View westwards from the Clift Hills, South Mainland, Shetland
Clift Hills, South Mainland, Shetland. Hugh Tooby

Citizen Science in Shetland

BTO volunteer Hugh Tooby shares his journey through Shetland as part of the Upland Rovers scheme

Hugh Tooby

Hugh Tooby

Hugh is tackling some of the biggest gaps in BBS coverage. He has found targets across Scotland and continues in the west, including the Isle of Skye.

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Since 1994 the BTO/JNCC/RSPB annual Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) has gathered essential data about the UK’s bird populations. However, many of the scheme’s randomly selected 1 km squares in remote upland habitats have received less coverage because of the access challenges they present. This is a problem as the UK’s vast uplands support important populations of breeding waders, raptors and songbirds. A better understanding of population change among these species would be valuable for conservation management, land use and climate change mitigations.

So, in recognition of this (and an acceptance of the fact that some data are better than none) the Upland Rovers scheme was launched in 2017. Unlike regular BBS squares – which volunteers commit to visiting twice a season between April and the end of June, over a number of years - those surveying Upland Rovers squares can undertake just a single, one-off visit. This has  been very successful in increasing upland square coverage since the start of the scheme. However, at the start of 2019 the situation remained that of the 15 squares in Shetland only three had ever received a BBS visit (one not since the 1990s). So, this is where my involvement began.

Esha Ness; the transects cross the grassy plateau. Hugh Tooby
Esha Ness - the transects cross the grassy plateau. Hugh Tooby 

I'm a former GP who retired early, aged 52, to pursue my dream of working in the outdoors. I initially flirted with the idea of becoming a volunteer mountain leader and canoe guide but, as the realities of the paperwork involved these days became apparent, I soon realised I risked turning my outdoor passions into another source of the stress from which I had just escaped. Around this time my son was doing an Ecology Degree. Visiting him on some of the wildlife surveys he was doing opened my eyes to the possibility of getting involved via the citizen science route. After dipping my toe into this new world I realised that there was a shortage of data from the more remote and harder to reach areas of Scotland and I spied an opportunity. I realised I could contribute something useful, whilst also having a lot of fun, by combining my love of exploring remote areas on foot / bike / canoe with volunteer wildlife surveying.

So, when I first heard about the Upland Rovers scheme it seemed like a perfect fit. After visiting three squares in 2017 I really got into it. In 2018 I visited a dozen different areas across the length and breadth of Scotland. For 2019 I wished to continue and spotted the coverage gap in Shetland. In discussion with Ben Darvill (who co-ordinates the Upland Rovers element of the BBS from the BTO’s Scotland office in Stirling) it was agreed that I would visit the islands and attempt to cover all 15 squares.

Balta Sound, Unst. Hugh Tooby
Balta Sound, Unst. Hugh Tooby 

From north to south

I visited the islands for twelve days in the second half of May and enjoyed mostly good weather with just a couple of wetter interludes. My strategy was to start at the northern end of the archipelago and work my way south. Accommodation was mostly camping in my car, with the occasional bed and breakfast when the weather worsened. Sleeping in the back of my car made the early starts required by the survey methodology a lot easier, and meant I got to spend the night in some very dramatic places. In the course of the visit I managed to visit all 15 squares as planned and also fitted in taking part in the annual Orca watch and some general exploration of these fascinating and beautiful islands.

The most northerly islands of Unst and Yell were home to many Arctic Tern. I saw an otter in the early morning calm of Balta Sound, and a nesting Arctic Skua fighting off a Hooded Crow in a spectacular aerial dogfight. I also squeezed in a visit to the amazing headland of Hermaness with its Gannets, Puffins and Great Skuas (affectionately known as Bonxies).

Back on Mainland Shetland, Runafirth gave me my first of many Whimbrel with their haunting seven-note calls and, at Olnesfirth, a pair of summer Whooper Swans. Esha Ness was the scenic highlight and seeing several Red-throated Divers in breeding plumage there on my birthday was a real treat.

At Smirna Dale I recorded 22 different species and the beautiful and remote headland of Braga Ness gave the opportunity of recording Eider in a BBS square. A feature of Shetland is that many of the squares, whilst very definitely upland in character, are next to the sea and only a few metres above it. The Clift Hills in the south of Mainland, however, are very definitely more typical Upland Rovers hill territory. So much so that I was beaten back by low cloud and driving rain on my first visit.

The next day (my last on the islands) was perfect and I was rewarded on my return visit to the Clift Hills with fabulous views and lots of Bonxies; fortunately not in attack mode as their chicks had not yet hatched. A quick dash to the last square at Dales Voe and I had visited all 15 with only a few hours to spare before my return ferry to Aberdeen.

Shetland is a very long way away from the rest of the UK and has its own unique scenery and heritage. It’s also very different in the range and type of birds to be found; plus there’s always the possibility of finding interesting rarities. So, I can definitely recommend a trip there to anyone interested in birds. Gathering some valuable Upland Rovers or BBS data whilst there has the potential to add real value to the visit.

If you participate in the Breeding Bird Survey, we'd love to hear what makes your square(s) special. If you've thought about BBS but haven't taken the plunge, what's holding you back? Let us know in the comments below.

Take on an Upland Rovers square

If you are an experienced bird watcher with a love for the uplands, then taking part in the BBS Upland Rovers scheme might be for you.

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