Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland

pete_office
The view from the RSPB office in Shetland (image: Pete Ellis)

Greetings. I am conscious that my target of one blog a month – to be increased to two if possible – has been missed. Badly. By a long way. Nowhere near. Anyway, I will not weary you with excuses.

This month I plan to write about my latest Arizona experiences but, first, an article I wrote for Orkney’s excellent local newspaper, The Orcadian. The article was published on Thursday 10 December under the headline “An evening focused on the birdlife on Shetland”.

For those not lucky enough to live in Orkney, or who somehow missed the article, I reproduce it here. It is about the annual general meeting of the RSPB Orkney Local Group. I should declare an interest – I am a committee member, and the Treasurer.

After the business part of the meeting we had a fascinating talk about Shetland, hence the headline on this blog.

RSPB Orkney Local Group annual general meeting

Volunteers’ efforts to support the RSPB were highlighted at the Orkney Local Group’s annual general meeting in the King Street Halls, Kirkwall.

Chairman Dick Matson, in his report, spoke of the volunteers’ work which includes fund-raising, meeting holidaymakers on the Hamnavoe ferry, recruiting new members, maintaining bird hides, reserves work parties, seabird monitoring, beached bird surveys and talking to visitors about Hoy’s nesting sea eagles.

Mr Matson said of the volunteers, who include RSPB staff helping in their own time: “Your contribution is highly valued. The work of the RSPB is more successful because of volunteers.”

The year’s fund-raising included a bag-packing day in Kirkwall’s Tesco, which made more than £650, and the sale of RSPB pin badges.

Among the events organised by the Local Group were boat trips to Deerness Gloup, and to view puffins around Copinsay, which had proved particularly popular.

The existing Local Group committee was nominated and re-elected at the meeting. They are: Dick Matson, Chairman; Pauline Wilson, Secretary; Graham Brown, Treasurer; Grace Currie; Kathie Brown; and Shirley Tolley.

The meeting, on Thursday 19 November, heard a report about the RSPB’s work in Orkney in the past year, read on behalf of Manager Sarah Sankey, who was unable to attend.

This included, through the Enjoy Wild Orkney project, the completion of new viewing structures at Cottascarth, Loons and Birsay Moors – “if you haven’t been, please do go” – as well as new brown signs to direct people to reserves, waymarkers, trail guides, new panels and internal interpretation.

There was also a new leaflet guide to RSPB Orkney reserves published, films made, new webcams – the red throated diver cam was really popular – and reserves projects including new pools at the Loons and work at Loch of Banks to give better control of water levels.

One of the key events during the year was the white-tailed eagle pair breeding on Hoy. The RSPB manned an eagle watch, with huge contributions from volunteers, and engaged with more than 1,000 people, many of them local. Although these were young birds that failed, it is hoped they will be successful next year.

After the AGM members heard a talk entitled Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland by Pete Ellis, RSPB Northern Isles Manager, who is based at Sumburgh Head.

He said he had lived almost 32 years in Shetland, which has a mix of habitats but very little of it green. All land mammals have been introduced to Shetland by people. There are more than 430 bird species, of which about 70 breed in Shetland, and seven RSPB reserves – most of these managed but not owned by the RSPB.

A number of the Shetland bird species described in the talk have seen declining numbers in recent years, including great skua (bonxie), Arctic skua, Arctic tern, razorbill, kittiwake, redshank and lapwing, perhaps the fastest declining wader in Shetland.

Mr Ellis said the bird we should be most concerned about in population terms was the curlew and the RSPB was trying to create a project in Orkney and Shetland to help them before it is too late.

At Shetland’s Loch of Spiggie highlights include long-tailed duck roosting on the loch and massive wintering flocks of Scandinavian herring gull.

Shetland has had up to five pallid harriers during the autumn. During the 1960s and early 1970s there were breeding snowy owls until the adult male died. Otters are relatively easy to see in Shetland. But there are no voles – and no resident short-eared owls or hen harriers.

The islands have more than 90 per cent of the UK population of whimbrel, though they started to decline in numbers 10 years ago, and about one-third of the UK population of red-throated divers.

Mr Ellis said he was astonished the red-necked phalarope did not nest in Orkney, unlike Shetland. The RSPB works to help this extraordinary bird. The female is bigger and brighter, and does the courting, the males incubate the eggs and rear the chicks. It was assumed the Shetland population flew to the Arabian Sea in the autumn but research with small data logging devices attached to the birds has discovered they go to the Pacific Ocean.

The RSPB base in Shetland is at Sumburgh Head, where there is also a visitor centre. Mr Ellis said he had “the best office in the RSPB” with a “fantastic view” of the sea, rocks, birds and, sometimes, passing whales.

Most tourists want to see puffins and they are more accessible than in Orkney, although becoming more unpredictable. Puffins are difficult to monitor but Fair Isle has seen a 50% decline in the last 30 years.

Other birds to be seen in Shetland include the Shetland wren – there is also a Fair Isle wren – and the most common migrant on some days in the autumn can be the yellow-browed warbler which comes from East Siberia. From mid-September to mid-October Shetland can have 300 birders at a time looking for migrants.

To find out more

RSPB – http://www.rspb.org.uk/

RSPB Orkney Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RSPBShetland

RSPB Shetland Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RspbOrkney/

 

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

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