Lying 93 miles north of the Scottish mainland like the pieces of an elongated picture puzzle, the Shetland Isles must rate as one of the best birdwatching areas in Britain. The archipelago of over 100 islands boasts spectacular seabird colonies, supports several arctic species breeding at the southern limit of their range and hosts an array of both common and scarce migrants.
Our visit coincides with the breeding season where magnificent seabird colonies are a hive of activity, with massive numbers of seabirds nesting along the extensive network of cliffs and offshore stacks. They include Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, Northern Gannets, European Shags and both European Storm and Leach’s Petrel. Arctic Terns seem to be everywhere, as do both Arctic and Great Skuas, which constantly harass feeding terns and Black-legged Kittiwakes for a free meal.
The moorland and wetland areas support Red-throated Divers and breeding waders such as Whimbrel, European Golden Plover and Dunlin, as well as several rare breeding species like Red-necked Phalarope and Common Greenshank. Breeding ducks include Common Eider, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon and Red-breasted Merganser.
Tour Leaders: Steve Grimwade & Local Guide
Maximum Group Size: 12
Fly from London to Aberdeen and take a flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh. We will have a late afternoon/early evening rendezvous at the Sumburgh Hotel and after our welcome dinner and orientation we take a boat to the island of Mousa. Mousa Broch dates back to the Iron Age and is the largest example of its kind in Scotland, standing at a staggering 43ft high! The broch is the summer home to hundreds of European Storm Petrels, which return ashore to their nests as darkness falls – their bat-like displays as they fly in from the ocean are a truly awesome sight. We depart Mousa just after midnight and return to Sumburgh.
During the morning we visit Sumburgh Head to view multitudes of seabirds including our first Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Common Guillemots, Black-legged Kittiwakes and European Shags. We’ll also be seeking out Shetland’s commoner passerines – Northern Wheatears, Eurasian Rock and Meadow Pipits, Eurasian Skylarks, Twite and the Shetland race of Eurasian Wren. If seas are calm enough we’ll spend time looking offshore for Minke Whales, White-beaked Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises. Then on to the peninsula of Scatness for breeding Arctic Terns and both Common and Grey Seals – and to the Loch of Hillwell and Loch of Spiggie for an excellent assortment of breeding wildfowl and waders. We end the day at Dalsetter, observing typical moorland-breeding species like Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel and Arctic Skua.
We spend the morning in the crystalline limestone valley of Tingwall where we hope to see our first Red-throated Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers and Britain’s only breeding Whooper Swans. Arctic Hare is also a Tingwall speciality and we hope to encounter several individuals in the upper reaches of the valley. After lunch we board our boat for an unforgettable cruise around the island of Noss for spectacular views of the famous seabird colony, often referred to as “Britain’s best bird cliff.” We will see 20,000 Northern Gannets, 40,000 Common Guillemots and 5,000 Black-legged Kittiwakes! We’ll also visit Common and Grey Seal colonies and look for Harbour Porpoises along the way.
After a good breakfast, we travel north across the island of Yell to connect with the morning ferry to the island of Fetlar. The target here will be the handsome Red-necked Phalarope, famous for its breeding role reversal. Fetlar holds over 90% of the British breeding population, although the birds stay on the island is brief – they generally arrive during the third week of May and are gone by the end of July. We should also see a wide variety of other breeding birds including Red-throated Diver, Whimbrel, European Golden Plover, Dunlin and if we’re lucky, a summering Great Northern Diver. We’ll also search the north shore of the island for Otters. Fetlar’s fertile land produces a dazzling display of wild flowers and we should find several species of Orchid. We cross Bluemull Sound late in the afternoon and arrive on Unst, Britain’s most northerly island
We have a full day to explore our favourite sites on Unst. The magnificent glacial inlet at Burrafirth will reveal inshore species like Black Guillemots, Red-throated Divers and Red-breasted Mergansers and we will also witness magnificent displays of wild flowers at the ‘hanging gardens’. The moorland nearby at Saxa Vord hosts impressive gatherings of Great Skuas and we should also find Whimbrel, European Golden Plovers and lots of Northern Wheatears.
We’ll also visit Britain’s most northerly settlement at Skaw and search the lush flower-rich meadows of Norwick for breeding Common Redshank, Common Snipe and Eurasian Curlew. Otters and seals will be our prime targets along with handsome brick-red Black-tailed Godwits. Only a handful of Black-tailed Godwits breed in Shetland and they belong to the race islandica, which is more widely distributed in the Faeroes and Iceland. We should also encounter Dunlin on breeding territory giving their trilling display song.
After dinner we visit a small marsh and listen for one of Britain’s rarest breeders – Spotted Crake. Our chances of seeing this Starling-sized skulker are probably nil but we should hopefully hear its weird, whip-whistling song.
We spend the morning walking on Hermaness National Nature Reserve. A walk on this reserve is essential to appreciate just why Hermaness is one of Europe’s most important wildlife sites. The moorland is home to 800 pairs of Great Skuas – the second largest ‘Bonxie’ colony in the world – and the cliffs house 50,000 Atlantic Puffins, 40,000 Common Guillemots, 28,000 Northern Fulmars and over 20,000 Northern Gannets! The cacophony of bird cries and the smell of guano make this an overwhelming wildlife experience! Amidst the tapestry of Heather, Crowberry, Bog Bilberry and Bog Cotton we’ll search for the carnivorous Sundew and Butterwort.
In the afternoon we visit the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve. Hiking on this barren serpentine fell-field has been likened to walking on the Moon, but as we explore this unique habitat, a diverse eco-system appears. The reserve is home to an array of rare wild flowers, including Arctic Sandwort, Frog Orchid and Shetland Mouse-Ear Chickweed – found here but nowhere else in the world! Late in the afternoon we will island-hop south and overnight at the Sumburgh Hotel.
Our day will be spent in the north Mainland – a beautiful region composed mainly of red granite and diorite. We will spend the morning at one of our favourite patches of moorland, looking for the elusive Arctic Hare along with Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse) and an array of breeding waders such as Dunlin, Common Snipe and Eurasian Curlew. Continuing north towards the picturesque village of Hillswick, we make a stop to find the rare and declining Oysterplant. We lunch at the awe-inspiring Eshaness Cliffs, where caves, crags and rocky ‘geos’ form some of Shetland’s most dramatic and iconic scenery. On our return to the lighthouse we will keep an eye offshore for plunge-diving Northern Gannets and Terns, and with luck we may spot whales and dolphins. In the late afternoon we head back south to Sumburgh for our farewell dinner.
After breakfast we head to Sumburgh airport to begin our journey back to London.
Flights from London to Sumburgh via Aberdeen
Full board accommodation for 7 nights
All ground transport on Shetland
Full guiding throughout
Drinks and items of a personal nature
Lunch on day 1
Relaxed, two to three miles walking per day
Expect between 80 and 120 species
Ground Price: £1750
*Air Price: £300
Total Tour Price: £2050
Single Supplement: £200
*Please see our tours page regarding flight costs