Shetland Islands – Birds

The one thing you can’t fail to notice on the Shetland Islands is the teeming bird life. Over one million birds of 70 different species breed on the islands, many of which are of national and international significance. As well as breeding birds, Shetland is also of great importance for migrating birds with over 430 different species having been recorded! With so many birds, and a human population of only 20,000, Shetland is a special place where birds are predominantly left undisturbed.

During our one week stay on the islands, we spotted 42 different species.

Some of my favourites:

Puffins. Wow! Prior to visiting the Shetland Islands I had never seen one of these enchanting little birds before. We saw hundreds of them at both extremes of the islands, on the Hermaness Nature Reserve on Unst at the northern tip and at Sumburgh Head at the southern tip.


They are such characters and not shy at all!  Their brightly-coloured bills, red and black eye-markings, bumpy landings and waddling walk give them a comical appearance. On a number of occasions we sat watching them flying in and out of their burrows.

Great Skuas. Known as bonxies on Shetland these birds share many characters with terrestrial birds of prey. They are often referred to as the pirates of the air as they harass birds to steal food and kill smaller birds – as I found out when I stumbled across one of them eating a puffin! I also had a close encounter when I was swooped upon by one after walking too close to a nest. They are spectacular in flight, gliding through the air with their distinctive dark wings with white flashes visible from a distance.

Great Skua

Red-throated Divers. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these in their summer plumage during my time in Shetland and I was not only rewarded with a sighting but had the experience of hearing them let out their billowing call while on the Island of Mousa. Amazing!

Red-throated Divers

Common Crane. Another striking bird which we saw on the mainland of Shetland. The common crane is one of the biggest birds in Europe and despite its name, is a particularly rare migrant in the UK. Never thought I would see one in the wild!

Common Crane

Snipe display flight. When exploring the Island of Mousa we stumbled across a weird drumming sound that nearly sent us mad! When we first heard the noise we thought it was coming from the vegetation around us but when the sound kept changing location and scattering us in different directions in search of the culprit, we eventually realised that the noise was in fact coming from high up in the sky. We later found out that the noise was from a snipe and was part of its display flight to attract a mate. The distinctive ‘drumming’ sound, a throbbing, bleating ‘huhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhu…’ is produced by air vibrating through its spread outer tail-feathers in intermittent short, steep dives during a wide circling flight. I managed to get a video of the display before realising what on earth it was and you can just make out the sound towards the end…

Wrens and Starlings. It was interesting to find out that both species in Shetland are actually endemic to the islands – the Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus) and Starling (Sturnus vulgaris zetlandicus) being sub-species found nowhere else in the world.

Shetland wrens are slightly larger and darker than the wrens found in the rest of Britain and mainland Europe. They also have louder and more varied songs, which are thought to be an adaptation to help males get heard on boulder beaches, one of their favoured habitats in Shetland.

Shetland Wren

The Shetland Starling is only very slightly different to the common starling found in the rest of Britain and mainland Europe in that it has a slightly larger bill and the juveniles are usually very dark.

Shetland Starling

One thought on “Shetland Islands – Birds”

  1. You’ve got some great photographs here, and I love the one of the gull on your sunroof! And some species list too… redstart, twite, wheatear, (un)common crane etc. I had no idea the Shetlands had their own subspecies of starling. Awesome.


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