Shetland Guide Book
Migrants - A Twitcher's Paradise

MIGRANTS Many species of birds have evolved life cycles whereby they travel north to breed, taking advantage of the brief but bounteous Summer to feed their young, and then return south to winter in Britain, Europe or Africa. The Northern Isles lie in the normal track of migrants returning south from Greenland, Iceland, Spitzbergen and Scandinavia. Additionally many species breeding further east (or west) may, because of adverse weather systems, unusual wind directions or fog end up further west (or east) than their normal routes.

Fair Isle, with its Bird Observatory, is a Mecca for bird watchers, and is a prime location for those wishing to observe migrants. To date 359 species have been recorded there, of which only about 45 are regular or occasional breeders. Shetland as a whole is a stepping stone for migrants, and rare or unexpected species may turn up almost anywhere. The eastern outlying islands and the southern part of the Mainland are however the “hotspots” normally.

The Spring migration begins in March with the return of waders and a few passerines and about the start of April the breeding seabird species are returning. Spring takes a while to appear in Shetland, and April is normally still quite cold, and it is not until May that the main passage of common migrants, as well as falls of unusual numbers of regular species, or appearances of vagrants. The weather is the governing factor, and its unpredictable nature only adds to the excitement and anticipation for keen birders.

Waders start to pass through by the end of July, and through August migrants steadily increase, reaching a peak by the end of the month. It is however September that is the peak month for rarities as well as several uncommon, but regular visitors. Depending on the weather, early October can also be a very good time for birders.

WINTER VISITORS Although only a few species spend the Winter in Shetland, they are in themselves interesting. Goldeneye, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal and Whooper Swans frequent the lochs, while Eider, Slavonian Grebe, Great Northern Diver, Red-breasted Meganser, Goosander, Common Scoter, Scaup and Long-tailed Duck are seen in the voes and bays. Waders including Turnstone, Redshank, Purple Sandpiper, Curlew, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Ringed Plover frequent tidal areas, especially at the heads of voes sheltered shallow bays.

Interestingly only a few Oystercatchers overwinter in Shetland. Small numbers of Long-eared Owls regularly overwinter, while Glaucous and Iceland Gull,Little Auk and Snow Bunting are are also often seen. Arctic species like King Eider, White-billed Diver, Gyrfalcon, Ross’s, Ivory and Ring-billed Gulls also may be seen occasionally. Thus Shetland has something for the birder during almost every month of the year. Whether rare vagrants in migration times, breeding seabirds in Summer, or wintering Arctic breeders there is always something to see.

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