Wednesday 10 February 2010

Guest Photographer - Robbie Brookes

It is a great pleasure to welcome our fourth guest photographer since we started the blog thirteen months ago.

I first met Robbie at the same time I met Dave when I organised a trip to Mid Wales about 2 1/2 years ago.  I had gotten to know Robbie through a photography forum, the same way Dave and I met.  Robbie has been a life long birder and has been a great source of knowledge to me in that short time, and I marvel at his recognition and general birding skills.  So over to him for his story.


Four Seasons on Shetland

Before I describe a year on Shetland, it is probably a good idea to just tell you a little about me.  I lived for 50 years in the same village (indeed the same house) in the North Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, England - apart from one year living in Malawi, southern Africa..  Then just over two years ago after a two week holiday on Shetland, we decided to move to 60 degrees north and to the island of Unst. Ask a lot of people what they know about Shetland and the reply is usually along the lines of woolly jumpers and 'Thelwell' type ponies, but ask a wildlife person and the result will be much more interesting and detailed.  This second response is why I am so enthusiastic about the islands; they are teeming with wildlife all year round.

I have had a life long interest in wildlife - especially birds - and have been taking photographs for over 35 years. For most of the time, I used Pentax equipment but when I decided to go digital four years ago, I switched my ancient Pentax gear to Canon and I would be the first to admit the change to digital was not a smooth one. I am currently using a 40D which is almost permanently attached to an EF500L + 1.4 EFTC. I also use the 300f4L and an EF 70-200 f4L and several other lenses including the Tamron 90 f2.8 macro.


We arrived here in the summer of 2008 and my first thought, as a bird watching photographer, was the approaching autumn migration.  We had six weeks of unbroken sunshine that was then followed by a south easterly wind and then rain. The birds literally fell out of the sky.  Scores of Willow Warblers, Redstarts, Whinchat, Spotted Flycatchers, a number of Wrynecks and also 'exotics' like Bluethroats were scattered around the islands.  These birds were obviously all potential subjects for photography and as most of them were very hungry, they were very often easy to approach.  I'm a firm believer that the subject comes first, and if they showed signs of anxiety or stopped feeding, then I would immediately stop or retreat.  Due to the open nature of the terrain, a lot of my photography is done from the car, as more often than not, birds would use the roadside fences and dykes as perches to feed from.

 Apart from birds, it was and is otters that I love to see and photograph.  During the late summer and autumn of 2008, I discovered the home range of a mother with two mature cubs. Despite now having had scores of otters sightings around the island, it was this family that, so far, I have had some of my best quality time watching otters.  Given the right approach, otters can be fairly easy to get close to - if the wind is in the right direction and you are not silhouetted against the skyline.  When looking for food, they usually dive for 20 to 30 seconds, which is helpful in getting close.  Make no mistake, despite them having relatively poor eyesight, they have a phenomenal sense of smell and also know their home range so well that they can pick out a change of skyline, if you do not blend in with the terrain.  On one occasion, I came across a sleeping dog otter that was on a small skerry just offshore.  The wind was blowing from me to him, so I decided to lie down and see what would happen.  In less than a minute, its nose started twitching, shortly after it opened its eyes, lifted up its head and then crept away over the rock and into the sea.

For otters, I have I have two methods of photography, either chance encounters from the car (quite regular as the roads are close to the waters edge in many places) or following one feeding and then stalking it.  The second method is often limited by wind direction, terrain and direction of light..  For both methods, my 'standard lens' is now the 500f4L + 1.4 - as I can then also do birds if they should appear.  I very rarely use a tripod for otters as the terrain and the fact that you are constantly moving makes it impractical, so I use a Wildlife Watching Supplies double bean bag with carrying strap which I find valuable for support and also for something to sit on.  Unless the batteries (two in the grip) are running downn, the only other items I carry are spare CF cards and binoculars and that's it.  I only carry a bag if I am out for a few hours from the car or say walking across to Hermaness.


Winter has its own problems for photography here, such as low light levels, strong winds and rain.  When the sun does shine however, it does make up for all the wet and windy days.  On anything other than bright sunny days, the amount of 'usable light' ( i.e. suitable for moving subjects or long lenses) is limited to just a couple of hours either side of midday. If the wind was blowing, even the firmest tripod would shudder and often using the car as a hide would be out of the question as it would rock from side to side in the wind.  Unfortunately these conditions often made for good pictures as 25 to 30ft waves roll in to the bays ( I have frequently seen otters fishing in these conditions).  I would still take pictures however and often this would mean using the 300 or 70-200 instead of the 500.  The biggest problem however - even more than the wind or rain is sea salt.  In anything other than a gentle breeze, just taking the camera out would get the front element covered in salt spray.  This all soon fades to a memory when on a good day you get results or see something special.  The winter of 2008 will be one of those winters .  I was fortunate to see and photograph Ivory Gull, Humpback Whale and an otter in the snow - the last two within an hour of each other.

Grey Phalarope over the stormy breakers

Otter in the snow


Spring seemed to start in early March when the first daffodil shoots started showing yellow on them, they weren't however in full bloom until mid April ( we had snow just before Easter).  I don't think that Spring truly arrived until early May and by then the island was full of bird song - predominantly waders - these being Redshank, Golden Plover, Curlew, Whimbrel, Snipe and Lapwing.  For these birds, my car is the best option as the birds are used to vehicles and rolling to a standstill would often allow a close approach.  For the smaller migrants, visiting the local 'hotspots' (overgrown gardens) could produce things like Bluethroat, Pied Flycatcher and a number of the more common warblers and by just sitting quietly and waiting the birds would often come to me.  I don't use a hide as such - time is one of the governing factors, but I do have a double thickness WWS bag hide.  I've used it on a couple of occasions so far with a small amount of success.  I had a sleeping bag zip sown in the back of the bag which when unzipped, opens the bag up to make a sort of ground sheet/tarp which I could use more effectively if lying down.  Now I know the island better and its habitats where various species hang out, I hope to use it more often this year.

Golden Plover


Summer here for me started in early June 2009 with a big reminder that literally anything can turn up and anyone can find a rare bird and on this occasion it was mine.  I had gone to Skaw (Britain's most northerly house), which is a magnet for birds coming in from the North Sea or that have been driven down from the Arctic.  In the vegetation by the burn I found a sub Alpine Warbler which basically should have been in the Mediterranean.  Checking the book, I found that it didn't fit the colours of the two races of the species, so, due to my lack of experience of these birds I concluded it was maybe an immature male.  How wrong I was.  It was in fact confirmed by others later to be of the race 'Moltonii' - which has not been proven to have occurred in Britain before (although it probably has).  The plumages are so alike that the only way to be sure is to either hear it's calls and song or take DNA.  Work is being done in Italy at the moment, which may well lead the race to become a new species at some stage.

sub Alpine Warbler (Moltonii)

There is so much that could be written about my 'Simmer Dim' experience (roughly the twilight following the 19 hours of mid summer daylight) that I could have just written about summer.  The biggest problem is that there is just too much daylight!  After several weeks of getting up at 4am and going to bed after midnight is it begins to take its toll.  On one occasion, I had seen the sun go down at 10.45pm and then decided to photograph the sunrise at around 3.15am.  It was a magical occasion and as I waited in the half light, in windless conditions, a Minke Whale passed the headland causing barely a ripple.  There were many experiences like this with orcas and dolphins, gannets and puffins at Hermaness - and I have not even mentioned the landscapes and botany.


 Puffin yawning


Tern Food Pass

I am obviously biased but I think Shetland is a magical place to be, either for a holiday or to live.  I am sure that many folk here in the UK will have recently seen Simon King's 'Shetland Wildlife Diaries'.  Well after 18 months of being here, I think that he did a terrific job of conveying the magic of these islands.

For more information, do please have a look at my friend Brydon Thomason Shetland Nature Holidays and Tours site

Robbie Brookes

Now one of the problems I have experienced with the Blogger software is when I try to cut and paste words into the software the html coding goes bad, so I have to retype it.
For this blogpost, this has been an absolute pleasure and I feel I have lived through this time with Robbie, felt like I was there and witnessed the four seasons with him.

Now knowing Robbie as I do, he is a very modest man, but what he does, how he goes about it, his knowledge, patience, skill and care all make him a brilliant role model for any aspiring wildlife photographer.

Anyone can be a photographer of wildlife but it takes so much more to be a wildlife photographer, and he has my immense respect for it.

Do click on the images and look at them in a larger view, these are very special wildlife moments.

I know he has got so many more brilliant images that I am sure you will want to see more, so please leave your comments so I can encourage him to do a second slot for us some time



  1. Wow what a treat!

    Thank you Robbie for sharing your experiences with us. Your photographs are simply stunning.


  2. Great stuff Robbie gets us all dreaming I am sure. I have been lucky enough to follow your otter work on one of the forums but nice to hear the stories that go with the shots.
    Great blog

  3. Top Stuff Robbie, brilliant article.


  4. Wonderfully written article Robbie - truly inspirational!

    Superb insight into your first year in the Shetlands, and the wealth of wildlife opportunities that exist from both resident and (especially) migratory species. Thanks for weaving in a few of your fieldcraft experiences - these tips are truly helpful to myself and others I'm sure.

    As for the images they obviously evoke some special memories for you. They are all impressive however I especially liked the sharing intimacy of the terns, and the proud posture of the Golden Plover. I must also congratulate you on not just obtaining a "record shot" of the rare sub-alpine warbler, but to perservere to obtain such a combination of posture and background relief is to be truly commended and you must be very proud of making the most of this most rare of opportunities.

    I am sure others who have already commented (and the many yet to do so) would join with me in welcoming more of your insights and experiences of this unique and truly wild and wonderful collection of islands.

    I hope to have the privelege of visiting these islands one day and experience this "raw natural world" for myself. Until that time comes I will be continue to be enchanted by the beauty that can be found in what must be one of the most (weather)hostile environments in the UK.

    Congrats again Robbie and thanks Martin & Dave for a great idea.

    Best regards

  5. Suberb images and writing cant wait for the next installment perhaps a robbie blog would be fanstic for the rest of us who are office bound
    made my day.