Grey Seal Pups - Shetland Nature Diary

by Brydon Thomason -

Grey Seal Pups Arrive

In Shetland grey seals tend to give birth to their pups slightly later than the rest of the country, with the majority being born in early November, although some arrive slightly earlier and occasionally even later. Most colonies choose remote and often inaccessible beaches at the foot of high cliffs or on small off shore islands, which are often only reachable by boat. Because of this few people experience the pleasure of visiting a colony and witnessing these amazing sea mammals in this environment and the intimate relationships between the mothers and pups in their fragile fist few weeks of life.

Fortunately for myself, two of the sites I visit every year are known by few, which I find quite humbling to think that most years I am probably the only human being that these seals ever see - a rare privilege indeed!

Autumn Bird Migration

By November autumn bird migration is almost over, with most species having already passed through and the winter ones arrived and settled in for the winter, but as experience has taught me, it is a month that is renowned to produce a rarity or two and a month to keep optimism levels high.

This November was no exception. Bird of the month for me was a fantastic little Hume's leaf warbler which myself and two of my birding buddy's, found on the first day of the month, on Unst. This jittery little warbler, barely larger than a Goldcrest, has a breeding range that stretches across from northern Mongolia in central Asia, southern Siberia and western China. It represented only the fourth record for Shetland of the species, and is still quite a rarity in Britain, with barely a handful recorded in the country each year. Amazingly two more were found during the month on other islands.

Another ornithological highlight, and perhaps a rather more colourful one, was an arrival of Waxwings. Scarcely a year passes when Waxwings are not recorded in the isles, but occasionally in years where their food source of wild berries are in short supply across Scandinavia and even into Siberia, good numbers are recorded. Early November is typical of when these strikingly decorated visitors arrive although they are often slightly earlier. Unfortunately suitable food in Shetland is in short supply for them and birds rarely hang around for more than a few days before continuing south through the country, where they can be found gathering in flocks numbering into the hundreds. Here in the isles they are forced to make do with what they can find, rose hips are often the only alternative, although some do seek out cotoneaster and similar sources of fruiting bushes and trees.

Otter Watching

By far my most favoured of wildlife watching indulgencies in Shetland, and one that I have not yet matched the world over, is watching otters. Being able to watch and follow individuals and families throughout the year is a real passion of mine. Along some stretches of coastline, which I have been studying for over twenty years I have taken great pride in learning their movements, feeding area's, holts and tracks. Sharing this knowledge with others and seeing the sheer amazement when they see this captivating little creature gives me great pleasure. Winter can be an excellent time of year for watching otters as many mothers are beginning to venture out with their cubs, which were born in late summer.

After watching this young female come ashore with this huge lump sucker I used the shoreline, wind direction and camouflage clothing to my advantage to take these pictures, without it ever knowing I had been there. In a day an otter needs to consume up to a third of its own body weight in fish, rather pleased with its catch, she has almost achieved this in one go! In Shetland, unlike most of the UK they are most active during daylight hours, and tend to feed more on a falling or rising tide. One of the main reasons for this is that most of their favoured prey items are nocturnal feeders so are very slow and lethargic during daylight hours making them much easier to catch. With the reduced hours of winter daylight, otter watching can be very rewarding and during the cold and windy months of a Shetland winter it becomes my main focus- more than enough excitement to take my mind off the weather!

Bye for now...
Brydon Thomason

About Brydon Thomason

Brydon runs a specialist wildlife guiding service that focuses on all aspects of Shetlands exhilarating natural history for individuals, couples or small groups (maximum of 6), specialising in: otter watching, bird watching, wild flowers, boat trips and much more. Read more about these trips at

Having lived in the Shetland all his life, Brydon is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable naturalists in the isles. He welcomes any questions or comments on the monthly nature diary and should you require any information on any aspect of Shetland's natural history please contact Brydon

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