Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Handa Island, Part 3, 7th June

....continued (from Handa Island, Part 2)....

There were Puffins dotted around the cliffs close to where we sat so after enjoying the heart attack inducing pork pie, I set to work in trying to get some nice images. Mrs Caley was happy watching the seabird comings and goings and in the clear conditions we could both see the Outer Hebrides on the horizon, a place we'd enjoyed so much last summer and where we'd definitely revisit soon. A Puffin was stood on a nearby outcrop and was looking out to sea. When I looked at the photos later it was apparent that the bird had been seemingly mesmerised by a small fly that passed it by. I mused that (as I often do) maybe the Puffin was thinking "what the hell do those little birds get out of eating that?" and "give me a nice Sand-eel any day".

"Give me a sand-eel any day!"
The Puffins were joined at the top of the cliff  by the ever daring Fulmars and a few of these were already sitting on their nests (or what passes for a nest anyway). They also looked extremely hot, panting excessively in the midday heat (it had rocketed to a healthy 20 degrees centigrade) and one bird in particular looked as if it would rather be out at sea in the cool water than sat on the sun trap of the cliff face. By design we always choose a good weather forecast to visit Handa, obviously wind and rain wouldn't be at all pleasant in such an exposed place. The trade off with visiting on clear days is that it gets very warm and the temperature  seems to be increased by the island acting as a heat sink. The whole walk around Handa amounts to 5 miles too so it's important to take plenty of drinks and to wear a hat. I'd remembered the hat but we'd already drank most of our water and freshwater supplies are hard to find here!

One very hot Fulmar!
A pair of Oystercatchers scolded us as we neared a patch of sea thrift. One stood knee deep in the pink flowers whilst the other flew around us continually "peep, peep(ing)" at us as it did so. We couldn't see if they had a nest with eggs or some young chicks but guessed it must be the latter owing to the ferocity of the defence they were making.

Once we had cleared away from the Oystercatchers "no go zone" and they had calmed themselves another Puffin was spotted on the cliff top. This Puffin stood on his own little rock and looked to all the world as if he owned the whole island. Staring all around he appeared very noble indeed. Until he stooped to "smell" the flowers that was. Maybe his ancestors were of French aristocratic lineage.

Great Skuas were still bombing about all around us and one flew just feet away from us, the shadow cast and the breeze as the huge bird sailed overhead was palpable. But we were safe since the low flying bomber was merely on its way out to sea to harass some poor unfortunate fellow seabird.

As I've said before in this piece, many of the seabirds were still pair bonding and displaying prior to breeding, well behind on their usual schedules. Razorbills were flying up to the cliffs but instead of landing on a ledge they kept diverting off at the last moment and whirling back around out to sea before coming back again and repeating the routine. One such bird, presumably a showy male bird, kept coming in very close to us so I settled down next to the cliff edge (not too close though, the cliffs are continually eroding here) and waited for a photographic opportunity. Focussing on a bird that's flying straight towards you at speed is a tricky skill that I'm still trying to master but I was reasonably pleased with my efforts. On one sortie the Razorbill appeared to be targeted by a Bonxie which at one point was so close it could almost grab the tail of it's quarry but the Razorbill made a deft turn and the pursuer was left hurtling into thin air. If I'd had managed to get a frame of the encounter then I may finally have nailed an award winning image but, did I heck! Still I have nice images (but better memories) of the birds individually just not together.

Incoming Razorbill
"Damn, missed!"
Once the Razorbill had regained its composure and dusted itself down it resumed its flights around the cliff face and was joined by another, potentially a suitor. The two birds then wheeled around in unison and cut some rather interesting poses as they flew both side by side and above and below each other. I'd never witnessed such aerobatics before and was suitably impressed by the whole show.

Razorbills in formation flight
A Bonxie made another move towards the two Razorbills splitting them up again but the lead bird kept going and came back around several more times allowing me to indulge myself a little bit more.

I had secured some really nice flying Puffin shots from the boat out to Coquet Island a week ago (was it really that long) so didn't waste too much time in trying to emulate those here but the dark background of the cliffs made for some interesting exposures. At Handa most flight views of seabirds are of birds below your feet owing to the cliff top vantage point. We'd found a spot slightly underneath the Puffins flight path, a bit too far away, but enabled some level shots to be achieved as the birds also took to displaying. Even though I try to stay cool and pretend that Puffins are nothing special, in truth I can't resist them any more than anyone else can! They are brilliant little birds and the one that everybody comes to see when they visit a seabird colony. I could sit and photograph them all day if allowed but there were still other birds to (hopefully) see and about half the walk still ahead of us so we had to move on.

The path away from the seabird cliffs and back towards the landing beach winds gradually downhill but hugs the coast so, at least for the next mile or so, the sounds and sights of auks, gulls and skuas accompanied us on our way. The SWT are doing a lot of work rebuilding the worn paths by building many steps into the slopes and by gritting the way much in the same fashion that's been done on popular walks in the mountains. They appear to be utilising the rocks that are in abundance throughout the island to make the steps which certainly gets my admiration but I also have a reservation that the paths are changing the natural look of the island. Increased visitor numbers are leading to increased damage to the grass and plants so I guess that such work is essential. Also if there is a well marked path then people will be more inclined to keep to it which alleviates the disturbance to breeding birds that are just off it. On one section of the new path we followed a pair of Skylarks as they grubbed around presumably for grit although they could have been finding small insects that we couldn't see.

....continued in Handa Island, Part 4....

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