There was really only one topic of conversation on the North Isles wildlife circuit last week – humpback whales.
Everyone has their own story. For my part, it was good to be able to finally “escape” on the Tuesday after being confined by a snow barrier for the previous three days, but what began as a routine visit to the shops became a memorable day.
A message from Brydon Thomason told of at least three or four humpback whales off south-east Yell, gradually making their way north in perfect viewing conditions. We instantly headed towards Belmont to connect with the next ferry to Gutcher. By then the whales were heading towards Fetlar, possibly round the east side which would have prevented us seeing them. But then they opted to go through Colgrave Sound between Fetlar and Yell, followed all the way by folk from boats, ferries and cars.
First seen off Burravoe, where they remained for around an hour, they were then tracked going past Aywick, where lucky Laureen Smith could clearly see them blowing from her sitting room window.
They were next seen close in by Gossabrough, another place where they lingered a while, before heading north again. With several frequent characteristic blows, as they exhaled air in a cloud of spray, they were relatively easy to keep track of, surfacing quite often when their characteristic dorsal fins were visible, but only occasionally showing their tail flukes, the underside patterns of which are unique to each individual animal. At least one of the group was a very large animal – females, when fully grown, tend to be a tad larger than males.
By now we were looking out from North Sandwick before making our way back towards Gutcher. When they arrived at the south end of Lingey, it was a matter of minutes before we could see which side of the small island they would take – it was the far side, but they moved north incredibly quickly, and our final view, as another snowstorm moved down towards us from the north, was from the ferry terminal. What a fantastic sight and a real privilege.
Although this group appeared to be moving north, humpbacks spend the winter months in high-latitude feeding grounds and the summer on the breeding grounds in warmer, low-latitude areas. So it’s possible these were just moving around the islands as they migrated.
Once on their breeding grounds, male humpbacks are renowned for “singing” long, complex and far-carrying songs. Although normally appearing pretty docile creatures, males can get quite aggressive towards others when competing for females. While adults weigh in at between 25 and 30 tonnes and may live about 50 years, the birth weight of the young is around 1-2 tonnes.
But what else? Amazingly, when the snow finally cleared last weekend, the seven bean geese were still on Lambaness, but there were other interesting new arrivals around.
In the Bluemull “triangle” two male northern eiders were seen – this is the race of common eider breeding up in the High Arctic around Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Baffin Island. Males are distinguished by having orange-yellow rather than olivey-green bills. Also in the same area a common scoter and a velvet scoter were located.
Finally, a white-billed diver was found off Sound Gruney at dusk on the 15th.