Otter Eye View

By Rhiannon Jehu

The European otter, or Draatsi as it is known in the Shetland dialect, is one of Shetlands most popular mammals. Our combination of soft peat for holts, freshwater pools for bathing and offshore kelp beds for feeding make Shetland a des res for otters. In many areas of Europe they feed in rivers. However, ours have adapted to salt water hunting but need regular fresh water baths to clean their fur. We have around 1,000 individuals living with us from a total of 8000 across Scotland making Shetland an important and relatively safe home for the species.

My interest in otters was peaked in December when my neighbour reported that in the last few years he had found 8 dead near Henry’s Loch . I am used to finding dead bodies on the road, especially in autumn and winter, but it saddens me. Otters especially are valued by us locals and visitors alike, so we decided to see if there was a way to reduce the death count.

Henry’s Loch from above. The road can be seen to follow the entire length of the loch. Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Otters are non-migratory but can frequently travel 10’s km as they move between feeding grounds and fresh water pools. Our local otters are using Henry’s Loch to bathe, but have to cross the main road to get to and from the sea. The A970 has a steep semi-blind bend, and it can be hard for cars travelling at 50 mph to stop in time if they see an otter. It can also be hard for otters, who have poor eye sight to see a car coming in time.

The problem of non-human species being road casualties is a world-wide problem and there is a wide range of ways of reducing road deaths. Each situation and species has to be looked at individually and is unique. Here are some links of examples from around the world:

Buffalo in USA

BBC Word Service Podcast-People Fixing the World.

Helping animals cross the road and other obstacles

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09ck4dp


Some areas have animal pathways or ‘ecoducts’ that go under or over roads giving species a safe way to cross highways and railways etc. However, they can be very expensive and the animals may not feel safe using them.

LED systems are used to warn drivers about, for example, deer on mainland Scotland, and otter crossing signs can be seen in some areas here in Shetland. However, people often habituate to these signs if they use a route frequently.

Davy Govaert, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The SIC roads department acted quickly and enthusiastically and decided to opt for a visual otter reflector system. These work by directing car headlights down to otter eye level warning them of danger. However, just like humans, otters could habituate to these, though the hope is that this won’t happen since the reflectors won’t be working consistently all year. They will be most powerful when nights are dark and days are short; the times when otters and cars are most likely to meet. No solution is perfect but they have been effective in reducing otter road fatalities in Mull and Skye , so we are hopeful that they will be effective here too and will be keeping an eye out for bodies this autumn and winter.

More information on these projects can be found on the International Otter Survival Fund website and the Mull Otter Group website.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

An ‘otter reflector’ attached to a ‘human reflector’. There are ones attached to each human reflector along this length of road. They direct car headlights across the road and into the verge.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Shetland Porpoise Survey

Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) are the smallest of the cetaceans to be spotted around Shetland. They are generally shy creatures and do not often approach boats but can be easily spotted from the shore. They are resident in Shetland and unlike the rest of mainland UK, where they are generally seen alone or in small groups, in Shetland they can be seen in aggregations of 50+ animals!

Despite them being commonly spotted we have limited records and do not fully understand seasonal variations in the areas they congregate and for what purpose. To fill this knowledge gap we are undertaking a porpoise survey in areas porpoise are commonly seen.

Copyright WDC/Charlie Phillips

In collaboration with Whale and Dolphin Conservation we have created two new Shorewatch sites, one overlooking Quendale Bay and one at South Nesting Bay. We will also be surveying from the already established Shorewatch site at Mousa Sound. The survey involves undertaking a watch and recording the presence of marine mammals. If porpoise are present further information will be collected on number of individuals and their behaviour. This data will be used by the NatureScot and the NAFC Marine Centre UHI to update the Marine Spatial Plan and will assist in protecting areas that are important to these wonderful creatures.

To gather as much information as possible we need your help! Are you interested in marine mammals and have time to undertake a short watch from one of our survey sites? All equipment needed is in survey kits which are available at the survey sites in lockboxes 24hrs a day so watches can be done at your leisure. Don’t worry if you have limited experience as full training on marine mammal ID from experts Whale and Dolphin Conservation is provided! A great way to start your marine mammal spotting journey.

Contact us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com for more information or head to the Shorewatch website for more information on the Shorewatch project.


Everyday Nature: Starling Surprises

By Rhiannon Jehu

Last month I wrote about how spending time with nature is good for our wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation describes ‘everyday nature’ as the moments of pleasure that we can snatch regularly throughout the day. Taking a moment to look out the window; stopping to breath in the smell of the sea; chatting to a houseplant while watering it. For me, starlings are a brilliant example of this. They are a common sight; gregarious, argumentative, flapping, squawking and imitating, multi-coloured and shimmering as adults; dazzling with sharp beaks.

Yellow summer beaks. Males have a blue beak base & a females pink one.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Self-care is essential for survival. Copyright
Rhiannon Jehu

In gardening they say that a weed is a successful plant in the wrong place at the wrong time. Equally so with animals; friend or foe depends on context and perspective. Starling’s probing beaks, agility and size mean that they can slip into barns for a quick top up on sheep or hen feed and raid essey bags for our wasted food. They used to be a rare country species but that changed in the 1900’s when they started colonising urban areas and their population boomed. In the evenings, especially in winter, thousands of starlings could be seen gathering together forming clouds, ‘murmuration’s’ which fly in formation before roosting communally. However, when I post photos on Facebook, friends from mainland Scotland tell me that they haven’t seen one in years, and, how much they miss them.

Starlings can live up to 5 years and usually produce 1 or 2 broods a year. However, their numbers are declining dramatically. Between 1995 and 2016 Britain’s breeding population crashed by 51%, though Shetland is still a stronghold. Parents are successfully rearing chicks, but these are failing to survive and thrive. There seems to be no single cause of this. However, laboratory studies suggest that pollutants such as anti-depressants & flame retardants in food and water badly affect starlings so it’s possible that these are reducing the fledgling’s survival rate.

(https://www.birdguides.com/articles/conservation/the-decline-of-british-starlings/)

Lunching with the neighbours. They all have black winter beaks.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

This year the first babies that I saw were in Lerwick. I was passing time waiting for my bus and came across an enormous, very loud nursery. There were fledglings everywhere, all at the same stage of development; chocolate feathers, black beaks and yellow gaping mouths. They were chasing their parents around demanding food and practising much needed flying skills. I saw one try to land on a washing line. It caught hold with its feet, but failed to stop, This resulted in the peerie fellow doing a gymnastic loop before landing (on his feet) on the ground.

Waiting hopefully.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
A nutritious breakfast for the nestlings.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

I saw my first Quarff chicks a few days later. They were unfledged but enthusiastically waiting to be fed, the bravest ones putting their heads out of the safety of the nest. The parents returning again and again with beaks full of nutritious insects and grubs. A week or so later, now fledglings in the trees, total panic and lots of flapping and crashing as a hooded crow flies overhead. The youths have recognised the danger but still have a lot to learn.

Waiting loudly with training wings working.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

It can be awesome to see the unexpected in everyday life; an otter fishing outside the supermarket, a goldcrest feeding at the side of the road, but there is something special about starlings and having the opportunity to live side by side with them and watch their lives unfold with the seasons.


My Experiences Of #ConnectWithNature for Mental Health Awareness Week.

By Rhiannon Jehu


The Mental Health Foundation argues that connectedness with nature increases pro-environmental behaviour and is important for our mental and physical health. I decided to focus on the theme ‘The Power of Nature’ for Mental Health Awareness Week this year. I kept a diary and am going to write a brief summary of my experiences and thoughts here.


The week didn’t get off to a good start with me finding a dying lamb and its dead mother. It brought back sad memories of the Braer disaster when I was a teenager and my fears for the future of Shetland and the planet in general. There are 2 terms for what I feel; solastalgia, a sadness for what has been lost environmentally and eco-anxiety, a fear for the future of the planet.

On Tuesday a friend told me of her hydroponics experiment and her vision for a possible future. She gave me some salad leaves and I reflected on where my meals come from. I looked at the labels; India, Africa, North & South America, China, Europe, the UK. It’s pretty awesome that I have access to food from, and therefore connections with, pretty much every continent on the planet.

There was a landfall of willow warblers and pied fly-catchers during the week and on Wednesday, with the help of books, family and Facebook friends I learned a bit about them. It was great connecting with others and I found that talking about my experiences somehow made my memories more real, more long-term.  We get migrants from so many different places. They stop off for a rest and food, or maybe stay for a season. We are so interlinked, and that is so beautiful.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

 The Mental Health Foundation describes an emotional model (see diagram) of interactions with the environment and wellbeing. Emotions are linked to hormones and neurotransmitters and are often stronger than purely cognitive drives. For example, I know that going for a walk is good for me but my desire for chocolate is often stronger.

On Friday I felt very tired, so my walk was slow. The ground was very wet, and water droplets looked like jewels on the wild primroses. I felt revived as I absorbed the beauty.

During the week I felt joy, awe, sadness, fear. A whole plethora of emotions. I also connected with people and nature and both encouraged me. No single person or idea can solve all our environmental problems. However, I believe that by connecting with others, we can find lots of solutions together while also finding compassion, peace, comfort, hope and improved health.

Shetland is remote but it is also the centre of a busy network of life; connected, interlinked, beautiful. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to explore and connect with it. I think that we care for what we value. So, if we want people to care for the environment, first we have to try to fully understand and share its value. My knowledge of nature and biodiversity is limited, but the week increased my awareness of the beauty of our diverse island.

I enjoy spotting bunnies in the grass, one big eye wide open
In the world of fight, flight or freeze I can relate to them; they are very much into flight or freeze. So am I.


February Highlights

The light is starting to creep out earlier and hang around a bit longer each day but it still feels very much the middle of winter with this cold spell we have been having. I have however been noticing some promising signs that spring will be along soon. The bluebell bulbs in the garden are just poking their heads above ground and even the buddleia bush has green shoots appearing. The Shelducks have made their return to Boddam Voe and the Ravens have been showing their mating flight dances where they twist and tumble together.


In Focus- winter visiting gulls

There are two species of gull that visit Shetland during the winter months: Iceland Gulls and Glaucous Gulls. They can be hard to spot at first but once you know what to look for you will be able to pick them out among the crowds. The best places to spot them is around Lerwick harbour, especially around the piers at the Shetland Catch and on Loch of Spiggie where large aggregations of gulls come to bathe.

The RSPB have some great illustrations to assist with ID on their website here.


Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)

The adults of this species look similar to Herring Gulls but there are a few differences, they are slightly smaller, with a smaller ‘neater’ head and smaller beak. They most obvious difference however is on the wings, Iceland Gulls have white tips to their wings whereas Herring Gulls have an obvious black tip to the wings.

Adult Iceland Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Young Iceland Gulls, in comparison to Herring Gulls are much lighter in colour showing more cream and buff colours in the plumage and still lack the dark wing tips.

Young Iceland Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus)

Adult Glaucous Gulls are bigger that Herring Gulls and much bigger and bulkier than Iceland Gulls. They have a large head often speckled with brown and a big thick beak. They are often described as having a fierce expression. As with the Iceland Gull they also have white wing tips instead of the black tips as in Herring Gulls.

Adult Glaucous Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Young Glaucous Gulls have similar plumage to Iceland Gulls but are bigger and have the bulkier features of the adults. They have very large pink beaks with a black tip.

Young Glaucous Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring gulls, for comparison are shown below.

Adult Herring Gull
Copyright Rob Fray
Young Herring Gull
Copyright Anne Burgess

In other news…

Snowy weather can be a great time to go out and look for animal and bird tracks. Head out into the garden and discover who has been paying you a visit!

Woodcock tracks in snow
Copyright Kathryn Allan
Rabbit tracks in snow
Copyright Kathryn Allan

Below are a few of the mammal tracks that you may spot in Shetland (dog and cat tracks have been inclued for comparisons).


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.



A Gaggle of Geese: ID tips for the geese of Shetland

There are a number of different goose species that visit Shetland, the most common being the Greylag Goose which has become a resident species in recent years with a number of individuals staying into the spring and summer to breed. The geese species can be broadly split into two groups, the ‘grey’ geese species in the genus Anser and those within the Branta genus such as the Barnacle Goose. It can be very difficult to identify one species from another, especially the ‘grey’ geese which look very similar and are often seen in mixed flocks when on the ground.

This article will take you through each of the species detailing the main features that tell each one apart. The different species also have different calls which can be a good way to identify flocks in flight.

Need ID help in the field? Download our handy ID leaflet here produced with assistance from Shetland Bird Club.

Download the ID guide to the geese of Shetland…


Resident

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

The only resident goose in Shetland. Historically they were passage migrants, arriving in the isles in late autumn and overwintering before heading away further north to breed in the spring. In recent years, they have started to appear in larger numbers, flocks of several hundred can be gathered in fields in autumn and winter. There were records of breeding pairs in Unst and Fetlar in the 1970’s but in the late 1990’s the number of pairs staying in the isles to breed dramatically increased and has been steadily increasing since. This increase is thought to coincide with a 250% rise in grassland areas in Shetland from 7,000ha in 1981 to almost 20,000ha in 1996.

Identifying features- largest/ bulkiest of the ‘grey’ geese species with a large orange beak and pink legs. In flight their upper wings are pale grey in colour. Their call is similar to that of domestic species with a loud, raw ‘ank-ang-ang’ sound, although their repertoire is quite varied.

Greylag Goose from xeno-canto by Andrew Harrop
Greylag Goose
Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Common Migrants

Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

A common passage migrant. Large flocks, sometimes in their thousands, pass over Shetland heading south in late September/ early October but the majority do not land. Those that do make a pit stop in the isles can be spotted in amongst the flocks of Greylag Geese. A handful of individuals have overwintered in Shetland most years usually in the Dunrossness area. Pink-footed Geese also migrate through Shetland in the Spring but in much lower numbers.

Identifying features- Smaller than Taiga Bean Goose and equal in size to Tundra Bean Goose but as its name suggests, they have pink legs in comparison to the bean geese (although this can be difficult to establish at a distance). They have a small, short, dark beak with a pink band, and a dark head and neck. Call similar to the bean geese species but of higher pitched ‘ca-ca-ca’ sound.

Pink-footed Goose from xeno-canto by Andrew Harrop
Pink-footed Goose
Copyright: Rob Fray


Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)

Another common passage migrant which passes over without often making landfall. Peak numbers seen from end September to early October but smaller numbers continuing until early November. Occasionally, large flocks of several hundred do land in the isles, this autumn (2020) a group of approximately 850 were seen on the ground in Scatness.

Identifying features- easily identifiable medium sized goose with white under belly and grey, black and white barred upperparts. Black neck, white face with a small black beak. Very vocal when in flight making a single ‘kaw’ sound.

Barnacle Goose from xeno-canto by Andrew Harrop
Barnacle Goose
Copyright: Rob Fray

Scarce Visitors

White-fronted Goose (Answer albifrons)-

A winter visitor in Shetland, their arrival is usually linked to cold weather on the European mainland which encourages them to seek milder conditions. In a usual year between 10 and 40 individuals arrive in the Isles, however some years there are more, such as 2011, when at least 300 were sighted throughout the islands in November including a flock of 80 at Spiggie.

Identifying features- medium sized ‘grey’ goose species, smaller than a Greylag, similar in size to a Pink-footed Goose. They are browner in colour than the other ‘grey’ goose species with prominent black patches on its underbelly, bright orange legs, pinkish beak and the white blaze around the face between the eye and the beak which gives it its name. Their call is described as having a laughing quality to it and being more high-pitched and musical than other species. Often heard making this ‘Kyu-yu-yu’ sound when in flight.

White-fronted Goose from xeno-canto by Andrew Harrop
White-fronted Goose
Copyright: Rob Fray

Tundra Bean Goose (Anser serrirorstris)-

Bean geese were recently split into two unique species, the Tundra Bean Goose and the Taiga Bean Goose. They are very difficult to distinguish from one another, the only real noticeable difference is the size and shape of the bill. Most likely to be seen in the winter between November and March.

Identifying features- the Tundra Bean Goose has a shorter, heavier bill and the orange/yellow colouration is limited to a small band around the bill. The Tundra Bean Goose is also slightly smaller than the Taiga Bean Goose, similar in size to the Pink-footed Goose. Call is a trumpeting ‘ung-unk’ similar to Pink-footed but deeper pitched.

Tundra Bean Goose from xeno-canto by Marcin Sotowiej
Tundra Bean Goose. Copyright: Rob Fray

Brent Goose (Branta bernicla)-

A very scarce migrant in Shetland with only a handful of individuals each year. Most commonly sighted in the winter months between September and April. Two subspecies occur, the Dark-bellied Brent Goose (B.b.bernicla) and the Pale-bellied Brent Goose (B.b hrota). The later is more commonly seen in Shetland.

Identifying features- in the same genus as the Barnacle Goose, the Brent Goose is slightly smaller and browner in colour, they have a dark neck similar to the Barnacle Goose but lack the white colouration on their face. Noisy and repetitive ‘rhut’ call.

Brent Goose from xeno-canto by Andrew Harrop
Brent Goose. Copyright: Rob Fray


Rare Visitors

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)-

Introduced into the UK from America and now common in most of the UK but rare in Shetland. Most likely to be seen from April-June.

Identifying features- large, easily identifiable goose. Body mainly brown in colour. Long neck with black colouration which does not extend down onto the breast as it does in the Barnacle Goose. Also, a white patch on the head that does not extend up and over the eye. Vocal goose with a repetitive ‘awr-lut’ with the second syllable higher pitched.

Canada Goose from xeno-canto by Chris Batty
Canada Goose
Dr. Raju Kasambe, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Taiga Bean Goose (Anser fabalis)-

A very rare vagrant from Europe, the last record in Shetland was of two individuals in 2016 (one in Whalsay in February and one in Sumburgh in October). Easily confused with the Tundra Bean Goose.

Identifying features- the bill is longer and slimmer than that of the Tundra Bean Goose with a larger proportion of orange/yellow colouration. The Taiga bean goose is also slightly larger with a longer neck in comparison to the Tundra Bean Goose, more similar in size to a Greylag Goose. Call indiscernible from that of the Tundra Bean Goose (trumpeting ‘ung-unk’ similar to Pink-footed but deeper pitched).

Taiga Bean Goose from xeno-canto by Niels Krabbe
Taiga Bean Goose
MPF, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Snow Goose (Anser caerulascens)-

Very rare species in Shetland. Individuals arrive on occasion, but their true status is confused by the presence of a feral breeding population in other areas of the UK meaning we can never be sure if they are completely wild.

Identifying features- medium sized, comparable to Pink-footed Goose. Snow Geese occur in two colour morphs: White with black wing tips or blue/grey body and wings with a white head and tail tip. Crackling call ‘ak-ak’

Snow Goose from xeno-canto by Andrew Spencer
Snow Goose
Copyright: Rob Fray

It should be noted that there are many local populations of domesticated geese around Shetland that may be spotted in fields and on lochs. As most domestic geese are thought to originate from the Greylag Goose species, they are similar in appearance but will often have markings of white anywhere on their body/head.

Any records of goose sightings can be submitted to the Shetland Community Wildlife Group at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com or directly to the Shetland county recorder at recorder@shetlandbirdclub.co.uk

If possible records should state:

  • Date
  • Species
  • Number of Individuals
  • Location
  • Grid ref (not essential)
  • Observer name

Photographs are always welcomed and can be especially useful for evidencing rare and scare species.



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!