Photographing birds on the Shetland island Foula

SchmarotzerraubmoeweA barely inhabited island, rugged cliffs, changing light moods and unusual species of animals: this is how the Shetland island of Foula presents itself. A terrain made for nature photographers. As long as the wind does not blow the equipment or the showers from the sea put everything under water.

When I visited the Shetland island of Foula in June, this was mainly with the aim of taking photos of the Great Skua (Stercorarius skua). On Foula you will find the world’s largest breeding colony of this species. The Skua is the highwayman of the island. She is also a true flying artist. Nobody – except perhaps the Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus), which is found mainly in the south of the island – can take it with her in terms of agility and aggressiveness. It is impressive to see how Skuas keep track of Parasitic Jaegers again and again on its heels. It is amazing to which turning maneuvers both Jaegers are capable. A special feature of the Skua is the attacking of birds, heavily laden with food. Many seabirds return from the sea to their offspring. The victim is pursued by Parasitic Jaeger and Skuas as well and attacked until it vomits the prey. Still in free fall, the vomited prey is seized by the Skua in an artistic dive and brought to its own offspring to the nest.

I was deeply impressed not only by the almost unlimited possibilities to document the interesting behavior of the Great Skuas, but also by the other possibilities for taking pictures. Scenic Foula has a lot to offer. Da Kame is the second highest sea cliff in the UK at about 400 meters. In order to take the many seabirds, plants and the landscape into the viewfinder, I returned to the island at the end of July again. Foula is the westernmost of the Shetland Islands. It is located about 35 kilometers west of Mainland, the main island of the Shetlands, and is considered the loneliest inhabited island in the United Kingdom. In times when the mail ship was the only connection to the outside world, the island was temporarily completely cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time. Today, Foula is served by a ferry several times a week from Mainland and served by an airline. This ensures the survival of the almost 30-person population of the island and allows photographers to stay on the island. Many flights and sometimes ferry trips are delayed by storm or sea fog or fail completely. So it can be a test of patience to get to the island or to leave it again. In good weather, flights would also allow for day trips. Options for accommodation for a longer stay on the island are limited. There is a guest house and few self-catering accommodation. Camping is also permitted after consultation with the respective landowner. But, you might be happy to accept some restrictions on comfort, which are compensated in many ways by the daily, intensive encounters with the harsh, nordic nature.

For nature photography Foula offers an impressive backdrop. The astounding biodiversity for the small size of the island of about eight square kilometers provides Foula with scientific visits. Not only its flora and fauna but also the geology is of great scientific interest. There are five mountains in the west of the island: Noum, Hamnafield, Da Sneug, Da Kame and Soberlie. On Foula, the erosive power of the North Atlantic has created gigantic sea cliffs that drop almost vertically into the sea. The tallest of them, Da Kame, is the second highest sea cliff in Britain, about 400 meters high, after Conachair on the Atlantic archipelago of St. Kilda. In addition to the stunning cliffs of the west coast, the sandstone sea has also sculpted interesting shapes along the remaining sections, such as the Gaada Stack’s on the north coast. The eastern, flatter part of the island, where the few houses and the airport are located, is characterized by moors and small ponds. Here, the peat cutting for fuel extraction on the treeless island has shaped parts of the landscape.

The exposure of the small island in the harsh climate of the far north is the basis of dramatic weather changes. Within minutes, a still blue sky can darken and stormy weather can break in. The corresponding cloud formations as well as sea nebulae can be used well as creative means for atmospheric landscape shots. Quite suddenly, fog can also cover large parts of the island, so that you might loses orientation in the terrain. This can create life-threatening situations when you are in the mountainous part of the island. Once again it proved to be true that in nature photography there is only a very limited predictability. So I could work off my motive list only partially. For a photo stay, at least a week should be scheduled to get a chance to at least one or two days with good photo conditions.

In the long light periods of the Nordic midsummer, which provide ample time for photography, the island is covered by a sea of ​​flowers. With its wealth of breeding seabirds and waders, Foula is a veritable Mecca for bird lovers and photographers. During the migratory period rarities and vagrants are regularly discovered, which then attract birders to the island. Thus, last October a Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka) could be reported. Right now – in July – there is a Rosy Starling (Pastor roseus) on the island.

On the extensive marshes you can hear the call of the Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) everywhere and you have to make sure that you do not accidentally step on a clutch while hiking through the moor. Many ponds on Foula are occupied by at least one breeding pair of Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) during breeding season. Their significant increase on the island is owed to strict protection measures by local rangers. With the rangers you can easily come into conflict even as a nature photographer, if one comes too close to a breeding site, which can easily happen unintentionally with the inconspicuous nests.

Sliding along the cliffs, the elegant fulmars provide picturesque motifs. At the cliff edge you can often observe the quarrels between the Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis). You also meet them inside the island. There, the Northern Fulmars have taken over many abandoned and decaying buildings. In addition to the seabirds, you can also see Gray Seal (Halichoerus grypus) and Common Seal (Phoca vitulina) on the coast. When working on cliffs in the far north, it is extremely important to keep the photographic equipment at a safe distance from the edge of the cliff. Failure to comply with this principle might lead to the sudden loss of photographic equipment  due to sudden strong gusts of wind. Some years ago, a Norwegian nature photographer on Foula has been blown a backpack with equipment off a cliff.

To cope with the growing demand for top shots of the rarer species of the Palearctic Bird-Lens is keen to enrich the range of pictures of birds you can find in the western Palearctic. Trips to remote places to capture images not only of rare birds of western Palearctic were very successful. The nice image of the blog is only a first impression, what you will find in the gallery in the “Picture Shop” very soon. Just give a message, if could serve you with an image needed before the new pictures are online.

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