‘Ultimate Shetland Tour 2019- What a week of Wildlife!

I’m still buzzing from my recent trip to Shetland! I guide with Shetland Wildlife each year, for one week on an ‘Ultimate Shetland’ tour; a tour aimed to give the clients a real flavour of Shetland and its wildlife. We aim to travel the length of  mainland Shetland, as well as trips to Mousa, Fetlar, Unst, Yell and Noss to try to see all the very best that Shetland has to offer. I try to offer the clients a little extra on their holiday, in the form of Bushnell trail cameras. I set a selection of these cams up as we travel across Shetland and then return to collect them with our visitors, uploading and sharing the footage after the trip.

I usually try to get to Shetland a few days before I start guiding, to spend some time with Paula and Magnus, who introduced me to Shetland many years ago now. Air traffic control strikes meant I sadly only had one day with these lovely people…  just enough time to get on Magnus’s quad bike to get the first of the Bushnells set, so it was there for the week, to be collected with the guests  before we headed home. This footage will be shared in a separate blog post.

It was wonderful to be back in Shetland… I love the huge sky, open vistas and being right on the coast is always a treat, after living in land-locked Lichfield!

This year, I was guiding with both Hugh Harrop and Tim Stenton and, just before we met our guests, Tim and I headed out to check out some sites for wildlife. We were incredibly lucky, on checking out a hare location, to have these two appear quite close to us. Using the minibus as a hide, we were able to watch and photograph these two beauties… the best view I have had of mountain hare in Shetland! We retuned to this site with our guests and were able to share really good views of  hare with them as well!

Heading to Sumburgh to pick up our guests, we stopped to scan the coast …. and something caught my eye. Raising my binoculars, I realised there was a stoat down on the rocky shore. I have never seen a stoat whilst in Shetland! Grabbing my camera, I managed a few shots before it disappeared!

What a start to my time in Shetland… and that was just the beginning of a superb week of wildlife.

Our first day started with mixed weather. Shetland is 60 degrees North… surprisingly close to Iceland with long hours of daylight at this time of year. As a small island, the weather can change from hour to hour. As we stood watching common and grey seals hauled out, the fog cleared to reveal the most incredible view!

We travelled around the south mainland before heading to Grutness to see the terns and then up to Sumburgh for a spot of puffin watching! It is always wonderful to get up to Sumburgh as the puffins are always one of everyone’s favourites and this location is just a wonderful place to watch them.

Our trip to Mousa to see and hear the storm petrels coming in to nest in the rocks and the iconic broch is always one of the most memorable trips for me. 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. With a full moon and lovely conditions, it was a most magical evening!

Standing in this historic location, in beautiful light, with storm petrels flitting around our heads and listening to their unique gurgling calls from inside the brickwork is an experience we all revelled in… so wonderful!

Eshaness is another spectacular location , in the North of mainland Shetland. The spectacular cliffs that are Eshaness today cut right through the flank of what was the Eshaness volcano. It has been described as ‘the best section through the flank of a volcano in the British Isles’. This location boasts one of the highest energy coastlines in the world. Blasted by the full force of the North Atlantic it displays a stunning array of stacks, blowholes and geos (narrow inlets). It is often incredibly windy, but our visit was surprisingly calm, blue skies and superb visibility..

Watching the fulmar soar and a few puffins on the cliffs, we walked around this stunning landscape, taking time to soak up these views..

Heading up to Unst, we first made a visit to the beautiful island of Fetlar. It is the fourth largest of the 100 Shetland Islands, south of Unst and to the East of Yell.Fetlar is known as the “Garden of Shetland” due to it being by far the greenest of all the islands. Indeed, the name Fetlar is reputed to originate from the Viking term “Fat Land”. 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 did not disappoint, with great views of a pair of red necked phalarope feeding on the swell out on the sea. We watched them for a while, amazed at how they were plucking food off of the surface of the sea, whilst riding the waves. They are such tiny, delicate looking birds!

With whimbrel, curlew, ringed plover, golden plover, snipe  and a very obliging skylark choosing to sing from the ground in the windy conditions, we felt it had been a rewarding day!

The cliffs Eshaness are only surpassed by those at Hermaness; another spectacular place we visited with our guests when we headed to Unst for a couple of days. This National Nature Reserve is famous for its Great Skua (Bonxie) population and its truly impressive cliffs and gannetry. Hermaness is a mecca for seabirds, with over 100 000 breeding pairs of 15 different species, making up this internationally important seabird assemblage. The colonies of breeding great skua, gannet and puffin are also of international importance and numbers of guillemot, fulmar and shag at Hermaness all exceed 1% of the British population. The gannetry with around 6% of the breeding North Atlantic population, is the sixth largest British colony. Overlooking Muckle Flugga, Britain’s most northerly point, Hermaness National Nature Reserve provides a haven for thousands of seabirds.

This spectacular site is a must if you ever visit Shetland as it is a spectacle that you won’t forget! It is always great taking guests up to this site as the beauty of the cliff views do not reveal themselves until the very last minute as you rise about a grassy knoll and suddenly see the spectacular views. Watching the gannets soaring around below you in their thousands is a hypnotic experience and one which will stay with you for a very long time!

The walk up to Hermaness is an excellent change to see the Great Skua, or Bonxie, which breed here.

Unst is a wonderful island for wildlife watching. Packed into an area just 12 miles long by five miles wide are stupendous cliffs, jagged sea stacks, low, rocky shores, sheltered inlets, golden beaches, heathery hills, freshwater lochs, peat bogs and fertile farmland, it was not long before we had seen  curlew, snipe, whimbrel, golden plover, to mention just a few! With a few excellent otter sites, we had Bushnells deployed straight away too.

Another unique site that Unst boasts idsKeen of Hamar. Resembling a lunar landscape, it is home to some of the rarest plants in Britain. This unique nature reserve, at first, seems barren, 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. We spent a happy few hours searching for different species, with the rare Edmondston’s chickweed showing really well!

We also found the tiny Frog orchid…

This is an incredible site, with other species such as Moss Campion and Northern rock cress.

One of my most favourite trips in this tour is always our trip to Noss, on The Mousa Boat. As we waited in the harbour, we were entertained by two eiders with their ducklings…

With weather looking pretty amazing, we boarded and headed out to these spectacular cliffs, where we were in for a seabird extravaganza! With calm seas, bobbing underneath these huge cliff was something truly incredible…..

Gannet and guillemot filled the air, cliffs and sea and it was almost impossible to know where to look….

The best was yet to come! As we threw some fish over board, a feeding frenzy with hundreds of gannets, gulls and bonxies began. Looking into the eye of a gannet, less than a metre away from me, is something I will never forget!

We were all buzzing from the whole experience and heading back to shore, when something caught my eye… a fin! Leaping up, Tim and Hugh rushed to the side of the boat and we turned toward, what we thought were Risso’s dolphins. As we got closer, then came up to the boat, swimming right beneath us… they were white-beaked dolphins! As we watched in amazement, then cruised along under the boat and then one did 4 spectacular breaches, to huge cheers from us all… it was exhilarating! This is a very special species to see and cetacean fanatics, Tim and Hugh, were absolutely thrilled.

Our smiles, as we reached dry land, could not have been bigger… it had been such a superb day and all agreed it was one of the best wildlife encounters we had had!

With the end of our week drawing close, our final day took us to collect some of the Bushnells and to see where they had been set. A separate blog post will show my captures but, again, we had a very special moment! We all crept down the headland toward the site where I had one of the trail cams. The wind was in our favour, blowing straight into our faces. Creeping, to keep our profile low, we sank to the grass just above where the camera was positioned. As I turned to talk to the group, we heard a distinctive otter call. There, in front of us, it climbed out out the sea, shook itself and made its way along the rocks just below us. I couldn’t believe it. We all froze…… and it moved to the left, suddenly catching a whiff our our scent and disappearing back into the sea. WOW!!!!

Our final stop would be back to Sumburugh Head as the wind had picked up and the skies had cleared. With windy conditions, it is always a wonderful opportunity to try to photograph the puffins in flight and they did not disappoint….

There were also lots of lovely interactions and some individual collecting nesting materials…

Storm Petrels returning ashore, fantastic views of Otters plus Mountain Hares, Common Seals with pups and stunning views of Red-necked Phalaropes.  Glorious weather, lots of Puffins, Common guillemots, Black Guillemots, a Gannet feeding-frenzy, Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Whimbrels, Golden Plovers, Arctic Skuas, Red Grouse, a migrant Marsh Harrier, Artic terns, Common terns, Ringed plover, Curlew, Wheatear, Great Skua, Arctic skua and lots more! All with superb company!

I would like to thank Hugh Harrop and Tim Stenton for guiding with me and also to the wonderful set of clients, who became my friends in this week, that had passed all too quickly. I know you enjoyed the week as much as I did!

I’m already booked in for next year’s trip… so why not join us in 2020!!!

To see more of my favourite images, check out my Flickr Album  and my some of my other images HERE on JAlbum

Until next year……..