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Shetland's Winter Wildlife Highlights

by Brydon Thomason -

Winter, the perfect time for a holiday. Imagine it: pods of orca hunting off shore, the iconic tail flukes of humpback whale slipping into the sea whilst a white-tailed eagle soars overhead and by night the aurora borealis illuminates a starry sky...

One would think I'm talking about a trip to the Norwegian fjords but no - these are all spectacles we have enjoyed right here in Shetland, this, and indeed previous winters, of late. Add to these magnificent sights our unparalleled otter watching experiences and you have a truly world-class winter wildlife experience.

Shetland has and always will be a wonderful, exciting and truly wild place to visit in winter, and not just for the wildlife and outdoor experience. There is of course our cultural heritage celebrated through the 'season' of Up Helly Aa Viking fire festivals. For wildlife enthusiasts though, annual and often regular sightings of humpback whale and (especially this and last winter) two of our regular orca pods have been seen on an almost daily basis during some periods – and Lerwick harbour has been as good a place as any to see them!

This is the second year running that there have been regular orca sightings. The North Atlantic population is known to be thriving, so it seems likely that this trend is something that will continue. Over the past couple of years 'orca watching' for many Shetlander's has actually become something of a hobby or pastime. It is now so popular that it draws in more followers and indeed bigger crowds than even 'twitchers' ever have through the local birding community!

The recent increase in 'humpbacks' is particularly interesting. Like the orca, this too reflects their continuing success over the past decade in the North Atlantic. It has become quite clear that our waters are very much on their migration route from Norwegian waters all the way to the Caribbean. For almost a decade now we have recorded these charismatic ocean giants annually, in all months, but especially between November and March, suggesting it was quite likely the same individuals following the same route. This has recently been confirmed through photo IDs.

In winter 2016 when up to five humpbacks spent over six weeks between Yell, Fetlar and Unst, we made an unprecedented discovery – through international collaboration, we made an ID match from an image I took off Yell with an image taken of the very same whale off Guadeloupe in the Caribbean! This was not only a UK first but also unrecorded from leading organisations studying humpbacks elsewhere in Europe.

Given that 2018 saw the mighty 'sea eagle' (now known as white-tailed eagle) breed in Orkney for the first time in nearly 150 years, it would now perhaps seem plausible to hope they might someday breed in Shetland again. Once a well known native breeder here, this huge bird of prey has been little more than an occasional visitor, however seeing an adult roaming around the isles last year was encouraging to say the least. Most records we see in Shetland are of immature birds, such as this winter’s individual, which appears to be wintering in the South Mainland.

Many of the eagles we see here are often presumed to be, and indeed often prove to be, birds drifting northward from Scottish Introduction schemes. Interestingly though, true vagrants can and do occur here from Norway. In December 2012 I was delighted to discover an immature individual on a beautiful calm, crisp and bright mid-winters morning, flying over our house!

Photographs taken of it a few weeks later by Robbie Brookes showed it to be bearing colour rings. A quick bit of research told me that nowhere in Scotland used the colour combination but that Norway seemed most likely. Similar to the way in which international collaboration quickly led to unprecedented discoveries with the whales, by contacting researchers in Norway we found it to be one of their birds!

This was the first Norwegian bred white-tailed eagle they had known to have crossed the North Sea and confirmed in UK. This is of course something that quite obviously occurs but, without colour rings, could not be confirmed.

So, if there are species and spectacles that inspire you to think of a winter holiday in Norway, you mightn't need to travel that far to see them...

About Brydon Thomason

Naturalist, birder, photographer & otter addict. Owner and guide of Shetland Nature. Co-author of 'Otters in Shetland'.
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