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Eight Months in Shetland – A Wildlife Round-up

Eight months or so of living in Shetland is coming to end today. Only ever a temporary home, myself and my partner have made sure to make the most of our brief time living in this amazing archipelago. With some incredible scenery, fantastic wildlife, a vibrant cultural scene and friendly people, Shetland has much to offer both the visitor and those moving here.

Yes, it is windy a lot of the time, but you get used to this very quickly! And the endless ‘simmer dim’ days of midsummer make up for the much shorter winter days than the rest of the UK. So, to mark the end of my time here, I’ve picked out some of my Shetland wildlife highlights.

Everyday Wonder

One of the most rewarding aspects of my time in Shetland has been the wealth of amazing wildlife that you can see every day. Being able to hear ravens, terns and red-throated divers calling from my bedroom window never got boring, I can assure you! Depending on what month it was, I could walk a few minutes from home and see purple sandpipers, both great northern and red-throated divers, eiders, ravens, gannets, black guillemots and even the occasional puffin. There were even a couple of random quails in town at one point! And this was despite living in the main ‘urban’ centre of Shetland, Lerwick.

Black guillemots Shetland wildlife highlights
Black guillemots, or tysties, can be seen daily in Lerwick

It wasn’t just about Shetland specialities, though. A huge part of what made everyday life here so enjoyable was the abundance of two passerines that are getting harder to see in certain places where they used to be common: the starling and the house sparrow. Although there is a distinct lack of songbirds in Shetland (no resident tit species, for example), these two species are everywhere.

Starlings are incredible mimics

Starlings have declined by 66% in Britain since the mid-1970s. House sparrow populations, meanwhile, have dropped by a staggering 71%, with the reasons not entirely clear for either. One factor is almost certainly the intensification of arable farming. It could be both birds are so successful in Shetland because agriculture is croft based, with much smaller less intensively farmed arable areas and an emphasis on sheep farming. And where there is livestock, there are insects, which means there is plenty of food for young starlings and sparrows. Whatever the reason, being able to see and hear these birds in such numbers has been a joy.

House sparrows Shetland wildlife highlights
House sparrows are a common sight in Shetland

Something Beginning With P

Puffins

It would be impossible to talk about Shetland without mentioning three special birds all (sort of) beginning with the letter p. The first is the puffin, that jaunty little clown-faced auk. Called the Tammy Norrie in Shetland dialect, puffins arrive back from a winter out at sea in April. After raising a single chick, or puffling, in their clifftop burrow, they head off again in August. Sumburgh Head, at the bottom of Shetland’s Mainland, is one of the best places to see them. We couldn’t resist going more than once. Because they are fairly unbothered by humans, you can see them up close and of course they are very photogenic. Going to see them also meant getting great views of fulmars, guillemots and the underrated razorbill, as well.

Puffin
Puffins are ridiculously photogenic
Storm Petrels

I’ve written before about our evening trip over to the island of Mousa in June. This was definitely an absolute highlight of our time here because of the opportunity to see and hear storm petrels. These tiny seabirds are only a small bit bigger than a sparrow. They are also summer visitors but unlike puffins, they only nest on uninhabited islands. They only come back to their nests as darkness falls in order to evade predators like great skuas and great black-backed gulls. This means that they are a lot harder to see.

The boat trip to Mousa is a great way to see them. It was a truly magical experience, with the birds making their strange, otherworldly calls from inside stone walls, under boulders and the walls of the island’s Iron Age broch. As returning birds came back to their incubating partners, it was like being surrounded by hundreds of bats, albeit much noisier ones.

Red-necked Phalaropes

We were worried that we were going to miss out on the last bird of this trio, the red-necked phalarope. This wader is an extremely rare breeder in the UK as this is at the very southern edge of its range. Tiny numbers, though, breed in the Western and Northern Isles. We made a special trip to the island of Fetlar to try and see this summer visitor. Sadly, we saw none. However, a couple of weeks later, during a trip to a beach in West Mainland we were amazed to see one feeding with a group of waders at the shoreline. It was an incredible treat to find one unexpectedly. Unusually, phalaropes show gender reversal in their breeding habits, with females being brighter and more colourful. They also leave the males to incubate and raise their young.

Red-necked phalarope Shetland wildlife highlights
The red-necked phalarope is a tiny summer visitor

Joy and Heartbreak with Skuas and Gannets

Two more special Shetland birds produced some of the most joy and yet biggest heartbreak of our stay. Many will be aware of the devastating wave of a highly infectious strain of avian influenza that has affected seabird colonies around UK coats this year. Early on in the breeding season, Shetland was at the frontline of infections. The wave seems to have moved in an anti-clockwise direction around the country. It reached the gannet colony on Grassholm off South Wales later in the summer. It is now also ravaging birds in North America, with fears that migratory birds will take it to South America this autumn.

Great skua or bonxie
Great skuas, or bonxies, have been hit hard by avian influenza

Avian flu has hit different species in different places to some extent. It largely missed auks and terns here but colonies elsewhere suffered large losses. In Shetland the biggest casualties were gannets and great skuas, or bonxies. Bonxies suffered a similar outbreak in 2021. Scientists are worried that with estimated losses at some sites of up to 85%, they will not recover. Approximately 60% of the world’s 16,000 great skuas breed in Scotland, so this has a global impact. Gannets may be more resilient as they have a much bigger population. But there were not many days that went by without seeing freshly washed-up birds on Shetland beaches. Added to the already existing threats of entanglement and plastic pollution, this may be one blow too many in the long term.

Being surrounded by diving gannets is some experience

Both species, along with the bonxie’s cousin the Arctic skua, brought great joy as well, though. We took a boat trip out to view the gannet colony on the island of Noss in June. The incredible sight of hundreds of birds diving for fish around the boat was one to offer hope. Sadly, we saw far fewer bonxies than we would expect in a ‘normal’ year. It was even more of a treat when we did see them. These charismatic pirates of the sea are kleptoparasites who chase other birds to make them regurgitate their catch.

I’m not sure how Arctic skuas have fared with bird flu, but they have suffered huge declines in the last three decades. We had a few amazing encounters with these beautiful birds as they watched for opportunities to chase terns. They have dark and pale colour forms, with a range of variation within each of these.

Arctic skuas
Dark and pale morph Arctic skuas show a range of colouration

Gulls Au Naturel

One of my most unexpected wildlife encounters here was during an Upland Rover volunteer survey. We had signed up to do a couple of squares for this spin-off of the BTO/JNCC/RSPB run Breeding Birds Survey, one of which was in North Mainland. This area of Shetland is characterised by its beautiful red granite outcrops. To get to the start of our survey route we had to climb one of these small hills. As we reached the top we came across a large mixed herring and lesser black-backed gull colony. The nests were beautiful constructions of grass, sedge and moss and often nestled between boulders.

Herring gull's nest
Grass, moss and feathers made up the upland gulls’ nests

Having lived in various seaside towns over the years, my only experience of nesting herring and lesser black-backed gulls is on rooftops. Sometimes these are on residential buildings, sometimes warehouses. But they have actually only adopted urban nesting relatively recently as they have learnt to take advantage of the rich pickings in towns. Once upon a time, all colonies would have been on cliffs, moorland or islands. Seeing how gulls nest outside of our towns provided a new perspective on these unfairly maligned birds. We made sure not to disturb the birds and carried on to our survey, feeling incredibly lucky.

Sensational Sharks

During the summer months I was lucky enough to see not one but three different basking sharks here. I have had two or three fleeting sightings of these huge fish off the Inner and Outer Hebrides over the years but hadn’t anticipated Shetland as being a good place to see them. All three sharks were incredibly close to shore and stayed in the same area for a long time. This meant I got much better views of them feeding as they slowly swam along. My first encounter this year was at Sumburgh Head. The clifftop view down into clear waters allowed me to see the huge gaping mouth and gills of this, the second biggest fish in the world.

Basking shark Shetland wildlife highlights
Incredibly, this was the second shark I saw in one day

Surprisingly little is known about basking sharks. Like many shark species, they are vulnerable to a number of threats. These include entanglement, pollution and the huge trade in shark fins. They are protected in UK and Irish waters. Along with the larger whale shark, basking sharks maintain their huge bulk by eating tiny plankton. They pass enormous amounts of sea water through their gills as they swim along, filtering out their food as they go.

Some Otterly Brilliant Encounters

Shetland is rightly famous for its otters, and it certainly lived up to its reputation for being one of the best places to see them in the UK. Shetland, after all, has the highest density of otters in Europe. Although they are the same species as in the rest of the UK, otters here (and indeed much of coastal Scotland) are less nocturnal. Instead, the state of the tides dictates how active they are. Most fishing occurs in the two hours either side of low water. This means that it is easier to see them in daylight. It is important to stay downwind of them and not disturb them when you do see them. Sitting quietly and resisting the temptation to chase after them when they move away is crucial.

Otter
Shetland is famous for its otters

We saw otters at a number of places over our stay, with one particular location very reliable if the tides were right. This spot was a perfect place to watch without being observed, and I got to watch one fishing most times I visited. One memorable sighting not far from Lerwick was of an otter carrying a small octopus, which shows how varied their diets are. However many times I saw otters, it never became old, and it is something I will miss now we are leaving.

Otter Shetland wildlife highlights
An otter’s diet is quite varied

I could have included many more wildlife highlights from the last eight months in Shetland. And I was less lucky when it came to getting good views of one of Shetland’s most sought-after mammals, the orca. Somehow, I managed to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time and only had fleeting, distant views. Surely enough of a reason, therefore, to come back and visit these incredible islands.

Further Reading

As this is a nature blog, I’ve focused on my wildlife highlights over the last eight months. However, Shetland is so much more than that, with incredible people, culture and history everywhere across the archipelago. Whether it’s knitting, brochs, Vikings or even cake fridges you want to find out more about, a good starting point is the excellent Promote Shetland website. This is also a valuable resource for those wanting to take the plunge and move here.

We took our Mousa and Noss trips with the Mousa Boat and Shetland Seabird Tours respectively.

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