Plenty of birds, but what’s under water?

SHETLAND Field Studies Group’s penultimate outing this year, the “migration” trip, saw the minibus attacked by savage squalls and violent blinding waterfalls of rain, but the day was a success despite it all. Nearly 40 different bird species were seen and a number of Shetland’s hardier twitchers were in the vicinity, offering directions to interesting arrivals, which greatly enhanced the day.

Chief of the thrills was a magnificent long-eared owl which sat unmoved as cameras clicked. The instant digital records of those brooding golden eyes and gorgeous plumage remain witness to a day far from wasted.

Birds are all around us in Shetland. Mainly the more familiar ones, the natives and the regular summer or winter visitors, but there is always the chance of something really unusual.

Still, the observant and persistent watcher can gradually notch up a respectable list of sightings just by making sure that they get to the more likely places at the most likely times in the most auspicious wind directions.

Plantations, gardens, wind breaks, loch shores, mud flats, ebb tides, cliff faces, open fields, deep burn sides are all good bets for shy refugees from the vagaries of wind and weather.

But there are hundreds of other native wild creatures in Shetland which, despite hardly ever moving from their wild homes, are complete strangers to most of us.

As the first storm winds join forces with descending temp­eratures, we might cast a sympathetic thought in passing towards those who dwell beneath the waves.

Otters would spring to mind (though they do spend much of their time on land), seals maybe, fish or even a cetacean, but would we ever wonder how the Bryozoans are faring? Would we for a moment consider Alconidium, the Tunicata, the Polyzoa, the Actinozoa, Hydrozoa or the Porifera? Unlikely. But it’s just as well that some knowledgeable and enthusiastic experts have been doing just that.

As the fortunate few gaze out from the double glazed comfort of their artificially lit, centrally-heated houses across the wild grey rolling surface of the sea, they can only guess vaguely at what vast spaces and weird and wonderful wild life pursues its multifarious life cycle adventures underneath.

Large, free-moving life forms we can understand. Smaller, decorative creatures which invade our shallows and shores are still reasonably familiar – sea urchins, starfish, sea anemones, sea shells – but there are incalculable masses of other, smaller, often virtually invisible life forms here too and once you get to know them, they become addictive.

Scrabble around among storm-ripped tangles of tangles and sea what you can see. Look closely on the flat, slippery blades of the giant wracks that get hurled up in heaps. You might be lucky and find tiny networks of white lines on some of them. Patches of fine hairs, or even tiny geometric, coloured design patches. You are looking at Bryozoa. Minute clusters of individual species often grow in great colonies, offering a little more chance of survival of some, than if they existed in solitary singles.

My sub-aqua hooked friend Linda Davis has been drip-feeding me information and passion for these, the smaller and stranger of our native species, found around Shetland’s shores for several years now and some of her enthusiasm has begun to rub off.

Regular arrivals of the Marine Conservation Society’s seasonal magazines has further captured my interest and the latest issue of the Shetland Naturalist has nudged it even further with a dazzling feature on Shetland’s smaller marine natives by J S Ryland and J S Porter. They have pro­duced a report of considerable research into some of the richest concentrations of Bryozoa both in Shetland and Orkney.

The Shetland Naturalist is an invaluable publication for anyone interested in unpublished wildlife research. Shetland’s natural history is so diverse that experts and specialists home into the islands like moths to a lamp, carrying out endlessly fascinating but often obscure studies about everything under the Shetland sun.

Lovers of Latin names will have a field day, but even those who are not can find these tongue twisting names handy as they appear in the index of every field guide and are always the same, whatever the language in which the guide is published.

The ideal companion to the intense, but sometimes rather dry, un-illustrated reports, with their tables and references, is the MCS glossy, with spectacular underwater photography and close-ups of mind boggling marine species. I can spend hours just turning the pages in sheer amazement at the extraordinary colours and designs of our inter-tidal neighbours.

We are familiar with Shetland’s National Nature Reserves and with many of the rarities for which they exist: whimbrel, red-necked phalarope, great skuas and more. But the seas too are under threat and certain species are sensitive indicators of pollution and temperature changes.

Only detailed and thorough research will enable us to assess the degree of risk and the current state of play down in the deeps. Seldom, however, does this research reach the surface of public browsing literature.

The North Atlantic Fisheries College has been breaking new ground in Shetland with its summer marine life displays, and who knows, maybe Shetland will one day have a marine aquarium of its own; a sea life centre of some kind? After all, Orkney does.

Next week I will make a special Wildervisit to the extraordinary lorry, trapped inside a building, which is home now to hundreds of rescued marine species, almost all of which might have ended up as bait, having been hauled up accidentally along with crabs and lobsters in some of Orkneys’ creels.

I simply have to take a break from the keyboard and find out what some of the strangely-named animals look like. Alconidium, the digitatum one at least is dead man’s fingers. But the others will take a bit more work.

Tunicata, the sea squirts, include characters straight out of Walt Disney; surely the cartoon designers and collectable toy industry moguls could create a whole string of films about Corella paralellogramma. Theirs is an exotic and beautiful grim as well as a gruesome world, ideal for thrillers.

You should read the way Ryland and Porter describe the abundance of creatures at Bridge-End in Burra, and at the sound between Muckle Roe and Busta. These are the Hermanesses and Nosses of Shetland’s underwater wildlife. Here surely is the place for the underwater video camera and glass-bottomed boat operators of the future.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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