Whaletrip: Shetlands - One week on the Shetlands, searching for Orcas close to shore. Accompanied by a group of bird watchers.

TU-TU-TU-TU-TU-TU

A week on the Shetlands. With a group of bird watchers.

TU-TU-TU-TU-TU-TU

A week on the Shetlands. With a group of bird watchers.

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Cliffs, birds and photographers: the Shetlands in just one picture.

Shetlands ORCAS

»Shetland Orca Sightings«, it all started with a Facebook group. Theresa had discovered it some time ago, so she'd been sitting there ever since, telling me that Orcas had been spotted on the Shetland's AGAIN: »Right from the coast! Up close! Lots of them! You could even see them from land! We need to go to the Shetlands!«

If you want to meet the Shetland Orcas, you better contact Hugh Harrop right away. He founded the Facebook group, he knows. With Shetland Wildlife, Hugh tours the archipelago all year round, mostly for birds – the Shetlands are a fantastic place for bird watchers – but Orcas are also regularly spotted along the way.

According to Hugh, there are mainly two pods in the area, the A27 and the A64, which are mostly seen between the Shetlands, Orkneys and Faroe Islands. Almost always from land. Hugh has known them for years, and at the beginning of the millennium he had started to take photo IDs and collect some data.

In addition to these semi-residents, there are five or six pods from the Icelandic group who occasionally drop by, and also two Orca bulls that mostly travel alone but temporarily join other pods. So there is quite a lot going on on the Shetlands.

The Shetlands, shot with the mobile phone. If you like the colours green and blue, the Shetlands are the place to be.

Since the Shetlands consist of over a hundred islands and have many beautiful coastlines which Orcas could swim by, Hugh needed some help at some point. So he asked befriended fishermen and guides to let him know if they saw Orcas anywhere around. This later turned into the Facebook group, and now half of Shetland is involved in Hugh’s Civil Research project.

»Trust me,« says Hugh, »if there are Orcas around and anywhere close to shore, we’ll know immediately – and we’ll try to get there as quick as possible«, and such statements are of course exactly what Theresa likes to hear while travelling.

Hugh’s mobile phone even has a special ringtone reserved only for the Orcas: the Orca Alarm. So our basic idea was to stay close to Hugh for the whole week and wait with him for the Orca Alarm. In the meantime, we would join one of his bird watching groups and learn a bit more about the Shetland birds.

So much for the plan.

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Some juvenile Puffins playing around at the lighthouse of Sumburgh Head.

Shetlands PUFFINS

On previous trips I have already been enthusiastic about Keas, Albatrosses and Penguins. We have also been attacked by angry Arctic Terns in several countries because we accidentally got too close to their nests while hiking.

So, a solid initial interest in the subject of »birds« is definitely present. Now we want to build on this. And the Shetlands make it easy to get started: There! are! Puffins! I don’t know much that makes for such a good mood, like Puffins.

Puffins are little seabirds, which are often only called »clowns of the seas«, because they are a bit strikingly colored and tend to make people laugh because of their clumsiness. But the truth is, they can’t help it at all.

Puffins spend most of the year on the open sea. Beneath the surface they navigate almost as elegantly as penguins. In summer, however, they have to go ashore. And puffins are certainly not made for the shore.

Puffins are made for the rough conditions of the ocean, they can withstand the strongest storms and the highest seas, can dive up to seventy meters (!) deep and barely two minutes (!) long. They are tough and indestructible little guys – and under water they move almost as elegantly as penguins.

For most of the year Puffins stay where they belong: at home on the open sea. Every year between April and July, however, they have to go ashore to dig small burrows into the most beautiful cliffs of the North Atlantic, where they then give birth to their young.

And puffins are simply not made for the land. Wobbly and clumsily they waddle, hop and flutter around, obviously completely out of practice. Unceasingly, they bring in some sandeels for their offspring, neatly lined up in their huge colourful bills.

Puffins mastering their daily lives at Sumburgh Head in the very south of Shetland. You could spend days there, it probably wouldn’t get boring for a second.

To be able to dive for fish in the depth at all, Puffins need quite heavy bones – what unfortunately makes flying a bit complicated. Especially the take-off and most especially the take-off from water. In order to get their small bodies into the air, Puffins have to work quite hard:

Up to 400 (!) wing flaps per minute are necessary to get Puffins into the air. As soon as they are only a little bit lifted off, they take their feet in and start to run like frantic. This is how they fight their way through the water, madly running and fluttering – until it is finally done.

The take-off from land is easier, but it requires some courage: without any warning, the brave little Puffins simply drop from the steep cliffs into the depths. With a lot of trust in physics.

Puffins can reach speeds of up to 90 km/h, they buzz through the air crosswise and wildly, an air traffic controller would have a lot to do. But shortly before landing, they suddenly slow down and float in calmly and elegantly like a helicopter.

However, in high winds Puffins sometimes look more like a bumblebee that has completely lost control.

Without any warning, these brave little Puffins simply drop from the steep cliffs into the depths. With a lot of trust in physics.

In all their actions Puffins are always trying to be as confident and sovereign as possible. As if everything was completely in order and exactly how it should be. And I think it’s this wonderful mixture of eager activity, awkward effort and pretended sovereignty that makes it so entertaining to watch Puffins for hours and days. It just never gets boring.

This may even apply to the Puffins themselves: Not all of them come to the colony to give birth to their offspring. Many actually just come to see how things are going in a colony. They want to learn. Highly interested and curious they stroll around the colony, calmly watching how all the other Puffins struggle to master their daily lives. Fantastic birds!

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Learned at the cliffs: Shetland sheep do not have any fear of heights.

Shetlands BIRDS

»There! A bird!!«
»Oh! Where?«
»Over there! Left!«
»What is it?«
»A black one!«
»...«

I had bought a book right at the beginning of our trip: the 155 most important birds to encounter on the Shetlands. Preparation is everything. However, Theresa and I are no help to our bird watching group yet. Bird watching is a bit more complicated than whale watching.

On a whale watching trip, you just have to scan the sea, and as soon as you see something unusual, you tell the guides. Whether it is a whale or a turtle, you will find out afterwards. Out at the sea, everything is of interest.

That’s completely different with bird watching. You can’t just ring the alarm at the first bird. Nobody stops for a blackbird. In bird watching you have to know your way around before you bring something into the group. In whale watching it also works the other way round.

So, at our very first dinner with the group, we decided to get straight to the point: That we are completely new into bird watching, but quite ambitious and full of anticipation, and that we would be happy to get a bit more experienced during the week.

On a whale watching trip, you just have to scan the sea, and as soon as you see something unusual, you tell the guides.
With bird watching, things are a bit different.

Mike and Margret were sitting opposite us and Mike said that we don’t have to worry at all, he would only know a little about birds as well. On the way then, Mike was able to spot almost any bird, often faster than the guides. Sometimes it was enough for him to only hear a beep and he knew. Later Mike said that his words at dinner were probably the usual British understatement.

Mike recommends a bird app that, unlike my book, helps me right on the go in meadows, fields and marshes: In Collins Bird Guide (iOS | Android) you can sort birds by country, species and time and search for all sorts of visual features you may have noticed on the way. You can also download sounds and videos to know how the birds sound and behave.

Mike says that he usually compiles a list of all the birds he wants to see before a trip. And with that he prepares himself. So I download Collins Bird Guide and get ready.

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A Whimbrel. It looks almost like a Curlew – but it is much, much more interesting.

Shetlands WHIMBREL

In my bird app I have noticed a bird with a long, funny curved bill. There are even several versions of it, one is called Whimbrel, the other Curlew, I put both on my list and keep an eye out.

Somewhere on our way I see a bird that looks exactly like the Whimbrels and Curlews in my app. It’s just wandering around. Right next to the car. And nobody but me has seen it yet. I am excited. And tell the others.

»There! Isn’t that a Whimbrel or Curlew?«
»Oh! Where?«
»Over there! Left!«
»Oh there. … Yes. … Hmm.«
»What?«
»That’s nothing. Just a Curlew.«

We drive on.
Passing the Curlew.
Without a photo.

Mike tells me that there are a lot of Curlews in Great Britain: »They are nothing special, you can see them everywhere. Whimbrel on the other hand are very rare, at least here. If you see a Whimbrel, let us know immediately!«

Curlews and Whimbrels look completely the same. A bit like a shy chicken on stilts, only with a funny curved bill.

The thing is: Curlews and Whimbrels look completely the same. A bit like a shy chicken on stilts, only with a funny curved bill. The Curlew is a bit bigger and has a slightly longer bill, but that only helps if Curlew and Whimbrel would be standing next to each other.

Mike says the best way to distinguish a Whimbrel from a Curlew is by the small black stripe over the eye. Only the Whimbrel has that. Otherwise, they are actually pretty much the same in appearance and behavior. So from now on I focus on Curlews with black stripes over the eye.

At the beginning of our trip Theresa might have been a little skeptical about bird watching. But really only at the beginning.

A bit later, our guide Tim really did spot a Whimbrel. But it’s far away, about 300 to 400 meters into the marshland. Currently it’s standing close to a fence, probably between the third and fourth post from the left, but discussions are on, so Tim is now getting the big telescope out of the car.

Tim adjusts the telescope, then everyone lines up and observes the Whimbrel through the lens. Everyone is thrilled. The guides serve coffee and biscuits. And I’m wondering if a Curlew right next to the car isn’t much better than a Whimbrel between the third and fourth post of a fence at 300 to 400 meters distance.

But I’m not quite sure and better look through the telescope again.

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A Red-necked Phalarope. With its red neck very easy to distinguish, even for bird-watching beginners.

Shetlands PHALAROPES

What the Orcas are to us is the Red-necked Phalarope to the others in the group. Everyone here has it on the list. The big advantage over the Whimbrel: Red-necked Phalaropes are hard to confuse.

In German the Red-necked Phalarope is called »Odinshühnchen«, and at this point I would like to briefly mention that the English bird names are so much better than the German ones.

During our week on the Shetlands we have seen Razorbills, Guillemots, Gannets, Arctic Skuas, Kittiwakes, Shags, Red-throated Divers and Whimbrel. Names like music. In German these birds are called (in the same order): Tordalk, Trottellumme, Basstölpel, Schmarotzerraubmöwe, Dreizehenmöwe, Krähenscharbe, Sterntaucher and Brachvogel.

The English bird names are so much better than the German ones. At least nobody should be surprised that bird watching is a national sport in Great Britain but not in Germany.

I would also describe it as at least unfortunate when a »Guillemot« in German means »Trottellumme«, a »Black Guillemot« however not »Schwarze Trottellumme« but rather »Gryllteiste«. At least nobody should be surprised that bird watching is a national sport in Great Britain but not in Germany.

However, the fascination of the Red-necked Phalarope is not immediately clear to me. It’s not particularly gorgeous, at least I had noticed some much more exciting birds in my bird app, which of course I put on my list right away, nor is it particularly rare, at least if you look at it globally.

Shetland Birds: Red-necked Phalaropes, Golden Plover, Red-throated Diver, Shetland Wren, Ringed Plover, Wagtail, Arctic Terns, Robin, Skylark, Shetland Wren – I’ve learned a bit on the Shetlands!

In Great Britain, however, the Red-necked Phalarope is extremely rare, and the Shetlands are by far the best British address to see it: Every year it breeds here between the end of May and mid-July, and many of our group are right here now mainly because of this.

The Red-necked Phalarope belongs to the waders family and therefore likes to wade around the shores of small pools and ponds looking for tiny insects and larvae. So we also spend a lot of time close to pools and ponds and keep a quiet and patient lookout. And we are lucky. Very, very lucky.

We met the Red-necked Phalarope right away on the first day. And on the third day. And on the fourth. And on the fifth. We saw Red-necked Phalaropes alone, two by two, three by three, four by four, by the pond, on the shore, in the air, and once even in the sea, where they sometimes had to struggle a bit with the waves.

And even if the fascination for the Red-necked Phalarope is still not quite clear to me, it is very easy to share the great enthusiasm of the others: Everyone is blissful and exuberant. It’s contagious.

However, when we saw another Red-necked Phalarope in light rain on the sixth day, I preferred to stay in the car and see if there was anything new in the »Shetland Orca Sightings« group.

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An Otter on his way to his cave. When observing Otters, it is usually the case that you have to wait a very long time before you can see an Otter for a very short time.

Shetlands OTTERS

Besides Orcas and Puffins, I was mainly hoping to see Otters on the Shetlands. The Shetlands are a fantastic place to see Otters.

It is estimated that there are between 800 and 1,200 Otters living on the Shetlands – roughly about one to two per square mile, which is the highest Otter density in the UK. However, Otters are extremely shy, so you still need some luck. There are two best practices to see Otters in the wild:

#1 You spend a lot of time near estuaries and inlets and are lucky enough to see an Otter just swimming by. We did that, it worked, twice. But the Otters were always far away and didn’t make any effort to get closer to us at the shore. Fair enough.

#2 You hide near an Otter habitat and just wait. Otters are creatures of habit. However, it is helpful if you can recognize an actively used Otter habitat on the basis of relevant characteristics (Otter cave, Otter droppings, Otter paths). Otherwise you will wait unnecessarily long and with almost no chances of success.

Some footage from Kate’s trail cams: An Otter rubbing dry on its way back into the cave. Without a hidden camera you would have to wait very, very, very long for pictures like these.

Our guide Kate showed us a third great way to observe Otters: Trail Cams – small, weatherproof cameras with a motion sensor. You just put them in front of an Otter cave, pick them up a week later and have a cup of tea while watching what was going on in front of the Otter cave.

Rather by chance we combine the methods #2 and #3 with great success: When we picked up a trail cam set up earlier by Kate and – just in case – tried to hide as best we could, an Otter appeared after only a few minutes.

Since we’re not too well hidden, the Otter notices us after a few seconds. Later we take a look at the recordings of the trail cams. I will soon encourage the company that makes these cameras to build something like this for whales.

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Gannets in the colony of Hermaness. Living in such a confined space is certainly not something for everyone.

Shetlands SEA BIRDS

Our tour takes us across the whole archipelago. Everything is green and wide. And quiet, incredibly quiet. Until we get to the big seabird colonies.

While the Puffin colony at Sumburgh Head is a true idyll, the large colonies of Hermaness and Noss are ruled by pure chaos. Here live Gannets, Guillemots and Razorbills – thousands and thousands of birds.

They are in front of us, behind us, beside us, above us, among us. Croaks and screams, it is a hell of a noise, especially when you go by boat and get so close to the rocks. I am completely overwhelmed. Far too many impressions. It is difficult for me to pick them up and sort them in. An unreal place.

With the boat we encounter a flock of Gannets. Gannets who are after fish. It's an amazing spectacle.

Ahead of Noss, we encounter a flock of Gannets. Gannets who are after fish. It’s a spectacle I’ve never experienced before. I had read that Gannets are plunge-divers – but I didn’t know exactly what that meant in practice.

While Puffins and Guillemots paddle quietly and peacefully on the water, then gently dive down and patiently search for sandeels, Gannets shoot into the water from great heights – in full force and with up to 100 (!) km/h. Like a torpedo.

Hundreds of them are circling above us, shooting into the water one after the other. Right next to our boat. Like lightning they chase through the air. A crazy whistling and whooshing. In the water they fight wild brawls for the captured fish.

Compared to a flock of hunting Gannets, a Gannet colony is quite a contemplative place.

Spectacular: Gannets hunting for fish. Awesome as well: Great Skuas, Guillemots, Razorbills and Shags. And White-beaked Dolphins!

A bit later we meet a group of White-beaked Dolphins. It’s a premiere, Theresa and I have never seen them before. They are big, heavy and elegant animals. And with their black and white coloration and their strongly curved dorsal fin they even look a bit like Orcas.

They are swimming next to the boat, underneath us, breaching several times. Then they get bored. They disappeared as fast as they came. It’s the first time ever I’ve been more impressed by an encounter with a few seabirds than by an encounter with a few whales or dolphins.

And it really isn’t the dolphins fault!

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Guillemots, the penguins of the northern hemisphere. In German they are called »Trottellummen«. It’s such a pity!

Shetlands NO ORCAS

At the beginning of our trip, Hugh had promised that we would know immediately if some Orcas were seen anywhere close to shore. And Hugh was right.

However, Hugh’s Orca Alarm rang exactly on that day when we were in the very north of the island, while the Orcas were spotted in the very south at the lighthouse of Sumburgh Head: a several hours drive, two ferries included – no chance.

Instead, here is a video that was taken exactly one week after our departure. And that’s about how Theresa had imagined it – she says her plan would have been to stand on the rocks right at the front while the Orcas would slowly swim past her:

The very big orca with the very, very big fin is by the way »Busta«, according to Hugh the biggest Orca he ever saw.

So, it seems on the Shetlands the perfect guides and some Orcas around are still not enough – you need the extra luck that the Orcas are at least halfway within reach. Or maybe you just need: a lot more time on the Shetlands.

I suggest to Theresa that we simply go back to the Shetlands next summer. Then maybe for four or six weeks. After all, I still have some birds on my list, too.

Theresa agrees.

P.S.: If you also want to spend a week with Hugh, Tim or Kate to observe the birds of the Shetlands while waiting for the Orca Alarm, just check out this page. We really had a blast on the Shetlands and rarely had such great, dedicated and incredibly funny guides. Thanks a lot!

P.P.S.: The headline »Tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu« is the beautiful call of the Whimbrel. Curlews on the other hand call »Cur-lew, Cur-lew, Cur-lew«, hence their name. Many thanks to Mike for all the additional explanations on the way!

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