Winter Wildlife Watch
A Shetland winter might not be for the faint-hearted, with short days, long dark nights and the occasional wild storm. Nevertheless, for the brave and more adventurous visitor, Shetland can be a truly inspirational place during the colder months of winter. Not only is the landscape fantastically and often dramatically transformed by the weather and low winter light, there is a whole wealth of wildlife to enjoy; because, no matter what the weather, for them life goes on.
Throughout the months from November through to March we run our Winter Wildlife Watch day tour. Guests are often amazed at just how much there is to see throughout a Shetland winter when you know where and when to look.
Winter is a special time for otter watching. With the majority of cubs being born mid-to late summer, making their first appearances above ground in autumn, winter becomes a busy time for mums rearing cubs. Also with their tendency to favour foraging in daylight hours, they usually condense their activity into the short period of daylight hours.
Sharing the coastal habitats both Common and Grey Seals are common whilst off shore there is always a chance of Harbour Porpoise if sea state is calm, although much scarcer a sighting other cetaceans are occasionally seen too in winter.
For birdwatchers, winter in Shetland is far from bleak and although the density of species is much lower than in the summer months, a little effort can often reap great rewards. On the sea ducks like the very handsome Long-tailed and Eider Duck can be found in good numbers in many of the sheltered bays and ‘sounds’ (the channels which separate the islands), where larger flocks tend to be. These areas of water between the isles are also possible sites for Little Auk and are favoured sites for Great Northern Divers and also even the chance of the much rarer White-billed Diver at a couple of reliable sites. The wintering rafts of Eider Duck may also even host a King Eider- a vagrant to Britain from the High Arctic.
In the sheltered, inshore bays Red-breasted Merganser are common or even the occasional Goosander are possible. In some of these bays Slavonian Grebes also winter.
Scarce wintering gulls like Glaucous and Iceland can usually be found, typically frequenting the harbours, fish farms and factories. Any concentration of winter gulls is always worth spending time on, where in the past such fantastic rarities as Ross’s Gull have been found.
A good mixture of winter wildfowl can also be enjoyed, mainly on some of the larger lochs. Whooper Swans, Widgeon, Teal and Mallard should be found ‘dabbling’ whilst diving ducks such as Tufted Duck and Golden Eye are common. Rarer ducks such as Smew, American Widgeon and Green-winged Teal are also possible and have all been seen on recent winter trips.
Round the coast good numbers of both turnstone and purple sandpiper can be found. These two species are widespread, often just here and there in ones and twos but typically on storm beaches where masses of dead kelp builds up, often flocks congregate.
On the moorland, the snow-coloured Mountain Hare shares these expanses of wilderness with Red Grouse, and with patience can usually be found, especially the former as their winter coats give away their presence against the red and brown tones of the heather. Occasionally a fleeting glimpse of a Merlin can tantalise whilst other raptors such as Peregrine or Hen Harrier also winter but are much scarcer- there is even the possibility of the much rarer Rough-legged Buzzard some years.
Winter is probably the season where Shetland’s landscape is at its most dramatic and powerful. From the occasional mirror calm cold snap or snow covered winter wonderland to the wild storms and seas that pound our shores. The low winter light is particularly beautiful throughout this season causing an effect on a clear day that equals the finest of midsummer’s evenings as the sun goes down.