Unst Wildlife……Orca Views and Hermaness Cliffs

What better way to start the day, than an alert telling us orca had been spotted just north of us?! Scrambling everyone together into the minibus, we raced up onto the headland above Haroldswick Bay where we had an excellent view of a large portion of the coast. Regular social media alerts told us they were heading our way! Scopes and binoculars trained on the sea, we watched and waited…. and waited. Suddenly a call went up and we all saw our first glimpse of orca as they came across from the headland in front of us. Their fins, especially the bull, were clear in our binoculars and we made sure everyone had a chance to see them through Hugh’s scope! We were so excited! Orca are always a big wish, obviously, for clients and myself so it is fantastic when they make an appearance. We watched them as they moved across the horizon in front of us, rising and falling. It was fantastic! The views were distant, but we could still see their blow in the air and their fins. After some time, they made their way across the bay in front of us and we lost them. We headed off, hoping they were going to continue to travel south, ready for our return to the mainland. What a start to our day!

We headed up to Hermaness next. Overlooking Muckle Flugga, Britain’s most northerly point, Hermaness National Nature Reserve provides a haven for thousands of seabirds. Managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, this remote island reserve offers a dramatic cliff-top setting in which to view an incredible array of birdlife, in particular thousands of gannets. There is a lovely walk up to the cliffs over a grassy moorland, home to many breeding great skuas or bonxies.

We stopped also to look at the round-leaved sundews that are common up along the broad walk path…

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Bonxies are seen a lot in Shetland and it is difficult to appreciate that they are probably the rarest bird, worldwide, that we are likely to see. These breeding pairs on Shetland are the third largest colony in the world. Sitting in the huge amount of flowering bog cotton, these skuas are beautiful to photograph, especially when they lift their wings…

It is a beautiful walk up to the headland, but nothing quite prepares you for what you see when you come over the top! The scenery is spectacular and we had been lucky enough to have a blustery day with blue skies and sun… it was stunning!

Walking along the headland, you turn a corner to be presented by cliffs with over 100,000 breeding gannets! The skies are full of them and the smell of their guano (droppings) often meets you before you see them. Swirling and soaring in every space, it is truly a wonderful spectacle that always wows our clients!

Hugh sat in his favourite ‘office space’ to take some videos and pictures….

…and even the sheep seem to appreciate the best spots to sit with a view!

It was a blustery day and the gannets were constantly soaring past us at eye level… wonderful for photography! The individuals with black on their wings are juvenile. They do not moult into their full white plumage until they are mature…


We soaked up the atmosphere, before heading back down the boardwalk , past the bones and back to the bus…

Our next stop was Keen of Hamar.

Walking onto this nature reserve, it feels somewhat like a lunar landscape. This unique habitat is home to some of the rarest plants in Britain. It may appear barren at first, but is in fact home to a unique collection of plants that have adapted to survive upon the rare serpentine rock that covers the land. These include Edmondston’s chickweed, which is found nowhere else in the world, and moss campion with its pink flowers which bloom in spring. After some searching, we were able to find both!

This is Edmondson’s chickweed….

… and Bog campion…. still just in flower!

The butterwort were thriving here, their sticky leaves attracting insects for additional nutrition …


Heading back to the hotel, we were certainly all ready for our supper after a day of excitement and fresh sea air! We were not done for the day though. Back into the bus, we were soon heading out again to see what wildlife we could find. It was a lovely evening and too good to waste inside! We were not disappointed! Amazingly we found another bird that lots had wanted to see; the red-necked phalarope.

The Shetland Isles, in particular, Fetlar, is the main place to see this essentially Arctic breeding wader. Roles are somewhat reversed in this species. The female is the brightest of plumage, with the male being a duller version. Also, once she has laid, she passes over all incubation and caring duties to the male, whilst she often leaves in search of another mate.

It was a real treat to watch this female, in lovely light early in the evening….


Soon the light started to go as the clouds rolled in.

We headed back to the hotel to be treated to an incredible rainbow….. what a day!