Auk Summer: Part 2 Tysties

Auk Summer: Part 1 was all about razorbills - Part 2 is about Black Guillemots, known locally on Shetland as tysties.  

Unlike the other auks, the tysties stay around Shetland all year round. In the winter they are mottled black and white, but in summer they are a gorgeous solid black with very distinctive white wing patches.  The constants throughout the year are the dramatic red legs and even more dramatic red gape.

There are a lot of breeding tysties at the south end of Shetland.  Trouble is, unlike the puffins or common guillemots, they don't gather in big colonies so you have to go out and find them.

Tysties seem to like nest sites that face straight out to sea - and while this is certainly an effective way to stay out of sight and reach of (land-based) predators it also makes it a wee bit challenging for your average land-based photographer.  In my (limited) experience the key to locating a tystie nest site is to keep your eyes and, particularly, ears open while wandering the cliff tops.  

Tysties will regularly roost close to their nest and will call to their mates to encourage them onto the same area of cliff.  The tystie call is a very characteristic high-pitched whistle and, once you recognise it, is a very reliable alert that there are tysties around.  Very regularly the call will let you know there is a tystie around and you'll be able to get a good idea where the nest is - and you'll realise that there isn't going to be any way to see it!

Just occasionally though you'll be able to find a nest site on a curved cliff face, and you'll be able to see the nest entrance without falling into the sea - and maybe you'll even be able (if you are sufficiently patient) to get a glimpse of the nestling inside the nest site.

Last summer I identified an active nest site but wasn't able to spend enough hours watching to see anything more than the shadow of the young tystie.  This year I was able put in the hours (alongside watching other auks) to see (from a distance, I should add) the parents regularly bringing food into the nest, and even occasionally to see the youngster emerging from the nest hole.

My favourite tystie picture from the season was of the almost-ready-to-fledge tystie peering out the mouth of the burrow.

And next year? In addition to spending more time watching the burrow with the nestling (I'm optimistic that it'll be used again), I've spotted a number of additional sites where I'd like to spend longer watching next season. 

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