We spent a month in Shetland, starting with 2 weeks on the isle of Unst then 2 weeks on the isle of Shetland Mainland. On Unst we stayed in a little cottage by the sea underneath Hermaness cliffs - handy for rolling out of bed and yomping over the moors to the cliffs teeming with seabirds.
Shetland is the main stronghold of the Great Skua, holding more than half of its world population. In the past this rare species has been persecuted by egg collectors and taxidermists but thanks to many years of conservation and protection there are now over 600 pairs breeding on Hermaness moors.
The skuas act like avian pirates, flying after other seabirds and forcing them to disgorge their latest meal.
Their Shetland name is “Bonxie” and they display their white wing flashes if other Bonxies come too close.
We had to have our wits about us as Bonxies can be very aggressive towards people if approached too closely, swooping down fast towards you - and they’re mighty big birds.
We witnessed a territorial fight between a breeding pair of Bonxies and a rival single male - it went on for about half an hour, with the single male constantly dive-bombine the pair then grappling on the ground with the other male. All the female could do was to watch from the sidelines and make lots of noise. Both males were rather battered by the end, but the original male of the pair went back to his female and settled down after the battle.
Towards the end of the day the Bonxies like to bathe the sea salts off their feathers - they use small moorland pools or freshwater lochs.
Also breeding up on the Hermaness cliffs were tiny dunlin, showing the black bellies of their summer plumage :-
A species you can find in large numbers at Hermaness is the Gannet. There are over 12,000 pairs breeding on the high cliff ledges. They can be tricky to get close to on land because of the sheer drops but they can easily be seen en masse breeding on the large rocks jutting out of the sea or flying past the cliffs.
By peering over the cliff edge we were able to glimpse some of the nesting birds. They often use pieces of abandoned fishing nets as nesting material, but this can cause problems if they become entangled in them.
A few gannets were resting close grassy edge of the cliff top :-
Another bird that you can usually see in the summer at Hermaness is the Puffin. They are the most numerous seabird in the area, but are often difficult to find as they spend most of the day out fishing. We usually found them in the late afternoon or evening. Several of the puffins were plucking grass to take down into their burrows.
Puffin photography here is not easy - the cliff edges are very steep and the grass can be slippy !
We found many more puffins later on in our stay.
A young rabbit was enjoying the grass on the cliff top and we found it in the same place most days.
On an area of rough ground covered by serpentine debris and resembling the surface of the moon we found some diminutive flowers only a couple of centimetres high, stunted by the harsh windy conditions.
Our favourites were Endmonston’s chickweed (found only on Unst) and Frog orchid.
On the moorlands of the smaller islands we found many breeding birds, such as Arctic Terns & Golden Plovers.
Red-necked pharalope are a protected species in the UK, so can’t be photographed near their breeding areas. We managed to find some that regularly flew in to feed on a tiny pool, well away from their nesting grounds. They are beautiful small duck-like waders and are one of the few birds where the female has brighter plumage than the male. This is because the male incubates the eggs and raises the chicks, leaving the female free to find another partner and breed again.
The terrain in Shetland is fairly level, so birds such as oystercatchers and snipe make use of walls and fence posts to get a view of their territory.
One of our key species to see during this trip was the Black Guillemot. We visited several of the smaller Shetland islands and managed to find these endearing seabirds in a few places. They are wonderfully tolerant of humans, allowing fairly close approaches with care. We spent many days with a couple of different small populations and loved to watch their antics as it was breeding time. They have lovely display ‘dances’ where they both bob around and make high-pitched chittering noises.
For our last fortnight we were in a lovely cottage on the side of a sea loch on the Shetland Mainland.
The weather was set fair so we made last minute plans to visit the remote Fair Isle. It’s not a trip for the feint hearted - if the plane is unable to make the 25 minute flight it’s a 2 ½ hour rough boat ride.
We were doubly fortunate - the bird observatory had space for us for a 2 night stay, and the winds that disrupted flights before and after our stay abated for our short window of opportunity and we had two lovely smooth flights.
We stayed at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, a very comfortable base that fed us with 3 square meals a day, even providing a picnic when we arrived so we could maximise our time with the puffins.
Fair isle is a great place for photographing puffins. Because there’s open access at all times, we could photograph all day long. We started about 5am and kept going right through to nearly midnight - because of the simmer dim there was still enough light. The sea thrift was in full flower and the puffins were gorgeous amongst it.
Sometimes there were so many puffins we really didn’t know where to point our lenses. At other times it was fairly quiet, with just the odd one emerging from a burrow to fly out to sea.
Some of the puffins were bringing fish back to take into their burrows, for partners on eggs or young pufflings.
Sometimes their eyes seemed bigger than their bellies - heaven only knows how the baby puffins are going to eat such a large fish !
In addition to the puffins there were several other birds on Fair Isle. The bonxies seemed to like the flowers too.
In the evenings, young rabbits came out of their burrows to enjoy the flowers.
But it was the puffins that stole most of our attention.
Once we left Fair Isle to go back to the Shetland Mainland the flower theme continued. It seemed like all the wildlife we saw was in flowers, including hooded crow & fulmars.
The Shetland ponies were grazing in flower-filled meadows.
On the Shetland Isles the wren is slightly darker and more barred than the rest of the UK and is a subspecies - the Shetland Wren.
Although we’d left Fair Isle we weren’t done with puffins yet. We managed to find them in a few more places - sometimes on walls or rocky ledges, sometimes in more flowers.
The puffins were in the middle of the breeding season so there was lots of interest in burrows, some friendly bill-tapping and some not so friendly bill-wrestling.
Puffins are such great characters, always up to something. It’s lovely to spend long periods of time with them to watch their antics. I’m sure we’ll be back again some day.