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Shetland Islands

Wilson's Phalarope Phalaropus tricolor ©Mike Pennington

Shetland boasts spectacular seabird colonies that few places could even begin to rival. Nurturing an array of exciting arctic species breeding on the southern limit of their range and sojourned by scores of common and rare migrants annually, it is hardly surprising that the archipelago of Shetland is internationally esteemed for its bird life.

Several factors contribute to Shetland's ornithological richness being one of both quality and quantity. Being situated as near to Bergen in Norway as to Aberdeen in Scotland, and positioned on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland has meant that the islands have been included in the breeding range of many Scandinavian and Arctic birds. The seas that surround the islands are extremely rich fishing grounds and thus attract thousands of seabirds to breed during the summer months. Furthermore, Shetland's isolated position acts as an important crossroads for migratory species which visit the islands in order to fuel up before continuing their fascinating seasonal sallies.

Perhaps the most important group of birds breeding in Shetland are the seabirds. As their name suggests, these birds spend most of their lives at sea and come ashore for just one reason - to breed. It would be hard to find a cliff without a seabird colony in Shetland, but there are several outstanding locations. These include the two national nature reserves at Noss and Hermaness, Sumburgh Head, the west cliffs of Foula and Shetland's most southerly island, Fair Isle. A visit to one of these seabird cities between May and August is guaranteed to leave you in awe - it is an experience not be missed.

More species of seabird breed in Shetland than anywhere else in Britain. No less than twenty-one of the twenty four true British seabirds regularly breed here, each and every one of them occupying a special niche in their coastal domain. Puffins nest in deep burrows beneath the soft grassy slopes, while Shetland's commonest seabird, the Fulmar, prefers to frequent the precariously balanced grassy overhangs. The inaccessible rock ledges support multitudes of nesting Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets, Shags and Kittiwakes and the seemingly uninhabitable boulder beaches are home to Black Guillemots. The cliffs also provide territory for a few land birds: Ravens nest on the large ledges, Rock Pipits amongst the boulders alongside the dark plumaged Shetland Wren while Twite find sanctuary just under the cliff-brows.

The short grassy peninsulas and scores of offshore pink carpeted sea-thrift holms are the summer abodes to the world's most famous long distance migrant, the Arctic Tern, as well as a number of waders including Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers. Herring, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black backed Gulls also find safe haven in this type of habitat, as do Eiders. A few holms support Manx Shearwaters as well as substantial numbers of Britain's smallest seabird, the Storm Petrel, which to avoid predation, comes ashore only at night. A nighttime visit to the island of Mousa is the best place to see this minuscule bird - they are so common here that hundreds of birds even nest in the Broch and in the stone dykes! Leach's Petrel also breed at two localities in Shetland.

The vast, expansive rolling moor lands are also full of ornithological richness. Indeed, in this type of habitat, the birdwatcher could be easily be forgiven for thinking that the bird life here is more akin to that of the Arctic! Arctic Skua and the Great Skua (Bonxies) can be found in these environs - in fact, Shetland has 61% and 76% respectively of the British population of these species. Rare breeding waders such as Whimbrel, Golden Plover, Dunlin and Greenshank also breed here, as does Europe's smallest falcon, the Merlin. The damper margins and peat bogs are home to Common Gulls, Snipe, Redshank and Lapwings, while the many freshwater lochs are dwellings to many ducks like Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler, Red-breasted Merganser and a few pairs of Common Scoter. The smaller lochshost the alluring Red-throated Diver, and their tributary streams attract small numbers of breeding Common Sandpipers.

One of Britain's rarest breeding waders, the Red-necked Phalarope breeds along the fringes of small, well vegetated lochans on the island of Fetlar, which, in 1967, hit the world's ornithological headlines in hosting Britain's first ever breeding Snowy Owls. Although breeding would now seem to be a thing of the past, odd birds are sometimes recorded on Fetlar, south Unst or Ronas Hill. Wheatears, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks nest amongst the heather, as does the introduced Red Grouse and the grey-and black northern equivalent of the mainland crow, the Hooded Crow.

Out with the summer breeding season, Shetland's avifauna changes dramatically. During the spring and autumn, thousands of migrants pass through the isles in an immense variety of different guises. Spring migration gets underway during the latter part of March and spans until the middle of June. The last two weeks of May and the first week of June is the optimum period to visit Shetland for migrants, but like anywhere else, weather conditions dictate their arrival. High pressure over the near continent combined with easterly airflow often produces large falls of common migrants and amongst them may find Bluethroat, Wryneck, Golden Oriole, Icterine and Marsh Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Common Rosefinch and Ortolan Bunting. Rarities occurring in spring with a degree of regularity include Short-toed Lark, Thrush Nightingale, Subalpine Warbler and both Rustic and Little Buntings while extreme rarities like Pallas's Sandgrouse, Needle-tailed Swift and Pine Grosbeak have been recorded recently.

Autumn migration starts in the middle of July and spans until early November. Like spring, arrivals of migrants are dictated by the weather and given suitable conditions, huge falls can occur. Wader migration spans from early July until early October, after which large numbers of Whooper Swans, Ducks and Geese pass through the isles and sea watching can be productive given strong winds. Small numbers of raptors and both Long-eared and Short-eared Owls also pass through, usually ahead of a fall. Autumn is perhaps the best time for rarity enthusiasts and amongst the masses of common migrants, regular drifters include Richard's, Olive-backed and Red-throated Pipit, Arctic, Greenish, Barred and Yellow-browed Warblers and Little and Rustic Buntings while Shetland specialities like Lanceolated Warbler, Pechora Pipit, Great Snipe, Citrine Wagtail and Yellow-breasted Bunting are just about annual, especially on Fair Isle. Extreme rarities are also annual and have included Pallid Harrier, Great Knot, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, White's Thrush and both Yellow and Ruppells Warbler in recent years.

The short winter days are not without compensation. Arctic breeding species like Long-tailed Ducks, Purple Sandpipers, Whooper Swans, Great Northern Diver, Little Auks and Snow Buntings are all numerous. Good numbers of Slavonian Grebes winter in the west and central mainland voes and both Glaucous and Iceland Gull appear in respectable numbers. The winter months are not without their rarity value either. White-billed Divers and King Eiders are recorded almost annually while other rarities like Gyrfalcon and Ivory and Ross's Gulls have put in appearances on a number of occasions.

Top Sites

Hermaness, Unst

Satellite View

If short of time take the path to the west coast to Toolie. From here you can see the gannet covered stacks to the north and the Lighthouse on Muckle Flugga, but when you finally get to the coast, it is uphill all the way, turn south to the start of the gannetries, a distance of about a kilometre. Here you can get very close to the gannets a few meters below the cliff edge, the air is filled with the birds and it is truly breathtaking.

Loch Funzie, Fetlar

Satellite View

I had heard that you could watch phalaropes from your car but I didn't really believe it - alighting at the lochside small waders flew about us, yards away, then settled on the water at our feet. Don't take a long lens they're too close to focus!

Loch of Tingwall, Mainland

Satellite View

A pair of swans with 6 cygnets. This summer a pair of Whooper Swans bred in Shetland, this doesn't get much mention which I find strange as the Snowy Owls which bred more than 30 years ago is always in print. We saw on one occasion an adult swan fly directly to their historic nesting site to confront sheep that had ill-advisedly, approached swan territory. The sheep were evicted forthwith. Meadows with orchids, cinquefoils, marigolds, buttercups and flag abound. Wheatears, Arctic terns, Ringed Plovers & Oystercatcher are everywhere; Whimbrel are frequent too. Skylarks heard all day long.


Peter Turner

Top Sites 2004


Hugh Harrop & Michelle Harrop

Shetland Wildlife Holidays



County Recorder

Fair Isle - David Parnaby

Bird Observatory, Fair Isle, Shetland ZE2 9JU



Rob Fray

Sunnydell, Virkie, Shetland ZE3 9JS

01950 461929


Number of Species

Number of bird species: 431

(Including Fair Isle)

Useful Reading

The Birds of Shetland

by Mike Pennington, Kevin Osborn, Paul Harvey, Roger Riddington, Dave Okill, Pete Ellis & Martin Heubeck - A&C Black May 2004
See Fatbirder Review

ISBN: 0713660384

Buy this book from NHBS.com

Where to Watch Birds in Scotland

Mike Madders, Julia Welstead Paperback - 332 pages (2002) Christopher Helm

ISBN: 071365693X

Buy this book from NHBS.com

Guides & Tour Operators

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…

Shetland Nature

Tour Operator

Imagine yourself; thrilling at the spectacle of Killer Whales hunting seals, in a boiling swell below towering cliffs… enthralled as you track a family of wild otters as they go about their daily business along a beautiful and remote stretch of coastline… and then later that day marvelling at the intensity of life in one of our bustling seabird colonies… with ‘Shetland Nature’ a dream like this can become a reality.t…

Shetland Wildlife Holidays

Tour Operator

What originally started as a series of daily wildlife adventures in the summer of 1992 has since become one of the most respected eco-tourism businesses in Scotland!

Trip Reports

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…


Trip Report Repository

CloudBirders was created by a group of Belgian world birding enthusiasts and went live on 21st of March 2013. They provide a large and growing database of birding trip reports, complemented with extensive search, voting and statistical features.

2010 [10 October] - Philip Andrews


…Long renowned for their special breeding birds (particularly sea birds), including Red-necked Phalarope, Leach’s Petrel and Snowy Owl in the 1970s, increased coverage has resulted in a notable passage of rarities in both autumn and spring…

2011 [10 October] - Philip Andrews


Lying 80 miles north of John O’Groats, the Shetland Islands are a magical place, far divorced from mainstream life. The fact that they are located closer to Bergen in Norway than Edinburgh, to the Arctic Circle than London or are on the same latitude (60º North) as the southern tip of Greenland emphasises their isolation. The archipelago is made of 117 islands of which 13 are inhabited….

2015 [06 June] - Christopher Hall


...Next stop is the Unst Heritage Centre and then the Herma Ness National Nature Reserve, where we find a congregation of at least 150 Great Skuas bathing in the Loch of Cliff, and a couple of Twite feeding next to the car park. From here it is a walk of about an hour through ‘Bonxie Land’, enjoying close views of Dunlin along the boardwalk, to spectacular cliffs, stacks and arches, white with Gannets in their tens of thousands (around 27,000 pairs), a sight with a high ‘wow factor’.

2015 [06 June] - Christopher Hall


...Fetlar is home to most of the British population of Red-necked Phalaropes, and although the Loch of Funzie is the place to see them there is no sign of any when we arrive, so we have to make do with close views of Snipe, Redshank and Dunlin as well as a family of Wheatears with five recently fledged downy chicks and a Red-throated Diver, with a visibly red throat! After lunch by the loch and a stroll to nearby Funzie Bay, with a flock of ‘real’ Rock Doves, it is looking like we may miss the target bird, when suddenly two drop in to the nearest corner of the loch to show off in the scope, just in the nick of time, before catching the return ferry to Unst.

2016 [10 October] - Ed Stubbs

PDF Report

... If you are prepared to put in the effort, you will be rewarded with wonderful self-finds – Taiga Flycatcher, Olive-backed & Richard’s Pipits, Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat and multiple Yellow-browed Warblers to name just a few of ours. I will definitely be back one day....

Places to Stay

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…

Herrislea House Hotel


Herrislea House Hotel is a modern four-star hotel a mere seven minutes drive from both Shetland's capital town, Lerwick and its ancient capital, Scalloway. Situated in the middle of Shetland at the north-easterly end of the Tingwall Valley, the recently refurbished hotel offers a relaxing and friendly atmosphere in a pleasant, mainly agricultural area…


Shetland Bird Club


Shetland Bird Club was founded in 1973 to promote, study, conserve and record the bird life of Shetland. Since then the club has published an annual report every year (the Shetland Bird Report) and participated in numerous ornithological enquiries. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in the bird life of Shetland. Both beginners and experts are equally welcomed, and everyone has an opportunity to contribute to our knowledge of Shetland birds…


Fair Isle Bird Observatory


Satellite View

The isle is a world renowned site for the observation of migrant birds. The Fair Isle bird Observatory, established in 1948, forms part of a chain of observatories around the coast of Britain and throughout Europe. The lodge and bird observatory are open to visitors from late April to the end of October.
Warden: David Parnaby, Fair Isle Obs, Fair Isle, Shetland ZE2 9JU. 01595 760258 fairisle.birdobs@zetnet.co.uk


Fetlar RSPB


Satellite View

During the summer, a wealth of birds breed on the reserve, including 90% of the British population of red-necked phalaropes. These fascinating wading birds can be seen from the RSPB hide or at the Loch of Funzie. Red-throated divers, whimbrels and arctic and great skuas also breed on the island…

Loch of Spiggie RSPB


Satellite View

In the summer, arctic terns, arctic and great skuas and kittiwakes can be seen bathing in the loch…

Mousa RSPB


Satellite View

…where many of the island's 6,000 pairs of storm petrels nest…

Sumburgh Head RSPB


Satellite View

The cliffs around Sumburgh Head attract thousands of breeding seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, shags and fulmars. Gannets are regularly seen off-shore and sometimes whales and dolphins…


A Tale of 2 Halves


Tales of travel and birds from Cheshire to Shetland and back, with a bit of other stuff in between…

Burravoe Birding Blog


Dougie Preston - I live in a little town called Burravoe in South Yell, Shetland. Which is at the very North of Scotland. It is very beautiful up here, but it rains a lot and it's very windy. There are birds about up here, lots of them, and some quite rare too! but mostly I do a good job of avoiding them. When I do bump into them, I take lots of bad pictures, which makes everyone else's photos look even better! I have even been known to take bad sound recordings of these birds too…

Fair Isle - Tommy H Hyndman


Moved to Fair Isle in Nov. 2006 with my wife & son. Originally from Saratoga Springs, New York, USA. I'm an Artist, Hat designer, and run the Auld Haa Guesthouse. I also have reinstated the Fair Isle Lighthouse Keepers Golf Course on the croft land around the South Lighthouse where I have my Artist Studio and Gallery/Shop. A few hours every month I train as an island member of H.M. Coastguard Search & Rescue Team. There is nothing better than sharing my love of art & nature with my son…

Hugh Harrop


Photo-blog from this full time professional naturalist, author, photographer & widlife guide…

Shetland Misfit - Steve Minton


Steve Minton's photblog of Shetland birds and his life and times…

Other Links

Found on Foula


This web site is dedicated to the birds and birders that find themselves on the island of Foula…

Latest Bird Sightings and Photos


Send in your news. Full details of Fair Isle sightings are on the FIBO website. Photographs are copyright of the named photographer and may not be used for any other purpose without their permission. For details on how to submit records by e-mail check the Bird Club's Recording page. NOTE that ALL records go into the database used in the compilation of the Shetland Bird Report EVEN IF they do not appear on this page. Species in red are BBRC rarities. Species in orange are local rarities…

Nature in Shetland


A non-commercial site to collect and disseminate information on the natural history of Shetland…

Shetland Wildlife Tours


What originally started as a series of daily wildlife adventures in the summer of 1992 has since become one of the most respected eco-tourism businesses in Scotland!

The Birds of Foula


The Island of Foula is the furthest west of the Shetland Islands. Definitely not a complete list and many of the birds listed here are very rare visitors.