Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Dark Skies of Coll

The last couple of weeks has continued to be a mixed bag of weather but I didn't expect any different for the Hebrides at this time of the year. I have come to the end of of my four week spell and I have really enjoyed the challenge of capturing the dark skies on the isle. I set myself a target of planned locations while on the isle and I have managed to get two thirds of them so I will be keen to come back for a spell and cover some more locations. 

The big word again was persistence as I had to find small windows of clear skies to shoot the frames and enough to get a sequence. I was always aware of the changing weather and ready to head out in the field when I found a break. I ended up ignoring the weather forecast predictions in the later weeks and just going off what I could see at the present time.

I will send my best still images to the Coll Dark Sky group so they can use them as they please to promote the isle. In the next few weeks I will edit all my frames to put a time lapse video sequence together with my locations I have covered so far. 

Here is a few of my latest stills images...


Creels stacked up on the old Arinagour pier. I used the artificial light from the cafe xmas lights on a moonless night. 
A 90% waxing moon to the south lit up the landscape nicely for this location at the
ferry pier looking east...You can always tell which direction your facing by the angle of the star trail...
Arinagour bay at dusk with the stars appearing. I did the time lapse from dusk to capture the changing light and accumulation of the stars...
Star trail looking north from the ferry pier. 50 frames stacked together to capture the movement of the stars and cloud...
Fin Whale jaw bone 12-15 foot in height. A 90% moon again provided a short exposure and
painted landscape with the stronger magnitude stars visible in the sky.

The 56 foot fin whale was washed up in 2004 on the isle...

Big seas & November whale watching

A powerful animated video on the effects over over fishing...
http://www.trueactivist.com/gab_gallery/soon-there-will-be-no-fish-left-ending-overfishing/

27 designated marine conservation zones in place in England...wheres the rest?

http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-6610

Please sign this petition to make the Golden eagle the national bird of Scotland...it could make a huge difference in protecting the species long term from illegal persecution. The bald eagle in the USA is the national bird and any actions in killing this bird is going against the icon of your country. The birds are doing very well in the States and continue to increase their range.

http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/GettingInvolved/Petitions/goldeneagle?UserAdvice=true

What a great man and story...Wild fox domesticated as not in a fit state to re-wild it...Beautiful connection with man...just a wild dog but more intelligent.

http://www.dogheirs.com/george/posts/1632-man-rescues-fox-and-finds-his-new-best-friend-video

Boat traffic seems to be an increasing threat...especially in the south...too many minkes washed up this year...
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/26/norfolk-minke-whales-ship-strikes?CMP=twt_fd



I headed to the north side of the isle with friend Jen on the 20th as winds up to 55 mph (force 10) were blowing from the north so there would be some impressive seas running. When we arrived we could hardly stand as we were so exposed to the 55 drafts coming our way! An amazing experience and I managed a few photos to capture all the drama.



Rough seas at the Cairns force 10 from the north

B and W of the big seas off Coll

Great to watch!

Hooded Crow - love these birds...

I did a talk at the local primary school on Friday 22nd about our dark skies and what to look for. It was great experience and the children were very enthusiastic and inquisitive. A few of the older kids had incredible knowledge of the night sky and the children as a whole seem to be really in touch with the environment. I look forward to getting involved more with primary schools in the future.

Jen and I did a shore walk to the south side a couple of days later with the high pressure arriving made for different conditions to a few days previous. We did a circuit of the south west peninsula on the isle mainly covering the coastal areas. The highlight was a female peregrine fly overhead just when I was under the wind turbines searching for dead birds. It flew into a nearby garden and flushed a good number of starlings. Another highlight was 2 BT divers along with 8 GN divers along the coast. A flock of 35 Twite flew nearby and a group of 25 plus White-fronted geese took off and headed for Tiree. The geology was another major highlight with one of the oldest rock types Lewisian Gneiss outcrops along the shore with amazing colouration. A good 5 hour walk with the only problem the number of 18m turbine blades around the peninsula...The landscapes are billions of years in the making and now destroyed for the large percentage of people who appreciate them.


Stunning Lewisian Gneiss outcrops on colls shoreline...


GN Diver in Arinagour bay


On the 24th Andy Tait arrived on the isle for a couple of days. He got off the ferry and was overjoyed as he had just seen a minke whale down near Tiree! A relaxing first evening on the isle and on the next morning we boarded the Clansman ferry to do the Coll - Tiree run to see if we could get any cetacean success. The sea was flat calm (force 1) and overcast conditions so perfect for viewing marine life. About half an hour in and we picked up a young minke whale surfacing off the bow before going down deep for around 3 minutes and surfacing consistently again 5 times. What a treat, and I picked up another distant minke looking towards the Treshnish isles to the east. We also recorded 12 Porpoise, a juv Gannet, Kittiwakes and 6 GN Divers to mark a great two hour excursion! 

The minke whales are a great record for this time of the year as very little is known about their movements but they are scarcely seen in the winter months around the hebrides. I managed a photo ID shot of its right flank and a distinct black mark is noticeable on the base of its dorsal fin which is interesting. The dorsal fin itself looks very clean with no obvious markings.

We walked around the village of Arinagour in the afternoon and the good sightings continued with a juvenille WT Eagle seen overhead before heading east towards the coast. There is no breeding birds on the isle just a few immature birds seen in the last few years. A flock of Crossbills were heard chipping overhead near the conifer plantation and as we walked down to the woodland we enjoyed nice views of Treecreepers and Goldcrest. 



Minke whale surfacing off the bow of the Clansman! It had a distinct black mark at the base
 of its dorsal when image cropped in...great record!


Foraging in the mosses, lichens and trees interior...

The following day we decided to do the Coll-Tiree run again boarding the Clansman and getting in position on the bridge for another 2 hours sea watching. There was bit more wind which made the conditions harder but its all part of the challenge. The main talking point was a cetacean which surfaced twice off the bow in the chop which I thought was a dolphin species but did not get onto it again. A large number of Guillemots seen with over 65 recorded. Two Fulmars and three adult Gannets were good sightings and brief Porpoise also seen. Another great trip and Andy stayed on board to carry on towards Oban as I got off at Coll. Great to see close friend Andy and will see him again soon.  

Here is his video of the close minke surface viewing from the bridge...





Thanks for looking :)

Friday, 15 November 2013

Coll of the night

My august aurora image is the cover photo in the Scotsman regarding article on best places to see northern lights in the country...
http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/best-places-in-scotland-to-see-the-northern-lights-1-3187445

Two Marsh Harriers and Red Kite poisoned...
http://raptorpolitics.org.uk/2013/11/13/two-marsh-harriers-and-one-red-kite-found-poisoned-in-east-anglia/

Mountain Hare massacre on Grouse moors...
http://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/the-gruesome-fate-of-mountain-hares-on-scottish-grouse-moors/

I am on the isle of Coll for the next few weeks to photograph the night skies for the Coll Dark Sky Project. The island has applied to the International Dark-Sky Association to become Scotlands first dark sky island reserve which would help promote tourism here in the winter months and also help preserve true darkness which is a severely decreasing natural spectacle on the planet. My photography will contribute to promoting visitors to the island and extending the tourism season into the winter months . Read more here - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-17893195 


Lismore lighthouse at dawn on my way across to to Arinagour on board the Clansman.


I have been on the island for 10 days now and managed to find some windows of opportunity in the changeable weather conditions. The classic westerlies are bringing in constant sunshine and showers so to find a couple hour spell to photograph clear skies for a sequence has been challenging with some rewards. 
For the first five days there was no moonlight during dark hours and also such strong winds and squalls added to the experience of trying to capture the night sky in harsh conditions. I got my bearings on the island and pin pointed certain locations which I thought would work as a nightscape. A nice bit of moonlight and a break in the cloud cover enabled me to get a few sequences for the days to follow working around the village of Arinagour as I plan to go further afield in the coming weeks. 



Lovely morning looking out to the Treshnish isles from Arinagour...

On the astronomy front it was the peak of the Taurid meteor shower on the 12th November and I managed to see a few shooters and a small fireball but the lunar light soaked up most of the display  I got my first view of Comet ISON in the early hours of the morning 9th Nov as it was at magnitude 9 so with the aid of my binoculars I could see the small object with help from my iphone star app. The aurora winds have reached 5kp at times but the timing has been wrong with daylight hours or solid cloud cover but fingers crossed in the next fortnight.


North point of mainland Coll Looking out to the magical Cairns of Coll...
a place we visit on Sea Life Surveys trips. Crushed seashell beaches and rich productive waters...

Suil Ghorm lighthouse with the snowy peak of Rum behind...


Wildlife highlights since I have been on the isle include a close flyby of a male Merlin down on the RSPB reserve in the south west of Coll. A juv Hen Harrier flushing Snipe was another good sighting also on the reserve. Five geese species seen and heard on the isle with the resident population of Snow Geese here along with Barnies, White-fronts, Greylag and Pinkies in flight calling at night. Common Waders include Redshank, R Plover, Oystercatchers and Curlew. 2-3 Great Northern Divers in the bay in breeding plume along with an Otter and the local Common Seals. A visit to the north shore of mainland Coll produced two Harbour Porpoise off the Cairns and two GN divers in winter plume. Small birds on the isle have mainly consisted of Starlings, House Sparrows, Rock Pipits, Reed buntings, Stonechat, Twite and Linnets. 



Arinagour main street...a 25% waxing moon provided the light as no street lights in the village makes
 for great stargazing conditions from an urban area...

A Lunar rainbow from Coll...a 50% moon low on the horizon provided the light for a nice
colour spectrum which was enhanced on a long exposure

An iridium flare catching the suns light as it flashed very strong in the sky...

I will continue to persevere for the remainder of the month and get as much dark sky footage as possible. I am also preparing for a talk at the primary school on Friday 22nd about what we can see in the night sky and about our solar system so looking forward to that. 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

a golden eagle food pass...

John and Barry's latest children's book due out soon...Screamer the Swift!
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Screamer-Swift-Chick-Books-Miles/dp/1904078583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383679720&sr=8-1&keywords=screamer+the+swift

A very informative White-tailed Eagle web site from Mull...
http://www.white-tailed-sea-eagle.co.uk/mull-sea-eagles.html

View the first episodes of Tales of Northumberland with film work by friend Cain Scrimgeour
https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/tales-from-northumberland-with-robson-green

New Sea Life Surveys web site now live...
http://sealifesurveys.com/

A beautiful time on the isle as it will be in all wild areas at this autumnal time of the year. A visit from my parents and the dogs in the middle of October was a nice way to finish off the season and on the first day we headed down to the south east of the isle which we covered in the springtime but rain stopped play so it was worth another visit. 

The first port of call was alongside Loch Uisg where we watched a male hen harrier quartering the fell side and as we arrived at the far end of the loch after watching a bird that you would normally associate with an aerial food pass, we saw something to be known as seldom behaviour to wildlife enthusiasts. We got onto a very high Golden Eagle coming overhead and a second bird appeared from the mountains. They suddenly started to drop quite low and when they got the under the skyline you could get colouration on their plumage showing an adult bird and a second year bird. The adult bird dropped down to the ground flushing a first year Goldie which was sat on top of prey which looked like Hare. The adult took flight with the prey in its talons and headed up the hillside as the second year bird followed on before they came together and the prey was exchanged on the wing! Dad verified it as I was watching it through the view finder getting a couple of record shots. An amazing wildlife spectacle, one of my mull highlights of the year and got to watch it all with my dad! We will look into this behaviour in more depth to find out its significance. 


Adult (with prey) and 2nd year Goldie breaking skyline...

Golden Eagle food pass...adult to 2nd year bird...
stunning autumn gully
Dad scanning down at Lochbuie
Thrush and Starling movement...


We carried on to lochbuie where we spent a couple of hours covering the surrounding area which ended up being very productive as well. The first highlight was 14 Whooper Swans at the head of the loch and 400 plus Fieldfare and Redwing in the vicinity. A Sandpiper called once coming from the rocky shore but we could not get onto it. Common...or cant rule out a Spotted. Dad spotted two WT Eagles perched on the other side of the loch with some feral goats grazing nearby. On the higher ground we had another Goldie in flight and an adult WT eagle perched on the skyline. Red deer were seen in good number and Fallow deer in the mixed woodland on the estate grounds. What a great spell of wildlife watching!...nothing beats nature.

A nice relaxing couple of days with mum and dad before they headed south back to Cumbria and I will see them again in December. 



Gannets feeding hard at the fishing bank...

Some good October Sea Life Surveys trips were had covering the coastal areas of Mull. Harbour porpoise were showing well in their traditional areas and all sightings were mature in size. Otters seem to be more active in daylight hours at this time of the year and again some good views were enjoyed by all on board. The eagles have less daylight hours to hunt so again you can have good views at this time of year. Guillemots seen in good numbers throughout the month and the odd Razorbill. Gannets still in the area and one trip in particular we encountered a really healthy hurry of Gannets and Kittiwakes feeding hard for over half an hour. A great time to come on board a marine excursion with the changing weathers and landscapes makes a great nature experience, well done to all the hardy passengers who joined us in October. 


Harbour Porpoise surfacing close by
WT Eagle taking flight...
Tob Otter
Close Otter encounter

An early start on Saturday 26th to try and photograph the Red Deer at sunrise. Richie picked me up and we headed south to get in position in good time and we had lovely views of Red Deer roadside using the car as a hide. We got some record shots and enjoyed views of a large 9 point stag bellowing out to his hinds. We moved on and did a south circuit of the isle and the highlight was 5 Hen Harriers in various areas (2 males,3 females). An adult White-tailed eagle was sat on the shore of Loch Scridain as it lifted off to flush some Greylags into flight. 3 GN Divers in Lochbeg (non-breeder, eclipse, and breeding plume). A Eurasian Otter also seen nearby and a few Stonechats sat on the prominent bracken stems as well. Hooded Crows dropping dog whelks on the hard rocky shore is always great to see. 
A great morning field session with Richie. I remember at the start of the season he was approached by a female at a public establishment requesting a date with him. I told him that one of the first rules in being a good naturalist was to never neglect fieldwork for female activities full stop. He has done well this season, a keen interest, a good eye for spotting and a cracking pair of Leica binos!


Red Deer young stag hinds
A couple of hinds
Grasspoint...


A gww post would not be complete without a night time aurora hunting session so here it is...On October 31st I got a report of aurora winds blowing at a strength of up to 4kp so I headed out to Salen at dusk to get in place and persist in chance of a showing. As I arrived at the bay I noticed straight away that the Hebridean Princess (a local luxury cruise liner) was anchored slap bang to the north of me right in the way with all its on board lights polluting the area. So I decided to head north to Glengorm estate and try up there to see something in a break in the clouds. Its quite a drive up and after arriving at the tea room after half an hour something popped into my mind...have I left the pass heater on in the caravan?? I don't know why that popped in suddenly but I could not remember at all and for obvious reasons I had to go and check so straight back in the car an back south to Salen at a pacey but controlled speed! 
I arrived back and thankfully the caravan was not up in flames and gas was switched off so big relief but what the hell have I been doing this evening? The only thing I was blaming the whole time was that flaming cruise ship! 
Anyway I went further down the north shore with the cruise ship just out of view and waited for a gap in the cloud and again to my frustration it just didn't really move from the northern horizon as it was almost clear everywhere else in the night sky. A window of clear to the north helped my stress levels as I saw a faint glow on the horizon with some dancing columns (a photo can be seen in this post). I staked it out until 1am until the rain came in for the night.


Aurora from Salen Bay on the 31st...record shot
Plenty of rainfall in the month...one of the highest on record...made for impressive water flow around the isle
Tobermory at dusk with Sula Beag alongside pontoon
Eas force...

Thanks for looking...remember to share and sign this important petition...http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/23089