Shetland Guide Book
Seabirds

Shetland is justly famous for its wildlife, and especially for birds. Over 1 million seabirds comprising 21 species (excluding divers, seaducks and phalaropes) breed every summer along the coasts and on the moors and lochs of the archipelago. These spectacular colonies are uniquely accessible from land and water, especially those at Sumburgh, Noss and Hermaness. Apart from the main breeding sites listed opposite, the various ferry crossings between and to the islands often afford excellent viewing opportunities, for seabirds as well as for cetaceans and seals. In particular the trips to Mousa, Fair Isle, Skerries and Foula often yield good sightings.

The seabirds are attracted to Shetland waters to breed for the same reason that fishermen have found the area so bountiful over the centuries. The Atlantic Slope Current flows north east along the edge of the continental shelf, where its relatively warmer, more saline water mixes with the water of the continental shelf itself, causing an upwelling of nutrients and warmth. In turn this promotes the growth of phytoplankton in the long northern Summer, which in turn feed zooplankton, cetaceans, small fish, bigger fish and of course birds.

There are huge Gannet colonies at Noss and Hermaness and smaller ones on Foula and Fair Isle. The spectacular birds may be seen diving at many locations as well as close-up, especially at Noss. The comical and popular Puffin as well as other auks may also be observed at very close quarters in several places. Large numbers of the aggressive Great Skua, along with some of the more graceful Arctic Skua breed on Hermaness and Foula. Although less numerous than previously, the Arctic Tern, remains the ubiquitous sign of Summer in the islands. Along with a small number of Common Tern, these attractive birds may be seen fishing all around the coast.

Other common species include Gulls, Eiders, Shags and Cormorants, but their numbers are dwarfed by the ubiquitous Fulmar Petrel, of which about 300,000 breed on the coast and inland. Storm Petrels nest in large numbers in the stonework of Mousa Broch, while a few of the rare Leach’s Petrel nest on Foula. The “seabird cities”, a hive of activity in the breeding season, are mostly deserted once the young are fledged. Terns head for southern latitudes, while auks and petrels go offshore in search of food and safely from predators.

Seabird populations are in a continual state of fluctuation, and in recent years some species have grown in numbers and distribution (Gannet, Fulmar, Great Skua, Guillemot), while others have declined (Terns, Kittiwakes). Reasons include exploitation or persecution by man, alterations in food supply whether by over-fishing, changes in climate or ocean currents or expansion of other competing species. Many species are sensitive to man-made environmental threats such as oil pollution or discharges of harmful chemicals. Exceptionally bad weather whether in winter or during critical parts of the breeding season, or food shortages due to poor growing seasons also play a large part in these fluctuations.

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