Day one of a week-long tour, and we’re off to a flyer – unbelievably close views of 2 pods of Killer Whales, numbering 6 and 4 animals respectively, doing the full suite of behaviour – active hunting for seals, spyhopping, rolling, tail-slapping… and some of this just a few metres offshore below us. We’ve been watching them for the past 5 hours, and in blistering sunshine too. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

There will be photos. Awesome ones. But you’ll have to wait for them a little while…

7th July edit… am still waiting to be sent the promised photos of our Killer Whales, but as a taster courtesy of HH:


more here – http://hughharropwildlifephotography.blogspot.com/2009/06/killer-whales.html

Bonxie love

I like skuas. As a family, they have a lot going for them. They’re an uncomplicated lot, easily pleased. Something to either steal or kill to eat, a nice remote bit of wilderness to nest in, some open sea to ply their trade over… and they’re happy. They get a lot of bad press though, and in particular it’s hard to love a species that drowns Kittiwakes – bonxies, how could you? It’s like drowning an angel – but I still think they’re good value.

They lend themselves to dramatic photos, as they’re a demonstrative rabble when hanging out in non-breeding clubs, and I always have time for a bird that’s prepared to come and have a go at me (fnar, fnar) – with the exception of that nasty little Arctic Tern in NE Iceland that stabbed me a couple of weeks ago. Check out these photos for some atmospheric bonxie moments: http://hughharropwildlifephotography.blogspot.com/2009/06/bonxies.html

I’ll be back up with the bonxies again next week, so will try my hand at some photos of my own.


…and the birding is easy. Shetland’s basking in some fine weather at the moment, my vegetables are all growing well, and the holes are gradually being dug for the new heligoland. I have trees waiting to be planted in and around it, so anticipate some busy evenings and weekends coming up building it and making a start on making it attractive to migrants.

Had a most enjoyable 3 days going around Shetland over the weekend – wildlife aplenty, including phalaropes, Otter, Harbour Porpoises and an Osprey I picked up being harried by a Great Skua at Saxa Vord. It circled just offshore for a little while before heading north out to sea. Not the best decision it could have made, I fear.

Came home to find I’d got a successful hatch of Buff Orpingtons, and to even things out, a dead fish floating in the fish tank. Which is a perfect and tenuous excuse to embed another completely un-bird-related video.

Iceland June 2009 (part 2)

I saw 2 Arctic Foxes in the area on consecutive days, and on both occasions despite being at least half a mile distant they scarpered at the first sight of me (ha, I have that effect on all things foxy) – a legacy of being persecuted fairly relentlessly in parts of the country. Plenty of Snow Buntings here, and nice to see them in warm sunlight rather than the more usual vile winter weather I associate with Snow Buntings.

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From here I was back on the road again, looking with no great expectation of success for last year’s White-winged Scoter and various other odds and sods en route to my next target – Grey Phalarope. Picked up this stunning drake Harlequin beside a waterfall plunge pool beside the road:

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When I finally did catch up with a Grey Phalarope, I saw for myself why calling them “Grey” is really unfair, as in breeding plumage they’re definitely “Red”…

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Got mobbed by an Arctic Tern with serious attitude here, and moments before this shot was taken the stroppy little sod had dropped like a stone and delivered a vicious peck that drew blood.

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Shortly after this, I found my one and only self-found Icelandic vagrant. Iceland has such an impressive pedigree of rarities from far, far away. ER was telling me the story of one Icelandic birder who back in the 60’s or 70’s had in his garden in one day Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, and Black and White Warbler. Any of them would have done nicely… but no, it had to be something plastic, didn’t it?

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From here back into the interior, and a close encounter of a similar, but more genuinely alarming kind than my Arctic Tern assault. Walking along the roped off public footpaths past a Gyr’s nest, I’d been waiting for nearly 2 hours for a sighting of one of the adult birds. An ear-splitting screech announced I was about to get what I’d wished for – and there coming towards me at head height was the big pale female. My first thought was “shit, she’s big” and then “shit, she’s coming straight at my face…” I chucked myself into the birch bushes alongside the path, and watched her tear back and forth past the bush a few times before settling on a nearby lava column to check me out. She was bloodstained (though fortunately not my blood this time!) and spent some time preening and picking bits of duck from herself. Satisfied she had calmed down, I beat a hasty retreat back down the path. The new lens didn’t do badly at all, but I felt the want of a good fast-focusing Canon as I’d have stood a chance of some (very) close range flight shots.

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Yet more Red-necked Phalaropes in the roadside ditches…

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…a very distant White-tailed Eagle (honest!)…

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…and I spent a lot of time looking at Eiders. Aprroximately 80% seemed like classic borealis, with yellow bill bases and good clear scapular sails, but others were more like our Eider, with greenish bill bases and no sails. All very confusing.

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Finally, back into Reykjavik and the culinary delights promised by the local paper – Minke Whale kebabs. Making up in meatiness what the advert lacked in subtlety…

Minke kebab

Finally, some words of thanks – both to ER and his wife for providing me with a base in Reykjavik, my camping gear, and ER’s local knowledge; and to BG and his wife for providing me with such fabulous hospitality near to Gatwick on either side of the trip, and for the drives in their vintage cars. Great fun – thanks very much indeed to you all.

Iceland June 2009

Got back home late last night after a fortnight long trip to Iceland – and what a trip it turned out to be. Packed full of superb birds, some rarities (genuine and plastic alike…), a couple of world lifers (bird and mammal), endless sunshine, great company, great food… and ultra-violence. What’s not to like?

Ultra-violence… that surely can’t be right. Icelanders shook off the mindless slaughtering of innocents image centuries ago when they hung up their longboats and gave up the raping and pillaging for good. A pity nobody thought to tell the birds… This bad girl should give you a clue for what was to come:

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More of which later. With 2 weeks to play with, I concentrated in the first few days on getting to the opposite side of the country to Reykjavik and seeing the long-staying male Steller’s Eider. Easy to find a little way offshore, hanging out with a few drake Harlequins (who are, incidentally, hard as nails. I saw dozens in the course of my stay, and they were invariably squaring up to each other).

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At the water’s edge were a few Red-necked Phalaropes, and nearer still on the rotting seaweed a confiding Black -tailed Godwit. All in all, a very good start.

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From here on there seemed to be Red-necked Phalaropes on every roadside ditch, and lochs were invariably teeming with them and Red-throated Divers. The latter curiously different to the ones I am used to here in Shetland – ours are intensely territorial, and one pair defends their loch against all comers – but in Iceland they were more chilled out, and there were often several pairs on even fairly small bodies of water. Also many Ptarmigan either flushed by the passing car, or else blatantly sitting unconcerned on any vantage point they could find. (Added Ptarmigan to the things-I-have twatted-with-a-car list, knocking Whimbrel off the top-spot for Most Unusual Kill). Here’s one I didn’t kill earlier:

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On to Myvatn, and one of the most superb birding locations I’ve ever visited. As freshwater lakes go, this one is immense, and absolutely heaving with wildfowl (and more Red-necked Phalaropes) – a starring role here for the male Barrow’s Goldeneyes, the sunlight making photographs difficult. I sat and worked on my tan while sketching them for a while, mercifully unbothered by the hordes of flies the lake is infamous for. I probably smelt bad by this point, bad enough to keep them at bay – doing this on the cheap, I forwent campsites and hot showers and opted for laybys and cold snowmelt streams.

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 Speaking of hordes, you’ve never seen so many Tufted Duck in your life as at Myvatn. Hundreds of them, everywhere. Also Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon, Common Scoter, Gadwall, Mallard… and an elusive American Wigeon I simply couldn’t find. Plenty of Slavonian Grebes here too.

Heading back to Reykjavik, I was lucky to pick up 3 Long-tailed Skuas giving a Whimbrel a hard time seemingly for shit and giggles – a pleasant change from the frequent Arctic Skuas, and somewhat less frequent Great Skuas I’d been seeing so far. Great to see these birds over land and not miles out to see, and in adult plumage too.

A night in town at ER’s place, and then a major expedition up to the West Fjords. Iceland has the best gravel and dirt roads I’ve ever come across, but after a few hundred kilometres, the novelty fades. Still, finding 3 male and 2 female Lapland Buntings was well worth the effort – the males singing, engaged in display flights, and on one occasion gathering fine grass and moss.

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The cliffs on the north-west coast were epic, and teeming with seabirds. Puffins being stupidly confiding, right alongside the lighthouse that housed Sliceland, purveyors of Puffin-topped pizza, the Westest Pizza in Europe.

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Who said there was no such thing as a free lunch? (Apart from the local supermarket, who were doing a roaring trade in yummy Guillemot eggs!)

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I of course only had eyes for the Brunnich’s Guillemots:

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Considerably easier to see here a few feet below the clifftops than ducking and diving across Lerwick Harbour. I mainly only had eyes for the Brunnich’s as the alternative was looking right down the cliffs below them… and at over 400 metres tall, this was a sobering moment. Even more so when we started finding caches of freshly emptied Guillemot and Fulmar eggs, and on one occasion, a Razorbill head. Something was actually climbing down these dizzyingly tall cliff-faces to hunt for food. It wasn’t too long before we heard and saw the culprit – my first Arctic Fox.

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More to follow tomorrow… In which I get attacked by species determined and various, with varying degrees of success.