I’ve just returned from the Shetland Islands. You might be expecting me to start writing about the amazing colonies of Northern Gannets Morus bassanus or Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica, among others. But no, my story today is about the birds that come in to breed on the heather moorland which dominates the high ground. This is prime habitat for many birds and Shetland is a great place to see them in relatively pristine conditions.

Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus

Shorebirds take the limelight. It’s quite amazing how birds that we are used to seeing much of the year on coastal mudflats, exploiting the intertidal, change their habits and take to the hills to raise their young. Here on Shetland, it is the larger shorebirds that immediately catch the eye. Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus are present everywhere, flying to and fro, chasing rivals or freaking out with some potential predator that gets too close. Curlews Numenius arquata, with their amazingly long and curved beaks don’t fall far behind in the attention-seeking ranks. They may be cryptic but their size and calls make them very visible. The call of the curlew is one of those evocative sounds that says “wilderness”. So is that of the Common Redshank Tringa totanus, another breeding species of these moors.

Curlew Numenius arquata
Common Redshank Tringa totanus

The smaller shorebirds may be harder to find but, when close, their colours make them stunning. Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria are at their most splendid at this time, with an intricate mosaic of gold and black on the back and stunning black underparts. Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, birds I associate with mixed flocks with Golden Plovers in winter, are also here. Another haunting call and a beautiful plumage, which they somehow manage to hide when sitting close to the ground with their young close by. Ringed Plovers Charadrius hiaticula are also in immaculate plumage as they run in the expectation of being invisible. The picture of colourful shorebirds is completed by Dunlins Calidris alpina. Never a better time to see them in full breeding dress. I cannot end the shorebirds list without reference to two other cryptic species more often seen on the coast than up here. I’m referring to Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus, a close relative of the larger curlew, and the Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago.

Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago

Other birds breed on these moors. Among the passerines, Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis and Skylarks Alauda arvensis, not surprisingly keep close to the ground and rely, like the Snipe, on their cryptic plumage. And with good reason. Also out now are the fledged young of the Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe. It’s hard to believe that these tiny and inexperienced birds, which were eggs only weeks ago, will soon embark on their maiden voyage, one that will take them all the way to tropical Africa.

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Skylark Alauda arvensis
Newly fledged Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe

So why are Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and the smaller shorebirds so cautious and nervous at this vulnerable time? It all has to do with a small but highly aggressive and efficient predator that comes up here to raise its own young at the expense of Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and the fledglings of the smaller shorebirds. This is the beautiful Merlin Falco columbarius, truly the royalty of these moors. Watching them darting across the sky, doing low level flights at high speed as they terrorise the neighbourhood, is indeed something worth coming up here to see.

Male Merlin Falco columbarius. Photo courtesy Geraldine Finlayson. Taken under licence with Shetland Nature
Written by Clive Finlayson
Growing up in Gibraltar, it is impossible not to notice large birds of prey, in the thousands, overhead. That, and his father’s influence, got Clive hooked on birds from a very young age. His passion for birds took him eventually to the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford University where he read for a DPhil, working with swifts and pallid swifts. Publishing papers, articles and books on birds aside, Clive is also a keen bird photographer. He started as a poor student with an old Zenit camera and a 400 mm lens; nowadays he works with a Nikon mirrorless system. Although his back garden is Gibraltar and the Strait of Gibraltar, Clive has an intimate knowledge of Iberian birds but his work also takes him much further afield, from Canada to Japan to Australia. He is Director of the Gibraltar National Museum. Clive's beat is "Avian Survivors", the title of one of his books in which he describes the birds of the Palaearctic as survivors that pulled through a number of ice ages to reach us today.