Shetland Islands


Cliff-sides in the Shetlands abound with summer populations of gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars, puffins, and others, often in vast squawking throngs that number in the many tens of thousands, each clustered with others of its kind in inaccessible niches that overlap little if at all with others.

Sturdy gannets occupy wider ledges than little kittiwakes. Special adaptations to rich fishing grounds can determine location too—kittiwakes with onomatopoetic calls (“Kitt-e-wake! Kitte-wake!”) dip to or just below the surface, gannets dive as deep as 100 feet (30 m).

Fulmars, most abundant species, look out mildly from precariously balanced grassy overhangs— six feet (2 m) is diving limit of these plump little birds.

Atlantic puffins raise young in deep nest burrows on grassy cliff edges, often in burrows excavated and occasionally still inhabited by rabbits. They come with bills full of sand-eels and disappear into pink-flowering thrift that can all but cover nest holes, delivering up to 60 tiny fish at a time.

Seemingly uninhabitable boulder beaches are home to black guillemots.

It’s a birds’—and naturalists’—feast, inland as well, where rolling moorlands are claimed by arctic and great skuas (known as bonxies), so fiercely defensive near nest territories that prudent visitors carry stout sticks to fend them off. Lower-profile grassland breeders include Europe’s smallest falcons—swift-flying merlins—along with whimbrels, dunlins, greenshanks, and golden plovers in gorgeous breeding plumage.

Arctic terns which fly up to a 22,000-mile (35,000-km) round-trip yearly between nesting and wintering grounds as far south as Antarctica—world’s longest-distance migrants—hover with supreme aerial grace over downy nestlings on short grassy peninsulas and holms, along with ringed plovers and scarlet-billed oystercatchers. (Some of these flashy crustacean-crackers are familiar lawn birds at local inns where they’ve found insect-probing produces an easier meal.)

Smaller lochs attract red-throated divers; larger ones, ducks such as teal, mallards, and redbreasted mergansers; damp margins and peat bogs, snipe, redshanks, and lapwings.

Even tiny European storm petrels, usually hard to see since they come ashore to visit burrows only at night, are easily spotted by visitors with flashlights on the island of Mousa where they nest not only in great numbers but often in above-ground cavities in ancient stone dikes and towers.

Arctic tern. Famous longest-distance migrants, arctic terns can travel more than 22,000 miles (35,000 km) in a round-trip yearly between far northern nesting grounds in summer and northern winters as far south as Antarctica, probably seeing more daylight than any other living creature. Circumpolar, they nest through northern Europe, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Russia, Greenland, and across Canada to Alaska and Siberia. Long, 33-inch (84 cm) swallow-like wings are, appropriately, their striking physical feature, almost twice as long as their bodies, with legs so short they can walk only with a mouse-like glide, and when standing, they appear to be crouching.

Arctic tern. Famous longest-distance migrants, arctic terns can travel more than 22,000 miles (35,000 km) in a round-trip yearly between far northern nesting grounds in summer and northern winters as far south as Antarctica, probably seeing more daylight than any other living creature. Circumpolar, they nest through northern Europe, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Russia, Greenland, and across Canada to Alaska and Siberia. Long, 33-inch (84 cm) swallow-like wings are, appropriately, their striking physical feature, almost twice as long as their bodies, with legs so short they can walk only with a mouse-like glide, and when standing, they appear to be crouching.

Birds here are spectacular as well in spring and autumn—sometimes huge fall-outs of migrants and always a parade of rarities, peaking mid-May–mid-June and mid-July–early November. Winter can be bitterly cold and windy but exciting as well with arctic breeders such as whooper swans, goldeneyes, occasionally king eiders, gyrfalcons, ivory gulls.
 

Most remote and famous of the more than 100 Shetland islands—partly because of its beautiful sweaters—is Fair Isle. Much of Fair Isle is in Special Protection Area status both because of its nesting seabirds, of which nine species breed here in nationally or internationally important numbers May through July, and for the rarities which show up regularly. All these are closely monitored by the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, where lodging is available for a limited number of visitors who fly in from Sumburgh on the South Shetland mainland. There also is a ferry.

Other easily visited islands are the Mainland, West, North and South; Yell; Unst; and Fetlar, all connected by bridge or ferry.

Each has its special natural spectaculars as well as accommodations where lodging and guides can be arranged. International visitors can fly to London, connect to Aberdeen, thence by air to Sumburgh or by overnight ferry to Lerwick, both on the South Shetland mainland, where cars can be rented to drive around the islands.

ALSO OF INTEREST

Hebrides and Orkney Islands—contact the Scottish Ornithologists Club, 21 Regent Terrace, Edinburgh EH7 5BT; or for a list of over 150 nature reserves of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL, Tel: (+44) 01767-680551, Website: www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife.

Informational handbooks are available as well from any of these organizations.

Gentle, pigeon-like white fulmars use built-in nasal wind-velocity sensors common to shearwater family that enable them to fly out and return safely from fishing trips bringing food for chicks, avoiding sudden gusts that could slam them dangerously into rocky cliff-sides. Magnificent fliers and gliders, they’ve been clocked up to 50 miles an hour (80 kph) by fishing boats. Both adults and chicks defend nests by spitting foul-smelling stomach oil at predators such as eagles, with fatal consequences for some of their targets, unable to fly with oil-soaked plumage. Fulmars breed on coastal ledges and grassy slopes around Iceland, Norway, Spitsbergen, Britain, and Russia.

Gentle, pigeon-like white fulmars use built-in nasal wind-velocity sensors common to shearwater family that enable them to fly out and return safely from fishing trips bringing food for chicks, avoiding sudden gusts that could slam them dangerously into rocky cliff-sides. Magnificent fliers and gliders, they’ve been clocked up to 50 miles an hour (80 kph) by fishing boats. Both adults and chicks defend nests by spitting foul-smelling stomach oil at predators such as eagles, with fatal consequences for some of their targets, unable to fly with oil-soaked plumage. Fulmars breed on coastal ledges and grassy slopes around Iceland, Norway, Spitsbergen, Britain, and Russia.

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SHETLAND ISLANDS as well as...

Hebrides and Orkney Islands

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