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


Calling all divers and snorkellers!

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:

Spiny Lobster. Copyright National Lobster Hatchery
White Cluster Anemone. Copyright Paul Naylor
Fan Mussel. Copyright Dr Keith Hiscock
Burrowing Anemone. Copyright JNCC (Bernard Picton)
Native Oyster. Copyright Paul Naylor

We would also be interested to hear about records of important seabed habitats which are sensitive to disturbance and considered of high biological value:

Maerl. Copyright Rachel Shucksmith
Seagrass Bed. Copyright Paul Naylor
Horse Mussel. Copyright Rachel Shucksmith

In Scotland, these important species have been termed ‘Priority marine features’- Download our PMF Leaflet to 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.

We would also welcome records of any unusual species or invasive species (Shetland’s Marine Non-native Species), or shark and skate eggcases you might spot when diving (Shetland Shark and Skate Eggcase Hunt).


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)


Summer Holiday Project #5- Create your own Mini Ecosystem

This is a great fun activity and really easy to do. We used different species of moss in ours but you could use any small plants such as sedums and alpines that don’t grow too big. Once made just pop it on a sunny windowsill and watch it change and grow. It is also a great way to learn and watch the water cycle in action keeping your mini ecosystem alive and thriving.

Download the Mini Ecosystem leaflet to find out how to get started.


Summer Holiday Project #4- Build your own Hibernaculum

What’s a hibernaculum I hear you ask…..it is a warm, dry, safe place for reptiles and amphibians to hibernate over the winter. The word ‘hibernaculum’ means “winter quarter”, with the Latin word hibernus meaning “winter”.

Here in Shetland the Common Frog is our only amphibian, but they are plentiful. They hibernate over the winter in underground holes to avoid the cold and frost, their heart and breathing rate slow right down and they no longer need to find food.

By creating a hibernaculum in your garden, you are providing the perfect place for frogs to hibernate whilst making space for nature and encouraging more wildlife into your garden.

Download the Hibernaculum leaflet to find out how to get started.


Have you spotted a Crofter’s Wig?

Crofter’s Wig (Ascophyllum nodosum ecad makii) is a very rare and interesting little seaweed. It is a form of egg wrack (Ascophyllum nodosum)but is free-living (not attached to anything). It is thought to have first originated from broken fragments of the normal form of egg wrack but in very sheltered conditions grows unattached. It gets it’s name, Crofter’s Wig, from the wig-shaped masses it forms. It prefers the mid-upper tidal zone in very sheltered areas such as the head of some voes where it is not at risk of being washed away by stormy weather.

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

To submit any potential sightings of this species, send your name, location (with a grid reference if possible) and a photograph if you have one, to us via email to shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com or fill in the contact form here.

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

It is a Priority Marine Feature (PMF) and a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species (UKBAP). It provides an important habitat for other seashore species such as crabs and molluscs.

So far in Shetland it has only been recorded on the west side of Shetland and is considered globally rare. The Shetland records might represent the northern most extent of this species.

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

Summer Holiday Project #3- Make your own BIOGAS

This week is all about science. We want you to head back to the shore to collect more seaweed so that you can make your own renewable energy source- BIOGAS.

BIOGAS is made up of methane and carbon dioxide which can be used as a renewable source of fuel or turned into electricity and heat. Seaweed is a great material for making BIOGAS as seaweed farming is environmentally sustainable, but you can also give it a try with grass cuttings or food waste. You can also try changing the conditions in which you make your BIOGAS, try putting it in a sunny spot or dark cupboard, a warm or cold place- what happens?

Download our BIOGAS leaflet to get started.


Delve into the World of Hoverflies….

…with this new ID guide by Rebecca Nason

A local naturalist and wildlife photographer, Rebecca has a passion for hoverflies and has recently created a leaflet to help people identify and record these garden visitors…..

We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of species, populations and distribution of hoverflies on Shetland, with only a few naturalists delving into their identification and recording them. With understanding of Shetland hoverflies still in its infancy, there is still much to learn and add to the current database of knowledge. These are exciting times for the Shetland naturalist; with so much to still explore and understand, anyone can really make a difference to biological recording in the Islands.”

Download Shetland’s Hoverflies- A Photographic Identification Guide here.

Common Snout. Copyright Rebecca Nason
Plain-faced Dronefly. Copyright Rebecca Nason

We welcome your Shetland hoverfly records or photographs for identification. Please use the Shetland Insect Group on Facebook Page, or contact Paul Harvey at Shetland Biological Records Centre (paul.harvey@shetlandamenity.org). Please don’t forget to add a location (grid reference if possible) and a date to your discoveries.


Summer Holiday Project #2- Make a Wave with Marine Litter

This week will take you back to the beach to do a beach clean, great for helping nature by removing plastic from our seas and coastlines BUT dont throw it away, you’re going to need it for this weeks art project.

We will be using the marine litter to create a piece of wave art. You can get as creative as you like experimenting with different shapes, colours and textures. It is amazing the varity of man-made items that end up on our beaches!

Download our Make a Wave with Marine Litter leaflet to get started.