Birding in Shetland Islands 

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If you want close-up views of tens of thousands of breeding Gannets, alongside Guillemots, Puffins, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, head for Sumburgh Head, Noss or Hermaness nature reserves. These three large seabird colonies are easily accessible, Sumburgh Head especially so. On Noss and Hermaness, and on coastal moorland elsewhere, you’ll probably encounter Great Skuas ('Bonxies'), famously rare and aggressive, gull-sized birds, which are fond of dive-bombing hill walkers. To reduce the risk of being hit, keep to any marked path or trail and hold a stick or something similar above your head. More than half the world's population of this species breeds in Shetland. You may also come across the equally feisty Arctic Skua.

Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve is the most accessible seabird colony in Shetland and is particularly good for less able people. The Sumburgh cliffs are home to thousands of seabirds in the breeding season, with Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Shags easily viewed. It is also one of the best places in Shetland to watch for sea mammals.

Noss is one of the most spectacular wildlife sights in Europe, just 40 minutes by sea from Lerwick, the Shetland capital. You can take a 3-hour boat trip around the cliffs or make your way across the isle ofBressay for the 200-yard ferry crossing of Noss Sound and spend a day walking on the island. The first sight of Noss always sticks in visitors' memories, even if they've no previous interest in birds. The spectacle of 20,000 Gannets, 40,000 Guillemots and 5,000 Kittiwakes festooned over a mile of cliffs, up to 592' (181m) high, is simply astounding, as is the roar of the massed 'choir' of parents and chicks.

Hermaness, which includes the dramatic precipices of the Muckle Flugga stacks off the northern tip of Unst, has even more Gannets and is one of the best places to see the aerobatic (but smaller) Bonxies attacking them and stealing their food. The Puffins on Hermaness and the neighbouring headland of Saxa Vord probably number over 100,000 and are astonishingly tame. As at Noss, the reserve is privately owned but managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, whose wardens are always happy to show visitors around.

Black GuillemotzoomBlack Guillemot

Another prime bird watching location is the RSPB reserve on the island ofFetlar. The island boasts fine views of birds such as Skuas and Terns. but is famous as the summer home of one of Britain's rarest breedng birds - the Red Necked Phalarope. Fetlar accounts for 90% of the UK population of these remarkably tame birds. In June and July they can be seen at close quarters from an RSPB hide on the shores of the Loch of Funzie. Another rare bird, the Whimbrel, also nests in Fetlar. Around 80 pairs breed on the island, which is 15% of the UK breeding population. In the past Fetlar has even had the UK's only pair of breeding Snowy Owls.

For wildfowl, the RSPB Reserve at the Loch of Spiggie is particularly good in autumn and winter. It's notable for Whooper Swans on their migration, and there are good numbers of ducks such as the Tufted and Goldeneye.

Slightly harder to get to, but well worth the effort, are Foula (probably the Bonxie capital of the world) and Fair Isle, with its famous bird observatory. Both islands offer superb birding in beautiful surroundings, as do the much less well-known Out Skerries.

Another Shetland speciality is the Storm Petrel. A night visit with the Mousa Ferry to the spooky and astonishingly noisy breeding colony in the 2,500-year-old broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa is a must - one of the highlights of a Shetland holiday.

Mousa is an RSPB reserve. In addition to the Storm Petrels at night time, there are Arctic and Great Skuas, Arctic Terns, Gulls, and many other birds easily viewed.

The Shetland breeding list includes Red-throated Divers, and waders and moorland birds such as Snipe, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Redshank, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Curlew, the much rarer Whimbrel and even a few Whooper Swans.


here are several boat-trip operators working out of Lerwick, but I do highly recommend the one I took.

The Seabirds-and-Seals boat trip has been running for 20 seasons (mid-May to mid-September, although it can run at other times by arrangement).

Dr Jonathan Wills is both boatman and and guide and, even after all those years, his enthusiasm and pleasure in taking the trip shines through. He is immensely knowledgeable about Shetland's marine life, be it the birds, the mammals or the underwater creatures.

The boat is fast and comfortable, with interior and exterior seating (including 2 seats right up on the cabin roof, for the very best (and chilliest!) views.

Trips take around 3 hours, first along the Bressay Sound and then around the shores of Bressay and Noss. It moors for a while in a sheltered inlet to allow the underwater camera to explore the kelp 'forests' (there's a TV screen inside and outside the cabin) whilst complimentary tea and coffee (and biscuits) are available if you want them. It's absolutely fascinating to see what is happening beneath the waves...and the Shetland 'fog' and 'snow'.

The onwards (on my trip) to the huge gannet colonies around Noss. A magnificent, if noisy and rather smelly, sight...I could have stayed there for hours, just watching the gannets (adults, young and chicks) and the bonxies who lurked in the water waiting for a young gannet to slip or a parent to drop its catch.

We saw so many other seabirds too, and seals of course, and we even managed to catch a very quick glimpse of an otter.

Weather conditions had been very rough the previous day and my initial booking (for the morning trip) was cancelled. But we were all accommodated on the afternoon trip which, although there was a heavy swell under the gannet colony (making some people feel a bit iffy) I found most exhilarating.

It's not a cheap trip, but the money is very well spent. You will not be disappointed, whatever the weather (remember it's always cold at sea, so do add extra layers and take a hat/scarf).

More photos in my travelogue

Updated Aug 21, 2011

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(3) August 2011 bird archive:

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On the east side of Noss there are large seabird cliffs made up of eroded horizontal sandstone, which support 38,000 Guillemots, 10,000 pairs of Kittiwakes, 6,000 pairs of Fulmars, 5,000 pairs of Gannets, along with Puffins, Black Guillemots and Razorbills. Noss is separated from the island of Bressay by a narrow sound but the Scottish Natural Heritage operate a Zodiac inflatable ferry service across the sound between mid-May and the end of August.