COOPED up in lockdown, many of us looked to the skies and truly took note of what had been there all along but we had perhaps been too busy to fully appreciate – the flight of the birds above us, the nests in the branches and the chirping and singing of our avian acquaintances.
In a rather uplifting consequence of pandemic life, a sharp rise in birdwatching has been recorded around the world. Thousands of us have flocked to a hobby that is easy to take up and is a distinctly calming interest to pursue, taking us out into nature – in itself recognised as being hugely beneficial to our wellbeing, improving both our physical and mental health.
As it happens, Scotland is widely regarded as an amazing location for birdwatching, with its varied landscapes offering a rich range of ecosystems for birdlife. With this in mind, here are some of the best birding spots across the country, to mark the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch which takes place this weekend.
Rising out of the Firth of Clyde, this granite islet, 16km off the coast of Ayrshire – sometimes known as Paddy’s Milestone for its location halfway between Belfast and Glasgow – is a bird sanctuary, leased by the RSPB until 2050 and home to the third largest gannet colony in Scotland. Other residents include puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes. If you want a closer look, there are boat tours from Girvan. A wee trip doon the watter on the Waverley offers another opportunity to view the seabird colony in the paddle steamer’s summer season.
RSPB Scotland reserves scattered across the country are obvious destinations, with the reserve at Fowlsheugh at Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, a spectacular choice. Stretching around two miles along the coast, it is a stunning setting as 60m cliffs reach down to the North Sea, featuring the biggest mainland seabird colony in the east of the country. More than 130,000 breeding seabirds flock here during the spring and summer months. These include razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes, along with fulmars and puffins.Skye
Imagine catching a glimpse of a golden eagle against a backdrop of the rocky Cuillins. That’s not a distant dream on the birdwatching hotspot of Skye. The isle is one of the best places worldwide to see the elusive golden eagle, home to around 30 pairs, best spotted during a walk in the hills and along the coast. You could also see the white-tailed eagle, known as the sea eagle, which is the largest bird of prey in the British Isles. The Skye Birds website documents recent sightings and in the last few days alone, they include puffins, barnacle geese, whooper swans and nordic jackdaws. Owls are often seen too, including long-eared, short-eared and barn owls.
Victoria Park, Glasgow
A flock of colourful, exotic-looking parakeets have been spotted in a number of Glasgow city parks in recent years, including Victoria and Dawsholm. With their bright green plumage, the birds can be difficult to spot against the leaves, but they have a distinctive call and birdwatchers have seen – and heard – them all over, including in back gardens, far from their tropical origins. About 20 or 30 of the birds made their home in Victoria Park in the west of the city, leading to Scottish Natural Heritage deeming them the most northerly flock of parrots in the world. The ring-necked, or rose-ringed, parakeet is the UK’s most abundant naturalised parrot, having established itself in the wild in the 1970s after captive birds escaped or were released.
RSPB Udale Bay
This peaceful intertidal bay on the Black Isle in Ross and Cromarty is winter home to thousands of waders, ducks and geese. In the autumn, big flocks of migrating wigeons gather in the bay to feed on eelgrass, while ospreys are frequently seen during the summer, fishing in the bay. Although lapwings don’t nest around the bay, they can be seen late into spring, while pink-footed geese gather from late September to March, with up to 10,000 passing through on their journey north. A nationally important wintering flock of scaup can also be seen, as can redshanks and wigeons – up to 10,000 arrive in October during migration.
Scottish Owl Centre, Polkemmet Country Park
This West Lothian base offers “owls galore”, with the aim of the base being to “portray their unique charisma and charm, which is often eclipsed beside the more dramatic hawks and falcons”. As well as educating the public and breeding owls to increase the population, the base is home to more than 100 owls from 40 species around the world, including snowy owls, great grey owls, Western Siberian eagle owls, barn owls and a raft of the beautiful, wise creatures. An ideal stop for Harry Potter fans desperate to see an owl just like boy wizard Harry’s beloved Hedwig.
This RSPB nature reserve, near Motherwell, is an important community nature reserve and is a real magnet for wildlife. Spend time in one of the four hides, looking out at the ducks and swans on the haugh, or take a walk through the woods where you might see nuthatches – a recent colonist of southern Scotland – or listen out for the high-pitched whistle of the electric blue kingfisher as they whizz by. Sand martins and wigeons can also be seen, as can big groups of lapwings on the wetland. In winter, the wetland is also home to an array of wildfowl species such as whooper swans which migrate to the reserve and other areas of Scotland from Iceland.
Cairngorms National Park
The breathtaking beauty of the Cairngorms is a sight to behold at any time of year and is also gem of a location for wildlife, with a number of birds that breed only in this ecosystem in the UK, including the blackwestern Capercaillie, with his green-glossed breast and prominent red combs, or the chunky little finch known as the Scottish crossbill. Venturing high into the rugged peaks and on to the high plateau of the Cairngorms opens up a new array of birds to keep an eye out for, including ptarmigan, dotterels and snow buntings. Ring ouzels can also be seen from spring to September, breeding mainly in steep sided-valleys, crags and gullies 1,200m up in the mountains.
The isle of Mull is also known as Eagle Island for good reason; it is a top spot to look for these elusive creatures. The best chance to see both the white-tailed and also the golden eagle is at the Mull Eagle Watch hide which has updates on this year’s plans on its Twitter page. On Mull, the white-tailed and golden eagles often fly together, with the birds enjoying a range of habitats, from sandy beaches and sea cliffs, to rugged peaks. It is also great for spotting other birds, such as puffins and kittiwakes.
Caerlaverock Wetland Centre
This wetland nature reserve in Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland is one of nine reserves in the UK operated by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, founded by Sir Peter Scott, the son of Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Scott. The wetlands stretch over nearly 1,500 acres on the northern shore of the Solway Firth, with a number of observation towers from which to witness the reserve come to life with flocks of tens of thousands of whooper swans, barnacle geese and other wintering birds. Other birds that can be viewed from hides and secluded locations include ospreys, skylarks, barn owls and the large wading black-tailed godwits.
Scottish Seabird Centre
As its name suggests, this conservation and education charity in North Berwick allows visitors to explore the wonders of Scotland’s seas and wildlife in their natural environment. The base offers seasonal boat rides to discover more about surrounding habitats, with small islands in the Forth of the River Forth playing host to some of the country’s most important seabird environments, notably Bass Rock and the Isle of May. Bass Rock is home to more than 150,000 gannets – the world’s biggest colony of northern gannets in fact – while the Isle of May is home to a variety of birds, from razorbills to cormorants. During the peak of breeding season, more than 200,000 seabirds of more than a dozen species nest on the island.
At the heart of the vast expanse of blanket bog known as the Flow Country sits the Forsinard Flows, regarded as one of Scotland’s most valuable natural treasures. Here, the RSPB care for more than 21,000 hectares (more than 50,000 acres) of peatland and wetland, an expanse that forms nearly five per cent of the world’s blanket bog. The visitor centre is based at the former station building at Forsinard, on the Wick-Inverness railway line, and notable species you can spot include hen harriers – visible at any time of the year – and greenshanks, which usually only stop briefly at UK locations on their migration, but stay to breed at Forsinard in the bog. The short-tailed, plump little dippers are also visible and fun to watch due to the behaviour that earned them their name – commonly seen hopping on and off rocks and bobbing up and down whilst perched.
RSPB Abernethy Forest Nature Reserve
A remnant of the Caledonian Forest in Strathspey, Abernethy Forest lies within the Cairngorms National Park and is a nature reserve, close to Loch Garten Osprey Centre, also owned by the RSPB. The centre is an ideal spot to experience all the area has to offer as Strathspey is a stronghold for the magnificent capercaillie, while there are three kinds of crossbill at Abernethy – the Scottish, parrot and common. On a walk through the forest, you can hear the soft trill of the Caledonian pinewood specialist, the crested tit, but it is the osprey that the area is famed for. The magnificent birds of prey have been nesting at Loch Garten since the 1950s.
The Bird of Prey Trail
The mountains, moors and machair of the Outer Hebrides and its glorious white sands are a stronghold for birdlife. This self-guided trail takes birdwatchers the length of isles, from Loch Stiapabhat nature reserve on Lewis down to Craigston on Barra, linking 13 locations – including two ferry journeys across the 150 mile long archipelago. The trail can be explored by car, bike or via a combination of public transport and on foot, affording an opportunity to birdwatch against a breathtaking backdrop, with the Outer Hebrides supporting the highest densities of golden eagles recorded in Europe. White-tailed eagle numbers are steadily rising after their reintroduction too. On the Uists, important populations of hen harrier and short-eared owl are supported by an abundance of voles and with little disturbance from people, birds of prey are often encountered at close quarters on the quiet roads.
This area of Dumfries and Galloway is renowned as a hotspot for runaway weddings, but couples are not the only ones to flock to Gretna Green as hundreds of thousands of starlings gather together to roost through the winter months. Around dusk every evening, the sky turns black as they swoop together in what is known as a ‘starling murmuration’. The stunning displays – usually visible from October to March – see the birds dance together in amazing sequences, before dropping down into their roost sites. As the displays tend to happen as evening falls, it is quite a sight to watch the black flock against a setting sun. The best view is often above the A74 north of Gretna Green and the A75 west of the town, with police advising birdwatchers to pull over before they raise their eyes to the sky.
In normal times, birdwatchers travel from around the world to marvel at Shetland’s seabird colonies and migrating birds. There are an array of suitable spots to birdwatch on Shetland, but Sumburgh Head RSPB nature reserve is the most accessible colony, with the cliffs home to thousands of seabirds in the breeding season, with puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and shags easily seen. The Shetland breeding list includes red-throated divers and waders and moorland birds, including golden plover, ringed plover, lapwing and curlew and the much rarer whimbrel. Many birds found in Shetland also have their own dialect names. A young seagull, for example, is known as a Scorie and a puffin is a Tammy Norie.
This destination on the Caithness peninsula is essentially the end of the road, marking the most northerly point of the mainland. Before turning around again, though, the RSPB nature reserve here is a must-stop spot on the popular NC500 route, with the wild landscape and its dramatic sea cliffs one of the best vantages to see puffins. Known as ‘the clowns of the sea’ due to their brightly coloured yellow and red bills and clown-like faces, puffins annually migrate to Scotland and be seen at a number of locations around the coast from March to August, with a good aspect certain from the reserve’s viewing platform at Dunnet. The cliffs and coastal grasslands are also home to razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes and also great skuas and Arctic skuas.
Montrose Basin on the north east coast of the country is an enclosed estuary of the river South Esk, covering 750 hectares (1850 acres) of tidal mudflats that offer feeding and roosting ground to a wide range of species. In autumn and winter, the basin is home to more than 100,000 migratory birds, including pink-footed geese, wigeon and a variety of other waterfowl and waders, while during the spring and summer months the estuary supports various breeding colonies including sand martins, common terns and eider. The visitor centre also offers panoramic views.
This small island off the west coast of Scotland – just half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide – is an other-worldly destination, featuring the distinctive hexagonal rock columns formed millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions, with centuries of waves crashing against the columns serving to create the magnificent Fingal’s Cave – which inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose his celebrated Hebrides Overture. And as the waves crash, the puffins nesting in burrows atop the high cliffs hustle and bustle, unfazed by the clattering of the waves below. Tour boats operate from Mull and Iona and as well as the puffins, on the trip there and back, you could spot cormorants and guillemots, shearwaters and ravens, to name but a few.
Your own back yard
Some of our most common feathered friends got a real chance to come to the fore amid the quiet of lockdown life. From the house sparrow to the blackbird and the woodpigeon to the magpie, a fluttering of birds can be spotted flying to and fro. RSPB tips to encourage them to pop to your own garden include putting suet balls out for starlings, tasty table mixes out for blackbirds, mealworms for the house sparrows and a coconut shell for blue tits. Woodpigeons like sunflower hearts and chaffinches like feeder mix. Niger seed is a firm favourite amongst many garden birds and if you are lucky, can attract the brightly coloured goldfinches, who are big fans.
See www.rspb.org.uk for more tips