My sabbatical on Shetland was planned from mid-May to mid-June, as although quite early in the season for many species so far north, it is a key time to help with breeding bird survey work, and there's a chance of seeing an exciting species or two on spring migration. The work was very varied, with breeding bird, wader and skua surveys, AECS farm surveys, reserve visitor trail and sign maintenance, fixed point photography, and working in the garden of the RSPB office in Fetlar. There was a chance to see most of the RSPB sites on Shetland, working on the Fetlar and Unst reserves, Lumbister in Yell, RSPB Sumburgh Head and RSPB Mousa.
Baelans, the RSPB house and office on Fetlar and home during my sabbatical
I stayed at Baelans, the RSPB house and office in Fetlar, and being an obsessive gardener, I jumped at the chance to get involved in the garden. We hired a big skip, which is easier said than done on Shetland, and cleared a decade's worth of rubbish from around the garden and byre, planted 30 trees which will hopefully attract migrant birds one day, created a bed and sowed a wildflower seed mix, made a herb garden by the front door, and sieved the stones out of 2 gigantic bags of topsoil in order to create a raised bed in the old heating oil storage area.
The raised bed created in the old heating oil storage area at Baelans. The sieved stones were used at the bottom for drainage.
The work that dominated my sabbatical was bird surveys. We did general surveys of all the Fetlar and Unst reserves, skua and gull surveys on Mousa and Lumbister, wader transect surveys on Lumbister, and surveyed farms in Fetlar and Unst to support the Agri-environment Climate Scheme (AECS). The survey work involved a lot of walking, often over difficult terrain. My phone app told me I had done an average of 14,000 steps a day, which was impressive given we didn't do surveys every day. The biggest day combined a wader transect first thing, followed by a skua and gull survey on Lumbister. That involved 10km of transects and registered 26,000 steps. The problem is trying to walk a transect across bogs. It's impossible to walk a straight line, and while you are trying to concentrate on where to step, a bonxie (great skua) decides it would be fun to try and knock your head off. The reserves on Shetland are stunning for breeding waders, with the sounds of snipe drumming, golden plover piping, dunlin creeling, curlew bubbling and the odd whimbrel whinnying, all to the backdrop of the densest skylark population I've experienced. The only negative was the emerging avian flu problem. On my surveys I came across dead great black-backed gull and raven, as well as many dead great skuas, and the seas and beaches were littered with dead gannets. It's very worrying the impact this will have on populations over the next few years.
Great Skuas (Bonxies) dive bomb anyone approaching their territory, making navigating a transect across a bog much more challenging
You can't think about Fetlar without thinking about red-necked phalaropes, and the opportunity to see them almost every day was fantastic. My visit was early in their season, so before any of the monitoring work begins, but they were around on all the mires while we were surveying other birds. Sometimes they were swimming around in the channels, but often you could hear their chittering calls from deep inside the carex beds where they like to swim and pick insects off stems. They often gather on beaches around the coast when they first arrive, and my best views were from the beaches. The phalarope mires are great for other birds too, with red-throated divers on any with a more substantial area of water, as well as a host of waders, the occasional Teal and one of the few pairs of Arctic Skua still on the island. We also saw a passage Wood Sandpiper when surveying the mires. I was hoping to see lots of migrants, but the weather conditions were not good, with northerly winds often blocking migration. I found very few birds, with regulars like bluethroat and rosefinch eluding me, but a male redstart was very handsome, and icterine warbler was the undoubted highlight.
One of the fixed-point photographs on the Mire of Houbie photo-bombed by a phalarope. This is one of the best places to see them, as they are visible from the road.
Fixed-point photography was my main personal project. Points on all the mires had been set up and mapped in 2019, with initial photos taken, but no more were taken through the Covid period, so my job was to get to all the points and take photos for 2022. They can be compared with 2019 to look for changes in water level and vegetation. I used a GPS device to walk to the grid reference of the point, and the compass direction of the photograph is recorded so in theory you can take an identical picture. In practice the GPS location could be a few metres out which can have a significant effect on the view. I realised that it was essential to prepare reference sheets so the photographer can check that they have the identical view before taking the picture and had to go back and re-do some early shots that bore no resemblance to the original.
On my last full day I had the opportunity to go to Lumbister where peatland restoration work had been carried out. Fixed-point photography would be very valuable here in monitoring the effectiveness of the work. I thought this would be a nice jolly to end the sabbatical, but under-estimated the vast area that had been restored, and ended up walking as far as I would have on a wader transect. It was deeply satisfying to see and record just how well the peatlands are recovering, with water being held back in old drainage channels instead of racing off the hillside, and sphagnum moss already growing in the pools created by each dam. This is such important work and desperately needs doing all over our uplands to stop erosion, improve habitat, store carbon and slow run-off to reduce flooding lower in the catchment.
Dams blocking old drainage channels on Lumbister already holding back water and providing habitat for sphagnum moss to create new peat
I had an absolutely amazing month on Shetland. Not only for the spectacular scenery and unique wildlife, but also for working with such a friendly and dedicated team. One of the highlights was when we got together and camped on Mousa, as it's the only way to be on site early enough for the wader surveys. The memory of being serenaded in my tent by storm petrels calling from the adjacent dry stone wall as snipe drummed overhead in the "simmer dim" will stay with me always. Special thanks to Tom who drove me around everywhere and made sure I had everything I needed during my stay, and cooks a mean veggie chilli.
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