The birdwatching's not confined to the summer: there are gannets and fulmars around the coast for most of the winter, along with residents like shags, cormorants, tysties, eiders and ravens, while great northern divers, Slavonian grebes, herons, whooper swans, Iceland gulls, turnstones, purple sandpipers and snow buntings are among the regular winter visitors.
Irresistible Urge to 'Twitch'
For 'twitchers', Shetland is irresistible during the spring and autumn bird migrations, especially when foggy south-easterly winds push thousands of Scandinavian migrants out over the North Sea and force them to land on Shetland for rest and food. Among routine transients such as redwings and fieldfares are sometimes sensational rarities which (like Fair Isle's famous thick-billed warbler from Siberia, or Bressay's surf scoter from North America) bring crowds of enthusiastic birders north with 'scopes and checklists, whatever the weather!
The biggest rarities often turn up in well-watched places like Fair Isle and Out Skerries but wandering oddities can appear anywhere, any time – just one more reason why Shetland spells bliss for birders.
One Big Ornithological Laboratory
Since the founding of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory in 1948, the amount of scientific ornithology carried out in Shetland has vastly increased. As well as Fair Isle's pioneering studies on bird migration, Shetland's become an open-air laboratory for a great deal of research into the breeding ecology of seabirds. In Foula, for example, Glasgow University zoologists have spent many seasons on a special study of the bonxie.
Observations by local and visiting birdwatchers play an important part in all this scientific work. The Shetland Bird Club publishes a quarterly newsletter and an award-winning annual report, while the Shetland Biological Records Centre employs a full-time scientist to log all significant sightings of birds and other wildlife in the islands.
Pollution worries over the building of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal in the 1970s led to the setting up of a unique environmental monitoring programme with annual surveys of seabird numbers and breeding success, making Shetland one of the best-documented areas in the world for ornithology. Fortunately the pollution caused by the terminal has been minimal. The wreck of the tanker 'Braer', near Sumburgh Head in January 1993, was unconnected with Sullom Voe. The incident occurred well outside the breeding season, so had only a limited impact on bird populations.
Concern now centres on the effects of global warming on seabird populations. There have been some disappointing breeding seasons in recent years, apparently due to lack of food. But seabirds are extremely tough, mostly long-lived creatures and, despite fluctuating populations, Shetland remains a world-class attraction for birdwatchers, whether professionals or absolute beginners. Ornithology has become a significant source of income for the islanders and the visitor with binoculars and bird book is sure of an especially warm welcome.