the WhatsApp Cetacean Group .

Polly and myself stood by the road looking down at the sea some two hunded metres away for a little while longer.We were both reluctant to leave. Then there was a shout from some of those on the rocks below. Something was up and people were pointing to the right but our view was obscured by the contour of the land. More shouting. More pointing. Then Polly exclaimed 'There they are, really close but well off to the right. I'm going back down!' and she went off at speed down the slope. I stayed where I was. I continued to look right and then saw a huge black fin. 'Bloody hell they are coming right in by the rocks!'.

c Karen Munro
Despite my damaged knee I limped down the road as best I could to alert Mrs U and we returned to the top of the road and looked down to where a channel of sea ran between the rocks  on which the people were standing and an offshore rocky outcrop just beyond. At first we could see nothing and then it happened. I will never forget it. Like something out of the movies the pointed tip of a rigid black triangular fin rose out of the water, solid and shining even in the dull light and it got bigger and bigger and bigger, six feet at least, raised out of the sea by the huge body of a massive bull Orca.

c Karen Munro
He was so close you could hear him blow, a hollow sound as of someone blowing hard through a pipe. His black body and white patches gleamed like patent leather, shiny and bright, as he glided and submerged with supreme grace through the narrow channel of sea.

c Karen Munro
Another three fins rose in line across and then the bodies emerged before they arced down under the water once more.

c Karen Munro
The huge bull surfaced once more and swirled around in a complete circle making a whirlpool current of grey sea around him before heading inexorably north and out of view with the other Orcas, all of them disappearing behind the headland to our left. It was all over in two or three minutes but what minutes they were. Almost unbelievable but it really had happened.

We learnt later that this was a pod of five Orcas and the huge bull was called Busta and he had not been seen for a year. There was another male called Razor and three females that made up the pod of five. Two more and they could be the Magnificent Seven but you cannot have everything!

We were so lucky to see them and so close too, although in fairness I thought we deserved our good fortune. We had gambled and we had done it and how. All of us were bubbling with the exhileration. This was the ultimate. Nothing could or would beat this and now we could relax and bask in mild euphoria.

We had seen the Orcas. That was all that mattered.

I would like to take this opportunity to record my personal and grateful thanks to Karen Munro for so kindly sending me her brilliant images of the five Orcas that we saw that afternoon.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Shetland Interlude - Gannets Galore!

My daughter has a great affinity with Gannets and not content with our experience at Hermaness she wanted to see more and by chance, long before we headed for our Shetland holiday, I had booked us on a special cruise to the island of Noss, where if all went well she could see as many Gannets as anyone could wish for and as a grand finale witness them diving for fish within just metres of the boat.

The trip was with Shetland Seabird Tours who each day take a maximum of 12 people at a time from Lerwick on a cruise under the huge cliffs of the two nearby islands of Bressay and Noss. It is a trip I can thoroughly recommend if you visit Shetland in the summer

Weatherwise it did not look auspicious as we had breakfast in our hotel. A soft persistent rain was falling from opaque clouds hugging the hillsides and it was a gloomy and dour prospect outside the breakfast room window. However we are all from Scotland so do not worry too much about such things and as we drove to Lerwick to join the boat the rain ceased and the cloud lifted enough to make things seem better and although it was never going to be bright and sunny it was nonetheless a good day to go to sea in Shetland.

After a brief talk from Phil, the skipper and guide, about safety procedures and what we could expect to see, we donned lifejackets and loaded a large container of mackerel ( more about this later) and set sail from Victoria Pier in Lerwick heading out into Bressay Sound which separates  Bressay from Mainland.

It wasn't long before a Bonxie intercepted our course, obviously a regular that lies in wait for Phil to depart each day on his cruises in the hope someone will lob it a fish which Phil duly did. They are impressively big birds when seen so close with a demeanour that suggests they have seen it all before and will stand no nonsense.They have the look of a real bruiser, something akin to a heavyweight boxer with a thickly muscled neck and bulky body making the head look slightly small and out of proportion to the rest of the bird.

Great Skua which is called a Bonxie in Shetland
In quick succession we also encountered Razorbills and Guillemots, one of which was of the 'bridled' form which is more prevalent in the north. A running commentary was supplied by Phil about the birds for the non birders amongst us as well as some intersting historical facts about the topography we were sailing past.

'Bridled' Guillemot
Soon we were under the awesome cliffs of Bressay that towered above us, dark and slightly forbidding on this dull day but you soon forgot about them as the distraction of seabirds, literally everywhere you looked, fully occupied your mind. We were almost constantly accompanied by Bonxies whilst Gannets were flying along the cliffs and a small flock of Puffins mixed in with inumerable Guillemots and Razorbills on the sea. 

Apparently a group of Puffins is called a circus of Puffins, well on Shetland they are anyway, which is something I did not know but makes pefect sense when you look at their clown like faces and painted bills of many colours

Atlantic Puffins

Phil took us right in close to the cliffs and rocks, even into a huge and very atmospheric cave where the metronomic cries of nesting Kittiwakes echoed from the vaulted ceiling and Shags shyly peeked out at us from their nests, secreted on gloomy ledges in the rocky walls of the cave, craning their sinuous necks in curiosity, Outside, with Gannets below them, Guillemots stood in regimented row upon row on their breeding ledges high on the cliff face, virtually all the birds facing inwards.

The cave in the foreground and The Noup of Noss in the background


Adult European Shag
We rounded Bressay and set a course for the Island of Noss which is a National Nature Reserve  and the impressive headland going by the name of The Noup of Noss. Soon we were sailing close to countless Gannets. A number were flying about us or along the cliffs but many were perched on the rock faces and ledges. Groups of non breeding immature Gannets had assembled in 'clubs' on the lower rocks by the water, just whiling away the time and getting used to life in the colony.Their time to breed will come in the next couple of years so this was good practice for them before the real thing. 

Adult Gannet

Immature three year old Gannet

Immature Gannets -  a combination of three and four year old birds
Other adult Gannets were performing their mating rituals, entwining necks and pointing their bills skywards in unison, strengthening the pair bond  whilst others were swimming on the sea below the cliff, a sea made dark and mysterious by the overhanging cliffs. Some of the Gannets on the sea were swimming around below the cliffs collecting vegetation and seaweed from the water that had fallen from other Gannet's nests being constructed on the cliffs above.

Phil stopped the boat's engines and we floated on the dark water with the ceaseless cries of seabirds now being the only sound. It was highly atmospheric and to see the birds at sea level was a very different experience from standing on land or peering over high cliffs. Gannets are large and impressive birds, no matter what age they are and quite beautiful.To be able to look into their pale grey eyes is a moment of pure pleasure.

Some Gannet facts

Scotland holds 40% of the world population of Gannets - which amounts to 180,000 pairs

There are 14 colonies of Gannets in Scotland, the most famous being Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth

Gannets hit the water at up to 60mph when they dive. Special adaptations enable them to do this such as strengthened neck muscles, a spongy plate at the base of the bill to absorb the impact and membranes to protect their eyes.

Normally the Gannet swallows its prey underwater before re-surfacing

Gannets can live to around 35 years old

They lay just one egg and the chick is fed around twice a day

The chick remains in the nest for around 90 days and most fledge in September 

After a little while we sailed out from under the cliffs and a bit further out to sea and suddenly we were surrounded by a wheeling mass of Gannets and a few attendant Bonxies with the occasional Greater Black backed Gull hanging around. Incidentally the Greater Black backed Gull is the only seabird the Bonxie will give way to. 

The Gannets and Bonxies obviously knew what was coming as Phil gathered up the container of mackerel and commenced chucking the fish into the sea. Bedlam commenced as numerous Gannets fell from the sky, hurtling down at high speed, hitting the water like missiles, their bill, head and neck extended to the fullest extent and wings swept back like a fighter jet. As the Gannets hit the water there was an audible thump and a huge splash. It was literally raining Gannets. All the more remarkable was the fact that there were evcn more Gannets on the surface of the sea packed in a jostling, bickering throng as they fought over the fish but the diving Gannets never once collided with them, such was the precison and co ordination of the diving bird, missing disaster often by inches but always surfacing unscathed. The Bonxies, dark and threatening, hovered amongst the melee hoping to seize a fish or steal one from a Gannet but they were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and frenzy of the feeding Gannets.

All of us on the boat were seized by a similar excitement. It was contagious and just impossible to not get swept up in this whirlwind, this storm of birds. I have seen Gannets many times at sea diving for fish from on high but to witness it just within a few metres was a totally different experience. Here you could witness the sheer speed and precision of the diving birds. Unique for all of us. It is impossible to describe the sheer ferocity and energy that runs through the Gannets as they launch dive after dive, combining with their fellow Gannets on the sea below to turn the water to froth and turbulence. In the end I just put the camera down, enjoying the spectacle and sharing the delight with my family.

All to soon the fish were all gone and as fast as they had congregated the Gannets dispersed. A few flew around us still hopeful but the show was over, and what a performance it was. Phil turned the boat for home, about half an hour's sailing away and we headed back to Lerwick at speed.

However the thrills were not quite over as we were accompanied by four Bonxies the entire way back, following the fast moving boat with consummate ease. The huge barrel bodied birds tacked on bowed wings from one side of our wake to the other and came right up to the back of the boat, within feet of us, circling the boat and then dropping astern. 

One swooped at my raised lens and then fell astern but then came again and repeated the manouevre. Phil passed me a mackerel and I held it up in my hand. In flew the Bonxie to snatch at the fish. It tugged hard but I refused to let go of the fish. Again and again the Bonxie came to tear at the head of the fish, tearing bits of it away but still I held on. Looking it in the eye, feeling the power of the bird as it pulled with its bill.

One last time and I relented, releasing the fish as the Bonxie pulled hard at it. The persistent bird swung away with the fish, to be immediately set upon by the other Bonxies. What an experience that was! Hand feeding a wild Bonxie from the back of a speeding boat.

We came into Lerwick harbour and Phil stopped the boat. I assumed he had seen one last seabird to show us but suddenly those of us at the stern got the shock of our lives as a huge black, slug like creature heaved half its body into the boat. It was an enormous bull Atlantic Grey Seal. I was speechless at first and then laughing at this last surprise from Phil. 

The seal was obviously used to this routine and Phil chucked it a few mackerel as he did to another cow seal that was slightly less bold and just hung on to the side of the boat showing a formidable set of teeth - and whiskers.

It was noon when we disembarked and we bade Phil farewell with a feeling that we had experienced something very special indeed.

Little did we know that what was to follow would eclipse this and stay with us forever  .....................