Birds in Scotland – from tiny ‘cresties’ to great big eagles

Birds in Scotland are pretty high-profile. There are lots of good birdy places and nature reserves with knowledgeable wardens, the ones with ‘bins’ and ‘scopes’! And there are specialties too: crested tits, crossbills, sea eagles and more. And ptarmigan are a species you won’t see every day.

Think birds in Scotland and I suppose it is the iconic species you think of first: the golden eagle is probably the best known but paradoxically one of the least often seen.

Osprey, snow bunting, dotterel, great skua, Scottish crossbill, crested tit and several others are just some of the species especially associated with Scotland.

Snow bunting, Cairngorms. Among the birds in Scotland this one is a scarce breeder.
Snow bunting, Cairngorms, in summer plumage. He’s very handsome.

The snow bunting pictured is a bird I associate with wild winter days on the east coast, but you can see them hopping around the ski centre carparks sometimes.

Another snow bunting, this time on the beach near Burghead, Moray Firth.

Iconic birds of Scotland – yet low profile

Here are two more interesting Scottish birds – but they are quite low profile. That’s because they are small and you have to go out and find them.

Also, you’ll need binoculars, if not a packed lunch.

These are the crested tit and the (Scottish) crossbill. But they are hardly ‘in your face’ species.

Join me for a walk to a small kittiwake colony in Angus on the east coast of Scotland. (To be clear: the kittiwakes are normal size – it’s the colony that’s small.)

Severely nipped by a crossbill? Probably not.

Crossbills on Craigendarroch, Ballater.
Crossbills – maybe even Scottish crossbills – on Craigendarroch, Ballater, pretending to be Christmas tree decorations.

I mean, we are not talking aggressively unmissable ‘bonxie on the breeding ground’ behaviour – see below – to give just one example of a Scottish bird that even the most dull-witted walker would notice.

While watching birds in Scotland, no-one has ever been savaged by a crested tit or severely nipped by a crossbill that I know of.

You have to go into the pinewoods for crossbills and crested tits, though it helps to know that cresties (apparently) never stray more than a few hundred yards/metres from their place of birth.

(Actually, I’m not sure if knowing that does really help. But a serious birdy lady once told me that, so I thought I should share it.)

(Lesser?) redpoll and siskin on feeder
(Lesser?) redpoll and siskin on feeder, in June, in Ullapool.
Siskin on antler
Siskin on antler. Please note there is no red deer attached to the antler. Now, that would have been really Scottish.

There are plenty of birds in Scotland that are by no means exclusively Scottish but are fairly common here.

Into this category I would put the two species featured on this bird-feeder picture, taken in Ullapool, in the north-west, in early summer.

Now, from time to time, mostly in winter, siskins turn up on bird tables, possibly where you live as well.

I’m now thinking my redpoll is a lesser redpoll on the grounds that it’s summer and the redpoll is a winter visitor. I’ve also discovered that lesser redpolls like to hang out with siskins…

In any event (lesser) redpolls as a ‘bird table bird’ were new to me, but there they were, as common as sparrows and looking at their very best as well.

Scottish birds associated with particular areas

Then there are those birds in Scotland that are associated with particular areas – for example the great skuas (or bonxies) of the northlands, and the divers (loons) undisturbed northern lochs.

In this category of course are members of the grouse family, especially the iconic – that word again – red grouse of the Highlands. 

Arctic skua defending nest area
Arctic skua (dark phase) defending nesting site. Labrador (also dark phase) very unimpressed.

Pictured here is what happens if you take a short-cut across the moors in Orkney.

This, as birdie folk can tell at a glance, isn’t the famous bonxie or great skua but the much less common arctic skua, in this case, a dark phase example.

I’m not going to say where on Orkney this was,  just because there aren’t a lot of arctic skuas about.

And I don’t want you to go disturbing them like we did. I still feel bad about this even if it was by accident!

By the way, that is NOT me ducking – and it isn’t my labrador! – I was behind the camera. We retreated immediately, very rapidly.

Next Scottish bird…dotterel

These are very much associated with Scotland. I’ve seen them sitting tight on the Grampian tops and I once came across a wee flock – probably passing through, possibly Norway-bound – on the slopes of a big hill near Rannoch Moor one spring.

I’m going to leave this as vague as I can, as dotterel have been in decline in recent years.

Climate change is thought to have a strong bearing.  Or human disturbance: talking of which…

The media and dotterel.
No peace for dotterel near the top of Cairngorms. Here’s a sound-man from BBC’s ‘Springwatch’.

A few years back, not only would you have seen dotterel on the slopes of Cairngorm near Aviemore, (in spite of the area’s popularity and disturbance factor), but you could have observed them being stalked by a film crew from the popular BBC TV series ‘Springwatch’.

Ah, the patience of the wildlife film team. You can see how near the sound-man got to a bright-looking female. This is typical of dotterel, famed for their tameness.  

Dotterel fly south in autumn but there is some great bird-watching in Scotland in winter.

Over-wintering grey geese in Scotland

The rural areas of eastern Scotland are good places to see the over-wintering flocks of grey geese of various species – Montrose Basin and Loch of Strathbeg can be spectacular. Vane Farm close to Edinburgh is another good place.

Mention of the east side of Scotland is a reminder you don’t have to go north and west for all your birds.

There is a string of spectacular seabird colonies all along the east coast – of which the highest profile are St Abbs, close to the A1 near the Border, then the famous Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, next Fowlsheugh south of Aberdeen, then Troup Head on the Moray Firth.

By the way, Troup Head is a pretty spectacular place. But if you’re hell-bent on Skye or the west, then maybe you think it’s out of your way. But here’s a great Moray Firth tour that includes Troup Head. You may see puffins, you will see a ton of gannets. Take a look. I highly recommend it.

As a contrast to coastal birding, if you are looking for ptarmigan, our high altitude Scottish grouse, then one place to see them without too much effort – as you can drive most of the way! – is in the high parts of the Applecross peninsula. (There’s a picture of one on that page.)

Distant red-throated diver
Red-throated diver at normal viewing range. Is it the scarcer black-throated? You’ll never find out…
Great Northern diver in winter plumage.
`Great Northern diver in winter plumage. Aberlady, East Lothian.

Ah! the distant divers…

In summer, the divers – red throats and the less common black throats – are distant denizens of remote lochs in the Highlands and islands.

The great northern diver pictured below – heck, I hope it’s below – is scarcer still as a breeder.  

In winter though the diver tribe in general turn up in good numbers, say, at a variety of places on the coast of, say, the Moray Firth and on the Firth of Forth.

The great northern diver in winter plumage pictured here made it easy by swimming up the estuary at Aberlady, another great birding spot in East Lothian. 

Basically, divers in Scotland are a funny, distant lot. Their New World name – loons – kinda suits them.

Their weird ‘lunatic’ wailing can sometimes be heard on a still Highland night, but only above the noise of  bad language, cursing and slapping.

Hmm? Oh, that’s the noise you’ll hear from the rest of the party. If it’s a still Highland night then you can be sure that the resident midge population will be making the most of spoiling it for you. 

Birds as emblems of Scotland

Well, I think crested tits, snow buntings and dotterel are pretty well emblematic of Scotland if you are of the birdy persuasion. If you’re not, why on earth are you still reading?

But there are still a few near-iconic species to mention, such as 

The Golden Eagle

Buzzard or eagle
These pesky buzzards just momentarily look like eagles.
At the time, I thought this bird – same one from three angles – was a golden eagle. I’m having momentary doubts as I write this though…

With few exceptions, if you see a golden eagle while you are still inside your car, and it’s sitting on top of a fence post – the eagle, I mean, not the car – then you’ve probably seen a buzzard, or ‘tourist eagle’.

Feel free to lie to the children though.

To be honest, I think even experienced birdy folk always have that ‘is it or isn’t it’ moment when they first spot a distant, dark, soaring bird against the Scottish hills.

It’s Probably a Buzzard!

Statistically, amongst the birds in Scotland, it is likely to be a buzzard, far commoner than the golden eagle, which is bigger, usually darker, while the wingtips are more ‘feathered’ and the neck is a bit longer.

But, hey, if it’s a mile or two away, then some doubts are more than excusable.

In my memories of birds in Scotland, the best views I ever had of golden eagles was of three at once somewhere in the north-west.

(Parents and newly-flying chick, I suspect. I’d prefer to be vague. But it was about as far north-west as you could go). I’ve disturbed one on a summit ridge of an Argyll mountain, and watched another hunting on a plateau in the eastern Cairngorms.

Sure, they’re around, but amongst the birds in Scotland still very special when you do see them.

Fearfully-fashionable sea eagles

What about sea eagles – fearfully fashionable in Scotland just now? (I hear you say.) I have some remarks about them on the Isle of Mull page.

Take a look there for eagle-spotting tips. By attracting visitors, sea eagles contribute a substantial sum to the local economy on the island.

osprey distant
Osprey – commoner than you think, but can be surprisingly inconspicuous if mixed up with gulls on the coast.
Osprey watching equipment on the Moray Firth.

The well-resourced RSPB visitor centre at Loch Garten in Strathspey is where even non-birdy visitors go to see this spectacular fish-hawk and pry into its domestic arrangements via close-circuit tv.

They were persecuted to extinction in Scotland in the early years of the 20th century (part of the proud heritage of gamekeeping in Scotland).

The osprey has now re-established itself along lochs and rivers even beyond the Scottish Highlands. 

Loch of the Lowes east of Dunkeld, Perthshire, also has osprey viewing facilities. My own second-favourite viewing place for them is at the River Spey estuary in Moray – the car-park at the road end (Tugnet) by Spey Bay. (In fact, you can see them from the car!)

When we lived there, my favourite of all place was just outside the back door, as illustrated. 

Remember you won’t see them amongst the birds in Scotland in the winter, as they flee to warmer climates.

An osprey on the nest in central Scotland. They are ‘Schedule 1’ birds, meaning they have special protection in law and must not be disturbed near the nest. This is a long telephoto shot of a nest in Angus that most birdy folk already know about.

And one other thing:

On the coast, when you see flocks of gulls suddenly take wing and give alarm calls – and you’re in osprey country – then that is a sure sign there’s a hungry adult osprey passing through. Gulls hate ’em. 

Capercaillie – A large grouse.

In mature Scots pinewoods in the Highlands, especially, say, around Abernethy, much fuss is made and effort put into conserving the capercaillie, a kind of half-grouse, half-turkey-like aberration.

Their name was originally capal coille, early Gaelic for ‘horse of the woods’. (They don’t look a bit like horses, so it might refer to the clop-clop sound they make…yes, I’ve made up that explanation but it sounds plausible to me.)

The largest of the grouse family, the poor beasts became extinct here before the end of the 18th century, then were re-introduced from Sweden in the 19th century.

Let’s face it, things aren’t looking very promising second time around for keeping its status amongst the birds in Scotland. There are perhaps 1000 individuals left.

Now, there are plenty of conservation success stories in Scotland: osprey, red kite, sea-eagle etc. but the ‘horse of the woods’ isn’t one of them. Unbelievably, conservation folk are thinking of feeding pine marten contraceptives as they predate capercaillie eggs.

No kidding. Guys, just let the capers go down naturally and leave the poor wee pine martens alone. Really, it does make you wonder if conservation efforts oughtn’t to be directed towards other species with a better chance of prospering.

The conservation efforts seem like they’re flogging a dead horse of the woods.

Ptarmigan in summer
Not, repeat not, a capercaillie, but its high-altitude cousin, the ptarmigan

For example, around 30% of caper deaths are caused by them flying into fences. During the mating season, aggressive males have been known to fight each other to death.

If the breeding season is wet, if the chicks are tiny they get chilled and don’t survive. Plus there is often some disturbance from, uhmm, tourists.

Overall then, if you believe in reincarnation, then your bird of choice for your next life should probably not be a capercaillie.

Amongst the birds of Scotland, it’s not one of the luckiest. In fact, things have come to such a state that, aside from interfering with the love life of pine martens, conservationists are encouraging visitors to NOT look for capercaillies while fossicking in the northern pinewoods of the Cairngorms National Park, especially when the birds are popping and strutting at their lek.

Do capercaillies play with Lego?

(Phew, glad I got ‘lek’ worked in. Call me controversial, but I think it might be etymologically connected to Lego, from the Danish ‘leg godt’, meaning play well. It’s where the big boy capers go to play.)

By the way, orthographically speaking (ooh – get him), capers are also seen in print as ‘capercailzie’ – the ‘z’ really being the old Scots letter ‘yogh’ that never had a printing character allocated to it, printers making do with a ‘z’.

But that’s a digression, unless your name is Menzies (say ‘ming-iss’) or you live in Finzean (‘fing-in’), which coincidentally isn’t too far from the few capercailzies left in Deeside.

Ptarmigan in Scotland

If you hear ptarmigan in Scotland, making that strange and characteristic noise like a motor-bike (I think so, anyway), then well done – it means you have definitely taken some exercise to get that high.

It’s a bird of the tops. Hint: park at the top of the Bealach na Ba on the high road to/from Applecross and you might not have that far to climb. That’s where I photographed this particular bird. 

Actually, no, don’t…wish I hadn’t suggested that. Best leave ’em in peace.

In any case, thanks to the Toilet Paper Trail (aka ‘North Coast 500’), the carpark at the top of the Bealach will probably be wall-to-wall campervans.

Scottish Gannets

Another bird often recognised by people who aren’t interested in birds. Find one dead on the beach (and I hope you don’t – but bird flu was devastating a couple of years ago), pick it up by one wingtip, hold the tip as high as your head and you’ll find the other wing-tip is still on the sand.

(I’m assuming you’re of normal height here and not a pro basketball player, in which case you’ll have to find a dead albatross or something.)

gannet in flight
Gannet at sea – just a big black-and-white cross usually.

Anyway, these gannets are big, big birds up close – though the usual view is of distant black-tipped white crosses rocketing down into the sea.

A boat-trip to one of their breeding colonies, say, the Bass Rock, east of Edinburgh is a ‘must-see’ Scottish wildlife experience, though there are other colonies, including Troup Head in Aberdeenshire, Noss and Hermaness in Shetland.

St Abbs also has easy viewing seabird colonies (though not breeding gannets). 

This tour features puffins in it promotion and, yes, Troup Head has some – but it’s the gannets that will be conspicuous…

Finally, go on, admit it, you’d like to see some puffins in Scotland as well. Follow that link for some suggested locations. Sumburgh Head at the south tip of Shetland is really good, but possibly a bit far…

If you haven’t got yourself a decent bird book yet, then this the best one I know: the Collins Bird Guide . I use both the paperback version and also the app. It’s definitely all you’ll need to sort out your birds and Scotland and beyond.

Finally, by way of an extra, here is a short clip of a dunlin and sanderling together in spring plumage – filmed on a Moray Firth beach. Useful for a size and beak length comparison, though not necessarily a Scottish speciality!

Sanderling and dunlin on the Moray Firth.