‘Nature prescriptions’ for winter include searching for white-winged gulls.
Rebecca Nason, naturalist and wildlife photographer, explains: “It’s really special to watch this species in Shetland, a place where they are not persecuted as they are elsewhere in Scotland. And because we don’t get much snow, they stand out like beacons in the landscape, so they are not too hard to find. With a bit of stealthy fieldwork, you can get really close to them.”
Mountain hares live in the hills above my house, but I need to visit more exposed stretches of coast to find a favourite overwintering species: the purple sandpiper. Helen Moncrieff, of the RSPB, is also an admirer of these hardy shorebirds. “They look like they should be clumsy, but they are very agile,” she says. “There is something about seeing them on the rocks with the turnstones, with the white of a gale-driven sea behind them.”
I am lucky to spend much of my time outdoors – beachcombing, otter spotting and looking for purple sandpipers – and perhaps this helps me to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that is thought to be caused by reduced exposure to sunlight. In a pioneering project, the RSPB in Shetland worked closely with NHS Shetland to develop ‘nature prescriptions’, the aim of which is to improve mental and physical health. GPs in Shetland can now provide patients with a leaflet and calendar that contain carefully thought out, and Shetland-specific, ways to strengthen our connections to nature.
‘Prescriptions’ for the winter months include searching for white-winged gulls, counting whooper swans at the RSPB’s Loch of Spiggie Nature Reserve, and watching ravens’ aerial courtship displays. I will do all of these things as well as joining Brydon Thomason on a Bluemull Sound ferry, in the hope of finding a king eider in a vast raft of common eider, and to see the wonderful flocks of long-tailed ducks. A Shetland summer can seem too short to fit in all the wildlife that can be seen here. I never thought, when I moved to these islands, that I would feel the same way about winter, too.
Above: the cliffs of Noss are over a kilometre long and are home to thousands of seabirds in summer.