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Unst - BirdForum Opus

Photo by Delia Todd
Part of the Gannetry at Hermaness.


Unst is the most northerly of the main Shetland Islands. Its varied geology gives it a different appearance to other islands, and as well as hilly moorland and blanket bog there are areas of drier heathland on serpentine and greenstone.

In addition, there are areas of crofting land, gardens and a small but elderly Sycamore plantation, planted in the 1830s. The island is fringed by cliffs, up to 200m in places, and sandy beaches and inland there are small lochans and streams. Serpentine heathland, a distinctive and rare habitat, supports several rare plant species.

This island has some of the largest seabird colonies in Britain and important numbers of waders nest on the moorland.

Photo by Delia Todd
Part of the Gannetry with Puffin.


Notable Species


The northernmost peninsula of the island includes the National Nature Reserve of Hermaness, the most northerly reserve in Britain. It is famous for its seabird colonies and more than 70,000 pairs of fourteen species breed here including Shag, Northern Gannet and Northern Fulmar, Common Guillemot and Black Guillemot, Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin. Great Skua and Arctic Skua nest on the moorland and breeding waders include Eurasian Golden Plover, Dunlin and Common Snipe, and Red-throated Diver nests beside the lochans.

Hermaness is famous amongst birders for one particular rarity, a Black-browed Albatross, affectionately known as 'Albert' which spent almost every summer here 1969 until 1996 and even built a nest.

Photo by andrew_s
Hermaness, July 2007


Also on the east coast is Haroldswick where a few Great Northern Diver may be seen in the bay, sometimes alongside Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Eider and terns. Ruddy Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper can also be found around this bay.


Further south is Baltasound where there are gardens and a sycamore plantation which can be excellent for migrants.


In the north-east of Unst, Skaw attracts large numbers of passerine migrants including rarities.


Uyeasound is located on the south coast of the island and the seas here attract divers and various seaduck, the sandy beach holds waders and there are also gardens that attract migrant passerines. Easter Loch has wintering Whooper Swan.

Bluemull Sound

Between Unst and Fetlar, Bluemull Sound now has very few wintering Great Northern Diver, but Yellow-billed Diver and King Eider are recorded here regularly. Long-tailed Duck also occur in winter as well as a few Little Auk.


Glaucous Gull is a regular winter visitor to Unst, especially at Burrafirth and Iceland Gull also occur.


Scarce migrants regularly seen on Unst include Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike, Barred Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler, and Common Rosefinch.

Snowy Owl used to be a regular visitor to Unst, but there has been just one sighting since the mid 1990s. In addition to the Black-browed Albatross, many rare vagrants have been recorded on Unst. American Wigeon, Lesser Yellowlegs, Swainson's Thrush and Common Yellowthroat have wandered from North America.

Asian species have included Pallid Harrier, Olive-backed Pipit, Citrine Wagtail and Yellow-breasted Bunting and warblers including Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Sykes's Warbler and Blyth's Reed Warbler.


Birds you can see here include:

Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Yellow-billed Diver, Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Grey Heron, Whooper Swan, Common Teal, Mallard, Common Scoter, Common Eider, King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Eurasian Golden Plover, Northern Lapwing, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Great Skua, Arctic Skua, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Little Auk, Atlantic Puffin, Rock Dove, Common Woodpigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, Snowy Owl, Eurasian Wryneck, Eurasian Skylark, Barn Swallow, Northern House Martin, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Common Wren, Northern Wheatear, Eurasian Blackbird, Song Thrush, Barred Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Yellow-browed Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Hooded Crow, Northern Raven, Common Starling, House Sparrow, Twite, Common Rosefinch

Other Wildlife

Otter Lutra lutra are frequently seen on Unst, Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus and Common Seal Phoca vitulina are common and various cetaceans including Killer Whale Orcinus orca and Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata.

Keen of Hamar

On the east coast of Unst is the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve.

This area resembles an Icelandic fellfield and has more of interest for botanists than birders including the endemic Shetland Mouse-ear (also known as Edmondston's Chickweed) Cerastium nigrescens. Other plants of interest to be found here include Norwegian Sandwort Arenaria norvegica, Northern Rockcress Cardaminopsis petraea, Moss Campion Silene acaulis and Stone Bramble Rubus saxatilis.

Site Information

Access and Facilities

Unst can be reached by ferry from either Gutcher on Yell (or from Oddsta on Fetlar) the trip taking about 30 minutes. There are no longer any flights from Tingwall airport. From Belmont follow the A968, the island's main road, northwards.

For Uyeasound turn off onto the B9084 or the minor road signposted Uyeasound, for the remainder of the sites follow the A968 northwards to Baltasound and further on, Haroldswick.

For Hermaness take the B9086 just south of Haroldswick and continue until turning right at the T-junction. Follow this road to the car-park and from there walk northwards. There is an information centre and toilets at the old Shore Station at Burrafirth.

External Links

Unst OfficialWebsite

Hermaness SNH site

Keen of Hamar SNH site

Content and images originally posted by Steve