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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Calendarhere.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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’
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.
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.
Johnston, J Laughton. (1999) A Naturalist’s Shetland. T & A D Pyser Ltd: London.
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.
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.
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 WaxwingandBlackcap. 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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 smallwarbler (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.
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.
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.
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.
Beachcombing can be a really fun activity; I always get a feeling of excited anticipation when I step onto a beach as I never know what I might find. And the brilliance of it is, with the tide coming in and out twice a day there is always something new to discover.
This article will introduce you to some of the natural treasures that may be lurking out there just waiting to be found on the beaches in Shetland. For more information on other projects and activities to get involved in on the beach have a look at our Projects page.
It can be tricky to ID some of the finds as they can look a bit weathered from the sea and the surf. We are always happy to help, either send us an email at email@example.com or tag us on facebook @SCWG. There is also a brilliant group on Facebook full if local enthusiasts who would love to see all your finds, just search Shetland Seashore Discoveries.
It is great fun hunting for all those natural wonders amongst the strandline but we all know too well that often the man-made and plastic materials on our strandlines can out-number the natural. Why not take a bag and some gloves with you whenever you head to the beach and do a #2minutebeachclean, the wildlife will most definitely thank you! Visit www.beachclean.net/ for more info.
Shark and Skate Eggcases
Many skate and shark species around Shetland lay eggcases (also known as mermaid’s purses) which lie on the sea floor or wrapped amongst seaweed and kelp. Each eggcase holds a single embryo which once developed breaks out of the eggcase. These eggcases then often become washed up on our beaches. There are a surprising variety of eggcases and once you get looking it is interesting to see how many different species you can find on a beach. Click here to see our post on the Shetland Eggcase Hunt which will give you all the info you will need to identify the eggcases you find and how to record them. To find put more about the joys of hunting eggcases, read Sally Hubband’s experiences.
If you are super lucky you may find an intact urchin but more commonly, as they are very fragile, it is just fragments that are washed up. There are two common types of urchin in Shetland, the Edible Sea Urchin (Echinus esculentus) which has a pinky red shell with white spots where the spines have broken off. The second species is the Green Sea Urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) which as its name suggests is a greenish brown in colour.
You may also find what is know as an ‘Aristotle’s Lantern’ which is actually the mouth part of the urchin and is often found as it is the toughest part of an Urchin. It is used to scrape and tear algae which is then chewed with the teeth.
Sea Potatoes (Echinocardium cordatum) are a relative of the sea urchin and are also known as heart urchins. They are a sandy colour with fine spines which give it a hairy appearance although these spines may have been worn off in the surf.
Jellyfish in their adult stage, are not long-lived creatures and once they have spawned, they will die. Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) are the most common jellyfish found in Shetland. They are easily recognised by its transparent bell with four pink-purple rings. As they are often found in large shoals and spawning happens en masse, large numbers of these jellyfish (sometimes in their thousands) can often be washed up on beaches at the same time. Moon jellyfish feed on plankton and as such only have a mild sting which is unlikely to be felt by humans.
The largest jellyfish to visit our waters is the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) which is commonly seen at sizes of 0.5m in the UK but can grow up to 2m in diameter in Arctic waters. It is known as the Lion’s Mane due to the mass of tentacles around the underside of the bell and the jellyfish’s brown-red colouration. Care should be taken if you come across one in the water or on the shore as their sting is severe and they are still able to sting even when dead.
The Blue Jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii) grows up to around 30 cm and can range from pale yellow-brown (younger specimens) to light blue-purple. They have trailing stinging tentacles on the underside of the bell along with clusters of stinging tentacles on the upper surface of the bell. Their sting is fairly mild and similar to that a stinging nettle.
The Common Goose Barnacle (Lepas anatifera) is the most commonly found species of goose barnacle on our shores. They are a type of crustacean which spend their lives attached to drifting objects floating on the ocean’s surface. They have a flexible stalk which attaches to the floating object with a shelled ‘head’ which protects its feeding legs. These feeding legs uncurl from the shell and catch floating plankton. Goose barnacles are often found in large clusters on objects that have become washed ashore.
These are one of the commonest finds on our beaches. They have a spongy appearance and are often mistaken for a type of natural sponge and were in fact used by mariners for washing in the past. These egg masses are actually from either the Common Whelk (Buccinum undatum) or the Red Whelk (Neptunea antiqua) which are both common species around Shetland.
These are less common on Shetland beaches compared to the rest of the UK. They are from the Common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) and can be up to 40cm in length. Cuttlefish are molluscs and members of the cephalopod family along with squid and octopus. The bone that is washed up is filled with gas and used to control buoyancy by adding or releasing the gas. As these bones float, they are easily washed onto beaches. They are made from calcium carbonate and have many uses including as a dietary supplement for birds and reptiles.
These are actually plant seeds that are specially designed to drift long distances in water. They have a very strong outer shell that stops water from penetrating inside and rotting the seed, some have air pockets on the inside to keep them buoyant. These seeds generally come from tropical plants that may have spent months or even years drifting across the Atlantic from the Americas, and the West Indies. You would have to be very lucky to find one of these drift seeds in Shetland as they are very rarely reported. There are a handful of different species but two of the most likely would be the Sea Heart from the Entada gigas plant or a Horse-eye Bean (sometimes known as hamburger bean) from the Mucuna spp.
On rare occasions larger animals may become stranded or wash up on the beach. Please note that marine mammals can carry a variety of diseases than can be transferable to humans – please don’t touch or allow dogs to get too close. If possible try to take a variety of photos and estimate the length – this will help with ID.
If you find a dead marine mammal on the shore report it to the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme on www.strandings.org/ or to NatureScot (formally SNH) who will coordinate collection of samples or sending the animal south for post mortem examination. For dead otters please also report them to NatureScot on 01463 667600 (Lerwick office) or NORTH@nature.scot
We are looking for records of rare and important marine life. In Shetland we are very fortunate to have a long and varied coastline, home to a wide variety of marine life. Compared to other parts of the UK, the Shetland coastline is relatively well studied thanks to survey work undertaken to support the building of Sullom Voe, work at the NAFC Marine Centre to map important marine habitats and continued government agency survey work. But there are still large amounts of coastline yet to be surveyed.
That’s where we need your help, we are asking divers and snorkellers to report sightings of five key species which are either rare or sensitive to disturbance or are considered of high biological value:
In Scotland, these important species have been termed ‘Priority marine features’- Download our PMF Leafletto find out more. We are still keen to hear of records in locations where these species have been known for a long time, particularly if you have noticed them disappearing or becoming more abundant. Your records can provide important information on changes to these key species and habitats, which might overwise go unnoticed. For instance, seagrass beds in the Vadills are known to have died back, but when this occurred is not clear.
Rockpooling can be a fun activity for the young, and not so young alike. There is a huge variety of species in this very changeable habitat. Many species have developed special adaptations to allow them to live in this harsh landscape, with changing sea levels, water temperature, salinity levels and the battering of waves. Read on to find out more about some of the most common species you are likely to see in a Shetland rockpool.
Just remember, 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, if you find yourself in trouble call 999 and ask for the coastguard.
Green Shore Crab (Carcinus maenas)- Most common crab found on our seashores, they can grow up to 6cm (carapace width) but are usually smaller juveniles that are found in rockpools and under rocks on the lower shore. Their colouration can vary from a green/brown to a bright orange underside with many patterns and blotches. Females will be moulting during the summer months with breeding following straight after. The female will can lay up to 185 000 eggs which she holds in an orange sac under a flap on the underside of her abdomen.
Common Limpet (Patella vulgate)- Found in large numbers at all levels of the tide line, they have a very strong muscular foot which it uses to stay attached to the rock which allows them to live in areas with strong wave action. They graze on algae and micro-organisms that grow and live on the rock surface. They return each day to what is known as a ‘home scar’ which they create using their shell to cut into the rock.
Beadlet Anemone (Actinia equina)-Very common anemone seen in most rockpools and on the underside of rocks below the high-water mark. When out of the water they retract their tentacles, extending them again once submerged in water. These tentacles are used to catch floating food which it then moves to the mouth parts in the centre of its body. They use their tentacles for defence giving any intruder or neighbouring anemone a sting.
Common Periwinkle (Littorina littorea)- Known locally as whelks these little snails are a common seashore inhabitant in Shetland. Preferring rocky areas with good weed cover where they feed on different types of algae. This species is of commercial importance, they are gathered by locals and sold to the vivier trucks (trucks with seawater tanks used to transport live seafood) which visit the isles before travelling south as far as France and Spain to be sold on.
Dog Whelk (Nucella lapillus)- Found on most rocky shores in Shetland the Dog Whelk is similar to the Common Periwinkle but generally paler in colour with spiral ridges. Unlike the Common Periwinkle who are strictly vegetarian, Dog Whelks are carnivores, preying on barnacles, mussels and other bivalves. They use their mouth parts, known as a proboscis, to force open the shells of bivalves (mussels and clams) or drill a hole in the shell of its prey to remove the flesh inside. They are also NOT edible as they are apparently ‘distasteful’.
Butterfish (Pholis gunnellus)- A small eel-like fish up to 25cm long with continuous dorsal fin running the length of its body. They are a red/brown colour distinguishable by the ~12 black spots outlined with white along the base of the dorsal fin. They can be found in rock pools or in very shallow water underneath stones. Their skin is covered in a slimy coating making they very difficult to catch by hand, hence the name. They are the most commonly seen fish in rock pools in Shetland.
Common Mussels (Mytilus edulis)- A very important commercial species in Shetland with 80% of Scotland’s mussels grown in Shetland. They are grown commercially on ropes suspended from header ropes held up on the surface by large floats. They are also common on our seashore where they can be seen in often very large groups (known as beds) attached to rocks using thin but very strong threads called basal threads. They are blue/purple in colour with size and shape varying dependant on environmental conditions. Even though they are edible, it is not recommended to eat wild mussels, being filter feeders, those in shoreline areas can contain a lot of sand making them gritty to eat, they can also ingest large quantities of E-Coli which can be found in run-off from surrounding farmland and septic tank run-off. Additionally, they can accumulate a naturally occurring, but toxic algae which is common in the summer and autumn.
Barnacle (Semibalanus balanoides)- Super abundant in Shetland found at all levels of the intertidal zone. Barnacles live an upside-down life; they are permanently cemented to the rock by their head and, when covered by water, feed with their feet (cirri). They famously have the largest genitals (about 15 cm) to body size ratio in the animal kingdom.
Common Starfish (Asterias rubens)- Very abundant species in Shetland but scarce in rockpools except for occasional juveniles in low tide areas. Adults can however commonly be seen on pier and harbour structures. At their maximum they can grow up to 50cm but are more commonly seen to be around 10-30cm. They are orange/pale brown with 5 arms each with many rows of short tube feet which they use to move along the seabed. They can live on a wide range of substrate from sand, gravel to rocks and can sometimes occur in very large groups. They feed on a large range of species including bivalves, small crustaceans and other echinoderms. They use their tube feet to price open the shells of other creatures before extracting their stomach and placing it directly into the fleshy area to digest its meal. They have another clever adaptation where, if captured by predators, they are able to lose a leg to escape and will grow a new one, so if you spot a starfish with a leg smaller than the others, it is in the process of re-growing.
Edible Sea Urchin (Echinus esculentus)- Known locally as ‘Skaadman’s head’.A large urchin around 15-16cm in diameter, they are red in colour, although shade may vary. They are covered in pinkish white spines and when submerged soft tentacles are extended in rows alongside the spines. They have a hard bony ‘beak’ on their underside which they use to feed on algae and barnacles. They are scarce in rockpools but are often seen on piers and harbour walls. They are often found washed up on beaches, usually broken and with no spines left intact. They are known as the Edible Sea Urchin as the roe was eaten as a delicacy in some areas of the UK.
Sandhoppers- Commonly found on sandy beaches under rocks or seaweed above the high-water mark. They can also be found along the strandline amongst rotting weed. They are a staple food source for many seashore birds include Turnstone, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover. They get their name from the leaping movement they use to propel themselves away from danger.