This is an extremely flexible tour, as the migrants and rarities which turn up are different each year and entirely dependable upon the weather! A lot of luck is required to connect with special birds so there can be no guarantees as we search for our own birds and target rarities (if practicable and entirely at the guides discretion) as we travel around. We spend most of our time on the Shetland Mainland, though will certainly plan to visit Unst, the northernmost island and a real rarity hotspot! An expected week on Shetland may look something like the itinerary detailed below, but be prepared for days to be rotated or a last-minute change of plan should something good turn up elsewhere…
Day 1: Saturday – Arrival and transfer to North Mainland
We travel to Shetland via Aberdeen, and with some time for birding once we arrive at Sumburgh may begin by searching for known rarities straight away. There can often be a Barred Warbler, Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike or Common Rosefinch on offer as we work our way north towards our accommodation in North Mainland, where we stay for three nights.
Day 2: Sunday – Unst
From our North Mainland base, we have opportunities to explore a wide area and plan to visit Unst at least once. With a tundra-like landscape and limited cover, the island promises good birdwatching, has a growing reputation for rarities and is well covered by visiting birders despite its large size. Travelling first through the island of Yell, we plan the day around the ferries and take in any special birds there en route, recent delights including Swainson’s Thrush, Melodious Warbler and American Golden Plover. Once on Unst we investigate beaches and bays, gardens and plantations for migrants. Birds often seem out of place - we have seen more than one Long-eared Owl, Water Rail and Woodcock in bizzarre circumstances next to a stone wall! All habitats offer potential, and even the smallest patch of cover can provide shelter and food for passerines! In the right conditions we may encounter large numbers of pipits, thrushes, flycatchers, chats, finches and warblers. Heatherlea groups have certainly enjoyed some great days birding on Unst in the past, among our recent highlights we have seen River, Lanceolated and Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Richard’s, Olive-backed and Red-throated Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat and Woodchat Shrike.
Day 3: Monday – North-west Mainland
At least one day of wind and rain is likely on Shetland, and a day exploring Northmavine offers a good opportunity to find your own birds in less favourable conditions. Less attended by visiting birders due to its remoteness, some of the archipelago’s breeding birds can still be present including Red-throated Diver on small lochans. Great Skua often pass overhead, Red Grouse may be seen on the moorland and hunting Merlin can pop up anywhere! Golden Plover flocks are numerous and worthy of attention as they can attract other waders including Ruff or something rarer from the west like a Buff-breasted and Pectoral Sandpiper. On exposed headlands Snow and Lapland Bunting latch onto passing flocks of Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Twite, and we have been lucky with (Horneman’s) Arctic Redpoll in this region on more than one occasion. Sea-watching can be rewarding, with skuas, shearwaters and perhaps a Grey Phalarope or Sabine’s Gull following storms. There is mammal interest too with Mountain Hare on the moors, Otter and Grey Seal in quiet Voes and chances of cetaceans including Harbour Porpoise, Risso’s Dolphin and even Orca.
Day 4 & 5: Tuesday & Wednesday - South Mainland
Today we relocate to South Mainland taking in any rarities on the way. Attracting the highest density of birders, many rare and scarce birds are often found there, and we try and see as many as possible from our base. The best wader habitats are in the south and we will probably scan through the flocks of Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Knot, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper on the Pool of Virkie more than once. Iceland and Glaucous Gull may be present, and we have enjoyed both King Eider and Surf Scoter among the Common Eider on recent tours.
Less rugged than the north and with some lovely sheltered valleys, iris beds and gardens, there is plenty of habitat to explore and we often find our own rarities. Southbound migrants originating in Scandinavia can be numerous in the right conditions and likely are Redstart, Whinchat, Wheatear, Ring Ouzel, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit and several species of warbler. On some very special Shetland days Yellow-browed Warbler can be the commonest bird! Over the years our groups have seen too many special passerines to name them all, some highlights from the south and east being Pallid Harrier, Hoopoe, White’s Thrush, Brown and Isabelline Shrike, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechat, Melodious, Icterine, Greenish and Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Short-toed Lark, Rustic and Little Bunting. More patience can be required with a north or westerly airflow but the rewards high, Myrtle Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo and Buff-bellied Pipit among our recent successes. We stay in South Mainland, usually at Sumburgh for four nights.
Day 6: Thursday – Another Island or even back to Unst
Maintaining our flexible approach, we may select another outpost such as Whalsay, Bressay, Noss or the Outer Skerries, be it to search for a known rarity or explore pastures new in the quest to find our own birds. Venturing further afield and taking a ferry to one of the Northern Isles such as Yell, Fetlar or even Unst again won’t be ruled out if there is good birding on offer.
Day 7: Friday – Central or West Mainland and rarity round-up
With some good wildfowl habitats in Central Mainland, Whooper Swan and Greylag and Pink-footed Geese are likely in the fields, perhaps with scarcer Barnacle or Greenland White-fronted in tow. Sea-duck include Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and Eider, while Nearctic possibilities among common wildfowl on freshwater include American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck. Just like in the rest of Shetland, rare passerines can turn up anywhere and featuring on the recent roll-call from Central and West Mainland are Black-billed Cuckoo, Palla’s Grasshopper and Western Orphean Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Citrine Wagtail and Pechora Pipit to name but a few, and some of these have been seen by Heatherlea groups. With it being our last day, we will be sure to try and make the extra effort to see anything special before our tour our comes to an end.
Day 8: Saturday – Departure
We transfer from our hotel to Sumburgh Airport for our flight home.