Review of the Shetland Nature 2011 Season

Posted by Gary Bell on Wednesday 16th November 2011 | News

The review of the Shetland Nature 2011 season has appeared a little later than planned, but for good reason: the arrival of Brydon and Vaila’s second son, Corey James Thomason, who was born in early September. For this very joyous reason, many post-season tasks, such as reviews and news posts, were put on ‘paternity-leave’ hold. It is perhaps more appropriate in any case, as it means the review can now be a more complete overview of the year’s programme, and includes the last of the season’s holidays such as the Shetland Autumn Birding weeks which finished in October.

Spring/summer season review

Once again, we were very fortunate to enjoy an excellent season, with our programme of ‘Shetland Nature Experience’ (week-long) and ‘Wild Shetland Weekend’ (long weekend) holidays all selling out. In fact, such is the popularity and demand for the northern isles, we were able to offer and fill additional holidays to those initially advertised. There is no doubt that Shetland is definitely a ‘must visit’ location, and for many very good reasons! To quote Lonely Planet, who listed Shetland as one of its Top 10 regions in the world to visit in 2011: “this might just be the last untamed corner of the United Kingdom”.

This year saw a definite increase in visitors taking advantage of our highly successful Day Tours. More encouragingly, there was increased demand from people seeking tours in the ‘shoulder-seasons’ of early spring, autumn and even in winter than in previous years.

As far as sightings were concerned we certainly delivered; indeed, in many cases, as well as reasoned judgement we had luck on our side. Throughout the season, all of Shetland’s star speciality species were encountered and enjoyed, and for some lucky guests even all in one week. In fact, Otters, Killer Whales and Red-necked Phalaropes were encountered in one day!

Amongst the most sought after of all are, of course, Shetland’s enchanting and endearing Otters, which were enjoyed on all holidays on multiple occasions and all our day trips too. Otter watching is a real speciality of ours and one that we are justly renowned for (see also Otter watching day trips and Otter Photography holidays). Our groups really do experience first-hand the benefits of both our small group sizes and our knowledge of Otters and the sites they use. Dedicating time to track them on our week-long trips is also a huge attraction.

Killer Whales also provided several sightings throughout the season. Although several holidays and day tours enjoyed encounters, it was on the whole a ‘below par’ season for inshore Killer Whale sightings around Shetland, with fewer than normal of the known pods having been sighted. This is of course not unprecedented; no two summers are the same but thankfully Killer Whales always seem to come back! We were delighted to welcome back Dr Andy Foote of the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID project to lead on a couple of our marine-based day trips.

Other sea mammals seen included White-beaked, White-sided, Risso’s and Common Dolphins (the latter being quite a rarity in Shetland waters), whilst Minke Whale and Harbour Porpoise were the more frequently seen cetaceans, especially later in the summer. Also during the latter part of the summer were several Basking Sharks. In fact, it has probably been the best year for a couple of decades in Shetland for this species, which has only recently begun occurring with any regularity.

The summer breeding birds were typically more reliable (with the often frustrating exception of the increasingly more elusive Red-necked Phalarope); from Plovers, Petrels and Puffins to Gannets, Guillemots and Great Skuas and Red-throated Divers, Ravens and Razorbills.

Also from an ornithological outlook, several of our groups were fortunate to connect with some fine rarities and scarcities on our spring and early-summer holidays. Amongst the scarcer migrants were Long-tailed Skua, Red-backed Shrike, Golden Oriole, Marsh Warbler, Common Rosefinch, Corn Crake (including one lucky group which actually saw the bird singing in the open!), Quail, Crossbill, Wood Warbler and Wood Sandpiper to name but a few, whilst rarities such as Squacco Heron, Black Kite, Rustic Bunting and Subalpine Warbler added to the already impressive list of birds recorded on our holidays. In the field, you are always aware that you might find something unusual or rare. When it happens, it’s one of these experiences that is difficult to describe, but often involves adrenalin! This season went reasonably well, with the group leaders finding White-billed Diver, Black throated Diver, Ring-billed Gull, Pectoral Sandpiper and Short-toed Lark during our holidays or day tours. However, it’s not all about the rare species; unusual can relate to behaviour too. This year, amongst others, we have witnessed an Otter catching and running off with a domestic duck, another Otter running around amongst sheep, and a Shag attempting to consume a fish that was larger than itself!

Shetland’s wild flowers, plants and fungus provided breath-taking scenes as we toured around the islands. Stone dykes covered in symbiotic lichens alluded to a pristine environment. Carpets of Ragged Robin, Red Campion and Fox-and-Cubs gave way to patches of Yellow Iris and fields of Marsh Marigolds and were the aesthetic starters to Shetland’s rich flora. Orchids are always a popular delight and we were able to find Early Marsh, Early Purple, Frog, Fragrant, Heath Spotted and Northern Marsh, although different periods of the summer are better for certain species than others.

The Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve on Unst is a weekly pilgrimage with us, and as well as providing scarce Orchids, the endemic Edmondston’s Chickweed and alpines such as Moonwort, Norwegian Sandwort and Northern Rockcress were found amongst many others.

Insect eaters! It often surprises people that we have insectivorous plants in Shetland and the commonest two, Round-leaved Sundew and Common Butterwort, were numerous in their preferred habitats.

Other fascinating plant encounters include the nationally scarce and declining Oysterplant, which spreads itself out on only a few shingle beaches in Shetland. We were able to see it at its best. Also, one of our guests wished to see a particular plant, and because of our small group size we were able to spend time seeking out the enigmatically named Grass-of-Parnassus at a site we know; this also led us to a very special Otter encounter. In Shetland, sometimes you just don’t know what’s around the corner!

North Isles Nature Cruise with Simon King

Having worked very closely with Simon over the past few years, we were delighted to have him feature on our North Isles Nature Cruise to Muckle Flugga this summer. This was our fifth summer running these adventurous and exciting marine wildlife cruises on the modern Yell Sound ferries, and our third to Muckle Flugga. With well over 100 passengers on board, this very popular voyage once again all but sold out. Having such a high profile personality as Simon on board was a real privilege for us, and one that we were very proud to offer as part of our summer season programme.

Autumn birding holidays

This year we ran two of our popular Autumn Birding holidays, both led by identification guru Martin Garner. A full review of the two weeks will follow soon. To whet the appetite, amongst the many species seen were Grey-cheeked Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Pallid Harrier, Lesser Grey Shrike, Black-headed Bunting, Surf Scoter, Olive-backed Pipit, Isabelline Shrike, Citrine Wagtail, American Golden Plover, Dotterel and Pectoral Sandpiper, as well as the more ‘usual’ scarcities such as Yellow-browed Warbler, Common Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Bluethroat.

Also, look out for our round-up of Shetland birding in autumn 2011 (from July to November) – coming very soon…

Media and journalist trips

Throughout the season, we were delighted to be asked to lead several media journalists and press trips on behalf of both Visit Scotland and local tourism promoters Promote Shetland. Each summer, we are commissioned to work on such trips and are proud to do so, as it illustrates how highly regarded we are by local and national tourism promoters and are trusted to provide the Shetland experience they want visiting journalists to enjoy. This year, we were also proud to welcome visiting journalists from the Sunday Times, Time Out (London) and the Montreal Gazette, amongst others.

Media publications and websites

We were pleased with our continued association with leaders in the birding media Birdwatching and Birdwatch magazines. Our ‘reader holidays’ were sell-out successes, and we very much look forward to our continued association and working relationship with these publications. We are also delighted with our ongoing close ties with leading bird information providers Birdguides and Rare Bird Alert, and look forward to continuing to work closely with them over the forthcoming years.

We were pleased to further our association with Outdoor Photography magazine and are running a competition with them, offering a three-day Otter Photography workshop (with full board accommodation in association with Saxa Vord) worth over £1150! The competition/entry date ends in early December, see October’s issue for full details.

Scotland Outdoors is another publication we were very pleased to be approached by recently. Brydon will be the subject of their ‘Outdoor people – Day in the life of’ feature, which will be on the shelves in early November.

And finally, a big thank you…

To all of our guests in 2011, without whom our holidays and day tours would not happen. We are most grateful for all the positive feedback received (see our Testimonials).

To our accommodation providers: Neil and the staff Saxa Vord on Unst, and Keith, Beccy and the staff at Spiggie Hotel in south mainland and Steve Sharon and Gabriella at the Baltasound Hotel in Unst.

To Jonathan, Alan and Robbie at ‘Seabirds and Seals’ and Tom and Cynthia at ‘Mousa Boat Trips’ for getting us to Noss and Mousa respectively, often in somewhat trying circumstances.

2012 holidays

We are a small, locally-based company, employing guides who live and work in Shetland all year round, and as a result can offer an intimate and personalised experience of the islands that we are proud to represent. Our small group size of six people on all our holidays is unrivalled by any other company. The advantages of this benefit the wildlife and you. In 2011 this allowed our guests to enjoy Shetland in their own way, whether this was sketching, finding Grass-of-Parnassus, or putting in time and succeeding to find Red-necked Phalaropes.

Find out about our 2012 range of Shetland Nature holidays.