Firstly I must apologise for my absence of postings over the summer months. But let’s be honest, in the land of the ‘simmer-dim’ and all its wild riches who has the time to sit indoors at a computer?! The more day light there is, the longer you want to be out in the field!
Shetland is renowned for harbouring many nationally rare species of breeding birds, some of which are amongst the nations rarest. Species such as Merlin, Whimbrel, Red-necked phalarope and Red-throated diver are classed as ‘schedule 1’ birds and are protected by law and a license is required to photograph them on their breeding grounds.
This year I was once again privileged to be authorised a license issued by Scottish Natural Heritage for Red-throated diver or ‘Rain Geese’ as we fondly know them. Shetlands hundred’s of scattered lochs and ‘peerie’ moorland pools harbours somewhere over 400 breeding pairs of this stunningly beautiful and evocative northern breeder which is the highest density of the species in the British Isles. It is worth stating just how sensitive to disturbance some pairs can be and what harm can be done if not sympathetic to this.
This kind of assignment simply must be done from a hide. So determined not to cause the birds any stress was I that It took me three stages of moving the hide closer, just a few metres each time and over a two week period by which time I was amazed and reassured just how confiding they became once used to the hide. I had also planned and discussed this over many months with friends in SNH and RSPB and also photographers who had done similar work.
This is a bird that has fascinated me all my ‘birding’ life. It is a bird that wherever you are in Shetland throughout the summer months you will not be far away from, whether it be a bird flying overhead on route to the sea, a pair on a beautiful calm freshwater loch or maybe the distant haunting yet enchanting calls from a far. So highly regarded are they locally that they are even said to forecast the weather for us in that their calls and or flight direction could indicate rain coming (hence the name I guess!). But let’s be honest in the Shetland Isles we know and love the prediction of rainfall is not exactly a risky one to make! It is an endearing thought though however that they have been around long enough and have been so highly regarded as to have this association throughout the isles.
Views of Rain geese to most are often little more than a dark silhouette in the distance but close observation reveals the most exquisite detail, from the dapper pin stripe of the nape to the ruby red eye and of course the deep and almost burgundy red of their throat patch. All afore mentioned are highly desirable attributes for any bird or wildlife photographer but a pair on a breeding loch on a remote Shetland moorland is simply a dream assignment to most.
Their tantalising courtship dance, rather similar to that of Great-crested Grebe is a spectacle that if fortunate enough to enjoy, will never be forgotten. Not only do they ‘dance upright along the waters surface but their vocalisations throughout quite literally will have you compelled to jump to your feet and applaud for more (but obviously you would not, I am merely overstating how mesmerising and adrenalin pumping a sight it can be!).
Spending many hours in one of my hides by a small peat moorland pool has undoubtedly been the highlight of my summer and probably year so far, from a naturalists and photographers perspective that is. The pair I was working on laid relatively early as their chicks hatched out in the last week of June. Watching the two chicks, during the first week or so and the intimate moments between chicks and parents especially was simply unforgettable. The adults bringing in a single fish fresh from foraging trips on the sea then passing it to their hungry offspring on return truly was a privileged insight into these marvellous diver’s lives.
Flight take off; Red-throats are the smallest and lightest of the five species of diver and unlike those can breed on surprisingly small pools of water where they need only a few meters of water surface to take off, as this bird is doing.
Red-throated reflection; an adult bird caught last year was identified to be an astonishing 24 years old, nearly double the age they were presumed to reach. What was even more amazing was that it had been rung as a chick on a loch only a mile or so from where it was now breeding.
Parenting; when it finally takes to the sea, this half grown chick will learn to catch fish in dives of up to a minute and a half. Remarkably the much larger White-billed diver can dive for over five, even six minutes!!