Fabulous Fetlar Phalaropes: Ultimate Shetland Day 4

The day dawned bright, sunny and breezy as we loaded up the minibus, ready for our trip over to Fetlar. Fetlar lies South of Unst and to the East of Yell, and together the three islands make up the “North Isles” of Shetland. It was just a short ferry journey across to Fetlar and the weather was looking promising. 

Fetlar is known as the “Garden of Shetland” due to it being by far the greenest of all the islands.  The island also is home to a diverse range of flora, fauna and wildlife, and around two thirds of the island is designated in some form, whether as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSi), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) or as an RSPB Bird Reserve. It is a MUST visit for any visitor to Shetland, especially if you want to have a chance of seeing the Red-necked Phalarope.

This tiny bird is a magnet for birder and photographers alike and  Fetlar holds over 90% of the British breeding population, although the birds’ stay on the island is brief – they generally arrive during the third week of May and are gone by the end of July. It is famed not only for its stunning plumage but its unusual sexual role reversal. The smaller, duller males perform the incubating and chick-rearing duties, while the brightly coloured females are left free to look for a second mate.

I have been to Fetlar four times and managed to see and photograph the phalarope on 2 occasions, but this visit was by far the most incredible!

We arrived and drove straight up to Loch of Funzie, as this is often the best spot to see these tiny sparrow-sized waders. They feed on insects along the edges of the pools. Another group were already onto a pair who had just flown in and we hurried over, and crept in slowly behind them. The phalarope are amazingly tolerant of humans and seem unafraid, provided you move very slowly and keep low to the ground. Good fieldcraft always ensures the best views. The pair was feeding just cm from the loch edge and I positioned myself on the edge of the water a couple of metres away from the other photographer group. The rest of our group settled down to watch.

There was a male and a female phalarope and the conditions were just perfect; blue sky reflecting in calm waters with fantastic light. There were regular bursts of shutter fires from all the photographers and the phalarope were oblivious as they fed, preened and bobbed around like little clockwork toys. I tried to get as low as I could for my images, hoping my setting were right and the pictures would be as good as they looked through the viewfinder…. I was just a little excited!

The female then started to bath and preen, dipping herself in the water then popping up like a little cork before preening again…..

The duller coloured male also appeared amongst the reeds… this is the first time I have seen the male..

Suddenly, the female turned and swam straight down the edge of the loch toward me. My heart was racing and I struggled to keep the camera steady as she got closer and closer…..

It was just incredible….. she ended up literally 3 cm from my foot.  Gently lowering my lens, I simply watched this fantastic little British rarity feeding so close, I could have touched her. It was a moment I will never forget and certainly gave me opportunities to get images I had only dreamt of!

I turned to look at the rest of the group, whose smiles said it all! What an encounter! A suddenly flurry of wing beats and they were gone, but will remain engrained in my memory as one of my Shetland highlights.

We stayed on at the loch for a bit watching a single long-tailed duck and headed to the small hide, where we had good views of snipe, redshank and teal on a nest. Heading up to the airfield, we watched a pair of arctic skua and looked for golden plover, curlew and whimbrel.

The fields around were covered in wild flowers and buttercup with lots of wheatear collecting food for hungry chicks.

We had had the best of the weather and with darkening skies and the wind picking up, we headed back toward the ferry and back to Unst in search of whimbrel. Curlew are quite easy to spot as you travel around Shetland; their distinctive curved bill and their haunting call is easily spotted. The whimbrel is less common and smaller than the curlew. The differences are best described in the Wild Guides bird book, for which Hugh was one of the authors and contributors. It is well worth using such a guide to get familiar with the key features as, out in the field, there are factors to look out for that make it clear which is which.

We had some great views of a number of whimbrel and were able to see them in flight and hear them calling….

We finally headed back to Baltasound Hotel for a fantastic evening meal and to bed, dreaming of phalarope!