Day 8 |
Jun 06, 2012

Fair Isle, Mousa and Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland 

By Chris Harbard, Ornithologist

Co-ordinates: N 60º 00', W 01º 10'
Weather: Sunny with clouds
Air Temperature: 10ºC 50ºF

The sun was shining and at our early 6:30 breakfast we were off to Fair Isle, the isolated island half way between the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. There was a moderate wind and 'white horses' just starting to show on the waves. After an initial inspection of the South Harbour we moved up the east coast to see how it looked at the other possible landing spot. Our aim was to anchor offshore and land by Zodiac to explore, but sadly the combination of swell and wind meant that we had to cancel our visit. This was a big disappointment for me as the island is a Mecca for birdwatchers, with its own bird observatory, and a history of attracting rare vagrant birds in spring and autumn. I had always wanted to get there but had never managed it … another time!

So instead we began heading north towards our next destination, the island of Mousa, off mainland Shetland. The island contains one of the most complete and intact examples of an Iron Age broch – a tower built entirely from stone without the aid of any mortar. So good was the design that after 2000 years the stairway between inner and outer walls is still there and can still be used for climbing to the top. The true nature of brochs is still debated but whatever their use, this one is truly a testament to those early building techniques. It has at times been used as a dwelling over the centuries but now it is home to nesting European Storm-petrels, which come to the island under the cover of darkness to avoid predators such as the huge Great Black-baked Gull.

When enough people had arrived in the Zodiacs, I started a nature walk across the island, naturally concentrating on the birds. There were Wrens singing from every ruined building or stonewall, and the dark, intimidating Great Skuas floated over head, or watched from nearby mounds. There were also the smaller Arctic Skuas nearby, and both species would be watching out for Arctic Terns returning to their mates with fish, so that they could chase them and steal it. The walk went past a deserted loch, and ended at a sandy bay, isolated from the sea at low tide to form a salty lagoon. In the middle of this lounged about a dozen Grey Seals. The Royal Society has roped off an area for the Protection of Birds, a group who manages the island as a bird reserve. In this area were nesting Arctic Terns, Ringed Plovers, Oystercatchers and Redshanks. Hans Peter was searching for plants and found Spring Squill, Spotted Orchids and Common Butterwort, the latter being an insectivorous plant.

Soon it was time to head back to the ship for lunch and we set off for Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands. Because we had cancelled our Fair Isle visit, we were several hours ahead of schedule and we arrived early at Lerwick. As the only cruise ship berth was taken by the Island Sky, another expedition cruise ship due in imminently, we had to anchor and Zodiac guests ashore for a walk around the town. Lerwick is a charming Shetland town, full of paved and cobbled streets and narrow lanes. Older houses are build of grey granite, but modern houses are often more colourful. The shops were all open, enabling me to purchase some gifts, and those that wanted to could find cakes and coffee in several places. The usual recap and briefing completed the afternoon and as usual preceded a fabulous dinner. As we were staying overnight in Lerwick it was possible to go into town after dinner and experience a little of the nightlife in Shetland.