When you’re 15, you can sleep anywhere if you’re tired enough. And so it was I awoke at dawn, stiff and cold, sitting on a chair on the deck of the ferry between Aberdeen and Lerwick, the gray seas rolling beneath the boat. Lerwick is the only town on the Shetland Islands and is the most northerly one in the British Isles, lying some 130 miles north of the Scottish mainland. The archipelago of the Shetlands is known as the land of the “simmer dim,” where in mid-summer the sun drops below the horizon but for a few hours, and the darkest it gets is twilight.
This was the second part of a trip two friends and I were taking, and our visit to the Shetland Isles was what I was most looking forward to. Once I got the circulation back into my legs, I began to scan the seas. There were northern fulmars and Manx shearwaters skimming the waves on stiff, straight wings, and to my delight, tiny black European storm-petrels, disappearing into troughs as they danced over the waves.
We spent that night in the youth hostel in Lerwick before taking a bus the length of Mainland, as the largest island is called, to the ferry terminal for Fetlar, a tiny island with a population of 61. We had three nights booked in a bed-and-breakfast, and as soon as we arrived, we were anxious to get out and search for our target species. In previous years, the slopes of Fetlar were the home of Britain’s first and only pair of breeding snowy owls. The year of our visit the female of the pair had disappeared, but the male was still being seen. It took some searching but we did find him, sticking out like a sore thumb in his pure white finery on the green slopes.
There was another bird that was on our wanted list on Fetlar, and this bird gave us little trouble. We found a couple of red-necked phalaropes swimming on a pond. These tiny shorebirds breed in the arctic, and Fetlar has a small population, the southerly most nesters of these colorful birds.
There were birds everywhere on Fetlar. We were swooped on by bonxies, the local name for the aggressive, and very large, great skuas. Arctic terns also came after us if we got too close to their nests. Merlins were a common sight sitting on the stone walls.
We took another ferry to the northernmost island, Unst, and from the dock began our trek to the headland of Hermaness, where there was a huge seabird breeding colony. As we walked, a driver stopped and offered to give us a ride, which we gratefully accepted. We found kindness wherever we went on the Shetlands.
The seabird colony was one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with masses of huge northern gannets wheeling about the sky, returning with fish for their chicks. Razorbills, puffins and guillemots were constantly toing and froing, beaks full of fry. The cries of kittiwakes, a dainty northern gull, echoed all around. It was all wonderful, of course, but there was one individual bird we hoped to see.
I took out a hand-drawn map another birder had made for me that detailed the contours of the cliff face in front of us. I looked for the ledge that we hoped would hold the bird, and there it was: the black-browed albatross, a southern hemisphere species, hopelessly lost, who had first showed up on Hermaness in 1972. It was the only black-browed albatross known in the northern hemisphere, and had become such a celebrity that the locals had named him Albert. We watched him, hands trembling, for just a few minutes before he spread his 7-foot wings and soared out to sea.