Shetland Nature

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Grey Seal pupping season

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 4th January 2013 | Sea Mammals in Shetland

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.’

Special care and consideration must be given if visiting colonies as mothers and pups are often very sensitive to disturbance and you should always respect their ‘comfort zone’ and avoid disturbance. Details of this can be found on the SNH website:

Waxwings in Shetland 2012

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 3rd January 2013 | Birding in Shetland

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.

Read more about this year’s November influx in Shetland the Nature in Shetland blog

To tail of the influx we had a lone straggler in our garden on Christmas day, a welcome sight indeed!

Christmas Greetings from Shetland Nature

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 20th December 2012 | News

Dear friends of Shetland Nature,

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!!

Holiday availability

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

Shetland Nature Photography
Thursday 6th to Thursday 14th June – Half full
Friday 14th to Friday 21st June – Limited Spaces

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 hope to see you in the very near future!

The Shetland Nature Lodge

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 30th November 2012 | News

We are absolutely thrilled to post news on our very exciting new venture with this fabulous new accommodation property The Shetland Nature Lodge.

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.

Find out more about The Shetland Nature Lodge »
For bookings please telephone 01957 710 000 or email

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – The first for Shetland and Scotland

Posted by Rob Fray on Wednesday 14th November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Over the weekend of 13th/14th October 2012, Shetland was seemingly awash with Olive-backed Pipits; ten were found over the two days but, try as I might, I couldn’t rustle up one of my own. On Monday 15th October, I decided to branch out from my usual South Mainland haunts. Where would be a good place to find an OBP? I plumped for Scalloway.

After a couple of hours of searching the many trees and mature gardens of Shetland’s ancient capital, with just a few Bramblings and Siskins to show for my efforts, I was coming to the conclusion that I was going to fail in my Olive-backed Pipit mission. The final place to check was the area of sycamores around the Scalloway Health Centre. Whilst sitting in the car, pondering which direction to walk in, a small black and white bird bounded across in front of me and landed in the aforementioned sycamores. I initially assumed it was going to be a Great Spotted Woodpecker, as I knew one had been present in Scalloway for a few days previously, but something was seriously disturbing just from this brief flight view: the bird was tiny! A quick look through the bins – prominent black and white ‘laddering’ on the upperparts, no red on it anywhere, and only the size of a sycamore leaf  – was followed by a rather frantic session of waving the camera in its general direction.

I knew it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, being pretty familiar with them from my previous life ‘down south’ (although I’d not seen one for a few years), but couldn’t really comprehend what I was seeing. The bird moved away through the trees and was lost to view, at which time I tried to collect my thoughts. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker wasn’t on the Shetland List, and nobody had even seriously considered it as a realistic candidate to turn up here. I was faced with the prospect of a single-observer record of a completely unlikely addition to the Shetland List. Was I making some elementary mistake? The photos on the back of my camera told me otherwise. I rang fellow Shetland Nature guide Gary Bell for moral support: “Lesser Spot isn’t on the Shetland List is it?” “It’s not even on the Scottish List! Why do you ask?” “Because I’ve just found one in Scalloway”. Silence. Gary must have thought I’d lost the plot. I went through the events with him, and he was persuaded to drive to Scalloway to help with the search. The news was put out, and all of Shetland’s active birders descended on Scalloway to look for it. Many were somewhat incredulous, and several queried my sanity by text before arriving at Scalloway and seeing my photos! Fortunately, after a couple of hours, the bird was relocated in gardens not far from the Health Centre, and showed on and off during the evening and over the following few days; it was last reported on October 19th.

Although Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was not on anybody’s ‘radar’ as a potential addition to the Shetland List (indeed, one well-known Shetland birder declared it to be “the most bizarre thing he had ever seen in Shetland”, whilst another thought that the initial text releasing the news was a wind-up!), we now know that this species does occasionally ‘irrupt’ in small numbers from northern Europe in response to food shortages. Interestingly, one was trapped on the island of Utsira, off the western coast of Norway (only about 220 miles from Shetland), the day before the Scalloway bird was found, although photographs show that it was a different individual. Late autumn 2012 was notable in Shetland for the appearance of a number of other species that had ‘irrupted’ out of northern Europe, including Blue and Great Tits, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Waxwings, so if ever a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was going to make it here, this was the autumn that it was going to happen. What might come next from the forests of Scandinavia?

I never did find myself an Olive-backed Pipit (although birders looking for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker did unearth one in Scalloway, so my initial idea was not without merit!). However, bumbling into a first for Shetland was certainly ample compensation.

Rob Fray

Bobolink, Brake, South Mainland, Shetland – 28/10/2012

Posted by Roger Riddington on Wednesday 14th November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

In 2012, late October proved to be easily the best bit of the month in Shetland, although after Chestnut-eared Bunting, Siberian Rubythroat and Pied Wheatear, things looked to be settling down as November approached.

On Sunday 28th October, Paul Harvey and I were having a thrash round a few of our favourite spots at the south end of Shetland, focusing on weedy areas that might offer up a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Tree Sparrow, Lapland Bunting, Goldfinch were all nice birds for Shetland but not quite what we were looking for.

Mid afternoon, on a lovely day, we were ambling along the road at Brake, not really expecting anything exciting, but suddenly, Paul (who was ahead of me) turned and said: ‘get over here, quickly!’. I scuttled across to where he was standing and he said: ‘something yellow just dropped in with the sparrows…’. Whatever it was wasn’t showing; we stood there for a half a minute and then it popped up on the fence alongside a few sparrows, We could see it only through a big clump of dead grass but to be honest it was pretty clear that it was a Bobolink!

I got my camera out and fired off 20 or so shots, the bird still obscured by grass. The pics were not great but sufficient to get the record through. We hadn’t really moved at this point, and were just debating how best to approach it for less obscured views when it flew off, strongly, to the north and disappeared completely! That was something we hadn’t bargained for. I set off after it, Paul stayed put. After a good 20 minutes or more I got back to the farm with no sign of the bird. All we could do was hope it came back; remarkably, after another 20 minutes or so, it did just that, appearing on a five-bar gate 20 m from us, calling softly – an amazing call, that sounded like a distant coughing sheep!

It soon vanished again but reappeared ten minutes or so later when it was seen by most of the dozen or more people who turned up to twitch it, before disappearing again one last time.

Roger Riddington

Fair Isle – Classic Autumn Birding – Classic Timing!

Posted by Deryk Shaw on Friday 2nd November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Resident island birder, and former Fair Isle Bird Observatory warden of 12 years, Deryk Shaw rounds up this year’s run of island classics over the period spanning our holiday dates on the magical isle in 2013 (in association with Birdwatch magazine).

After 14 years of birding on Fair Isle (12 of them as Warden of the Obs), if there is one thing I have learnt it is that birds can turn up any time. In autumn, given the right weather conditions, I have witnessed spectacular falls of common migrants and seen marvellous birds on countless dates between late July and early November. However I would have to say that the two week period late September into early October has consistently been the best for numbers and variety of birds.

This year proved to be no exception and in fact I could almost go as far to say it was Fair Isle at its best and given the Magnolia Warbler just days earlier it probably was! The Last days of September produced an extremely approachable Paddyfield Warbler (feeding in vegetation at people’s feet), Lanceolated Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Buff-bellied Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit and multiple Little Buntings, Yellow-browed Warblers, Barred Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat and Red-backed Shrike as well as large numbers of common migrants, including the first autumn arrivals of Snow Buntings (100+) and Lapland Buntings (20+).

October was kicked off in typical FI style by a remarkably obliging Pechora Pipit strolling about on short grass, just yards from the group of 20 to 30 assembled observers (another great thing about birding Fair Isle, there are no crowds!!!) and, allowing even closer views, a Blyth’s Reed Warbler actually made its way into the Obs lounge!! Meanwhile, the confiding Paddyfield also continued to entertain all-comers. On the way to work the following morning (my post-Obs income is mainly provided by working on the Good Shepherd ferry) I was stopped by some birders to look at a photograph they had just taken of a bird nearby. They were ecstatic when I told them that they had just found the autumn’s second Lanceolated Warbler! This was another delightfully confiding bird, creeping along at the base of the stone wall near to one of the Obs heligoland traps, allowing some frame-filling photos!

However this was just a warm-up for the ultimate Locustella as mid-morning on the 3rd I was birding part of the east side when I got a call from Will Miles, FIBO Assistant Warden, informing me that there was “an almost certain PG Tips” (Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler to give it its full title) in the south, near Utra! My car was nearby and I drove there as fast as I could, stopping to pick up a few breathless birders on the way – I even went back to pick up some more before getting out the car to look at the photos! It looked like one to me!! Once everyone had arrived, a mist-net was erected and the bird quickly flushed from its hiding place – an overgrown ditch – into it. Exhilaration swept through the gathering when Will confirmed its identity as he extracted it from the net.

At the same time, Fair Isle’s sixth Arctic Warbler of the year, a couple of Richard’s Pipits and a Corncrake were also all new species for some of the crowd! I took a short break from birding on 5th as it was the annual round-up of the isle’s hill sheep, to take off the lambs. I was standing at the ‘cru’ (sheep pens), along with fellow SN team members Rebecca Nason, Phil Harris and Micky Maher who were staying with us at the time (everyone wants to be on Fair Isle at this time!) when we heard a familiar call overhead. I scoured the sky and spotted the culprit approaching from the north and declared “Citrine Wagtail!” as it flew high over us calling and continued south. Sheep safely rounded up and sorted, we all went back to birding this magic isle and the bird was re-found later that afternoon and showed well to all!

A strong cold easterly the following day brought in thousands of Redwings and a fine male Black-throated Thrush plus lots of Goldcrests. A quieter couple of days followed (apart from the gale force wind!) although the long-staying Lanceolated Warbler continued to scurry about in Field ditch.

A light NE’ly breeze on 11th saw a further large arrival of Redwings interspersed with a scattering of rarities and scarcities including another Blyth’s Reed Warbler, two Olive-backed Pipits, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Corncrake and a smart Great Grey Shrike. The next few days continued in the similar vein with large numbers of thrushes piling in, joined by hundreds of Bramblings and Goldcrests, another Olive-backed Pipit and a nice Woodlark with the Lanceolated Warbler and Great Grey Shrike lingering.

Now, as I write this at the end of the month, the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter but thrushes continue to arrive in numbers, I can hear the trill of Waxwings every time I step outside, the first Northern Bullfinches of the autumn have arrived and I have seen my third Siberian Rubythroat. Best of all though, I have added Blue Tit to my Fair Isle list!!! There’s nowhere I’d rather be, I hope you come and join me on our 2013 Fair Isle Autumn Birding holiday.

Deryk Shaw

Collaborating on a new Walking Holiday

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 1st November 2012 | News

At Shetland Nature one of the major influences of our ethos and vision as a tour company has been to work and collaborate with like-minded professionals and companies. This, along with the shared vision and support of our expert team of tour leaders, has been a key aspect of our success and continual development.

We have on-going relationships with visiting tour companies from national and international operators, but our most exciting initiative is our recent collaboration with two locally based tour companies, Shetland Geotours owned by Allen Fraser and Island Trails by James Tait, both of whom are native Shetlanders. Coming together on such a venture is a wonderful way to celebrate Shetland as a truly world class holiday destination and to ensure our commitment to offer a first class visitor experience.

Such collaborations sends out a very positive signal by Shetland Nature and these companies that Shetland tourism is now offering a unique, informed and exciting experience that will celebrate Shetland’s extraordinary heritage to the full. Although Shetland Nature is a wildlife tour company, and all our holidays are themed around the islands natural environment, it is very important to us that we can offer something for everyone and for all levels of interests.

With the unrivalled expertise of Shetland Nature’s team of tour leaders concentrating solely on the Shetland Islands, our programme of holidays and tours offers the visitor insights and an experiences that simply can’t be equalled. We can offer something for everyone at all levels of interest and ability; be it from the everyday outdoor and nature enthusiast to the keen birdwatcher, or the informed field naturalist looking for that little bit more expertise such as tracking wild otters, or nature photographers from amateur to well-known top professional.

Our two core season itineraries already offer a varied insight into Shetland’s natural and cultural heritage but now our new ‘Walk Seven Shetland Islands’ holiday takes things that little bit further by really exploring Shetland’s wild side with a unique itinerary of walks. A collaboration of three native guides, each offering a different insight and area of expertise (nature and wildlife, geology, history and culture), ensures the most comprehensive itinerary to explore the Shetland Islands available. Welcoming Allen Fraser and James Tait to the team we are delighted to bring two new key facets to our ethos and development.

Meet Allen Fraser and James Tait