The mag­i­cal world of wildlife on Shet­lands

Macclesfield Express - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

A GOOD friend of mine, Bry­don Thomason, who is based in the Shet­land Is­lands, of­ten sends me copies of his latest pic­tures, in­clud­ing amaz­ing close-ups of ot­ters feed­ing, play­ing and gen­er­ally get­ting on with their lives, com­pletely obliv­i­ous to Bry­don’s pres­ence.

He also shares pho­to­graphs of some of the UK’s rarest birds, many of which seem to be at­tracted to his lens like a mag­net, mak­ing him the envy of both bird­watch­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers alike.

Bry­don is mod­est though, and gets more plea­sure from shar­ing these sight­ings with the guests on his wildlife tours. He even has the most northerly hol­i­day house to rent in the Bri­tish Isles, idyl­li­cally si­t­u­ated at the north­ern end of Unst, with views of Her­maness Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve and a breath­tak­ing vista of Bur­rafirth beach.

From the sur­round­ing moor­land the evoca­tive calls of iconic Shet­land spe­cial­i­ties such as Arc­tic skua and red-throated diver can be heard along with the sym­phony of song of curlew, golden plover and sky­lark to name but a few. In the bay squadrons of gan­nets plunge dive into the clear wa­ters where fel­low seabirds such as puffins, ra­zor­bills, black and com­mon guille­mots can be seen from the sofa. Hav­ing just writ­ten the pre­vi­ous few lines, I’m on my way north.

Bry­don’s guests this year have also seen killer whales, Risso’s dol­phin, har­bour por­poise and minke whale, while on the bird­ing front it has been re­mark­able, for ex­am­ple the mag­nif­i­cent pal­lid har­rier seen here, and the rare and ex­otic rus­tic bunt­ing, sub­alpine war­bler, golden ori­ole, hoopoe, green­ish war­bler (ac­tu­ally found by group), great reed war­bler, bee-eater, both the Unst ‘small race’ Canada geese not to men­tion mul­ti­ple ic­ter­ine war­bler, red­backed shrike and marsh war­bler.

Wild ot­ters are un­doubt­edly one of the most sought-af­ter, chal­leng­ing and re­ward­ing sub­jects for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers in Bri­tain. Few crea­tures en­cap­su­late the wow fac­tor like ot­ters do; from their stealthy hunt­ing and preda­tory abil­i­ties to the in­ti­mate, adorable and play­ful an­tics of a mother and her cubs.

Shet­land is ar­guably the best place in Bri­tain to see Eurasian ot­ters with the is­lands ac­tu­ally boast­ing the high­est den­sity of these enig­matic mam­mals any­where in Europe. Yet even with this ad­van­tage, many pho­tog­ra­phers of­ten fail to en­joy an en­counter, let alone pho­to­graph these no­to­ri­ously se­cre­tive an­i­mals. For the lucky few that man­age a sight­ing, they have usu­ally wasted pre­cious days of their hol­i­day just try­ing to find a re­li­able site, and even then get­ting good photo op­por­tu­ni­ties is of­ten all but im­pos­si­ble; this is where Bry­don comes into his own, and he has spe­cialised in ot­ter pho­tog­ra­phy itin­er­ar­ies for sev­eral years and cre­ated the niche for this no­to­ri­ously chal­leng­ing as­sign­ment, not know­ing how pop­u­lar it would be­come.

He now runs itin­er­ar­ies all year round, usu­ally on a one-to-one ba­sis but of­ten for two pho­tog­ra­phers trav­el­ling to­gether. Suc­cess de­pends on so many el­e­ments com­ing to­gether, start­ing with which sea­son, avail­abil­ity, study­ing the tides, and most im­por­tantly knowl­edge of the ot­ters and their ter­ri­to­ries. How­ever, it is in the field where the hard work re­ally be­gins. Ot­ters seem to have an acute ner­vous­ness – their elu­sive be­hav­iour is renowned. So strin­gent con­sid­er­a­tion must be given to the fol­low­ing fac­tors to max­i­mize chances of en­coun­ters (and the qual­ity of them) but most im­por­tantly to avoid dis­tur­bance to ot­ters: state of tide, know­ing an ac­tive site, wind di­rec­tion, plan­ning your ap­proach, main­tain­ing a min­i­mum pro­file and so on.

The ge­og­ra­phy and ter­rain must also be suited con­sid­ered to a client’s abil­ity. A rea­son­able level of fit­ness is es­sen­tial as reach­ing some of the best lo­ca­tions and es­pe­cially get­ting into the best pho­to­graphic po­si­tion will of­ten mean clam­ber­ing over un­even ter­rain and shore­lines.

Check out www. shet­land­na­

The Laugh­ing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Pad­field, Glos­sop

●● A pal­lid har­rier – one of the birds seen by Bry­don Thomason’s guests

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