Friday, 3 December 2010

A Round-up of Killer Whale Sightings involving Shetland in 2010

by Andy Foote, Brydon Thomason and Suzanne Beck

Even as this year draws to a close there have been Killer Whale sightings around Shetland. So it seems like a good time to look back at the comings and goings of our Killer Whales during 2010.

The first whales showed up in late March (23rd) in Yell Sound, which is consistent with the past few years. We got a chance to photograph them from the Yell Sound ferry, but the sun was working against us and the images were backlit and we couldn’t really positively ID any of the whales. One of the female-sized fin silhouettes however had two distinctive notches in the trailing edge, which looked very much like the female with ID number 12. But other individuals had silhouettes that did not match any of the fins in our photo-id catalogue, and so it seems like we had some new whales!

The new individuals appeared to stick around for a couple of weeks as the fin shapes match with those seen hunting in Scalloway harbour only days later on the 28th March and with 2 males photographed in Yell Sound on the 8th April.

May was a quiet month around Shetland, and all the action was further south. The group of four (27, 34, 72 & 73) that are regularly seen around Shetland showed up in Scapa Flow in Orkney (6th May) and they had a new calf! It appears as though 27 is it’s mum as it stayed closest to her in all the photos we were sent. The photo (above) of this pod was taken on Bluemull Sound on 15/03/08.

We got to follow this group's travels through a series of great photos provided by the public. On the 13th May they were seen off Durness in Sutherland, but they headed east again and were photographed on the 20th off Whaligoe steps, Ulbster, Caithness. They didn’t show up again until 23rd August when they were photographed off the Faeroes feeding on eiders and doing some hunting training with the youngsters, and even hit the headlines by making it on to the Faeroese evening news.

12 and her group were also sighted regularly in May, being photographed between Shapinsay and Kirkwall in Orkney on the 9th May, and then Duncansby Head, Caithness on 16th. They were back up to Orkney where they took a marine mammal in Eynhallow Sound on the 25th May, before heading south again, being seen back off Caithness on the 28th May. Then they headed west and were last positively identified off St Kilda on 12th June. They may have also paid a fleeting visit to Shetland as a group that looked like them were photographed on 8th July off Bressay, but it was choppy weather and the photos weren’t clear enough to be sure.

Larger groups of Killer Whales were also getting seen feeding on herring offshore about 25 miles east of Shetland during May. Photos we received were all of individuals not previously catalogued.

June was pretty quiet too, until on the 23rd a group of 5 showed up in Yell Sound and took either a seal or porpoise just off the ferry. This was the start of an unprecedented run of sightings from the Yell Sound ferry, with almost daily sightings for a month. Photos that we have received or collected ourselves between 23rd June and 24th July showed that most of these sightings were of the same group of 5, which were positively IDed on the 23rd June, 7th, 12th, 15th and 18th July. The group had not previously catalogued and it seems highly likely that they are newcomers to Shetland.

They weren’t the only group seen around Shetland at this time. As noted above the group on Bressay were definitely not the same group, and our old friend Bigga (ID number 14) was seen on his own off Gutcher on 10th July and again on two occasions over the following fortnight on Yell Sound.

Further south again, photographs came in of the group with female with ID number 15 (who we last saw in 2009 off Bluemull Sound). They were seen once off the Moray Firth on 29th June and then off Orkney on 20th July.

So, this year due to the amazing public contribution of photos, we’ve been able to track some pods as they have moved over quite a considerable distance, we’ve been able to monitor the birth of new calves, and we’ve seen what look like 2 sets of newcomers to the Northern Isles, suggesting that Killer Whale sightings in this area may be on the increase.

A massive thank you to everyone who contributed to this year’s efforts, the support continues to grow each summer!

Read more about the ID project at

This blogpost has also been published on - we would welcome further shared blogposts if they cover subjects of broad interest.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Two new moths for Shetland

Every year, the small band of moth-trappers in Shetland catch a few moths that they are unable to readily identify, and by October have a fridge-full of deceased moths in pots. They are then magically sent away south to be identified by Jon Clifton of Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies ( The results from 2010 have just come back, and have revealed two firsts for Shetland.

Sandy Carpet (Perizoma flavofasciata)
A moribund individual was trapped on 21st June 2010 by Rob Fray in his garden at Virkie. It was not photographed, but a photo of the species can be seen here.

This moth, which usually inhabits open woodlands, mature hedgerows, calcareous grassland and sand-dunes, is fairly common and widely distributed in England, Wales and southern Scotland. It flies during June and July, although does not come to light very often. It would appear to be spreading north, as it is not mentioned in the books on Orkney Lepidoptera which summarised records until the mid-1990s, but there are now widespread records on Orkney Mainland according to this map.

Splendid Brocade (Lacanobia splendens)
This was trapped by Paul Harvey in his garden at Virkie on 19th July 2010. Again, the specimen wasn ot photographed, but a photo of the species can be seen here.

This central and southern European species was first identified in Britain from a specimen captured at Portland, Dorset),on 1st July 2003, although earlier specimens which had been overlooked have been located since. Since then it has been recorded in the UK on a number of occasions, usually in southern England. It flies in June and July and typically frequents damp woodland and forests in its native range. Not only was this a first for Shetland, it was the first record of Splendid Brocade in Scotland.

On behalf of all who trap and record moths in Shetland, thanks to Paul Harvey and the Shetland Biological Records Centre for providing us with an easy facility to get our moths identified, and Jon Clifton for patiently wading through loads of common moths and locating these occasional little gems.

Friday, 8 October 2010

A fishy first for Shetland

Fish rarely feature on the Nature in Shetland website, but we received a press release the other day which is well worth reading as it describes a n interesting and endearing little fish and shows what there is that can still be discovered about Shetland's fauna.

Europe’s smallest marine fish, Guillet’s goby, has been found off the Shetland coast at Lunna, by two local divers, Rachel Hope and Richard Shucksmith.

This small fish called Guillet’s goby (Lebetus guilleti) only grows up to a maximum length of 24 mm (upper photo of male by Rachel Hope and lower photo of female by Richard Shucksmith). It was spotted by two local divers whilst shore diving at Lunna, Shetland. It is an extremely rare fish and was only described as a species in 1971. There are only a handful of sightings of this species around Europe including 4 in England and other sparse records are from the Mediterranean, northern Spain and one from the Kattegat (previously the most northerly record).  This species have never been recorded in Scotland and this finding extends the known range 140 miles further north.

Due to the importance of this sighting it has been accepted for publication in the peer reviewed Marine Biological Association Journal ‘Marine Biodiversity Records’.

Little is currently known about the Guillet's goby's biology. It seems to prefer living on rough ground such as shelly sand in shallow coastal waters and due to its small size it is able to hide between the shell fragments, making it extremely difficult to spot. Male and females have different colouration (sexual dimorphism), although both have mottled buff coloured bodies. However the male has a brightly coloured second dorsal fin with a blue spot and orange stripes, much like a brightly coloured butterfly.  Gobies are a family of small mostly bottom living fish and share a similar small and elongated body shape. They all have distinctive thick lips and bulbous eyes set close together near the top of the head.  

When we found this species the males and females were found as pairs together with the females appearing to be swollen with eggs. Normally in goby reproduction the male will choose the nest site such as an empty shell, or a crevice where the female will lay the eggs. The male will then guard the eggs until they hatch.  These pairs seem to indicate that these Guillet's goby is breeding in Shetland.

By finding this species in Shetland it means that its known range now must encompass the whole of the UK. Divers and scientists surveying around the coast should look out for this small and beautiful fish when diving or sampling over rough sediment types such as shelly sand or maerl. As more information is collected about this unusual species a clearer picture can be developed about its biology and distribution. It is possible that the spread of this species further north is a climatic range expansion or it could simply be that due its small size and cryptic colouration it has been overlooked.

Shetland is famous at migration time for its rare birds and this find shows that it should be famous for its rare marine life too!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Colour-ringed Whimbrel and Rock Pipit

During 1986-88, Murray Grant colour-ringed 97 Whimbrels to monitor brood survival and return rates of adults. Although sightings of these birds were reported from Fetlar until the 1990s, there had been none since. This summer, Allan Perkins was working in Unst and Fetlar studying the breeding success of Whimbrels, due to the worrying decline in thier numbers in the last few years. On 9th May he was rather surprised to spot a colour-ringed bird on Fetlar, although it was 31st May before he could confirm the colour-ring combination. It had originally been ringed as a breeding adult on Fetlar on 1st June 1986. At 24 years, this is easily the longevity record for this species and, as Whimbrels don't normally breed until they are two or three years old, this bird may well be over 26 years old.

More detail, and photos, are on the BTO Demog Blog.

A colour-ringed Rock Pipit which was breeding on Whalsay this spring is now known to have been ringed in at New Aberdour in North-east Scotland in February. It is the first proof of a Shetland breeding bird emigrating for the winter, although there is a a previous record of a Shetland-bred chick being found in Scotland. There are also several other records of full-grown birds ringed in Shetland and found in Scotland in winter. Although these could be migrants, the evidence would seem to suggest that a proportion of Shetand Rock Pipits leave the islands in winter.

In addition, a colour-ringed Starling seen on Out Skerries recently does not appear to be a Fair Isle bird - although it's origins are still being tracked down.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Our Eiders are Faroese

The latest edition of the BTO's journal Bird Study includes the following paper: Subspecies status of Common Eiders Somateria mollissima in Shetland based on morphology and DNA by Robert W. Furness, Barbara Mable, Fiona Savory, Kate Griffiths, Stephen R. Baillie and Martin Heubeck.

Using DNA from specimens of Eider found dead in Shetland, and biometric data collected from a cannon-netted sample ringed in the 1980s, it is concluded that Shetland Eiders are closely similar to birds from the Faroe Islands,  subspecies faeroeensis , and distinct from the nominate mollissima to which all Scottish Eiders
have been conventionally assigned.

Interestingly, Eiders from southern Iceland are more similar to faeroeensis according to DNA, despite differing in plumage and being assigned to a different subspecies borealis. As has been suspected for a while, they conclude that the taxonomy of the Common Eider group may be in need of revision.

The allocation of the Shetland Eider population to a new taxon, found nowhere else in the UK, has clear implications in conservation terms, especially as the population is in long-term decline.

Wandering Orcas

We received the following e-mail from Andy Foote recently, telling us about the wandering of one pod of Killer Whales which are regular visitors to Shetland, although as you can see they are now known to wander from at least Caithness to Faroe.

I thought the mammal watchers that check out the sea mammal sightings web page might be interested to know that one of our regular Shetland groups (27, 34, 73, 74 and 27's new calf 151) made it on to Faeroese TV this week, see below for the link. Hans Eli Sivertsen who sent me the link also took some great shots, and he also photographed the same group off the Faeroes last year. They were last seen in Scottish waters off Wick back in June.

The link to Faroese TV is here, with the Orcas appearing towards the end (at about 19:20).

Monday, 28 June 2010

Wandering Wildfowl

There is no single auditor of the ‘official’ Shetland List, it is something that has been developed by consensus over the years. Many people will remember that Dennis Coutts compiled a small checklist more than 20 years ago (it had a King Eider vignette on the cover). More recently, the authors of The Birds of Shetland, in conjunction with the local records committee, and the task of deciding what was in the main body of the book. Official national decisions were followed with one major exception, Category D species were included in the main list, in line with the policy of Shetland listers, who have always included Category D species on their lists. (For those who are unsure, Category D, which does not form part of the British List, is intended as a holding category for potential vagrants, until their true status is clearer).

Since the publication of The Birds of Shetland there have been no contentious issues, until recently. Compiling the Shetland Bird Report 2009 was trickier than usual, as a decision had to be made on what to do with two contentious species. At first, I admit, I took a hard line and was all for putting them in the appendix, but in the end I relented, partly because another contentious species turned up earlier this year. So here are some thoughts on three controversial wildfowl.

Wood Duck

The male found by Rob Fray on Loch of Brow on 16th April 2009 initially elicited some excitement (photo by Rob Fray). It was very wary and so there were hopes that it might be a candidate for Category A of the full British List. Its long stay did it no favours though, and when it was still around in early June it was being dismissed by several observers. Nevertheless, there are spring records from Iceland, so maybe it still has a chance of being wild, and while it probably doesn’t overcome the ‘credibility barrier’ it is another reminder that this species is a potential vagrant (which is what Category D is for). In The Birds of Shetland, Wood Duck was one of two species included in the main list despite not even being in Category D - it was termed a Category D candidate (the other category D candidate was Yellow-headed Blackbird, since moved to D). So, with two Category D candidates already on the Shetland List, another one is not a problem.

Ruddy Shelduck

A female found by Mick Mellor and seen briefly at Spiggie and elsewhere late on 30th April and early on 1st May 2009 was, perhaps surprisingly, the first ever seen in Shetland. Ruddy Shelduck is controversial among British birders as records are regular, but the only ones accepted as being wild are from the 19th century, and so in Category B of the British List. There are three possible origins for the Shetland bird – it could be wild, it could be from feral populations in Europe, or it could be an escape. It is difficult to say which is more likely in Shetland. Strictly speaking, to be an acceptable record this bird would need to be accepted into Category A of the British List, and this record does not have the credentials to overcome the problems that the species has in being accepted. But it is surely a potential vagrant in Shetland. Species can’t be in Category A/B and Category D in a British context, but is surely a Category D candidate in a Shetland sense.

Egyptian Goose

An Egyptian Goose was seen at various locations from 24th February 2010 (photo by Roger Riddington). Egyptian Geese breed in Africa, but there are feral populations in Europe, especially in East Anglia, so it is on Category C of the British List (for naturalised species). It is not in any category of the Scottish List, however, with all sightings believed to relate to escapes. Nevertheless, we soon had contact from regular Foula visitor Kevin Shepherd, who lives in Norfolk, who informed us that late winter and early spring was the time to see Egyptian Goose on ‘vis-mig’ past the Norfolk coast, while we also discovered that populations in Denmark and the Netherlands were larger than we thought. Bearing in mind the snowy weather at the time, surely this bird was a vagrant from a naturalised population.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Cetacean survey update

An update from Jane Evans concerning the Honestas charter.

On Tuesday the team worked off Fetlar, and had a successful day searching for Risso's dolphins, with a possible resident population being identified - further work will be needed over the coming months in order to confirm this, but the signs are good so far. 
On Wednesday they headed back north to look for Orcas but to no avail. However, a Minke Whale was spotted at the mouth of Yell Sound.  Thursday was better with some good sightings of Risso's again off Fetlar. With the weather blowing hard from the north on Friday we walked up to the point of Fethaland to do some monitoring from the shore.
Again if anyone has any sightings of killer whales or other cetaceans in the area please can they get in touch.  
With this in mind, we will report that on Shetland Nature's Midsummer Cruise on board one of the Yell Sound ferries on Sunday, single Minke Whales were sighted twice at the south end of Colgrave Sound, and 2 White-sided Dolphins were seen in the same area.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Surveying cetaceans

Jane Evans and Ben Wilcock of Highland Sea Charters have been in touch to let us know that this week the MFV Honestas (owned and run by Highland Sea Charters) has been chartered by Volker Deecke and a team from the Scottish Oceans Institute, to look for Killer Whales north of Shetland between Muckle Flugga and the Ramna Stacks. During the week they will also be working around Fetlar monitoring Risso's Dolphins.

It is a time to remind anyone that if they have any sightings of Orcas or dolphins then please pass the information on, as the more information we have the better.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Shetland’s first Iberian Chiffchaff

Brothers Stef and Ash McElwee have been annual visitors in recent years, coming to Unst during the English spring half-term holiday. They have found a good many records during the previous years, but this year they managed to add a species to the Shetland List. Here is their account of the find.

 Photo by Stef McElwee

Sometimes in birding, lightning can and does strike twice. This was certainly the case in the finding of Britain’s most northerly record of Iberian Chiffchaff at Halligarth plantation, Unst. Both of the finders of this bird have previously found or been in on the find of an Iberian Chiffchaff in the UK, at Stiffkey Norfolk this year (AIM) and at Newbiggin Northumberland in 2004 (SJM). When a strange yet familiar song burst from the plantation on the morning of Friday 5th June it is fair to say that both observers were primed for the event!

Birding on Unst in the preceeding week had been hard work due to very small numbers of common migrants, yet rewarding due to quality birds being found such as Bluethroat and Shetland’s third Black Stork. With this in mind, we continued to work the sites on north Unst on Friday.

At mid-day, we arrived at Halligarth plantation to be greeted by a Willow Warbler in full song. Ash also detected another bird singing more distantly in the plantation.  On arriving level with the derelict house both observers heard a snatch of the song again, “wheet wheet, tif tif, tif".  Although jumbled and not classic in phrase, both observers looked at one another and said “ I know what this is going to be” and calmly walked into the wood with Ash’s Remembird sound recorder at the ready. 
True to form, the bird began to sing loudly, and in prolonged bursts from the canopy. “Tif, Tif, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, De De De, De De De" is an attempt to transcribe the persistent and ringing song flowing out of the canopy above our heads! It is difficult to describe the surreal experience of recognizing a Shetland first without seeing the bird. Stef looked at Ash and said “come on bird, please call”, to which it duly did, a piercing downward carrying "peeoo", similar in pitch to a Siberian Chiffchaff but with an obvious downward carrying note at the end.  Knowing this call note is pretty much diagnostic of Iberian Chiffchaff we were faced with the bizarre dilemma of needing to phone out a Shetland first without having seen the bird! Knowing the importance of the record we decided we had better see it to check it actually looked like an Iberian Chiffchaff!

Thankfully it did! Ash had good views of the characteristic spikey bill with an orangey pale lower mandible, the whitish underparts with yellowy wash to the fore supercilium, throat and upper breast and the mossy green upperparts and longish looking primary projection. Enough was enough and the news was phoned out to the Unst birding population and Roger Riddington. Paul Harvey and Rory Tallack arrived soon after (Paul was working on Unst that day) and they were able to confirm and enjoy the bird already described. The bird continued to show well for periods for the rest of the day and could easily be located in the plantation by the clear ringing call already described. The bird sang strongly for the remainder of the morning but was much less vocal on a cloudy afternoon. There was no sign of the bird the following day.


A very distinctive Phyllosc with a bit of Wood, Bonelli's and Willow Warbler thrown into a Chiffchaff’s clothing.  This bird was on plumage and structure quite similar to a Willow Warbler and I wonder if not singing or calling how many birders would simply misidentify one as such! Certainly the strongish supercilium and longer-looking primary projection would hint at this species. The pattern and combination of white, yellow and green is not dis-similar to a poorly marked female Wood Warbler.

Head: this bird showed a strongish supercilium, notably yellowish in the fore area, with the super extending to the rear of the ear coverts. Supercilium aside, this species has a very characteristic open faced appearance due to the relatively plain and unmarked ear coverts. The bird showed a weak eye ring most notable around the lower half of the eye. This bird showed the bill structure that appears quite distinctive of this species. Best described as longish / spikey with an obvious pale orangey lower mandible.

Upperparts:  the crown, mantle, scaps and coverts were a warmish green colour with notable greenish fringes to the secondaries and the tail feathers. The primary projection was longer than a typical Chiffchaff, approaching Willow Warbler in projection. This long winged appearance was very noticeable in the field and added to its particular jizz.

Underparts:  bird had quite cleanish white underparts with a subtle yellowish wash to the throat and upper breast. The undertail coverts appeared to have a yellowish wash but this may have been a trick of the light as the bird was viewed above observers heads.

Bare Parts: bill already described. There was much debate as to the leg colour. I thought that the bird had quite pale orangey pink legs but other observers described them as much darker than this. It will be interesting to analyse images to assess this.

Song:  Ash has recorded and assessed the sonograms of this bird and has described both the song and calls as classic.  I have already described the typical song above but it should be noted that this bird, particularly in strong bursts would produce a variety of different versions. It would sometimes sing “tif tif wheet wheet wheet tif” and would miss the characteristic third part rattle from the end of the song.  This is fairly typical of British vagrants, the Newbiggin bird certainly did this throughout its stay.  The gap between the "De De De" notes also varied, sometimes issued as a rapid trill, other times with bigger gaps between notes.

 Sonagrams of song (upper) and call (lower) by Ash McElwee

(both go to external links - click 'back' to return to this page)

In conclusion, the subtle plumage features, structural differences, characteristic song and diagnostic call make Iberian Chiffchaff a relatively straight forward identification if care is taken with the exact components of the song and the diagnostic call is noted. We expect it will not be too long before Shetland birders can look forward to another of these superb leaf warblers.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The wanderings of a Hungarian Black Stork

When a Black Stork turned up on Unst on 2nd June 2010 this was exceptional enough, as it was only the third Shetland record. The bird was, however, carrying a colour-ring. This immediately told us that this was the same Black Stork that had been in the Outer Hebrides earlier in the spring, as this was also carrying a white plastic ring. A quick e-mail to friends there soon confirmed that they had seen the ring but not read it, so getting the code was a priority.

On the stork's second day on Unst it went to roost on the cliffs in the late afternoon, and this gave us the opportunity to get close enough to read the ring. After a little effort we had it - 50P9.

It was then off to the internet to track down the bird's origins, and within 24 hours we had an answer. The bird had been ringed in northern Hungary, close to the Slovakian border, in June 2007. Even more interestingly, it had already been sighted on two previous occasions - in SE Hungary, close to the Romanian border, in September 2008, and in the NE of the Netherlands in March 2009.

It was probably first seen in Scotland on 8th May this year, when a Black Stork was seen flying over the Findhorn valley. All the sightings in Scotland are shown on the following Google map.

View Black Stork 50P9 in a larger map