Birding on Shetland

If it’s a wild weekend filled with rarities that you’re after, then you’d better head north. Far north…

I remember when I had my first sip of Guinness my father told me it was an acquired taste, and one sip later that taste was acquired. For me, Shetland is another acquired taste. This time it took me two sips, but I now think I’ve got it. On my first trip there, I was struck by bleakness and emptiness and the thought that the long, endless days of summer had to be filled and the endless nights of winter endured.

On my second trip there, though, I started to fall in love with the place – the wildness, the strangeness, the very bleakness. In a nutshell, Shetland is one great wildlife playground, and the whole place is jammed full of wildlife action to discover. It was this autumn just gone and I was a part of a group spending a long weekend searching for rarities. And if it had just been rarities we were after, it would have to rank as a success.

Against the odds racked up by high westerly winds, we found Marsh Warblers, relocated an American Golden Plover, had a few rosefinches, North-western Redpoll and identified the UK’s third Taiga Flycatcher. But, the rest of the time, when we weren’t scoring the rares, and took the trouble to look around us, there was intense action and thrills all around.

Take the sea, for instance; a quick glance at the surface revealed Shags, mergansers, Black Guillemots, Eiders and both species of seal. Plunging through the surface were diving parties of Gannets. And wherever there were Gannets with food there were Bonxies (Great Skuas) bullying them with a tug on the wing here, a tail there, until they puked up the Bonxies’ favourite: sashimi and sick.

We spent most of our time on the northernmost main island of Unst. Head north and a bit west from here and you hit Iceland and Greenland. It was the last week in September, and there were times when whenever we looked up it seemed there was a new skein of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the sea. There is something magical about knowing you are seeing birds which have just spotted land after flying hundreds of miles across the North Atlantic.

And the movement wasn’t just high up. One day we used our minibus to shelter from the wind and dedicated a bit of time to seawatching. There were thousands of Fulmars moving through and, with them, a smattering of blue-morph birds, a real thrill to pick up.

When we weren’t scouring tiny patches, laughably called ‘cover’, for rare birds, we watched dancing flocks of Snow Buntings, the odd Lapland Bunting, enjoyed watching familiar waders and pipits.

But for me the highlight (yes, even more of a thrill than that flycatcher!), was the great, close views I got of that most charismatic of all creatures, the Otter. On his home island of Fetlar, our guide and host Brydon Thomason’s passion for Otters came to the fore. He showed us secret signs and indications like some frontier scout. Here a patch of squashed grass, there a narrow pathway and here again a small pile of Otter poo that we were offered to sniff and were promised smelled sweet and lovely!

Then with a wave of the hand he signalled us to drop behind a boulder and we watched a lone female Otter working the shore and turning uphill along one of those narrow paths to bathe in freshwater.

If this wasn’t thrill enough, only a few hundred metres along the shore we saw a family of three… mother and two nine-month olds. They were incredibly efficient at catching fish, then treaded water with their heads above the surface, spinning in circles as they munched their catch, grasped between front paws.

They even came out onto some rocks and cleaned themselves, constantly playing and nibbling at each other: little aquatic monkeys, full of intelligence, play and fun.

There is a joke among bird guides that the best bird of the day is a mammal, and this was the case for me. But all over Shetland there is stiff competition, because the birdlife is abundant and superb, the rares are exciting, the common birds are thrilling – it is a challenge even for an Otter to outperfom them.

Shetland has acquired my taste and I will be back to sample more of its superbly distilled essence.


Mike travelled to Shetland courtesy of Brydon Thomason and Shetland Nature: and Saxa Vord Getting there: Daily flights from Scotland’s major cities and twice weekly flights direct from London Heathrow land at Sumburgh Airport on the southern tip of Shetland Mainland. The other major islands are reached via a network of regular ferries. Alternatively, you can take the car ferry to Lerwick, Shetland’s county town, either from Aberdeen or from the North Coast of Scotland via Orkney.