Birding the Lothians

Birding the Lothians

By Calum Scott, reproduced with permission from Birding Scotland magazine (1999)

 

The Lothians, at some 749 square miles, lying on the south side of the Firth of Forth, has a rich diversity of habitats. These comprise mainly of upland moorland, woodland, reservoirs and an extensive coastline with four main estuaries.

As a consequence, this also has the effect of giving the Lothians a rich avian population with 343 species recorded within its boundaries. Most birders have individual tastes with regards to bird watching whether it be a liking for skua migration, seabirds, winter grebes and sea ducks or my own particular favourite searching for migrants on our North Sea coast. Whatever your fancy, the Lothians caters for them all and lots more in between.

A fuller picture of the area can be found in Birdwatching Sites in the Lothians, by Ian Andrews (former local recorder) published in conjunction with the SOC.

Many of us all know the well-known sites in Lothian, but how many of the lesser sites are known particularly to visiting birders. Indeed many of these sites have seen impressive rarities over the years. As a result of this I have included many of these as well as the better known and loved sites; so why not give some of them a try the next time you are birding in Lothian. Who knows you may well score big time.

 

Map of the area:

lothian-sites where to birdwatch - map#

Musselburgh Lagoons [NT346736]

Musselburgh Lagoons, at the mouth of the River Esk, were formed in 1964 by the South of Scotland Electricity Board. They constructed a large concrete sea wall encompassing four large lagoons which were used for the dumping of fly-ash from the nearby Cockenzie Power Station. As a result of this, large numbers of waders, gulls and duck now use these lagoons as a high tide roost site, particularly the lagoon nearest to the river mouth.

The second and third lagoons have been infilled, with the third lagoon now forming a superb series of scrapes set in a nature reserve which was set up by the East Lothian District Council.

Both the scrapes and the high tide roost give unique views, unmatched throughout Lothian, of the species using them.

In the past few years the planting of trees has also been to the benefit of some passerine species, with Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers breeding for the first time. Migrants also use these trees for cover with Golden Oriole, Redstart and Bluethroat all being recently recorded.

With a wide variety of habitats beneficial to birds this has also had an effect on the Musselburgh List which now stands at an impressive 226 species, nearly two thirds of the Lothian List. This has not gone unnoticed by the birding public and Musselburgh now stands out as one of the best sites in Britain. Indeed British Birds, with a monthly readership of many thousands, described Musselburgh as ‘a site of awesome reputation’. (The locals knew this anyway!).

Apart from the waders present at the rivermouth, the gull flocks are often searched through for the regular Glaucous, Iceland, Little and Mediterranean Gulls along with Sabine’s, Laughing, Franklin’s and Ring-billed Gulls being star attractions over the years.

The walk around the seawall gives excellent views of various sea duck and grebes, with Slavonian numbering 40+ last winter. Rarities offshore have included several Surf Scoters, King Eider, Forster’s Tern and Brunnich’s Guillemot.

The sewage outfall in the bay opposite the fourth lagoon can produce Little Gull and Black-necked Grebe.

The scrapes give excellent views of wading birds with Wood Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit and Spotted Redshank regular in spring with both Temminck’s Stint and Little Ringed Plover being recorded in three of the last four years.

In the autumn, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint and Ruff are seen in variable numbers with Garganey in both spring and autumn.

Rarities on the scrapes have recently included Red-necked Phalarope, Pectoral Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Avocet and Spoonbill.

The fourth lagoon does not attract the same numbers of birds as the first but none the less it occasionally turns up good birds with both Lesser Crested and Forster’s Terns being the most noteworthy.

The commoner breeding species include several pairs of Grey Partridge, with both Meadow Pipit and Skylark common. These species favour the long grassed areas surrounding the lagoons, as do Twite and Linnet in the winter months.

The boating Pond next to the scrapes provides freshwater bathing for gulls, with the wintering adult Mediterranean Gull regularly being seen here. Ducks also use the pond with Scaup, Red-crested Pochard and Red-throated Diver recorded.

The grassed over second lagoon played host to Lothians second Desert Wheatear in 1997 which was watched by many birders.

The number of rarities recorded at this site never ceases to amaze, indeed whilst writing this article a first summer Bonaparte’s Gull was reported. If accepted this will be another first for Lothian claimed by this site.

However there is a concern among Musselburgh regulars (myself of 22 years now), about what will happen when Cockenzie Power Station closes in the near future. What will happen to the wader roost on the first lagoon? Hopefully some provision will be made at this time!

Access: Park at Goose Green near the river mouth, accessed from Millhill by the side of the racecourse. Alternatively Levenhall past Mrs Formans Pub for the wader scrape.

Gosford Bay [NT440777]

Gosford Bay stretches from Port Seton in the west to Aberlady in the east. It is easily accessed as the B1348 follows the coastline the whole way.

The small town of Port Seton still has an active fishing fleet, so large numbers of gulls can and do congregate around the harbour and Glaucous Gull was recorded here this year.

To the east of the town, opposite the caravan park, a small burn enters the sea here. The number of gulls here is variable, though careful searching of the flocks can produce the odd Mediterranean Gull or Glaucous Gull.

In winter, Wigeon numbers can be worth searching through, as American Wigeon has been recorded here. Offshore, Goldeneye are plentiful and in some years Little Auks have passed in good numbers.

The car park at Ferny Ness, to the east side of the bay, gives an ornithological spectacle unrivalled throughout Britain. Towards late summer large numbers of Red-necked Grebes congregate offshore. The peak count of 86 was in the winter of 1994, but good numbers are regular in August/September, many in summer plumage. Slavonian Grebes are also regular here and Black-necked Grebe has wintered in the last few years.

The number of Scoter here has fallen, presumably due to disturbance by windsurfers. This has also had a knock-on effect on the number of Surf Scoters in the Lothians. Gosford Bay was formerly the best site in Britain for this species with a British record count of 11 here on 13 April 1989.

Other birds here have included White-billed Diver, Grey Phalarope and many Little Auks in winter gales.

Access: All these areas are easily accessed from the B1348.

Aberlady Bay [NT471804]

With over 250 species on its list, Aberlady is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s and Britain’s finest birding sites. The area has been declared a Grade One, Site of Special Scientific Interest on ornithological, geological and botanical grounds. The habitats consist of extensive mudflats of the Peffer Burn estuary, an adjoining saltmarsh, freshwater marsh, freshwater pools, dunes, woodland and extensive Sea Buckthorn.

The main target for birders at Aberlady are the waders, with several rarities recorded in the past years. These have included Caspian Plover, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, several White-rumped Sandpipers and Baird’s Sandpiper. Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint are often the ‘bread and butter’ species every autumn.

On an incoming tide the burn fills up first which flushes the waders into a more viewable position. The best area to take advantage of this is from the Kilspindie Golf Club Road on the village side.

Once you have checked the Kilspindie side move round onto the saltmarsh and check from there. The smaller waders tend to congregate up at the top end of the saltmarsh by the ternery in higher tides.

When present, terns also roost on the beach at high tide with the lucky observer perhaps finding something unusual in amongst them. Black Terns, Caspian Tern and Sabine’s Gull have all been seen here.

The saltmarsh holds a few pairs of Redshank, but it is in winter when it is at its best. At this time Jack Snipe, Snow Bunting and Twite are regular with Lapland Bunting occasional.

Thousands of geese use the bay to roost in winter and there can be fewer better spectacles in nature than to see them flying into roost at dusk with the air full of their calls. Pure Magic!

The Marl Loch opposite the saltmarsh holds breeding Water Rail and Lesser Whitethroat, while the whole marsh is alive with Sedge Warbler song in spring. Grasshopper Warbler can be heard on a still day or night, and even a Spotted Crake was heard one night. White-winged Black Tern has been recorded and this spring up to five Quail were heard calling.

A walk out to Gullane Point can be rewarding with the sight of thousands of Fieldfare feeding on the fruits of Sea Buckthorn in winter. The point itself is a regular spot for Common Scoter, Eider, Red-necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe and Long-tailed Duck. Gullane Bay to the east is the better spot for divers, particularly in the late afternoon when they gather to roost.

Rarities offshore include White-billed Diver, Surf Scoter, Long-tailed Skua and good numbers of Black Terns and Little Auks in some years.

The extensive Buckthorn clumps hold wintering Blackcap and roosting Long-eared Owl. In spring a migrant Red-backed Shrike may take up residence for a day or so. Both Marsh Warbler (two records) and Great Reed Warbler have been heard singing in the middle of such clumps.

Whatever the time of year you visit, Aberlady can and does throw up surprises. My own favourite time of year being May when you just don’t know what to expect.

Access: Car park by timber bridge on the main Edinburgh to North Berwick road (A198).

East Lothian Fields [centred on Drem NT511795]

In the winter good numbers of geese and swans can be found feeding in the fields of East Lothian. Although these birds roost at sites such as Aberlady, it is in these fields that the best views can often be had. The commonest species is Pink-footed Goose, with several thousand present, but a few hundred Greylag Geese are also present. Barnacle Geese can also be seen in good numbers as they pass through on the way to their wintering grounds. The peak passage is in September but a few stay throughout the winter.

The best times to search through the flocks are from September until mid-April. There is a chance of finding White-fronted Goose which are annual, or the rarer Bean Goose. The severe winter on the continent in 1995/96 produced several records of both species. There are also several records of Snow Goose in the area, but none in recent years. Surely one is long over due.

To find the geese the best ploy is to drive around the many roads, both classified and unclassified, within East Lothian until you find the feeding flocks. The best areas to try are those in the hinterland of Aberlady, North-Berwick, Haddington areas along with Fenton Barns, Drem and Brownrigg.

The Whooper Swans can be found in small herds at favourite sites in amongst smaller numbers of Mute Swans. Bewick’s Swans are uncommon but can be occasionally picked out amongst its larger relative.

When driving around the smaller East Lothian roads please remember to keep an eye on the road and please park sensibly when viewing flocks. Good hunting.

Yellowcraig [NT515855] and North Berwick [NT554855]

Yellowcraig, to the north of Dirleton near North Berwick, is mainly used by dog walkers. Despite this good birds have been seen here both in the coastal bushes and at sea. The area comprises mainly of both deciduous and coniferous plantations with sea buckthorn and sandy beaches.

The woods hold Green Woodpecker, Woodcock and a variety of woodland species. Chiffchaff has been recorded in the sea buckthorn during the winter.

The sea is very busy during the summer months with many seabirds (Puffin, Shag, Guillemot and Razorbill) nesting on the offshore islands.

In winter grebes can be encountered alongside Scoter and Long-tailed Duck. Divers are a possibility and White-billed Diver has been recorded.

By far the most superb bird seen here was a Bee-eater enjoyed by an appreciative audience for a few hours in September 1995, before it flew off high to the north.

North Berwick has a few things to offer itself to the observer, as well as the harbour with its ever attendant gulls and roosting Purple Sandpipers in winter. North Berwick Law to the south side of the town gives an excellent chance of Ring Ouzel on its slopes in spring, with sometimes up to half a dozen birds in some years. My best find was a singing Black Redstart, but other observers have seen.

Hoopoe here. On the north side of the Law there is a marsh with Teal and Snipe present and Water Rail can also be heard.

The small freshwater pool and surrounding trees to the west hold some interest. Warblers, including Blackcap, Willow, Chiffchaff and Wood, frequent the area at various times.

Although not directly situated on the North Sea coast, North Berwick is potentially a very good area for migrants. Indeed the small line of Hawthorns opposite the caravan park on the east side of the town has hosted Hawfinch, Hoopoe and Ortolan Bunting along with a number of commoner species.

Access: Yellowcraig is signposted off the main Edinburgh-North Berwick road (A198) at Dirleton. North Berwick Law has public access and there is a car park on the north side.

Bass Rock

The islands of the Forth hold internationally important numbers of breeding seabirds. As a rule many of these islands are out of reach for the ordinary birder. The Bass Rock however is one of the few you can visit. With up to 40,000 pairs of Gannets and smaller numbers of Guillemots, Razorbill, Shag and everybody’s favourite, Puffins. The observer just cannot fail to marvel at this huge seabird city with its ever present volume of sound and smell!

The lighthouse was fully automated a few years ago and now lies empty. The light itself has helped attract many migrants to the island over the years, although not on the scale of the Isle of May. The many good birds seen here include Icterine Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Bluethroat. Lothians first Woodlark appeared here in 1930 and a Black-browed Albatross frequented the island between 1967 and 1969.

Access: The local boatman, Freddie Marr (tel: North Berwick 2838) runs sailings from North Berwick Harbour. There are plans for a lottery funded visitor centre to be built at the harbour with live CCTV pictures to be beamed back from the rock.

Scoughall [NT614833] and Pefferside [NT620825]

The coastal areas of Scoughall and Pefferside, lying between Tantalon and Tyninghame, are probably the most underwatched areas on Lothians North Sea coast. This is due to the small number of observers and also that much of the area is private. Despite this good birds have been recorded here. These have included Pallas’s Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Little Bittern, Common Rosefinch and Little Bunting.

The area around Scoughall is best viewed from the road which runs down from the A198, North Berwick road. Park by the trees before the farm, remembering that the farm is private, although permission could be sought for a more intensive search of the area.

Pefferside itself lies around the Peffer Burn which reaches the sea at this point and forms a large freshwater lagoon which attracted an Avocet in May 1990.

The numbers of gulls roosting on the beach here can be large, with an Iceland Gull being my best to date here. The sea itself holds the usual species with Little Auks seen in good numbers but my best memory is of a cracking summer plumaged Black-throated Diver just offshore one year.

Access: Scoughall is accessed from the A198 North Berwick road, but remember that this is a very sensitive site so perhaps permission should be sought from the local farmer first. Pefferside can be accessed from Scoughall though it is best to walk along the beach from the Lime Tree Walk car park at Tyninghame.

Tyninghame [NT635795]

The huge expanse of Tyninghame Bay lies on the Lothians North Sea coast and without doubt is one of our most important habitats. It is, however, not a nature reserve but a country park named after the famous local naturalist John Muir. After emigrating to the United States he was instrumental in forming the Yellowstone National Park.

As a result of the area becoming a country park, large numbers of the public use this area for walking, horse riding and dog walking. This has resulted in the site being rather disturbed. However, the observer should not be put off by this as Tyninghame still has huge potential. This is also one of Lothians most underwatched areas with few birders during the weekend and even fewer during the week.

The River Tyne enters the bay at Tyninghame in the north west corner. The muddy banks attract Green Sandpiper and Greenshank with counts of 40+ birds recently. The embankment running along the west side of the bay serves as an excellent vantage point and can be reached from the Ware Road end. It is best to view from here on a rising tide some two to three hours before high tide as the bay itself fills up quite quickly. The roosting waders can be seen here with Redshank and Curlew most numerous.

Ducks are also a feature of this site, with up to a thousand Wigeon in winter. The American Wigeon which appeared this summer was, however, with only two Wigeon. Commoner ducks seen here include Mallard and Teal with occasional Gadwall, Shoveler and Pintail. The rarest species here was an American Black Duck.

The geese and swans that use the bay as a roost site can, at times, be found around the river mouth. As a rule they are generally in fields on the west side of the embankment. Both Mute Swan and Whooper Swan are present throughout the winter and Bewick’s Swan are present occasionally. Large numbers of Pink-footed Geese forage the fields for food along side Greylag Geese and small numbers of Barnacle Geese are annual. The rarer Bean Goose was recorded in the severe winter of 1995/96.

From the embankment a track runs north giving good views over the area. This is known as the Buist’s Embankment. The whole area was once a marsh but the embankment was built to hold back the sea and the marsh drained with the area now given over to agriculture. This area hosted Lothian’s only Great White Egret in June 1840.

Following the track eastwards for one mile brings you to a timber bridge across the Hedderwick Burn. This is a very good area for Kingfisher, particularly in the early mornings. After crossing the bridge continue along the beach, skirting the woods where both Green Woodpecker and Crossbill are possible, until you reach the Spike Island saltmarsh which runs down into Belhaven Bay.

This area holds the best bet for a rare wader as the smaller waders congregate here at high tide before being pushed down into Belhaven Bay on extreme tides. Rarities recorded include two Kentish Plovers, Dotterel, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper are seen in good numbers in some autumns.

The saltmarsh itself also holds good numbers of Skylark and Linnet particularly in winter when they are joined by up to 150 Twite. Shorelark were once more regular than currently with the last flock of thirteen birds seen in December 1991.

The Black Kite which slowly flew over the saltmarsh from Belhaven in April 1995 remains our rarest raptor, but all three harriers, Honey Buzzard and Osprey have also been recorded. Most observers have to make do with a wintering Peregrine or Merlin marauding the waders.

With the tide flowing into the inner bay the current occasionally carries in seabirds. I have seen Common Scoter, Gannet and Black-throated Diver here and Goosander are common.

The sea itself can be viewed from Spike Island with grebes and divers offshore along with Long-tailed Ducks in winter. Little Auks are present in some years. The north side of the bay has mainly broad leafed woodland with breeding Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers and Jay present in small numbers. Redstart can be found in spring, advertising their presence by song.

The rocky shoreline here holds good numbers of Rock Pipit in winter with a Water Pipit present during three winters in the early 1990’s. The latter favoured the beach around the large wooded promontory known as the Sandy Hirst.

This area is undoubtedly a migrant trap, however with some very thick cover coverage is less than easy. One lucky observer did find a Subalpine Warbler in October 1987.

The saltmarsh lying on the west side of the Sandy Hirst is the best vantage point to search amongst the roosting Curlew and Godwits which use this area. Whimbrel can be found, sometimes in good numbers.

The deep channels here prove popular with Greenshank with the Heckie’s Hole area the most favoured. Good birds recorded on this side of the bay include Spoonbill, Little Egret and Long-billed Dowitcher. A Green Heron probably went undetected here among the creeks before it was found freshly dead, killed by a predator, in October 1987.

The Tyninghame Bay area is huge, so observers should restrict themselves to one side of the bay or use two cars. Beware there is no way across the river at high tide as the bridge upstream is within the private Tyninghame Estate and locked. Don’t go leaving your car on one side of the bay and you on the other as you’ll have a long wait, a long walk round or a swim!

Access: Tyninghame can be accessed from three different points. On the north shore there is a car park at Tyninghame Links off Lime Tree Walk, accessed off the A198 North Berwick road. The embankment at the Ware Road side can be reached via a track off the A198. Park on the verge by the chain link fence. To reach the Linkfield car park, join the A1087 at Beltonford roundabout on the A1 near Dunbar and head towards Dunbar. The car park is signposted off the left after a quarter of a mile.

 

Belhaven Bay, Seafield Pond and Dunbar Harbour [NT679793]

The Biel Burn, which runs into Belhaven Bay on the west side of Dunbar, attracts large numbers of gulls which roost and bathe. Kittiwakes are common here and both Iceland and Glaucous Gulls have been recorded in winter months. Little Gulls are seen on passage.

The small estuary which the Biel Burn forms also attracts quite a few waders, particularly in autumn, when a scan of the bay may produced Spotted Redshank or Greenshank. The smaller waders seem to prefer the small pools up against the seawall formed by the retreating tide. Both Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper are recorded in good numbers in some years. Kingfisher is regular here, the best time being early morning before the dog walkers have arrived. Rarer species recorded here include Avocet and Black Kite.

Seafield Pond is situated just over the otherside of the seawall. It is quite small in size and as a rule the water level is relatively stable with few muddy edges. This results in perhaps only Common Sandpiper and Greenshank inhabiting the fringes.

In winter Smew may be found in amongst the commoner species of duck which include Mallard, Tufted Duck and sometimes a few Pochard. Gadwall and Shoveler are also reported throughout the year. Up to twenty or so Little Grebes may be present and both Slavonian and Black-necked Grebe have been seen.

The bushes and reeds around the pond are alive with song in spring with Sedge Warbler, Blackcap and Willow Warblers the commonest species present but Lesser Whitethroat and Wood Warbler can be seen and heard on passage.

The rocky shoreline between Belhaven Bay and Dunbar Harbour attracts roosting gulls at high tide with perhaps a chance of Iceland Gull. The harbour has a few gulls on offer itself which roost on the rocky beach to the south or on the rocks at the mouth of the harbour. These are viewable from the ruin lying on the other side of the bridge.

The seawall is a good vantage point for seawatching with Grey Phalarope, two Sabine’s Gulls and several thousand Little Auks all being seen in the space of a few days or so in November 1996.

Access: Dunbar is accessed from the A1, with the Shore Road car park at Belhaven the best for Seafield Pond.

 

Barns Ness [NT724774]

Barns Ness is the main migration watch point for many observers on Lothians North Sea coast. This is because it is an easily worked site and the lighthouse undoubtedly pulls in the migrants.

The area next to the campsite entrance is known as the ‘wire dump’ to locals. This area comprises of small hillocks with bushes and freshwater pools. The bushes have produced Bluethroat, Reed and Dusky Warblers, with Red-backed Shrike this spring.

The campsite is private, but it can be entered when it is closed from late October onward. The shelter belt and scattered bushes within the campsite have held Radde’s, Pallas’s, Greenish, Reed and Icterine Warblers. They can be alive with crests or thrushes during some falls.

A walk along the shore and surrounding areas to the north of the ‘wire dump’ can be best for Wheatears but has also produced Richard’s Pipit.

In autumn the waders on the beach sometimes hold Little Stint but Whimbrel are more regular.

The beach to the south of the lighthouse is best for Yellow Wagtail feeding amongst the rotting seaweed and good numbers of White Wagtails are often present in spring. The Scandinavian race of Rock Pipit can be found from March onwards on this beach. They are probably present for much longer but it is only when they attain their summer plumage that they can be readily identified from the British race.

From the beach the observers next port of call should be the bushes on the south side of the campsite. Here among the commoner species the observer can hopefully pick out something special. Arctic Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Stone Curlew have all been found here.

The sea itself has something to offer with some good seawatching days. Sooty Shearwater, Black Tern and Sabine’s Gull have been reported in several years. Tape luring by ringers on summer evenings has produced small numbers of Storm Petrels, and by day all four species of skua have been seen. The best area for seawatching is just to the south of the wire dump near the lime kiln.

Access: From the A1 signposted two miles south of Dunbar. Follow the signs for the caravan park. Park at the beach.

 

Skateraw [NT737756]

Skateraw lying on the north side of Torness Power Station has always held an interest with Lothian birders due to the occasional drift migrants attracted here. However in the last couple of years the site has really taken off as perhaps the premier site for migrants in Lothian.

With the onset of favourable winds many of Lothians observers charge off to places like Fifeness or St Abb’s. However a small number of observers have recognised Skateraw’s potential and have stuck by it. This was rewarded in spring 1998 when Skateraw was put on the map with Lothians’ second Woodlark followed days later by Rose-coloured Starling, Red-rumped Swallow, Red-backed Shrike, with both Shorelark and Short-toed Lark together at nearby Torness, all on the same day.

Skateraw House at the top of the road by the old A1 is well worth a look. The large trees here have seen Yellow-browed Warbler and Red-rumped Swallow. Remember the gardens are private.

The cover around the row of cottages is also worth a look with the old orchard formerly a good place for Barred Warbler in autumn, but sadly this was cleared to make room for more houses. The fields opposite the cottages are worth a try for buntings and finches. Once you have checked the area continue down to the car park and check the two sets of cover for migrants. Rarities seen here have included Yellow-browed Warbler, Hawfinch and Rosefinch.

The beach opposite the limekiln is a very good bet for Black Redstart and often good numbers of Wheatear. Walk north along the beach checking any waders; both little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper are possible. When you reach the point by the memorial check the rocks at high tide for roosting waders.

Continue on north until you come to the dry burn and walk up taking care not to damage any walls and fences in the process. My own highlights along the dry burn have been two Red-backed Shrikes, Pallas’s Warbler and two Long-eared Owls. Other observers have seen Pallas’s Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Great Grey Shrike and Rustic Bunting.

Access: Skateraw is signposted on the A1. Around two miles south of Dunbar follow the old A1 and turn right by cottages (road marked private) and drive down to public car park.

 

Thorntonloch and Torness [NT751744]

Thorntonloch lies to the south of Torness Power Station and its claim to fame is that it has hosted both Pied and Desert Wheatear on its beach.

The small plantation on the left hand side of the approach road harbours many migrants during fall conditions. In amongst Redstarts and Willow Warblers you may be lucky enough to find yourself a real prize! Dusky Warbler, Reed Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler have all been found here.

After checking any suitable cover walk along the beach towards Torness where there is a public path on the seawall. It is possible to walk round to Skateraw via this path, but beware it may be closed in rough weather.

The rocks on the seawall defences have seen Black Redstarts and the sea is worth a look for divers or sea duck. It can also act as a good seawatching point and may be worth a try.

The large area of rough ground immediately behind the sea wall has several pairs of Ringed Plover breeding. Please walk the area using the paths only. This area held Short-toed Lark and Shorelark this spring and may be worth checking in future years for large pipits.

The number of rarities recorded at both Thorntonloch and Skateraw has risen in the past two years. This is thought to be due, perhaps, to the power station lights which makes it look like a Christmas tree at night. This should act as a beacon to tired migrants crossing the North Sea.

Access: Thorntonloch is signposted a few hundred yards south of Torness. Follow the road round to the car park.

 

Dunglass [NT7772]

The Dunglass Burn, which is surrounded on both sides by a deep ravine with mature woodland, is the boundary point with Borders Region. The woodland holds very small numbers of Marsh Tits and even these may be a thing of the past. Nuthatch was however claimed here this year and hopefully their northward expansion will continue.

The fields near the cottages by the A1 seem a good bet, as do the bushes around the buildings. The dean itself has very deep cover with the bushes down by the burn mouth on the beach being the best bet for migrants.

The area is hugely underwatched, but don’t knock its potential as both Desert Wheatear and Isabelline Shrike have been seen here.

Access: Park at the cottages by the A1 before the bridge (making sure not to block any gates).

 

Whiteadder Reservoir [NT650640] and Lammermuir Hills

Whiteadder Reservoir nestles amongst the Lammermuir Hills which rise to a height of 535 metres and attracts good numbers of duck particularly in winter. Mallard, Teal and Wigeon are all common and good numbers of Goosander can be seen. Geese can be present in small numbers, mainly Greylag with fewer Pink-feet. Rarer species recorded include Ruddy Shelduck (1994) when an influx occurred in north west Europe.

One lucky observer found a Shorelark in a nearby field in 1995, accepted by the local rarities committee on the strength of a photograph taken at the time.

The woodland named The Bell lying to the east of Whiteadder Reservoir (formerly in Lothian, now in Borders, still however, in the Lothian recording area), attracts Tree Pipit and Redstart in spring and sometimes good numbers of wintering finches including Brambling and Redpoll. In the winter of 1996 I glimpsed what surely was an Arctic Redpoll. However after a fruitless search I gave up, only for a friend to relocate it and confirm its identity. This was Lothian’s second record.

The Lammermuir Hills themselves are mainly heather moors with streams in the valleys which attract Grey Wagtail and Dipper, with Common Sandpiper in the summer. Red Grouse are common and Ring Ouzel breed in the valleys with Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Peregrine all present.

Rarities include several wintering Rough-legged Buzzards and even a Gyr Falcon. Dotterel have been recorded by birders in some years but must surely be more regular as the shepherds report them in most years.

Access: Whiteadder Reservoir is on the B6355 from Gifford just south of Haddington.

 

Gladhouse Reservoir [NT295535]

Gladhouse Reservoir, to the south of Edinburgh, lies at the foot of the Moorfoot Hills at a height of 900ft. It was built over 100 years ago and has become an important area for birds in the Lothians, particularly in the winter when good numbers of wildfowl can be found here.

Regular species to be found include Mallard, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye and Goosander. Smew are a very good bet in winter with single birds regular. In spring Shelduck often appear while rarer species include American Wigeon, White-winged Black Tern (two records) and several Great Grey Shrikes. The fields around Gladhouse hold Black Grouse with early mornings the best. In the winter months large flocks of finches can contain many Twite and Brambling.

The real potential of Gladhouse was shown in the seventies when very low water levels in the autumn produced a substantial wader passage. White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper (three records) and Wilson’s Phalarope were all recorded amongst the more common Wood Sandpipers, Green Sandpipers, Spotted Redshank and Curlew Sandpipers. This was all to brief a period in the reservoirs history as the water levels are now kept topped up allowing little or no mud to show. However, in the summer of 1997 the levels again fell by several feet and a Pectoral Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher were found only a week apart.

Access: The reservoir is off the Penicuik-Gorebridge Road (B6372). Although much of the reservoir lies on private land it can be checked from the road skirting the north side. There is a car park on both the south-west and north-east sides of the reservoir.

 

The Pentland Hills [NT164637 to NT234630]

The Pentlands at just under 2,000ft lie to the south of the city. They contain a few reservoirs which serve the good people of Edinburgh. Although not very productive, good birds do turn up occasionally with a Great Northern Diver on Glencorse Reservoir in May 1996, and up to eight Rough-legged Buzzards in the Loganlea area in the autumn of 1903, with singles elsewhere in 1965 and 1966.

The usual range of upland species to be encountered include Red Grouse, Curlew, Dipper and Grey Wagtail. Ring Ouzels and Stonechats breed in fairly good numbers in some years. Twite breed only rarely.

Dotterel can be encountered on the tops in spring as they pass northward, with Scald Law and Carnethy being good bets.

Access: The hills can be accessed from a number of points, but the Car Park at Bavelaw or from Flotterstone on the south side by the A702 are best. For the latter, park in the lay-by on the A702 near Scald Law if trying for Dotterel.

 

Threipmuir Reservoir and Bavelaw Marsh [NT164638]

This reservoir and adjacent Bavelaw Marsh lies at the foot of the Pentland Hills near Balerno. The reservoir can hold good numbers of duck, particularly in the winter months, with Smew seen on odd occasions. The numbers of geese using the site seems to be growing each year, with observers regularly picking out Barnacle and White-fronted Geese each year.

The marsh itself consists of open water fringes with fen, birch scrub and in the autumn, depending on the amount of rainfall, varying amounts of uncovered mud. as a result of the latter, passage waders can and do occur in autumn with Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Greenshank and Spotted Redshank all being recorded. Black Terns have been recorded in summer months, as have Osprey and Marsh Harrier. Rarities have included drake Blue-winged Teal and American Wigeon.

Access: From Balerno take Bavelaw Road which joins with Mansfield Road. Go straight on at the unclassified road, passing the SSPCA Centre until you reach the Car Park (Bus Routes 43, 44, 66).

Walk east from the Car Park to view the reservoir. The marsh can be viewed from Redford Bridge or alternatively from the hide situated on the south side of the marsh. A key is required and is available from the Pentland Hills Ranger Service.

 

Cobbinshaw Reservoir [NT014575]

Cobbinshaw is located 18 miles to the south-west of Edinburgh. In the past the water levels were regularly low affording excellent feeding opportunities for migrant waders. However the reservoir is now maintained at a high water level.

In the summer of 1996 the shortage of rain brought Cobbinshaw back into birders thoughts with some impressive wader counts. The peaks for that autumn were Little Stint (46), Dunlin (36), Curlew Sandpiper (7), Ruff (12) with records also for Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit.

Cormorants are always present though a flock of 32 in January 1997 was exceptional. Birds recorded in earlier years include Red-necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, Pectoral Sandpiper, Green and Wood Sandpipers. A wintering Great Grey Shrike in 1997 was the most recent rarity here.

Access: From the A704 west of West Calder take the minor road for Woolfords. Take the minor road to the left before the village.

 

Harperrig Reservoir [NT088607]

Nestling at the foot of the Pentland Hills, Harperrig is exposed with a lack of general cover. A few shelter belts to the west end are the exception. Long-eared Owls are often seen here. Most of the rest of the area is upland moor and as a result of this passerine species are few, though Crossbills are regular in the shelterbelts and in Colzium Forest to the west.

Odd waders have been recorded here with Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint and Greenshank recently. Knot has even been recorded once.

Numbers of duck rarely exceed two to three hundred most winters but the Greylag Goose count can be as high as 1,000+. Past records include Common Scoter, Osprey, Black Redstart and Black-throated Diver.

Access: From the A70, take the track at the side of the cottage on the west side of the reservoir (by the sharp bend) and park at the shelter belt.

 

Linlithgow Loch [NT003774]

Linlithgow Loch at around 100 acres is situated on the north side of this West Lothian town. The palace ruins alongside the loch gives the observer a feel of what it must have been like in medieval times.

The best spots for birding are situated at both sides of the palace, either the east bay where there are sometimes good numbers of ducks. Ring-necked Duck, Garganey and Ruddy Duck have all been seen here. Good numbers of Coot and Cormorants are generally also present.

The Town Bay to the west of the palace gives the observer both parking and good viewing opportunities as most of the wildfowl come to bread here, including a Red-necked Grebe one winter. A first-winter Iceland Gull did likewise on the 8th November 1998. It is also a good opportunity to leave the car and walk around the loch using the path which skirts around the whole loch.

Several pairs of Great Crested Grebe nest in the Phragmites reedbeds of the West Bay giving excellent views of their spring courtship routine.

Other species recorded here include Smew, Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Slavonian Grebe and Red-throated Diver.

Access: The Town Bay car park is accessed from the High Street (signposted).

 

Hound Point [NT158796]

Hound Point, lying on the east side of the Forth Bridges at South Queensferry, is undoubtedly one of the premier sites in Britain for watching migrating skuas in autumn.

Its potential was first noted in the early seventies by an observer who found migrating skuas flying up the Forth. Since then, each autumn a small number of observers have noted migrating seabirds flying up the Forth, gaining height and crossing over the bridges before presumably flying up the Forth and Clyde valleys to reach the west coast of Scotland.

All four species have been recorded, sometimes in huge numbers in good passage years. Peaks for Pomarine Skua were 420+ on 16th October 1992 and for Long-tailed Skua at 190 on 7th September 1991 and 217 on 7th August 1995. Both Arctic and Bonxie are also recorded in good numbers. When scanning for skuas remember that they can approach from any direction and height (sometimes a great height). I remember one year lying back to enjoy the sun during a lull in activity only to find 16 Long-tailed Skuas high above me flying inland.

As well as skuas, other seabirds also migrate through here but the choice is small with Kittiwake being the commonest, followed by divers and a good chance of Black Tern and Sabine’s Gull.

In early September large numbers of Barnacle Geese can be seen migrating south-west towards their wintering grounds on the Solway. Ducks also feature strongly at times with good numbers of Wigeon and Teal with smaller numbers of Pintail, Scaup and occasional Velvet Scoter. Manx Shearwater sometimes make it up to the bridges but Sooty Shearwaters are exceptional.

The beach below Hound Point holds good numbers of roosting Sandwich Terns at low tide and both Glaucous Gulls and Mediterranean Gulls have been seen here with Red-necked Phalarope recorded only once.

The sudden narrowing of the Forth at this point acts as a crossing place for migrating raptors with Common and Honey Buzzard and Osprey occasionally seen.

I have also seen cetaceans from here with Porpoise, Bottle-nosed and White-beaked Dolphins all seen occasionally. Killer Whales have been claimed and ‘Moby’ the Sperm Whale was here in 1997.

Access: From South Queensferry take the unclassified road directly under the rail bridge and park. Walk east in Dalmeny Estate to reach Hound Point (where oil tankers are berthed).

 

Cramond [NT189772]

Situated on the north-west side of Edinburgh, this very scenic estuary holds strong Roman links dating back 2000 years.

It is a very underwatched area best viewed two or three hours before high tide or even on a dropping tide as all the waders roost on nearby Cramond Island.

Primarily a site for waders and gulls, small numbers of duck are also present, mainly mallard, Goldeneye and small numbers of Scaup in the winter. Scarcities include Glaucous and Mediterranean Gulls with the odd rarity: Tengmalm’s Owl (Cramond island, December 1860) and a few Spoonbill records with two birds present in may 1998.

Access: From Barnton roundabout, by Barnton Hotel, take Whitehouse Road. After about one mile, take Cramond Glebe Road and drive to Car Park at bottom. (Bus routes 40, 41).

 

Arthur’s Seat and Duddington Loch [NT283727]

This extinct volcano rises from the middle of Edinburgh to a height of 824ft, giving excellent views across the city to the Forth and beyond. To the south is Duddingston Loch with its extensive reedbeds. There is an SWT hide overlooking the loch, but good views can be had from Hangmans Rocks to the west of the Car Park.

Although large numbers of feral geese are present there are a few good birds to be seen with Great-crested Grebe and Grey Heron breeding here. Large numbers of gulls bathe here and as a result, Glaucous Gull has been recorded. The large Pochard flock (approx 8,600) of the seventies is now a thing of the past, with just a few birds present these days.

Rarities include Smew, Ring-necked Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Black Tern, possible Little Crake and Spotted Crake. Bittern have taken to wintering each year with two birds present in 1995.

Arthur’s Seat itself has recorded Short-eared Owl, Buzzard and Peregrine. Stonechats, however, no longer breed.

Access: There are several access points from within the city, but it is best to park at Old Church Lane, Duddingston village, accessed from Duddingston Road, via Milton Road.

 

Seafield [NH285765]

This stretch of Edinburgh’s coastline to the east of the Leith Docks, seems as unremarkable as any other stretch, but has over the years produced an excellent variety of birds both rare and common.

The nearby sewage works and offshore outlet helps attract good numbers of gulls, particularly in winter. Careful scrutiny of the flock can produce Mediterranean, Little or even Iceland Gull. A wintering Glaucous Gull is in its eleventh year here.

Small numbers of waders are seen here with Redshank and Turnstone the commonest. A superb Grey Phalarope brightened up a very cold and chilly day in January 1996 as it fed in amongst the surf breaking against the seawall.

All three commoner species of diver have been seen off here and a good selection of wintering grebes is not unusual. The huge flocks of Scaup, estimated at 40,000 birds in the late sixties have now moved on leaving only a handful in their place. A selection of other sea duck, including Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneye and Velvet Scoter all occur. Rarities have included Brünnich’s Guillemot, King Eider, Forster’s Tern and Cory’s Shearwater. It also was the site of Lothians’ only Ivory Gull at nearby Leith in the winter of 1874-75 (surely we are due another one soon?).

Access: From Seafield Road turn right down the side of the sewage works onto the Marine Esplanade. Park at the seawall to view.

Useful links

Visit the Birdwatching sites in the Lothians website, created by Ian Andrews

Download the SOC’s free guide to ‘Birdwatching on the East Lothian coast’, printed September 2012.

Find out more about SOC Lothian branch

Find out our recommended birdwatching sites across Scotland. Visit our Where to birdwatch pages

Visit the Lothian recording area page