As a birder growing up in the southwest of England in the 1980s, Shetland seemed impossibly far away. Back in those pre-internet days, it was a place that featured primarily in the odd edition of ‘British Birds’ (a worthy and rather turgid, po-faced journal) and, latterly, in the recorded messages of Birdline – a regularly updated answerphone message that served to keep keen birders informed of what rare birds had been seen around the UK. Shetland, naturally, often figured highly.
I eagerly devoured whatever morsels of Shetland news I could find – and was frankly jealous of Bill Oddie when I read his accounts of birding on the Out Skerries, way out to the east of the Shetland mainland. It sounded fabulous.
For the past 12 years I’ve woken up every morning to look out of the bedroom window to the Skerries on the far horizon. (And mainland Shetland, Yell, Fetlar and Unst – it’s a room with a view!). And at night I fall asleep with the light of the Skerries lighthouse blinking regularly in the distance. To my shame though, despite it being just an hour by ferry away, I’ve only been there once in all that time. There’s always been something else pressing to get on with at home…
But this week, with the yearning to absent myself from Shetland life ever stronger, I determined I’d head out there today. The ferry crossing was smooth and quick, and I soon found myself reminded of just how small the Skerries are – compared to Whalsay, they’re minute – and even Fair Isle dwarfs them. There’s limited cover for migrant birds, so finding them ought to be relatively straightforward.
Assuming there are any there! Today was very quiet, and I struggled to find much – by lunchtime I’d managed a handful of Chiffchaffs, and my star birds – single Spotted Flycatcher, Reed Bunting, Sedge Warbler and Black-tailed Godwit. I kept seeing the same individual birds time and again as I worked my way around and around the same beat… And then – something different…
My second Bluethroat of the spring – I found Fair Isle’s first one of the spring (and hence, I think, Shetland’s first last week) – and now here was another one feeding actively in a damp boggy area. Superb. These were once a lot commoner in spring than they are nowadays, so to find one is always a pleasure. To find two this spring on widely separated islands is terrific.
More pleasing still though was finding a stretch of coast with some really nice flowering Moss Campion Silene acaulis. I’ll be showing guests this smart species shortly on Unst – but I’ve been wanting to get a nice photo of it for a long time, and it’s proved tricky. A little scrambling on the cliffs got a pleasing angle on a clump and I have a photo I’m fairly happy with.
It’d been a fine day out, and I returned home after covering almost eight miles on this tiny archipelago. I can’t wait to come back. It won’t be so long until the next time!