Hi everyone, and apologies for a period of inactivity in my blog. First I was travelling, then I was a bit unwell, then it was Christmas... and all of a sudden it has been four weeks since my last post. Now that I have made my excuses, perhaps I can tell about my trip to Scotland for 12 days in December. As some of you will realise, this trip took me to my country of origin. My intention this time was to split my days between exploring with my camera and catching up with friends and family - my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews all still live in Scotland and it was high time for a visit.
My journey to Inverness was somewhat more complicated than it should have been due to unfavourable weather conditions. Firstly my flight from Helsinki to Amsterdam had to divert to a small military airport in Groningen for refuelling, Amsterdam was reduced to a single operating runway by fog and wind and we did not have enough fuel to go round in circles waiting our turn. After a 2 hour wait in the plane on the tarmac in Groningen we finally made the short hop to Amsterdam. My second flight, from Amsterdam to Inverness, went without incident until we were above Inverness, at which point the captain informed us that the airport was currently closed due to heavy snow... so we went round in circles overhead for 90 minutes while they cleared the runways. This did however offer some great views of the snow-covered city.
The weather which disrupted my flights, would also disrupt many of my other plans. Living in Finland I am very used to freezing conditions and driving on snowy or icy roads, but I felt like it was wise to be a bit more cautious when driving an unfamiliar car on unfamiliar roads without the benefit of winter tyres. I had hoped to travel all around the north and west of Scotland, including the Isle of Skye, but instead I stayed within a couple of hours drive of my parents house near to Inverness for most of my trip. Luckily there was plenty of interesting things to point my camera at without travelling more widely.
I decided to visit the lighthouse at Tarbat Ness, an impressive 53m tall specimen built in 1830 by Robert Stevenson (the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson) as part of the response to a great storm in 1826 which had resulted in the loss of 16 vessels in the Moray Firth. The lighthouse still operates today, fully automated, and it's light can be seen for over 40 kilometres (on the rare clear days in this part of the world). The location is somewhat remote on the end of a peninsula, ideal lighthouse locations are not always the most convenient to journey to.
Tarbat Ness was also a good place to observe birds, I spotted chaffinches, robins, dunnocks, rock pipits and blue tits as well as being almost continually accompanied by the sound of wrens as a I explored the area. There were noticeably more birds than there are in Finland at this time of year.
Over the course of the following few days I spent some time walking with my camera near to Kilmuir, in search of bird species that I had not previously photographed. There were two particular prizes that I was seeking, the red kite (a bird of prey which is rather hard to find in Finland) and the red-legged partridge (a small game bird that can't be found in Finland at all). The red kite is historically a native bird in Scotland but had disappeared from these parts until a successful effort to reintroduce it at the end of the last century, relocating 93 birds from Sweden for the purpose. Thankfully, nowadays, it is possible to see these beautiful birds more regularly, I was able to see one or more of them at least every second day during my trip.
When it comes to the red-legged partridge, my hunt for that prize was not so straight-forward, every time I went out with my camera I would come back empty handed. After one such failed search I sat at the kitchen table having coffee, only for a red legged partridge to walk slowly past on the street outside, about 1 metre away... unfortunately my camera was not with me. Sometimes that's how things go.
My next lighthouse was at Chanonry Point, a narrow spit of land in-between the villages of Fortrose and Rosemarkie which is one of the best places in the world to observe dolphins from the shore. This lighthouse was also built by a Stevenson, this time Alan Stevenson (son of Robert, uncle of Robert Louis), and it was completed in 1846. It still operates, fully automated since 1984.
I was not lucky enough to see any dolphins while at Chanonry Point but there were many birds in the immediate area including oystercatchers, robins, dunnocks, sparrows and a goldcrest - but the most interesting species I saw was a stonechat, the 167th species I have photographed this year.
From Chanonry Point I continued round the coast to Rosemarkie where I spotted a flock of Brent Geese on the beach... species 168.
From Rosemarkie beach I followed a path through the forest to some fairy pools. The sign promised that it was 500m to my destination so after walking up a hill for 25 minutes I started to have some doubts about whether I was on the right path, but when turning the next corner they were right in front of me.
It was a bit curious that this area was almost free of snow while lower down in the valley there was a thick white blanket covering everything.
The lighthouse project continued as my father and I took a day trip, following the Moray coast east to the town of Lossiemouth where the impressive Covesea Skerries lighthouse can be found. Another Stevenson design (Alan once again), this lighthouse was built in 1846 as another part of the recommended response to the storm of 1826, it's light was finally extinguished in 2012 but the iconic structure remains.
From Lossiemouth we continued east to the town of Portknockie where the quartzite rock that makes up the local coastline has eroded into interesting shapes, the most famous of which is Bow Fiddle Rock, an interesting protrusion about 50 metres away from the coastal cliffs.
As we returned from our trip to Portknockie I was again taunted by the elusive red-legged partridge. This time there were a pair of them sitting on the neighbours doorstep. They were very close and not that concerned by our presence... but it was about 2 hours after sunset and way too dark to take bird photographs.
On the second weekend of my trip I headed south to Leven, near Edinburgh, to visit my nephews. It was a particular highlight to be able to watch the new Star Wars movie with them in St Andrews after visiting their favourite bookshop.
After returning to Kilmuir again the red-legged partridge was on my mind. Time was running short to get a photograph. Wondering around with my camera brought all kinds of birds into view, but not the one I was looking for... as compensation I was at least treated to a nice sunset.
Although I didn't find the partridge, I had a lucky encounter with another Kilmuir resident who gave me a tip about where I might see some partridges early the next morning, before my flight back to Finland. A dawn stakeout, hiding under some tall bushes, was finally rewarded (after 80 cold minutes) with the sight of a pair of nervous red-legged partridges. They were a bit smaller than I expected, about the size of a pigeon, and behaved in a similar way to pheasants, preferring to walk or run away from any perceived danger instead of using their wings and taking to the air. The bird was a bit distant and the sun was below the horizon so the picture is no masterpiece, but at least it gives an idea how these distinctive birds look, and also takes my 2017 photographed species count to 169.
Thanks to all who have shown an interest in my blog and my photographs during 2017, I wish you a happy new year and a great 2018.
Earlier this month I had the great pleasure to visit the RSPB's Red Kite centre at Tollie, near to Dingwall in Scotland, on a day trip with my mother.
The Red Kite (milvus milvus in Latin, isohaarahaukka in Finnish) is a medium-large bird of prey with a wing-span of up to 175cm and although they are historically native to Scotland they were hunted to extinction in these parts before being re-established as a breeding population at the end of last century with 93 birds from Sweden. These birds are only very occasionally seen in my home country of Finland (less than 100 times ever).
I have occasionally seen these beautiful birds near to my parents house in the Black Isle and was hoping to get a chance to get a bit closer by visiting Tollie.
The road to Tollie is something of an experience, especially in the heavy snow that we were treated to on the day we visited. The Red Kite centre can be found at the end of a single track farm road with occasional passing places, and some deep ditches that help you to maintain your concentration. On a normal day the road would be perfectly passable but I was glad to be in a 4x4 vehicle in the snowy conditions.
It is fair to say that the gentleman who was on duty at Tollie was a bit surprised to see visitors on such an unpromising day, but he made us most welcome. The centre itself is an unheated building with numerous information boards and large viewing windows, allowing you to observe the birds with shelter from the wind which helps a little in keeping warm, but if you are visiting in winter it is advisable to wrap up warmly.
The centre leaves food for the kites every day, the feeding times can be seen from their website, and there is a high probability to see at least one of them if you time your visit to coincide with the feeding schedule. We saw many kites, at one time I could see 9 individuals so there were at least that many in the area. Their calls could be heard almost constantly and there was almost always one or more circling above, occasionally swooping down to feed or to scare away the gulls that were trying to eat their dinner.
From photography point of view, there is an area to the side of the building where you can stand behind a wall and shoot through some holes in the wall or over the top of the wall at the boards circling above. The kites were not overly concerned by my presence as long as I stayed behind the wall so there was no need for extreme stealth, you could freely move around without impacting your shooting chances.
I estimate that the distance to the table where the food was placed would have been some 40-45 metres so a long telephoto lens would be an advantage. My travel kit includes a 100-400mm lens as the longest option, it was possible to shoot there with 400mm (on a full frame camera) but a longer focal length would have been an advantage in order to get the birds larger in the frame.
I found that the situation was much more suited to shooting hand-held than it would have been for use with a tripod, the birds spent 98% of their time circling above, covering a large area, and hardly any time actually feeding. At least for me using a tripod would have made it a lot harder to switch rapidly between shooting almost straight up and shooting almost horizontally.
The kites spent some of their time squabbling amongst themselves, perhaps not actually fighting but behaving in a threatening way towards each other, capturing these moments would probably give the best photographs, but the action is over in an instant so you would need to combine skill with luck in order to get a really good one.
This time I didn't manage to capture the perfect moment, but I was happy at least to get a number of pictures where more than one bird was in the frame. Perhaps on a future visit I can do better.
The red kite centre is maintained by the RSPB and at the time I visited it was free for visitors and photographers to enter, donations are however welcome from those who find it to be a valuable experience. I would hope that all visitors to Tollie would feel that a donation was appropriate, the work that they do and the visitor experience that they provide is certainly valuable.
I would highly recommend a visit to Tollie Red Kite centre to any nature lovers, photographers or other interested parties, it was wonderful to see these magnificent birds in action.
I would also like to thank the kind and knowledgeable member of staff at Tollie who made my mother and I so welcome on a snowy December afternoon.
PS - check out the Tollie facebook feed to see other pictures and regular updates from Tollie
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