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Spring in the Northern Isles
26 May - 2 June 2017

The Northern Isles in spring are a very special place, with a wealth of stunning wildlife-watching opportunities as well as breathtaking scenery and tranquillity. This eight day tour has been specially planned to coincide with the late arrival of spring, with some birds only now in late May arriving back to these remote isles to breed. Initially we'll be based on the South Mainland from where we can visit many of the best known sites, including a late evening visit to the island of Mousa to witness the spectacle of Storm Petrel returning to the colony. Next we move north to Unst, the most northerly point of the British Isles. Here we can marvel at one of the many bustling seabird colonies, as well as visit the neighbouring islands of Yell and Fetlar, the latter famously home to the beautiful Red-necked Phalarope, one of Britain's rarest and most-sought after breeding birds. Of course, another feature at this time is the regular passage of scarce and rare migrants and given the right conditions who knows what may turn up? In addition to the birds we can also expect spectacular displays of wild flowers, Otters, Seals, Dolphins and if we are lucky perhaps even the chance of seeing Killer Whales!

The tour begins at Edinburgh Airport with a direct flight to Sumburgh, from where we will transfer straight to the Sumburgh Hotel and check in for a two night stay.

Today we will enjoy a full day exploring the South Mainland, starting with a quick check of the hotel gardens, a known migrant trap which could produce our first good birds before breakfast. After a delicious traditional Scottish breakfast we will try and catch up with any rarities found previously and while doing so have an excellent chance of finding our own. These may include Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike or Marsh and Icterine Warblers, to name just a few. Areas we are likely to visit include Quendale Valley, Geosetter Burn and the gardens around Sandwick, Bigton and Toab. We will also visit the Pool of Virkie, perhaps the best site in the Shetland for watching waders, while at Scatness we can observe breeding Arctic Terns. We will also visit Sumburgh Head, an impressive seabird city where we will encounter our first Puffins among a host of other seabirds. If the sea is calm we can also spend some time scanning offshore, as this is one of Shetland's best locations for Killer Whale sightings, though Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise and dolphins are more likely.

After the thrill of our first full day on the islands we return to the hotel for dinner before continuing the excitement and adventure with a late evening excursion to the enchanting island of Mousa. Here during the Simmer Dim (Summer Twilight) thousands of dainty Storm Petrels, our smallest breeding seabird, return to their nest-sites in the walls of the Iron Age Broch – arguably the most impressive of its kind. Watching the petrels fluttering like bats against the summer night sky and listening to their incredible purring song is a simply unforgettable experience!

After yesterday's late night, we'll take a leisurely start with a relaxed breakfast before making our way north. We begin with a drive to the northern part of the Shetland Mainland, soaking up the stunning scenery along the way. Depending on what's around and the weather etc. we may spend some time here or continue straight onto the excellent ferry services to Yell. Either way we have ample time to complete our journey, allowing us to make several stops along the way. Once on Yell we can check a few sites for migrants before driving the length of the Island (just 18 miles) and catching another Ferry to Unst, our base for the next three nights. Once on Unst we will head to Saxa Vord, arriving early evening with time to freshen up ready for dinner.

Today we enjoy the rich flora and fauna of Unst, starting in the hamlets of Skaw and Norwick, just a stone's throw from our accommodation. Here the wildflower meadows, overgrown ditches and sheltered gardens are a potential haven for migrants and we'll spend the morning birding in search of something unusual. More common migrants include Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Northern Wheatear and Common Redstart, while scarcer birds such as Bluethroat, Golden Oriole, Common Rosefinch and Rustic Bunting are all regular on Shetland in spring. Whilst out birding we will also visit a site home to Edmondston's Chickweed, a remarkable plant with its entire global distribution confined to a small area here on Unst.

In the afternoon we visit the renowned Hermaness National Nature Reserve, where as we walk through the heart of the reserve we can guarantee ‘up close and personal' encounters with Great Skuas, known locally as Bonxies, which nest in large numbers on the surrounding moorland. Reaching the spectacular cliffs, we will be greeted by perhaps the most charismatic of Shetlands birds -the Puffin - with some 25,000 pairs making Hermaness their summer home. Another important feature here is the Gannetry - the largest in Shetland - with some 20,000 breeding pairs. As if that wasn't enough we will also have breathtaking views of Muckle Flugga, a small rocky island home to the most northerly lighthouse in Britain.

After an optional pre-breakfast excursion to check the nearby gardens and crops for migrants, we take the 25-minute ferry crossing to the neighbouring island of Fetlar, where we'll spend most of the day. Fetlar is the summer home of one of Britain's rarest breeding birds, the delightful Red-necked Phalarope, with 90% of the UK population of this stunning Arctic wader found here. These brightly-coloured and elegant birds are often remarkably tame and ample time will be given to try and ensure we receive good views. The island is also home to some of the highest densities of moorland breeding birds anywhere in Britain, with nationally important numbers of Whimbrel and Red-throated Diver, along with good numbers of Arctic Skua, Golden Plover and Twite.

Nowhere in Shetland are the summer wildflowers more luxuriant than in the rich soils of Fetlar, which since Norse times has been known as the 'Garden of Shetland' and time permitting we can search for some of the rarer species such as Water Aven, Lesser Twayblade and Frog Orchid.

Today we travel from our base in the far north back to the Sumburgh Hotel in the South. Our route once more involves two ferry crossings, giving us another chance of seeing cetaceans. It also involves passing through four different harbours, where we'll keep an eye out for any lingering Iceland or Glaucous Gulls. If we haven't already enjoyed good views of Otter, we can spend time exploring some of the remote beaches and coves on Yell, home to one of the highest densities in the country. It is also one of the best places for good views of one of Shetlands most iconic birds, the beautiful Black Guillemot. Once back on the Mainland our plans will vary depending on recent sightings, perhaps if a good rarity has been found in the south we'll head straight down for that, or maybe we could try and find our own in the North, at the migrant hotspots at Vidlin, Voe or Kergord.

After looking down at the spectacular seabird city at Hermaness we complete our seabird extravaganza with an exhilarating and award-winning boat trip to the spectacular Noss National Nature Reserve, where we can view the colonies from a totally different perspective. Home to one of the biggest seabird colonies in the British Isles, we will witness the spectacle of up to 80,000 breeding birds jostling for position on the 200 metre high sandstone cliffs. The sight of thousands of Gannets around the boat is one not to be missed, while close views of Puffin, Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Shag and Great Skuas are practically guaranteed. Common and Grey Seals are also usually seen at close range and there's always the chance of cetaceans. The crew will also give us a truly unique insight into life beneath the waves as they explore the depths with their underwater camera.

Afterwards, we will further explore the South Mainland, visiting Lochs Tingwall, Spiggie and Hilwell, home to breeding Red-throated Diver and Red-breasted Merganser. Whooper Swans also nest here at their only regular British outpost, while the surrounding moorland holds Arctic Hare and Red Grouse. Breeding waders are also likely to be a feature and should include Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew, Common Snipe and Northern Lapwing.

Sadly, our Shetland adventure must come to an end and after an early breakfast we depart for Sumburgh airport for a morning flight back to Edinburgh, allowing plenty of time for our onward journey home.

**Please note that travel plans and excursions may be disrupted at short notice due to adverse weather.



More Details

Total Cost £1350.00
Deposit £300
Single room supplement £100

Price breakdown
Air Price £200
Ground Price £1150


Whats Included
Return flights from Edinburgh to Shetland, All ferry crossings, Ground transport in Shetland, 7 nights accommodation, All meals*, Guiding services throughout, Boat trips to Noss & Mousa.
*starting with Dinner on day one and finishing with breakfast on day 8*

Not Included
Travel expenses to Edinburgh, Insurance, Drinks and Items of a personal nature.

Group Size
Maximum of 7, plus leaders.

Ian Cowgill - a Shetland veteran with over 20 visits under his belt and Dave Read.

This tour will be run at a moderate pace, consisting of generally short walks over varied terrain. There will be a number of early starts, though these are always optional and some longer days in the field are expected. Accommodation at Saxa Vord is in Scandinavian self catering lodges, which are well equipped, warm, comfortable and spacious.


Financial Protection
All the flight and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. When you pay you will be supplied with an ATOL certificate. Please ask for it and check to ensure that everything you booked (flights, hotels and other services) is listed on it. Please see our booking conditions for further information or for more information about financial protection and the ATOL certificate go to:

Atlantic Puffin


Red-backed Shrike

European Storm Petrel


Great Skua

Red-necked Phalarope



Red-throated Diver


Arctic Skua

Grey Seal

Common Rosefinch


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