Shetland Islands

Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus ©Hugh Harrop Website
Birding Shetland

Shetland is a sub arctic archipelago that lies northeast of the island of Great Britain and forms part of Scotland in the United Kingdom. The islands lie some 50 miles to the northeast of Orkney and 170 miles southeast of the Faeroe Islands. They form part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. The total area is 566 square miles. The largest island, known as the ‘Mainland’, has an area of 373 square miles, making it the third-largest Scottish island and the fifth-largest of the British Isles. There are an additional 15 inhabited islands. The archipelago has an oceanic climate, a complex geology, a rugged coastline and many low, rolling hills.

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 at 60° North, 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 early May and mid 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 offshore ‘holms’ and small islands host Britain’s smallest seabird, the Storm Petrel, which to avoid predation, comes ashore only at night. A night-time 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 a few localities in Shetland.

The vast, expansive rolling moors 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 here and rare breeding waders such as Whimbrel, Golden Plover, Dunlin and small numbers of Greenshank also breed, 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 and Red-breasted Merganser. The smaller lochs host the alluring Red-throated Diver in nationally important numbers and their tributary streams attract small numbers of breeding Common Sandpipers.

Wheatears, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks nest amongst the heather, as does the introduced Red Grouse and the grey-and black Hooded Crow. One of Britain’s rarest breeding waders – Red-necked Phalarope breeds along the fringes of small, well vegetated lochans and ‘mires’. Fetlar is perhaps the best-known site for this species.

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 sometimes produces large falls of common migrants and amongst them you may find Bluethroat, Wryneck, Golden Oriole, Icterine and Marsh Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Common Rosefinch.

Rarities occurring in spring with a degree of regularity include Short-toed Lark, Thrush Nightingale, Red-throated Pipit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Subalpine Warbler and both Rustic and Little Buntings. Extreme rarities like Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Needle-tailed Swift, Green Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak have been recorded.

Autumn migration starts in early 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. Shorebird 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 common migrants, regular drifters include Pallid Harrier, Olive-backed and Pechora Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Siberian Stonechat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Lanceolated, Blyth’s Reed, Arctic, Greenish, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers and Arctic Redpoll.

Extreme rarities are also annual and have included Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Siberian Accentor, Siberian Thrush, Black-billed Cuckoo, Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat, Rufous-tailed Robin, Magnolia Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-faced and Chestnut-eared Buntings and White-crowned Sparrow.

The short winter days are not without compensation. Arctic breeding species like Long-tailed Ducks, Purple Sandpipers, Whooper Swans and Great Northern Diver 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.
County Recorder
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 431

    (Including Fair Isle)
Useful Reading

  • Discover Shetland's Birds

    | (A Photographic Guide to Shetland's Breeding, Wintering and Migrant Birds) | by Paul Harvey & Rebecca Nason | The Shetland Amenity Trust | 2016 | Paperback | 205 pages, 451 colour photos, 2 b/w illustrations, 1 colour map | ISBN: 9780957203198 Buy this book from
  • The Birds of Shetland

    | By Mike Pennington, Kevin Osborn, Paul Harvey, Roger Riddington, Dave Okill, Pete Ellis & Martin Heubeck | Christopher Helm | 2004 | Hardback | 576 pages, Col photos, line illustrations, figs, maps | ISBN: 9780713660388 Buy this book from
  • The Ornithologists Guide to the Islands of Orkney and Shetland

    | By Robert Dunn | Peregrine Press | 2007 | Hardback | 170 pages, Illustrations, maps | #174913 | ISBN: Buy this book from
  • Where to Watch Birds in Scotland

    | By Mike Madders & Julia Welstead | Christopher Helm | 2002 | Paperback | 297 pages, b/w illustrations, maps | ISBN: 9780713656930 Buy this book from
  • Where to Watch Birds in Shetland

    | By Hugh Harrop | Hugh Harrop | 2000 | Paperback | 62 pages, Line illustrations, maps | ISBN: 9780952405023 Buy this book from
  • Fair Isle Bird Observatory

    Observatory WebsiteSatellite 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. Fair Isle Bird Observatory, Fair Isle, Shetland ZE2 01595 760 258
  • RSPB Shetland

    Facebook Page
    Do you love our Shetland nature reserves? Share your thoughts with the community. Or if you're thinking about visiting and would like to find out more, ask away!
  • Scottish Ornithologists' Club

    The Scottish Ornithologists' Club (SOC) was established by a group of Scottish ornithologists who met together in the rooms of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh on 24th March 1936. SOC brings together like-minded individuals with a passion for birds, nature and conservation through a programme of talks, outings, conferences and via the Club’s quarterly journal, Scottish Birds.
  • Shetland Bird Club

    Founded in 1973, Shetland Bird Club has now been in existence for 40 years. The club was set up in order to promote, study, conserve and record the bird life of the Shetland Islands and each year it publishes the Shetland Bird Report.

Abbreviations Key

  • RSPB Fetlar

    WebpageSatellite 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…
  • RSPB Loch of Spiggie

    WebpageSatellite View
    The Lochs of Spiggie and Brow are located west of Boddam and are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Area (SPA) for wildlife conservation. In autumn and winter the lochs attract large numbers of whooper swans, teal and wigeon, while in spring and summer arctic terns, great skuas, tufted ducks and mallards can be seen on the loch, and a variety of waders can be found on the marshes.
  • RSPB Mousa

    WebpageSatellite View
    Mousa is a small, wild island in Shetland, uninhabited since the nineteenth century. It is notable for having one of the UK’s largest storm petrel breeding colonies, many of which nest in the Broch of Mousa, a 2000-year-old Iron Age round tower.
  • RSPB Sumburgh Head

    WebpageSatellite 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…
Forums & Mailing Lists
  • Nature in Shetland

    Sightings & News
    Nature in Shetland is run by Shetland Bird Club. Records submitted to the site are used to compile the annual Shetland Bird Report.
Guides & Tour Operators
  • 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 to see Fatbirder’s Trip Report Repository…

  • 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 [06 June] - Christopher Hall

    First stop is Sumburgh Head with plenty of Guillemots, many with white spectacles, alongside Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Shags, Arctic Terns and Puffins, while Great Skuas patrol ominously overhead. We also see Wheatear, Rock Pipit, Hooded Crow and a flyover Twite.
  • 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....
  • 2018 [05 May] - David & Amanda Mason

    The Shetland Islands have been on our “to do” list for over 30 years now, but the long journey, cost of getting there and cost of accommodation had previously lost out to cheap, quick flights to destinations like Portugal with their plentiful accommodation options. The weather was also a major consideration. This year we finally decided to grab the bull by the horns and even the weather was quite accommodating...
Places to Stay

Click on WAND to see Fatbirder’s Trip Report Repository…

  • 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
Other Links
  • Nature in Shetland

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

    Facebook Page
    This is the official national Facebook page for the RSPB Shetland.
  • 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.
  • Hugh Harrop - Shetland Wildlife

    Photo-blog from this full time professional naturalist, author, photographer & widlife guide…
  • Steve Minton - Shetland Misfit

    Steve Minton's photblog of Shetland birds and his life and times…
  • Tommy H Hyndman - Fair Isle

    This is a personal collection of random memories old and new associated with my "wild life" on Fair Isle one of the Shetland Islands part of Scotland and the most remote inhabited island in the UK. population 60 people, 1200 sheep, 20,000 puffins and a few rare birds. 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…

Fatbirder - linking birders worldwide... Wildlife Travellers see our sister site: WAND

Skip to content