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Snowy Owl on Unst

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Sunday 2nd May 2010 | Birding in Shetland

A very special discovery indeed! Since the dying off of the Snowy Owls, which bred on my home Island of Fetlar, between the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, I have longed for another encounter with these majestic birds of prey.

But it was the neighbouring island of Unst, some 14 years later that today; at last I was reacquainted! Reported yesterday by a walker, the bird was said to have been on the far side of a hill, barely a mile from and which overlooks my mother-in-laws house! I truly believe that in Shetland at certain times of year, you are never further than a mile or two from a rarity, only a tiny percentage of the time do we take the right turn though!

On receiving the news late last night, I set out making plans to get into Unst asap and called my good mate Robbie Brookes and arranged to meet at 0700am. To cut along story short, with in an hour of meeting Robbie, we were stood breathless (partly from the climb and partly from sheer elation!) gazing at what was indeed a Snowy Owl! On route we were half thinking, as you so often do in these cases; will it still be there, was it even definitely one etc.

An encounter with a bird as magnificent as this is exhilarating in any circumstance or situation but for me, having grown up with regular, often-daily sightings from my school class room window (yes – literally!) this was truly special. Snowy Owl was a bird that for me as I boy, dare I say it, I almost took for granted. I remember with great fondness as a young boy enjoying trips to the nest sight with legendary Shetland naturalist and my childhood hero, the late Bobby Tulloch.

After enjoying privileged views of this ‘Arctic Owl’ I arranged to meet my wife Vaila with our six month old son Casey to bring them up to the hill, with a scope on my back and Casey harnessed into my front – the hill left me even more breathless! But it certainly was worth it!  Casey is having quite a year, with Bearded seal, Killer Whale and now Snowy Owl, he is notching up quite a list!  Of course at six months he is oblivious to it all but birding parents will know that it matters not – ‘pram ticks’ all count some day, him there makes it all the more special!

Snowy Owl has a circumpolar breeding distribution. It is a very rare visitor to Britain and Ireland although the last few years has seen birds starting to appear far more regularly, especially in the Western Isles and West cost of Ireland.

This bird is only the second one in over ten years in Shetland, the last also being on Unst in 2005 (also on Fair Isle). I hope it is not another decade and a half till my next encounter and I hope that one will be on my home turf…