Summer Lull: Unst, Shetland, 11th-31st July 2022

We returned in time for Unsfest, returning after a two-year COVID-induced layoff. We didn’t attend very much, to be honest, but it was nice to know that everything was going on. We did go to the panto, “Jack & the Beanstalk”, which was excellent, and came across some of the Unstfest Puffins. This year is the centenary of Unst FC, so the puffins are commemorating some past players. One commemorates our friend Alastair Hughson of Uyeasound, a tricky winger in his day, but it is probably the most remote, on the slopes of Virda Field south of Baltasound, and I have only seen it from a distance so far.

Panto antics
An Unstfest Puffin on Ward of Norwick

Birdwise, the main interest was to see what was happening with bird flu on Hermaness after my extended absence. Signs are that things have slowed. Searching for Bonxie (Great Skua) corpses produced very few fresh ones, although there were some, but most have left (hopefully, unless they have all died). Only a few active territories are occupied on Hermaness, all near the cliffs. Most of the rest of the hill is vacant. The breeding productivity plot had just three loafing adults in it and, clearly, no chicks.

Gannets are still dying as well, of not at the rate they were earlier in the year. There are freshly dead adults still to be found on the cliffs, or even on the moorland, and there were even some dead chicks, although whether they had succumbed to flu, or just died because their parents were no longer around to provision them, was unclear. Somehow, the cliffs looked sparser than usual, but it could just be that there are not as many non-breeders as usual. The monitoring next month will be illuminating.

Gannets – note the dead birds in the lower image

On Hermaness, and in Shetland generally, as far as I am aware, it is still these two species that seem to be doing badly. Bird flu has got into populations of other seabirds elsewhere, but is not obvious in any other species in Shetland. Some species seem to be doing well and the absence of Bonxies may be a coincidence, but the relatively poor weather, which does not usually lead to good breeding seasons, suggests otherwise. There look likely to be more fledged Kittiwakes in the breeding plots than there have been for years while, elsewhere on Unst, there are locally-fledged terns and gulls. I had really noticed how few juvenile gulls have been around (or obvious at least) in recent years until this year. There have been quite a few short-winged inexperienced juveniles flopping around inexpertly, looking like easy targets for any predator.

Herring Gulls, looking relaxed in the absence of any large, brown birds

The raingeese (Red-throated Divers) on Hermaness don’t seem to be having a better year than usual. They are noticeably absent from one pool which is used as Bonxie club and bathing area, and I somehow feel that this is not coincidence.

Red-throated Diver (taken under licence during routine monitoring)
Panicking geese

Being away at the wrong time, added to the problems of bird flu, meant that I largely missed out on the privilege of monitoring Red-necked Phalaropes this year, although I have seen a few.

Male Red-necked Phalarope taken under licence

I let people with the proper sanitisation equipment do my phal sites this year. I did get some virucide and a footbath after we returned from Greenland, and some of the islands are now being closed to visitors due to birdflu, but it does all seem about two months too late. The epidemic was at its height at the beginning of June.

July is a time for looking for plants, and I finally got one of my main Unst target species this year. Grass-of-Parnassus only has one Unst site, just south of Uyeasound and Brydon Thomason managed to relocate it this year, so I went straight there as soon as I got the news. Quite common elsewhere in Shetland, and in places down south, including the south-west Lancashire dunes, it is still a bonny site.

Grass-of-Parnassus

I also went out for a day with Paul Harvey and Roger Tait. We looked for Alpine Saw-wort at its only Unst site and, although we found it, they were tiny and not even thinking about flowering. We also looked at some of the hawkweeds at Burrafirth and paid a quick visit to the Fragrant Orchids on the Keen.

Blind Alpine Saw-wort
Hieraceum gratum
Fragrant Orchid on the Keen of Hamar

There have not been many migrants around during the month. Winds have been in the west and it has often been cool and overcast. The fourth Unst Snout and a Nomophila noctuella were the highlights in the moth trap, and an unseasonable Pintail and a few returning waders, such as Knot and Black-tailed Godwit, were about all there was of note.

A tatty Red Admiral – a remnant from an influx while we were away
Juvenile Twite
Immature Wheatear
Incubating Ringed Plover

I met a visiting former colleague from Baltasound school during the month. She introduced me to her partner as “This is the person I told you about, who tells terrible jokes but you laugh anyway.” I’ll take that.

The month ended with some dolphins in Haroldswick on Sunday 31st. I did my usual, deciding that they would be gone by the time I got there, then discovering they were still there, and going to look for them only to be trailing in their wake as usual. I finally caught up with them as they passed Holm of Skaw and, while they were very distant, it was clear that there was quite a school of them powering through the waves – maybe 80 or more White-sided Dolphins.

In the evening the final match of the 2021/22 season was played, with England beating Germany in the Women’s Euro Final in front of 87000 people at Wembley. A momentous day for women’s sport. It may have been the end of one season, but another has already begun, shunted forward due to the ludicrous Qatar World Cup. On the Saturday, Liverpool won the Community Shield by beating Manchester City – it’s not a friendly when you win it!

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