eye level

My neighbor called to tell me there was a big snapping turtle on his patio, so I went over to make friends.  It was indeed a big one, maybe a female looking for a soft garden spot to lay some eggs.  I decided to get down on turtle level to take some photos.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles often come up into our yards from the lake across the street. Sometimes they bring a collection of algae on their shells, but this turtle is remarkably clean.

They are called snapping turtles for a good reason. Those toothless jaws can produce a powerful pinch, strong enough to tear flesh.  And if they can’t nail you with a vicious bite, snappers will put a nasty gouge in your skin with those long, sharp toenails.  Beware of picking one of these up!

Snapping turtle

That’s eye level, for sure. Look at all that loose skin under the head, which allows them to stretch their head far out of the shell and take a good bite of something.  They can extend their neck and flex it perpendicular to their body, latching their jaws onto whatever is nearby.  I was a little surprised not to see leeches or some other ectoparasites clinging to the turtle’s skin.

Once the turtle got tired of watching me, it moved off the patio toward the garden, raising itself up on its toes to step over a hose. How does a beast whose eyes are at the top of its head know where it’s feet are in relation to an obstacle on the ground?  Obviously, snapping turtles have a wider visual field than you might think.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtle walks over kinked hose by rising up on its toes!

Birds, and more birds, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland

Iceland may have an impoverished bird fauna, compared to what one can see in the U.K. or Europe, but it more than makes up for it with great numbers of the species that are present.  For the bird photographer, this makes it easier to get some good photos.

A really good place to see seabirds is at the cliffs at Arnarstapi on the southern side of the Snaefellsness peninsula.

Shag on a nest, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Shags weren’t very common here, but a couple of them had carved out some space low on the cliffs.

Kittiwake gull, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Kittiwakes are the only gull that nest on cliffs. They were typically found in great numbers lower on the cliff than the fulmars, which are bigger birds and are more aggressive toward everything that approaches their space.

Down on the shoreline below the cliffs were several species of shorebirds, foraging in the sand and rocks right at the edge of the water.

Iceland Gulls, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Iceland Gulls are rather small, with pink feet, and bright yellow bills. They actually don’t breed in Iceland, but instead in Greenland and arctic parts of Canada.  Apparently they are still fattening up for spring breeding before migrating.

Knots, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

A lot of Knots. These small birds look like every other shorebird in the winter, but have bright chestnut back and breast in their breeding plumage, which is why some call them “red knots”.  It’s another arctic breeder in Canada, Europe, and Russia.

Also foraging along the shoreline at other points along the Iceland coast were Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers, and Red Shanks.  These species were exploring the seaweed that had washed up on shore, and the crevices between rocks along the shore, turning things over or probing into sand to find small invertebrates there.  They will all fly on from here to their arctic breeding sites in Europe and Russia.

Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Sanderlings and a Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Red Shank, Budir, Iceland

Red Shanks are well named, as their red legs make them easy to spot.

Arctic Tern with fish

Arctic terms were flying overhead at Arnarstapi above the grassy meadows, some carrying fish.  This species is the longest distance migrator among all animals, flying from its Antarctic home in our winter to breed in the Arctic in our summer, and then back again, a round trip of about 44,000 miles.

Harlequin duck pair, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Harlequin ducks are at home in the open ocean, but they breed in cold, fast moving streams in northern North America, Iceland, and Greenland.  The outlandish color pattern of the breeding male gives the duck its name.

Harlequin duck pair, Iceland

Unfortunately, numbers of these handsome ducks are declining rapidly in North America, due to loss of habitat on cold, northern rivers and oil spills. I hope they fare better in Iceland.

The highlights of our bird sightings was finding a breeding pair of Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebe on some of the small lakes that dot the Iceland landscape.  Brilliant colors of these birds light up the infamously gray, cloudy, rainy landscape here.

Red-throated Diver (Loon), Iceland

A pair of Red-throated Divers (Loon) at rest on a small pond

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, Iceland

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, photo by Debbie Reynolds.

Birds, birds, everywhere

so many birds, so many photos…

Springtime in Iceland is a mecca for bird photographers, as arctic breeding species return to find a mate, build a nest, and perpetuate their species. The road next to our river hotel in Hella is particularly rich with Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Oystercatchers, and Golden Plover.  The bird fauna here is dominated by shorebirds, with few representatives of other orders, like the songbirds (passerines).

Snipe, Iceland

Snipe stand on hummocks of grass or even on fence posts, chirping their monotonous two tone beeps, then take off flying overhead in a display flight, complete with tail feather whirring noises.  They are so common here, we see one about every 50 feet.

Black-tailed Godwit, Iceland

Black-tailed Godwit are another commonly seen species. They are really handsome birds in their breeding plumage, with their chestnut heads and speckled bodies. A male showing off for his lady, hoping for her acceptance of his advances…

Black-tailed Godwit, Iceland

Black-tailed Godwits use that long slender bill to probe for insects and worms in the soil in these fields, but can also be found on inland marshes and estuaries in the U.K., on migration.

Whimbrel, Iceland

Whimbrels are common in the fields, too, sometimes in small flocks, sometimes alone, hunting for the same worms and soil insects.

Redshank, Iceland

We’ve only seen Redshank along sandbanks and coastal shores in the U.K., but here they are commonly found in grassy fields.

Redwing, Iceland

Redwings are the dominant thrush in Iceland. We see them everywhere, in the fields, in the brush near water, in small trees, lustily singing their warbling thrush melody.

Golden Plover, Iceland

Golden Plovers are solitary in these fields, but are seen fairly often.

Meadow pipit, Iceland

Meadow Pipits seem to be the one of the few small passerine birds around. There are no small finches or small insectivores, like warblers or titmice, probably because there is limited food for those types of feeders.

Meadow pipit, Iceland

Fence posts are popular perches in this flat, monotonous grass landscape. Pipits seem to get by in this sparse landscape by eating tiny insects as well as seeds of a variety of plants.

White Wagtail

The friendly little White Wagtail is another common passerine that breeds in far northern latitudes. It is a widespread species in the summer throughout Europe and Asia but migrates to warmer overwintering sites as far south as Northern Africa.  They feed on a variety of small aquatic and grassland insects, flitting and darting around as they track their prey.

Seabirds on Scottish sea cliffs

Handa Island off the northwestern coast of Scotland has some of the most beautiful sea cliffs.  Their base is 3 billion year old gneiss rock, on top of which are layers of sandstone, and finally quartz.  They have weathered and eroded just enough for seabirds to find niches for their nest sites.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

These cliffs get enough rainfall to support some vegetation (mosses, grasses, and a few flowering herbs), a surface very different from the bare rock of the breeding colonies at Bass Rock on the east coast of Scotland.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

The needle rock, magnified from the photo above.  The ranger at Handa Island told us that more people have visited the moon than have successfully climbed this needle.  Sea birds seem to find it easy enough to colonize though.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

Layers of Seabirds stack themselves on the ledges of the seacliffs: shags and cormorants at the bottom, guillemots and razorbill auks above them, fulmars above them just below the top, and puffins in the grassy areas on top.

Rows of Guillemots at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

No one seems to know why Guillemots line up like this with their backs to the sea.

Fulmars at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

Fulmars seem to be less tolerant of others near their nest site, unlike the Guillemots.

Fulmars at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

And three is definitely a crowd for Fulmars.

Puffins at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

As usual, Puffins are the birds everyone wants photos of. There weren’t many of them here yet, it’s still early in the breeding season.

Puffins at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

This little Puffin had been busily excavating a burrow and had a dirty face to show for it. So far it was single, waiting for a mate to approve the nest construction.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

A beautiful area for exploration of both seacliffs and seabirds. Some of the visitors got off the marked path and way too close to the edge!


Handa Island’s great nemesis

Just off the coast from Scourie, on the northwest corner of Scotland, Handa Island presents some prodigious cliff faces that are very attractive to breeding sea birds.  A small boat dropped us off on the island, volunteers from the Scottish Wildlife Trust met us to explain the rules for navigating the island trails, and we set off on a 4 mile loop hike.

Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Most of the reserve has well marked trails and boardwalks to protect nesting birds from human feet!

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Because it’s quite easy to literally stumble upon a Great Skua just sitting on a mound of vegetation just a few feet from the trail.

The Great Skuas were not at all shy, and one sat completely still while at least 6 of us passed by at close range.

Photographing Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Could we get any closer?

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

It’s not a particular pretty bird, and it has a hooked beak, and some wicked looking talons at the ends of its webbed feet.

Skuas are about the size of a large Herring Gull, but with a larger breast, long tapered wings, and powerful and speedy forward flight.  This bird is an intimidator, using its size and aggressive behavior to harass other sea birds into dropping their catch of fish.  They are the breeding sea birds’ nemesis!

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

We watched a Great Skua chase a flock of Kittiwakes and suddenly turn and ram full speed into a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull flying above it, (a bird it’s own size!) pulling it down into the ocean. The Skua proceeded to bite and thrash the Gull to death, plucked it, and then pecked off bits of Gull flesh for its dinner.

Great Skuas will probably not make anyone’s top 10 favorite list because they have some rather unpleasant habits:  robbing other birds of their prey, grabbing the wings of sea birds and pulling them out of the air, harassing penguins into deserting their carefully protected egg or chick and then killing and eating them, even invading sea bird colonies at night to prey on roosting adults.

The end of the road

John O’Groats is the end of the road north in Scotland, and faces the Orkney Islands across a wild piece of the North Sea where the current is so strong it can move 1.5 ton boulders across the sea floor.

John O’Groats Hotel, Scotland

John O’Groats Hotel, Scotland and sculpture portraying the power of the sea at this location. I’m not sure if those are 1.5 ton boulders, but they are quite big.

We visited Duncansby Head, a group of steep sea cliffs with the usual complement of breeding sea birds: shags and cormorants, guillemots, fulmars, and puffins (well, there might have been a few of those).

Duncansby Head, John O’Groats, Scotland

Duncansby Head sea stacks, the triangular rocks are iconic structures of this place.

The most abundant birds in view were the fulmars, a medium-sized white bird that resembles a sea gull, but in fact is related to albatross and petrels rather than shorebirds like Gulls and terns.

Sea stacks at Duncansby Head, Scotland

Sea stacks at Duncansby Head are steep cliffs, with niches carved out by erosion, just perfect for nesting sites.

Sea stacks at Duncansby Head, Scotland

Fulmars on ledges at Duncansby Head

Northern Fulmar, Duncansby Head, Scotland

Fulmars come to land only to breed.  The rest of the year they are on the wing or in the water at sea, completely pelagic in habit, feeding on small crustaceans, marine worms, fish, etc.  They hold food in a fore-chamber of the stomach where digestion of fat is very slow, and might regurgitate the oily contents when disturbed (by humans or a predator).  The stomach contents are quite noxious.

Northern Fulmar, Duncansby Head, Scotland

Like their albatross relatives, Fulmars fly with a stiff (straight) wing, which makes gliding effortless, since they can lock the upper and forearm together at the elbow joint to make one continuous gliding surface.  The structure above the bill is an enlarged nasal passage, used for breathing as well as salt excretion.  They don’t drink water, but can obtain all the water they need from their diet and drinking  sea water, excreting excess salt through the “tube nose”.

The birding crew at Duncansby Head, with leaders Ruth Miller and Alan Davies of Birdwatching Trips (http://www.birdwatchingtrips.co.uk/bird-blog) on the left, and the four intrepid bird watchers on the right. (I’m in the middle next to Alan)

Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, Birdwatching Trips

Up on the Scottish moors

We visited the moorland near the Cairngorm mountains in southern Scotland when we were here two years ago, but it was much warmer on that trip.

Cairngorm mountain hike

Our hike in 2016 was sunny and warm, but the ptarmigan we came to see were far up the snowy slopes from us.

This time with wind chill temps below freezing, we rode the funicular to the mountain top to hunt for the ptarmigan,

Funicular on the Cairngorm mountains, Scotland

The view from the funicular platform on the Cairngorm mountains.

and were rewarded with a ptarmigan posing nicely right outside the landing platform.

Ptarmigan, Cairngorm mountains, Scotland

This male ptarmigan is in breeding plumage, gray speckled above and white below, and blends in well with the rocky ground  and patches of melting snow he traverses each day.

Ptarmigan wear a camouflage coat of white feathers in the winter, but molt to a brown plumage in the summer.  Breeding plumage is the in-between color phase.  In addition to their excellent camouflage, ptarmigan have heavily feathered legs and feet as protection against winter cold.

Ptarmigan, Cairngorm mountains, Scotland

He is much more noticeable against a background of dry grass, and of course his red eyebrow makes him a little easier to spot.  Later in the season, his brown plumage will blend in nicely with this dry grass background.

The star attraction of the high moorland is the Red Grouse, a bird for which the moorland is actively managed, including mowing and burning the Heather to encourage new growth that Red Geouse prefer, and elimination of their potential predators and competitors (which is unfortunate for the conservation of wildlife diversity in this area).  They are handsome birds, good flyers when flushed, and apparently fun to shoot, but not to eat.  All of which sounds rather contrary to the idea of wildlife management

Red Grouse

Male Red Grouse showing his gorgeous feathers and red eyebrows

Red Grouse

Sometimes the red eyebrow is all you catch sight of when the grouse peers out of the vegetation.

Another inhabitant of the high moorland we missed on our last visit is the Ring Ouzel, which is actually a thrush, a relative of the European Blackbird and the American Robin.  They frequent the rocky scree slopes of the moorland mountains, eating a variety of invertebrates, especially earthworms.

Ring Ouzel, Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland

Also known as the vicar bird for his white collar and black “cassock”, its name really comes from the old English term for black bird (osle).

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Holy Island is a very small landmass about 1 mile from the mainland coast of northeastern-most England, and separated from the mainland during high tides twice a day.  Warnings with tidal information are posted on the causeway to the island as well as on roads in the village, but still some cars (and passengers) get stranded by the sudden, incoming tides.

View of the Northumberland coast from Holy Island

This view of the Northumberland coast from Holy Island shows the extensive tidal mudflats exposed during low tides.

Holy Island was the center of Celtic Christianity in 6th-7th century England, and the base of Christian evangelism in north England. Ruins of the monastery and priory still standing would make great background for movies set in the Middle Ages.

Priory on Holy Island

Priory on Holy Island

First established in the 700s AD, the priory was rebuilt in 1093, and in constant use until Henry VIII outlawed it.

While looking at this great view of the priory ruins, we were entertained by a couple of voracious fruit-eating birds.

Song thrush eating ivy berries

A Song Thrush was very delicately and slowly eating ivy berries one at a time.

Blackbird eating ivy berries

Meanwhile a Blackbird (cousin of the American Robin) loads up several berries at a time in its beak.

Wood Pigeon eating ivy berries

And the Wood Pigeon didn’t seem to know what to do with this largesse.

The Snook on Holy Island, Northumberland

Elsewhere on Holy Island, which is 3 miles wide by 1 1/2 miles long, it’s possible to get a sea-less view of the countryside on Holy Island at this quaint vacation rental called “the Snook”.

140,000 and counting

What a spectacle!  A boat ride out to Bass Rock from North Berwick (silent “w”), Scotland to see the world’s largest breeding colony of Gannets, a long-winged seabird related to the Red- and Blue-footed Boobies.  The entire top of the rock was covered with Gannets, packed together like sardines.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Bass Rock is a steep-sided, 300 foot tall remnant of an old volcano about a mile offshore of the Scottish coast.  The white color is a result of densely packed white birds perched all over the rock.

Gannets return each year to this spot to stake out a  postage stamp-sized space to lay their one egg and raise their chick.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

From far away, you can barely see the birds on the rock, but numbers of them are continually flying off and landing there.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Closer up, you can see the individual birds as they crowd onto any somewhat flat surface on the rock.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Pairs of gannets engage in courtship rituals, clicking their bills together to cement their pair bond.

Gannets are strong flyers, using their 6 foot wing span to generate fast forward flight, but more impressive are their adaptations for diving to catch their prey.  Air sacs in the face and chest help cushion the blow of diving from 100 feet at speeds up to 60 mph.  In addition, forward placed eyes give them binocular vision and allow them to pursue prey underwater.  They use their wings under water just as they do in air, twisting and turning as they maneuver after a school of fish.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, ScotlandBass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Correction:  the number of Gannets on Bass Rock was estimated to be 240,000!

Prehistoric bird, the Shag

The European Shag looks like a prehistoric remnant, with its almost scaly appearing feather coat, long slender neck, head, and beak, and glaring green eyes.

European Shag

It’s a taller, more slender version of a cormorant, to which it is closely related. During the breeding season, the Shag’s feathers take on a greenish glow, the top crest of feathers becomes more elongated and erect, and the throat patch turns a bright yellow-orange.

European Shag

My, what beautiful eyes you have…

European Shag

Shag nested at the top of rocky outcrops in the Farne Islands, assembling a few sticks and rotting seaweed into a cup that holds the eggs (usually 3).  The breeding season may begin as early as February in the U.K., and may last until young are fledged as late as October.

European Shag

Once the young have hatched both parents take turns bringing food to their chicks which are completely naked and vulnerable to attack.

Shag are among the deepest divers, bringing small fish like the sand eel up from 150-300 feet. Their dives might last less than a minute, but with less waterproofing as well as less air trapped in the feathers, and by using their webbed feet to kick them downwards, they quickly reach the bottom ocean sediments to harvest a resource other seabird divers might not.

European Shag

Unmated Shags “hanging out” on the rocks of one of the Farne Islands, while looking for a mate and a good rocky crevice for their nest.