As I write this blog from our Shetland office at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, the wind is howling, the sea is bashing off the cliffs and darkness is descending. It is a typical January day.
Tomorrow is a typical last Tuesday of January, for it is the day of Lerwick Up Helly Aa. It is Europe's largest fire festival, with a procession of around 1000men carrying flaming torches before burning a beautiful replica galley - in the play park of all places. This year, it is being broadcast live over the internet via webcams by our friends at Promote Shetland. Promote Shetland were instrumental to the success of "Puffincam" last year. We are making plans for this summer, and you can keep in touch on the Shetland pages of the RSPB community come May. It's worth taking a look at the other webcams on the www.shetland.org site, as one is positioned at Sumburgh Head. As the camera moves around, you may find that you say to yourself "Can that be guillemots on the stack at this time of year?" You'd be right.
Shetland is most famed for its sea life in the summer months, when a million seabirds come to the isles to breed, common seals have their pups and whales and dolphins are more likely to be spotted. However, winter still offers some delights to the wildlife watcher. Guillemots came back to our cliffs just before Hogmanay. They aren't here everyday (it seems to depend on the state of the sea and the forecast), but when they are it is glorious! The sight, sound and smell of thousands of guillemots gladdens the heart in winter - a sign (like Up Helly Aa) that spring is not so distant. Spending a part of your day watching guillemots and fulmars surfing on the wind is time well spent I reckon.
On a calm day, you can watch and listen to long-tailed ducks at Grutness or West Voe, just a couple of miles walk from our Sumburgh Head reserve. The males are so handsome, and their distinctive call adds to the atmosphere. Calloo is their Shetland name, on account of their call. In the same bays, or at Quendale, you can usually see a few goldeneyes and eider ducks. This year, a couple of king eiders have been hanging out in West Voe, reminding us of how close we are to the Arctic. I think some people think of the sea as a boundary or a barrier. I think the opposite, the sea is a link to other shores. Purple sandpipers, turnstones and ringed plovers can each be seen in good numbers along our shorelines. They can be remarkably tame, feeding away just feet away from the quiet observer.
I seem to be more aware of otters at this time of year, maybe it is because their prints aren't lost with increased footprints on sandy beaches. When it was snowy, we saw signs that otters wander around Sumburgh Head quite a bit. Jenny Sutherland took this photo of an otter slide.
The otter had done a belly slide for a couple of hundred metres to the sea. I like to imagine that the rabbit prints were made at the same time.
My brother has been taking some great photosof otters. As children, the shore where his photos were taken, was our playground- exploring rock pools, catching crabs, getting wet, seaweed fights... That early connection with nature is so important for many reasons. That's why RSPB works hard to get young folk out and about, whether through our field teaching or through Wildlife Explorers and Phoenix members. Although, you're never too old to start enjoying the seashore.