Dear Friends of Shetland Nature, we hope all is well with you as we enjoy the first stirrings of spring.
This is, as per previous seasons, our busiest period of the year for interest in our programme of holidays and booking enquiries. Just over the past week for example we have seen several of our dates filling so just so as to hopefully avoid any disappointment for anyone who has been undecided, we wanted to share an update on this season.
I’d like to also share my new photography Facebook page with you and very much hope you will find it interesting, please ‘Like’ it and following my posts which are solely Shetland based. The aim is to share and promote my own photography, projects I am working on and communicate my passion for Shetland’s natural history. Through this page, which I intend to compliment activity on our Shetland Nature Facebook page and our website and also make interested photographers aware of workshops, hides and itineraries that I am working on.
Little Bunting, Norwick, Unst. A typical species that is sure to find a crop in autumn in Shetland, and that birders hope to find, this Little cracker was one of two we found in one day with one of our autumn birding groups on a recent autumn trip.
Shetland has seen a massive change in crofting and agriculture over the past couple of decades. The ‘tattie’ and ‘oat crops’ which were once an iconic and authentic autumn scene throughout the crofting and inhabited landscapes are no longer a common sight. There are of course many land owners still planting crops traditionally but most now tend to be on a larger scale for machinery harvest and not the smaller scale once favoured so fondly by both birds and birders throughout the islands.
This year to encourage willing crofters and land owners, we have independently initiated a scheme to plant ‘sacrificial crops’ such as oats and mixed grain purposefully planted for birds, both resident and migrant and of course birders. Similar such scheme has run successfully for several years such as on on Fair Isle. We are delighted to already have several land owners on board on Unst and we hope that others (both birders and land owners) throughout the isles might do the same.
By helping work the land and part funding these crops we hope that as well as providing habitat for the birds it will also create new (as well as manage current) sites for local and visiting birders (as well as create habitat for our Shetland Autumn Birding guests to find our own birds) which is intended to help towards any potential issues with access, which should never be presumed at any site and permission should always be sought or guidelines understood. Further reading on ‘Birders Code of Conduct’ in Shetland can be found on the Nature in Shetland website.
The family a few months ago snuggling down for a nap, just a few hundred yards from our artificial holt.
Over the past 18 months or so I have been extremely fortunate to study wild otters in Shetland from a perspective (to our knowledge), never successfully seen here before. By building an artificial holt, kitted out with a live video stream and working under my schedule 2 license, authorised by Scottish Natural Heritage (which I have worked under for several years), together with a fellow otter enthusiast, we have enjoyed many months of privileged insight into a previously unseen world of wild otters here in Shetland.
This truly has been the most exciting ‘otter project’ I have ever had the privilege to work on. My fascination for otters began as a child and has grown into my life’s passion; I am extremely fortunate to have built a career around them and work with them throughout the seasons. This unique project has offered us an insight into a world that we could only before imagine.
Much of what we know of otters and their daily routines can be learned with experience and on-going study and observations. It is known that otters’ holts can be used by more than one otter over any particular period and that they may have several holts within their ‘range’ which may be used intermittently. Through this innovative project we have seen this first hand.
Over the first year or so the holt was used occasionally by a dog otter when he would come in for a sleep or just a general ‘sniff around’ and less so by one of the nearby females. The real success and celebration for us however was when one of the resident females moved her two cubs in and has continued to use it as their ‘core holt’ since. Throughout this time we have not only enjoyed intimate insights into their family life but also we have watched first-hand the relationships between animals within a particular range and their use of, and occupancy of, holts.
It is very important to state that otters are protected by law under the wildlife and countryside act and such a project should not be considered without intimate knowledge of otters and contacting the appropriate authorities is paramount. Our understanding of otters and their shy and sensitive nature ensured that this project was done with stringent sympathy towards the otters at all times. For more details on otter protection click here.
Due to the sensitive nature of otters, their protection and the avoidance of disturbance to this project and ultimately otters in general, we do not name the location. The fact that it was used at all in the first year is testament to this necessary approach, especially over the past six months when being used by a mother and her cubs, allowing us to share this totally unique and privileged insight of Shetland’s Otters Underground…
Once a well-established native Shetland breeding species, White-Tailed Eagle (also known as Sea Eagle) is now a very rare sight in the isles. Persecution and the rapid colonisation of Fulmars, led to the extinction of the Erne (which was the Shetland for the species), over 100 years ago. The last of the native Shetland population was shot in the North Mainland in 1917. This bird, an albino, was not only the last of the local birds but also the last individual remaining from the entire Scottish population.
Reintroduction programmes have now been running in Scotland successfully for many years in the west of Scotland, particularly in the Western Isles. Birds that have been bred in Norway are released in Scotland, all of which are tagged or colour rung for monitoring and tracking purposes. More recently birds reintroduced to NE Scotland have been fitted with transmitters so there movements can also be recorded.
On the 13th December 2012 I had just returned home from dropping our oldest son Casey off at nursery and was just about to do some work in our garden when my attention was drawn to the alarm calls of Greater-Black Backed Gulls nearby. Such distress from the local gulls usually only means one thing – large raptor! Looking out across the Voe in Baltasound I picked them up with the naked eye; five Greater-Black Backs mobbing a ridiculously large and broad winged bird of prey – “Sea Eagle”, I shouted to myself!
What a beautiful sight it was drifting in the voe over Baltasound on that calm and crisp frosty winter’s morning. It flew in the Voe being mobbed by local Greater-Black Backed Gulls and Hooded Crows, which were all dwarfed by its sheer bulk and 8ft wing span.
Again on Unst on Boxing Day it drifted north towards Saxa Vord, giving us a privileged view. What was very interesting about this individual was that on both sightings it appeared not to be ‘wing tagged’. This led me to suspect it might well be a genuine vagrant from northern Europe.
Most records of immature birds reaching Shetland tend to be (or are at least presumed to be) of reintroduced individuals from Scottish schemes, however after another fabulous sighting of the Unst bird up on Valla Field on Unst on New Year’s Day, my suspicions were confirmed when we were able to, not only be sure it lacked wing tags but more importantly (and by Robbie Brooks capturing these fantastic photographs) record the colour ring combination.
I was delighted when after emailing the images to various sources for confirmation on its origin, coordinator of the colour ringing project for Northern Europe, Dr Bjorn Helander of The Swedish Museum for Natural History, replied within an hour almost as excited as I was with confirmation that it was indeed a Norwegian bird of authentic origin. The colour combination also concluded it was rung as a chick in 2011 but without the actual ring numbers, specifics such as ringing locality could not be concluded. These colour combination were used on the entire Norwegian coast.
This confirmation sparked quite further excitement from ornithologists from Northern Europe working on White-Tailed Eagles as I also received a reply back from Alv Ottar Folkestad, leader of the Norwegian Sea-eagle Project (Norwegian Ornithological Society), who was also very excited by the sighting, stating that this was the first ever confirmed record they had of one of ‘their birds’ crossing the North Sea. In Shetland however there is at least one confirmed sighting of a bird baring a Norwegian colour ring on right leg, details of which I have since found for him. Alv also pointed out the bird’s apparent reduced/delayed moult which he stated was unusual and probably sugested poor physical condition over the past year.
Any sighting of such a magnificent bird as a White-Tailed Eagle is sure to be exhilarating regardless of its origin or locality, but from a birders perspective to prove it to be ‘the real deal’ and a genuine vagrant ‘Sea Eagle’ and not one that had been introduced, was very exciting indeed.
It is interesting to know that a bird from the Scottish reintroduction scheme that visited Shetland was actually found to be breeding back on the Norwegian coast. Thanks to the reintroduction programmes, White-Tailed eagle is once again becoming a common sight in certain parts of Scotland and with the on-going work and support of the RSPB and others they will hopefully continue to be so. With the more recent stage of the programme being in NE Scotland it is quite likely that we may well see this supreme bird of prey more often in the isles.
Update: since these sightings above, presumably the same individual was seen on the 10th January drifting south over Skaw on Whalsay.
In Shetland Atlantic grey seal pupping season begins in mid to late October through to the end of November; some of the earliest may begin pupping as early as mid-September and exceptionally late individuals may still be in the colonies in early December. Interestingly the colonies on the west side of Shetland begin pupping earlier than the east side ones.
Here they usually choose to give birth on beaches of small ‘geos’ among fairly high remote cliffs or on small offshore islands, meaning that many colonies are often inaccessible without a boat.
Each year I and many other volunteers assist Scottish Natural Heritage in carrying out their annual Grey Seal pupping census around Shetlands many colonies. The variation in habitats here is quite fascinating; in many colonies they give birth at the foot of towering sea cliffs; on pebble and sand beaches, amongst massive boulders and in caves and on grass on low lying offshore islands. This diversity of habitats offers many differing photo opportunities and environments to enjoy them. Unfortunately few of these colonies are exempt from the unforgiving gales that Shetland can experience and the pups are extremely vulnerable in their first few weeks.
There is something very special and exciting about visiting the inaccessible colonies by boat, and to experience the atmosphere these colonies have in late autumn. I often think on them as ‘sea mammal maternity wards’!
Grey seal mothers will nurse the pups for 17-18 days, during which time she remains on the beach and will not feed herself. The pup can gain up to an impressive 2kg of weight per day from her extremely fat-rich milk and is then left to fend for itself, living solely off their blubber reserves. When born, the pups have an absolutely adorable thick, fluffy white coat that takes anything from two to four weeks after weaning, to moult out into their waterproof adult coats. During this time, they cannot swim and are at risk of being swept away by heavy winter seas.
Once taking to the wild and untamed ocean, young seals have been known to wander up to 1,000 km or more from their original place of birth. When pup’s finally take to the ocean they will learn to dives of up to 20 minutes long and to as deep as 300m although the normal depth would be 30-80m. The average life expectancy for a female is about 35 years, males only 25, although the oldest grey seal ever recorded in the world was one in Shetland, a ripe old age of 46!
During the pupping season, the males, which can weigh an impressive 310kg, patrol the colonies keeping a watch on their harem and can go for over six weeks without eating in order to certify the mating with females, which takes place within a day of the females leaving their pups. Amazingly, the females delay their 11 month pregnancy for a month after mating.
The Shetland population is estimated to be around 3,500 which is a fairly healthy population given that the UK population is about 105,000 (nearly 50% of the world total). Although most Shetlanders now know seals to be collectively known as ‘sealkie’, grey seals were once known locally by fishermen as ‘haaf fish’. It’s hard to relate to what the Latin name ‘halichoerus grypus‘, translates as; ‘hooked pig nose of the sea.’
One of the main highlights during November was the wonderful arrival of Waxwings throughout the isles. The first birds were actually beginning to arrive during the last days of October but by November an ‘invasion’ was well underway. Probably well over 1,000 of these berry-eating beauties were recorded thanks to an online appeal by the Nature in Shetland website and facebook page asking everyone to send in their sightings.
On the same day that Vaila, my wife, had an amazing count of over 30 in our garden (while I was out of course!), a flock of 55 were seen at the Baltasound School just a couple of miles along the road. All across the islands bird enthusiasts were urged to put out fruit for the hungry visitors to replenish their energy reserves. We put out apples in our garden for coming on for two weeks; it was astonishing just how quickly they could devour one when cut in half. On one of the best days for them around ours here on Unst on the 5th we had over 30 feeding at ‘fruit stations’ I set up. I counted an amazing 16 swarming over a cluster of dead branches I had impaled two apples onto, it was like bees to honey! Watching this I was surprised to be able relate to the fact that in days of old Waxwings were often referred to by some as ‘plague birds’ as their arrivals were often said to coincide with epidemics! I’d never have thought to refer to such a beautiful bird in such a way.
Rather remarkably whilst photographing them on this same day (and with my adrenalin already racing through my body with the awesome sight of so many waxwings), two Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll landed just a few metres from where I was set up. What was even better is that at least one of them proved to be different to the flock of five already seen in Baltasound, more on that soon!
Waxwing arrivals such as these are known as ‘irruptions’ and happen in years when their primary food sources of berry crops fail in the north eastern regions of Scandinavia and beyond. They then move southward in search of food and this is why if we experience easterly winds at these times can enjoy these birds.
Waxwings are sure to attract the attention of even the most uninterested of passers-by. Their voice too is in perfect accord to their striking appearance; a wonderful whistling trill, not to dissimilar to what one might hear on a mobile phone ring tone or perhaps a front door bell!
In a day a Waxwing may eat up to its own body weight in berries and can consume hundreds in just a matter of hours. It was such a treat to have the chance to study them each day, watching their aggressive behaviour and how they would defend rights to food supply, our apples. It was fascinating and also at times, amusing to watch.
It was a real delight to be fortunate enough to be able to try out various compositions, attracting the Waxwings to where I wanted to photograph them just by moving the fruit around. Capturing images of them in flight was something I hadn’t attempted before but I am sure as anyone with experience at this will know, it is very simple to do and can be effective as long as the wind direction is compatible with the light. A massive apple in the images however makes it loose the authenticity I like in an image, but maybe I shouldn’t over think that.
I find it impressive how their exquisite attire is such a compromise of ‘beauty’ and ‘bad-ass’. There is no getting away from the simply mean expression created by the striking black ‘Dick Turpin style robbers mask and yet with an eye catching crest, beautiful uniform pinkish-buff plumage; intricate detail and vividly coloured decoration on the wings and tail it is one of the most delectable of birds you will see.
While wishing you a very merry Christmas and health and happiness for the new year, we would also like to share with you what an exciting year 2013 will be for us by letting you know all our latest news. We very much hope you find the following links to our news blog of interest.
We would also like to say a very big thank you to all our guests in 2012 and to every one who has already booked with us for 2013. An extended thank you too to all our associated companies, brands and organisations who help to make the experience our guests enjoy a very special one.
New for 2013!
Probably our most exciting new venture for 2013 is the taking on of ‘The Shetland Nature Lodge‘ here on our home island of Unst. We are both very proud and excited to add this stunning accommodation venue to our growing programme of exciting ways to enjoy Shetland and its wildlife. Running and theming such a beautiful property exclusively for our guests seeking their own bespoke holidays is a way for us to take the unique and authentic experience we already offer to a whole new level. The only property run by a wildlife tour company for wildlife holidays and the most northerly accommodation in Britain – it is little wonder 2013′s calender is fast filling in! Read all about it here.
New 2013 Holiday Itineraries
We are delighted to add four exciting new itineraries to our programme of holidays for 2013;
Shetland Spring Birding – celebrating the marvel of spring bird migration and Shetlands summer birding specialities, led by Martin Garner. Already half full!!
Walk Seven Shetland Islands – welcoming Allen Fraser of Shetland Geotours and James Tait of Island Trails (both native Shetlanders) this holiday celebrates a unique collaboration of three Shetland tour companies to offer a pioneering insight into Shetland’s natural history, cultural heritage, geology and history.
Shetland Late Summer Experience – we introduced this seasonally adjusted version of our core season and ‘flagship’ itinerary The Shetlend Nature Experience by way of popular demand to suit guests whom our summer season dates could not suit. So popular is this itinerary that there is Only one space left!!
Fair Isle & Shetland Autumn Birding – what better way to experience the delights of autumn birding on Fair Isle than staying in the beautiful new Observatory and being led by former warden and rarity finder extraordinaire, Deryk Shaw?! We are thrilled to be teaming up once again with Birdwatch Magazine on this brilliant birding bonanza. Already half full!!
Here’s a brief update on our current availability on our core season holidays:
The Shetland Nature Experience
Thursday 30th May – Friday 7th June – Sold Out
Thursday 6th June – Friday 14th June – Half full
Thursday 13th June – Friday 21st June – Available
Thursday 27th June – Friday 5th July – Limited Spaces
Wild Shetland Weekends
Friday 31st May to Tuesday 4th June – Limited Spaces
Friday 19th July to Tuesday 23rd July – Available
Otter Photography (& bespoke photo itineraries)with Brydon Thomason On track to be yet another sell out season for my Otter photography itineraries. Excluding a a handful of two or three day breaks between commitments, my 2013 season is now full between March and end of August. In addition to the demand for this, I am putting together bespoke photography itineraries for individuals and small groups themed around otters (of course!) but also with bird hides, landscapes and many more exciting opportunities to take your Shetland photography experience that bit further – this itineraries were one of the main motivations around taking on our Shetland Nature Lodge, which as you can see is the perfect base for your Shetland photography experience. If this or Otter photography is tickling your fancy for 2013 it is still worth contacting us as availability may change and you can still go on a waiting list…
With kind regards and the very best of wishes,
Brydon Thomason and all the team at Shetland Nature.
We are absolutely thrilled to post news on our very exciting new venture with this fabulous new accommodation property The Shetland Nature Lodge.
View from the balcony over Burrafirth.
What better way to offer our guests an even more unique and authentic Shetland experience than to be based at this idyllically situated and beautifully designed secluded property, right at the northern end of Unst. Overlooking Hermaness National Nature Reserve and the breathtaking vista of Burrafirth beach you can enjoy unhindered balcony views from Britain’s most northerly accommodation property.
We really are proud to add this holiday option to our programme of holiday itineraries throughout the year. This allows us to take our increasingly more popular bespoke ‘Shetland Nature Just for you’ range of holidays to an exciting new level. Its not only its location and its stunning design and interior but also the fact that it is exclusively run and themed for our guests. With an inspiring library for naturalists, photographers and birders and authentic imagery and art work of Shetlands natural environment through out, it is the perfect base to immerse yourself in the wild wonders of the Shetland Isles. And it will be ‘Just You’ and the undivided attention of your guide, giving your holiday that little bit more of a personal touch.
Whether you are seeking to enjoy an all round Shetland Nature Experience on a bespoke basis; a photographer (or group) wanting a more exclusive, challenging and specialist Shetland itinerary or birders seeking the best base for spring and autumn migration- the lodge has it all.
Not surprisingly we have already had a lot of interest in this holiday option and have several week-long itineraries booked up in May, June, July and August, please note that dates are filling in fast! We are also letting the Shetland Nature Lodge as self catering.
Originally this property was a traditional ‘Shetland croft house’ but with its brand new modernly designed extension and high standard of interior the Lodge now offers an impressive combination of comforts, character and modern convenience. Furnished to a high standard with Wi Fi, Sky TV Best suited for couples/small groups and or families, but with four bedrooms (one en suite double, a master, and twin and double attic bedrooms) it can sleep up to eight guests at full capacity. Their is a spacious and modernly designed split level and open plan living room, dining area and kitchen with floor to ceiling bay windows and french doors onto the balcony. There is also a second living room and utility room.