One of the first things you realise about the Shetlands Islands is just how far north they are. The 60 degree north line of latitude passes through the southern part of the Mainland which is some 100 miles from the nearest part of Scotland. Due to its northern latitude, from mid May to mid July Shetland enjoys Simmer Dim, or summer twilight, where the sun only dips below the horizon for a few hours each day giving the potential for almost twenty hours of daylight.
The Shetland Islands have a reputation for being a wildlife photographer’s paradise. Home to some one million nesting seabirds, the islands are one of the most important breeding sites for seabirds in the North Atlantic. For a photographer, these sites are not only some of the most spectacular in the United Kingdom but they are amongst the most accessible, although one or two require a little more work to reach them than others. Whilst Simmer Dim makes for long working days, it is also the best time to visit the seabird colonies.
At the end of June, following another long journey north, I spent two weeks on the Shetland Islands. Of the 100 or so islands of Shetland, with only fifteen inhabited, my time was spent on just three: the Mainland, being the southern most island; Unst being the northernmost; and Yell being the gateway from the Mainland to Unst. I also had planned a half day boat trip from the Mainland around Noss to see its spectacular sea cliffs from sea level. By visiting just three islands, I was able to spend more time repeatedly visiting the same few locations. This is the way I prefer to work as I have found that it affords the opportunity to produce a wider variety of images of a smaller number of locations and their wildlife. Over time, this is more efficient and productive than spending less time at a greater number of sites, resulting in a more in depth coverage.
At Sumburgh Head on the Mainland, I watched from the cliff tops as Puffins, Kittiwakes and the other myriad of seabirds performed their acrobatics.
On a secluded cove on Yell, I lay on the warm sand photographing Arctic Terns and Ring Plovers as they walked across the sand within feet of where I lay.
On the moors I watched, from a safe distance to avoid causing any disturbance, Red Throated Divers with young on their breeding lochans. Red Throated Divers are one of the United Kingdom’s rarest breeding birds and a Schedule 1 Licence is required in order to photograph them at or near their nest. Whilst I have held a Schedule 1 Licence for Ospreys, on this occasion I had not applied for a licence to photograph Red Throated Divers and was content just to watch these rarest of breeding birds.
I was able, however, able to make images of Redshank, Dunlin, Oystercatcher and Curlew on the moors on Unst and Yell.
My main purpose for visiting the Shetland Islands was, however, to work with Great Skuas on the moors on Unst and with Gannets on the two colonies at Hermaness and Noss. Each of these two birds will be the subject of a separate post.