Birdwatching in Shetland

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  • Gannets roost on a rock shelf on the Isle of Noss
    Gannets roost on a rock shelf on the Isle of Noss
  • Puffins at Sumburgh Head, Mainland
    Puffins at Sumburgh Head, Mainland

Like many of the islands around Scotland's northerly coasts, Shetland is a mecca for birdwatchers. And in spite being on the very fringes of Europe and one of the continent's last great wildernesses, its birdlife is perhaps amongst the most accessible anywhere.


Thanks to their remoteness and geographic location, the Shetland isles are one of the major breeding and feeding stations for seabirds in the North Atlantic. Some of the best places to see a great variety of these birds in huge numbers is at any of the region's three main natural nature reserves: Noss, Hermaness and Sumburgh Head.

During the summer months at each, you'll be greeted by the incredible sight - and sound - of literally tens of thousands of gannets, guilliemots, kittiwakes and puffins crammed onto every ledge and outcrop of rockface. One of the best ways to experience these huge seabird cities is from the deck of one of the many wildlife cruise boats that sail around the islands.

Moorland species

The Shetland Isles also host substantial breeding populations of moorland birds including snipe, dunlin, plovers, redshank, Some of these, like the lapwing, are becoming rare on mainland Britain but are thriving here. Also worth looking out for are the famous Shetland sub-species of wren and starling.

Rarities and migrants

The RSPB run a number of reserves in Shetland which attract an interesting variety of winter migrants to supplement their native species. Regular visitors include redwings and fieldfares but passing loners from as far away as Siberia and North America are not unknown and go some way to explain why Shetland is such a twitcher's paradise.

The reserve at Fetlar is home to some very rare species including red necked phalaropes, whimbrels and snowy owls. You can get remarkably close to some of these at the RSPB hide on the shore of the Loch of Funzie.

Elsewhere, the Loch of Spiggie reserve supports a large colony of migrating whooper swans over the winter while Foula is home to the notoriously aggressive and fearless great skuas - known locally as bonxies - who aren't beyond swooping down and attacking walkers!