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MIGRATING BIRDS OF THE SHETLAND ISLANDS

A passing place on the way to and from the frozen north, we visited the subarctic archipelago to put our new collection to the test. Intrigued by the amazing wildlife, we sought to find out more.

Summer sun was on their wings, Winter in their cry

Autumn. Shetland. The breeding seabirds who have made the islands their home over the summer months are preparing to depart this wild archipelago. They will fly hundreds of thousands of miles across the world, thought to navigate using a mineral in their beak to identify the earth’s magnetic fields so that they can find True North. 

More species of seabirds breed in Shetland during the summer than any other place in the UK and many are rare. The diverse geography allows these birds to happily co-exist; in June and July the inaccessible rock ledges heave with nesting Gannets, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Shags whilst Black Guillemots and Rock Pipits prefer the rocky beaches below. Fulmars perch on grassy overhangs whilst Puffins nestle into soft burrows. In amongst the pink carpets of sea-thrift are more long distance migrants including Terns as well as wading birds such as Ring Plovers and Oystercatchers.

Some are drawn to these islands as a passing place on their way to the frozen North, midway between the Artic and the UK, the cold clear waters teeming with fish. Others are migrants pushed off course and forced to land on Shetland to seek food and shelter. Further vagrant species from North America and Asia add to the cacophony. Regular visitors are joined by occasional sensational surprises; the noise is phenomenal.

puffinsBy September the puffins, one of Shetland’s most iconic birds, have already vacated their colonies. Tens of thousands of nesting pairs occupy deep burrows beneath the soft grassy slopes during the summer months, spending their days travelling between 100-400km off shore to find fish. With numbers of puffins in decline and the species being declared vulnerable to global extinction, the RSPB has been active on Shetland over the summer of 2017 as part of Project Puffin to help conserve puffins by finding out what they feed their chicks, where they go to find food and how their numbers are changing.

Other research is frequently carried out into the breeding ecology and scientific ornithology by local groups including the Fair Isle Bird Observatory who uses Shetland as a giant open-air laboratory to carry out pioneering studies on bird migration and the Shetland Bird Club who issue an annual bird report.

With no-one to tell the birds when it is time to leave, scientists have long pondered what is the external trigger which creates the irresistible desire to depart. Perhaps it is the onset of overnight darkness, the ending of the summer simmer din where darkness never truly falls. Perhaps we will never know. Whatever the reason, something deep inside stirs and just like that, summer is over. Autumn is here. The summer breeding cliffs and colonies fall silent once more; Shetland remains a passing place, waiting for the winter arrivals when returning White-billed divers, King Eiders, Long-tailed Duck, Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper arrive from the Arctic.

Constantly inspired by wildlife, our new collection of tees features some of our favourite.

 

Words by Rachel Buchanan | Images by David Gray & Oli Culcheth

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