Shetland Sojourn

05th July 2015
Northern; Windy; Flat; Old Norse; A bloody long way; Wildlife haven; Mythical? All of those things certainly and a whole lot more.

A young lad in the early 70's with a growing interest in birds read about this distant land and in particular an island called Fetlar, hot property at the time because it had the UK's only breeding pair of Snowy Owls. Sadly he can even remember the warden's name, Bobby Tulloch! Interest flared but for some unexplicable reason it took until 2015 for this now not so young early retiree to head to these mythical islands.

So it was in mid-June I pointed the car to Aberdeen for the overnight ferry to Lerwick for a week with Hugh Harrop from Shetland Wildlife - what better way to see the best Shetland can offer than go with someone who knows the islands like the back of his hand? A wise choice as it turned out as a number of the sites, either through access restriction or the time of day we were there, would not have been available otherwise. Having had time to reflect, and look through the images I managed to capture, I strongly recommend Hugh's wide range of tours and you can find more information on the website at Shetland Wildlife - no I am NOT on commission!

Rather than documenting the full week I concentrate on a few star species with images culled from the (eek) around 8,000 I took! This does however remain a lengthy and picture-heavy blog, I hope you enjoy it and manage to get to the end!


Beach at Bay of Scousburgh - South Mainland

Hermaness cliffs looking north to Muckle Flugga Lighthouse

Eshaness Cliffs looking North-east

Sunset from Sumburgh Head

South Mainland sunset from Spiggie looking over Muckle Sound

Grey Seal, Lerwick

Grey Seal, Lerwick


With only 25 or so breeding males this is a rare bird in the UK and Shetland is the place to see them, and this was my target bird for the week. Unusually among birds it is the male that incubate the eggs and raise the young hence the females plumage is much brighter. I saw up to 4 birds and given the presence of at least two males the birds were clearly still establishing territories/pair bonding in mid June - not surprising considering I visited in the coldest spring for 20 years according to Hugh! The Loch of Funzie and the Mires of Funzie is regarded as the best site to see and photograph them.


Have seen these many times but they tend to be on the water/swimming away at a rate of knots, giving a hint of their red legs and striking white wing patches. Hugh however had access to a site where the non-breeders hauled themselves out onto the rocks and allowed photography at close quarters. Slightly dodgy weather with a strong northerly and heavy showers blowing through but the light was perfect and the birds were particularly confiding - the most tuneful of all the seabirds with a high pitched whistle I'd never heard before

(Northern) GANNET

A common bird in the UK concentrated on a small number of sites, such as Bass Rock, St Kilda and Grassholm, with around 65% of the world population nesting around the UK. A large and impressive bird with striking features and fantastic plumage when you see them up close. Managed to photograph these in two separate and very dfferent locations. Firstly an early morning trip to one of the islands to capture these gathering nest material against the unlit black water under the cliffs using a technique I'd never have considered ... it works, nice one Hugh! Secondly a visit to the cliffs at Hermaness at the northern end of Unst - you can't go much further north in the UK - to get the birds flying past at eye level. Been to a number of gannet sites but none give the photo opportunities offered by these two sites on Shetland - sadly as you can see some of our discarded waste is being used as nest material. We have a lot to answer for.


In all my years interest in birds I'd never seen a Corncrake, only once hearing the distant and very distinctive call on Iona. Interest however was raised a notch or two in the weeks before heading north when reports of a lone calling male found by Hugh began to emerge. The bird would often sing out in the open and quickly become possibly the most viewed and photographed Corncrake in Shetland. Fortunately the situation hadn't changed by the time I got there and we got some stunning close views of this elusive bird - the first image is the best I could have hoped for, then it got better!


The Bonxie, a killing machine, the flying pirate, not in the least bit pretty or remotely likeable but bloody impressive. A thickset bird, deep barrel chest, heavy wings spanning 1.3m or so, hooked beak and an aggressive attitude. The total world population of this bird is less than 50k individuals with around 16k breeding pairs, half of which are on Shetland. It's worth pointing out that the first image was taken with a wide angle lens (@ 38mm) on a full-frame body and is 85% of the resulting image - it was close!


A truly glorious bird with the upturned beak giving it an aloof posture - breeding limited to the North and West of Scotland with Shetland being a stronghold.


Plenty of other birds around - here's a selection!

Arctic Skua in evening light

Arctic Tern feeding

Common Sandpiper

Cormorant - no idea what the fish is!

Edmonston's Chickweed - the rarest plant in Britain, only grows on Unst

Eider creche

Fulmar flypast

Fulmar nest site

Great Northern Diver

Great Northern Diver

Golden Plover in evening light

Oysterplant - a rare seashore plant - Urafirth

Puffin takeoff

Sanderling with more of our rubbish

Pollen- covered on Sea Pink

Northern White-tailed Bumblebee on Sea Pink

Skylark putting full effort into the song

And finally, perhaps most surprising as I thought I'd messed the shot up, a Storm Petrel returning to its nest in Mousa Broch at 0100


Photo comment By Kev Joynes: Cracking stuff-was there 4 years back and it reminded me what a wonderful place it is.Well done Mark.
Photo comment By tom: I loved these photos, absolutely wonderful. You have done a great job Mark, however, you must feel so privileged to have witnessed such beautiful scenery and so many amazing species.
Photo comment By Meurig Garbutt: Fabulous shots. Must have been a great trip.
Photo comment By Edd Cottell: Outstanding Mark! This has sold it to me, I'm going to go there next year. Those Red Throated Divers look superb, really pretty birds. The pictures of the Gannets with the plastic sums up this world. Did you have any luck with Otters?

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