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Met Office survey - 23 August Colla Firth

At dawn we were about 20km west of Point of Fethaland, the northern end of Mainland Shetland. We had some fairly typical Shetland weather too, with poor visibility, low cloud, and occasional rain. At one point visibility was down to less than 100m, annoyingly this was just as we were passing Point of Fethaland between some stacks which would have been nice to see.

Highlight of this leg was the sighting of a Basking Shark about 5km northwest of Uyea headland, only a brief view before it disappeared below the helipad (at that point about 75m ahead of the Pharos) but probably three-five metres long. With periods of reduced visibility bird sightings were sparse too with the most numerous species being Gannet, the first time they’ve been really obvious so far this trip.

Colla Firth is about 10km down Yell Sound from the top of Mainland, it cuts two kilometres into the coast, is roughly 8-900m wide and has water 30m deep just 100 or so metres from the beach. With the land around rising quite steeply up to 100m high hills, it’s easy to see why it makes a good anchorage. I have to say it didn’t look very promising as we entered, even though there were lots of Gannet feeding just inside the entrance and plenty of Fulmar whizzing back and forth. Looks can be deceiving though and a little watch during the afternoon revealed a good selection of Shetland’s breeding water birds.

The winds had been a light force four when we arrived in the morning by early afternoon it had increased to six or seven and it was noticeable how many birds were coming into the firth. Donning some layers, I headed out onto deck to see what was around – fortunately, one of the decks is partly covered so I could look out while being sheltered from the wind. I hadn’t been out five minutes before the first interesting birds flew past – a pair of Red-throated Divers (photo 1). A ‘gronk’ from the skies above alerted me to a pair of Ravens flying over – gone past before I could raise my camera.

There were dozens of Gannets feeding around the entrance still and I could see a couple of Great Skuas (or Bonxies as they’re known in this part of the world) out there too. There was probably the best part of 40-50 Fulmars winging around the firth and their circuits brought them down the side of the Pharos, the light was appalling but as the birds were close it was possible to get a few good shots (photos 2-5).

A small gull flying low across the firth caught my eye – a lovely adult Common Gull, a common breeding bird on Shetland (photo 6). Then a couple of black dots appeared aft of the Pharos – a pair of Tysties (Black Guillemot) – over the course of the next 20 minutes or so they gradually worked their way nearer until close enough for some okayish photos. A juvenile also put in an appearance later and I eventually caught one of the adults in flight (photos 7-10). A pair of juvenile Eider paddled into view from the shore and stayed sheltering in the lee of the Pharos for a time (photos 11-13).

I popped out for a short second stint later in the day and was rewarded with an Arctic Skua doing a brief tour of the firth, by this time the light was really bad so this isn’t the best of photos.

Arctic Skua

In the evening we made a short excursion down Yell Sound as far as Sullom Voe oil plant to check that all the navigation lights are in working order. The local Tysties had found a use for one of the buoys – there were 13 roosting on it (photo 15). We had to wait until dusk before starting the checks, the channel is a maze of lights, especially close to the jetties.

Sullom Voe buoy with roosting Tysties

There are helicopter operations planned for tomorrow to take new batteries up to Bagi Stack light on the northern end of Yell, the weather will have to improve a bit though as the tops of the hills were hidden in low cloud as it turned dark.

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