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Ultimate Shetland 2021: Noss Cliffs

Our first day with our 'Ultimate Shetland' group dawned very bright and sunny, with a light breeze; absolutely perfect conditions to head out to Noss on the Mousa boat.

The island of Noss, off the east of Shetland, is one of the most important seabird colonies in Scotland. In the summer months the cliffs are alive with breeding seabirds. Inland, both Arctic and great skuas nest on the rough grazing and heathland.

Our trip took us out under the immense cliffs and it really is a truly incredible spectacle! The steep, almost terraced cliffs, are lined with breeding seabirds. Rising to 180 metres, these are the highest cliffs on Shetland’s east coast. The shallow, sandy seabed to north and south is a spawning ground for sandeels. These tiny fish are the staple food of many seabirds. 25,000 guillemots crowd the lower ledges, with gannets preferring the higher ledges for breeding. Their close relative of the guillemot, the razorbill, also nests here, but chooses more secure sites in holes or under boulders.

The Mousa boat took us right underneath these impressive towers of rock and, it is only then that you can really get some kind of gauge of the scale and magnitude of this seabird population.

The nest line all of the available ledges. Gannets will take all sorts of things from the sea and it is a little sad to see how much man-made materials there are here. World-wide, materials appearing in the nests of such birds are a wake-up call to us as to how much discarded materials there are on both land and sea.

This sight is a feast for the senses, especially on such a gorgeous day, weather wise. Soaring gannets, the air filled with their calls and the smell of the sea and the guano all adds to the experience!

Soaring around the boat, the photographic opportunities are amazing! Light and exposure is a real challenge. A dark sea and a white bird, moving fast through the air is difficult enough, but when you are on a boat, which is also moving, it is certainly a chance to really practise your skills!

What is possibly most incredible about the gannets is their diving ability. Hovering for a brief second, they fold their wings and dive into the water at an incredible speed. With the air full of them, it is nigh on impossible to capture this moment! I deleted hundreds of images of splashes, blank sea and blurs before I found just a couple....

Being on the water also gives you a chance to see some of the other species up close, like this guillemot..

Some of the guillemot are 'bridled', having a lovely white line around the eye. The Bridled guillemot is not a distinct species but a genetic polymorphism of Uria aalge, the common guillemot.

There were also a few razorbills on the water...

... and a couple of black guillemot.

Another bird that frequents this area is the Great Skua, known locally as a 'bonxie'. These are impressive members of the skua family and are often known as the 'pirates' of the sea, due to their habit of chasing other seabirds and causing them to release their crop full of food. The Bonxie is a powerful, intimidating and ruthless predator. Typically skuas tend to be opportunists and scavengers, with gannets being one of their favourite targets. With a breeding population of somewhere in the region of 7,000 pairs, Shetland is home to over 70% of the British population and about 40% of the entire world population of Great Skua.

I think they are fabulous birds to photograph....

A massive thanks to the crew of the Mousa Boat, who as always, provide a tip top service.

Back at Sandsayre, where we departed from the boat, we had a pause and some lunch in the sunshine, watching eiders and their ducklings. What a morning!


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