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 & scopes!
Birds in Scotland
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.
(Pictured here) Personally, I associate the snow bunting with wild winter days on the east coast, but you can see them hopping around the ski centre carparks sometimes, and that picture was taken not too far from the ski runs of Cairngorm.
Two of our special Scottish birds are interesting but quite low profile - in as far as you have to go out and find them. And 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. I mean, we are not talking '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.)
Talking of being serious, you'll need a decent bird guide. I can recommend the Collins Bird Guide by Svensson and Mullarney, covering the British and European species. That's the one I use anyway.)
There are plenty of species 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. 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.
Then there are those Scottish birds that are associated with particular areas - for example the great skuas (or bonxies) of the northlands, the divers (loons), as well as the members of the grouse family, especially the iconic - that word again - red grouse of the Highlands.
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 even if it was by accident! And that is NOT me ducking - and it isn't my labrador! - I was behind the camera. We retreated very rapidly.
As for dotterel on the high tops, you may see the odd flock passing through in spring (en route for Norway) just about anywhere in mountainous country where there are substantial open tundra-like plateau areas and there are some breeders. Again, 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.
(Pictured here) In 2008 not only would you have seen them on Cairngorm near Aviemore, in spite of the area's popularity and disturbance, 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. 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.
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.
(Pictured here) In summer, the divers - red throats and the less common black throats - are distant denizens of remote lochs in the Highlands and islands, though the great northern diver pictured here 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 in the Moray Firth and the Firth of Forth. In winter you can spend many a happy hour gazing out to sea, thinking that you really have to buy a telescope, because that's the only way you really can tell a red throated diver from a great northern diver when they are both in winter plumage and spending most of their time down in the dips between waves or, well, just diving... 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.
Finally, here are some notes on some more iconic species.
The Golden Eagle
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. Statistically, amongst the birds in Scotland, it is likely to be a buzzard, far commoner than the golden eagle, which is bigger, it's usually darker, 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.
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.
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. 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 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!) Remember you won’t see them amongst the birds in Scotland in the winter, as they flee to warmer climates.
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. The largest of the grouse family, the poor beasts became extinct here before the end of the 18th century, were re-introduced from Sweden in the 19th century, and things aren’t looking very promising second time around for keeping its status amongst the birds in Scotland. There are perhaps 1000 individuals left.
Around 30% of caper deaths are caused by them flying into fences, while, during the mating season, aggressive males have been known to fight each other to death. Follow that with a couple of recent wet seasons when the chicks were tiny – they get chilled – plus disturbance from, uhmm, tourists, and if you believe in reincarnation, then you probably don’t want to come back as a capercaillie next time round. Amongst the birds of Scotland, it’s not one of the luckiest.
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 isn’t too far from the few capercailzies left in Deeside.
(Above) This is not a capercaillie but its higher altitude grouse cousin, the ptarmigan, another special Scottish bird. 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.
Another bird often recognised by people who aren’t interested in birds. Find one dead on the beach (and I hope you don’t), 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.)
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). And, 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…
More below on Scottish wildlife. For more great bird-watching, especially the rare chough and corncrake, we recommend the Isle of Colonsay. Yes, top up your coffee and keep reading…..