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Archive for the category “nature”


If you follow us on Facebook [other social media are available] you will know that we have recently been away for a week to Lewis and Harris for a wet week.  Our arrival was delayed by over ten hours as the morning ferry was cancelled due to gales which had kept the ferry over in South Uist and which also closed the Skye Bridge.  This further delayed the ferry as by the time they hoped to run there were only a handful of vehicles waiting.  We finally sailed at around 6:30pm, via an unscheduled stop at South Uist which turns a 90 minute crossing to Harris into 4 hours, so it was nearly midnight when we arrived at our firs accommodation in Great Bernera in North West Lewis.

For the most part the weather continued wet and often windy.  Now, this sort of weather can be quite conducive to photography – the dark brooding skies, misty landscapes, that sort of thing.  However, horizontal rain at 40 mph does tend to get onto your lens, however deep the hood and I’m grateful that Pentax SLRs tend to be weatherproofed*.  So for the most part, photographically it turned into more of a recce for later trips.  The bad weather was, however, good for working on the beaches.

Luskentyre beach #1. Shot from below the level of the tops of the breakers from a hopefully safe distance!

Now, I hear you say, if the rain is horizontal at 40 mph why do you want to be on a beach?  Fair point, but if you want waves, you need wind.  And I have set myself a project over winter to shoot a set of seascapes.  I also have a strange affinity for the coast [just as well, living a couple of hundred metres from it…].  Although I was born in the heart of the Midlands as far away from, the sea as you can get in Britain I spent much of my childhood in Northern Ireland where the coast was only a 45 minute car-ride away, and a frequent destination at weekends.  And then later, a few years after university I spent time working at a marine station in the Irish Republic doing rocky shore surveys.


Luskentyre beach #2. Wind blowing the tops off the breakers…

So I love beaches [although not hot sunny ones full of sunbathers!] and the shoreline in general.  I love being at the margins, at the edge looking out.  Which is perhaps why I love the west of Scotland and the west of Ireland, at the edge of the continent, looking out…  When I stand on a beach, on the margins of the land, looking out onto a stormy sea I see raw power, I see chaos, I see a terrible beauty,  I see a universe that is utterly indifferent to my continued existence and could sweep me away in an instant – yet I am beguiled.  There is an intensity that overwhelms the senses and I become marginalia, simply a passing mark on the sands, at the edge, indifferent to everything but the moment.  And if I have a camera, trying to capture the moment.

If you do follow us on Facebook you will have already seen two of these images, but I make no apology for including them here, not least because I’m still working on the others!  Usual when shooting water I use slow shutter speeds to suggest movement, or even stillness with very long exposures, but here I’ve tried to capture the power and forms of the sea so the shutter speeds are quite high, up to 1/1250 in #1.


Luskentyre beach #3. The blue and the grey and the white…

I did take some photographs of other things, and one of them has a little lesson to teach.  But I’ll tell you about that next time…

* In the days when we could afford trips to both Antarctica and Greenland I happily shot away while users of more lauded brands of camera had theirs seize up in the cold and damp, and in at least one case, terminally…

Currently listening to: The Time Has Come – Anne Briggs.


On the road again…

So on Monday evening after work I finally got out to take photos and DO NOTHING ELSE for a few hours.  I took myself off to Talisker Bay in Minginish.

A few words for the uninitiated [Sgitheanachs can move along: nothing to see here…]. Talisker Bay lies about five miles from the Distillery that shares it’s name – the distillery is in Carbost, on Loch Harport, although it was on the Talisker estate, hence the name.  The area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of two rare species of Burnet moth and the geology.  And the geology gives us black and white sand, which opens  interesting photographic possibilities.  Also, as it faces due west into  The Little Minch you get spectacular sunsets.

Talisker Bay sunset

Terminal Beach*.  Landscapes on drugs: surreal colours in the sunset at Talisker Bay…

And so it proved.  I was a little late arriving, not least because the road down Glen Oraid faces directly into the setting sun and I had to stop and clean the windscreen and drive slowly as I was completely dazzled despite sunglasses and a peaked hat pulled right down.  It’s a twenty-odd minute walk to the beach and I got set up just as the sun was setting.  The tide was receding as well, even faster than my hairline, so more sand was being uncovered which was what I wanted.  That said, the extreme contrast between the sky and the beach, even after sunset needed a three-stop hard grad neutral density filter to hold detail in the sky [yes, there is post-processing as well, but best not to burn out the sky, or there’s nothing to process] in addition to various ND filters to add different effects to the sea.

Making tracks: drainage at Talisker Bay

Making tracks: drainage at Talisker Bay

Sometimes the most pleasing images are at your feet.  A the sun sank lower below the horizon, I decided to concentrate on the beach and take the horizon out of shot. The lighting was also influenced by a very bright moon over my shoulder.  And here you can clearly see the thin layer of white sand on the black sand base, picked up in the low light, like the trail of some ancient sea creature returning to the waves.  They will both be available as prints i the gallery very soon.

*The Terminal Beach is a short story [and a short story collection] by the late JG Ballard.  The terminal beach in that case is at Eniwetok [now Enewetak], which was used for nuclear bomb testing by the US, including Ivy Mike, the first hydrogen bomb detonation.  I like the title for the image, although in my imagination the colours fit better with the mood of the shimmering land- and waterscapes of The Drowned World.

Currently listening to: Veckatimest – Grizzly Bear

A new benchmark

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then, to coin a phrase, I’ll begin…

There’s a lot of waste wood around the property at the moment, some left over from the work on the annex, some from the ongoing work on the garage, and some from old fencing that was dumped behind the garage.  It’s a good supply of kindling for the woodburner but I have designs on some of it – I need a larger workbench for the studio for which I’ve started to cut wood.  But today’s project was a different bench – a bench seat for outside the house.

Kit of parts – either that or a bench dropped from a great height...

Kit of parts – either that or a bench dropped from a great height…

I’ve been designing a simple bench in my mind for years, for the leftover wood from the deck I built years ago back in Greenford but never got around to building it.  It’s a more practical life up here on Skye, so I set to work yesterday sorting out timber to experiment with.  I did, however, have one disappointment.   Out of interest I did an online search for bench plans and found that my fledgling design already existed.  Not only did it exist but it even had a name: it’s an Aldo Leopold bench.  No, me neither.  But perhaps I should have.

Leopold, it turns out, was an early player in the American environmental and wilderness conservation movement, becoming professor at the University of Wisconsin. Here’s a quote from A Sand County Almanac, a collection of his writing published shortly after his death in 1948.  “… a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”  And amen to that.

By a  happy co-incidence with my discovery of Aldo Leopold we also recently discovered that 2013 is The Year of Natural Scotland [don’t know how I missed that!].  The more observant of returning readers may have noticed that I’ve added their logo to the blog’s banner.

Anyway, back to the bench.  It’s a very simple design that can be made from a few lengths of solid timber [the original spec seems to be 8″ x 2″ by enough to finish] a few screws and coach bolts: all things that have been found lying around rural properties for generations.  It’s true to the original conservation ethos that the timber has been reclaimed. Unfortunately I couldn’t reclaim quite enough 8 x 2 so the back is made from two pieces of  3 x 2, which gives it a lighter look, although weakens it a little.  There’s a very slight lateral wobble [although no worse than many commercial garden benches!], so I may make a few tweaks – maybe a stretcher on the rear legs.


The finished (for the moment) result

As there is an environmental flavor to this post I also can’t help but note that today the Scottish government has given consent to the building of a wind farm off Aberdeen.  This is in plain view of the controversial golf complex being developed by American egocentric and bewigged buffoon Donald Trump, and which he has been opposing as it “will spoil the sea view for the golfers” and “will definitely be the destruction of Aberdeen and Scotland itself”.  This is the same golf course that was built on, and destroyed, a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  Sorry Donald, your opinions on anything related to the environment are as valid as what ever it is that seems to have gone to sleep on your head.  And less intelligent.  Goodness knows what Aldo would have thought…

Currently listening toTraces – Karin Polwart

Gestation of an image

I’m not giving away any trade secrets when I say that process of producing photographs has changed dramatically since the advent of affordable digital cameras.  And if we are honest, the internet has pretty much killed the concept of a ‘trade secret’ anyway, if you can sort the wheat from the chaff*.

Any digital image you see has been manipulated in some way, whether in ‘post-processing’ at home on a computer, or in camera.  Yes, your camera manipulates your images, whatever you tell it to do or not to do.  It must, as it has to convert the signal from the sensor into a readable file.  Even so-called ‘RAW’ files are manipulated according to the manufacturer’s needs (there being no real industry standard) often auto-correcting geometric distortion from the lens – it’s cheaper than producing top-notch glass…

The level of digital manipulation that people think is acceptable varies greatly.  The purists think that anything other than a straight file conversion is wrong, but as I pointed out above, there is no ‘straight’ conversion.  Are optical filters on the camera lens wrong?  I still use graduated filters and polarizers .  Were ‘wet’ darkroom tricks wrong?  As long as it’s clear what you are doing there’s no real problem, but as a landscape photographer I draw the line as adding or removing major elements of an image.  There were a couple of essays by an award-winning photographer on a well-respected online landscape photography site last year demonstrating how he had, among other things, added trees to one side of a road up to a ruined castle to create an avenue.  The finished result might look visually impressive, but in my book is totally dishonest, and relies on the viewer being unfamiliar with the subject.  Would he have dared to do the same with an iconic view of, say, the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel Tower?  I think not…

The image awaiting birth is the one I used for the Season’s Greetings, taken on 2 December and initially edited the same day.  It was produced by taking a series of images taken by a regular  digital SLR mounted on a tripod and rotated between shots and merging them in Photoshop Elements.  In this case they were standard horizontal images, although if possible I prefer to merge a larger number of vertical shots as this gives greater potential for enlargement or cropping.  It also takes longer and it was getting very dark, so the series of vertical shots wasn’t sharp enough for what I wanted.

Cullin panorama, version 1

In the beginning…

As edited for the season’s greetings it works nicely, but the exaggerated blue tones in the sky are OTT for a large print and cause some poor gradations.  None of this is helped by my ‘standard’ panoramic print size being wider than this, thus including more sky†.  There were also some artifacts in the sky, caused by the merge and subsequent editing, (and dust on the sensor) that needed attention.  So, I went back to the original.

Although this is a series of merged JPEGs it’s still very blue.   Once the sun is down the light is blue, and I’m not that bothered about tweaking the white balance in the camera that much as I always post-process anyway, and usually use RAW files.   [In film days I would have used a pale orange filter on the camera to warm the tones.] There are other things that are less apparent.  When you enlarge the image and drop a reference grid on it, you see that it is slightly crooked. [You have to look at the edges of the houses – the telegraph poles on Skye do lean every which way.  As long as they are leaning in the same direction in the evening as they were in the morning we don’t worry…].  Some editing is in Elements, some in Adobe Lightroom, which is a specialist RAW editor.

Crooked image

Look at the houses, not the telegraph poles!

I also wanted to crop it to my ‘standard’ ratio.  This means losing the right hand side [Ardtreck Point on Minginish, since you ask], and on the left, the peaks of Glamaig, which is a Corbett.  [Look it up, I can’t explain everything!].  This puts the village of Portnalong nicely off centre, one-third of the way across [look up ‘the rule of thirds’ as well], with Loch Harport and the wooded cliffs around Fernilea giving a nice diagonal path into the picture.  Of course, the main feature are the snow-capped Black Cuillin, which sit majestically in the background.  Hence the title “White on Black”.

Still not completed.  Although the blue cast had been removed, the image was flat, so the sky was darkened with a digital graduation – the original shots were made with a 1.5 stop soft graduated filter to hold the detail in the sky.  Similarly, the foreground needed a little brightening.  Being an irregular shape this needed the selection brush.  So that’s where we are.  I’ll probably play about with it a bit more, especially when I start printing.  I don’t hold this up as an exemplary image or claim to be the world’s greatest image editor, and there are some steps I’ve missed out, as I’m already over 1000 words (!), but it’s a brief insight for the non-photographers of what goes into producing what will hopefully be a saleable print.

Snow on the Black Cuillin

White on Black

Oh, and Happy New Year!

*This latter point is a bugbear of mine.  Never mind teaching children to use computers (they can do it better than you and I can straight out of the womb), what we need to be doing is ensuring that young people develop the critical faculties to be able to differentiate what is genuine, properly researched and sourced information from what is personal opinion, invective, prejudice and ‘urban myth’ – the information age’s version of Chinese whispers.  And no, Wikipedia, for all it’s glories, is NOT a primary source.

† The length/width ratio of my printed panoramas is derived from the maximum width of paper roll that my printer will take, coupled with the first panorama of Skye that I wanted to print.  Curiously, the ratio of the images is within a whisker of that produced by my old  6×17 cm panoramic film camera…

Currently listening to: Aleyn– June Tabor [Di nakht nor aleyn iz mit mir –The night alone is with me…]

Skye at night


What the hell are they doing in Staffin?

First a note on the main title.  I actually started this post shortly before the death of Sir Patrick Moore . For those of you outside the UK, Moore presented 703 episodes of The Sky at Night, starting in 1957, making it the longest running television programme with the same presenter in history.  He was Britain’s greatest ever populariser of astronomy and a gloriously eccentric figure. I can’t claim to know if he would have objected to my appropriating the title or invoking his name, but as he was quite happy to send himself up, I somehow doubt it…

The night sky on Skye is a joy to behold on those occasional clear  nights, an astronomer’s paradise.  If you look up the milky way (our home galaxy, seen edge on) is clearly visible drifting across the 3000 or so stars that might be seen unaided*.

Admittedly if you look up normally you are, if there is sufficient light, far more likely to see  drops of water falling towards you at between something like 3 to 8 metres per second (larger drops fall faster, but break up at around 8 metres per second apparently), and more of them than Patrick Moore ever saw stars through his telescope.  They may still be accelerating too, as if the cloud base is just above the chimney pot they won’t have reached terminal velocity.  There again, they are  just as likely to be coming at you closer to the horizontal at somewhat greater speed…

What got me started on this is that NASA recently released new images of the earth at night (the so-called ‘black marble’), composites of cloud-free night images of the earth taken by the Suomi NPP satellite.  I’ve downloaded the ‘big’ image, the Google earth version, and very nice they are too.  Here’s the extract covering Skye, slightly enhanced.

Skye at night

Skye at night © NASA

You can clearly see the bright light of Portree in the centre, and the lesser lights of Broadford and Kyleachin lower down. We’re not far from the fuzzy blob that is Dunvegan (and you can take that description how you will!)  All is as you would expect.

However (there’s always a however – although preferably not at the beginning of a sentence!) when The Guardian (along with other newspapers) published the global image as a centre spread on 7 December it had a few detail images, including the UK, that were not drawn from the ‘Black Marble’ set, and actually date from 27 March.  The quality isn’t as good, but the brightest light on Skye seems to be coming from Staffin.  Staffin is a small village, yet in this image is almost as bright as Inverness, the ‘capital of the Highlands’ on the extreme right. So what the hell are they doing up there??

Skye at night3

What the hell are they doing in Staffin? © NASA/AP

*This is the normal figure given as the approximate number of stars visible to the naked eye from one non-light polluted spot on the earth’s surface on a cloudless, moonless night for someone with good vision.  There are a lot of qualifiers in there, and I don’t know if this includes other visible objects such as galaxies and nebulae, so if you want to argue about the number go somewhere else…

Currently listening toMule Variations – Tom Waits (which, not at all co-incidentally, includes the marvelously paranoid spoken track ‘What’s he building’)

More ramblings, naturally…

So summer treads wearily towards autumnal slumber as the nights slowly lengthen again.  There’s heather down the moor (I know her well!) – according to the locals it’s flowering better than they can remember.  It is as if nature has taken a dry brush loaded with purple and dragged it over the rough-toothed landscape, leaving a trail of gloriously subtle colour.

The swallows in the woodshed fledged successfully and have been wheeling around the house since.  I had a pleasant surprise the other evening on my nocturnal rambling around the property looking for an absent cat.  I shone the torch in the woodshed and a couple of bleary-eyed swallows stared back at me, so it seems some of them are still coming back in the evening to roost.  As did Piano, the absent cat (eventually).

The list of Byre Birds has been added to.  The summer additions are Blue tit, Bullfinch, Cuckoo, Dunnock, Grey Wagtail, Redpoll, Reed bunting, Sedge warbler, Song Thrush, Whinchat.  The Dunnock was obviously an oversight on the last list, and I did actually see a cuckoo before they went south again – there was one calling from the telegraph pole outside.  There has been a definite change in birds visiting the feeder and generally around the garden with this year’s fledglings.  We finally had some blue tits show up (there are loads around our neighbours up the township road, but they have their own woodland), and you can’t move for robins at the moment, although that will change when their red plumage starts to show.

Yesterday we had a special visitor.  Just after lunch I looked out the window. and there was a female sparrowhawk on the back lawn, plucking a pigeon (the females are much larger than the males, which could never take on a pigeon!).  Needless to say, while I was grabbing my camera it disappeared into the bushes, taking the pigeon with it.  When I went out there was a large pile of feathers and a head on the lawn, and a sudden clattering in the bushes as the sparrowhawk flew off.  The cats investigated the carcass – Piano pawed at it but lost interest when it didn’t move.  But an hour later it was gone, so I assume the hawk came back and moved it while my back was turned.

Bad hair day

I don’t know why, but there seem to be a lot more highland cattle visible at the moment – maybe they’ve just been moved closer to the roads I frequent; maybe it’s a seasonal thing and we just haven’t been here long enough to know.  Anyway, I’ve been wanting to take some photographs of them, so it’s given me some good opportunities…

Currently listening to: Shleep–  Robert Wyatt.

Stirrings in the woodshed

There’s something stirring in the woodshed.  As I mentioned in a previous post, we had some swallows building a nest in the woodshed.  I’ve been watching them fly in and out, but not much seemed to be happening with the nest, so I decided to risk going in to have a closer look.  And three little pairs of eyes looked back at me.  Their eyes are fully open so they must be at least 10 days old (I think), but the feathers are still fairly rudimentary.  Incidentally I can only tell this from the quick burst of pictures I took: I’m leaving them in peace again now.  The fun will start when they leave the nest.  They tend to start hopping and fluttering around the nesting area before they can fly properly and then return to the nest, so there could still be danger from Piano and Puzzle.  For now, their parents perform a valuable service for me: if I see them dive-bombing something it’s a good bet that one of the cats is hiding in the long grass!

swallow chicks

Something stirring in the woodshed

Currently listening to: The Reckoning– Steve Tilston

Nature ramblings

or Sprungwatch©*

Spring, having sprung, is rolling into summer here at the ‘Byre.  The trees are now aquiver with fledgling birds screaming “feed me, now!” at harassed parents.  Cats are aquiver with thoughts of fledgling birds and whingeing “let me out, now!”  And your author is less than aquiver with thoughts of painting the outside of the house.  The downside of white-painted cottages is that they have to be painted.  White.

Goldfinch, which, according to the distribution map on the RSPB website, is absent from Skye…

We seem to have a pair of swallows building a nest on the joists in the woodshed.  There’s no signs of previous nests so I suspect they may be first timers.  I worry that it will end in tears.  The chances of it staying warm and sunny (!) and them not being disturbed if we need wood is slim, although I have got a small stockpile in the garage and will build up that store for the moment.  Mainly though, the woodshed is not cat-proof, and the roof isn’t very high.  One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but it might make a tasty snack…

We are on the route for the local brown hares (or at least one of them) to cross over to the fields in the evening to feed.  There aren’t many places where you casually look up from your evening meal, look out of the window, and spot a hare equally casually wandering down your drive, across the front of the house, and around the garage.  It’s even more surprising to be sitting on the bench in front of your house reviewing photos you’ve just taken (a process known as ‘chimping’) to look up and see a hare, totally oblivious, six feet in front of you.  Of course, in raising the camera it suddenly becomes aware, puts a wiggle on, and is gone (see below!)  Piano and Puzzle have spotted one once, but it was gone before they really took it in.  Not that there would be an issue.  A good-sized hare would be roughly their size and would leave them standing in a sprint as hares can get up to 70 kmph.  Anyway, the The Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 introduced closed seasons for the killing or taking of wild hares, which for brown hares runs from the beginning of February to the end of September, so they are out of season!

Hare today, gone, well, today really…

Down on Ose Point if the tide is right you can watch the grey seals hauled out on the rocks.  And, if you are lucky, an otter, although they are somewhat camera-shy, but I will keep trying.  Even so, it’s wonderful just to be able to see them.  I haven’t seen an otter in the wild since I worked in Ireland on Sherkin Island doing seashore surveys over 25 years ago.  The seals are old friends from that time as well.

Grey seal

Watching me, watching you

Unfortunately, it is also the season of possibly the most famous animal in Scotland.  I refer to none other than the Highland midge Culicoides impunctatus  (Meanbh-chuileag in the Gaelic – tiny fly apparently).  The target of more ‘patent’ repellents than any other animal in Britain.  I favour anything containing industrial strength DEET† (I always do) even if it does melt plastic and strip the waterproofing off canvas, but I reserve the right to change my mind over a full season. Apparently the favoured patent repellent is dry oil body spray from Avon’s Skin So Soft range, which midges are supposed to hate.  From my extremely limited experience of Avon cosmetics I suspect this may just be a demonstration of good taste among Scottish midges! The idea that midges won’t attack indoors, that I have seen being peddled on more than one ‘advice’ page on the interwebs is rubbish.  If they can get in (and they are devious little blighters) they have moderate humidity, lowish light levels and no breeze – just what they like – and I can assure you they will bite, but you will have to take my word for it, as I’m not posting photographs of the evidence!

*Sprungwatch is copyright OldByreSkye.  Any resemblance to titles of network television programmes is entirely in your imagination, although we are Humbled by any association.

N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide.  Usually thought of as interfering with the sense of smell in insects, behavioural studies in mosquitoes have shown that they apparently just don’t like the smell!

Currently listening to: My Halo at Half-light – Snakefarm

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