Fair Isle, measuring at just 3km wide & barely 5km long is Britain’s most remote inhabited island. It can be found marooned in the North Sea between Shetland & Orkney. Due to its location it is not the easiest place to get to. But once you set foot on the island, it truly is a puffin paradise & with almost 24 hours of daylight during June it is a photographers dream. The puffin population on Fair Isle may not be the biggest in the UK, but it is difficult to argue that it isn’t the most beautiful. Read on for my thoughts on the Puffins of Fair Isle & why Shetland, & in particular, Fair Isle, is one of the best locations to capture images of the comical clowns of the sea.
I have recently returned from leading a 6 day trip for NaturesLens to this beautiful location. The target species of the trip were the ever comical Atlantic Puffin & what photographer doesn’t love puffins?
The trip was timed to coincide with the annual bloom of pink thrift on the island which flower among the puffin colonies.
The photography holiday is entitled The Puffins of Fair Isle & whilst, yes, the puffins are the star attractions of the trip, Fair Isle offers so much more. We managed to photograph fulmars at close quarters, Arctic & Great Skuas, terns, rabbits, wheaters, seals & a whole host of other migrant birds that pass through the island. If landscape photography is more your thing the stunning coastline offers endless photographic opportunities.
The problem with photography on any island, be it Skomer, Fair Isle, Lunga or the Farnes, is that your chances of getting onto the islands are largely governed by the weather. During the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland I received a call from the skipper of the Good Shepherd, our ferry to the island, that all boats to the island were to be cancelled for the next few days due to a strong storm out in the North Sea. This was a cruel blow to be dealt but thankfully I had a great group of guests who were all understanding of the circumstances.
Our backup plan had to be called upon & the group were booked onto the next available flight to Fair Isle, plus alternate accommodation was arranged for the following two days. We spent the next days photographing the wildlife around the local area. Our accommodation was close to the puffin colony of Sumburgh Head, meaning that myself & the guests still managed to get a start on capturing images of the puffins.
The coastal path that followed the cliff edges up to the puffins was full of potential photographic opportunities. One evening we were heading back along this path when we managed to find a pair of fulmar courting amongst the thrift. Sumburgh Head is located at the southern tip of the Shetland mainland, the head is a 100 metre high rocky spur capped by the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse. The cliffs are home to large numbers of seabirds & the area is an RSPB nature reserve.
After a few days spent at our base at Sumburgh it was time for our flight to Fair Isle. The flight over to the island is only a short one taking around twenty minutes. Flying over Fair Isle you can truly appreciate how truly epic the island is, It’s rugged coastline with the waves crashing against the cliffs, & the masses of seabirds soaring over the ocean below. Each time I visit this view reminds me what a special place this is. After a slightly shaky landing, we were welcomed by our host & transferred to the Bird Observatory, which was to be our base for the trip. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory itself is relatively new, only being built in 2010. It offers great rooms, excellent food, friendly staff & finally stunning views over the cliff & harbour. The biggest asset of its location is it’s only a short walk to the puffins. Making it easy to nip back for breakfast, lunch, dinner & evening hot chocolate. Trust me you do get fed well on the island!
Following a quick induction by our hosts, we were ready to head out for our first puffin session on the island, after a cruel delay, I was finally able to take the guests to see the Puffins of Fair Isle! Usually with puffins the best time to photograph them is in the evenings when they congregate in large numbers. Similar to Skomer the real beauty of this island is being able to photograph in the magical light that bathes the puffin colonies at dawn & dusk. Our first session with the puffins was the best of the trip. We had some great light to work with & all the guests got some cracking images.
The following morning we awoke to dark grey skies. We decided to head up to the cliffs for a short session with the puffins before breakfast. Following breakfast the plan for the day ahead is very flexible, We have the option to work the puffins for another session, focus on the many seabirds that nest on the island or simply relax in the accommodation. During the tour a few guests decided to grab a packed lunch & just enjoy exploring the island.
The rest of the group decided to work with the Skuas on the island. If you have never tried to photograph a great skua before I look forward to seeing your first encounter. These birds are awesome predators, but just watch your head. There are large number of great skuas aka ‘Bonxies’ breeding on the island & a much smaller population of the more elegant bird the Arctic Skua. The birds are relatively easy to find they are more likely to let you know they are about before you have spotted them. The below bird was very confiding & after a slow approach was relaxed in our presence.
We all met back up for dinner from the window we could see the ominous dark clouds hovering above the puffin colony. Fair play everyone wanted to head back up to the colony so after a quick turnaround we were heading back up to the puffins. Along the way we spotted a small group of Fulmars resting & with the stormy skies above made for some great moody lighting on the birds.
By the time we had got to the puffins the sky had darkened & the light conditions had deteriorated. So a few images of the puffins against the ocean below was the plan. The wind was blowing a gale on the cliffs & the temperatures really dip in the evening. We decided there would be better opportunities ahead so headed back to the observatory for a warm hot chocolate & cake. Well, there you have it a typical day on Fair Isle the following few days followed a similar pattern to this.
I would like to thank a great group of guests on the trip. They really made this a fantastic trip. Now my attention turns to 2017 when I will again by leading the Puffins of Fair Isle photography tour. If next year is half as good as this on, myself & the participants are in for an absolute treat. Finally, I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite artistic silhouettes from the trip.
Why not photograph the Puffins of Fair Isle for yourself?
If you would like to photograph the brilliant & comical Puffins of Fair Isle, which I will be again leading in 2017, then you can book the 2017 Puffins Of Fair Isle for £1199. This is a great trip & will fill up fast so don’t miss out.
The tour is scheduled to run between the dates of June 17 – 22, 2017.
We include all accommodation on Fair Isle which is a full board basis, flight from Sumburgh to Fair Isle & ferry back from the island to Sumburgh. The itinerary is flexible between puffin sessions to allow us to photograph other species of birds, including Arctic & Great Skuas, Fulmar & other seabirds or if you wish you can head off on your own & explore the island.