Thursday 31 July 2014

Good breeding season

These are a few photos from recent trips around Shetland. Its good to see so many birds bringing in fish, these tended to be sand eels early in the season but now this has changed to small fish, not sure what species. Talking with a few people it seems everyone is predicting a good breeding season for once, it seem quite a while since we could say that.
                                                                                 Sumburgh Head

I have seen a number of young puffins either at the entrance to the burrow or just above the entrance, generally around 9-10 pm but also one early morning. Puffins have also been bringing in food as with predators such as Gt and Arctic Skua down in numbers more birds seem to be getting through.

                                                                              A 3rd year bird

Fulmars have large young on the nest, these white balls of fluff seem too big for predators and seem quite happy to be left while the adults find food.
                                                                                       Fulmar Young
On the cliffs, Shag have large young , a few guillemot young have been seen late at night diving off the cliff to join the adults in the sea while Razorbill young fledged a while ago.

We visited Yell the other day and watched Red Throated Divers catching large sand eels which indicates that young may be present.
                                                                Red Throated Diver at Mid Yell pier

Young Arctic terns are still well guarded with adults diving bombing me on the road at Grutness and Scatness. I really feel sorry for the birds having traveled such a great distance from the Antarctic to breed in Shetland.
                                                                                 Arctic tern young

Many young wheatear, wren, meadow Pipit and white wagtails have been seen as well.
Waders are very numerous in Shetland and again a number of young Oyster catcher, Red shank, Curlew, Lapwing and Ringed Plover have been seen in different parts of the islands
                                                                            Ringed Plover young at Grutness

Just hope that this successful season is repeated next year and that it is not just a one off
                                                                   Arctic Skuas numbers are down this year.

Friday 25 July 2014


If you was a birds doing serious mileage each year, coming up from a place where food is plentiful and passing up through Africa and Europe and ending up in Shetland around mid- May only to find that a few more of your neighbors have failed to make the journey this year, would you be in a good frame of mind?

Then after settling down with your mate you managed to produce some eggs, closely guarding them from all intruders such as Skuas, gulls, rats and even otters. They hatch out and the race is on to find enough food which is hard to find most years.

These are Arctic terns who for around 20 years or so have found going difficult, numbers in Shetland being reduce from around 35,000 to around 7,000. Having traveled around 22,000 air miles a year for 15- 20 years they have not produced any young for a number of years.

Would you have given up hope by now ?

This year however things are looking a lot better, perhaps the best year for 20 years, with a large number of adults bringing in large – medium sand eels for several weeks.

As a result some Juv Arctic Terns have been seen at three colonies which is a great sight. This has brought more Skuas in for a closer look but with numbers of these predators low, more terns seem to be getting back to the nest unmolested.

                                                                                                          Arctic Skuas

At the Grutness tern colony, the problems are the common gulls that nest in close attendance, also sheep and Shetland ponies roam through the nest site no doubt crushing a few eggs as they go.

Let’s hope this is a good year for all seabirds the auks need a good year but I have only seen a few young and only a few adults with fish and also there are the Kittiwakes that have also been having a poor time of it

It was good of the council to erect a warning sign about Terns diving you !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
You can see a tern waiting in the background

Monday 21 July 2014


We managed to get back to Fetlar last week for the 14th time since 1987. On all but four visits it had been foggy and as we set off from Toft towards Yell it didn’t seem as though it would be any better this time. For once we had a direct ferry from Yell- Fetlar rather than having to go via Unst.

 You couldn’t really say it was busy with a fuel lorry and a motorbike besides us. This ferry is smaller than the Yell ferry and it allows you to look over the sides, not that you could see much for the fog. The odd Gannet and line of auks came out of the murk before we saw land.

No problems with the roads over there as the only road takes you quickly to the far side of the island and to the RSPB reserve at Funzie (pronounced Finnie). A tour party of birders from Orkney already had their telescope on something over the far side of the loch and it wasn't the Red Throated divers that had just flown off.

Parking in the lay-by, which in the past had produced close views of one of Fetlar’s star birds- the Red Necked Phalarope, we made our way over to the end of the Loch and there in the distance was two male red Necked Phalaropes. You could have easy missed them as the hide behind a small stone; they are only the size of a starling- a lot smaller than people think.

                                                                         Red Necked Phalarope

The party from Orkney moved on leaving only one other birder and he told me he was from Yorkshire as well and the only reason he had come to Fetlar was to see these birds. This is a shame really as Fetlar has much to offer, the problem is the lack of time on a day visit. I managed to get some photos as they moved closer, at this stage they were joined by a third bird. After a feeding frenzy, they started to spin like a spinning top (if you can remember these), this disturbs insects in the water and with their very fine bills they pick them up.
                                                                                      Ringed Plover

On our very first visit back in 1987 we managed to see the ‘Three’ that Fetlar sometime revealed. The big one at that time was the Snowy Owl and we managed to see one of the young raised back in the 1970’s. This was one of two present on the island before myxmatosis hit and they moved to Unst for a short time.
This has left two of the big three, the Red Necked Phalarope and Whimbrel both seen on this visit. Fetlar also has a large number of waders and we saw Curlew, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Redshank, Oystercatcher, snipe, Turnstone and Dunlin.
                                                                            Red Throated diver

Red Throated the divers re appeared as we were having a coffee in the car, landing very close to the car just as the sun came out. With Skylark and meadow Pipit singing away Arctic and Gt Skua passing over chasing Terns which actually had sand eels it was a great end to the day.
                                                                                             Gt Skua

With coming about a month later than usual the colours of the flowers was stunning and we must return just to see the flowers.

It’s a fragile existence on Fetlar, they rely on tourist to boost the island’s economy but now less people are going. It’s worth looking beyond the birdlife; there are otters and whales if you are lucky, the Fetlar interpretive centre is worth a visit as is Brough Lodge.

On the way back the fog had cleared and the ferry had four cars on board. As we arrived in Yell everyone was ready for the rush to get down to the other side of the island to catch the next ferry to the Shetland mainland, this takes 20 mins on a fast road and we had 21 mins- what a luxury. We zoomed past the Windhouse in Yell which recently has had Nightjar and a Scops Owl and past some great views of the mainland which were partly hidden by fog before arriving at the ferry terminal. It didn't look promising as the queue was long but the larger ferry managed to gobble up around 30 cars before spilling them out at Toft.
v                                                                                               Wheatear

Monday 14 July 2014

Unst wildlife

Unst has a great variety of wildlife and normally at migration tie some great birds pass through. This trip we didn’t see any rare migrants but we did see some other interesting birds such as Gt Northern Diver, Red Breasted Merganser, Twite, Red Throated Diver, Gt and Arctic Skua and Twite
                                                                Red Brested Merganser 

Otters can be seen anywhere around the coast with Baltasound a good spot and if you are lucky the odd Killer Whale can turn up especially in Bluemull Sound.

We visited the Keen of Hamer again this year, a bit later than normal, first passing Unst Bus shelter which changes its look every year. It’s even got its own website at , well worth a look.
At the Keen of Hamer, which is a National Nature reserve, a wide variety of unusual plants can be found on the largest area of serpentine debris in Europe. Here you might find Shetland Mouse ear chickweed; it’s the only place in the world it grows.

                                                                                Frog Orchid
Also Norwegian sandwort, frog, fragrant, common spotted, heath spotted, northern marsh and early purple orchids grow. If you view the area from a distance you wouldn't believe anything was growing it looks so barren.

                                                                              Early Purple Orchid
                                                                              Heath Spotted Orchid

On this trip is it was fairly busy with wildlife tours calling in, but they didn’t stay long and then I had the place to myself once again. Even areas outside the reserve are worth a look, especially where they sheep haven’t been grazing. Rabbits also cause damage and get into the reserve despite it being fenced off.

At the very tip on Unst Hermaness NNR is worth a visit, but watch out for the Gt Skuas that dive bomb you. Once you get to the cliffs it’s a mind blowing sight with so many Gannets, Puffin, Fulmar, Guillemot, Razorbill and Kittiwakes in the breeding season as well as the sounds and associated smells.
                                                                                      Gt Northern Diver

After our visit a Lesser Grey Shrike and Pectoral sandpiper, that life !

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Good or bad

Kittiwake numbers have been declining from a number of years, the sound that was once familiar at Sumburgh, Noss and Hermaness are becoming quieter. In Shetland since 2000 Kittiwakes have declined by 87%  and this is down to the lack of sand eels.
The combination of over fishing an Global warming has seen the sea temperatures increase the sand eels dive deeper making it difficult for surface feeding Kittiwakes to find food. Even Puffins and guillemots are finding it difficult.The RSPB indicate that it wont be long until the Kittiwakes completely disappear as a breeding bird from the cliffs of Shetland.

Oceanic climate change is forcing the marine animals to either change their habits or move away to another area. A recent study for example has indicated that a 2-3% increase in sea temperatures may lead to a 20-30% decrease in marina species. All marina mammals have a limited temperature range in which to live in.  With sand eels the whole process of breeding, feeding, growth, defense and behavior is affect by the increase in the ocean temperature.

The number of new species entering our ocean is increasing as these warmer tolerant  creature start to compete for food or become predators. You only have to look at the prey items that kittiwakes are finding to appreciate that their food source has moved deeper.
                                                          Some Puffins still collecting nest material

The pipe fish that many birds bring are long and have many bones, lacking in protein and difficult for young birds to swallow, with some chocking to death.

Sand eels seem to be moving deeper in the ocean as a result of these effects as a result many birds are now finding this prey item out of their reach.

Man has influenced  the abundance of fish and other marine creatures and it has been estimated that 400 million people depend on fish as a food source. The sand eel fisheries around Shetland had been mainly concentrated around the south mainland, where seabird colonies suffered at Sumburgh, Noss and Noness.

Fishing together with combination of other factors has lead to a big decrease in sand eel numbers which have never recovered. Sand eels are only used for pet food and fertilizers  It is widely understood that the population needs a third of their stock to survive in any given year to support seabird colonies.

 The BTO has studied seabird populations for some time and they indicate that colonies on the west of Britain are fairing better than the east and north coast colonies.  Studies indicate where sand eel fishing has taken place seabirds have been most affected.

Even though sand eels are no longer fished in Shetland, the species is largely sedentary making it difficult for populations to recover. Danish fishing vessels are the only one that still fish for sand eels, but predatory fish such as Cod, Haddock, Whiting and Saithe do have an impact no sand eel numbers and further research is being done

Some seabirds have already responded to the changes in temperature by moving further north. Changes also encourage birds to breed earlier and therefore may not be in time for food prey abundance. We will see over the coming years through various studies how these changes will further effect our seabirds, so for now we have to enjoy the sight and sounds of a seabird colony but scientist have predicted a 2 degree warming of our oceans by 2050.

This year I have noticed a good number of Arctic Terns bringing sand eels back to the nest throughout the season, but only a very few Puffins have been bring food back. The other day down at Sumburgh a few Guillemot young could be seen and some adults with fish.

Lerwick harbour was full of birds with gannets catching good numbers of fish and even Kittiwakes and terns seem to be doing OK. Both Arctic and Gt Skua could be seen chasing birds. Its far too early to say how good or bad the season has been but this is the busiest year for birds with fish for a considerable time.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Great Skua

The Gt Skua or Bonxie (of Norse origin) has a fierce reputation for attacking other birds and people. This skua is wide spread over Shetland with the highest number on Foula and up on Hermaness- Unst.

My first encounter with a Bonxie was in NW Scotland close to Handa island where they breed. It passed close by giving excellent views. You could see the powerful body especially the neck which was thick. Move on a few years and we saw many on our first trip to Shetland and numerous since. Scotland has around 60% of the worlds population with the majority on Shetland.

This is a dark brown bird with streaking , sometimes golden brown, while the juvenile is warmer brown  un-streaked below. Its flight is very direct and powerful and is quick to move in on any bird or mammal. If you visit an area such as Hermaness then you will have to walk through many territories and therefore will be attacked. Birds will fly head on and do not deviate so your only response is to duck, i have spent many a minute discovering flowers this way.

Birds nest on moorland in colonies, producing two eggs and at this point become more aggressive. The older more mature birds nest higher on the moorland getting better views of intruders while younger breeding birds nest lower down. Birds lay two eggs, spotted olive brown in colour.

Bonxies have a habit of sitting away from the nest  on other mounds(the other adult bird) and often have three or four of these mounts within their territory. Birds don't breed until they are between 5-10 years old so perhaps we may see some decreases in future. They do live along time with a bird over 36 years old

After the have landed, birds have a typical display in which the raise their wings and lift their heads as well as calling.This is a typical stance after an attack.

Feeding is a big problem to most seabirds but for the Gt Skua it has managed to change its diet. Sand eels and fish discards formed a big part of the diet , both of which has declined. Therefore the Gt Skua has moved onto other prey items such as adult birds- Puffin, Guillemot etc , rabbits of which there are plenty in Shetland and eggs. In some years where food is scarce they even turn to cannibalism .

They even attack large birds such as gannets tugging on their wing and forcing them to crash into the sea and then stealing the fish. Even Gt Black Back Gulls are sometimes targeted but they don't have much success as these birds are just as aggressive.

This year birds seem scarce, with two farmers in the south mainland indicating that the numbers are down to 1/5 of what they were last year.