Seabird Spectacular, Gannet Frenzy & Mousa Storm petrels: Ultimate Shetland Day 5

Our time on Unst was coming to an end, but we had one more site to visit before we left and headed back down south. This was a visit to Keen of Hamar.

At first sight it may look like a barren hillside set amongst green fields, but the Keen of Hamar is a truly unique botanical site: this, the largest expanse of serpentine debris in Europe, is home to rare arctic-alpine plants including one – Edmondston’s chickweed – that grows only here and on the nearby slopes of Nikka Vord and nowhere else in the world. We searched what is like a moonscape, to locate this tiny rare plant!

Serpentine debris, a gravelly soil with a sparse scattering of plants that has probably changed little since the end of the last glaciation, covers roughly half of the 42.4 hectare (ha) Reserve. Arctic-alpine plants which are normally found only on high mountain screes and in glacial regions thrive in these unstable conditions.

Whilst searching for the chickweed, we came across a couple of rare frog orchids. The flowers of these tiny, understated members of the orchid family resemble little frog faces.

It is a special habitat and we were also lucky enough to locate the slender St John’s Wort as well as Kidney vetch, as well as several species of orchid. Sometimes an iPhone can do a great job of taking a photo…..of me taking a photo!

A couple of great views of wheatear youngsters and we were on our way south again…

We then had a long drive back down to the mainland as, with the weather improving, we were going to attempt our Noss boat trip. The weather on Shetland can be unpredictable at best, but Hugh has an excellent relationship with the team on the Mousa Boat and we had changed our schedule various times during the week to try to pick the very best time for us to sail to maximise our opportunities .  As we pulled into Sandsayre harbour, we couldn’t believe it; the wind had dropped, the skies were blue and the sea was calm. We had time to soak in the atmosphere, eat our lunch with common seals and eiders for company! Once again, there were numerous females with ducklings and I was able to creep up and snatch some photos…

Climbing aboard, we headed out into the sea toward Noss, where we would be treated to great views of the seabird colonies on the cliffs there.

Conditions just couldn’t have been better and it was spectacular… photos just do not do justice to the dramatic cliff faces, crammed with gannet and guillemot.

As if this spectacle was not enough, it was about to get a whole lot better! The Mousa Boat team manoeuvred the boat off shore and then threw some mackerel into the sea…. WOW! Hundreds of gannets gathered and then started diving. From all directions white gannet javelins fell from the sky, piercing the water at a frightening speed all around us. It is almost impossible to photograph as so much is happening and so quickly! The sea becomes alive with gannets fighting for a free meal..

The skies were full of gannets and they soared over our heads..

Exhilarated by the experience, we thanked the Mousa boat team for their great efforts and Hugh, Tim (another guide who works for Shetland Wildlife) and our guests headed all the way back to land..

We returned to the hotel, for a brief stop, supper then we were heading back with the same boat team, this time to Mousa. The  Isle of Mousa, with its ancient Iron Age broch and incredible wildlife, is a magical place to visit during the day, but even more special at night. We were visiting to see the storm petrels. Over 6000 of these birds nest here in the rocks and within the broch. They return to their nesting sites in darkness to avoid predation. As we are so far North, it does not get completely dark here in Shetland at this time if the year, so I set up the Bushnell night vision and a couple of trail cams to see if we could capture these tiny birds returning.

As the light faded finally, at around 12.30am, we started to see the birds arrive, like tiny bats flitting around, trying to locate their nest spaces, listening out for the weird gurgling calls from deep inside the rocks. It is a really bizarre sound and a very special experience.

Last year, I managed to film a storm petrel within the walls of the broth, with the Bushnell Equinox..

I filmed them with the night vision, skimming over the rocks and up around the broch, but they did not come close enough to my trail cams for them to be picked up.

Wrapped up warm, we finally boarded the boat to return to the hotel at about 1.30am… it had been a very long, but wonderful wildlife-packed day!