Seabirds are gradually returning to the Shetland Islands. At Sumburgh Head, puffins, guillemots and razorbills are back and forth. It'll be a couple of weeks before they are seen more regularly on land. Bonxies (great skuas) are increasing in number each day, and we'll be keeping our eyes to the skies for the return of Arctic skuas and Arctic terns (I can feel my pulse rising just thinking about the terns!). I can never tire of watching Shetland's seabirds, from the tiny nocturnal storm petrels to the great gregarious gannets. Seabirds are so impressive and inspiring, whether they are flying through gale force winds or sitting on calm seas coloured by sunset. Now, thanks to a spot of technology, we can watch puffins underground. Yes - puffincam is back!
Last year, watched by some 90,000 people around the globe, our pair of puffins successfully reared their chick. There were many memorable moments, like when the chick hatched or perhaps you can remember the ASBO puffin which attacked the helpless chick. Over winter, it has been heartening to hear how many people enjoyed tuning into puffincam, from local school families to a dental practice in Germany. Well, our puffin pair have returned - only briefly mind you, but I can't tell you how super it felt to see their image in the burrow. You can watch the first sighting of them here, thanks to our partners at Promote Shetland. Then there's two birds in this clip. I've put up a couple of posts on the RSPB Community Shetland Group blog, so you can have a look there to see how we set up the camera, and we'll soon have the live feed on the RSPB website.
Last weekend was the annual event "Da Voar Redd Up," organised by Shetland Amenity Trust. Thousands of local volunteers put on their rubber gloves and gather up the rubbish along roadsides and beaches. Da Voar Redd Up (which means "The Spring Clean") was started by the Unst Community Council over twenty years ago, and has been a massive success. It's a brilliant initiative, illustrating how much our community cares about the environment. Of course, we all look forwards to the day that we don't have to do it, as it would mean litter pollution was no longer an issue. Until such a day, every spring you will see mountains of green bags gathered up at the end of beaches for collection and disposal.
Do keep on returning to this blog and the Shetland Blog for puffincam updates and other news. Better still - come and visit us at Sumburgh Head! Our Date With Nature is open daily from 23 May until 15 August, where Rebeca and Newton will be able to help show you the seabirds and share their stories.
Here's hoping for a successful breeding season for all our seabirds.
Shetland is stunningly beautiful today - brilliant sunshine, a few bonny clouds and calm seas. It was near perfect conditions for Newton and I to join Martin and Mick of Aberdeen University/SOTEAG to monitor tysties on Mousa RSPB reserve.
The alarm clock went off at 04:30 and by 05:30 we'd landed on Mousa, with much thanks to Tom Jamieson getting up so early to take us across on his ferry. We split up into two pairs and walked the circumference of the island, counting all the black guillemots along the way. Many were out on the water, but never more than a couple of hundred metres away. Those which remained onshore were remarkably tame, sometimes perched just a couple of metres away. If you are patient and close enough, you may see that the inside of a tystie's beak is bright red matching those bold red legs.
Breeding tysties were in decline on Mousa, but I am glad to say that the last couple of years have shown significant improvements in their population. There were around 180 today, meaning that Mousa is still a very important place for these beautiful birds. I know I've mentioned it before, but long-term monitoring of seabirds is so important for gaining knowledge about the sea.
I think the name tystie comes from Old Norse for "whistler", owing to the thin high pitched "twhheeeeee" these small auks make. Another whistler heard and spotted on Mousa was a draatsi (Shetland for otter). I don't know the roots of the word, but I think it was what supersticious fishermen would refer to them as (there are certain things you must never say on a fishing boat, like seal, otter and even minister!). Newton and Martin enjoyed views of an otter, which they believe to be a female calling for its cub. Their whistle can sound like a bird, and it is well worth listening to a recording before going otterspotting.
After leaving Mousa, I took a quick walk along Grutness beach before coming up to the office. The dunters and raingeese, just a few metres from the sandy shore, were really vocal and active. As I reached the end of the sand, I noticed something which made me smile. A large shoal of good-sized sandeels! 2010 was not a good year for many of Shetland's breeding seabirds, and I only saw tiny "needles" (young, sandeels) late in the season. This has given me a injection of hope for the breeding season ahead.
Sandeels are such an important species for our seabirds, but sometimes there is a lack of them. Climate change is believed to be an issue affecting sandeel availability as can be fisheries. We can all do our bet to tackle climate change, and the landmark Shetland Sandeel Agreement, has managed our local sandeel fishery for a number of years. I say the agreement was landmark, as it was one of the first instances of conservationists and marine industry coming together to find solutions which benefit both man and bird. During 1984-90, Shetland's seabirds suffered disastrous breeding failures with some species, such as Arctic terns, producing no young for several years. Following lobbying, mainly by the RSPB, the Shetland sandeel fishery was closed during 1991-94. Although there is no conclusive proof that the fishery caused the crash in sandeel stocks, seabirds have bred more successfully since the fishery was closed. During 1995-97, a small fishery reopened with a number of restrictions in place. However, this still allowed fishing to take place close to seabird colonies during June and July, when most seabirds are feeding their young and need a plentiful supply of sandeels. In 1998, an agreement was reached between the Shetland Fishermen's Association, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the RSPB and the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department (SOAEFD), on a new management regime for the Shetland Sandeel Fishery which is now reviewed annually.
Here's hoping for sea of plentiful sandeels in the coming weeks and months!