January Highlights

With the excitement of the festive season behind us it is easy to slip into the winter blues. Getting out amongst nature and soaking up a bit of vitamin D from the winter sun is a very important tonic to help boost our mood. Since 2018, GP practices in Shetland have been giving out Nature Prescriptions in association with RSPB Scotland to help promote the benefits of getting outdoors amongst nature to boost mental health. The project was so successful that it has now been rolled out to other areas including urban areas such as Edinburgh. Download the PDF Nature Prescription Calendar here.


In Focus- European Otter (Lutra lutra)

Otters are one of Shetland’s most iconic animals, I have never met anyone who doesn’t get that little spark of excitement when they are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one. In the Shetland dialect the otter is known as the ‘draatsi’. The name comes from the word ‘drats’ meaning slowly or heavily and most likely refers to the way they move on land.

Otters belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae) so are closely related to stoats and feral ferrets (which are also present in Shetland) as well as weasels, pine marten, badger and mink.

Males are known as ‘dogs’ and are larger and stockier than the females with a broader muzzle. Females, known as ‘bitches’ are smaller with a narrower muzzle. Coat colour can vary in individuals from dark to light brown, these light-coloured individuals are often called blonde otters.

European Otter
Copyright Rob Fray
European Otter
Copyright Rob Fray

Otters are carnivorous, hunting at sea for fish (their favoured prey) and crustaceans. But they will also take ducks, seabirds or rabbits. They are perfectly adapted to live a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Their fur is very important to them, with no body fat it is their only insulating layer to keep out the cold of the sea. It is made up of two layers the outer guard layer and a very thick insulating inner layer. When diving to hunt, air gets trapped between the layers and creates the insulation required to keep them warm. The salt water can be very damaging to the fur, so a supply of fresh water is needed to wash the salt off the fur. They are very fastidious and spend a lot of their time on land grooming and looking after their fur. They also have strong legs with webbed feet for swimming and a long strong tail which acts like a rudder. Their eyes and nose are placed high on their heads to allow them to see and breathe whilst swimming on the surface. Their ears are small but very sensitive and have protective valves to stop water entering. Their super sensitive whiskers are used whilst hunting to sense the vibrations from their prey allowing them to accurately locate it.

Winter is a good time to spot otters as with the short daylight hours there is more chance of catching one out and about. They hunt along the coastal edge in shallow water during low tide. The best time to look out for them is 2 hours either side of low tide along rocky shorelines. When assessing an area for otters you need to be on the look out for their signs. Spraint (otter poo) is the most obvious and is used by the otters as a form of communication. They will spraint in the same area as a kind of marker post to other otters. The spraint will usually contain fragments of bone and shell from their prey. In sandy areas you may spot their footprints, they are easily mistaken amongst the numerous dog prints that are on our beaches but once you know what to look for, they are more obvious. Otters have five toes whereas dogs only have four. Otters also have a longer pad on the foot and occasionally you may be able to spot the drag marks from the tail.

European Otter on a mussel float.
Copyright Kathryn Allan
Otter tracks on the beach.
Copyright Karl Graham
Otter Spraint.
David Perez, CC BY 3.0

To find out more about otters in Shetland and to see some stunning photos, take a look at Richard Shucksmith and Brydon Thomason’s book, Otters in Shetland: The tale of the ‘draatsi’. Copies are available from Shetland Library.


In other news…

With a few winter storms raging, there have been a number of large aggregations of goose and buoy barnacles washing up on our shores. The two species are often confused and thought to be the more well-known goose barnacle as the two are quite similar.

Common Goose Barnacle (Lepas anatifera)- These are the largest and most common species to wash up on our shores. They are a pelagic species growing up to 50cm in length with a white ‘head’ shell section (5cm in length) with dark lines between shell plates. They attach to flotsam (driftwood, buoys etc.) often in large numbers of multiple hundreds. They attach using a large black/brown stalk. They feed on plankton using feather like ‘fingers’ which protrude from the pale shell.

Commn Goose Barnacles attached to a buoy. Skaw, Unst.
Copyright Mike Pennington
Common Goose Barnacles
Copyright Mike Pennington

Buoy Barnacle (Dosima fascicularis) Also a pelagic species but much smaller than the Common Goose Barnacle with a much shorter stalk, only growing to 3cm in length. In comparison to the Common Goose Barnacle, they have transparent instead of the white shell plates with less obvious dark lines between. They can be found attached to flotsam in the same way as the Common Goose Barnacle but this species can also create its own spongy, polystyrene like float. They are much less commonly washed up on our beaches.

Cluster of Buoy Barnacles.
Patrice78500 CC BY-SA 4.0
Single Buoy Barnacle.
Drahreg01, CC BY-SA 4.0



December Highlights

It is the darkest month of the year with the shortest day soon upon us, the good news however is they will soon start getting longer again! It is a month where we could easily forget about our wildlife as our minds turn to the festive season. It is important however to keep filling the bird feeders with seeds, nuts and apples as with less natural food sources around birds will be very grateful of the helping hand. Follow the link here to find out how to make your own homemade high fat, nutritious bird feeders. Water also is important for wild birds, you will be amazed at the activity even a small shallow dish of water will bring. Just remember to keep the water free of ice on those cold days when it might freeze over.

One of my favourite activities on a crisp sunny day, especially after a storm is beachcombing. You never know what may get washed up on our shores or how far it may have come. Take a look at our article ‘Secrets of the Strandline’ to find out what may be waiting to be discovered.


In Focus- Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)

Black Guillemots, known as ‘Tysties’ in Shetland are members of the Auk family along with puffins, Razerbills and Guillemots. They are a northern species found around the coasts of Scotland, NW England and Ireland. They are the only guillemot to stay around our coasts during the Winter. One of the best places to view Black Guillemots is in Lerwick at the small boat harbour at Victoria pier or around Mareel and the Shetland Museum.

In the summer, they have all black plumage with an oval shaped white patch on the wings. They also have the most amazing bright red legs and if you catch sight of one calling you will notice the inside of their mouths are also a stunning red colour.  In contrast, in winter they change colour, and you might be fooled into thinking you are looking at a completely different bird. They become mainly white with grey/black barring on the wings.

Tystie winter plummage
Copyright: Rob Fray
Tystie summer plummage
Copyright: Rob Fray

They are not as sociable as Gulliemots and will often be seen alone or in a small group. They also do not nest in large colonies but prefer to nest in small numbers on lower cliffs amongst rock crevices. Black guillemots are they only member of the auk family to lay two eggs, all the others only lay a single egg.

They feed on small fish and crustaceans. Diving under the water to hunt, where they are able to stay for up to 2mins. Individuals each hold a preference to how they carry their fish. They will carry them in their bill either consistently with the heads pointed to the left or to the right eliciting a type of ‘handedness’.


In other news…

Winter Wildfowl! We recently posted an article and ID guide for the geese species which visit Shetland often during the winter months but there are other species of wildfowl which frequent the island during the winter…


Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) have started breeding in Shetland in small numbers in recent yearsbut are present in much higher numbers during the winter months. They migrate here from their northern breeding ranges to spend the winter in our milder climes.  Wintering herds (yep that is the collective noun for swans) can be seen many lochs in Shetland but the biggest numbers are on Spiggie Loch, Uyea Sound in Unst and Cullivoe in Yell. Whooper swans are distinguishable from Mute Swans by their beak shape and colour. Whoopers have thick, yellow bills with a black tip whereas Mutes have an orange bill with a bulbous black base.

Pair of Whooper swans
Copyright: Rob Fray
Pair of Mute Swans
Copyright: Cburnett

Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) are a type of diving duck which congregate in small groups in lochs and sheltered voes. They breed in forested areas by lakes and slow-flowing rivers in northern Europe and in smaller numbers in Scotland. They migrate to the UK, including Shetland to over-winter. The best place to see them is Spiggie Loch, Loch of Benston, Uyea Sound in Unst and Sullom Voe.

Pair of Goldeneye
Mike’s Birds from Riverside, CC BY-SA 2.0


Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) are known in Shetland as ‘Calloos’ due the sound of their call. They are a type of sea duck which migrate to Shetland from their Arctic breeding areas where they nest on tundra pools and marshes and along sea coasts. They spend the winter at sea sometimes in large, dense flocks. In Shetland, they can commonly be seen close inshore in sheltered voes and bays. The best places to view them are Grutness and Westvoe beaches in the South Mainland, Lerwick harbour close to the Shetland Catch and Bluemull and Yell Sound.

Flock of Long-tailed Ducks
Copyright Rob Fray

As their name suggests males have an elongated tail. In winter males have a white, grey and black plumage whereas the females keep their brown wings and breast with only their heads and neck becoming whiter.



November Highlights

Winter storms are well and truly here to batter the last remaining leaves from the trees and bushes. Hedgehogs and frogs will be finding cosy places to hibernate and the migrant birds have mostly all moved on. Life carries on however for our resident wildlife, why not help them out by keeping your feeders topped up and leaving plants with seed heads such as thistles, hogweed and wild angelica for the birds to eat.


In Focus- Mountain Hare

The first introduction of the Mountain Hare in Shetland was two pairs on the isle of Vaila from Perthshire in around 1900, followed by individuals onto the Kergord Estate in 1907 and later, Ronas Hill (Johnston 1999). They are now found in moderate numbers on heather moorland throughout mainland Shetland as far south as Maywick and are still prevalent on Vaila.

Mountain Hares are much bigger than rabbits with a head to body length of 50-65cm compared with the rabbits 35-45cm and of course they have the very distinguishable large ears. In summer, Mountain Hare’s fur is brown-greyish with a white belly but this changes to white or partially white in winter. The ears however always keep their black tips.

Unlike Rabbits, Mountain Hares do not dig burrows, instead only shallow scrapes amongst heather and rocks. They are also not as sociable as rabbits and prefer to live alone or in small groups. They mate from Feb-Aug and can have 2-3 litters a year of 2-5 young. As with rabbits in Shetland, adult Mountain Hares have no natural predators although Bonxies (Great Skua) and Greater Black-backed Gulls will take leverets.

Mountain hare in summer
polandeze, CC BY 2.0
Mountain hare in winter
Bouke ten Cate, CC BY-SA 4.0

Johnston, J Laughton. (1999) A Naturalist’s Shetland. T & A D Pyser Ltd: London.


In other news…

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Many of you may have been blessed with a Robin visit your garden this autumn as there has been a high number of migrant birds such as Robins in 2020. Robins are an iconic British winter bird and often feature in the winter wonderland scenes on Christmas cards, they have even been termed Britain’s unofficial national bird.

Copyright: Rob Fray
Charles J Sharp, CC BY-SA 3.0
Si Griffiths, CC BY-SA 3.0

It is likely that if a robin has found your garden, it will stay for the winter. Robins are hardy little birds and can withstand the low temperatures of a British winter. The individuals that have migrated here have most likely come from Scandinavia and Russia where temperatures drop to extreme levels. They are well adapted to live in areas where day length is short and can often still be found feeding quite late in the day. Scientists from BTOs Shortest Day Survey suggest this may be due to Robins having relatively large eyes for their body size allowing more light to enter the eye. If you would like to help your Robin out this winter, placing suet, seed and mealworms on a flat surface such as a bird table, rock or tree stump, will be well received.

Robins are known for being very territorial and thus you are only likely to have one Robin in you garden. You may have noticed your Robin singing and thought this was unusual for this time of year, and you would be right. Birds usually sing to announce their presence and tell other individuals that this is their patch, and this normally coincides with the spring mating season. The Robins, having recently arrived in Shetland, are now singing for the same reason- to establish their winter territory.



October Highlights

The autumn bird migration is now in full swing. This month will bring a mass arrival of thrushes including migrant Blackbirds, Redwings, Fieldfares and Song Thrushes. It is a good idea to keep those feeders topped up during this month as this can attract the common migrants such as Brambling, Chaffinch, and Siskins. Slice and spear apple onto tree branches and you may be rewarded with a sighting of the fruit loving Waxwing and Blackcap. Keep an eye out for the UKs smallest bird, the Goldcrest, weighing it at a mere 6g! They are very distinctive with their yellow/gold strip down their head. They are insect eaters so will often be seen flitting amongst bushes catching small bugs and flies.


In Focus- Grey Seal Pups

Seems a strange time of year of any animal to decide to start giving birth, especially a marine animal just as the strong winds and storms start to blow through tossing up the sea. But there is method in the madness it seems, after a full summer of feasting on rich oily fish the mothers are in the best shape to give birth and suckle their young.

Grey Seal mum and pup.
Copyright Rob Fray
Newborn Grey Seal pup.
Copyright Rob Fray
Grey Seal pup.
Copyright Rob Fray

Grey seal pups are born on quiet, often remote beaches. The mothers haul themselves up onto the beach to give birth to their white fluffy young. The young will stay on this beach suckling their mother’s rich milk for around a month in which time they can put on 30kg in weight every 2 weeks. While the mothers are busy with their young, the male Grey Seals, who can weigh up to 300kg and grow to 2metres in length, stalk the beach fighting with other males to keep their territory and ‘harem’ of females. Once the females have finished suckling their young, they will mate with the dominant male before heading back to the sea leaving their pups alone on the beach. They will stay here for around another 2 weeks while they moult their white fluff and become brave enough to head out into the unpredictable winter seas.

Seals have been the subject of persecution in the past, especially the young Grey Seal pups whose white skins were highly priced. For this reason, seals are protected under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. This Act allowed Scottish Ministers powers to designate seal haul-out sites and protect them under the Protection of Seals (Designation of Haul-Out Sites) (Scotland) Order 2014. There are currently 47 designated seal haul-out sites in Shetland where it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturbed or harass seals.


Moth of the Month- Rosy Rustic

It is getting pretty late in the year for moths but with favourable weather and light winds the Rosy Rustic (Hydraecia micacea) is one of the few that will still be seen in the moth trap. They are a common resident flying from August-October. There size can vary greatly with females generally being larger and darker. The forewings are pointed and pinkish/brown with a rather velvety texture and darker margins in the centre. Adults will lay their eggs on the food plant (a low growing plant such as docks, potatoes, horse tails and yellow iris) before dying off. The eggs overwinter with the larva hatching in April, pupating underground without a cocoon before emerging as an adult in August.

Rosy Rustic
Copyright Rob Fray

In other news…

One of the more curious birds to arrive in October is the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor). They have grey backs, white underbellies and black and white markings on the wings and tail. Their most distinctive feature is their black mask and sharp hooked beak, giving them their nickname the ‘masked assassin’.

What makes these guys so interesting is their feeding habits. They are predatory, hunting small mammals, birds and lizards which they beat to death with their beaks. In Shetland they often hunt on Goldcrests which are passing through in high numbers at this time of year. They are lone hunters, sitting in wait on a vantage point such as a fence post. They can even imitate other birds calls to try and lure its prey closer. Now for the gruesome bit…once they have made a kill they will cache it for later by impaling it onto thorns and branches within a bush hidden from other predators.

Great Grey Shrike.
Copyright Rob Fray

As they are members of the passerine (songbird) family they have weak feet that are not designed for holding their prey, by impaling it onto a thorn or stick they can use this to secure the food while they use their beaks to pull it apart and devour it. So, if you happen to spot a bush adorned with small dead birds, you’ll know there is a Great Grey Shrike not far away!



September Highlights

It is starting to feel very autumnal now we are into September. The sun seems to be only glimpsed on occasion, the wind is back and there is a chill in the air. It will soon be time to click the heating on and get the fire lit.

Much of the birdlife has already started to move on. The seabirds were the first to leave, the cliffs at Sumburgh head are all bare now that the Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills have left to spend the winter at sea although you may still find Fulmars and Gannets with large young still in the nest. The insect life in the garden will be getting less too as species such as the bumblebees, moths and butterflies migrate or look for a cosy place to hibernate over the winter.


In Focus- Autumn Migration

September is the peak month for the autumn bird migration in Shetland where the birds, having finished breeding, are heading back to their wintering grounds crossing through Shetland en route. During favourable weather conditions (easterly winds) large numbers of migrants and even some vagrants (birds who have been blown off course) can appear in Shetland. Some more memorable visitors have included: Siberian Rubythroat, Chestnut-eared Bunting and Siberian Accentor. Remember to provide a shallow dish of water, as many of these birds have flown a long away and will be thirsty as well as hungry.

Siberian Accentor
Copyright: Rob Fray

Some of the more difficult migrants to identify are the Warblers as many species can be very similar in appearance. Warblers are mostly insect eaters and may be seen flitting between bushes and shrubs in the garden catching small bugs. I will introduce you to a handful of the more common species but if you are unsure of an ID and have managed to get a photograph you can email it to us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com or if you are on Facebook, post it on the Nature in Shetland Photos group where there are a lot of local enthusiasts who can help.


Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

The Willow Warbler is a small warbler (10.5-11.5cm) with a pale underbelly and a green/grey upper body and wings. As many of the individuals passing through in Autumn are juveniles, they tend to be brighter yellow in colour. They have a light-yellow stripe above the eye. They are very similar in appearance to the Chiffchaff but have pale pink legs. Willow Warblers are earlier migrants than the Chiffchaff, commonly seen in early September.

Willow Warbler
Copyright: Rob Fray

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Chiffchaffs are a similar size (10-11cm) to Willow Warblers but have a more olive-brown colouration, a paler eye stripe and dark grey-black legs. They flit quickly between branches and when stationary express a distinctive tail-wagging behaviour which Willow Warblers do not. Chiffchaffs arrive towards the end of September through until early November.

Chiffchaff
Ken Billington / CC BY-SA

Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

The Yellow-browed Warbler is another small warbler, slightly smaller in size to the Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. They are a little easier to identify than the previous two: they are greenish brown in colour with a pale underbelly, they have a thick, distinctive eye stripe which gives them their ‘yellow-browed’ name and two light coloured wing bars. Formerly, the Yellow-browed Warbler was a very scarce migrant but in recent years they have appeared in much greater numbers to the extent that in late September they are now often the most common migrant warbler in Shetland.

Yellow-browed Warbler
Copyright Rob Fray

Other warblers passing through this month include: Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler and Barred Warbler.


Moth of the Month- Square-spot Rustic

The number of moths flying and coming to the moth trap will be starting to slow down this month as the colder, windier weather of the Autumn starts to come in. One of the later flying moths that is common into September is the Square-spot Rustic (Xestia xanthographa). They get their name from the rather conspicuous square kidney shaped mark on the forewings. Colour can vary from shades of red, grey and brown. I often see the reddish/chestnut colouration which I think is especially pretty.

They are sugar eaters and can be seen feeding on plants such as Ragwort, Heather and Marram. Some years they are seen in large numbers, best seen at dusk over grassland areas.


In other news…

There are a handful of different dolphin species that can be spotted around the Shetland coast. Risso’s Dolphins are resident in the isles and are the most commonly seen. Atlantic White-sided Dolphins are rare vagrants but when they do arrive, they are often in what is known as a ‘super pod’ of 50-100 individuals. White-beaked Dolphins are resident, but sightings are reasonably rare.

Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus) are a large species of dolphin growing up to 4m in length. They are what is known as a beakless dolphin as they have a bulbous square-shaped head. They are dark in colour but become whiter with age, mature animals are often covered in many scars and scratches. These scars come about from fights with other Risso’s and from their favourite prey- squid. Individuals animals can be identified by their unique pattern of scars. They can appear in groups of 50+ individuals although in Shetland, groups of over 20 are rarely seen.

Risso’s Dolphin with calf
Copyright: Rob Fray


August Highlights

The sun is still shining (some of the time) and summer is still in the air but the wildlife will be starting to slow down a little. Our garden birds have successfully reared possibly up to three broods of young who have fledged the nest. Some species, such as Curlews, Starlings, Golden Plovers and Oyster Catchers are starting to flock together in quite large numbers now that breeding has finished. Take a look in the cut fields (favoured feeding area for many wading birds) in your area and you may spot Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit in amongst the flocks of Curlews. Our seabirds are also starting to head back out to sea for the winter so these first couple of weeks in August may be your last chance to head up to Sumburgh Head to catch a sight of the puffins.

In Focus-Rockpools

Shetland has a variety of seashore habitats from the long pale sandy beaches of the South Mainland to the red sands of Eshaness in the North. An abundance of low rocky shore in between gives plenty of opportunities for a spot of rockpooling. One of the best spots is Leebitten at the North end of Sandwick which has a large expanse of seaweed cover rocks and pools at low tide.

Within these areas you will find an array of different species perfectly adapted for living in this harsh, ever changing environment. To find out more about the species to spot, take a look at our Inside a Shetland Rockpool post. And don’t forget to keep a look out for any alien invaders and non-native species, check out our Marine NNS post for more details.

Copyright Rachel Shucksmith
Copyright Kathryn Allan

It is a perfect summer activity to do with children giving them an opportunity to explore nature hands on, just remember to put anything you find back once you have finished looking at it and replace and upturned rock and weed.

If you plan on taking a trip to the coast, check the tide times first and be mindful of the rising tide. Do not go alone and always carry a mobile phone, f you find yourself in trouble call 999 and ask for the coastguard.

Moth of the Month- Large Yellow Underwing

The Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba) is a large moth with a wingspan of around 45-55mm. This distinctive moth gets its name from the yellow/orange coloured underwings only visible during flight when the forewings are open. It is a common resident moth in Shetland, active from July to September but often has a peak in numbers in August. Can be found in a range of habitats from moorland to grassland and gardens where, during the day they take cover amongst ground vegetation where they can be seen flying for cover if disturbed.

Copyright: Jacy Lucier / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

In other news…

Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) are a relatively common sight around Shetland waters in August where they can be seen feeding just off the coast. They are the smallest of the baleen whales growing to around 8-9 metres long and living up to 50 years.

They are black to dark grey with a white underbelly and have distinctive white bands around their pectoral fins (flippers). They have a long, pointed snout and two blow holes on top of their heads.

NOAA / Public domain

Baleen whales- Filter feeding whales with large baleen plates in their mouths instead of teeth. Baleen is made from keratin, the same substance in hair and nails so is stiff yet elastic and is layered in plates in two rows along the top jaw of baleen whales somewhat like combs of thick hair. When feeding, water is taken into the mouth and pushed out through the baleen plates to filter out food such as krill and plankton which is then swallowed.

Copyright Karen Hall

The most common UK sightings of Minke whales are in Scotland and Shetland has its fair share. They are often spotted from cliffs and headlands where they can be seen fishing in strong currents. They fish by taking in large quantities of seawater known as ‘lunge feeding’. Long pleats in their throat allow it to expand and take in large mouthfuls. The water is then forced back out through the baleen plates and the prey swallowed. They have a varied diet feeding on a range of small fish, krill and zooplankton.

“The minke whale, like all cetaceans, is protected as a European Protected Species (EPS). EPS legislation protects all species of cetacean from deliberate and reckless killing, injury and disturbance. Information on how to minimise the risk of activities which may kill, injure or disturb minke whales is set out in Marine Scotland’s guidance on The protection of marine European Protected Species from injury and disturbance.

The minke whale is also a Priority Marine Feature in Scotland’s seas and has recently been included within two of four additional Nature Conservation MPA proposals for designation to complete the Scottish MPA network.

The Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code provides the best guidance for wildlife watching operators, and will help us all enjoy and support the conservation of this wonderful baleen whale.”

(https://www.nature.scot/plants-animals-and-fungi/mammals/marine-mammals/minke-whale)


July Highlights

Things are really looking their best this month, with gardens, verges and heather moorland all looking lush and starting to flower. This is a peak time for our pollinators so get spotting those bumblebees and butterflies and if you are up for a bit of a challenge take a closer look at the hoverflies, there are loads of great resources out there such as the British Naturalists’ Association website https://bna-naturalists.org/id-guide-hoverflies/ or why not request to join the Shetland Insect Group on Facebook where there are lots of local experts more than happy to help out.

In Focus- Shetland’s Wildflowers

This month is the perfect time to stop and appreciate Shetland’s diversity of wildflowers: the colours, the variety and the simplistic beauty. There are many wildflowers to spot in Shetland some UK natives, some alien invasives and even some endemics. Here I will touch on just a couple but for more information check out the Shetland Amenity’s post online here www.shetlandamenity.org/what-to-look-for-this-week-wildflowers or nose through a copy of David Malcom’s Shetland Wild Flowers Book.

The humble Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) is of course not endemic to Shetland it is probably one of the most widespread wildflowers in the UK. It is disliked by most gardeners due to its voracious want to spread pretty much everywhere. But did you know that the Dandelion is one of the most important flowers for pollinators? They are one of the first flowers to appear in the spring providing both pollen and nectar making it a vital flower for our early to appear bees and hoverflies. For this reason, it is helpful to our wildlife to let them grow, at least during the early weeks of spring when there is very little other food around. Did you also know that using weed-killer on your dandelions can fatally poison our pollinators who come to feast on the pollen and nectar of sprayed flowers? So if you are going to use a weed killer please pull the heads off your Dandelions first or go organic and use a bit of good old hard work to pull them out, and the bonus is it’s free!

Copyright Kathryn Allan
Copyright Rob Fray

The next plant I want to showcase is the Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), a UK native and one of only 2 carnivorous plants in Shetland, the other being Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Common Butterwort is a small plant only a couple of inches across with pale green-yellow leaves in a very distinctive star shape spread flat on the ground and small purple flowers. Its leaves excrete a sticky fluid which attracts insects, once stuck the leaves curl over the insect trapping and digesting it. It can be found in damp and boggy heathland.

Oysterplant (Mertensia maritima) is native to the UK but is nationally rare so the specimens growing in Shetland are of national importance.  It grows on shingly beaches where it grows in a low sprawling manor. It has succulent leaves, flowering June-Aug with small bell-shaped flowers, starting pink then becoming blue. The Oysterplant gets its name from the taste of its leaves and flowers which are edible and taste like oysters. Please however do not pick any parts of wild plants, Oysterplant can be grown in rock gardens and are available to purchase on many nursery sites online. In Shetland they can be found growing in the North Mainland at Ura Firth and Stenness and at Skaw beach in Unst.

Copyright Rob Fray

Moth of the month- Dark Arches

Dark Arches (Apamea monoglypha) is common in Shetland and if you have ever had a large moth stuck in your house pinging off your light bulb it was most likely a Dark Arches. They are a large species of moth that can be quite variable in colour from a greyish-brown to dark brown or almost black. In Shetland they tend to be slightly smaller than average and a warm brown colour. The distinguishing features of this moth are the kidney shaped marks on each wing and the W-shaped mark near the outer edge of the wing.

They are in flight July-August preferring grassy areas such as gardens, farmland and grassy verges. The larvae of this species feed on Common Couch and Cock’s-foot grasses among others and overwinter in amongst the grass roots.

Copyright Rob Fray

In other news…

July is one of the best months for catching a sight of one of Shetland’s best loved sea mammals, the Orca (Orcinus orca). Sightings of these magnificent cetaceans have been on the increase in the last 5 years with sightings being more regular and pods staying around longer. They can grow up to 8 metres long and weigh 6 tonnes and are a top apex predator. Orca are the largest member of the dolphin family and their black and white colouring helps them to hunt by breaking up their silhouette from above and below making them camouflaged from their prey. Bull (male) Orca have a large dorsal fin which can be up to 2 metres in height, there is usually one large dominant male in a pod of females, calves and youngsters. Individual Orca can be identified using photo-identification techniques as their dorsal fins all have a distinct shape. In Shetland, many individuals have been identified and given distinct numbers and names. Two of the most well-known being a bull Orca called Busta and a female named Mousa.

Copyright Rob Fray
Copyright Rob Fray

The pods that visit Shetland spend their time moving between Norway, Iceland, Faroe, Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland depending on seasonal food availability. Around our coastline they will hunt for seals and porpoises but have also been seen to take sea ducks such as Common Eider (‘Dunters’ as they are known in Shetland) but will move offshore to hunt fish, following the North Sea shoals of Atlantic Herring and are often seen by our pelagic fishing boats. To catch the fish they have seen to work together as a co-ordinated group flashing their white undersides and blowing bubbles to corral the fish into a tight ball where they then tail slap to stun the fish before picking them off one by one.

Further reading can be found here:

uk.whales.org/whales-dolphins/species-guide/orca-killer-whale/

www.mba.ac.uk/killer-whales-north-atlantic

North Atlantic killer whale Orcinus orca populations: a
review of current knowledge and threats to conservation


June Highlights

The Simmer Dim is here, days are at their longest and Shetland’s wildlife is at its busiest, feeding and looking after their young.

Keep your eyes on the sea as you may well get a view of cetaceans such as Orca and Harbour Porpoises. Harbour Seals are pupping in June and may be spotted along the coastline.

In Focus- Red-necked Phalarope

The Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) is the last breeding migrant to return to Shetland, coming back in mid-May. In a recent study by Malcolm Smith et al published in British Birds, it was found that Shetland birds along with populations in Iceland and Greenland overwinter off the coast of Ecuador and Peru and not the Arabian Sea along with the Scandinavian population as was previously thought. They are rare in the British Isles with Shetland having the vast majority of the UK population, although they are much more common in Iceland and Scandinavia.

Red-necked Phalaropes nest amongst vegetation on the shores of fresh-water lochs and are unusual in that it is the male who solely incubates the eggs and looks after the young. It is a complete role reversal with the female having the bright colours and the male looking more drab. She doesn’t bother to hang around to help, she will mate, lay the eggs and then leave the male to it whilst she goes off to find another male.

Moth of the Month- Ghost Moth

Ghost moths (Hepialus humuli) start to fly during June and July and are a common species in Britain. They are so named due to the completely white males, females however are a yellow with orange marks.

The Ghost moth is a type of swift moth which have elongated wings which they hold almost vertically against the body when at rest. The adults have no functioning mouth parts so are unable to feed. They only live a for a short time (June to early Aug) where they will mate and lay eggs. The life-cycle takes two years to complete with the larvae overwintering twice before emerging as adults.


In other news….

As they days get sunnier you are likely to spot a few butterflies flitting around the garden. Our most common species in Shetland are the Large White (Pieris brassicae), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui).

The Large White is currently the only resident butterfly in Shetland and are notorious for their caterpillars munching their way through your cabbages.

Both the Red Admiral and the Painted Lady are annual immigrants to the isles, sometimes seen in large numbers. They can be attracted to gardens with insect friendly planting, my chive plant seemed to be very good at attracting Painted Lady’s last year.

The Red Admirals in our garden congregated around the compost heap to eat the fruit waste so we spiked apple, orange and banana onto tree branches and were delighted with the number of Red Admirals that stopped by for a snack.


June is also the month where there are increased sightings of jellyfish. Moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) are the most commonly spotted, as they grow bigger and sometimes wind driven currents can cause them to accumulate in voes.

Copyright Kathryn Allan

Moon jellies have an interesting two-phase life cycle, alternating between living on the seabed and swimming in the water column. When in the water column these jellyfish spawn (there are male and female moon jellies) and their fertilised eggs fall to  the seabed. Once on the seabed they grow into small (1cm) polyps (which look a little like very small white sea anemones), which in January start to bud  into new jellyfish which are less than 1cm in size. Between January and June, the jellyfish continue to grow before starting to reproduce, completing their life cycle.

There are around 100 species of jellyfish living either permanently or temporarily in Shetland waters and we would love to hear from you about any jellyfish sightings you have. As ocean temperatures change it has been suggested that jellyfish may become more common. Feel free to post any pictures you may have on our Facebook page or send us as email or Facebook message.


Harbour Seals
Copyright Rob Fray

June is pupping season for our Harbour Seals, the smaller of the two seal species we have in Shetland. The Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina) is known in old Shetland as ‘tang fish’ which translates to ‘seaweed fish’.

Harbour Seals give birth to a single pup which is able to swim and dive within a few hours of birth. They are suckled by the mother who produces a very fatty and nutrient rich milk which enables the pups to double their weight in the three/four weeks before weening.

Seals have been the subject of persecution in the past. For this reason, seals are protected under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. This Act allowed Scottish Ministers powers to designate seal haul-out sites and protect them under the Protection of Seals (Designation of Haul-Out Sites) (Scotland) Order 2014. There are currently 47 designated seal haul-out sites in Shetland where it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturbed or harass seals.


May Highlights

There is certainly a lot more life around in Shetland at the moment, lambing is in full swing and I’ve been seeing a lot more migrant birds on the feeders and flitting around amongst the bushes in my garden. The House Sparrows and Common Starlings are singing and calling and busy building nests and I was also delighted to see four different types of bumblebee species in one day.

Around the rest of Shetland, the last of the breeding migrants such as the Arctic Terns and Red-necked Phalaropes are returning and passage migrants such as the Red-backed Shrikes and the spectacularly coloured Bluethroats will be passing through this month.

In Focus- Arctic Skuas

The Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) is a scarce relative of the more common ‘Bonxie’ (Great Skua). It is known in Shetland as ‘Skooty Alin’. They are a migrant species starting to appear in late April and into May.

They are a sleeker looking bird than the Bonxie, almost falcon like with long, dark pointed wings and a long point in the centre of their tail. They can come in two colour phases, the more common dark colour morph and scarce pale colour morph.

They are often seen swooping and diving over the sea, attacking smaller seabirds such as terns forcing them to drop their meal allowing them to steal it.

Dark Arctic Skua
Copyright Rob Fray
Pale Arctic Skua
Copyright Rob Fray

In Britain they nest only in the north and west of Scotland, normally on moorland areas close to other seabirds such as tern colonies. The most recent data for Shetland in 2017 showed there were 58 pairs recorded nesting but only 4 chicks fledged. Unfortunately, this has been the trend for many years throughout the Arctic Skua’s UK breeding range resulting in them being added to the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

Moth of the Month- Silver Y

The Silver Y (Autographa gamma) is one of the few day flying moths. They are an immigrant species, starting to appear in May and seen up until October. On sunny days during southerly winds, they are sometimes seen in large numbers visiting flowers and gardens.

They get their name from the conspicuous metallic silver Y shape on the forewing.

Silver Y
Copyright Rob Fray

In other news…

The Northern Raven (Corvus corax) is the UKs largest member of the Corvid family. In Shetland dialect it is known as the ‘Corbie’. They are completely black with a metallic sheen to the feathers and a large thick bill. They are resident in Shetland where they can be seen most commonly on farmland but can also be seen in areas of Lerwick.

Northern Raven
Copyright Mike Pennington

They pair for life, nesting on sea cliffs and rocky crags. They are unusual in that they nest very early in comparison to other species with nest construction from January until early April. In 2017 the first recorded fledglings were seen on Foula on 15th May. It is assumed they nest early to coincide with food abundance which in some part may be linked with lambing season. Ravens will take live and scavenge on dead lambs making them unpopular with crofters and for which they were historically persecuted. As with all birds they are now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which states it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird.


April Highlights

In April the days are getting longer, and signs of spring are starting to show. Spring bulbs are flowering, birds are starting to sing, and the early migrants are returning. This being Shetland however, there is still the chance of freezing weather bringing snow and winter winds ready to give our poor daffodils a battering!

In Focus- Skylark

My favourite sound of the summer is the Skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing and it is in late March into April that they really get going. We are lucky here in Shetland as they are still a very common bird but in many parts of the UK they are in decline and it is now rare to hear their song. The Shetland name for a Skylark is ‘Laverek’

Skylarks have an amazing song-flight. It can be really difficult to pick out one singing against the sky as they fly so high. This song-flight may well have evolved to attract females. The higher, longer and more spectacular the song, the more a female might be attracted. If he can sing that well for that long and avoid predators, then he should make a good dad for my chicks!

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
Rob Fray

Moth of the Month- Brindled Ochre

The Brindled Ochre (Dasypolia templi) is common in north and northeast Scotland including Shetland and Orkney.

Adult females overwinter in drystone walls and outbuildings before laying their eggs in the spring on Wild Angelica and Hogweed. Once the eggs are laid the females do not survive much past May.

Larva hatches in April-July where they stay in the host plant until pupating. Mating occurs in autumn after which the males die and the females find a spot to hide for the winter.

Due to their lifecycle, they are one of few moths in Shetland that are likely to be seen in both spring and then again in autumn.

Brindled Ochre (Dasypolia templi)
Paul Harvey

In other news…

Other highlights this month include some of our most favourite returning migrant birds.

The first Atlantic Puffin was spotted on the cliffs at Sumburgh Head on 5th April this year (2020) via the cliff cam. Webcams can be viewed here. The Puffin is one of Shetland’s most iconic birds and loved by both residents and visitors alike. The Shetland name for the Puffin is ‘Tammie Norie’.

The Great Skua is another of the early returning migrants with the first few being spotted in late March and early April. The Shetland name for the Great Skua is ‘Bonxie’ and is one of the most commonly used Shetland bird names.

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica)
Rob Fray
Great skua (Stercorarius skua)
Rob Fray