Return from the Isle of May and into 2017

Grey seal pup on the Isle of May, just over a week old (taken from a hide during a routine survey of the breeding colony)
A wild short eared owl on the Isle of May, caught for ringing by bird researchers on the island and then re-released.

A slightly belated happy new year to everyone reading this! I’ve returned safe and sound from my research expedition to the Isle of May over the winter, and I’ve more or less re-adjusted to ‘civilisation’  after two months of living on a little island off the Scottish coast with a bunch of seals (read more about our adventures and the research we do here). I had a fantastic time once again, it is my eighth season living and working on a seal colony and it honestly never gets old. I am working on processing all the photos from the trip, but there were plenty of reasons to take a ridiculous number of photos while I was there so it’s taking some time! My next update will hopefully include a detailed account of some of the seals, birds and behaviours I encountered while in the field along with all the best photos from the trip.

Surveying the grey seal colony over the winter on the Isle of May. The old rock walls and ruins on the island come in handy to hide from the seals!

In the meantime:

  • I’ve posted some of my photos from the last few weeks here on the mainland, including frosty mornings with garden birds and seals and seabirds from a day survey back out to the Isle of May in January (link).
  • I’ve finally finished a long overdue review of Edinburgh Zoo, my ‘local’ zoo and a particular favourite of mine (link).
  • I’ve also completed the overhaul of the website’s structure and appearance, so things are running much smoother and hopefully everything is a lot easier to find now. If you do find any broken links, missing images or typos then do let me know.
Robin on a frosty morning

In the coming months I also plan to write about my experiences with the Icelandic whale watching companies I was out with last year to see wild Orcas and I’ll be visiting Twycross Zoo soon, so there will be plenty of reviews and photos coming online along with all the seal related material I’ll be posting. I’ll keep putting notifications of updates to the site on my twitter feed (@KJRScience) so if you want to know when new things are online you can follow me there.

Now, back to those seal photos…

A curious weaned grey seal pup (between 3-5 weeks old) comes over to investigate my boots on the Isle of May. Grey seal mothers abruptly wean their pups at 18 days old and leave them to fend for themselves in the wild, but that doesn’t stop ‘weaners’ from being playful when they feel like it!

Isle of May 2016 begins plus Cotswold Wildlife Park review and new Ed. zoo shots

Mother – pup pair of grey seals by Kirkhaven pier on the Isle of May, Scotland

October means it’s time for me to head out to the Isle of May, an incredible island off the coast of Fife (Scotland) which is home to thousands of breeding seabirds and seals every year. The puffins may have gone but the seals are just starting to arrive and I’ll be here for the next eight weeks to study them as part of my job at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (for updates on the science happening on the island, check out out science blog here).

The colony is still growing at this time of year, and we have lots of pregnant female grey seals waiting to give birth on the shores of the island. The number of mother – pup pairs is growing daily, and we are out every day looking to identify study individuals from the seals that are on the island who have tags in their flippers to aid in picking them out among the crowds. Soon the seals will be everywhere on the island, especially as the pups wean from their mothers and start to explore the interior of the island, they even come up to check out the old lighthouse keeper’s house we stay in!

Pregnant female grey seals waiting to give birth on Kirkhaven beach on the Isle of May, Scotland

In other news, the website has been updated with a review for Cotswold Wildlife Park in Oxfordshire here and I’ve uploaded a load of new pictures from my trip to Edinburgh zoo last weekend in the ‘Latest Photos’ section. Finally, I’ve given into peer pressure and joing twitter (@KJRScience if you would like to find me there), I’m still learning the ropes but everyone keeps telling me how wonderful it is so hopefully I’ll take to it!

Sumatran Tiger
Sumatran Tiger (Jambi) at Edinburgh Zoo

Back to School – Riding the D810 learning curve with Nikon School


Nine years. When you write that figure down, it seems like a very long time for a ‘hobby’ to be a feature of your life. For me, it doesn’t seem too far in the past when those few days that lead me into picking up a SLR camera happened. I can remember them very clearly; meeting with my undergraduate project supervisor at Durham University to talk about getting into marine mammal science and the skills it would be useful to have. A chat with one of my friends who took pictures on his Canon SLR, and his generous offer to lend me his gear for a term and give me a crash course in how to use it. The first afternoon after he left me with the SLR and a head full of, what sounded to me at the time, technical jargon (aperture? ISO? what?) and all the shots I took came out completely black. Setting up a bird feeder outside my college room window to draw birds close by so I could practise using the camera. Ultimately being enthusiastic enough about my new pastime to get my own camera gear, including my beloved Nikon D200. At the time, the D300 had just come out and there were many photographers trading up, so listening to the age old advice about investing in your lens more than the camera body, I ended up getting a second hand D200 to start my own gear collection. Thus began a nine year relationship which has spanned the globe and every weather condition imaginable. To me the D200 is a juggernaut, no matter what I threw at it, it kept going and kept giving me images I could be proud of.

Whether it feels like it to me or not, nine years is a long time for one item (no matter how amazing it is) to shape how you approach and execute an art form. So having been fortunate enough to upgrade my camera body to a D810 this year, I welcomed the change but was terrified by it at the same time. Did I have the abilities to use this new SLR to its full potential? Would the new images be that much better than the ones from the D200, making the investment worthwhile? Would it hold up in the same shooting conditions I was used to subjecting my D200 to, or would I be too afraid to expose it to the wilds? All questions that I have seen photographers ask when debating upgrading their camera gear, which is never an easy decision. But I told myself to stop worrying and just get out there and shoot with the thing, practise and familiarity would surely make me as comfortable with the D810 as I had been with the D200, and I could figure out all the special features given time.

Sadly, this was not quite the case! I went out on one shoot with the D810 and the entire day was an exercise in frustration (although that can partly be attributed to the exposure bar being inverted from what I’m used to on the D200, which I’ve now fixed). Shooting wildlife at dawn in the highlands, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the results. My shots were dark, colour representation was poor and no matter what I tried, my images were not the crystal clear sharpness I was hoping the D810’s phenomenal sensor would produce. I knew I could do so much better if I just switched to the D200 that was lying in my camera bag beside me, but the adage that a poor workman blames his tools was certainly applicable here. Mulling over the shoot at home, I knew that the potential for me to be missing key knowledge about using SLRs was pretty high, as the only ‘formal’ training I’ve had in photography comes from three ‘tog afternoon sessions at bird of prey centres and two lessons from friends who are also interested in photography. So I went in search of a training course that could rectify this, and as luck would have it, the Nikon School in London had a course named ‘Getting started with D810/D800/D800E Part 1’ running the following month…

‘Oh deer…’ (yes a terrible pun for a terrible shot XD)

So a month on from that disaster shoot, I flew south with my camera bag as my only baggage, stuffed with all the gear I owned (sans D200) and a couple pairs of knickers to sustain me over the weekend. I freely admit that I am not a city person, and I can count the number of times I’ve been to London on one hand, so I rode the train into the city with a fair amount of trepidation. But I was only mildly traumatised riding the tube during rush hours and soon found myself stepping in the Nikon School building ready to learn (or at least get my massive bag of gear off my back). You can read a more detailed review of the day here on this site, but the take home message is I loved this course and am so relieved that I went for it despite the massive trip south I had to make.

The course not only greatly increased my knowledge of how to use the D810 camera, but my confidence in using it to produce amazing images. Surrounded by incredible photos on the walls of the school and people as enthusiastic as you about the intricacies of photography, it was hard not to feel inspired while there. I would love to go back for more if getting to the school wasn’t such an issue for me, hopefully in the New Year I will get the chance to return and increase my knowledge and venture outside my ‘wildlife photography’ comfort zone. One slight downside, seeing all the ace equipment they can lend you for the day has made me think about upgrade my lenses too, if only I could! The full frame sensor of the D810 means I should really get a full frame short lens to replace my Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8, and I would love a longer lens for shooting wildlife when I’m not on a boat. I’ve heard many good things about the Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 and getting to try it out at the course got rid of my concerns that it would be too heavy or large to handhold when shooting for a day. Better get saving I suppose, I’m hopefully going to be venturing to South East Asia to try and find some rainforest wildlife in 2017 so its tempting to try and get a lens upgrade of some sort before that trip… but we’ll have to wait and see.

Emperor Tamarin
Tiem for a rematch D810… (Emperor Tamarin shot through mesh at the Cotswold Wildlife Park)
Helmeted Guinea Fowl at Cotswold Wildlife Park, full frame. See the below shot for the 100% resolution showing the feather detail captured by the D810

After the course ended I hightailed it out of London to visit family for what was left of the weekend, and happily everyone was game for an afternoon at the Cotswold Wildlife Park despite some heavy rain, giving me the perfect chance to have a rematch with using the D810 out in the real world. The difference was night and day (you can see the best of the shots in the ‘Latest Photos’ section), the D810 this time round was a joy so I had a great time getting good snaps at the zoo and feeling excited about the upcoming field season I’ll be going on in the winter with the Scottish Grey Seals. The low light capabilities of the D810 are amazing, and the resolution of the photos is unbelievable, I could take images of a bird for example and even hand held, you can zoom in to see the filaments of individual feathers, all perfectly sharp!

Helmeted Guinea Fowl at Cotswold Wildlife Park, 100% resolution showing the feather details in the shot above!

I will still be taking my D200 with me into the field, it’s not let me down come rain, frost or sea salt so I cannot leave it behind while my D810 is currently untested in similar conditions. I also cannot bring myself to part with my D200, despite 9 years of shooting its only just halfway through its life (on 65K shutter actuations) so I see no reason to give up on this amazing camera. I’ve always been told its best to have a back up SLR body when out in the field, and I don’t think I could do better than my D200 which I know so well. And while we were at the restaurant of the Cotswold Wildlife Park I had a reminder of how good the D200 can be on the wall, as there was one of my photos from a few years ago of one of their pallas cats.

It is easy to fall either side of the debate in photography about improving the tools you have or the knowledge you have to use them, but the last month transitioning to the D810 has clearly shown me that it’s important to keep both in mind. Your gear, like it or not, will impact on your work but equally the best gear in the world will not give you amazing images, that’s down to your own knowledge and hard work.

I had to smile thinking to myself in that restaurant, if nine years with the D200 got one of my images on that wall, then where might my images be after nine years with the D810…?

I guess we’ll see


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The D200 is still a fantastic camera body in my book! (Pallas cat, Cotswold Wildlife Park)

Northumberland – Snow, Seals and Sea Eagles

After two months of not getting out on any photoshoots, I’ve finally got some new shots to share from my fantastic Easter holiday in Northumberland with my family. I was so busy with PhD work in february and march I had no weekends free to go anywhere, not even Edinburgh zoo! So I was really happy to get out with my camera taking pics of my family, the dogs Tess and Colin the Border Collies and the wildlife in the area. I even had a go at some landscape shots! I’m considering adding a ‘Pets’ section to the website to put all my dog pictures into, will see how things go. In the meantime I’ve uploaded lots of seal, lamb and bird of prey shots from my time on holiday.

I’d not spent a lot of time in Northumberland before, the last time I was here was a short visit when I was in primary school, and it was great to explore a new region of the UK, the landscape is gorgeous! We went to Hadrian’s Wall, Bamburgh Castle, Kielder Water and one place I’ve not been to in five years, the Farne Isles! Some of my family are not too keen on boat rides so in the end it was only me and Rich who went on the trip. It was a sail around only, the breeding sea birds are not back in huge numbers so we didn’t think it was worth landing on the islands. We did see some puffins flying around, and a black guillimot! Which are rare in this area so that was neat to see. We also saw thousands of grey seals, which I of course loved! They are all there to moult at the moment so are looking very scruffy but it was still ace to see so many of them, even saw some tagged beasties from the Isle of May!

We went out with an organisation called ‘Serenity’ Farne Isles Boat Trips, and they were fantastic! They had a beautiful boat and the skipper and wildlife tour guide were both lovely and really knowledgeable about the islands and all the wildlife in the area. I had a great time, but I couldn’t understand why they had so few people on their boat compared to the other tour operator going from the Seahouses harbour, who’s boat was rammed. Don’t get me wrong, for us as customers it was great to have so much room on the boat (there were only 8 people on that trip) and so many opertunities to talk to the guide one on one, but I felt bad for them, I hope its not what happens all the time. It may be because when you type ‘Farne Isles boat trips’ into google search the other tour comes out as the top search result, and while the blog for the Serenity trips is at the bottom of the first page of search results, their actual web page with the trip info on it is harder to find. Whatever the reason, they are fantastic and if you’re planning a trip out to the Farne Isles I strongly recommend them! I’ve added their site to the list on my ‘links’ page but I’ll put it here too;

Serenity Tours website:                        Blog:

The other place that I really want to talk about is the Kielder Water Bird of Prey Center, which we found on our visit to (no suprise) Kielder Water. This is a fantastic, well designed center with one of the most varied collections of birds of prey I’ve ever seen and one of the best displays (sorry Kielder, I can’t ignore the awesomeness of Banham zoo’s flying display!). It was really windy but the display area is designed so they can still fly some of the owls in a part sheltered by the mews, but also fly the bigger birds in an open area the seating part looks over. I’m not explaining it very well, but it was a great take on a display area I’d not seen before, and despite the wind they flew three owls (barn, ural and european eagle), a black kite and a white tailed sea eagle! I was so excited to see this incredible bird in their mews, and to see them fly her too, was incredible! I’ve seen sea eagles in the wild on both the west and east coasts of Scotland but to see one close up, was amazing. The display was great too, got lots of the audience involved in flying to the glove and throwing bits for the Kite to catch, I was even asked to have some chicken put on my hat for the Kite to snatch off mid flight. Was great fun, yes the kite did steal my hat and then flew off with it for a while but she brought it back eventually, was great! So yeah, if you are in the area and like birds of prey definatly check out this place you won’t be disappointed.

Kielder Water Bird of Prey Center:

Now its back to Scotland and back to work on the thesis. I have no idea when I’ll next get out to take more photos, maybe will get to go see the moray firth dolphins in may or visit one of the southern zoos (banham/colchester/twycross) then, but it’ll depend on how much work I’ve done, and how much I still have to do!

Black Kite steals my hat!

West Midlands Safari Park – Good Day Out but Bad Zoo?

Last weekend I visited my boyfriend and his family in England. We were in the Birmingham area and had some time to kill so decided to go to the West Midlands Safari Park. I’ve not been to a big drive-through park before so was keen to see how it works, and I was lucky that I had Rich with me so he could drive and I could try and get some photos! There was snow everywhere which made some of the enclosures pretty amusing, as they specialise in afrcian and asian species. The animals that were out seemed to be having fun with it though, the african elephants were making snowballs and eating them! Was pretty funny to watch. It was great to have all the herbivore species so close and interacting with you too, you can buy food to feed them out of the car windows, and even though we had no food they all come up to see if you have any. Was great to see so many antelope species in such big herds, there was addax, eland, nilgai, gaur… the list goes on.  They also have two big prides of african lions. Actual prides of more than ten animals! I always think its kind of sad to see lions in captivity in small groups of rarely more than five, so to see these two big groups was great. All in all we had a lot of fun driving around the park and seeing some ace species, and I went off happy but with a few misgivings about the awful sea lion show we saw at the end of the trip…

I know that I’m a tougher person to please when it comes to animal displays, but I have enjoyed all the ‘shows’ I’ve seen in other zoos around the UK and while obviously some are better than others, all of them really tried to educate their audiences about the animals they were showing. Unfortunatly that was really not the case for this show, it was two thirds through the show before they told you what species of sea lion they had! Let alone where they live, what conservation issues they might be facing etc. They also were pretty focused on getting the animal to do tricks for the sake of entertainment, rather than show off natural behaviours of the species. Throwing hoops over the sea lions head? What relevence does that have to anything! Towards the very end it got a bit better and they explained the ways to tell seals from sea lions, but they could make it so much better! Like at one point they got the sea lion to jump out the water several times, and said ‘this is porpoising, which is a natural behaviour!’ Ok thats fine but… why not explain why they do it or how it helps them survive? Perhaps I’m being pedantic, all the kids obviously loved the show as there was a lot of jumping out of the water to hit targets and sea lions are cool charismatic creatures. But I’ve never before been to an animal display in the UK and felt so uncomfortable. And as it turns out… perhaps I was right to be concerned.

I was looking for some information about the individual animals at the park to put in the captions of the shots today and I came across some upsetting information. The Park has recently been reprimanded by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums for selling four white lion cubs to an organisation that trains animals for the entertainment industry, which then sold the lions to a circus in Japan. I’m not even going to go into how questionable breeding white lions is, in brief (like the problems with white tigers) it is not recommended because to get the white genes to turn up the animals must be inbred, and the resources spent keeping white lions could be better used on an endangered species. Despite this, the park bred them, infact over three years (2006-2009) their three white lionesses produced 22 cubs! The park then had a surplus of male cubs they could not house, as the females can remain in the pride but the males cannot. I understand that the cubs had to go somewhere, but to sell them to the entertainment industry!? Its shocking beyond belief, and who knows what has happened to the other male cubs they bred… Those poor lions in Japan, one of them has already been retired to a Japanese zoo because he became so stressed his mane fell out.

So that has taken the shine off my visit somewhat… its very disappointing. I really would not have thought things like this were still happening in UK zoos, and the park can claim that ‘they had no idea the lions would end up in a circus’ but they knew that they would be used for films and TV adverts… it’s just unbelieveable =(

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African Elephant eating snowballs XD

Edinburgh in the Snow

Meercat, Edinbrugh Zoo 2013

Yesterday I finally made it to Edinburgh Zoo while it was snowing, I’ve been trying to do this for years but since I move to Scotland we’ve either had no snow or so much that the zoo’s been closed. So me and two friends braved the icy temperatures and headed south for the day to try and actually see penguins in the snow without going to the antarctic!

Unfortunatly there was no snow left in the penguin enclosure(s), and where they have them currently is quite sad looking in truth because all the penguins are in various temporary enclosures while their main pool gets a make over. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before they are back where they belong. The meercats also looked very out of place in the snow, poor shivering things! But they seemed to want to be outside in the cold digging around in the snow, they did have access to their indoor house but there was even one up on sentry duty freezing his tail off, silly meercat.

Did get to see the amur leopards playing in the snow which was amazing, Zane especially was very active running, jumping and rolling around in the snow. The Jaguars Mowgli and Rica didn’t seem quite so impressed though! Was also very happy to see Tibor and Baginda (the Sumatran Tigers) in the same enclosure at last, hopefully the pitter patter of tiger cub paws won’t be too far away… And was amazed to see a sign for a Clouded Leopard on the big cat walk! I have never seen one of these cats before so can’t wait to see this new arrival.

All in all it was a good trip, although my camera lens continues to play up and there was next to no light to use to shoot in. It was really cloudy so no high shutter speeds were possible, a shame with all the antics Zane was doing. Never mind, hopefully the snow will stay around until my next trip in February and mabye then the sun will be out!

Next trip: either Ed. zoo again in February or perhaps wild capercaillies if I’m really lucky…?

Amur Leopard, Edinburgh Zoo 2013