Shooting Shetland

Our guest blogger today is James Salisbury who, until recently, was studying for a Master of Arts degree in Wildlife Documentary Production at the University of Salford. For his final film he chose to spend a month documenting the birds of Shetland. His film highlights key wildlife and nature reserves in Shetland and demonstrates the importance of these islands as a major ecotourism destination.

After months of planning, research, budgeting, and countless sleepless nights the time had finally come. My Master of Arts degree in Wildlife Documentary Production would balance on the coming month. With the car filled to the point of bursting, I set off on the 22-hour, 621-mile trip from MediaCityUK, the hub for broadcast media in the North-west of England, to Unst, Shetland.

The journey to catch the overnight Ferry from Aberdeen was uneventful, despite the fact that I was so paranoid about hitting traffic, bursting a tyre, or taking a wrong turn and ending up in Cornwall. I drove non-stop until I made it to the ferry terminal. 14-hours and another restless night later, I had arrived safely on Shetland. ©2015 James Salisbury, All Rights Reserved

It was a gorgeous, although slightly chilly, day. I found myself driving north through some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever seen. It took me two hours to reach the Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel on Unst; not a single breath of wind made pitching my tent a breeze (no pun intended) and I was able to spend the rest of the day collecting groceries, getting to know my way around, and generally settling in.

In hindsight, I probably should have taken heed in the old proverb “make hay while the sun shines”. Despite an extremely welcoming first day, the following two weeks on location were less than ideal. Torrential downpours were a daily occurrence, and wind gusts often peaked well in excess of 60mph.

Even though I had a rain cover for the camera and a pop-up filming hide to protect myself from the worst of the inclement weather, I felt that it would have been excessively dangerous to attempt to film on these days. The last thing you want when you’re on a solo-filming trip is to have an accident or find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere, especially when mobile phone reception is sketchy at best.

Shooting scripts quickly went out of the window and I found myself panicking at the thought of not getting all of the footage I needed. I was two weeks in when the weather finally began to improve. It was at this time that I decided to upload an iPhone photo that I had taken of some Edmonston’s chickweed to Twitter. The photo was later retweeted by the BBC natural history unit via their @BBCEarth account. This could not have happened at a more critical time during the shoot. In retrospect, this was my lowest point of the trip, both emotionally and productively; being recognised by the prestigious BBC gave me a huge motivational boost, which drove me to capture as much quality footage as possible.

The original script was set to document two of Shetland’s most iconic inhabitants, the otter and the puffin. Unfortunately, this script had to be changed for two reasons. Firstly, I had very precious time left to track and film the ever-elusive otter. Secondly, I had found out from locals on the island that the month prior to my arrival was the coldest/wettest in living memory, causing a delay in all returning sea birds, including the puffin!

I had to make rapid and drastic changes to my plans. With a basic ‘day in the life of birds on Shetland’ script, I made the difficult decision to film whatever wildlife I could find in the hope that something would piece together into a coherent story. I even began filming myself in case I had to resort to a presenter-led personal journey of discovery through Shetland. Being behind the camera is one of my greatest passions in life; being in front of it however, that is a different story entirely. I can’t imagine anything worse, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Luckily for me, Shetland is one of the most natural and untouched places in the British Isles and as such, had an abundance of wildlife for me to film. I spent every waking hour for the following two weeks filming. Gannets were the first seabirds to return; I was able to get remarkably close to seals on Mousa; I managed to find a rare breeding pair of red-necked phalarope on Fetlar, one of five islands that I visited; the endemic Edmonston’s Chickweed was surprisingly easy to locate; and the puffins eventually returned to Sumburgh. It was a hectic final couple of weeks, but I was able to document some great natural spectacles. I even managed to squeeze in a few hours to time-lapse some of Shetlands most iconic landscapes.

Red-necked phalarope

Red-necked phalarope

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing the red-necked phalarope breed on Fetlar. I knew from research that the phalarope was a rare breeder in the UK and, to be honest, I didn’t expect to see one, let alone film a breeding pair. It was one of those magical moments where it all seemed to come together perfectly before my eyes. Shortly after the pair flew off, I knew that I had just captured something special.

I have learnt a lot from the experience and I’d love to return to Shetland again in the future. I’m generally happy with the film that I’ve produced, but I now have a list as long as my arm of things that I would do differently next time. I’m going to post a blog next week on the processes my editor and I went through in post-production in order to cut all of my wind shaken shots together into the film you are able to watch now.

You can view James’ film here and read his blog on his website.

The images in this blog are by James, ©2015 James Salisbury, All Rights Reserved

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