Here’s a short piece accompanied with images from Italian photographer Mauro Mozzaerelli who had bespoke photo itinerary with me in early August. His images are a fine example of a one-to-one itinerary, which is becoming very popular for us. This year alone we have welcomed photographers from all over the world from as far as France, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Italy, Slovakia and many others.
Mr. Brydon Thomason – the Otter whisperer
As a seasoned traveller and photographer, every time I start a new wildlife trip, I always try to keep my expectations low (as low as possible…). Well, no need to worry this time! The great knowledge and respect for the wildlife (very important for us) of Mr. Thomason made our trip to the Shetland Islands an unforgettable one.
We didn’t expect to be able to find so many Otters in daylight, and we had the privilege to spend many hours with them and enjoyed many encounters (it really is incredible!).
The windy early morning at the Hermaness Nature Reserve was something to remember with spectacular opportunities of Puffins, gannets and Great Skua.
Shetland is a very special place and, thanks to Mr.Thomason, we had a very special trip! Thanks again Mr. Thomason and thanks Shetland Nature!
Wow, where does the time go?! It is now nearly two months since we initiated and organised a ‘Sponsored Otter Search’ to raise money to support the International Otter Awareness day, on the 29th May, organised by the International Otter Survival Fund.
A combination of our busiest season to date and collecting and transferring sponsorship money has meant that we are only now posting news on this fun and exciting event back in May. We were amazed and genuinely delighted at the response and support we had with our Sponsored Otter search when between the three of us; myself, Gary Bell and Richard Shucksmith we saw 25 otters.
In total we raised £800 and would like to thank each and for their generosity in supporting us through donation/sponsorship.
This money we raised for ‘Otter Awareness Day’ is being used to repair and replace some of the facility on Skye where rehabilitated otter cubs are looked after and the larger moorland pens they are moved to when older and more independent as part of their journey to eventual release. They are in them for several months and can be very destructive! They have experienced the added problem recently of a wild otter trying to dig his way into the pens!
As well as this our annual ‘corporate sponsorship’ funds are channelled into the great education work the IOSF do (Paul and Grace go to schools, clubs, societies etc to give talks about otters to raise awareness).
They are also working at the moment on setting up a UK wide alliance to bring all the otter groups together under one umbrella so that we have a degree of national coordination with standardised surveying methods etc. Money raised from our standard adoptions (rather than corporate) tends to go straight towards the care of the otters at the sanctuary.
Tune into BBC1’s Countryfile this Sunday the 14th July if you want to top up with a taste of Shetland…
It was great to be asked to help out and feature on the programme and I was delighted to be involved. I was especially proud, (though quite nervous on screen!), as the lead story was Fetlar, in particular the project being carried out by RSPB on the islands Red-necked Phalaropes by fitting geo-locaters to determine where these beautiful birds winter, amongst other data the devices may reveal.
They filmed me talking to presenter Ellie Harrison about growing up on the island, my passion for nature and in particular my love of Otters throughout Shetland. Although they were not able to be out and work through the time I suggested as the best time for finding Otters and their time was limited, we did manage an encounter and it was nice to talk a little about them.
The Phalaropes performed wonderfully too, which was the icing on the cake for them and tied in fantastically with local RSPB warden Malcie Smith’s guidance, who few could match when it comes to knowing these delightful little Arctic wading birds.
The crew were fantastic to work with and it was an exciting and enjoyable day all round – we were immensely lucky with the weather, beautiful blue skies with not a cloud in sight, good banter and some good encounters!
“Quick – grab your bags” was how the spring 2013 holiday began. No time for gentle introductions – a pod of Killer Whales had just been spotted off Sumburgh Head by Brydon, who was leading a photo-tour. Once disbelief had been quelled, it was all aboard the bus for the dash to try and see them! With a little help from friends and team effort, we got everyone up just in time- the week could not have got off to a better start! Our first seabirds such as Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbill offered a fine supporting cast. Pumped up with adrenaline, all guests were happy to press on for a couple of hours birding before dinner. We left the Orca pod to try to see a beautiful female Red-necked Phalarope at nearby Spiggie with a bathing ‘club’ of about 40 Great Skuas (Bonxies) as a backdrop. While watching the phalarope some of the group turned around only to find an Icterine Warbler on the fence-line; the first record of the spring for the isles (away from Fair Isles). Superb! We were already finding our own good birds. The 1st summer Ring-billed Gull was still present on Loch of Hillwell plus a host of fresh water birds and a Glaucous Gull. It’s fair to say the first couple of hours of this holiday had more than met expectations!
The next morning heralded our next ‘find’. A quick scan around Sumburgh farm revealed not one but 2 Red-backed Shrikes; a male recently present plus a new female with striking rich brown plumage. While watching the shrikes we also picked up Iceland Gull, Long-tailed Duck, Black Guillemot and Great Northern Diver.
Lerwick harbour was our mid-morning destination. A migrant male Pied Flycatcher in towns gardens proved birds can be found anywhere in Shetland but a Canada Goose at Clickimin Loch drew much more attantion. While the same size as 2 accompanying Canada’s, its darker, browner plumage with no white neck collar indicated its identity as a possible Todd’s Canada Goose – a vagrant bird form North America (and potential first for Shetland). Intrigued (and with sequence of images nailed) but somewhat distracted by our sailing time commitment for our boat trip to Noss, we only just made the pier in time for the spectacular trip on board the Dunter out to the seabird colony at Noss.
Another Glaucous Gull in the harbour plus summer plumaged Red-throated and Great Northern Divers bejewelled our journey.
Once there, the seabird cliffs provide a breath-taking spectacle yielding the kind of point blank views not usually possible with Gannets, Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots plus lunch stealing Bonxies alongside the boat. Afternoon was spent taking spectacular scenery of east side of the South Ness including the tombolo at St Ninian’s Isle. We also found (another!) male Red-backed Shrike at Spiggie.
A rest around teatime prepared us for the late night outing to the magic of the Island of Mousa and the Storm Petrels. Famously described as the ‘sound of a fairy being sick’, the enchanting purring song of the petrels in the majestic and mysterious ancient broch created an unforgettable memory.
Bound for Unst we began Sunday morning with a Short-toed Lark on Sumburgh Head with awesome views of Puffins nearby. Britain’s most Northerly Island was a place of exploration and discovery for the next few days.
It was here on Unst that we had what was to stand out as one of the most favoured memories (among many) of the week’s holiday. So let’s fast forward:
Team effort is a key element for Shetland Nature holidays, both within our groups, amongst fellow team members and residents around the isles. Tuesday afternoon was the perfect example…. Unst resident Robbie Brookes contacted us to say he’d seen an acrocephalus Warbler at Skaw that he thought was probably a Marsh. We knew this was worth checking and arrived at Skaw to banks of mist rolling in on NE breeze; oow, special conditions indeed. We soon located a Garden Warbler, a Spotted Flycatcher and another bird ‘flew’ in’ to join them but remained obscured. With a little effort we were soon having great views of a spring Marsh Warbler and discussing the key ID features.
Just beyond up popped a female Red-backed Shrike. Fantastic! 2 minutes later another Red-backed Shrike, both on view at the same time.
Hold on – fog, north-east winds… now we’re cookin’. In the next half hour we found 6 Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitehroat. Then the icing on the cake: 2 of our guest returning from the beach said a couple of birds had been flitting about on the stream. Any bird that’s perhaps not familiar or appeared unusual is not to be left in Shetland and in these conditions…a quick stroll down and BOOM! a Little Bunting; regular but still a good find in autumn but very rare in spring. What a stunning bird and a life tick for most of the group.
Against this peak birding moment in Unst we savoured the majestic Hermaness with oodles of Bonxies, singing and displaying Dunlin and Golden Plover, another majestic seabird cliff, stunning spring Snow Buntings on Hermaness and Lamba Ness, Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns.
Haroldswick scored for us too with migrant Wood Warbler, Greenland and Mealy Redpoll with a Quail in the same ‘ditch’, and the injured 1st summer Common Crane. Baltasound yielded migrants too including Long-eared Owl and Cuckoo and Otters on an early morning safari.
Our day trip to Fetlar always seems to produce something special. This time a Blyth’s Reed Warbler no less, found by SN team member Andy Cook – only the 7th May record for Britain! Redstart, Short-eared Owl and Siskin were all migrants and we found another Red-backed Shrike!
Like book ends, the last day of the holiday was marked bysurprises which included rare birds and cetaceans. We got to be in on the identification wrestle with a typically and frustratingly elusive Thrush Nightingale at Virkie, another SN team member find, this time by Rob Fray and finished before dinner by finding 2 Minke Whales passing north off Sumburgh Head.
Space and words in a report like this make it impossible to shoehorn in, all of the wonderful experiences and discoveries we had. Suffice to say it was such a starlight holiday – we are already planning next spring’s gig, with a special guestguide Tim Appleton a ‘new addition’ to the Shetland Nature team.
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.