For the inhabitants of Shetland, colder months may bring fewer human visitors, but wildlife abounds all year-round in the most northerly point of the British Isles.
From the northern lights to humpback whales – why these remote Scottish islands have something to offer even in the coldest of months
Shetland out of season is something of a well-kept secret. It’s true that the weather at this time of year can be wild, but there are also days of intense calm, when the surface of the sea is so still that it’s easy to locate the pod of ‘neesicks’ (harbour porpoises) that visit the sheltered voe below my house in the west of Shetland’s Mainland. I see adult ‘draatsi’ (otters) in the same voe all year-round, but on calm winter days I’m on the lookout for young cubs venturing into the sea.
Shetland has one of the densest populations of otters in Europe. In these islands, otter cubs are usually born in late summer and emerge from the natal holt in autumn. By winter, it’s common to see a mother otter and her cubs fishing in a family group. Otter activity is also condensed by the shorter daylight hours, so winter in Shetland can be an exceptional time of year to watch these semi-aquatic mammals.
Photographer and wildlife guide Brydon Thomason grew up in the island of Fetlar, with snowy owls on the hills, red-necked phalaropes in the marshes, and otters along the coast. He now lives with his family in Unst and, together with a collaborating team of local naturalists, leads wildlife and photography tours. Brydon’s work encompasses all the wildlife that can be seen in Shetland, but his interest in otters began in childhood. He has studied this species for more than 30 years, in all seasons and all weathers.
“Winter is an especially challenging season for an otter,” Brydon explains. “Mothers with young cubs will usually favour the inner shores, but it is truly remarkable the conditions that otters regularly encounter. Even during the wildest storms, along the more exposed coastlines, you can see them foraging in
towering seas, and you wonder how, in such turmoil, they can find prey. Yet they do. Otters are the perfect example of a species that thrives here in the toughest season. To me, it’s the species that epitomises the very essence of wild Shetland.”
Sea duck season
When not watching otters, Brydon mainly focuses on two species of sea duck – eider and long-tailed, both of which overwinter in Shetland in nationally significant numbers. Bluemull Sound, the channel that separates the islands of Yell and Unst, is Brydon’s favourite winter birding site.
“In my life, I have taken countless ferry crossings between the islands and have amassed hundreds of hours of observation,” Brydon says. “With the continual passage of breeding seabirds, during summer it is a special place, but in winter it really comes into its own. Flocks of over 1,000 rafting ‘dunters’ [eider] congregate here, which is a spectacle in itself. But, ever the optimist, I search for king eider – a vagrant to British waters, from the Arctic – huddled in amongst the tightly bunched flocks.” And on some occasions, he will even find one. But Brydon has a particular affinity for the long-tailed duck or ‘calloo’. “Bluemull Sound is their stronghold in Shetland, with well over 1,000 wintering here every year – the largest flocks in the UK. Their call is every bit as evocative as their plumage. With an ornate tail streamer of 13cm, pristine black-and-white feathers, and the vibrant pink bill of the drake, that’s really saying something!” And that’s not all that’s to be admired about this particular species: “Like all sea ducks, calloos are fast flyers. You become acutely aware of this when trying to photograph them commuting to and from a freshwater lochan,” Brydon reveals. “Like eiders and scoters, they fly strong, low and fast.”
Brydon has even put his favourite bird species’ speed to the test: “Having read that eider can reach 112kph, the calloos intrigued me enough to use a Bushnell speed gun to record how fast they can fly. It showed an impressive 88kph into gale-force eight winds!”
Beneath the waves
Out on the sound, congregations of several hundred calloo can be seen alongside the eider rafts. “This spectacle alone makes Bluemull Sound a magical site,” says Brydon. “Combined with the occasional winter sighting of Risso’s dolphins, orcas, minke and humpback whales, it is truly world-class.”
Brydon works closely with Richard Shucksmith, a marine ecologist and fellow wildlife photographer; together they co-authored Otters in Shetland: The Tale of the ‘Draatsi’. When he isn’t photographing or filming otters, Richard is underwater: “I love diving in Shetland in the winter. The visibility can be amazing and, come the new year, you start to find lumpsucker fish – a favoured food of the otter – which lay eggs in shallow coastal waters. In
Congregations of several hundred ‘calloo’ can be seen alongside the eider rafts on Bluemull Sound.
November and December, there is a good chance of humpback whales appearing along the Shetland coast and, if the weather is kind, you may even see these amazing creatures underwater.”
In December 2016, Richard was snorkelling in the sea off the coast of Yell when he captured rare underwater footage of a humpback whale in British waters ( featured in BBC Wildlife Magazine, March 2017). Just weeks earlier, Brydon had taken a photograph of a humpback tail fluke that led to the extraordinary discovery that the same individual had been recorded off the shores of Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean.
Icelandic pods of orca are frequently seen in the waters surrounding Shetland. These cetaceans follow shoals of herring and mackerel, but add seal to their diet at certain times of the year. Records of orca sightings peak between May and August – when harbour seals are pupping – but they are often seen again in October to December, during the grey seal pupping season. They also prey on eider and harbour porpoise, as Karen Hall, a marine ecology advisor at Scottish Natural Heritage, witnessed: “I was watching a group of 30 or more porpoises – inshore near my house in the South Mainland – being followed by a pod of orca, one of which subsequently took a porpoise!”
Searching the strandline
There are also winter treasures in store for avid beachcombers like myself, when gales drive much ashore. With my family I hunt for mermaids’ purses – the egg cases of skates, rays and small-spotted catsharks – and we record our finds using the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt app. With over 2,500km of coastline, and innumerable beaches, it is little wonder that so many of us in Shetland spend time trawling along strandlines in the hope of finding a tropical drift-seed, or some such natural wonder. Shetland’s shores do accumulate considerable amounts of marine litter, but we are also a community of dedicated year-round beach cleaners. Each spring, the Shetland Amenity Trust organises the UK’s most successful litter-pick event, Da Voar Redd Up.
As a keen beachcomber, my eyes are often fixed to the ground in daylight hours, but when darkness falls in winter my attention turns skywards. The Shetland name for the northern lights is ‘mirrie dancers’. Ivan Hawick, who lives in the Mainland, has been watching and photographing the mirrie dancers for so long now he instinctively knows when there will be a good display. I check the Shetland-specific AuroraWatch UK alerts, but it is best to just keep looking up in case the alert is delayed. Many people assume they can only be seen on still, frosty nights, but some of the most dramatic displays occur when gale-force winds whip clouds across the sky, revealing fleeting glimpses of the flickering lights.
Shetland is the best place in the British Isles to see these celestial displays, and a temperate maritime climate means that snow cover is rare. This is particularly advantageous for observing the mountain hare that live in Shetland’s Mainland. As
Graceful swimmers, otters are perfectly adapted to life on the Shetland coast, with webbed feet, dense fur and the ability to close their ears and nose when underwater.
Above: common eiders form tightly packed rafts, staying close to the coast. Below: mermaids’ purses are a common find for Shetland’s beachcombers.
increased in recent years, generally occurring in midwinter; the rocky coastline of Hermaness National Nature Reserve offers a dramatic spectacle in winter storms.
Clockwise from above: mountain hares are widespread in Shetland’s Mainland and can be found on the higher moorland; humpback whale sightings have
Below: Shetland is a treasure trove for beachcombers. Bottom: purple sandpipers frequent exposed, wavesplashed rocks.