The issue of disturbance

Welcome back to another RSPB Shetland blog.

This week we wanted to touch on a slightly less enjoyable side of our roles here in Shetland, and indeed a common theme for colleagues around the country too.


Disturbance comes in various forms, often perfectly innocent, through lack of understanding and awareness, to that at the more sinister end of the scale.

Here in Scotland, we are fortunate to have the outdoor Scottish access code, that permits responsible access to the countryside, opening much of the landscape to responsible access.

It is that key word that I will focus on “responsible”. Although access can largely be enjoyed, and indeed encouraged, it cannot come at the detriment to wildlife.

Shetland is blessed with a wealth of special wildlife, many afforded the highest level of legal protection- known as Schedule 1. This relates to bird species that are particularly vulnerable to disturbance and whose populations are at threat or at risk, due to a variety of factors.

All birds are protected by law during the breeding season, and it is an offence to recklessly interfere with or damage/destroy a birds nest. Above that, Schedule 1 is an extra layer of protection that requires a special licence to potentially disturb these species, often for monitoring purposes, and always avoided where possible.

As Shetland has many special species of birds, they quite rightly receive the adulation of many visitors, who wish to observe them at close quarters- which we welcome of course. However, disturbance to these birds and their nests can and should be avoided.

As a prime example, lets focus on the red-necked phalarope. A magnificent little bird that we are fortunate to manage many of our sites for.

A red-necked phalarope

They are particularly vulnerable to disturbance, as they are perceived to be so confiding. A phalarope, won’t necessarily show it is disturbed in the same way as most others birds, only resorting to alarm calling and typical related behaviour when they have chicks near or eggs- and even this is not consistent and sometimes hugely delayed.

Many of the phalarope sites are visible from behind a fence or stone wall, so entering the area is not needed and indeed is putting the birds, their eggs and chicks at risk of trampling- and certainly in breach of the law if their presence is known to the observer.

A phalarope chick

Chick handled under licence for ringing purposes

The main issue we encounter with disturbance to phalaropes is people entering and walking through their nesting habitat. Although the birds might be visible on a pool, if you are entering the nearby area, you are potentially within inches of a tiny nest or their minute chicks.

Habitat that could contain nests or chicks

During the season we will introduce pop up view points where it is safe to watch phalaropes from in Fetlar, and we will keep updates going via this blog and social media.

Recent sightings:

Sumburgh Head – As always the seabirds are the stars of the show at Sumburgh head with puffins  razorbillskittiwakesfulmar, guillemots and shags all visible on the cliffs. Oystercatchers can be seen in the fields by the car park whilst wheatears and starlings are using the stone walls. The quarries on the drive up to Sumburgh head have been attracting spring migrants with lesser whitethroat, chiffchaff and robin all reported in the last few days.

Loch of Spiggie – Spiggie has seen a mix of regular spring migrants and some rarer visitors this week. Wood sandpiper, dunlin and knot have been recorded as well as a yellow wagtail and a couple of swifts.  A marsh harrier, white-tailed eagle and little egret have also been seen around the reserve.

Mousa – Our exciting sighting news from Mousa is that the storm petrels have returned. Breeding waders on the island include snipe, ringed plovers, dunlin, redshanks and oystercatchers. Great skuas are back on territories and an Arctic skua pair have been seen. Some of the eider ducks are now on nests and the Arctic terns are back in their usual spots.

Fetlar – Whilst species such as lapwings, snipe and curlews are settling down into the breeding season there was been a flurry of spring migrants this week.  Sightings have included a wood sandpiper, whinchat, redstart, whitethroat, chiffchaff, icterine warbler and a male bluethroat outside the hide. The first of the red-necked phalaropes have also arrived back on sites. 

Bluethroat outside Funzie hide. Photograph by Linda Garratt