People travel from across the world to delight in Shetland’s sensational seabird colonies and migrating rarities. It really is a bird lover’s paradise.

Shetland is a world-class attraction for birdwatchers, whether professionals or absolute beginners. Ornithology is extremely popular across the islands and visitors with a pair of binoculars and a bird book are sure of a warm welcome.

The Shetland breeding list includes red-throated divers, and waders and moorland birds such as snipe, dunlin, golden plover, redshank, ringed plover, lapwing, curlew, the much rarer whimbrel and even a few whooper swans.

Where to go?

Sumburgh Head

This RSPB nature reserve is the most accessible seabird colony in Shetland and is particularly good for people with reduced mobility. The Sumburgh cliffs in Shetland’s South Mainland are home to thousands of seabirds in the breeding season, with puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and shags easily viewed. It is also one of the best places in Shetland to watch for sea mammals. The Sumburgh Lighthouse Visitor Centre contains a superb natural history exhibition and many aids to interpreting what you can see on the cliff edges.

Noss

Noss National Nature Reserve is one of the most spectacular wildlife sites in Europe, just a short distance by water from Lerwick. You can take a three-hour boat trip with a tour company around the cliffs or make your own way across the isle of Bressay (a 10 minute ferry crossing from Lerwick and then 4 mile journey across the island by car or foot). You can then take a very short 200-yard ferry across Noss Sound and spend a day walking on the island.

The spectacle of 23,000 gannets, 24,000 guillemots and 10,000 fulmar festooned over a mile of cliffs, up to 592' (181m) high, is simply astounding, as is the roar of the massed choir of parents and chicks.

Noss is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage and allows access between mid-May until the end of August. See the website for more details.

Did you know?

Many birds found in Shetland have their own dialect names. A young seagull, for example, is known as a ‘Scorie’ and a puffin is a ‘Tammy Norie’. See the Shetland Dialect website for more.

Hermaness

Hermaness National Nature Reserve includes the dramatic precipices of the Muckle Flugga stacks off the northern tip of Unst. It has even more gannets than Noss and is one of the best places to see the piratical, but smaller, Bonxies attacking them and stealing their food. The puffins on Hermaness and the neighbouring headland of Saxa Vord probably number over 23,000 and are astonishingly tame.

As at Noss, the reserve is privately owned but managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, and guided walks may be arranged on request. See the website for more details.

Fetlar

Another prime bird watching location is the RSPB reserve on the island of Fetlar. The island boasts fine views of birds such as skuas and terns but is famous as the summer home of one of Britain's rarest breeding birds – the red-necked phalarope. Fetlar accounts for 90% of the UK population of these remarkably tame birds. In June and July, they can be seen at close quarters from an RSPB hide in the Mires of Funzie, or on the nearby Loch of Funzie.

Another rare bird, the Whimbrel, also nests in Fetlar. Around 80 pairs breed on the island, which is 15% of the UK breeding population. In the past, Fetlar has even had the UK's only pair of breeding snowy owls.

Fair Isle

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, the island has become an open-air laboratory for a great deal of research into the breeding ecology of seabirds.

The island is home to the rare Fair Isle Wren, a subspecies of the Shetland wren and the least numerous endemic bird subspecies in Britain and perhaps also in Europe.

The Observatory sadly burned down in spring 2019 but plans are underway to build a new one. In the meantime, visit the Fair Isle Bird Observatory website to see a comprehensive birding calendar for the island and further visitor information.

Beware the bonxie!

On Noss and Hermaness, and on coastal moorland across Shetland, you might encounter great skuas ('bonxies'), rare, gull-sized birds that are fond of dive-bombing hill walkers. To reduce the risk of being hit, keep to any marked path or trail and hold a stick or something similar above your head. More than half the world's population of this species breeds in Shetland. You may also come across the equally feisty Arctic skua.

Foula

The island of Foula is named after the Old Norse for ‘bird island’, and rightly so. We reckon it’s the bonxie (great skua) capital of the world and is awash with these majestic, dive-bombing birds. Foula is also home to the second largest sea cliff in Britain, ‘The Kame’, which stands at 1200ft (366m), which is home, along with the neighbouring cliffs to puffins, razorbills, shags, fulmars and guillemots. As with Fair Isle, Foula – the most westerly of the Shetland Islands – is a great place to spot migrating rarities.

Skerries

Situated on the east coast of the Shetland Mainland, just beyond Whalsay, are the lesser-known Out Skerries – another hotspot for migratory birds in the spring and autumn months. Rare migrants have included isabelline shrike, pine bunting, thick-billed warbler and pine bunting. Find out more on the Out Skerries website.

Mousa

Another Shetland speciality is the storm petrel. A night visit with the Mousa Ferry to the enchanting and astonishingly noisy breeding colony in the 2,500-year-old broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa is a must – one of the highlights of a Shetland holiday. In addition to the storm petrels at night time, there are Arctic and great skuas, Arctic terns, and many other birds easily viewed.

Loch of Spiggie

For wildfowl, the RSPB Reserve at the Loch of Spiggie is particularly good in autumn and winter. It's notable for whooper swans on their migration, and there are good numbers of ducks such as the tufted and goldeneye.

It’s worth noting that these are just some of the more popular bird watching sites across Shetland and eagle-eyed visitors will find that birds can be spotted at almost any time and any place.

The real thrill is the potential to find something really rare, a bird from Siberia or North America, blown half a world away from where it ought to be.

Jon DunnNatural history writer and photographer

Latest sightings

To review recent bird sightings in Shetland and for the latest bird watching news, visit the Shetland Bird Club website.

Guided tours

For bird watching tours and boat trips, see our Trips and Tours page.

When to visit

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 Foula but wandering oddities can appear anywhere, any time – just one more reason why Shetland spells bliss for birders.

The summer months of June and July are the best time to see breeding seabird colonies along the cliffs and stacks. The moorland and wetland areas support Red-throated Divers and breeding waders such as golden plover and whimbrel, as well as several rare breeding species like greenshank and red-necked phalarope (found in Fetlar).

In winter, there are gannets and fulmars around the coast, 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.

More on bird life in Shetland