Mag­i­cal Shet­land

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.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Sally Huband Photos Bry­don Thoma­son

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.

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