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.
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 email@example.com 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.