Alex In The Wild: Blog en-us (C) Alex In The Wild (Alex In The Wild) Sun, 29 Mar 2020 14:46:00 GMT Sun, 29 Mar 2020 14:46:00 GMT Alex In The Wild: Blog 120 80 Spring 2020 Where does the time go?  Months have elapsed since my last blog and the world has changed significantly since then.  I haven't made any trips overseas during that time, mainly because I have an elderly cat who is needing twice-daily medication, and has been thriving better than anticipated on it.  With all that has been in the media about climate change, this is probably no bad thing, although I hope that at some point in the future I will visit further shores than these again.

For the time being, however, most of us have been completely grounded by something infinitesimal, yet terrifying.  Our human world seems more or less to have ground to a standstill.  Out there though, no message has been received by the flora and fauna, unless it is wonderment that human beings currently have no interaction with them.  With fewer flights and reduced general pollution, I imagine they are definitely feeling the benefits.

Here is a selection of some spring flowers I shot in Edinburgh, Fife and East Lothian between January and going into lock-down this March.

Keep safe, everybody.

The photos are here

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Sun, 29 Mar 2020 14:42:11 GMT
Still Here! It's been far too long since I posted anything on this site.  With a slightly hanging head, I have to confess to having discovered (rather belatedly) Instagram.  You can follow postings on there if you wish under the username: alexinthewild_com.  It is likely that you will recognise a number of images from the folders on here, but new ones too.

This summer has been relatively prolific with the camera, heavily leaning towards macro photography and here's a folder of pictures I took today at The Secret Herb Garden on the edge of the Pentland Hills.  The bees and other insects were as happy as we were.


Pictures available here

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Wed, 31 Jul 2019 22:32:43 GMT
Happy New Year in form of a Super Blood Wolf Moon Happy New Year.

I've not been so active with the cameras lately, and because last night was a "school night", had opted not to stay up to try and photograph the eclipse.  My body had other ideas and as I woke spontaneously at 4.25am, an inner voice told me that we had a special astronomical event occurring.  Well of course I had to obey and by sheer good fortune, one of Nature's loveliest spectacles was right there outside my sitting room window.

Super Blood Wolf Moon - January 2019Super Blood Wolf Moon - January 2019Just before full totality.

Being unprepared, my tripod was in the car, so there's a little camera shake as I shot firstly at 1/5", then at 0.5".  The 400mm lens didn't give me as good results as these two here, one taken just before totality and one during full totality with the 28-300mm lens (both completely unedited).  Had I realised it would have taken so long to come out the other side, I might have gone to get the tripod.  As it was, a rather frozen person went back to bed about an hour later before totality had finished, but it was definitely worth the effort.

Super Blood Wolf Moon - January 2019Super Blood Wolf Moon - January 2019During full totality.

With such a magnificent start to the year, I hope it continues in like vein for everyone reading this.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Mon, 21 Jan 2019 20:02:28 GMT
Bugs and Lions' Teeth I was out without my camera on Sunday.  This was a mistake as it was one of the best wildlife experiences I've had in recent times.  Notable sightings included a whinchat, lapwings, swallows, (not quite a cuckoo, as I only heard it,) a heron in flight, a mountain hare osprey!  

But before most of that, I spotted these butterflies.  I'm little better at butterfly ID than flowers, but I know a dandelion when I see it (dent de lion = lion's tooth) and I believe they were green-veined whites (although the veins look grey to me).  And it doesn't really matter that I didn't have a proper camera with me - my phone did the work on this occasion, including this video in which not even a strong, gusty breeze or my proximity seemed to deter these hardy little insects:

Busy at work



]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 22 May 2018 13:00:07 GMT
A Hospital Visit Today I went to visit a special person in hospital.  We're not allowed to take flowers in nowadays, which is a shame, but understandable.  On my exit, I was struck by the roses in the first pictures, and because my camera with macro lens was in the car, went to fetch it.

Just a few pictures in a relatively small area of the hospital grounds, it's a comforting reminder that hospitals, like flora, are places of regeneration and optimism.

This is for you, D and G.  Get well soon.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Sun, 22 Apr 2018 19:25:55 GMT
The Birds and the Bees...and lots of Flora in Fife Since my last post, I'm delighted to report that the Weather Gods must have been listening as they've ramped up the temperature (mind we don't hit summer too quickly though) and blown away some of those clouds.  So it was that I headed up to Fife at the weekend and spent several hours thoroughly enjoying playing with the macro lens again.  Of course the wind was still taunting me on a regular basis, but the light was superb and I was delighted to see my first bumble bee, then butterfly of the season, followed later by honey bees in the heather, and my second bumble bee.  The bees were so busy that they weren't in the least bit perturbed by the lens only inches from them.

In our busy lives it's not always in our minds to slow down and investigate our world in miniature.  Sometimes it's worth doing exactly that:

Birds, Bees and Flora in Fife

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Thu, 19 Apr 2018 22:37:32 GMT
Spring, where are you? The flora is trying to do its bit.  What a shame the weather is all over the place.

Here are some more macro shots taken on a very cold, gloomy evening in Edinburgh with a colleague.  The light was very flat, but at least the flowers added some colour to the experience.


]]> (Alex In The Wild) Fri, 13 Apr 2018 08:48:59 GMT
Wild Edinburgh As is quite clear from this website, I like visiting the Arctic.  In the last few days, the Arctic however has decided to come and visit us instead.  Snow, apparently from Siberia, has flown in, settled, unsettled, moved on and replenished.  It is much lighter and drier than the usual soggy flakes which often melt as soon as they fall, and were I skiing, this would be the most excellent powder snow.  I'm not really the biggest fan of snow in the city - to me it belongs on the hills - but whilst it is fresh, it is rather beautiful.

I don't have many shots here of the scenery, not least because anything scenic isn't so wild and tends to include buildings and people.  With strong justifiable advice not to take to the roads, this is as wild as it gets, and whilst humankind enjoys playing with the white stuff, spare a thought for our avian friends who have a far harder task keeping warm and nourished.

And before moving to the latest album, an indulgence by way of my cat, who spent three short minutes in the snow today.  He at least had the option to go and get warm again.


]]> (Alex In The Wild) Fri, 02 Mar 2018 16:02:40 GMT
O Canada The world's second largest country, and one I would like to know so much better, especially as my father grew up there.  This was my second visit to Canada, again back in 2003 - yes, I found more old photos - and it was a happy, leisurely trip through on my way back from New Zealand (although I could have foregone the 43 hours without sleep and 9 "lines" in 2 hours' transfer at LAX, when flying in from Auckland and on to Vancouver!).

Takakkaw Falls, British ColumbiaTakakkaw Falls, British Columbia

Thanks to SARS, the tourist numbers were much reduced, which was to my benefit.  If I could change anything, it would be the ability to return to The Rockies under my own timescale, which would allow for more time to linger at various destinations; being on a bus trip understandably meant that there was more of an organised schedule to adhere to.  

Marmot, Barkerville, British ColumbiaMarmot, Barkerville, British ColumbiaIt is the marmot which is thought to have given Whistler its name. Their call is extremely shrill.

Many of the pictures here were taken with the little Fuji FinePix A303.  It is a fantastic camera for still shots and perhaps I should bring it out of retirement.  For wildlife, however, it is not so useful as there is a time lag between clicking the button and the shutter release; animals don't tend to hang around long enough for such slow functions...

Scenery near Banff, AlbertaScenery near Banff, Alberta

One day I hope to return.

Canada photos

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Thu, 08 Feb 2018 00:01:43 GMT
Throwback to Australia A belated Happy New Year to all and sundry.

Having had a great-aunt who lived in Australia with her family, I grew up imagining an interesting far-off land which I'd like to visit some day. By contrast, New Zealand never even much crossed my radar, so it was ironic that I should set off for the smaller shores of Aotearoa in October 2002 and spend the greater time in that beautiful country, before flying across the Tasman Sea for a six-week visit to its gigantic neighbour when the first six months' visa had expired.  

Undaunted, I made the most of this relatively short spell, realising I couldn't possibly cover the whole country in six weeks, and instead opting to explore the south east corner of it, visiting cousins and friends as I did so.

The Three Sisters, The Blue Mountains, NSWThe Three Sisters, The Blue Mountains, NSWThe Blue Mountains are so-named due to the abundance of eucalyptus trees which create a haze of blue, and which are highly flammable.

I wasn't convinced that my pictures were much good, but I was pleased to rediscover them recently, having thought I'd lost them for good, and here is a selection, taken with a Fuji Finepix A303 little digital camera and a Canon EOS 300 film camera (not difficult to spot which image comes from which camera!).  Who knows when I'll be able to return, so for now, I shall dream much as I did as a child, of adding Tasmania, Perth, Adelaide, Queensland, and much else besides, to the sights I enjoyed seeing in 2003.

Australia Pictures

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Sun, 04 Feb 2018 02:10:45 GMT
"Growing up in -60C" I was interested to read the following article from the BBC:

Growing up in -60C

which brought back memories of my own trip over there in August 2011:

The Russian Arctic


We of course touched down during the Siberian summer, a region I had always wanted to visit, although whenever I say that, people give me a funny look until I clarify "in the summer".  Here is an extract of my diary written back then:


It was certainly much better for me to be able to put my feet up during the flight, especially as on the Boeing 737, the seats were fitted very close to each other, front to back.  There was a mass of school children in the back who clapped as we successfully took off – was Russian safety that bad?  Certainly, D had mentioned that morning that a Russian cargo plane had crashed in the East, killing all 11 on board, so accidents aren’t unheard of.  He seemed very dismissive and philosophical of dangers.


A map appeared, showing us where we were, although it was scarcely needed as the sun was on the port side and before long was setting.  We kept turning slightly left in accordance with flying round the top section of the world, and nearer and nearer to Ekaterinburg on the edge of the Urals.  After dinner, we lost the screen as the lights went out, but I could still see the port side had a glow of light, even during the night.  In the morning, we touched down at Yakutsk where it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t told anyone in the family exactly what my itinerary was, so I texted my brother as he was still likely to be awake in the US, and he responded positively. 


After disembarking at Yakutsk in the heat (27C) and lugging our hand luggage up 3 flights of stairs, we had to pause for an hour there whilst they refuelled and cleaned the plane.  I went to the loo and was glad to have taken tissues with me as there was no loo roll.  There were people fumigating us from just outside the door, but at least they were able to point me in the right direction as the symbol was in Cyrillic.  I suppose I’d have found out soon enough...  Having met P on the first section of the flight, a German cameraman, I then met E, an Australian photo-journalist, H, a Brit, and J, a professional photographer from California.  We re-boarded the plane and on we went for the shorter 3-4 hour “hop” to Anadyr.


I had been informed that Chukotka, that region of Eastern Siberia in which Anadyr lies, was very mountainous, and we had a bit of turbulence shortly after leaving Yakutsk (again accompanied by applause!), but it soon abated and we had a very smooth ride down.  As I’d originally imagined, the land around Anadyr is in fact pretty flat and we got plenty of chance to see that after landing as it took an absolute age to taxi into the terminal.  The concrete slabs were in poor repair with grassy tufts growing between them.  Over on the official grass were rows of rudderless helicopters and the odd plane or two without wings.  A veritable graveyard from which the “bodies” had been pilfered for parts, I suspect. 


Having finally arrived at the terminal, we disembarked again, only to be thwarted by the officials as our passports didn’t have the requisite permits.  All the passports of our group were taken and luckily a young officer appeared who spoke English.  After a slightly hairy wait, we met one of our guides, who is Russian, and were then handed back our passports.  The luggage thankfully also made it.


But -60C?  Well that's another matter.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 14 Nov 2017 12:45:14 GMT
The Art of Fugue During the last couple of weeks I've been revisiting keyboard skills learned in my youth on the piano and organ.  There's been a lot of rust falling off my recalcitrant fingers, but it has been like riding a bike - the memory never completely fades.  My biggest challenge, however, has been the age-old difficulty in playing Bach fugues.  To me, he was the ultimate master of all the forms of composition he undertook, but in particular the fugue, that complex structure in which 2 or more voices intertwine in a contrapuntal "woolly ball" of notes.  It takes its name from the Latin "fugere" meaning "to flee".  Scarlatti (Domenico) has been a kinder composer to me, whereas JSB remains an exacting taskmaster.

Today I also fled out into the country on a mission with a friend, firstly to the hills outside Dunbar in Berwickshire, then looping round to the Lammermuir Hills where I stopped to take some more shots of the Firth of Forth, Bass Rock and North Berwick Law and all the glorious intervening colours of the countryside.  Close by there were people out grouse shooting and as I reached for my camera, my friend spotted a mountain hare near the roadside cowering from her pursuers.  Before I had time to perform a gentler kind of shooting in the heather, a small convoy of vehicles streamed up the road towards us and her own personal fugue was on again.  There was just time for me to catch her lolloping off to freedom in a 4-footed counterpoint of her own.

The pictures are here:

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Sat, 23 Sep 2017 19:19:19 GMT
Mull, Iona, Staffa... and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula People have long spoken well of this part of North Western Scotland and it was an area I had never visited, so I decided to make a trip up to see for myself.  The wildlife was mainly all on its own holidays, so otters and eagles weren't showing and the puffins had already headed out to sea, but I was intrigued to spot a couple of lizards and other assorted birdlife, including a number of herons.  

The rain accompanied me to Glencoe, then largely held off for most of the rest of the week.  However, Scotland's wet summer was in evidence with all the lush greenery around.  From Mull, my visit to Iona was cut short by the opportunity to take a boat out to Staffa shortly after I'd arrived, and as it was perfect weather, it had to be done.  After a couple of days' travelling round Mull, I returned to the mainland and headed up to Arisaig, then back down via Glenfinnan Viaduct to Roybridge and back south again.

Ardnamurchan Peninsula in particular is stunningly beautiful, although a surprise to me (other than Staffa) was the rich diversity of the geology I encountered.  And yet again, a steam train (the Jacobite, aka Hogwarts Express) snuck into my "wild" pictures.  Given it was going over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, it would have been a crime to have overlooked it.

The gallery is here: Mull, Iona and Staffa

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Mon, 04 Sep 2017 22:59:50 GMT
Feedback One thing I enjoy when posting a new album/blog is the feedback I receive, be it educational, observational or complimentary.  This feedback came from the son of former neighbours of mine who grew up next door, but now lives in the far reaches of Canada (I did ask permission to share it with you):


"In the Spring of 1961, three lads (including yours truly) on bikes, going from the youth hostel at Glendevon to the youth hostel at Birnam, explored several Roman "forts" (as per O.S. map) along that line.


It was a guy muddy and wasted land that we pushed our way through !!! ... but even aged 14, we were nosy enough to explore them !!!


I like the current set up with signs etc !!!!


Lovely photos of the FS.


I have slides taken in 1967 or 1968 of the FS steaming out of Waverley station not long after  the locomotive had been saved. The photos are currently packed away during our renovations but I shall have to get them out to look at after all is back to some semblance of normal.


53 years ago in 1964, BF, BH and I were in the 'invited guests' stand at the opening of the then 'new' Forth Road Bridge, representing Scottish scouting.


Thanks for the memories ... through the new photographs."


Thanks for that, D.


Meanwhile, I was out photographing with the macro lens last night.  Such a specialist field of photography and one in which I have so much still to learn.  I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with macro photography.  Part of me loves good results (who doesn't?) and the microscopic style of seeing details which we can often easily pass by.  On the other hand, the moment I get that lens out, the wind lifts.  Every Single Time.  And last night was no exception.  A tripod and cable release might come in useful next time.  The juvenile starling was a bonus and whilst perhaps it wasn't ideal to photograph it with a 100mm macro lens, it seemed to work. 


The results are here: Nature's symmetry

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Thu, 18 May 2017 08:22:22 GMT
An ambition achieved In Alaska in 2012, I was thrilled to see sea otters on little ice floes, and river otters flitting around not so far from their cousins.  All my life though I have hoped to see otters here in my own country.

Today that dream came true.

Not in a zoo or a wildlife park, although they serve their purpose, but out in the wild.  I had seen paw prints in the past, and knew of one or two spots where they are said to frequent, yet they remained elusive.  Otters quite sensibly steer clear of people if they can, although they have been seen in the heart of Edinburgh.

Following a tip-off, I visited a location within a 30 mile radius of Edinburgh with friends.  We had a relatively arduous walk to the spot, located what we thought was the holt and sat in the bitterly cold wind for quite some time before the mother emerged, squeaking as she swam off out of sight.

We continued to sit yet longer.  There was a fair bit of squeaking behind us out of sight which I initially put down to being birdsong.  Eventually however, I got up to investigate and soon beckoned my friends to join me in the greatest of stealth.  We needn't have worried - the two kits we found clearly hadn't learned fear of humans yet, and continued to call back and forth whilst we all thrilled at observing creatures we hadn't dared hope that we might see.

Eventually one decided to swim back to the holt, leaving the other one squeaking away where we'd found it.  Given the holt wasn't far away, we decided at that point to leave them alone. 

A first for all of us and a unforgettable experience.

View the pictures here

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Sun, 19 Feb 2017 21:24:19 GMT
A Double Whammy I've added two galleries of new photos, neither of which are quite as wild as I would normally expect, but both of which I think generate interest.  The first was Lindisfarne which became the last-minute and highly successful rendezvous venue to catch up with an old friend.  We were blessed with fine weather and as neither had visited the island previously, we had a wonderful day exploring the place and catching up.  True to my wild interests, arguably the most memorable feature of the day was observing a male kestrel at increasingly-close range as it feasted on a kill.

War Memorial and Lindisfarne CastleWar Memorial and Lindisfarne CastleThis War Memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

The second set of photos also came about slightly by accident.  It was only a couple of days ago that I learned that the world-famous "Flying Scotsman" was going to be returning to Edinburgh, a very rare occurrence.  One of my brothers had a Hornby train set as a child, and by far the most striking engine was the "Flying Scotsman", so the name has resonated with me almost all my life, but I've never seen her for real.  Rather annoyingly, it was mentioned that the times of her visits down to Galashiels and up to Fife were being kept secret to prevent people climbing onto the track, and in fact the whole visit was thrown into jeopardy by last-minute bureaucracy, but at the 11th hour, the trip was back on.


Because I didn't know the schedule, I contacted a friend last night who lives close to the route.  He got back to me 30 minutes before she was due to leave Edinburgh, so I hastily headed out from the north side of town to the south and phoned from my car (hands-free) to enquire whether she had already passed.  He said that there was a helicopter overhead which I could see some way south of me, so it was clear that I wasn't going to get to where he and his family were in time to catch a glimpse.  So I carried on down the A7 with a vague plan to stop at Heriot.  However, just south of Eskbank, I was enthralled in that way that you can only half be when driving to see her cross the new bridge right over my head, and then proceed along the Lothianbridge Viaduct.  A spectacular sight!  


I was still behind her and she had clearly picked up speed, so I pressed on.  A little short of Heriot, I spotted a line of vehicles parked on the verge so made a split-second decision to do the same, jumped over a gate and just had time to mention to a few of the spectators that she was about to arrive when there she was.  I hope you enjoy the pictures because neither the conditions or the location could have been more perfect, and I was extremely lucky to have made it in time.  I had a word with my brother shortly afterwards and we agreed that whilst it would have been a thrilling experience to have been on board, the passengers wouldn't have experienced the fine sights available to those lining the route.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Sun, 15 May 2016 18:26:31 GMT
West Greenland I've been doing quite a bit of island-hopping this year.  The trips have all been brief - 2 nights on Orkney (, 2 nights on Shetland (, a week in Ireland (no photographs) and 2 nights on Lewis/Harris (  

Although I had completed my polar Arctic circle last year, I felt there was still a little unfinished business in visiting West Greenland.  East Greenland remains one of my favourite ever expeditions and yet with only one settlement to visit, it felt like there was much more to see, population-wise in the west.  In addition, I knew that the birthplace of the largest icebergs was supposed to be in the Disko Bay area.

Aasiaat MuseumAasiaat Museum

For various reasons, I didn't book until late in the season, and I knew I wanted to try and visit at the same time of year as I'd been to East Greenland, both for the autumnal colours and for the chance to see the northern lights.  I also hoped to miss the mosquitoes but in so calculating, overlooked the fact that the birds would largely have migrated south for the winter.  I certainly didn't anticipate the place to be devoid of any mammals whatsoever other than whales (which are always a bonus) and huskies in settlements.  To that end, it was remarkably quiet and desolate, which provided its own atmosphere, but which at times seemed a little forbidding.  No-one else appeared to have too much of an interest in the birds, so my enthusiasm on the occasions we did encounter snow buntings (the only songbirds in the Arctic) didn't seem to be shared.  We did have a regular following of fulmars who like to swoop round ships, and where whales fed, glaucous gulls congregated.  On occasion, I would spot one or two young adult Brünnich’s guillemot (thick-billed murre), but they clearly hadn't got the message that they should have migrated by then.

"Rembrandt van Rijn" across the tundra, Qeqertánguaq Bay"Rembrandt van Rijn" across the tundra, Qeqertánguaq Bay

Flying in via Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq and on to Aasiaat, both within the Arctic Circle in North-West Greenland, and met by leader Jordi, we had the opportunity to walk around town before embarking on the ship - the same "Rembrandt van Rijn" on which I had sailed round the Scottish Islands in 2012.  She is a beautiful Dutch schooner and I already remembered her propensity to "rock and roll" in rougher waters - the hazard of being on a small ship.  We had a couple of occasions in open water when we had to keep quiet as she battled 30-knot winds.  For the most part, however, we had perfect weather and on one occasion, we were able to put up the sails and use that wind, which was a magnificent sight.

As in the east, there are plenty of historical relics in the west, and our visit was enriched by the addition of Erik as one of the guides.  He has a wealth of knowledge of the region and turned out to be a useful plant-spotter too.  Whilst I'm not very adept at knowing the different names for all the flowers, I do appreciate the wide variety of the plant life in the Arctic and it never ceases to amaze me how hardy they are to withstand the rigours of life in the far north.

Sailing into the sunset, Vaigat StraitSailing into the sunset, Vaigat Strait

It was early in the season for the Northern Lights to give the best showing and yet we saw them on four consecutive nights, usually preceded by fine sunsets and on one evening, a spectacular moonrise.  I hadn't anticipated having calm enough conditions to attempt photographing them from the ship, so hadn't brought a tripod with me - my luggage was already far too heavy as it was!  And yet on the first night, the water was as flat as a millpond.  

When one imagines the Arctic, it's easy to think of the colours being white, grey and perhaps a little blue.  I hope these pictures will dispel any such notions.  The Arctic in autumn is a stunningly beautiful place to be.

The pictures are at

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Arctic Greenland Northern Lights Rembrandt van Rijn bird colour east ice iceberg people schooner ship west whale Thu, 24 Sep 2015 15:29:21 GMT
Orkney and Shetland Having had a taster of some of the Scottish Islands in 2012 (, I wanted to see more and so I flew with a friend for a couple of nights on the Orkney Isles, then alone for a couple of nights on the Shetland Isles in April.  Thought had been given to driving up and taking the ferry and this short trip made me hope to return perhaps for a little longer on a third occasion as there is a lot to enjoy, particularly in the scenery, but also historically, especially in Orkney.

Our mission wasn't specifically about seeing wildlife although I did manage to see the male sea eagle in his eyrie on Hoy through a spotting scope.  Nothing I could have picked up on my camera as the little group of observers had a hard enough time locating exactly where the eyrie was in the first place.  However, it is an exciting development, given this is the first nesting on Hoy in 142 years, and we were lucky to coincide with it.  The sea eagles are a young pair mating for the first time, so the egg(s) may or may not hatch.

There is a strong sense of ancient and modern history, particularly on Orkney in a human sense, although Shetland offers an intriguing array of geological history as well as the Norse influence.  I was mildly surprised at how very different the two sets of islands were, which underlines that each area should be considered in its own right.  

I would particularly have loved to have seen otters, but my timetabling really didn't allow for sitting quietly in wait at dawn and dusk.  In some ways, that's a shame, yet although we were very lucky in the main with the weather, it was quite chilly at night, so sitting around at the colder parts of the day might be more advisable in the summer months.

All in all, however, I'd highly recommend visiting both sets of islands:

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Brough of Birsay Burray Glims Holm Hoy Lamb Holm Mainland Shetland Mainland Orkney Northmavine Peninsula Orkney Shetland South Ronaldsay West Burra island Tue, 05 May 2015 21:17:34 GMT
Full (Arctic) Circle Back in 2008 when I first travelled to Svalbard, my crystal ball never revealed that just under six years later I would find myself writing about having visited the fifth and final Arctic polar country.  Yet here I am doing just that.  And we saw narwhal - lots of them!


The trip started with flights down to Heathrow and over to Ottawa where I spent two nights.  In the intervening day, I went walking and discovered that Ottawa isn't really designed for walking far.  With many back-tracks due to roadworks and my GPS taking me the wrong way, I met few other pedestrians except in the city centre and by the time I caught a taxi back to my hotel seven hours later, I'd clocked up 10 miles (accurately measured by the GPS).  People seemed surprised, but it was good to stretch the legs after the long flight, and it enabled me to see and hear a few of North America's indigenous garden birds - red-winged blackbirds, American robins, etc.  I didn't take the camera with me though.


Two mornings later, I took an early flight up to Iqaluit on Baffin Island, capital of Canada's newest Province, Nunavut (1999) where there was a short stop before the second flight directly to Pond Inlet on the north of the island as the touch-down at Clyde River had been cancelled due to poor weather.  We were met by two of our guides and taken to meet some of the others in the group (more were already at Base Camp).  After a bite to eat, we hastened down to the town's library/village hall for a demonstration of traditional Inuit skills and practices such as high-kicking to reach a small piece of seal flesh on a rope, cheek-pulling, fire-lighting and throat-singing.  It gave us the chance to interact with the wonderful Inuit people who have a very gentle manner.  They speak slowly, smile broadly and are the most genial of hosts.


On 6th June, we set off in a convoy of skidoos pulling traditional Inuit qamutiks or sleds.  It was strange to glide over the frozen sea and every now and then we had to make a large zig-zag to bypass leads - channels formed by large cracks in the ice.  The sea ice is approximately 4-5 feet thick at this time of year, and thawing all the time, but it is not until August/September that Pond Inlet witnesses the fluid sea again for a couple of short months.



The trip out to Base Camp, a mile from the ice edge took 5-6 hours, and we'd been advised to wrap up warmly.  There were a couple of stops, one of which was to visit an ancient Thule settlement.  The Thule race was the precursor to the modern-day Inuit, thought to emanate more than 2,000 years ago from the Bering Strait and spread all the way over to Greenland.  As our only land-based excursion, we had the opportunity to walk up and around the low round stone houses with long wide slabs of stone as the lintels.  Snow buntings were singing away and I spotted a lemming zipping amongst the rocks, although it didn't reappear.  Further along, there were some ancient graves where some stones had been removed long ago, exposing skeletons for sufficient time for lichen to grow on them.  In such areas, the permafrost precludes any conventional excavation so stones are built up to form a grave above ground.  Towards the beach lay a huge rectangular container, thought to hold up to ten tonnes of whale blubber from more recent times when whalers sailed these waters.  As we were leaving, I spotted four of only six snow geese we were to see flying overhead.  I've only seen them in Russia before, so it remains a thrill to see them again.


In due course, we arrived at Base Camp, situated close to a trapped iceberg, where we met the rest of the group.  In total, we numbered just under 30 - 9 Chinese/Taiwanese, 1 Belgian and 1 Canadian guest apart from me.  I was the only Brit.  Of the staff, there were 5 Canadians from the lower provinces, 1 American, 1 German and around 8 Inuit Canadians.  Having been shown our accommodation - large dual-shared modern yurt-like tents - we were well-fed and because the sun never sets at this time of year, went straight out to the ice edge where that wonderful midnight light afforded the perfect setting to see our first narwhal.  The main reason for coming here was to see these elusive whales because they swim alongside the sea ice in their annual migration.  


Of course everyone wants to see the famous tusk or tooth, but we were to be disappointed in the main, and nor were we to see any other whales.  Narwhal tend to swim in groups and when they surface for air, they don't generally show the tusk.  In addition, we were informed that only the males have a tusk, although that was later contradicted with the advice that some females also have a tusk.   I took one or two shots with tusks, but seeing them was a rarity.  In addition to that wonderful evening light which is slightly brighter but not dissimilar to twilight, the ice and snow in the Arctic help to amplify any noise.  As such, we were advised to stay still and be quiet when the narwhal were close as they could hear any footsteps.  In return, we had the thrill of hearing their blowing echoing around even from quite some distance.  At times, we could hear them singing too.

The narwhal weren't always present and on one particularly beautiful day, activities included kayaking and snorkelling whilst one of the staff dropped a hydrophone into the water where we could hear the ringed and bearded seals also singing.  We never saw a bearded seal, but the ringed seals were curious and kept periscoping to check us out.  Meanwhile, the ice edge was rife with birds.  Predominantly thick-billed murre which I was later to discover are the same bird as the Brünnich's Guillemot which we saw in Svalbard, but also long-tailed ducks, plenty of eider and king eider, glaucous and Thayer's gulls, black guillemot, long-tailed jaeger/skua, black-legged kittiwakes, fulmar and even a ruddy turnstone. 


I had hoped to visit the bird sanctuary on Bylot Island, but the ice was thawing too quickly for us to travel there.  With that went the likelihood of seeing Arctic fox again as they don't tend to venture onto the sea ice, whereas the lure of potential sustenance through eggs would be quite high.  On one day, we returned to Base Camp and passed a narwhal carcass about a mile away.  The Inuit are permitted to hunt a small allocation of narwhal each year and having taken what they required, the rest was left for any passing polar bears.  We were surprised that it took nearly two days for the first one to appear, and it did so when only four people had remained to watch.  It quickly ran away when it realised Man was nearby, but we set up a rota to watch for more and to my delight, one appeared just as my shift began.  Unfortunately, it was in a very poor condition, in no small part due to what looked like a broken nearside front paw.  It was surrounded by the usual glaucous gulls and also three ivory gulls.  As our shift ended and we turned to walk back to camp, another bear appeared in the snow and apparently had a short fight with "Limpy" which Limpy won.  At least he managed to get a good feed because by the next day, much of the carcass had gone.


The week sped past.  I found it very cold at night, and it was strange to think of narwhal and seals swimming beneath where we lay.  During the day we generally had fair, if cloudy weather, although the first and last afternoons were very sunny, which included our long ride back to Pond Inlet.  We stopped again at the Thule settlement and this time we found a snow bunting's nest.  Shortly afterwards, we stopped at a gyr falcon's nest and were thrilled to see both male and female flying around.  It was clear that there were not yet any eggs as neither bird was on the nest, but a pair of snow geese flew past and the male gyr falcon immediately went on the attack to drive them away, not that they appeared to be trying to cause any problems!  What beautiful birds, and so rarely-seen.  It was one of the highlights of a wonderful trip.


The trip seemed to be over almost before it had started.  It left me with more fantastic memories of a very special region of the world.  I hope you enjoy the photographs:


]]> (Alex In The Wild) Arctic Arctic fox Baffin Island Brünnich's Guillemot Canada Inuit Nunavut Pond Inlet Thayer's gull bear bearded seal black guillemot camp duck eider duck glaucous gull guillemot gull gyr falcon hunter iceberg ivory gull king eider kittiwake lemming long-tailed duck narwhal polar bear qamutik ringed seal ruddy turnstone seal snow bunting snow goose tent thick-billed murre tooth tusk Wed, 18 Jun 2014 22:20:23 GMT
Narwhals A couple of years ago, a friend visited around the time of my birthday and proffered a surprise present.  It was a picture of a narwhal and a poem which she'd carefully ink-drawn for me using different sources from the internet (see below).  To say I was touched is an understatement, particularly as Angela isn't a friend I met through my remote travels, although we have travelled fairly extensively around Scotland.  We met through another of my hobbies and learned that we were the same age and had studied concurrently at Aberdeen University, but hadn't known each other until much later.  

As can be seen by the picture, her degree was in Zoology, a subject which requires careful illustrations.  As drawing is a skill which has completely passed me by, I am in awe of those who can do so at all, let alone such a beautiful picture as this.


I recently asked Angela whether she would mind if I scanned the picture to put on this website and I think she was a little surprised, but acquiesced. The reason for this is that this summer, I shall finally be completing the circle of Arctic countries in a visit to the Canadian Arctic, having worked almost widdershins (Svalbard - Norway, Eastern Greenland, Russia, Alaska and now Canada).  As a country, I have a lot of Canada to explore - doesn't everyone, given how huge it is? - and it is certainly a country which has always drawn me, given my father grew up there.  Add to that the potential of seeing this most elusive of sea-creatures and completing the circle and it wasn't hard to make the decision.  Harder was working out the logistics.  


However, thanks to Jonneke at Beluga Adventures (yes, I hope we might be lucky to see those too), the logistics have been smoothed out insofar as one can plan.  And in due course, I shall be heading over there.


Last year, I attended a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival given by the renowned BBC cameraman Doug Allan.  His wildlife CV has to be pages long and much of the footage has been taken underwater.  When questioned what would he most like to photograph which he hadn't yet achieved, he replied that he would love to see male narwhal fighting with their tusks (the tusk is really a huge long tooth).  I don't anticipate being in the water, but even to observe them from the ice floe would be a thrill for me, not to mention camping in polar bear territory - a departure from viewing them from a ship or an old school bus!

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Arctic Canada bear ice ice floe narwhal polar bear tooth tusk Sun, 27 Apr 2014 20:13:28 GMT
The loss of a photographer, teacher and good friend It was at the end of last week that I received terrible news.  A friend, photographer and fellow traveller Dave Bradshaw had died just before the end of 2013.  In our lives people come, people go, but it is a measure of the nature of expedition travel that some leave a lasting impression.  Dave was one such person.


This website was created after my travels to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica exactly 4 years ago, so there is not a blog to chronicle those adventures.  We travelled on a small Russian ex-research ship, the Professor Molchanov, which carried 49 passengers and 19 crew.  I had deliberately sought to sail on her as it was the last available trip I could get on before she was decommissioned and for me, the smaller the ship, the better (for various reasons).  Dave was the only other British passenger on board and with two small dining room areas, we soon linked in with the Dutch half of the travellers.  The Dutch were very much on our wavelength and adopted us as "honorary Dutch".  With the loss of his wife a couple of years previously, Dave had decided to fulfil their joint dream of seeing penguins in the wild; he never saw the emperor penguins which had particularly appealed to them both, but he was able to enjoy seeing rockhopper, magellanic, king, macaroni, gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and one juvenile Adelie.


To travel in such proximity for 3 weeks forges friendships amongst those who wish to do so and following these not inconsiderable adventures, Dave and I kept in touch, and were invited to the Netherlands for a screen showing of one of the Dutch photographers' pictures of the trip, commissioned by the Dutch travel company, Beluga.


As a natural progression therefore, when arranging to visit Russia in the summer of 2011 with my cabin mate from the Antarctic trip, Simone, I suggested that we invited Dave along too.  He readily accepted and the trip is recorded in a different blog ("The Russian Arctic").  Simone, alas, was unable to join us at the last minute, but Dave and I took on the adventure, and it was he who took me to photograph Red Square at night

and who joined me with three others in becoming the first ever tourists to make the overland trip across Wrangel Island.  As mentioned in the article, it was certainly very basic and a genuine adventure.

On the day in which we witnessed the swimming polar bear, my zodiac came within 10 metres of the bear, or rather the bear swam to within 10 metres of our zodiac as we had the engine off.  For me that was an incredible thrill, but Dave found himself in the even more privileged position of being in a zodiac only 5 metres away.  

It was on the return trip via Moscow Airport where we overnighted prior to a 5am flight back to the UK that Dave checked his e-mails and saw the opportunity of visiting Alaska to photograph Northern Lights and polar bears, something he grasped with both hands.  He repeated the experience a year later on the slightly later October trip and took many shots, two of which have been short-listed for this year's Scottish Seabird Centre Photographic competition.  It was due to his connections with Alaska that I made my two trips there in 2012 and 2013.


An adventurer then.  But Dave was so much more than that.  He was a Nikon man (I use Canon), but it didn't stop us comparing endless notes about how to get the best out of our equipment.  Dave's training was as an engineer and he was full of ideas, many of which I found fascinating, but beyond my technical competence.  Although I had undertaken a little bit of astrophotography, it was Dave who encouraged me to experiment further and who was at the end of the phone even when I was struggling with settings out in the dark.  I was even able to communicate with him by text when enquiring about a specific Nikon problem for a fellow traveller from the furthest reaches of Alaska in September.  Naturally there have been other friends from whom I have learned over the years, but I knew that when I sought Dave's advice on one of the many Skype chats we had, he would be honest, inventive and supportive.  It was he who helped me change to this website last year.  I owe him a heap of thanks.


Judging by the responses I've had from mutual friends since the news broke, Dave touched a lot of lives.  He is already very much-missed.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Mon, 13 Jan 2014 19:33:54 GMT
Murmuration of Starlings Like the puffins, the wintertime murmuration of starlings is one of nature's must-sees.  It wasn't until a couple of days ago that I realised the word "murmuration" existed - it is the description of many thousands of starlings which flock together to weave in undulating clouds at dusk before settling to roost.  I had never seen the spectacle for myself until yesterday and it was by chance that I read a report of murmuration occurring near the Solway Firth in the south-west of Scotland.  

A friend and I drove down and arrived just as the starlings were gathering on nearby pylons and telegraph wires.  There were so many that the wires were laden with the sheer number of them all.  The air was full of their chatter as more and more sub-flocks arrived and as we took up our position, they started to fly off into the bigger cloud.  Unfortunately, there was no particular sunset to speak of, so the images are rather monochrome in the fading light which is a pity, given the beautiful iridescent plumage starlings have.  Despite that, I rather like the effect in the images on the pylon, and the lack of colour doesn't distract from the main objective - seeing this vast cloud of birds swooping hither and thither like shoals of fish.  In one of the videos, it is possible to see one of two buzzards flying off to the left.  It wasn't apparent whether it had managed to grab itself a meal.

My friend, who is a keen birder, stated that he couldn't begin to estimate the number of birds in the murmuration.  We had to marvel though that they all managed to tuck themselves into the bushes below with apparent ease after a few minutes.  I hope it's not the last time I witness such a spectacle.  It was a mesmerising murmuration:

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Fri, 29 Nov 2013 01:28:15 GMT
Back to Alaska Although there is no particular pattern to where I travel, I haven’t generally revisited locations I’ve been before, not because they don’t necessarily appeal but because there’s still a whole lot of places that are still calling me.  This particular trip, however, was booked before I made the last-minute visit to Alaska in June 2012.  In many ways, it meant I knew the drill – the distance involved both to Alaska and up and down the Dalton Highway (approximately 500 miles from Fairbanks to the top… then back again), our leader, Hugh, what was involved in terms of accommodation, flight allowances, etc..  What I hadn’t experienced though was an Arctic “Fall”, or “Autumn” as I know it (apologies to my US friends).  The Arctic summer contains great changes in temperature – I’ve experienced 24C, but also -4C – so have known to take suitable clothing for both.  Likewise Antarctica.  In fairness, the temperatures in the UK at some points of the summer can be colder than the Arctic or Antarctic, although there have been few complaints about this particular summer which has been one of the finest in years.


After a quick detour to Vancouver Island to stay with cousins and a visit to Seattle, I flew up to Fairbanks and from there I joined a group of six driven by Hugh up to Prudhoe Bay and beyond.  The two key objectives of the trip were to photograph the Northern Lights and polar bears.  There were a couple of modest nights of the aurora in Fairbanks and a better night in Wiseman, but by and large we had a lot of cloud cover which actually afforded good photography conditions during the daytime, but little of excitement at night.

Aurora Borealis11, Wiseman - 14.9.13Aurora Borealis11, Wiseman - 14.9.13

Of particular interest of course were the polar bears.  We flew to a native village where the bears gather in anticipation of the freezing of the sea ice and feast on whale bones discarded by the local Inupiat.  They have an annual quota of three whales, and there is a very delicate symbiosis where man respects bear and vice versa.  These particular bears were consequently in great condition, but they still showed curiosity, so we had to be careful to dissuade them from getting too close to us.  Nevertheless, it was clear that they were wandering the village overnight as was evidenced by the dogs barking and large pawprints found on walls and snow outside the buildings.  Part of me hoped to find a furry face at the window, but in reality, I was quite glad not to put my adrenaline through such a workout.  

Rolling bear - 17.9.13Rolling bear - 17.9.13

Although I don't believe the bears are generally given names, one of three mothers with cubs we saw generated particular interest.  She had broken her leg last year and those observing her thought her days would be numbered.  She went on to prove everyone wrong and had two very healthy "cubs of the year" at heel... apart from those times where their natural curiosity was piqued and like any youngsters, they'd be off to explore the world around them, never venturing far away.  It would take just one small growl from Gimpy and they'd be back by her side again.  She and the other two mothers were remarkably attentive - the key to survival in a world where cubs are particularly vulnerable to a hungry adult male bear.

Rough-legged Hawk - 18.9.13Rough-legged Hawk - 18.9.13

The other fauna along the Dalton Highway was much the same as in the summer, but with a much-changed terrain and light, with the first flurries of snow.  Predictably, there were fewer birds as most of the migrants had left.  We had a number of sightings of rough-legged hawks who were starting to head south.  A few snow buntings were up at Prudhoe Bay, as were Pacific and Common Loons, long-tailed ducks, scaup, white-fronted and Canada geese, and tundra swans.  We saw spruce and sharp-tailed grouse and grey jays, plus of course lots of gulls - mainly glaucous.  Of the mammals, we saw a small herd of musk oxen with calves, a red fox (which is apparently the 6th-fastest mammal in the world, and this one showed us a fine turn of paw), caribou, one very distant grizzly bear, red squirrels, ground squirrels and a rather misshapen female moose (it wasn't the right time of year for her to look so fat, or pregnant).  Alas no Arctic foxes, lynx, wolves or large bull moose. 

Reflections near the Dalton Highway - 19.9.13Reflections near the Dalton Highway - 19.9.13

What we missed in animal sightings we gained in colours.  We generally get a good array of autumnal colours in the UK, but not to the scale or diversity of this part of the world, and my travels aren't usually made so late in the year.  Sweeping landscapes of trees with hints of change on our way north turned into palettes of colours by the time we returned a few days later.  One of those on the trip has commented on the possibility that I might have used the saturation feature in Lightroom when editing my pictures.  In fact, I barely touched it - the colours were naturally as vibrant as they appear in the pictures.

Autumnal Colours, Dalton Highway7 - 20.9.13Autumnal Colours, Dalton Highway7 - 20.9.13

It was a good trip; a good gang and a lot learned in observation - that of behaviour patterns, both human and animal - and photographically.  Always learning...

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Alaska Dalton Highway Fairbanks Inupiat Prudhoe Bay autumn bear bird colour polar bear snow tree Wed, 16 Oct 2013 23:20:57 GMT
"Empire Antarctica. Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins" by Gavin Francis It's that time of year again in which the good citizens of Edinburgh either shut up shop and evacuate their city for a month or head out and absorb the intoxicating abundance of culture which is on their doorstep.  In truth, I haven't attended anything other than several International Book Festival talks.  To my mind, there is something calming and absorbing about even being amongst books which enables me to shut out the crowd and get lost within their pages and one such which promises to allow me to do just that is the book above by Gavin Francis.


Gavin is a doctor who a few years ago undertook the rigorous process firstly of getting selected and then undertaking fourteen months' work for the British Antarctic Survey at the Halley Base in Antarctica.  This of course included overwintering which has to be for people of a certain tenacity and durability.  Unlike John Harrison's book, I haven't yet had time to read this one, but if it is written as eloquently as he speaks, then I'm in for a treat.


Is this a plug?  Of sorts, I suppose, not that I have any connection with Dr Francis other than his living and working in this beautiful city of ours.  Oh, and having visited The White Continent, although his experience far outweighs mine.  I did though learn that taking photographs at -50C was not so easy with a digital camera due to freezing batteries, etc., so he had the foresight to take with him an old film camera.  I doubt that I'll ever have the requirement for equipment working at such low temperatures, but shall bear it in mind if ever I do.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Wed, 21 Aug 2013 23:10:07 GMT
A return to the Isle of May Following from my first trip to the Isle of May where our puffin viewing had been rather limited, and the much more successful trip to the Farne Islands, I still hadn't seen the iconic vision of puffins - that of their bills full of sand eels.  An ornithologist friend who has been ringing seabirds on various islands in the Firth of Forth reported to me that I'd only have a short spell to return this year before the pufflings fledged, and where there are pufflings, there are parents with sand eels in bills.  The pufflings themselves were unlikely to be visible as they keep in burrows until they are ready to fledge, and in an attempt to dodge the gull sentinels, usually fledge under cover of darkness.  Jane was unable to join me on this occasion, but with a check of the tide times, I set off last Friday morning.

"Miracle" near The Isle of May"Miracle" near The Isle of MayA lovely morning to be out sailing.

The boat sailed at 9.30am from Anstruther, and the weather promised to be yet another hot one even at that hour.  I learned in New Zealand that if attempting to photograph still water,  it is better to do so first thing in the morning before any wind gets up.  And so it proved as we sailed East on a millpond-flat sea, only disrupted by the East Coast's brand new RNLI lifeboat which came to spin around us.  Only a few miles to the south of us, those at The Open (golf) at Muirfield were experiencing calm early conditions with a bit more wind later on.  

Swimming Atlantic Puffin near the Isle of MaySwimming Atlantic Puffin near the Isle of May

It was already very hot on the island when we landed and where before we had had an easy walk up towards the cliffs, we now had to do some dodging from dive-bombing Arctic terns.  They hadn't been there at all when we visited before, but there were little balls of fluff on red legs and the promise of their parents' sharp beaks as the chicks ventured round looking far from ready to fledge, and having brought my monopod on this occasion, I extended it above my head as I had with the tripod on the Farne Islands - again avoiding attack.  

Arctic Tern on the Isle of MayArctic Tern on the Isle of May

Three other differences this time were that there wasn't a rabbit to be seen, I only noticed one female eider duck and I didn't see any swallows either.  The rabbits may well have been taking shelter in their burrows.  The chief ranger informed me that sadly some of them have myxomatosis.  Another contrast was that where before we had seen empty greenery around the burrows and bare cliff tops, now there were masses of adult puffins, some with sand eels and some without.  Overhead, they zipped round, sometimes circling, sometimes landing, and rarely going straight to the burrows because of the gulls waiting to mob them. 

Atlantic Puffin with sand eels, Isle of MayAtlantic Puffin with sand eels, Isle of May

Walking East towards the white lighthouse, the lesser black backed gulls had plenty of chicks and where there are chicks, there has to be food.  The black backed gulls are great scavengers, and that includes both sand eels and pufflings if they get a chance.  Despite seeing a couple of aerial mobbings, I was relieved not to witness an attack on a puffling.  Most of the other seabirds' chicks had fledged, although we saw a couple of large shag chicks struggling to keep cool in the heat, a razorbill chick and a couple of kittiwake chicks.  Since returning from the trip, I have read that kittiwake numbers are down by as much as 87% this year so I hope these chicks thrive to boost the numbers again.  I returned to the boat through carpets of sea campion and scentless mayweed, and past the dive-bombing Arctic terns, although by this time they were dive-bombing each other.

Scentless Mayweed, Isle of MayScentless Mayweed, Isle of MayWell-named!

I had thought that we would be taken straight back to the mainland as we had been on the previous trip, but instead, the boat circled clockwise round the island, pausing for us to see the last of the common guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes who still had unfledged chicks.  In the sea we saw a few grey seals swimming around the boat, and further along, razorbills diving beneath the surface to dart around in the crystal clear water like torpedoes.  Groups of gannets flew past and puffins bobbed along on the water.  In such hot conditions, the sea seemed like a good option for those whose parenting jobs had been completed.

Seacliffs on the south side of the Isle of MaySeacliffs on the south side of the Isle of May

One question lingered from this trip.  An elderly man had sat next to me on the outward journey and gave me an in-depth explanation of his equipment (Nikon).  During this time, whilst watching me attaching polarizing filters to my lenses, he remarked that he keeps them on his lenses all the time.  When I queried whether he meant UV filters, he asserted that they were polarizing filters.  I would be intrigued to see his photographs, and particularly those taken in dull conditions.  An article I have subsequently read puts forward good arguments, so I might experiment.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Arctic tern Eider duck chick gannet great black backed gull gull kittiwake lesser black backed gull puffin puffling rabbit razorbill scentless mayweed sea campion seabird seal shag swallow Wed, 24 Jul 2013 11:50:34 GMT
Many Many Puffins! Jane and I had been a little disappointed only to get one puffin subject willing enough to show himself close up on the Isle of May last month, so we hatched a plan to visit the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland.  Another friend Lindsay and I had hoped to meet up there to watch seals pupping back in 2010, but with one thing and another it didn't happen, although that plan hasn't been altogether shelved.


This is the wrong month for seal pupping though, and with cautious glances at the weather forecast, we arranged to take Friday off, booked ahead for the 6-hour photographers' trip and made an early start down to Seahouses, arriving with about an hour to spare prior to the 9.30am sailing.  As we wandered around the harbour, a large number of people also gathered, many in two photographer-led groups.  There were so many people that two boats arrived to take us over firstly to Staple Island in the Outer Farne Islands, and then Inner Farne predictably enough in the Inner Farne Islands.  It was hazy with the promise of sun, and perfectly warm.

Nesting Common Guillemots, Staple IslandNesting Common Guillemots, Staple Island

Prior to the first landing, saw a few gannets fly past and had plenty of opportunity to see other seabirds on outcrops of rocks and in the water - cormorants, guillemots, puffins, razorbills, eider ducks, etc.  We also passed rocks where grey seals were making the most of the low tide to bask; as the tide rises, some of the rocks are covered.  

Common Seal, Staple IslandCommon Seal, Staple Island

Landing on Staple Island, we were immediately surrounded by birds.  The National Trust staff greeted us and we informed that just one puffin had been spotted carrying sand eels in its bill, meaning a puffling had hatched - early compared with the other chicks this year, but very late in general terms, thanks to the late spring.  We were given 2 and a half hours in which to wander around which was just about the right timescale.  Everyone was of like mind and tripods attached to people were soon wandering around, then congregating by the puffin burrows.  In contrast to our solitary Isle of May puffin, there were countless hundreds of them here, although the guillemots must surely have been the most plentiful species.  The sun came out and I debated whether to put on the polarizer filters, but in the event kept them off all day.  Alas, having bought my tripod to use with the big 400mm and 28-300mm lenses, I didn't have the right screw fitting on the gimbal head, so all the shots are unpolarized and handheld.

Atlantic Puffins, Staple IslandAtlantic Puffins, Staple Island

Because it was dry, it was easy to walk around over the rocks which form the main plateau of Staple Island.  The nests were roped off, although the human visitors could stand within close proximity of the birds who appear to be used to the added crowds.  The aforementioned guillemots, razorbills and puffins were easy to spot; with them were shags, herring gulls, kittiwakes, a pair of rock pipits, fulmars and even a couple of pigeons.  As the island is small, it didn't take long to wander round, although I ended up trying to capture puffins on the wing - their orange feet and pre-landing hover are so endearing.  Easier said than done, but I did get one or two shots.

Looking to the Northumberland Coast from Staple IslandLooking to the Northumberland Coast from Staple Island

On then to Inner Farne, former home to both St Cuthbert and much later, Grace Darling.  We had been warned to bring hats as this is where the Arctic terns nest, and they nest right beside the path.  They were naturally very upset at being disturbed by so many visitors and repeatedly attacked everyone.  My New Zealand "squashy" hat was ideal in this respect as although I had one or two aerial attacks from the feet, it easily protected me, and I was lucky to escape both splats and pecks on the arm, which many others seemed to receive.  Having decided not to bring my leki poles in favour of the as-yet-unused tripod due to weight restrictions, I took the cue from another visitor and inverted it outside my rucksack which enabled me to extend one of the legs like a large antenna behind me.  It worked perfectly!  Apparently they are twice as aggressive when the chicks hatch, but I don't blame them.

Attacking Arctic Tern, Inner FarneAttacking Arctic Tern, Inner Farne

In addition to the other birds we'd seen on Staple Island, here there were also common terns, sandwich terns, black-headed gulls, apparently a pair of roseate terns (unseen by me) and a swallow which I did see.  It had a mate, but I only saw the one.  Towards the end of the visit, someone had spotted a puffin in trouble by a little pond on which there were eider ducks and their chicks.  The ranger caught it, whereupon it understandably bit its hand.  He felt it might have been stung by all the nettles which had affected it, but it was time to go at this point, so we left it in capable hands.

Atlantic Puffin biting a ranger's handAtlantic Puffin biting a ranger's handIt didn't take too long for the ranger to catch it, and he got thanked for his efforts by a sharp bite to the hand.

On waiting at the harbour for the boats, two final visitors awaited us - a sleepy 3-4 year old male grey seal, and a ringed plover.

Common Seal, Inner FarneCommon Seal, Inner Farne

Time to leave those Arctic terns in peace.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Sun, 09 Jun 2013 23:03:08 GMT
Puffins! You know those vague ideas you keep on a dusty shelf at the back of your brain - "I must do such-and-such some day"?  And the years go past and that shelf gets ever-dustier.  I decided a few years ago to turn some of those "I musts" to "Let's dos" and whilst the old barriers of time, money and opportunity threaten to raise their heads, every now and then I manage to break down some of those barriers.  


Last Friday presented me with two of those opportunities. 


It was only within the last 10 years (i.e., after birds became more of an entity in my life than flying feathers which went "tweet", thanks to New Zealand's birds opening my eyes to some of the many variations) that I realised that puffins nested within about 3 miles of where I live in Edinburgh.  I don't know anyone who doesn't love puffins.  There's something tragi-comical about that clownish face with that soulful eye and all that variation of colour in the bill, which is only present in the breeding season - for the rest of the time, they're out at sea with much more muted colouring.  And of course 3 miles is as the puffin might fly were it a land and sea-loving bird.  In order to get close to them in this part of Scotland, however, boats must be involved.

The Isle of May, Firth of ForthThe Isle of May, Firth of ForthApproaching from the North West

I did take a trip on the "Maid of the Forth" from South Queensferry about 8 years ago, but we weren't able to land on any of the islands on which puffins breed.  They flew past at a great rate of knots, considering how relatively small their little wings are for their body size.  The same thing happened in Iceland, and until last week, the closest I came to seeing puffins in the wild was from a zodiac in Russia and a small boat in Alaska.  But the puffins there are the other two different from "our" Atlantic Puffin - the horned and tufted Puffins.


It was in a conversation with one of my "clicky chick" friends, Jane last week that the suggestion of the Isle of May cropped up.  A small group of classmates from our Photography days at Stevenson College still meet up every now and then, and there has been the intent to go out and take photographs together at some point.  So there was the first "I must" which Jane was turning into a "Let's do" for me, and the second was in her suggestion of going to the Isle of May.  We were mulling over the possibilities and as it's nesting season at present, it was something that crossed my mind, but Jane had already visited a few times, so knew the drill.  We decided we'd work on Plan B if the weather was against us, but Friday dawned bright and sunny, so off we went round to Anstruther in Fife, from where we could get a boat to the Isle of May.  (It is possible to take one from North Berwick, but it involves quite a bit more sailing time.)

Nesting Shags, Isle of MayNesting Shags, Isle of May

There was a strong Westerly wind creating quite a swell, so although we enjoyed seeing gannets flying around offshore and rafts of puffins and eider ducks bobbing on the water, we were glad to land and quickly made our way up to the East side of the island.  What I had failed to factor in was the cliffs.  I get vertigo!  Never mind - there was plenty to look at.  Shags, kittiwakes and common guillemots aplenty, plus great and lesser black-backed gulls.  Lots of rabbits.  Lots and lots of burrows, but no puffins.  So we turned our attention to the cliffs and started to photograph.  Just before we moved on, I spotted one puffin flying off behind us, and that was that.

Razorbill, Isle of MayRazorbill, Isle of May

We moved round clockwise and I was thrilled to see nesting razorbills, birds which like puffins, I've seen on the wing or from afar, but never close up.  Far below on the rocks, we spotted 4-5 grey seals basking in the sun, which didn't last for much longer.  We moved on and passed a bay in which a large group of male eider ducks were mobbing a couple of females - most of the females were already up on nests - and a couple of CCTV cameras  which form a live-stream back to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.  Shortly after we moved out of CCTV range, I glanced behind me and there was a puffin on a cliff edge!  I called Jane and we spent the next five minutes photographing it - as it turned out, our only decent opportunity of the afternoon.

Atlantic Puffin, Isle of MayAtlantic Puffin, Isle of May

There wasn't much more time thereafter to complete our circuit of the island by which time the rain was starting to fall, and we managed to see 4-5 puffins speeding to or from their burrows, just too fast to catch any movement.  We couldn't blame them - the burrows were surrounded by sentinel lesser black-backed gulls just waiting for the slightest opportunity of a free meal.  

Eider Drake, Isle of MayEider Drake, Isle of May

The harbour is only accessible at high tide, so all too soon we had to leave again.  Had the trip been exclusively about the puffins, I'd have been rather disappointed, but we were afforded excellent opportunities to view an array of birds, and not just seabirds.  There were also rock pipits and swallows to catch the eye.  We were told it was a "bad puffin day", so perhaps I'll have to look back at that dusty shelf and turn that "I must" into another "Let's do" at some point...


]]> (Alex In The Wild) Atlantic puffin Firth of Forth Isle of May common guillemot duck eider duck great black-backed gull grey seal gull horned puffin island kittiwake lesser black-backed gull nest puffin rabbit razorbill rock pipit seabird seal shag swallow tufted puffin Sun, 12 May 2013 22:37:17 GMT
The Great Bear Stakeout Last year when I was in Alaska, our group coincided with the BBC who were filming in Katmai National Park in the south west of the state.  We were there to watch the Alaskan brown (aka grizzly) bears catching salmon as they returned from the sea.  It was a little early for us, but the BBC were there for several weeks and the results are being shown tomorrow on BBC1 at 9pm.


I'm not sure whether it's a one-off programme, or whether it will be the first in a series, but if you're in the UK and able to tune in, it should make for great viewing.  


You can see my stills of the same location in my "Alaska 2012" folder:



]]> (Alex In The Wild) Alaska Alaskan Brooks Falls Great Bear Stakeout Katmai Katmai National Park bear grizzly salmon Tue, 23 Apr 2013 21:36:23 GMT
Photographing the Night Sky Like most people, the majority of my photography takes part in daylight hours, be that in the stark sunlight in the middle of the day, at dawn or at dusk.  For me, light is probably more important than structure or composition, although they of course combine to make the good shot.  I love reflections and the variations that light affords.  And after all, photo means light in Greek!


Probably like most people, my experience of night photography is limited.  It requires a good understanding of the scope of the camera, invariably a tripod and if the photographer has any sense, a cable release to prevent camera shake which is so unforgiving with a slow shutter speed.  During my training at Stevenson College, we were in and out of the darkroom as we learned to open film rolls in pitch black, and later, to print the developed films.  All good practice for fumbling with equipment in the dark.


I have been privileged to see the Northern Lights, three times in one week in 1988, appropriately enough in Old Aberdeen before photography played such a large part in my life, and again in 2010 as we left Eastern Greenland.  They weren't as vibrant as those in Aberdeen, but I did have a camera to hand, albeit without a tripod or cable release, and we were on a ship in calm waters.  Ships and long exposures don't mix, so I fired the ISO up to 6400 and shot at 1 second exposures.  On the viewfinder, everything looked wonderful, but it's always on the computer back home where the flaws present themselves.  Although the shots quite clearly show the green swirls of the Aurora Borealis, they are a little too blurred to post on here.  I did though learn that when you look out of a porthole at 1am and see white clouds in an otherwise clear sky, taking a photograph of them can turn them into green Aurora Borealis!


2012 was supposed to be a great year for the Aurora and I signed up to the website run by the University of Lancaster which e-mails red or amber warnings of anticipated Aurora activity.  Alas, every single time I received one of these, the Aurora was busy showing itself anywhere except cloud-covered Edinburgh.  In fairness, their anticipation related more to Northern Scotland, but it still wasn't happening in my area.  2013 is also supposed to be having good Aurora sightings.  I would be delighted to step out of my front door and find them not so far from the big smoke, but I am also planning to raise my chances of seeing and photographing them on another tour in Alaska later this year.


In order to make best use of my time over there, I have been out a few times with a friend who has a telescope and knows much more about astronomy than me, and his knowledge about what stars are where certainly enhances the experience.  We have located a great spot in East Lothian with minimal light pollution and whilst he sets about getting his telescope to track planets such as Jupiter and Saturn which have both been visible in the skies lately, I've been experimenting with different settings to learn more about my camera's capabilities at night.

I've posted seven new pictures here:  All were taken with a Canon 7D and a 24 mm prime lens - one of my favourites.  The first three are all taken at ISO 400, f2.8 for 30 seconds; the fourth is the same but for 15 seconds, and the last three are taken at ISO 6400, with the first at f3.5 and 15 seconds and the last two at f4 and 30 seconds.  The third and fourth pictures have Jupiter showing just above the horizon in the middle of each picture; the fifth and sixth are taken in the opposite direction over the Lammermuir Hills where Saturn is rising - it is the bright "star" just centre left of the picture, and in the final picture, there is a satellite passing over, showing as a streak in the top left of the image.  All shots were taken between 1am and 2am in the clearest sky possible with no moon and -3C in temperature.  Once I'd finished my photography, I got a rug from the car and lay on the ground with a beanbag under my head and just watched the sky whilst my friend continued working with the telescope; I saw the International Space Station pass by, Andromeda, a comet and even the Milky Way.  Sometimes it's good just to put down the camera and absorb the surroundings without a viewfinder.

If one can get clear of the light pollution, the time and patience put into night photography is definitely worth the effort.  I continue to learn.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Andromeda Aurora Aurora Borealis East Lothian Jupiter Milky Way Saturn exposure light pollution moon night planet sky star telescope Tue, 09 Apr 2013 23:28:56 GMT
Forgotten Footprints  

Originally submitted on Mon, 05/11/2012 - 23:22

I didn't set out to use this website for advertising, but it's my website, so why not?


A shameless plug, therefore, for the above-titled book by the leader of our trip to the Scottish Islands in May.


Little Tiger wrote one of the reviews:  I wonder who that could be...!

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:36:33 GMT
From East To Even Further West  

Originally submitted on Mon, 09/07/2012 - 01:47


It's not normally my habit to juxtapose my holidays by a small number of weeks, and it wasn't in the plans this year either.  Just before I visited the Scottish Islands, however, I received an e-mail from Alaska-based photographer Hugh Rose who runs small photographic trips all over the state; small in number of clients, not mileage of course.  A couple of last-minute vacancies had come up on a trip around Alaska in June/July.  


"It's a long way away, and I'm already provisionally booked for 2013", thought I. 


But then I read about the trip.  Spread over four diverse regions of Alaska, from North to South over nearly 3 weeks' duration, it promised so much by way of geography, geology, bird and mammal sightings.  Any mention of the Arctic makes me prick up my ears, and this was also scheduled to take us into Denali National Park, to the coastal waters of Prince William Sound and to Katmai National Park, where the greatest concentration in the world of Alaskan Brown Bears, aka Grizzlies, was to be found.  Of all the bears I've been lucky enough to encounter, I've never seen a grizzly, let alone a bunch of them catching salmon.  And strangely enough, my first Arctic trip to Spitsbergen in 2008 was supposed to be a visit to the West Coast of Canada to watch grizzlies catching salmon, only it wasn't compatible with work, so Svalbard beckoned instead.


It didn't take long for me to make up my mind and after a maelstrom of whirring paperwork back and forth through the ether, I packed my bags and camera equipment and set off to the other side of the world again, longitude-wise.  In fact, it wasn't that many miles from last year's unexpected destination, Chukotka, just the other side of the International Dateline/Bering Sea, more easily accessible, in a language I could understand, and with no more visa requirements than the ESTA necessary to enter the USA.


Anchorage in the summer is a bustling city.  The population of just under 300,000 swells to accommodate people like me who want to make sure of the long daylight hours in the short summer season and who use the city as a gateway to adventures in all directions.  Thus it became a bit of a hub to which we returned between most of the sections of the trip.  From there, we flew up to Prudhoe Bay (or Deadhorse) at the top of the Dalton Highway and a strong-armed stone's throw from the Arctic Ocean which gleamed at the plane as we came in to land.  It is a busy place with some 600 oil workers and it also marks the start of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline which parallels the Dalton Highway for the full 500 miles down to Fairbanks and further down to Valdez on the southern coast.

FEMALE RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, PRUDHOE BAYFEMALE RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, PRUDHOE BAYThere were many of these wonderfully-engaging little waders in various ponds around the area. Their courting displays involved lots of spinning around in the water like little brightly-coloured tops.

Prudhoe Bay also calls itself summer home to thousands of avian migrants and these were our primary interest.  Having met at the airport, Hugh took us to drop our bags at the hotel and out we went into that glorious evening light of the Arctic summer which I have come to know and love.  So absorbed were we by the wildlife that it wasn't until 2.30am that we retired to bed - in full daylight of course!


The drive down the Dalton Highway is a whole adventure in itself.  The road is predominantly unsealed and punctuated by large trucks which bear down on smaller vehicles with the mandatory headlights and pursuant dust clouds.  If we found ourselves on the roadside during such encounters, we had to be careful to cover up camera equipment for several minutes as trucks and uncovered cameras do not mix, however beautiful the carpets of alpine flowers were.  The desert conditions of the Arctic tundra gave way to boreal forest as the latitude dropped and we crossed the Arctic Circle.  This was my 4th crossing (both ways), each in a different country; Canada is the final missing link, but that's for another time...


From Fairbanks, we moved into the taiga terrain of Denali National Park, home to the Alaskan Mountain Range and the tallest mountain in the USA - Denali or Mount McKinley.  Part of the trip incorporated a flight-seeing visit to this magnificent mountain rising some 18,000 feet from the valley floor to its southern peak of 20,320 feet (there are two peaks and the northern one was the first to be ascended, but three miles south lies the higher peak).  Denali spends much of the year curtained in cloud, so we were delighted to burst through it to see the top 12,000 feet bathed in a soft evening light.  Furthermore, it decided to reveal itself from three great viewpoints on our trip out of the park down to Anchorage again two days later.


Mammals and birds became more elusive away from the Arctic regions although that didn't stop us gaining a nearby glimpse of a wolf, an eagle's eyrie adopted by a gyr falcon feeding its three healthy chicks, pika as we'd seen in Chukotka only with darker bodies and longer heads, moose and three individual grizzly sows each with 2 spring cubs.  One sow almost lost her babies to a boar she didn't notice until he was nearly within touch; we saw the drama unfold as she harried them ahead of her up over the hillside whilst he gave pursuit by nose rather than vision.

GRIZZLY SOW WITH SPRING CUBS, DENALI NATIONAL PARKGRIZZLY SOW WITH SPRING CUBS, DENALI NATIONAL PARKA stationary vehicle in the park usually denotes some level of wildlife activity and thus it was we drew up close to a bus, little realising that a scene of drama was unfolding right in front of us. A grizzly sow and her two spring cubs were resting on a large patch of snow, completely oblivious to the arrival of a young boar which arrived just as we did. With only about 100 metres between them, the mother belatedly noticed his presence, gathered her cubs and harried them up the hill ahead of her. Meanwhile, with keener smell than eyesight, the boar decided to sniff around where the family had lain rather than following his eyes to where they were escaping up the hill. This may have saved the lives of the cubs as had he caught them, they would have undoubtedly been killed in order to bring the sow back into season. A week or so later, I met some people who had visited the park more recently and they advised that they had seen all three of the sows with twin spring cubs who frequent the roadside areas of the park, which would imply that the sow and cubs survived the experience.

We boarded the MV Discovery at Whittier in Prince William Sound and spent the next 4 nights cruising around the various inlets, firstly visiting glaciers accompanied by sea otters and harbour seals bobbing on little icebergs or on their backs in glorious sunlight akin to Svalbard, and subsequently in moody broody low-lying cloud conditions which conveyed the hauntingly beautiful rainforest atmosphere of these special fiords.  From Dall's porpoises, which swam around the bow of the boat to humpback whales which were feeding around us to bald eagles which flew past to alight on spruce trees, there was something to suit everyone's tastes.  We even visited the cousins of my Antarctic arch-nemesis, the Antarctic Fur Seals - the endangered Steller's Sea Lions.


Back to Anchorage and the final trip involved a main flight down to King Salmon - named for its industry in packaging the product for export - onto a seaplane down to Brooks Lodge in the volcanic region of Katmai National Park.  This is grizzly heaven and whilst it was a little on the early side for the salmon, both they and grizzlies were in evidence on a semi-permanent basis.  July is the peak season for viewing, but we had fun walking along the tracks where bear scat was oft in evidence.  Although we'd graduated from "Bear School" on arrival, no-one particularly wanted to make a close encounter, so vigilance and noise were important.  It was fun to discover that the BBC was setting up cameras to film this last part of the salmon migration; it may be quite some time before "The Great Bear Stake-out" reaches our screens, but I hope that they manage to get plenty of shots which I didn't - that of a bear actually catching a salmon...


Did we achieve all that was promised in the information?  Have a look at the pictures.  Although we didn't tick every single box, we made a huge number of sightings thanks to our excellent guide Hugh who knew the very best places to take us and vantage points from which to seek and photograph our subjects.  A massive Thank You, Hugh. 


And I got to the end without once mentioning the mosquitoes!

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:33:54 GMT
From East to West  

Originally submitted on Fri, 18/05/2012 - 22:56

Back on the road again.  Or to be more accurate, rail, ship and rail.  And "ship" might be a little ambitious.  See what you think from the picture of our 3-masted craft, theRembrandt van Rijn, a newly-refurbished ex-herring boat.


I took the train up to Aberdeen, a familiar city as I read for my degree there, and having met the rest of our party, boarded the Rembrandt van Rijn in mixed weather.  It had snowed in Aberdeen earlier in the day, although none was lying, and as we made our way out of one of the busiest harbours in the UK to the North Sea, the storm clouds were gathering in from the west again.

STORM CLOUDS GATHERING OVER ABERDEENSTORM CLOUDS GATHERING OVER ABERDEENThe start of a trip from Aberdeen to Oban, starting in the city where I studied for my degree, on a day where it had snowed in the morning... in May!

It was a very choppy overnight trip up to the Orkneys; one by one, the dining room emptied as the passengers succumbed to seasickness as the boat pitched her way up the coast.  It was with some relief that we dropped anchor off Copinsay the next morning and we were able to land in relatively sunny conditions.  A short walk up to the lighthouse perched atop the sea cliffs enabled us to spot hundreds of nesting guillemots, migrating greylag geese and resident meadow pipits.  By the time we were ready to reboard the boat, the heavens had opened and the waterproofs were very welcome against the elements.


Unfortunately, although the sickness abated, my insides were still unhappy and thus began a pattern which was to last during the trip, meaning that I only achieved four of the seven landings.  I missed the afternoon landing on Mainland Orkney, and that of the following afternoon at Papa Westray, but was able to spend a glorious morning on Fair Isle, a beautiful little Shetland island where there is a large modern bird observatory and where we saw seals in the bay, starlings, meadow pipits, wheatear, oystercatchers and various other birds.  I didn't find time to get to the shop as I decided to walk over to a bluff where there were great views over the island, but the people were very friendly and with regular flights coming and going, I could easily be tempted back.


Between the Shetlands and the Isle of Lewis, we hit the first of two predicted Force 9 gales.  Some who have already seen the pictures marvel at all the good weather.  It should be pointed out that we weren't allowed on deck in the stormy swell for obvious reasons, and consequently, the cameras stayed untouched as it was enough to keep upright at times!  The storm meant that we merely waved at Rona and Sula Sgeir as we passed, rather than landing.  The latter is the last island on which gannets are killed for their meat by men who sail up from Lewis annually.  

ISLE OF LEWISISLE OF LEWISBetween the Shetland Islands and the Isle of Lewis, we hit a Force 9 gale which precluded stops at North Rona and Sula Sgeir. The next landing was at Lewis, but unfortunately I wasn't well, so missed seeing the Callanish Stones on this occasion. The cloud lifted as we sailed away and before long, we were able to put up the sails.

It was a shame to miss the Callanish Stones on Lewis as I have long wanted to visit these, but I can always return by car some time.  The sun decided to reappear as we sailed on to the Flannan Isles and for the first time, the sails were raised.  The swell abated enough for us to take a zodiac cruise where we spotted more seals, lots of nesting guillemots, kittiwakes and shags, as well as a few bobbing puffins and in a cavernous inlet, a small flock of purple sandpipers.  Once back on board, up went the sails again as we literally sailed into the sunset, towards the faint outline of St Kilda on the horizon.


Mention St Kilda and everyone seems to adopt a rather nostalgic expression.  Everyone has heard of it and most people would love to visit.  Some lucky people already have visited and it really is a question of luck as to whether conditions allow for a landing.  As we sat on the deck the following morning in bright sunshine, it seemed nonsensical that we couldn't land, but the swell was far too great to attempt a landing there and then.  Perhaps it was because we had a passenger with St Kildan connections or perhaps it was due to another passenger who had tried and failed to land on three previous attempts, and who, in her early 80s might not have felt she had too many other chances, but the Weather Gods finally decided to smile with a turn of the tide and change of wind direction.

LOOKING OUT INTO THE BAY FROM HIRTA, ST KILDALOOKING OUT INTO THE BAY FROM HIRTA, ST KILDAThe tide eventually turned and the wind changed, so we were finally able to land. It was well worth the wait.

It has been a very long-held dream to visit St Kilda and it fulfilled all the expectations.  It is a hauntingly-beautiful place, steeped in 3,000 years of history, of which we often only think of recent times when in August 1930, the final residents requested to leave the island. We marvel at how resilient these people must have been to weather all that the elements threw at them; how their main diet of seabirds was achieved - barefoot - by climbing the steepest, most slippery cliffs one can imagine.  How isolated they were from everyone else.  And yet until their recent history, they may not have known that much about life beyond their own realms, so what we compare with our own situation today could not have been such a consideration then.


The Soay sheep were literally everywhere, with lots of curious bright-eyed lambs skipping around.  Birdlife was also abundant with sightings of pied wagtail, starlings, wheatear, redstart, redwing, merlin, snipe and even a goldfinch.  And off the coast, minke whales were spotted.  No-one wanted to leave, but the journey had to continue.


Sailing down the coast towards Mingulay, we spotted a school of white-sided dolphins who weaved alongside the boat for a few minutes.  No pictures as although I took good shots, I later discovered that I'd got the setting wrong!  It was decided that we wouldn't be able to land at Mingulay as the swell was against us again, so took the "bad weather" option of landing at Canna, a simply stunning little island.  Having seen a sea eagle from afar whilst sailing, I had hopes that we might see one here, or perhaps a golden eagle, but they remained elusive and instead, I enjoyed spotting a white wagtail along the track up to the Celtic cross and Punishment stone, a pagan monolith towards the centre of the island.  It was the warmest of afternoons and again, no-one wanted to leave.  Another place to return to some day.


After sailing along the coast overnight, we finally moored at Oban where the sun arose over a millpond-calm harbour.  It was easier to say our goodbyes in such a glorious setting, and make our way back through stunning West Coast scenery to the madding crowds again.  There are many more photographs than I can put in the "Scottish Islands" folder, but click to enlarge the pictures and immerse yourself into our adventures:


]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:32:27 GMT
A Hundred Times Better!  

Originally submitted on Wed, 25/04/2012 - 17:55

When I started this website, I didn't intend to write too many blogs, but nor did I intend to leave a four-month gap between entries either.  My absence has been down to ill-health, and in the interim forgetting how to upload information (oops).  So I had a 5-minute refresher from my webmaster last night, and not before time, as I'm heading off soon to take a trip round some of the Scottish Islands, something I've longed to do for many years and somehow never got round to - I'm sure you know the feeling.


As I'm feeling a hundred times better than at most times in the last 7 years, I have a few thank-yous to say.  You probably won't know who they are, but they will, and they deserve it because without their help, skill and support, I would be struggling to continue taking journeys into the wilderness and the photos which I hope you enjoy viewing on this site.  Firstly, my whole family, who've been with me every step of the way; my surgeons Cameron and Andrew, who know they work miracles, but have certainly had their work cut out with me; to Lesley, Fred and Lorna, Nicky, Liz and Peter, Jo and her boys, Pablo and Carmen, Charles, Lynn, Elaine, Sarah (x 2), Tom, Angela, Mark, Duncan and all those other friends and relatives who have put in so much to get me back on my feet again.  A massive Thank You to each and every one of you.


Now, where's that camera...?!

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:30:29 GMT
Ticking Along  

Originally submitted on Fri, 16/12/2011 - 20:17

Where has the year gone?  It's all been a little quiet of late on the photographic front as I recover from surgery - wielding my heavy 28-300 mm lens on the Canon 7D amounts to nearly 2.5 kgs which is just too heavy for me at the moment.  But I have made a couple of brief outings with the older and lighter 75-300 mm and little 24 mm wide-angle lenses, both old favourites.  With a bit of luck, I'll be back in more full-time action soon.


Meanwhile, I have submitted some pictures into the 2012 Scottish Seabird Centre Photographic Competition, and six have been short-listed, in five of the six categories, including the Worldwide Flora category which I won in 2011.  Everyone is welcome to visit the Centre in North Berwick and vote on their favourites.  In order to be as impartial as possible, I would recommend visiting and voting first and then looking further at this website.  I took a couple of my co-travellers to have a look at the display and after having voted, asked them to identify mine.  Some were easy, but a couple caught them out...


One or two of my friends have been commenting on watching the recent "Frozen Planet" series narrated by David Attenborough, as the images reminded them of my polar pictures.  I have been glued to it, and like many others, have been speculating on how the film crews achieved all sorts of phenomonal shots.  I seem to have been reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's highly-regarded book "The Worst Journey in the World" for a very long time now (oh, the perils of other distractions!) and having been lucky enough to have experienced the climate of both polar regions, felt myself to be right in the midst of all the visual and verbal picture-painting.  But travelling as a tourist on a small Russian/Chilean ship cannot for a moment equate to surviving hurricane-force winds and temperatures of -70C (in pitch dark, in the case of the pioneers) for weeks on end, for the sole purpose of learning more about penguins.  And I'm afraid there won't be any "brinicle" or other underwater pictures on this site, but I shall continue to keep my eyes open for the wonders that nature can show us above the surface.


To all, I wish you a peaceful and enjoyable festive season.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:29:21 GMT
The Russian Arctic  

Originally submitted on Tue, 06/09/2011 - 11:20

We're back, safe and sound!


It is a long way over to Anadyr, the main town in Chukotka, Eastern Siberia.  Flying from Edinburgh via Heathrow (London), we arrived in Moscow on the evening of 8th August, dropped off our luggage at the hotel, and then went out to photograph Red Square by night.  The following day, we had a long wait in the airport as we hadn't wanted to find ourselves caught up in the notoriously chaotic Muscovite traffic (which another couple did, and thus missed the trip!), and then had a 7 and a half hour flight to Yakutsk where we refuelled prior to the final 4 hour flight over to Anadyr.


We finally boarded the ship and from there, we lost contact with civilization as we know it as we sailed North through Anadyr Bay into the Bering Strait, past Cape Dezhnev to the West and Big Diomede (Russia) and Little Diomede (Alaska) to our East.  As they straddle the International Dateline, the former is referred to as "Tomorrow" and the latter as "Today".  We were to get within 0.60 miles of the International Dateline on the return journey.

HUMPBACK WHALE IN THE BERING STRAITHUMPBACK WHALE IN THE BERING STRAITThose humpback whales get everywhere! We had quite a number in the water around the ship at this point.

Lots of zodiac cruises and landings allowed us to see a huge variety of birds and mammals (57 and 17 species respectively), although due to poor weather and a large swell, quite a number of landings had to be cancelled, including to the world's Eastern-most settlement of Uelen on both attempts, North and South-bound.  

WALRUS HAUL-OUT, NEAR CAPE DEZHNEVWALRUS HAUL-OUT, NEAR CAPE DEZHNEVUnlike Spitsbergen, if walruses are on land, we are not allowed to land as well; if we were already on land and they should happen to haul out, then that would have been permitted, but as they are hunted in this region, they are far more wary of Man, so even approaching by zodiac had to be undertaken with caution.

Five of us had opted to take an overland trip through Wrangel Island and in this, we were the first tourists ever to do so, so it was an enormous privilege.  It was no picnic, however, as conditions were extremely basic, but we did have the use of an enormous new 6 x 4 wheel van which, accompanied by a quad-bike and trailers, ambled along at walking pace across and through rivers galore to reach the huts in which we were to spend the two nights on the island.  

TWILIGHT, WRANGEL ISLANDTWILIGHT, WRANGEL ISLANDAfter stopping for a break, having been travelling for quite some time, we asked how much further it was to the hut and were informed that we had only travelled 18 kms out of 50! Twilight came and went and we arrived at our first hut six and a half hours after setting out... in moonlight. It didn't really get completely dark though - a bonus of being so far north.

Around us, we found dozens of snowy owls perched like sentinels on nearby rocks, shining as brilliant white beacons.  Their very endearing prey (and prey to so many), lemmings, were in abundance and scurried about, squeaking as they went.  The autumnal flowers and foliage were magnificent - so many varieties in all sorts of colours.  We spotted three Arctic foxes rummaging around on the tundra, encountered plenty of musk oxen, including three separate fights, many snow buntings, and literally thousands of snow geese.  There were no reindeer/caribou visible, although there were many shed antlers around, sometimes with skulls attached, and scattered around were the relics of woolly mammoths (mainly tusks).  Last and most definitely not least, we took our time to encounter polar bears, but once encountered, they were very good sightings, mainly to the North West of the island.  The sea ice had gone by now (at 71° North, it is quite some way further South than Spitsbergen or Greenland), and those bears who had not headed further North were now trapped until winter time; as such, there is quite a concentration of them by the coast.

LOO WITH A VIEW, WRANGEL ISLANDLOO WITH A VIEW, WRANGEL ISLANDHaving had no facilities at the previous hut, this was a positive luxury, even if it was 100 metres from the hut, in polar bear country (a mother and two cubs had been spotted on the hillside to the right on the previous evening). This was taken at 4.30am at sunrise.

Once we reached the coast, we swapped with the second group of overlanders, who were heading South to meet the ship back round, and continued with our bear-watching by zodiac and with landings on the West Coast beaches.  Some quite fabulous sightings took place, including one where the bear was ambling along the coastline from rocky shelf to water and back out again.  He was completely unconcerned by our zodiacs and swam to within 10 metres of us in quest for more ice to chew from overhangs on the shore line.  Our engines were turned off whilst we absorbed this thrilling spectacle.  In total, the guides counted 190 polar bears seen during the trip (including the time we weren't with the main group).  This is thought to be an expedition record.

SWIMMING POLAR BEAR, PTICHIY BAZAAR, WRANGEL ISLANDSWIMMING POLAR BEAR, PTICHIY BAZAAR, WRANGEL ISLANDWe had stopped the zodiac engines and the bear was completely unbothered by our presence, so it was exhilarating when he swam within 10 metres of us!

On the return South, we passed more whales (grey, humpback, orca and beluga) and walruses, and then came the encounter most hadn't dared to dream about - a wolverine!  It had been spotted feasting on a seal kill and when the main party of zodiacs returned, we again turned off the engines to allow this most shy, rare and elusive of creatures to emerge to afford us a spectacular sighting as it meandered up one gully, lay down on its back in the snow to play with a snowball, then trotted round the hillside to another gully, all within view of the zodiacs.  The only downside was that it was a little too far away to capture good photographs, especially with the swell, but the memories will last forever.

ORCA, KOLYUCHIN ISLANDORCA, KOLYUCHIN ISLANDWhilst we waited to see whether the swell would abate enough for us to land on the island (it didn't), a 5-strong pod of Orca swam past in the sunlight which sparkled across the waves.

It was a long way back to "civilization", but if it were easy, would it be so worthwhile to attempt?

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:27:03 GMT
Chumming with the gannets  

Originally submitted on Sat, 16/07/2011 - 14:08

St Swithun's Day - 15th July.  According to legend, if it rains on this date, it will continue for the next 40 days.  So it was with slight trepidation that the prize-winners in the Scottish Seabird Competition were notified back in February that we were to visit the Bass Rock on this date to photograph nesting gannets, weather permitting.  There has been some very strange weather going on in Scotland during this "summer" - gale-force winds one minute and heavenly days of sunshine the next.  Last week we experienced two consecutive afternoons of thunderstorms and flooding, yet this week, there has been hayfever-inducing sun and cloudless skies.


However, to our relief, the day dawned fair and I was delighted to be able to slip, slop, slap on the old Factor 50 prior to taking a 9am boat across the water from North Berwick.  Calm conditions are required in order to dock by the rock-carved steps up onto the island, and once disembarked, we shed our life preservers and outer layers.  After a debate whether or not to wear a hat (protection against flying fluid!), I stuck to t-shirt, waterproof trousers, boots and no hat and climbed up with the others to the main nesting area.


It's noisy, bright, white and yellow, and very engaging.  Birds fly in from all angles, some landing with grace, several less so.  We were warned not to descend into a hollow as the "mud" was waist-high, but several birds seemed to find this a good crash-landing site.   One of the competition judges, Laurie Campbell, accompanied us, and took time to offer tips on obtaining the best shots.  We had to step carefully to avoid little white bundles of fluff, accompanied by angry parental beaks, but spent 2-3 hours absorbed in observing and photographing the activities around us.


I think it'll take a while to perfect shots of individual flying gannets as by the time each bird was observed, tracked and the lens focused, they were out of sight again!  It was a problem for everyone, not just me.  However, I'd forgotten that part of the day included "chumming" out in the boat.  I first became aware of this word as a method of accompanying a friend (or chum) to go and do something, but in this instance, chumming involves throwing unwanted fish out the back of a boat for the eager birds.


Laurie advised us to use wider-angled lenses to start off with and initially it was the herring gulls who cottoned on to what we were up to.  I'm not a fan of gulls per se, and particularly herring gulls who with their yellow eyes look to me to be rather malevolent.  But I saw them in a new light here.  Yes, they were still pushy and greedy, but there was a beauty about them on the wing that made them interesting to photograph.  The real stars of the show though were the gannets who soon joined in.  We were privileged to see them diving metres from the boat - not as deeply as they might for a live fish, but still in complete single-minded elegance as they pushed back their shoulders and torpedoed into the water at considerable speed.  


How lucky were we?  And to prove it, I received my first and only splat of the day - on the forehead!


Many thanks to the Scottish Seabird Centre for giving us this rare opportunity, Andy from the Seabird Centre for being our guide, Gordon and his mate for shipping us out there, and to Laurie Campbell for his steady hand on the photographic tiller during the day.  



]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:25:11 GMT
First visa obtained  

Originally submitted on: 09/07/2011 - 17:00

Visas for both of us have been granted - hurrah!  But that's only step 1.  Now to get the visas for Chukotka, otherwise we'll be put straight back on the plane at Anadyr, and it's an 11-hour flight there...

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:23:41 GMT
Russian Trip Imminent  

Originally submitted on Tue, 05/07/2011 - 18:04

During the summer I shall be visiting Wrangel and Herald Islands in Chukotka.  Take down your atlas, and look as far north and east as it's possible to go.  It's there!  The highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world, and home to woolly mammoth relics, there will be much to capture on the camera.  But firstly, the visas...

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:19:09 GMT
Welcome to the updated website Towards the end of 2012, my webmaster and technological wizard, Duncan informed me that he was venturing into pastures new by way of a new job and was going to be winding up his server for  So after a bit of tweaking here and there, we have changed servers and consequently a few of the cosmetics.  The tone and content remains much the same, although I've yet to find the maps which were a good feature of the previous site.  It'll be a wee while until I have this completely populated the way I would like, but I welcome feedback and will endeavour to respond to what I can.


As to the blogs, I'm going to import the old blog entries to give new visitors a flavour of what I've been up to.


So I hope you enjoy the renaissance.  New year, new site - Happy New Year, everyone.  I hope it's a prosperous and healthy one for you all.

]]> (Alex In The Wild) Tue, 08 Jan 2013 09:14:24 GMT