Gold in the hills

by Jon Dunn -

I’m writing this on the longest day of the year, at a time when dusk and dawn draw so close together they’re almost as one. Down south, daybreak is heralded by the dawn chorus, a clamour of competing birdsong that erupts from every garden, hedgerow and woodland. Warblers, thrushes and finches are all striving to make themselves heard. It’s an urgent, melodious alarm call.

Here too there’s a dawn chorus, though it’s sung by a very different choir indeed. As the aqueous blue light of the Shetland summer night is replaced by gold around the edges of my bedroom curtains, I can hear the trilling of dunlins, the bubbling calls of whimbrels, the plaintive tri-syllabic notes of golden plovers. There is gold in the hills of Shetland at this time of year.

These are shorebirds, upland breeding waders that, at other times of the year, might be found in flocks in coastal areas of Britain. For a few long weeks of the short Shetland summer, they’re found here scattered across the hills. Their calls in the morning betray them. Look closely, and you’ll find them.

Visitors to Shetland are invariably drawn to the coast – and why not, as it’s got drama to spare, and puffins too. Everyone loves a puffin. But maybe we should head inland, prospecting for golden plovers, and for more besides.

Shetland is home to critically important populations of breeding upland waders – it’s the most important place in Britain for whimbrels alone, a species that’s in steep decline nationally. Scotland is the heartland for the British population of golden plover, and Shetland in particular is home to some of the highest densities of this shy wader. But where are they? They’re not immediately obvious. To see them we need to take a pace off the beaten track, travel the path less trodden. We need to take to the hills.

Heading into Shetland’s uplands at this time of year is to step into another world, a place in which we can only ever be fleeting visitors. This is a place of lush sphagnum bogs, purple moor grass, wiry heather and drifts of snowy bog cotton. This is an undisturbed vastness, an expanse of magnificent upland habitat. This is the home of whimbrels and plovers.

Nesting in the shadows of Arctic skuas

Whimbrels are like pocket curlews, smaller and slimmer than their large cousins, humbug-headed with a distinctive stripe on their crown, their bills less outlandish. They nest in the shadow of Arctic skua colonies, better to gain some protection from sharp-eyed hooded crows and ravens that might rob their nests of eggs.

And those golden plovers? Where a whimbrel is a master of subtle camouflage, all broken buff stripes and flecks, a golden plover is an outrageous thing at this time of year. Their underparts are black as soot, while a bold, confident brushstroke of white runs from head to tail down their flanks. But it is their upperparts that lend them their name – a rich golden mantle offset with counterpoints of jet black and diamond white. Their sad, mournful call alerts you to their presence nearby… and then there the bird is, stood alertly on top of a rise in the ground, watchful. Seen in the early morning sunlight, in the photographer’s so-called golden hour, they are like a phoenix flaming against the muted greys and greens of lichen and moss.

They are good parents, mindful of any threat to their newly hatched young. However, few parents in the uplands can match another plover for doting care – ringed plovers make their nests in patches of bare ground, and are often found when one walks up an old track onto the hill, following in the footsteps of generations of crofters who passed this way heading to the peat banks.

These tracks are less trodden nowadays, and the ringed plovers make use of these undisturbed stony places. You may not see the bird in question at first, for they’re more aware of us than we are of them, and they hunker low to the ground. But if they have young hidden nearby the attendant parents will try to lure you away from the chicks – limping away across the heather, the adult bird drags a wing behind her. She is injured, surely? For a predator, this would be a compelling lure, the promise of an easy meal. While we pose no threat, the deception is not wasted – it is a privilege to bear witness to such remarkable behaviour as easily as it can be seen here – but we should not linger lest we draw attention to the birds from other eyes, less benign than ours.

Snipe drumming

Overhead, rising and falling metronomically above the cascades of skylark song is the otherworldly sound of snipe drumming. Drumming does their strange, buzzing display flight scant justice, for they sound nothing like drummers but instead, for all the world, like giant bumblebees. (And you may see those too, by your feet, for the ginger and saffron bodied Shetland bee is ubiquitous at this time of year, particularly on a fine sunny day). Other upland waders rely upon their voices to announce their presence to rivals and one another – but snipe use their very feathers. Circling high above us, the birds climb and plunge, again and again, spreading their tails as they do so. The outer tail feathers are narrower than their counterparts, and vibrate rapidly in the rushing air as the bird plummets, like the reed in a woodwind instrument.

So much activity is here yet, at first glance, the Shetland hills seem devoid of life bar sheep dotting their slopes. Visitors to the bustling seabird colonies at Sumburgh or Hermaness may think they’re seeing Shetland’s finest wildlife spectacle – and they are spectacular, and you will see puffins, of course – but I sometimes wonder if they’re just a little bit… easy, maybe a touch obvious. Sometimes the things you have to look a little harder for, work that little bit more to see, go that extra mile… sometimes those are those most rewarding wildlife encounters of all.

About Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn is a natural history writer, photographer and experienced wildlife tour leader based in Shetland, but with strong links in mainland Europe and North America that see him travelling widely in search of memorable wildlife encounters.
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