Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland

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 Orkney Facebook –

RSPB Shetland Facebook –


North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory

Here in Orkney we are fortunate to have a comprehensive, quality weekly newspaper – unlike many places in the UK. It is The Orcadian, published every Thursday, and required reading if you live here.

This week The Orcadian published, on 10 April 2014, a short article I had written reporting the RSPB Orkney Local Group spring meeting, a talk by Alison Duncan about the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.

North Ronaldsay is the most northerly of the Orkney islands, and I urge you to visit if you get the chance.

Bluethroat at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (photo: Kevin Woodbridge)
Bluethroat at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (photo: Kevin Woodbridge)

Here is my article:

The vital work of North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in monitoring and recording bird movement was the subject of the Spring Meeting of the RSPB Orkney Local Group.

Introducing the event at the St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall, Local Group Chairman Dick Matson described the observatory as a “fantastic resource”.

He welcomed Alison Duncan, Warden at the observatory for more than 25 years, who took the audience through a wonderful, colourful and sometimes surprising year in the island’s birdlife. Typically, 200 species are recorded in a year.

North Ronaldsay is one of a network of observatories around the UK, and is also part of The Bird Observatories Council.

The island, four miles long and up to two miles wide, attracts many migrating birds looking to make landfall for rest and food.

Alison described how the observatory, established in 1987, counts all birds over the whole island, not just rarities, to build up a picture of long-term monitoring. The island is divided into six zones in order to collect data.

Birds are also caught in traps and nets to allow for ringing and further research.

North Ronaldsay’s habitat includes croft land, grassland and scattered homes with small gardens, each with one or two bushes which prove attractive to birds, and the laird’s house with its large garden which is a magnet for them.

Wild flower crop is planted to encourage birds – it is particularly good for twite – and other cover such as New Zealand flax is grown. Willow cuttings and even old wooden pallets are used to create more shelter.

There are several areas of wetland on North Ronaldsay which is great for wildfowl such as shoveler, pintail and gadwall.

The geese population is increasing, like elsewhere in Orkney. But Arctic terns, once one of the most common breeding birds on the island, are now in decline as are corncrakes. 

Another problem is feral cats which predate tystie (black guillemot) chicks.

The observatory also looks out for other wildlife including moths and butterflies, and sea life such as grey and common seals or basking sharks. Orcas are sometimes seen in large groups and, famously, a walrus visited the island in 2013.

Among the birds which might be seen on North Ronaldsay at different times of the year are white-tailed eagle, great tit, hawfinch, sparrowhawk, bluethroat, golden oriole, red-backed shrike, spoonbill, cuckoo, pied flycatcher, Arctic warbler, nightjar, yellow-browed warbler, lesser kestrel, great spotted woodpecker (which often work on fence posts), grey phalarope, firecrest, Iceland gull and, just recently, a glossy ibis.

Alison said everyone from bird experts to beginners comes to North Ronaldsay where they can take advantage of the accommodation provided at the observatory – guest house, hostel and camping. Many visitors come to see the North Ronaldsay sheep grazing on the seaweed on the foreshore.

At the end of the meeting a vote of thanks to Alison Duncan was proposed by Jim Williams.

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory publishes its own bird report, and has a blog and Facebook and Twitter presence. For more information, go to the website:

+ The meeting was also told by RSPB Local Group Chairman Dick Matson that £460 had recently been donated to the work of the RSPB in Orkney. This money, from collections and raffles, was in addition to £1672.33 that the Local Group raised bag collecting last year at Tesco and Co-op in Kirkwall.

To find out more

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory

Wikipedia: North Ronaldsay

The Bird Observatories Council

The Orcadian

Discover Orkney

A rubbish blog

Graham and Roscoe take a break on the Brough of Birsay
Graham and Roscoe take a break on the Brough of Birsay

Yes, this will be a rubbish blog. Or, more precisely, a blog about rubbish. Oh no, you groan, what’s the boring old fart moaning about now?

Well, I think we live in a beautiful world. Yes, many awful things happen but I believe there is great beauty in us and around us and that we should treasure it.

Here in Orkney we are particularly lucky – great scenery and open views, lots of wildlife, some of it endangered, big skies, surrounded by sea. But not everyone seems to appreciate this.

In the past year or so since our dog Roscoe came to live with us I’ve been out walking more, often along repeated routes, and I’ve noticed some strange phenomena.

Last winter I was regularly finding – at least once a week – Lambert & Butler cigarette packets thrown into the verge of the road near us. I should point out other brands are available but frankly you are best to avoid cigarettes altogether.

Clearly someone who smoked this brand was regularly driving through Quoyloo and throwing out their empty packets. Recently I haven’t seen any, this could be for a number of reasons: (1) the person has become tidier; (2) the person has become healthier and given up; (3) the person has become dead because of smoking; (4) the person has moved or changed their regular route; or (5) the packets are hidden in the long summer grass.

But fear not – an even stranger smoker’s habit has emerged recently, involving cigarette stubs. Instead of putting them in a bin, or even on the road where they would disintegrate quite quickly, someone is collecting four or five of their stubs at a time, carefully putting them in a small plastic bag, tying the top, and then throwing that into the verge. I’ve found several of these bags.

Not only is all this rubbish unsightly it is potentially harmful to wildlife and to pets.

Yesterday Roscoe picked up and swallowed – as dogs do, just before I could stop him – something that looked a bit like a toffee with a small stick poking out of either side. Then nearby I found the empty plastic packet – Co-operative mini-chicken satay pieces. Oh great, so Roscoe had eaten a stick.

Fortunately it didn’t do any great harm – like getting stuck in his throat – and he was fine until his afternoon walk when he slowed down, then sat down, and then threw up the stick and the remains of his chicken satay.

All this rubbish also harms the environment by wasting resources. We regularly come home from our walks with plastic bottles or drink cans which, again, have been thrown out of car windows, but which are easily recyclable.

I don’t understand the mentality. Do some people in cars think they are in a world of their own? Do they not care about the lovely land they live in or are visiting?

Go to the beach and sadly you can find a whole load more rubbish, much of it plastic washed up from who knows where. This is extremely harmful to birds and other creatures which can easily ingest the pieces or become ensnared.

There is a super local campaign here in Orkney called Pick Up 3 Pieces which encourages everyone visiting the local beaches to pick up three pieces of someone else’s litter.

And every year Orkney holds a Bag the Bruck weekend when local groups and communities go out in large numbers to clear beaches of rubbish. For those who don’t live in Orkney I should explain that bruck means rubbish.

The weekend is organised by Environmental Concern Orkney with support from Orkney Islands Council. It’s a great initiative and great fun – the community refreshments at the Quoyloo event at the Bay of Skaill are particularly good.

So we see many people do care for the environment – their environment – I just wish a few more would do so.

Please join me in taking your rubbish home with you, recycling what you can, and in picking up the rubbish left by others. Thank you. Grumble over.

To find out more

Pick Up 3 Pieces:

Bag the Bruck:

The Orcadian on Bag the Bruck: