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Shetland in Spring for birders

Join us for an exciting birding tour of Shetland - targeting rare migrants!

2025 Dates
  • 10 May - 17 May 2025
Duration8 Days
2025 Price
£2095 pp
£275 single supplement. Deposit £300
Max Group Size7 per guide

Please note this holiday starts and ends in Aberdeen or Sumburgh.

May is a great time for birding on Shetland, we have carefully timed this holiday so that we can enjoy superb birding during the long days of late Spring. This is an exciting experience, as we often alter our plans depending on new arrivals, using our excellent local contacts and latest information to be able to adapt our schedule at short notice. Extreme rarities can arrive at any time and we will be 'on the ball' to seek these birds. Migrants arrive almost daily (often in 'falls' of hundreds of birds), with many in their finest breeding colours. Typical scarce birds at this time of year include Red-backed Shrike, Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch, Wryneck, Rustic Bunting and Subalpine Warbler, with lots of overshoots expected from the Mediterranean. If the winds shift round to the fabled south east then birds of Eastern Europe or further afield could be expected. The potential rarity list incorporates a good range of the migrants of the Northern Hemisphere, and birds from Siberia are as possible as birds from North America.

Lots of our time will go into finding our own rarities, with a real team approach to uncovering our own birds. In quieter periods of migrant birding we will be entertained by densely packed seabird colonies, full of auks (including thousands of Puffins) and wonderful Gannetries. At this time of year there are good numbers of nesting waders too, with Snipe, Redshank, Lapwing, Curlew, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover at amazing densities. Rare nesting birds include Red-throated Diver, Red-necked Phalarope, Whooper Swan and Whimbrel, and passerines include large numbers of Twite, Rock Pipit and Wheatear; a feast of birding!

This holiday is best suited to birders. If a rarity turns up, or we need to spend time finding and identifying a 'tricky' bird, this takes precedent over other considerations. Historical sites, shops and cultural aspects take a backseat on this particular holiday in favour of more birding. Our Shetland Island Explorer holiday is more suited for those wanting a more general tour of Shetland. 

Flights to/from Shetland are not included in the holiday price. You will need to book these yourself though we can advise times.

This is one of our 'for birders' holidays, click here to see more!

Day 1: Saturday - Arrival and transfer to North Mainland
Transfer to Shetland via Aberdeen arriving Sumburgh early afternoon. From here we may investigate any rarities immediately available, or head directly to Sumburgh Head for our first of several encounters with Puffins and a whole suite of nesting seabirds, with regular Arctic and Great Skua. Sumburgh Head is a superb cetacean watching spot, and one of the best land-based watchpoints for Killer Whales in Europe. Later in the afternoon we will travel through Shetland to North Mainland where we stay for three nights.

Day 2: Sunday - Unst
Based in the north we have many options, and a flexible approach will certainly be to our advantage. Today we will plan to visit Unst, which as Britain's most northerly inhabited isle is truly special - we are closer to the Arctic Circle than we are to London and the breeding birdlist reflects that. After travelling north through Yell, we spend time at Hermaness NNR, a truly iconic destination with good numbers of nesting seabirds, including Great and Arctic Skua on the moorland, alongside nesting waders such as Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Snipe and Dunlin. Once at the cliffs we have an incredible view onto a bustling gannetry and seabird colony. The rest of our time will be spent investigating beaches and bays, gardens and plantations for migrants. All habitats offer potential, and any patch of cover can provide shelter and feeding for passerines. Unst has a fabulous reputation for rare and scarce birds and our Heatherlea groups have enjoyed some great days here before. Bluethroat, Red-backed Shrike, Wryneck, Short-toed Lark and Red-throated Pipit are near annual at this time of year, while our tour group struck gold in 2018 discovering the UK’s first spring record of Black-faced Bunting!

Day 3: Monday - Fetlar
Today we head across to Fetlar, known as the Garden of Shetland. This green, relatively low-lying island has a very high density of nesting waders in the rich pastures and is famous for its nesting Red-necked Phalaropes. We will spend time looking for these iconic birds, as well as exploring the many pools and wetlands for migrant waders or ducks. Red-throated Diver breed, and we will likely see them alongside stunning Great Northern Diver fishing in the island’s bays. Trees and cover are at a premium on Fetlar, passerines are often out in the open or much easier to find, with stock fences a favoured perch for shrikes, finches and buntings. Fetlar is also superb for Otter, and we spend time looking for them at favoured places along its long coastline and also have good chances of cetaceans on ferry crossing through the Bluemull Sound.

Day 4: Tuesday – North-west Mainland
Today we explore north-west Mainland, a truly vast and extremely rugged corner of Shetland. We will take time to bird many of the voes and inlets, looking for passage seaduck and divers. White-billed Diver and King Eider are near-annual and we will make sure we check everything we come across for these northern rarities! The cliffs at Eshaness are a must-see, and the short turf here is often to the liking of migrant passerines and waders, perhaps a late Snow or Lapland Bunting, a 'trip' of Dotterel or even a Buff-breasted Sandpiper – just like the one we found here in 2019! If the wind blows onshore from the west, we will tuck ourselves in for a seawatch as this is peak time for passage Pomarine and Long-tailed Skua. This part of Shetland is a real hidden gem, and any sheltered cover or bay is always worth checking. Another good area for Otter, Mountains Hare may also be seen around Ronas Hill (Shetlands highest point) and White-tailed Eagle and Snowy Owl have both lingered here in recent years. Later we travel through Mainland to Sumburgh where we stay for four nights.

Day 5: Wednesday – South Mainland
With an excellent road network we can quickly move around to all corners of the mainland, so we can plan our days meticulously according to the weather, tides and previous sightings. Pool of Virkie is one of the best locations in Shetland for waders, and among hoards of Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Knot, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit and Redshank we search for scarcer species. Curlew Sandpiper, Temminck's and Little Stint are recorded near annually while more extreme rarities have included Semi-palmated Plover, Great Knot and Terek Sandpiper - the latter seen by our Heatherlea group in 2018. Sumburgh Head is another migration site with an enviable reputation and, we many also visit Quendale, Scatness, Boddam, Quarff and Levenwick. All are great sites, while this level of freedom gives us a great chance of boosting our birdlist and covering other nearby areas not often visited by other groups or birders.

Day 6: Thursday – Central Mainland or another island
Today we travel to central mainland including the Tingwall Valley, Scalloway and Nesting Bay all of which offer chances for wildfowl including breeding Whooper Swan, waders including breeding Whimbrel and seabirds. Visiting another island outpost such as Whalsay, Outer Skerries, Bressay or Noss may also be possible, be it to search for a known rarity or to explore pastures new for our own birds.

Day 7: Friday - Mainland
Our final day, and we will cover the best birding areas in South and Central Mainland today, taking in gardens, croftland, wetlands and shorelines amid stunning scenery. Rarities are the top target on our final day, and our track record is enviable here!

Day 8: Saturday - Departure
We transfer from our hotel to Sumburgh Airport for our flight home.

Please note that we do not visit Mousa or Noss on this itinerary, please see the Shetland Island Explorer or Shetland and Orkney holidays for these experiences later in summer.

This holiday can be combined with:

Birding the Highlands in May

North Ronaldsay in Spring for birders, Outer Hebrides in Spring, Shetland Island Explorer

Please note: all itineraries are given as a guide only. Actual holiday content may vary according to the judgement of your guide, and elements beyond our control (eg weather).

Expect a wide variation in weather conditions, which can be wild and unpredictable, with temperatures perhaps averaging around 14 degrees Celsius. Sunshine, rain and strong winds are all possible, and you will probably experience a bit of everything. Wind can be fairly constant on many days. Biting insects are not expected. Please bring fully waterproof walking boots or wellies, fully waterproof clothing, gloves, hat and plenty of warm clothes and a small rucksack. The holiday will be run at a relaxed pace, though if a rare bird is found nearby or if we need to catch a ferry we may need to pack up at short notice! There will be short to moderate (1 to 3 mile) walks most days. Chosen walks will be on mostly good ground, but please note that rare birds are often found in inconvenient locations that may involve climbing stiles and gates, or walking over wet or rocky ground in order to see them. All excursions are of course optional!

Please note that this is a group holiday with fixed accommodation points, large road distances (by road, top to bottom is 90 miles!) and limited ferries so there will be occasions where we will not go for a rare bird that has been found, regardless of the level of rarity. At the same time, if we attempt a twitch, it may require a ferry crossing and time spent in the minibus, with no guarantee of seeing the bird of course! These are frequently short-notice changes of itinerary based on the information at hand. The guides have choices to make, and their decision is final in these circumstances.

What's included in your 'Shetland in Spring for birders' holiday price

• Seven nights comfortable en-suite hotel/guest house accommodation on Shetland. We choose from our personally inspected shortlist, where birders are welcome and the hospitality is special. Guests are never expected to share. All rooms are en-suite. Full details with your joining pack.
• Full Scottish breakfast and dinner from Saturday evening till Saturday morning, packed lunch daily.
• All transfers by comfortable minibus. All ferries and other boat trips. 
• Guidance from a professional Group Leader.

What's not included in your 'Shetland in Spring for birders' holiday price

• Flights to and from Shetland. You will need to book these yourself, though we can advise times.
• Travel to/from Aberdeen.
• Insurance, drinks and other items of a personal nature.

Other birdwatching holidays in Shetland Isles


Heatherlea is THE company for top quality birding holidays in Scotland, chosen by more and more birders each year. Relax and enjoy first-rate birding with Scotland’s best guiding team, as we do all the planning! Our fully inclusive guided holidays concentrate on the real experience, and we take time to ensure that each of our guests enjoys everything we do. Above all, we make it our business to show key wildlife to you.

These popular holidays are carefully designed to explore the beautiful and wildlife-rich Scottish islands and far west coast. Many itineraries are unique, designed to give you the best of island wildlife at the best time of year. All are run at a leisurely pace, though we might move a little faster when rare migrants and vagrants are in our sights!

  • We have been organising birding and wildlife holidays for over 30 seasons, and have a highly experienced and capable team. We also offer a telephone and email service outside normal office hours.
  • This holiday has a maximum ratio of 7 clients per guide, putting the emphasis on personal service, and helping you get the best possible experience.
  • Heatherlea are Mainland Scotland’s FIRST ‘5-Star Wildlife Experience!’ This is the highest available grading, classified as ‘exceptional’ by visitScotland.
  • Single guests are never expected or invited to share.
  • Our holidays often include things which others might invite you to pay yourself, for instance packed lunch and tips to hotels.
  • Heatherlea hold full Tour Operator Insurance for your added protection.
  • Heatherlea is a limited company, registered in Scotland. We are also registered to pay VAT, which is included in your holiday price as quoted on this page.
  • Once your holiday is confirmed in writing by us, we promise not to surcharge the price for any reason.

Enjoy an excellent birding and wildlife holiday with Heatherlea.
Mainland Scotland’s FIRST ‘5-Star Wildlife Experience!’

Visit Scotland - 5 star Wildlife Experience

Visit Scotland

Tour Details

About Heatherlea Holidays

Contact Information

The Mountview Hotel, Nethybridge,
PH25 3EB Scotland

T: +44(0)1479 821248