Bird Watching - A Bird Watcher's Paradise

Ever since bird watching became a popular British leisure pursuit in the late 19th century, Shetland's been famous, among those in the know, as the place to enjoy sensational seabird colonies and amazing rarities.

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 of Bressay 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.

Another prime bird watching location is the RSPB reserve on the island of Fetlar. 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.

Winter Bins

The birdwatching's not confined to the summer: there are Gannets and Fulmars around the coast for most of the winter, along with residents like Shags, Cormorants, Tysties, Eiders and Ravens, while Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebes, Herons, Whooper Swans, Iceland Gulls, Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers and Snow Buntings are among the regular winter visitors.

Irrestible Urge to 'Twitch'

For 'twitchers', Shetland is irresistible during the spring and autumn bird migrations, especially when foggy south-easterly winds push thousands of Scandinavian migrants out over the North Sea and force them to land on Shetland for rest and food. Among routine transients such as Redwings and Fieldfares are sometimes sensational rarities which (like Fair Isle's famous Thick-billed Warbler from Siberia, or Bressay's Surf Scoter from North America) bring crowds of enthusiastic birders north with 'scopes and checklists, whatever the weather!

The biggest rarities often turn up in well-watched places like Fair Isle and Out Skerries but wandering oddities can appear anywhere, any time - just one more reason why Shetland spells bliss for birders.

One Big Ornithological Laboratory

Since the founding of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory in 1948, the amount of scientific ornithology carried out in Shetland has vastly increased. As well as Fair Isle's pioneering studies on bird migration, Shetland's become an open-air laboratory for a great deal of research into the breeding ecology of seabirds. In Foula, for example, Glasgow University zoologists have spent many seasons on a special study of the Bonxie.

Observations by local and visiting birdwatchers play an important part in all this scientific work. The Shetland Bird Club publishes a quarterly newsletter and an award-winning annual report, while the Shetland Biological Recording Centre employs a full-time scientist to log all significant sightings of birds and other wildlife in the islands.

Pollution worries over the building of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal in the 1970s led to the setting up of a unique environmental monitoring programme with annual surveys of seabird numbers and breeding success, making Shetland one of the best-documented areas in the world for ornithology. Fortunately the pollution caused by the terminal has been minimal. The wreck of the tanker 'Braer', near Sumburgh Head in January 1993, was unconnected with Sullom Voe. The incident occurred well outside the breeding season, so had only a limited impact on bird populations. 

Concern now centres on the effects of alleged over-fishing on seabird populations. There have been some disappointing breeding seasons in recent years, apparently due to lack of food. But seabirds are extremely tough, mostly long-lived creatures and, despite fluctuating populations, Shetland remains a world-class attraction for birdwatchers, whether professionals or absolute beginners. Ornithology has become a significant source of income for the islanders and the visitor with binoculars and bird book is sure of an especially warm welcome.

What Next?

On This Site

  • Combine a spot of bird watching with a walk - Shetland offers some of the finest walking in Europe
  • Learn about the diverse flora you'll find around Shetland

From Other Sites

  • Download a Shetland Heritage leaflet about Shetland's seabirds (.pdf)
  • Download a Shetland Heritage leaflet about exploring Shetland's top wildlife destinations (.pdf)
  • Mousa Boat Trips offers a late night sailing during the summer months to see storm petrels on the island of Mousa
  • Seabirds and Seals cruise around the cliffs of Bressay and Noss to see the impressive seabird colonies 
  • Tour around Bressay with UnderWater Shetland to view seabirds, and more! Or charter your own customised bird-watching trip.
  • The latest bird sightings around Shetland are recorded here
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