20th February 2018
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The scientists leave, the whales appear

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It’s happened at last … I’ve managed to get killer whale on the garden list! In the past 20 years, to my know­ledge, only two pods have been in, both when I was somewhere else.

This time, it all happened very unexpectedly last Saturday, when a knock on the door from my neigh­bour Lawrence Johnstone alerted me to a small pod of two, but more likely three, literally just over the garden wall. Burra Firth had been filling up with gannets all day, pre­sumably feeding off herring, when late in the afternoon at least one male orca along with a female were seen going right up towards the beach, before turning and heading back out. Their behaviour suggested that they were also feeding on the fish. By the proximity and places of appearances, it seems there may have been two males.

I managed to get a few pictures, unfortunately not crisply sharp in the excitement, and sent one off to Andy Foote of the North Atlantic Killer Whale Project who had left Shetland for the summer last week … a tad too early. Although he couldn’t be sure, he believes this male may well be number 014, named Bigga, last seen off the south Mainland on the 28th June this year.

Interestingly, the group he has been hanging out with have been mainly feeding on seals, but if he and the female he was with are part of that group, this will add weight to the theory that these killer whales switch from sea mammals to eating fish, which, according to Andy, is seen in the Norwegian herring eaters. But it hasn’t been conclu­sively proved here yet.

Andy is keen to hear from anyone who might have pictures, not only of this mini-pod on that day in north Unst, but more generally until the end of the season, to help him con­tinue to build up a database of identifiable individuals in the north­ern isles population. Pictures can be sent to him at a.d.foote@abdn.ac.uk.

The previous day at least eight killer whales were seen off Herma­ness for about an hour – maybe these two were part of that group – while more were reported off Out Skerries. Also on the 17th a possible minke whale was seen quite far out off Skaw, Unst, around midday.

But on a broader canvas, how good it is to see the sea so alive this year, with seabirds still finding food, and young growing and fledging.

The first signs of autumn migra­tion were getting under way last week with a few waders passing through. A group of 11 whimbrel above Skaw, Unst, on the 14th may well have been local birds on the move, but were exciting to see. Some very smart turnstone are return­ing to North Isles beaches now, still in their stunning chestnut, black and white breeding plumage, while a trickle of sanderling have also been seen, on their way back from Arctic breeding grounds. Whalsay was visited by a greenshank last Sunday as well as a green sandpiper, two of which were also at Funzie, Fetlar, on the 14th.

Among the plethora of flowers now in bloom, all three species of heather are currently flowering. The boldest, and first to flower, is bell heather Erica cinerea. A plant of drier heathland, its brash mauve flowers hang down in clusters. A plant at Burrafirth flowers right alongside a patch of paler mauve thyme, creating a splendid show. The other Erica, E. tetralix or cross-leaved heath, is much coyer. Where­as bell heather is shrubby and spreading, cross-leaved heath has very erect stems holding up a small group of paler pink, bell-shaped flowers, usually on one side of the stem. The distinctive short leaves grow in individual clusters of four or five up the stem.

But perhaps the best-known and most abundant heather is Calluna vulgaris, known as either heather or ling, which is now coming well into flower in the North Isles. Its lovely purple-mauve flowers are such a familiar part of the Shetland landscape as they colour up the hills for several weeks when in full flower – a real treat.

Wendy Dickson

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