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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Shetland Bird Club



Where to Watch Birds in Shetland

Shetland is famous for its large seabird colonies, spectacular cliffs and the number and variety of rare and scarce migrants it attracts. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have several reserves in Shetland including Fetlar, Lumbister (Yell), Loch of Spiggie (south Mainland), Mousa and Sumburgh Head. Scottish Natural Heritage (formerly the Nature Conservancy Council) also have three National Nature Reserves - Hermaness (Unst), the Keen of Hamar (Unst) - a unique botanical site, and the Isle of Noss, each containing a diversity of habitats and including a significant proportion of the islands' breeding seabird species. There is also the famous Fair Isle Bird Observatory which is privately operated on Fair Isle, the most southerly island of the group.

Access to the main bird watching areas in Shetland is largely unrestricted and is facilitated by the almost complete lack of trees and the relatively small number of birdwatchers who normally work the area. Most Shetlanders' are only too pleased to allow birdwatchers onto their land, a situation that the Shetland Bird Club wishes to continue. Visiting birdwatchers should exercise care and caution when bird watching on the isles, it should go without saying that no-one should walk through crops or gardens unannounced. As with anywhere else in Britain, if you are unsure about access, ask at the nearest house. Rare birds have turned up on all the islands but the best areas are in the central and south mainland where the vegetation is generally better developed. Migrants are just as likely to be found hopping along a dry stone wall, a small ditch or a low cliff area however, as a well vegetated garden.

At all times while bird watching in the isles, the welfare of birds must come first. Keep disturbance of birds, both migratory and breeding, to an absolute minimum. Remember that a high percentage of migrants that touch down in Shetland have been blown hundreds of miles off course and need time to feed and rest. Similarly, avoid walking through breeding colonies during the summer months. This period is a very stressful time for birds, many species such as Arctic Terns and Skuas will instantly let you know that you're not welcome in their territories but some other species are not so adept at predatory control as these.

Photo above - Fair Isle looking from the south light to the north


The most northerly of the islands, parts of Unst is quite tundra-like with slopes covered in thin turf and stony outcrops and screes, much of the island consisting of permeable serpentine rock. The north and west are the best vegetated areas and hold the majority of the breeding birds. Easter loch, Loch of Snarravoe and Loch of Watlee in the south of the island and Baltasound and Norwick in the north are good places to visit.  Hermaness National Nature Reserve, situated at the north-west tip of Unst comprises 980 hectares of moorland and cliffs rising up to 170 metres. Within the reserve are numerous offshore stacks and skerries including Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, the most northerly point in Britain. It is a major seabird reserve with over 100,000 breeding birds including Gannet, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Guillemot, Razorbill, Arctic Skua, over 30,000 pairs of Puffins and 800 pairs of Great Skuas. Access to the reserve is unrestricted and a warden is present during the summer, based at the Muckle Flugga shore station beside the reserve car park.

The reserve is also famous for the Black-browed Albatross which joined the Gannets on the point of Saito in 1972 and returned there for several years thereafter, although it has not been seen for several years. Other rarer visitors to the island have included White-throated Sparrow and a Yellow-headed Blackbird, both in spring 1987, Pechora Pipit, Blyth's Reed Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.

Photo right - the Common Yellowthroat at Baltasound in 1997 - Mike Pennington


The same seabirds as those on Unst can be seen on Fetlar (apart from nesting Gannets), although in smaller numbers, but the isle is probably best known for the Snowy Owls which nested there between 1967 and 1975 rearing a total of 20 young. Sadly the owls are no longer resident on the island and the only recent sightings have been of a male caught aboard a fishing boat and released there in 1994.  Fetlar also boasts almost all of Britain's breeding Red-necked Phalaropes. This species is best seen at the Loch of Funzie in the south of the Island where they often feed (allowing excellent photographic opportunities as they swim around only yards from the road), or from the nearby RSPB reserve hide overlooking the marshy pools. A small colony of Manx Shearwaters also breed on the island and can be seen in Tresta bay in evenings during the summer. Migrants may be found anywhere on the island but the numerous small vegetated gardens are obvious attractions; past records on the island include Chestnut-sided Warbler, Yellowthroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Little Swift, Hermit Thrush and Two-barred Crossbill. A warden is present throughout the year and is available for information, the wardens house is signposted from the ferry terminal.

Red-necked Phalarope at the Loch of Funzie - photo Bill Jackson


Almost completely covered in peat and heather, Yell is quite different from the other northerly islands. The island is notable for the number of moorland species breeding there, although the occasional pair of Common Scoters no longer nest. The Lumbister reserve in central Yell comprises 4,000 acres of heather moorland and blanket bog and supports breeding Red-throated Divers, Arctic and Great Skuas, Merlins, Golden Plover, Curlew, Snipe, Dunlin, Twite and a few Whimbrel. Access to the reserve is unrestricted and the Fetlar warden is also responsible for this reserve.

Red-throated Diver - photo Kevin Osborn

North Mainland

The most rugged part of the main island also encompasses Ronas Hill at 450m, Shetland's highest hill, around which is remote moorland with numerous small lochs supporting breeding Red-throated Divers, several species of moorland waders and Arctic and Great Skuas. On the west side are high cliffs with several species of breeding seabird, especially at Eshaness. Good places to visit for migrant passerines are the plantation at Sullom village (across the voe from the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal), the plantations at Voe and at Vidlin.

West Mainland

Similar to the north, the west Mainland is dotted with small lochs supporting Red-throated Divers and many species of moorland waders, although lacking any high cliffs. Probably the best spot for seawatching in Shetland is found here - at Wats Ness, where large numbers of both Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas have been recorded. Migrant passerines may turn up anywhere in the 'west side' as there are no particular hot spots except for Dale of Walls and the Weisdale valley which encompasses the large (in Shetland terms) Kergord plantations. The plantations encompass 8 or 9 acres in small groups of trees and are one of the main birdwatching sites. Access to the trees is largely unrestricted, except around the main garden. The trees support the only rookery in Shetland (established in 1952) and other occasional breeding species have included Jackdaw, Goldcrest, Chaffinch and Siskin.

Central Mainland, Lerwick, Bressay and Noss

This area, encompassing the main town of Lerwick comprises mainly low lying heather and peat moorland with more vegetated areas and small plantations around the towns. Several species of moorland wader, Arctic and Great Skuas and Red Grouse breed in the area, although the only major seabird colonies are found on the island of Noss 5km to the east of Lerwick.

On the east side of Noss there are large seabird cliffs made up of eroded horizontal sandstone, which support 38,000 Guillemots, 10,000 pairs of Kittiwakes, 6,000 pairs of Fulmars, 5,000 pairs of Gannets, along with Puffins, Black Guillemots and Razorbills. Noss is separated from the island of Bressay by a narrow sound but the Scottish Natural Heritage operate a Zodiac inflatable ferry service across the sound between mid-May and the end of August.

Good places for migrants are the South Nesting area, the Strand plantation, the Lerwick gardens - especially the areas around Helendale and the Loch of Clickimin, the Scalloway gardens, and on the Isle of Noss.

Pine Grosbeak at Lerwick in 1992 - photo Kevin Osborn

South Mainland

Large parts of the South Mainland are cultivated and there are consequently several excellent birdwatching areas. The gardens around Sandwick, Bigton, Toab, Sumburgh, the overgrown burn at Geosetter and the Sumburgh Hotel garden are all prime sites for migrant passerines although areas such as the small quarries at Sumburgh head and around the Sumburgh lighthouse have all had their fair share of good birds. The whole area has turned up many rarities in the past, including Brown Shrike, White's Thrush and Lanceolated Warbler.

Access to the Geosetter Burn, the areas around Sumburgh Head and the Sumburgh Hotel garden are all unrestricted but care should be taken around gardens. The Lochs of Spiggie and Hillwell and surrounding marshland just north of Sumburgh Airport are shallow and mainly freshwater and are one of the most important areas for wildfowl in Shetland, especially for Whooper Swans where up to 400 may gather on Loch of Spiggie in late autumn. Access is not permitted to either of the lochs but the entire area can be viewed from the surrounding roads. Pool of Virkie adjoining Sumburgh Airport, is a small sandy bay completely uncovered at low tide and the best area for watching waders in Shetland - it held a Western Sandpiper in 1988 and Britain's first Great Knot for about 6 hours in 1989! The island of Mousa opposite Sandwick is an important area for breeding Storm Petrels and excursions to see them in the late summer evenings are regularly organised by local boatmen. Large colonies of easily viewable Puffins, Guillemots and Fulmar, along with Razorbill, Black Guillemot and Kittiwake nest on the cliffs of the Sumburgh Head RSPB Reserve where access is again unrestricted although cars should be left at the car park provided.

Photo right - Bonelli's Warbler at Sumburgh Lighthouse in 1995 - photo Dennis Coutts

Whalsay and Out Skerries

These, the two most easterly island groups in Shetland are small, comprising only 600 acres with a lack of extensive cliffs, but they are very attractive to migrants in both spring and autumn. Numerous small gardens and crops provide the only vegetative cover on the islands with access to them largely unrestricted. Due to its very small size, accommodation is scarce on Out Skerries although this is by no means the case on Whalsay. 

Numerous rarities have turned up on the islands including Rüppell's, Blyth's Reed, River and Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, while the ferry crossing from Mainland to Whalsay has proved an excellent area to see White-billed Diver during the winter months.

Spoonbill at Symbister, Whalsay in 1998 - photo Bill Jackson


The most westerly and probably the most remote island, Foula is predominantly peat moorland with high cliffs bordering at least half the island supporting significant seabird colonies of Fulmar, Guillemot, Puffin, Razorbill and Shag. Storm and Leach's Petrels breed on the scree slopes, although the numbers are unknown, and around 3000 pairs of Great Skuas breed on the extensive high moorland. Along the low east side the island are several small crofts, some with well planted gardens attracting migrants, but the Foula 'hot spot' is the sheltered and extensively vegetated Ham Burn which bisects the east side and runs to the small harbour. In recent years Pechora Pipit has become almost an annual autumn visitor with other recent rarities including Upland Sandpiper and Lesser Grey Shrike.

Razorbill with chick - photo Kevin Osborn

Fair Isle

Situated about half way between the Shetland mainland and Orkney, Fair Isle is famous for its huge seabird colonies and enormous list of rare migrants. The island is roughly three miles long by one mile wide and its cliffs, rising to over 500 feet in places, are home to large colonies of seabirds. A stone wall, the Hill Dyke, divides the northern half of the island, which is dominated by heather moorland, from the more fertile, southern half, which is populated by about 70 people on several crofts.

Over 100,000 pairs of 17 species of seabird breed on Fair Isle. Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins form the bulk of this figure, the remainder comprise smaller numbers of Storm Petrels, Gannets, Shags, Arctic and Great Skuas, gulls, Common and Arctic Terns and Black Guillemots. Large numbers of adults and young of many of the breeding seabirds are ringed during the summer each year.

Although Eagle Clark, a pioneer of British ornithology, visited Fair Isle in the early part of the century, Fair Isle's real potential for the study of bird migration was not fully appreciated until 1948, when George Waterston established Fair Isle Bird Observatory, and today it remains Britain's and probably Europe's premier bird observatory. Over 350 species have been recorded on the island, and the vast majority of these are migrants; just 34 species breed regularly, including an endemic subspecies, the Fair Isle Wren Troglodytes troglodytes fridarensis.

Apart from the tiny 'Plantation' near the airstrip, there are no trees or bushes of significant size on the island at all, and thus cover for birds is extremely sparse. The many dry stone walls, sheltered cliffs, ditches and crops can all provide shelter for migrants however, and both visiting birdwatchers and the observatory staff search the entire island during both migration periods. A large proportion of the rarer migrants tend to be found in the southern part of the island, around the crofts and their accompanying small crops of 'tatties, neeps and oats'. Fortunately the islanders are very friendly and tolerant of birders walking across their fields and peering into their gardens. Without their kind generosity, many of Fair Isle's famous rarities would not be found.  

Leucistic Puffin on the west cliffs of Fair Isle in 1986 - photo Kevin Osborn


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