Familiar, re-assuring sight of shag

The shag is one of the most familiar birds around the Shetland coastline during the winter months. The common name, shag, is derived from the Old Norse word skegg meaning “beard”, referring to the tufted, forward-curving crest at the front of the crown, which the breeding adults grow in late winter/early spring.

The Shetland name is scarf; in Orkney it is skart; in Faroese it is scarvur; and in Iceland and Scandinavia, the shag is known as a toppscarv. Sometimes it is also referred to as the green cormorant because the dark plumage has a green gloss. Smaller and slimmer in build than the cormorant, the shag dives with a distinct leap, and also flies closer to the surface of the sea.

Scotland holds 30 per cent of the world shag population and around 66 per cent of the British population. The first written record of the species in Shetland is by John Brand in 1700. The population is estimated to be over 6,000 pairs, making up about 16.5 per cent of the British total. The population declined from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s as sandeels are the preferred prey, and shag populations have been affected by food shortages. These seabirds breed in a variety of places, including the bases of cliffs, ledges, among boulders, geos and in caves. Severe winter storms can wash away nests, as happened at many colonies in 1999.

Adult shags are probably resident around Shetland, not moving far from their colonies. However there is some post-breeding dispersal of immatures and birds less than two years old. Their plumage is only partly waterproof so these seabirds are not well adapted for long sea journeys. The characteristic pose on land is perched upright with the wings held open, thus helping to dry the feathers. The first eggs are generally laid during the first week of April in Shetland. Shags have an extended breeding season, with eggs and young being found at Scottish colonies from March through to October.

On Saturday evening, the Shetland Bird Club held its annual general meeting, followed by an illustrated talk by Deryk Shaw, the warden of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. Deryk has been in charge of the observatory for 10 years and has enjoyed some superb birding highlights in that time. The Fair Isle bird list now stands at over 370 species, and since 1999 there have been 18 species recorded which were new for the island, seven species added to the Shetland list, four to the Scottish list and three birds which were new for Britain. The latest of these mega-rarities was the male citril finch found in June 2008. The rufous-tailed robin, which was recorded in Fair Isle in September 2004, was the first record of this species in Europe.

There were a few bird records from around the Mainland this week. A tundra bean goose was identified near Bigton; a goldfinch was in Wester Quarff; there was a peregrine flying around the Sullom Voe terminal; a hybrid pintail/mallard was at Scatness and there was also a high count of 92 purple sandpipers there. Elsewhere, there have been more reports of returning flocks of oystercatchers and of red-throated divers. A few white gulls are still around with up to three Iceland gulls being seen by Lowrie Simpson from the Bressay ferry.

Joyce Garden


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