By Brydon ThomasonDecember 17th 2021
Brydon Thomason

Shetland wildlife tour guide Brydon Thomason joins the team of bloggers, and starts by reflecting on his favourite winter wildlife moments. It is an incredible time of year to experience the natural world in Shetland.

The fact we are closer to the Arctic Circle than we are to London is a contextual reference we use often here in Shetland. The unique combination of northern habitats, landscapes, plants, and birds make it clear why our islands are known as a ‘subarctic archipelago’. But from a personal perspective, this never feels more pertinent than in winter.

With barely six hours of daylight and more than our fair share of wild weather, in many respects it is a season to draw the curtains, cosy in ‘by da fire’ and enjoy home comforts. But, wrap up warm, brace yourself and let your inner spirit for adventure lead you into the wilds, and you’ll experience the outdoors like no other season.

Having been born and raised in Shetland, to me the seasonal changes that define our environment are also a huge part of what makes us who we are here. Appreciating and living with, even embracing whatever the weather can bring, from calm to chaos, is part of what makes island life so special. From my earliest days I was out in all weathers with my father on our family croft, (in my toddler sized overalls). The outdoors was where I needed to be. It was from this early age and through this way of life that my love of wildlife began.

Over 40 years on, and maybe still a crofter at heart, the need to be outdoors is still as strong, but it is around our wildlife throughout the seasons that my working life revolve. Winter is as big a part of this as any other.

The shorter days do mean more time spent indoors, be it with my family, at the desk or just winding down. But this time recharges the body and mind, to be ready to make the most of the days I am out, and even the longer days that lie ahead. For me, there is a balance and a pace of life that I just don’t have throughout those long summer nights, however marvelous and exciting they may be.

This is a season of less being more. I still find it hard to describe how the hills that are a chorus of bird song and the cliffs so raucous with seabirds cries in summer are equally as inspiring by their simple winter serenity.

Many of our breeding birds have long since left, following the timeless rhythm of the seasons on southward migration, leaving only the hardy residents to see the winter through.

From much further north though, our islands feature as wintering grounds for some special, and occasionally spectacular species.

Almost exclusively, winter is an all-Arctic affair. Be it feathered, flippered or finned, it is from regions of the frozen north that our hopes for an unexpected arrival are pinned. Fleeing the dark winter days or displaced by winter storms, there are several Arctic icons that could brighten up even the darkest winters day.

As is the case for each season, winter offers a specific set of species for birders. Although the number of possibile species may not be as fruitful, the calibre more than rivals those of any other season.

Nomadic Arctic birds like Snowy Owl, Gyrfalcon and Ivory and Ross’s Gull, no matter how rare their appearance might be, offer even greater birding inspiration than the plethora of possibilities through the spring and autumn migrations.

Slightly commoner but as much of a motivation, is the chance to pick out a King Eider among our gregarious winter rafts of Common Eider, better known here as ‘Dunters’. Time spent with these exciting congregations of sea duck is about so much more though. Their association especially with Long-tailed Ducks, which gather in the largest known flocks in the British Isles is, in my opinion one of our most impressive winter spectacles.

To mark this Arctic theme, and remarkably right on cue, during the very week I write this post, a Walrus was discovered off Vementry, loafing around a salmon farm!

Easily one of the most iconic Arctic sea-mammals, a Walrus is an extremely rare visitor here, this being only the second confirmed sighting in Shetland for over 30 years, the last being back in June 2018. Few might imagine that members of the Pinniped family (aquatic fin-footed mammals) to make such massive movements and yet several species of Arctic seal have been recorded here, the most regular being Bearded.

Privileged as I know I am to have seen these, how I long to see a Harp Seal here one day…

Continuing the exotic marine-life theme, the past decade or so has seen Shetland's waters being established as an annual staging post for Humpback Whales. On their migrations between their Arctic winter-feeding grounds off Norway and their Caribbean breeding ground, these magnificent oceanic giants have become a reliable feature in our wildlife calendar, particularly in early and late winter.

Orca too can put in an appearance at any stage of the season, sometimes with sightings as regular as they can be in summer.

In contrast to all of these and, to me, easily as entertaining and infinitely more special are our Otters. With their largely diurnal feeding habits and breeding seasonality, winter is arguably the best season to spend time with Otter families.

Second only to my own family (give or take!) Otters are the love of my life and I can, and do, go on about them. In fact, they deserve, and in due course will have, their own blog post, actually quite a few…