Friday, 18 June 2010

Introducing the wildlife of Mousa

While the aalamooties (storm-petrels) may be by far the most abundant of all the wildlife on Mousa, they are far from the most apparent or commonly seen....

Many of the shag (scarf) chicks are now almost as big as their parents. Last week, in their thick black coats, they were sweltering in the warm (it’s all relative!) sunshine.

An adult shag and its chicks fanning their gular pouches, desperately trying to keep cool (Dan Brown)

The brown, but elegant, plumage and an amazing ability to remain seemingly motionless has kept this female eider (dunter) so amazingly well-camouflaged, that most people haven’t even noticed her, despite being sat on her nest within a metre of the footpath!

Spot the duck (not the dog)! (Hannah Watson)

Today, she was nowhere to be seen, leaving an empty nest lined with a dense and cosy coating of down. I hope her and her family made it to the water safely!

Having returned from spending the winter (or summer, rather) in Antarctica, the noisy Arctic terns (tirricks) can be seen feeding along the shores, beaches and freshwater lochs.

 An elegant Arctic tern (Dan Brown)

Though late in the season, a few tirricks have finally settled onto nests, though less than 50 birds appear to actually be on eggs. This doesn’t bode well for the Arctic skuas (skootie aalins), which make their living as professional kleptoparasites, robbing fish from tirricks coming in to feed their young. Spectacular aerial displays are performed, as the aalins persistently harass tirricks until they have successfully stolen a single sandeel from them. While one might feel sympathy for the poor terns, Arctic skuas are rapidly declining in the UK. 8 pairs bred on Mousa last year and 7 chicks were successfully raised between them.
A dark morph Arctic skua in flight (Dan Brown)

Away from the coast, you can’t go very far without risking attack by great skuas (bonxies). One pair, nesting close to several storm-petrel study nests, seem to have taken a particular dislike to me!
Full frontal attack from a pair of irate bonxies (Hannah Watson)

They are ferocious predators and undoubtedly fill the niche of birds of prey up here in Shetland. Due to their impressive size and typical soaring flight, a bonxie could easily be mistaken for a raptor in flight, at first glance. We have found evidence of bonxies eating all sorts of things here on Mousa, including starlings, storm-petrels, fulmars and a wigeon.

 A bonxie enjoying a morning stretch (Dan Brown)

Fulmars (maalies) occupy nest sites near the top of cliffs or on the ground along one of the many stone walls on the island. Their primary means of defence and protecting their nests is projectile vomiting fatty, fishy oil! This one was keeping me company while I ate my lunch on the bothy doorstep.

Inquisitive and unafraid fulmar (Hannah Watson)

One might think the pair of red-throated divers (rain gös) have habituated to humans, since they decided to establish their nest right beside the footpath. Typically highly sensitive to disturbance during the breeding season, the footpath was subsequently immediately re-routed, keeping people at a distance from the divers. And rightly so, as I observed today the result of people having complete disregard for the signs, clearly asking visitors to follow the re-routed path: the divers rapidly left their nest and were anxiously paddling around the loch! Fortunately, one of the pair returned promptly to the nest, once the people had passed.