Monday 24 September 2012


While autumn migration brings some stunning birds to Shetland, including the Magnolia warbler found on Fair Isle yesterday along with a Lancolated warbler and various American jobs on Shetland mainland, the pride of place being a Red eyed Vireo on Unst, Shetland offers much more as well, including the seabirds which I am particularly intersted in.

Many of you will know that Seabirds have been having a very poor time for a number of years. Not just in Shetland but all over the north. The lack of food, particularly Sandeels is to blame. This months Shetland bird study newsletter indicates that the early part of the 2012 breeding season was poor, but due to increased food opportunities in the form of sillocks (young saithe) made it a better second half of the breeding season. 

Seabirds are long lived  so hopefully they may recover, some are able to delay the laying until suitable conditions occur, others have more than one brood.

When we first visited Shetland in 1987, seabirds were already on the decline, although it seemed to us when we viewed the colonies at Sumburgh head, Noss and Hermaness that they were doing well, with thousands of birds present. Its only when you start regular counts that you notice the declines and I have every admiration for those involved in collecting data. 
                                                     Sumburgh Head back in the late 1980's

Over the next few blog I will be looking at different seabirds and for now the Shag comes under the spotlight.

The Shag looks dark at a distance but in fact it has a nice green sheen. It breeds along the cliff face and in caves. They have an extended breeding season which helps the species. Laying starts as early as April but often the rough seas wash out the nests as they tend to be low down the cliff face. 

It was estimated that about 10,500 pair were present in the 1969-70 count reduced to 6,000 pairs in the 1995-2001 survey, despite improved counting techniques. At Sumburgh head 288 pairs we present in the 1998-2001 survey and in 2010 -290 pairs so little change.

Egg laying can take place up to September in Shetland, but with of species of bird looking for food eggs get predated by Raven and Hoddie crows, and if young hatch then Gt Skua and Gt Black Back gulls swoop down to take the young from the nests.

Shags can be seen throughout the year in Shetland, often moving to sheltered bays in winter.

Friday 14 September 2012

Whooper swans

It was good to hear that Whooper Swans had bred for the first time in nearly 100 years at the RSPB Spiggie Lock in the southern mainland of Shetland, the first breeding record from this Lock came as far back as 1910.

Although they resumed breeding in Shetland in 1994 when a pair successfully bred in the north mainland they have since bred most years , with approx 6-8 pairs in recent years.

                                                              Spiggie Lock- RSPB

Shetland holds around 50% of the UK breeding birds. Breeding occurs in Northern latitudes from Iceland to Scandinavia to Siberia. We have seen birds in May & June in the south and west mainland and in Unst. On one occasion a whooper swan was seen fighting with a mute swan which also breeds in small numbers.

Numbers are swelled by migrant birds from Iceland during autumn, with  Spiggie Lock hold around a quarter of these birds. A count made by the Shetland bird club in November 2010 revealed 225 present in all parts of the isles.

Friday 7 September 2012

Shetland orchids

Although 56 species of orchid can be found in the UK, only 10 species have been recorded from Shetland with one of these, the small white orchid now extinct .

The Lesser Twayblade is one of those that is easily overlooked, as it is green and blends in well with the other vegetation.

Fragrant orchid is now very rare, found only in Unst at Baltasound. This is super abundant elsewhere in England.

Frog orchid, is again easily overlooked, as it grows only a few centremeters tall and is green/yellow/red colour. This lovely orchid can be found on the Keen of Hamer in Unst and a few dry coastal sites.

Common Spotted orchid a very prominent orchid growing in marshy areas in Cunningsburgh as well as dry areas such as  on the serpentine debris of Unst.

Heath spotted Orchid - a very common plant of damp moorland

Early Marsh Orchid- only now found in the South mainland although I have yet to find any

Northern Marsh orchid- a very common plant found in marshy and dry areas. Often found along road side verges and in gardens.

Early Purple orchid- found on the serpentine areas of Unst and Fetlar

Bog orchid very rare only found in four places in Yell

It always great to see orchids, you need to spend time to search them out, yet others such as northern marsh orchids can be found close to Tesco in Lerwick. Again people seem to appreciate them in their gardens and when it comes to mowing the grass, they are carefully cut round !!

Saturday 1 September 2012


Starlings are bold, aggressive noisy birds which can be found throughout Shetland. The Shetland starling
( Sturnus Vulgaris Zetlandicus) is one of 11 species found throughout Europe and Asia.

40 Million of starlings have vanished in Europe since 1980 and is a Red List species, however there is an estimate 20,000 pairs found in the isles.

At a distance starlings look black, but when seen a bit closer they have a iridescent sheen of purple and green. Shetland starlings are slightly larger and have a larger bill although all this is difficult to observe in the field. Also the juvenile starling is much darker than the common starling.
                                          Juv starlings

After the young leave the nest they move to permanent pasture, which is the preferred habitat to feed. In mid - late June I have found 100's of birds feeding in fields above Quendale mill.

In Shetland, starlings are mainly sedentary, although some migration can be found. In winter some European starlings can be found as the migrate through the isles , moving to Scotland leaving the local starling in attendance, mainly feeding around crofts.

It's a great sight to see large flocks of starlings gather, these are called murmurations. It seems along time ago that I saw one of these in Sheffield. It was estimated that about 200, 000 birds gathered for a roost in the early 1980's. Elsewhere I have also come across large flocks common starlings moving around like large swarms of insects.