Malcie Smith, Shetland Sites Manager, gives us some insight into the incredible bird life to be seen on Shetland's coasts and discusses some of the important seabirds that might be highlighted on Wild Shetland: Scotland's Viking Frontier.

Wild Shetland: Seabirds and more

I can’t wait to see the new nature documentary Wild Shetland – Scotland’s Viking Frontier which shows on BBC1 this Wednesday at 9pm. We worked with the filming and production team across RSPB Scotland’s amazing network of nature reserves on Shetland to help ensure they captured some incredible footage of the wildlife of these islands.

Highlights for me will include my favourite bird – the intriguing red-necked phalarope. These dainty little waders have a fascinating lifestyle. Once the females lay their eggs the smaller, duller males do all the incubating and looking after the chicks. Although they nest in insect-rich wetlands, they spend the winter on the sea feeding on plankton. We used to think that Shetland’s phalaropes wintered in the Arabian sea, where we know Scandinavian birds spend the winter. It wasn’t until we fitted tiny trackers onto a few birds breeding on Fetlar that we found out they actually go all the way to the Eastern Pacific Ocean – more than 6,000 miles away from Shetland! It could be said that they are essentially seabirds as they spend more time at sea than on land. Red-necked phalaropes are one of our priority bird species and I’m glad to say that numbers have been very good over the last few years.

Red-necked Phalarope

Most peoples’ image of Shetland birds is of bustling seabird cities such as Hermaness, Noss and RSPB Scotland’s Sumburgh Head. The frenetic activity, sound and smell of a large seabird colony is one of the great spectacles of British wildlife.  Sadly, by most measures Scotland’s breeding seabirds are now in serious trouble as a combination of warming seas, non-native predators, fisheries and development has taken its toll in recent decades. Long-term seabird colony monitoring shows a decline in breeding population and breeding success from the 1986 baseline. Scotland’s Kittiwakes, for example, have declined by 70% in this period. The icon of Scotland’s seabird cities, the puffin, has also faced serious declines across the North Atlantic. Add the threat of proposed offshore energy development it’s clear that seabirds face a highly uncertain future.

kittiwake in flight

Despite these declines, Shetland remains one of the UKs great wildlife locations. From the moorland and lochans, rich with breeding waders, skuas and red-throated divers to the soaring seabird cliffs providing the perfect vantage for trying to spot elusive orcas, there is a wealth of wildlife to enjoy. It’s great to see a major wildlife documentary celebrating some of these wonders and I’m looking forward to seeing the first episode on Wednesday.

You can watch Wild Shetland: Scotland’s Viking Frontier on BBC1 on Wednesday 23rd January at 9pm. Check out some clips here