Birdwatching around the Ythan Estuary

Birdwatching around the Ythan Estuary

By Sandy Anderson, from Scottish Bird News No 24 (December 1991)

Revised September 2015

Viewed from a bus or car on the way to Newburgh, this part of north-east Scotland may not be altogether favourable. The almost treeless, windswept farmland of the Buchan plain, however, hides its pleasant surprise until the last minute, down by the coast.

The estuary of the River Ythan and its immediate surroundings has long been an attraction for the birdwatcher, and with good reason. In a day, one may become acquainted with terns breeding on sand dunes, Eiders diving on mussel beds, waders on mudflats and wildfowl on nearby lochs. A fifteen minute car ride from here takes one to the compact seabird cliff at Bullers of Buchan just north of Cruden Bay, but Newburgh has its own bird cliffs as part of Sands of Forvie National Nature Reserve. The changing seasons present their varied bird-life interests throughout the year, from breeders through passage migrants to winter visitors in large numbers.

The bird-life of the Ythan Estuary has not changed greatly since George Dunnet wrote on the subject in Scottish Birds in 1963. The village of Newburgh, however, has grown considerably since then, in response to the oil boom. Main Street looks much as it did a hundred years ago, but the influx of a commuting population has inevitably brought additional pressures to bear on the finite resources of this much-sought-after piece of countryside. The colourful sails of surfboards are now seen regularly on the middle reaches of the estuary. Fishermen and sport shooters need their space as do dog walkers, birdwatchers and others. After an initial outcry about who can do what and where, we seem to have resolved these problems with some advantages for the birdwatcher. These include improved parking, access and facilities at Forvie Reserve and a large, comfortable hide with wheelchair access at Waulkmill, overlooking the mudflats on the upper reaches. The NCC Forvie Centre near Collieston, with its wildlife pond and display of wild flowers, is well worth a visit.

Newburgh is only thirteen miles north of Aberdeen and two miles after the turn-off on the A92. There is a regular bus service from the city and accommodation is available throughout the year at the Newburgh Inn.

The coast and mouth – The Ythan estuary is tidal for just over four miles so tide tables are essential. Waders, for example, may feed in surrounding fields during high water or become invisible on the inaccessible Inch Geck Island; a favoured roosting place at this time for Cormorants also. That the estuary is only 700 yards across at its widest, however, is an advantage to the birdwatcher. It is worth remembering that there is a time lag of one hour for high water at Sleek of Tarty.

The visitor arriving from the south should call first at Newburgh beach (turn right at the Newburgh Inn). From a high sand dunes the view can be exquisite, embracing the mainly heather-clad Sands of Forvie N.N.R. lying between the estuary and the North Sea. Its coastal fringe of sandy beach merges after a couple of miles with the seabird cliffs of the north-east coastline. Just across the estuary mouth is a vast sand dune (reputedly one of the largest in Europe) around which is the breeding place of four species of terns: Sandwich, Common, Arctic and Little, numerically in that descending order with over 1000 successful breeding pairs of Sandwich Terns. The Little Tern is often least successful because of its habit of nesting toward the high water mark where it is prone to disturbance by walkers and anglers. The tern breeding season is from April to July. To protect the breeding terns and gulls the Forvie NNR staff close off the southern end of the reserve to the public from 1st April to 31st August and install an electric fence to deter ground based predators. When shoals of herring fry and sand eels enter the estuary on the flow, the clamour that erupts among diving terns of all four species is a memorable sight and it can be closely watched from the south shore. July draws skuas, mainly Arctic, to the river mouth to harry the terns.

It is at Newburgh beach when the tide is low that the Eiders are most easily watched while they feed on submerged mussel beds. Some 6000 birds have been recorded in the estuary, though today the numbers are now around 1500. The Eiders nest on the Forvie Moor. The offspring are brought in large crèches to feed on snails, shrimps and other invertebrates on the mud-flats further upstream, protected from gulls by ‘aunts’ and parents. During the past few years the estuary has been visited in summer by a single male King Eider in breeding plumage. It draws admiring humans from all over Britain and it is not unusual, as a local, to be stopped and asked “where is the king” by a bus-load of birders. Although it may be seen at any mussel bed between the river mouth and Newburgh Bridge, a little time spent sitting at Inch Point could pay off.

The river mouth in winter has plenty to offer by way of other duck species such as Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and Red-breasted Merganser. Common and Velvet Scoter have been seen offshore in recent years and the odd Guillemot and Razorbill seeks shelter from bad weather. Among the sand dunes nearby, flocks of up to 200 Snow Buntings forage in winter.

Middle reaches – Extensive mussel beds in the middle reaches of the estuary play host, not only to a large proportion of the Eider population, but also to many Oystercatchers and Turnstones. To see waders in large numbers we must press on to the mudflats of Tarty Burn and the Sleek. At Newburgh Bridge, one walks the few hundred yards north from the car park to the Tarty Burn. Here the Tarty enters the Ythan and the great mudflat of the Sleek opens up. Some years ago a pair of Spoonbills dabbled here for several days, while Little Egrets are now regular visitors. The Sleek with its masses of birds is too extensive to cover by binoculars or even telescope from this angle and it is best to proceed west a few yards, to the small mudflat at the bend of the Tarty Burn, carefully avoiding disturbance to the birds. Curlews, Ringed Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Black-tailed Godwits, Knot, Golden and Grey Plover, Greenshank, Redshank and Snipe can be seen at close quarters here, depending on season. Pools in nearby fields may produce Spotted Redshank and Ruff. Ospreys may also be seen here, as they fish the river.

A rough guide to the seasonal presence of some common waders on the Ythan gives peak numbers of Curlew in December/January, Redshank and Oystercatcher in August/September, Golden Plover in September, Lapwing in October and Dunlin in February. Many of those species may be present in varying numbers throughout the year and, interestingly, most have shown an increase in recent years.

On the way to the hide at Waulkmill, pull into one of the two little car parks across from the Snub. The southern one gives a good view of north Sleek where Shelduck fight over territories; this is an important feeding area where adults bring their ducklings from nests as distant as Forvie Moor. On the river, at high tide, a few Cormorants, Goldeneye and some hundreds of Wigeon may be seen although the latter have declined in numbers recently. Mute Swans favour this section also, and a sweep with binoculars around the field could reveal a flock of Whooper Swans. From the Waulkmill hide, if you have timed the tide properly, the mudflat will have a good assortment of waders, including godwits, Curlew and Whimbrel. Flocks of Greylag and Pinkfoot sometimes seek refuge on the river or feed in the fields across from the hide. Gulls of several species, sometimes thousands, also use this area as a pre-roost gathering site.

Lochs – Meikle Loch and Cotehill Loch are just over a mile from the Waulkmill hide. Cotehill is more easily observed from the road and has a fair reputation for the odd rarity, such as Wilson’s Phalarope in 1984. It also maintains a number of Coots, Moorhens and dabbling ducks. Meikle Loch must not be missed. I tend to take my visitors there just before sunset when the geese fly into roost; tens of thousands of Pinkfeet can appear in the area in early autumn. In good light, the odd Snow Goose, White-front, Barnacle or Brent may be picked out. Whilst waiting for the grand show, there may be Shoveller, Teal, Goldeneye and other ducks to watch. The approach to Meikle Loch is by a short, unmarked, rough track on the left off the A975.

If you wish to explore the Sands of Forvie N.N.R. fully as well as the Ythan estuary, I suggest that you get a very early start! It is a place of great historical and biological interest and is worthy of a day visit itself. I do recommend a walk (one mile) downstream from its car-park at Newburgh Bridge. Moorland birds such as Skylark and Meadow Pipit are in the heathland and the occasional Short-eared Owl is recorded. In its history, Forvie has been shown to be of outstanding importance for birds, listing 225 species. The walk, continues alone the eastern bank of the river Ythan and on climbing up over the dunes, one will be rewarded withviews of the lower reaches of the estuary and the tern breeding area.

Finally, may I point out that, for birdwatching on the Ythan, welly boots or even a motorcar are not essentials but Ordnance Survey Explorer Map sheet 421 will be useful. The recently published “Birding Guide to North-East Scotland”by Mark Sullivan and Ian Francis gives further details of birding in this area and the surrounding region. Leaflets on the Sands of Forvie N.N.R. may be had from the car park at Newburgh Bridge, the NNR Centre or from Scottish Natural History on-line.

Map of the area

ythan-map

 

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