Saturday, 30 June 2012

Creel Fishing around the Scottish Coast

Every once in a while I like to skim back through my photo archives, looking for those images that I might have passed over or simply missed the first time around, to look at them again and to see if I can make anything out of them with a little bit of extra work.

Fishing boats moored up in the harbour at Kirkwall (Orkney Islands)

Last week I was reminded about a project I worked on during the summer of 2010 in which myself and a larger consortium examined the feasibility of different methods for monitoring inshore fish populations around Scottish coastal waters. Since I had a fair amount of experience of working with the fishing industry and conducting observer work by that point, I was asked to investigate the levels of fish bycatch that were being captured by the Scottish inshore creel (trap) fishermen, which ultimately ended up with myself and two of my colleagues (PhD student Kathy Dunlop and an undergraduate student Marie Fenton) embarking on a ten-day trip around virtually the entire Scottish coast, driving from Glasgow to Campbeltown, up to Skye (where we attemtped to camp for 3 days in a storm) then north to the north-east coast and up to the Orkney Isles, going out to sea with any fishermen who would allow us to observe them for a day and handing out questionnaires. It was slightly crazy, but a lot of fun!

A catch of brown crabs and the creels that caught them. The blue escape panels allow most of the undersize animals to leave the creels before they're hauled onto the boat.

Anyway, the results of that pilot study are available in the full report (freely available online here) if you're interested in the science that came out of the trial, but what I would like to share with you here are some of the photographs from that trip, with the emphasis very much on the fishermen and the catches rather than wildlife for a change! I usually tend to ignore photos that aren't strictly wildlife or animal-based when I do my first-pass edits so a lot of the more 'documentary' style shots get ignored, and this trip just happened to come at a chaotic period between finishing one job and starting a PhD so I've never really gone back to the photos again properly until now. When I went back through the images from this fishing trip I was really looking for images that stood out and told a story about the fishermen and their work rather than the wildlife and these are the best ones I think. I hope you enjoy them, and as always, I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on them, especially since this is not really an area of photography I've got much experience with!

NOTE: Some of the in-blog photos might look a bit odd because they've been resized automatically. To see the full-size versions (which are sharp) please click on the images.

Edible crabs and lobsters in a creel pot.

A fisherman working to empty and reset one of his langoustine creels

Lobsters boxed up and ready for sale to market. The pink bands stop them damaging each other with their claws.

Fishermen work quickly to empty and re-bait the creels so they can redeploy them for the next catch.

A fisherman working to empty and re-bait the creel.

A fisherman pulls a lobster out of one of his creels.

Fishermen working on their creels on a calm day in Orkney

A catch of lobster and brown crabs in a creel trap

Two fisherman working on their creels in the Small Isles (Eigg, Muck & Rhum)

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: Canon 70-200mm F4 IS L

This lens rounds out the mid-range of my lenses, and is probably my favourite of the bunch. It is small and light but robust, and takes great images.

Canon 70-200mm F4 IS L

When I bought my first DSLR, the only lens I bought to go with it was the Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO DG, which for the price was a great beginner's lens to learn with. Unfortunately, you tend to get what you pay for with camera gear and after about 6 months or so I felt I was starting to reach the limits of what the lens could do in terms of speed (of both the AF and the aperture range at 300mm), and image quality so I started to look at upgrading. The first lens I found was the Canon 300mm F4 IS prime lens which I got a decent price on on ebay, but that meant I no longer had anything in the mid-zoom range. That was actually ok for a while since I was still spending most of my time shooting wildlife that was either small or far away, but once I started working on fishing boats and I began trying to photograph large birds at much closer range (gulls, gannets, skuas and kittiwakes mostly) I really needed something shorter than the 300mm lens to do it, and that's where the 70-200mm F4 IS came in.

The lens is relatively small and compact

The first thing that struck me about the Canon 70-200mm F4 IS L lens was the size of it - it is a relatively small and lightweight lens and looked rather unassuming when it came out of the box. After a few minutes on the camera though any doubts I might have had about the quality of this lens were thoroughly set aside! The autofocus on this lens (as with all Canon L lenses I've used) is silent and extremely quick to focus in 99% of circumstances (low contrast days pose more of an issue if there's grey birds against a grey sky over a grey sea) and the image stabilisation is a great help as it allows you to handhold at lower shutter speeds when shooting stationary or slow-moving subjects, or removing excess camera-shake while you're panning for an action shot. 

The 70-200mm F4 IS L was particularly useful for shooting kittiwakes which have a tendency to fly very close behind boats in a figure-of-eight path.

So how does the lens perform? As a wildlife lens, I'll admit it is pretty short for most purposes unless you're able to get up close to the action, or want to take wider-angle shots that convey more of a sense of habitat. For bird photography in particular I find it too short to be of much use in more than a handful of situations. It is however more than capable of capturing high-speed action shots outdoors and produces excellent results. It has also put up with the same rough handling that my other gear has (mud, salt, water, fish slime and many knocks and bumps) and has never given a hint of a problem, which is testament to the environmental sealing Canon add to their L-range lenses. But, at approximately £900-£1000 it's certainly not cheap, and unless you've already got a long lens I would advise against buying this one if you're interests are solely wildlife.

Silhouette at sunset

The bokeh is not as blurred as it would be at a wider aperture, but it's still very nice.

Where this lens really shines is in photographing people. The focal length means it produces no noticeable distortion of people's features that you see on wider lenses, and it produces a really nice bokeh when it's fully open which really helps separate your subject from the background. For photojournalism-style photography I can see this being an very good lens choice (though the whiteness does make you fairly noticeable...!), and it's an area I'm hoping to explore a bit more when I'm photographing for work.

The only real downside for me is that F4 is slower in low-light than it's F2.8 counterpart, so if you're shooting indoors or in poor conditions, particularly is you're wanting to shoot fast-moving subjects then you're going to need to use a higher ISO (assuming you keep your shutter speed high), which in turn results in some loss of image quality. How much of an issue that is will depend on your camera body, but with Canon recently releasing an updated version of the F2.8 version of this lens (the 70-200mm F2.8 IS L II), it's likely that good 2nd hand copies of the first version (which is reputedly a stunningly good lens) will be available for under £1000. If I was buying a lens in this range again today, and with no price difference between the two, I'd personally be tempted to go for the F2.8 and get the extra speed over the portability of the F4.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Review: Canon 300mm F4 IS L Lens (& 1.4x converter)

Whenever I go out to shoot wildlife, this is the lens that will be attached to my camera 95% of the time and it is absolutely cracking for what I need. A 300mm lens is not the longest lens for wildlife, and at F4 it is certainly not the fastest you can buy, but personally, I wouldn't swap it for anything, and here's why:

A baby swallow being fed on the wing by a parent

After I graduated from Glasgow University the first time around, and before I even had my own DSLR, I spent a summer working for a company offering wildlife boat tours in the Firth of Lorne, near Oban. The guy I was working for had just bought a 2nd hand Canon 1D MkII N and a 300mm F2.8 IS L lens and was more than happy to let me use it while we were out running the trips, which was great, but that early experience with that kit taught me two important things: firstly, if you're going to shoot wildlife at sea, you're pretty much going to have to handhold your camera to compensate for the swell. Secondly, handholding a setup that weighs over 3kg for long periods of time on a boat is going to screw your back up pretty quickly. I'll admit I'm not the strongest person in the world (though I'm pretty fit from diving), but holding that amount of weight in front of you while you wait for a shot really takes it out on your shoulders! So, as much as I might like to own a 300mm F2.8 or one of the longer super-telephoto lenses, the weight of them means they're just not practical for me. I'm sure they're amazing, but until it becomes practicable for me to use a tripod (or someone develops some kind of helium-balloon support), I will be sticking to the 300mm F4 which by contrast weighs in at just over 1kg. So it's still not what you'd call light, but it's certainly usable.

Cost & Flexibility
Fast shutter speeds get the most out of telephoto lenses

Another major consideration for me was the cost of the lens and how flexible it would be. Essentially, I wanted the best possible telephoto lens I could afford for the best price (under £1000), so it effectively came down to a choice between the Canon 300mm F4 IS L, 400mm F5.6 L and the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 IS L. At the time when I was buying the lens (about 8 years ago), I was pretty sold on the idea of image stabilisation, so that was a factor which nudged me away from the 400mm. Between the 300mm prime and the zoom, it largely came down to reviews of the image quality, and the prime lens seemed to come out on top. Finally, the 300mm F4 is the only lens of the choices that is compatible with the 1.4x teleconverter without losing autofocus (on EOS bodies at least) which nudges the zoom up to 420mm with minimal loss of image quality at the cost of one f-stop.

In the end I got lucky with ebay and managed to find an excellent 2nd hand copy for just under £600 which was a bit of a bargain and sealed the deal! 

Image Quality
Stabilisation allows you to use a lower shutter speed for still  subjects or easier tracking for fast ones

At the end of the day this was really the most important thing and I haven't been disappointed. This is a great lens for wildlife, but as with all telephoto lenses it really needs a fast shutter speed to get the most out of it. I'm also glad it has IS as this makes a very noticeable difference when hand-holding the camera - if you switch it on and off you can actually see the difference it makes through the viewfinder! Even if it will never slow down your subject, it removes enough wobbliness to make tracking fast animals even easier, and if you use it on stationary or slow moving subjects it will apparently compensate for four-stops worth less light than without.

A mackerel chasing a sandeel out of the sea at Tjarno, Sweden.

Other than that, the lens is silent, focuses incredibly quickly and accurately and has been absolutely reliable no matter what I've thrown at it (which is a lot). It is is cosmetically rather more battered and scuffed than it was when it was delivered, thanks to hundreds of hours spent on fishing boats, research, boats and RIBs but despite everything it's still as good as it's ever been, which says a lot about how Canon build and seal their L lenses!

This is still a crop from the original - 300mm lenses (even with the converter) are still quite short for wildlife

Adding the Canon 1.4x teleconverter costs you one stop, reducing the maximum aperture to F5.6, so you lose a bit of speed and you don't get quite the same knife-edge depth of field that you can get on wider aperture lenses. Saying that, it still produces excellent separation between the subject and the background and is certainly a lens to consider if the points raised here are important to you.

A gull taking off at dawn

Prime lenses in general tend to be higher quality than zoom lenses, but choosing a prime does mean that you have no choice in terms of the focal length you get, and if you want to use something else, you will need to physically change lenses. For me, this has never really posed much of an issue, but I tend to shoot animals and birds that congregate in groups so it's relatively easy to choose an appropriate subject. And regardless, 90% of the time the problem will be that you can't get as close as you would like to a subject anyway, so I've very rarely found myself wishing I had a shorter lens attached to my camera! Still, if that is something that you think you might need, then something like the 100-400mm zoom might be a better option.

Honestly? I love this lens. With the 1.4x converter attached it produces excellent quality images and provides a decent amount of zoom for photographing wildlife. It's also relatively affordable and extremely lightweight compared to the super-telephotos you can buy, without compromising on build quality or reliability. I can't honestly say how this configuration compares to the 100-400mm zoom or the 400 F5.6 prime lenses as I've never used them myself, but I believe it would be hard to go too far wrong with any of them.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Review: Canon 7D

So I figured that since I wrote a whole post yesterday on my new Canon 17-40mm lens, this is probably as good an opportunity as any to write in a bit more detail about some of my other gear, starting with my photography kit! Today's review is on the Canon 7D DSLR body.

The Canon 7D
Canon 7D with 300mm F4 IS L lens + 1.4x teleconverter.

The Canon 7D was released a couple of years ago now back in Autumn 2009 effectively as a 'sports' alternative to the Canon 5D Mk2 which was released about the same time. With the 5D Mk2 offering a massive number of megapixels (22.2), a HUGE ISO range (up to 25600) and the same amazing image quality as its predecessor, the 7D had a lot to live up to. By comparison, the 7D has (slightly) fewer megapixels (18MP), a (1.6x) crop sensor, and worse ISO performance. But then again, none of that really matters because this camera is built for speed.

You can read all about the specifications of this camera elsewhere, but the most interesting updates from my point of view when I bought it were the really fast and accurate autofocus (said to rival the AF of the much-adored Canon 1D Mk II) and the whopping 10 frames-per-second (fps) continuous shooting rate. The accuracy of the autofocus was something I was keen to improve at that point, as I'd been shooting with a Canon 40D for a while by then and was finding it frustratingly slow at times, particularly when trying to shoot birds in the chaos that follows behind fishing boats.

First Impressions

I spend two days looking at specks of flying drool and wondering why they weren't sharp enough. Sigh.

My first impressions of the 7D when I bought it two years ago were that it a) sometimes took awesome photos and b) was a far more technical camera than I had been used to up to that point. I spent a few weeks with the manual and testing it out at Caerlaverock WWT reserve on geese and on my (rather quick) dog and his frisbee. Then I spent another few days driving myself crazy looking at 100% crops of the images I was taking and wondering why they weren't quite up to the standards I was expecting. After testing the sharpness of my lenses (all are spot on) and deciding that it probably wasn't the 7D body (results were inconsistent), it turned out to be user error (I was basically using too slow a shutter speed for too-fast subjects!). Interestingly though, I'd written off a lot of soft images from the 400D or 40D as being the fault of the camera and it took the 7D to make me really reassess the way I had been shooting and how to really get the most out of a camera. It probably means I was always a bit unfair on the other cameras I'd had, but it forced me to become a better photographer and to think a lot more about what I was actually doing when I went out to shoot.

Later Impressions
After that rather steep learning curve at the start, the 7D has never disappointed. The AF isn't perfect, and it will miss subjects, particularly when there's low contrast (e.g. shooting grey birds on a cloudy, grey day) or if they're moving fast over a close backdrop (e.g. low flying over the sea) but when it gets a subject (and it will catch on quickly!) it will definitely catch it. One problem I had with the 40D was that it would partially focus on subjects fairly often, but the 7D doesn't do this nearly as much and things tend to be either in focus or completely missed. The 10 fps is also very handy, and although using long bursts will eat up the processing power within a second or two, it can make for some cool time-lapse sequences and if used sparingly, can often make the difference between getting a usable or a completely useless photograph. 

Shot at ISO6400 in the middle of the night with only a ship's light to illuminate the sea. It's not brilliant, but perfectly acceptable as an ID photo.

The ISO performance on this camera is pretty good too. At anything much above about 400ISO, you do really start to notice the graininess coming into the images, which is a bit of a shame but probably fairly inevitable given the number of MP squeezed onto the sensor. Image quality in general though is excellent, and I must admit that the 18MP resolution means you can crop an image in pretty far and still maintain a good resolution image, which is a nice cheat if you can't afford a super-zoom (I can't).

After two years of trying I was finally able to get this shot!

One of the main reasons I wanted a camera upgrade was so I could get a decent photograph of a gannet diving into the water. For whatever reason, I'd never managed to get that shot before with my old gear, but the hit rate went up massively with the 7D, so I'm guessing it wasn't entirely down to human error! Gannets can reach 60mph when they hit the surface of the sea, so they present a pretty big challenge to spot, focus on, track and shoot. Thanks to this camera (and plenty of practice), I was able to FINALLY get the result I wanted!

Environmental Sealing
Shooting a timelapse series of our journey down the Clyde at the start of our last research cruise. My camera's under the hat and the timer is in the rucksack. It was cold.

I thought this might deserve special mention since I've probably done just about everything to this camera short of dropping it or drowning it (and it's come close to the latter). In the two years I've owned my 7D I've taken it out on about a dozen fishing boats, covered it in mud, salt, fish slime and water and battered it off several walls, floors and railings, and in all that time it's never had any kind of issue (not even a dusty sensor). It undoubtedly helps that I almost exclusively use weather-sealed lenses when I'm outdoors but it's pretty reassuring. After all, what's the point in owning something if you can't use it when you want to?

Stuff I never thought I'd use
As you've probably noticed, I've really only talked about the AF and the fps so far, because those were the things I bought the camera for, but there are a ton of other features that I've slowly started to use, even though I never thought I'd bother with them. The HD video is one of those features, and it's still not something I'm using a lot. It has been good fun to play with though and if nothing else is enough to satisfy my curiosity about whether video is something I want to get into a bit more. I wish it had continuous autofocus, but aside from that, seems to be pretty nice!

The other feature I've started using more is the live viewfinder on the back. Not being a macro photographer, I've never really bothered with this as a feature as I prefer using the 'normal' viewfinder (I'm oldskool like that!), but it certainly has it's uses and I've found myself using it increasingly to frame shots at awkward camera angles which is handy. I also understand why people love adjustable live viewfinders!

Before I bought this camera I used to spend a long time hopelessly lusting after cameras like the 1D MKIII or IV wishing I had something that would just shoot a bit faster or grab subjects a bit quicker. Since owning the 7D I don't think I've bothered to look at any other cameras - this one is still going strong and it provides everything I need in a camera body. The crop sensor, high resolution and really fast speeds all combine to make it an excellent sports or wildlife camera. You don't get quite the resolution or the image quality that you can get with a (full frame) 5D MKII or III, so if those things are important to you, then the 7D might not be the camera you want. If you're after something reliable, super-fast and affordable for shooting fast-moving things then you could certainly do far, far worse.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Review: Canon 17-40mm F4 L

Well look what arrived in the post today:


Up to now, I've always used the Tamron 17-50mm F2.8 zoom lens to cover this range, and I've been almost completely happy with them. The Tamron's produce excellent images (especially on 1.6 crop sensors), and have an extra f-stop and 10mm at the zoom end over the Canon 17-40mm which I must admit I think I'll miss.

So why did I buy the Canon? Essentially it's because I'm completely sold on Canon's weather-sealing and I'm about to lose the second Tamron in 2 years to salt and/or water and/or mud and/or slime damage so I figured it was time to make a switch. As you will know if you've already read about my photography gear, I give my stuff a pretty hard time. Aside from dragging it around on boats wherever I go, I don't even have a proper camera bag and tend to just shove it all into a rucksack with my lunch if I'm heading out anywhere. I'll use it in rain, seaspray, snow or whatever and I've alarmed more than a few people with the amount of mud and fish scales that have occasionally coated it! The lenses and camera are covered in scrapes and bumps, but not a single bit of it has ever stopped working or failed to produce images as sharp and clear as the day I bought the kit. Except the Tamron. Which is a real shame because like I said, it's a great lens and I'll miss it.

Anyway, my first impressions of the Canon 17-40mm so far are pretty much that it works. I wandered through the main campus at Glasgow University on my way home today and took loads of pictures of wildflowers, architectural shots, a view of Glasgow from the top of the hill, and even a load of shots from a graduation celebration in the main quadrangle, which was great until I got home and the thunder and lightning started and I got too excited... In my haste to try and shoot the storm, I deleted everything off my memory card to make room for the video files and I lost everything I'd shot today. So I don't really have anything very sensible to say about the images as yet, so I'll just show you this frame grab instead!

Lightning strike over Glasgow city, with an Alexander 'Greek' Thompson building in the foreground (which wasn't hit).

The only things I can really say about the lens so far though are that the autofocus is absolutely silent (to the point that I thought I'd switched it off completely) and incredibly fast and the build is nice and light, but feels sturdy. The zoom ring feels a little heavier than I'm used to from my other lenses, but it's not a big deal at all. The one thing I can't quite figure out is the ridiculous lens hood that is supplied with the lens. It's absolutely enormous and converts an otherwise perfectly normal-looking lens into  something that looks more like a giant cartoon flower. Maybe it's just there to make it look more impressive, but I can't imagine it offers that much protection or shading? I'll use it anyway since it can't hurt (except to make it slightly more awkward to squish everything into that rucksack), and since I regularly whack lenses off things it makes more sense to have the lens hood take the impact than the glass. Still, I'm pretty glad I bought a polariser to fit it as well since there doesn't seem to be a lot of front-end protection there.

Normal lens

Enormous flower-thing! 

Anyway, if the weather stops terrifying the dog long enough that we can actually go outside again for more than 30 seconds I'll hopefully have some replacement photos to share with you from this lens over the weekend. If not, the hound will have to be my test subject!

Ok, so the weather improved over the weekend and although we couldn't head out of the city because we had some friends staying over, I took a wee trip out to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and the Kibble Palace to test the lens out. I'm quite pleased with it! Here are a few test shots, all taken wide open at F4 across the zoom range. None of these have been sharpened, so they're shown here as they were shot:

Koi carp in the Kibble Palace pond. The glass roof is reflected in the water.

A close-up of one of the statues ('Stepping Stones')

As a portrait lens, it's pretty nice at the 40mm end. Kev was angry I made him look at plants.

Close up of a banana leaf

A close up of a red flower. The bokeh is quite nice, though it doesn't give the same separation of subject and background that you can get with wider aperture lenses.

Triffids! ... I mean Venus fly traps and pitcher plants

I'm pretty impressed with this. The sharpness and overall image quality already seem better than I was getting with the Tamron 17-50mm so I'm looking forward to seeing how it performs in more 'real-life' shooting scenarios on the next research cruise. It looks pretty nice as a short portrait lens (at the 40mm end), but the 17mm end shows a fair amount of distortion as you'd expect. It's not as bad as the fisheye, but it's not very flattering!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Two Years of Wildlife in the Outer Hebrides

My camera gear gets a pretty rough time when I take it out in the field. If I’m not at the coast on sandy beaches or gloopy mudflats, I’m usually out on a boat of some type in every kind of weather Scotland can come up with. From 2007 to 2010 I spent some time working with some of the trawl fishermen based in the town of Stornoway to study the bycatch (any non-target species) in their catches and to try and figure out ways to make the fishery more sustainable. As a result, I’ve spent quite a lot of time at sea on a couple of the boats which, although it’s been pretty challenging at times (largely depending on the weather!), has also been an amazing opportunity to get up close to a huge variety of Scotland’s marine life amongst some of the most gorgeous scenery in the country!

The area I was working in is called the ‘North Minch’. The Minches are the bodies of water that lie between the northern islands of the Outer Hebrides (Lewis & Harris) and the Scottish mainland, and is approximately the area shown in red on the map below. As with most of the Scottish west coast, this region supports an extremely rich marine community and while I have not yet had the chance to go diving here, the evidence for it from the surface is clear from the numbers of seabirds and marine mammals we saw on each trip. The trawls themselves also gave us a glimpse of some of the underwater life and many of the images in the Marine Identification gallery are of animals caught in trawls from the Minch.

Map showing approximate area of the North Minch
(Image from WikiMedia Commons)

The wildlife you could expect to see in the Minch, as with anywhere, varies throughout the year, and after two years and over 300 hours at sea out there, we were able to piece together a picture of the common species you may expect to see at sea around the Isles of Lewis and Harris over the course of a typical year. Hopefully if you ever visit the islands this will help give you some idea of the wildlife that is around, and that you may be able to see if you explore the coastline from either the land or the sea. Wildlife-spotting boat trips are available on Lewis as well, so you don’t need to brave the fishing boats to get out and see it all!

Springtime is definitely the season when the wildlife is beginning to warm up in preparation for the summer. The seabirds begin to appear again in force after the winter and the gannets always seemed particularly keen to follow the fishing boats during the spring months, possibly because they provided enough food to tide them over until the plankton bloom brings the shoals of small fish in. Whatever the reason, the gannets were out in force every spring we visited which made it that bit easier to get some good action shots of them.

Gannets are one of my personal favourite birds to photograph, although it took a LONG time to finally get a series of diving shots that I could really be proud of.

A kittiwake displaying its winter plumage

Kittiwakes were always close behind our boat, and many of the young ones were still in their 1st winter plumage. Fulmars and several of the larger species of seagull (like greater and lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls) were also common around the boats.

Gannets followed the trawlers in high numbers in the spring 

The weather in spring is still cold and the sea state can be fairly unpredictable this early in the year, although the Minches are somewhat notorious for their rough weather anyway! This did mean that it was generally more difficult to spot cetaceans (whales and dolphins) or seals – no doubt they were around, and we did occasionally catch a glimpse of the odd porpoise or get a visit from a scavenging grey seal, but they were fairly few and far between. If you’re looking for marine mammals, wait for the summer! 

Grey seals occasionally made an appearance around the nets, but sightings outside the harbour were a rarity
The unpredictable weather did mean that we were land-bound on a couple of days which gave us a chance to see some of the island and take in the stunning white beaches and rocky coastlines that the Hebrides are famous for. They are not called the ‘jewels of the sea’ for no reason, and a tour of the coast is well worth it. As far as the coastal wildlife went, we saw dunlin, ringed plovers, oystercatchers and a variety of gulls on the sandy shores, along with colonies of fulmars and cormorants and shags on the rocky cliffs to the north. And all that in just a few hours – a more thorough exploration would undoubtedly throw up a lot more.

Rain coming in over Broad Bay (Isle of Lewis)

Ringed plover on the shore

Summer is probably the busiest time for wildlife and the best time to visit if you are looking for a variety of species and relatively settled weather (at least as settled as Scottish weather ever gets...!). Summer is really the time to see cetaceans, and the Minch is full of them – on our various trips we were lucky enough to see harbour porpoise, common and bottlenose dolphins and minke whales, and we even saw a baby minke whale breaching clear of the water right next to our boat in 2009! There was no chance of getting the camera in time, but it was an amazing thing to see! Getting calm weather massively improves your chances of seeing cetaceans so try and pick a settled day for it if you can, though I’ve noticed that seabirds tend to prefer a bit of wind to fly about in and tend to sit on the surface on calm days. If you’re after birds in flight, a bit of a breeze is a good thing!

Common dolphins playing in the water around the boat.

The gannets, gulls, kittiwakes and fulmars are still around at sea, although there appeared to be much more ‘natural’ food in the Minches during our summer visits and the gannets, while still present at the trawlers, were typically seen in far higher numbers feeding on baitballs along the coast. Summer is also the time to see great skuas which are summer visitors to Harris and Lewis (and the Orkney and Shetland Isles). These are powerful birds which are capable of attacking and bringing down birds as large as gannets in order to steal food from them (a practice known as kleptoparasitism) or simply kill them. While we were there in summer 2010 there were quite a few of these encounters, some more grisly than others, but which made for pretty interesting behaviour shots! We had rare sightings of various shearwaters as well, although these birds often stayed too far away from us to identify clearly. These are offshore birds which only return to their burrows on land during the summer breeding season and at night, making them a fairly rare sighting unless you are able to travel relatively far out to sea.

A great skua chasing down a gull.

A great skua in flight alongside our vessel.

A lesser black-backed gull coming in to land on the sea. 

As well as the large predatory and scavenging seabirds, many of the smaller auks were also around, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills and black guillemots. We saw the largest groups of these around the South Shiant islands, which can be visited with some of the wildlife tour boats operating from Lewis.

As the autumn comes in, the weather begins to deteriorate again and although it is not as cold as in spring, many of the seabirds start leaving the area, particularly the puffins. Gannets did not seem to be around in such high numbers as in the summer either, although the great skuas were still present during one of our visits in September, as were small numbers of sooty shearwaters. Unfortunately, the weather during our later trips was awful, and I wasn’t able to shoot much. To be honest, I wasn’t able to do much of anything on those days except count the minutes back to land!

A sooty shearwater resting alongside our vessel.


A gull taking flight over a golden sea at dawn

Winter in the Minch is freezing cold, dark for all but around seven hours of the day and has a tendency to get quite stormy! Having said that, it is a beautiful time of year to enjoy the scenery of the Hebrides and the dawn light is wonderful. By this time many of the birds have moved on, leaving mainly gulls and kittiwakes behind and a few cormorants. There are herons in the harbour and town centre of Stornoway, and we also saw red-breasted merganser in the harbour in February 2009. There is far more light in February than in December once you get as far north as Lewis, and February is generally good for photography if you can dress warmly enough!

Lighthouse at dawn travelling out of Stornoway harbour (taken around 8.30am) 

Young kittiwakes in their 1st winter plumage are a common sight at this time of year 

Dawn over the Scottish mainland. There are far worse sights to see as you start your day!

One place you should always check out though is the harbour, which is home to a resident group of about 10-12 grey seals, which will come in and feed on any discarded catches when the fishing boats come in each evening.

The grey seals in Stornoway harbour are quite happy to eat any waste fish the boats throw away 

I have no doubt that I have only seen a tiny amount of the marine wildlife that lives on and around the Hebridean Islands, and I suspect it would take a great many more visits to produce a comprehensive listing of everything that lives there! However, hopefully this guide will be of some use if you are planning a trip to the islands and want to see some of the wildlife for yourself. If you would like more information or have any questions about any of my sightings or photographs please don’t hesitate to get in touch at