The Kingdom of Fife covers an area of just over 500 square miles roughly in the shape of a (Scottish!) Terrier’s head and is bounded by the River Tay to the north and the Firth of Forth to the south. As a result, this small county boasts a coastline of some 105 miles from Newburgh round to Kincardine. However, for the purposes of this article I will cover only the stretch of coastline between the Tay Road Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge, linking the sites covered by Stuart Green in his account of Birding The Angus Coast with those in West Lothian covered by Calum Scott in his feature on Birding The Lothians. The Isle of May has also been covered by Darren Hemsley.
All the sites mentioned are covered by the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 scale Landranger maps 59, 65 and 66.
Few observers seem to bother with the Tay foreshore between the Tay Bridge and Tayport, though there is access down by the lighthouses off the B946 to the west of Tayport. Instead, most people’s interest at Tayport is in looking for the King Eider(s) – with one or two birds present each winter since 1986. The most convenient place to do this is the car park at Snook Head [NO465285]. This is reached by turning east off the B945 (Queen Street) into Maitland Street and then after 100 yards left into Mill Lane (newsagents shop on the corner) which leads round into the Promenade, with the River Tay on the left. This in turn leads to the car parking area between the toilet block and the small caravan site. The bird(s) are best looked for two to three hours before high tide as the Eider flock advances upriver on the rising tide – the King Eider often in the vanguard. The other favoured area is Lucky Scalp, an obvious sandy island about 1500 metres to the east, where the bird should be looked for among the resting Eiders. Apart from 1992 when one bird was regularly seen at close range off the harbour, views are usually quite distant and a telescope is essential.
However, there is much more to offer at Tayport, and it is grossly underwatched. Fife’s fourth Mediterranean Gull was present for a week in August 1986, and another was present briefly on 6th February this year, while a party of five Spoonbills frequented the Lucky Scalp area for five days in July 1996. The post-breeding gathering of terns in late summer attracts Great and Arctic Skuas, with Pomarine occasionally seen, and Little Gulls are regular in the river mouth. A sewage pipe on the shore to the south of the caravan site is frequented by the larger gull species, while the tidal mudflats which stretch for over four kilometres from the harbour out to Tentsmuir Point are host to a good range of waders and would definitely repay more regular watching.
This area (over 20 km2) between the Tay and the River Eden is one of the largest acid sand dune systems in the British Isles, and is a designated NNR (1954) managed by SNH. Tentsmuir Forest was established in the 1920s and still covers an extensive part of the area. For the most part the woodland is too dense for birding but a vast system of paths (1:25 000 OS map recommended) provides some chance of seeing the typical array of woodland species. Capercaillies formerly bred here but are now probably extinct – last sighting was in 1993. More productive are the south and western edges of the Forest, the open areas near Kinshaldy House, and any newly felled areas. Access is easiest from Kinshaldy Beach car-park or Morton Lochs [details given below]. The dunes and beaches can be good for waders, gulls and passage species. A male Golden Oriole was seen at the southern edge of the Sea Buckthorn at Kinshaldy on 15th August 1994.
Tentsmuir Point [NO504283]
The dune system is most extensive towards Tentsmuir Point, which can be reached from either Tayport or Kinshaldy Beach car park. In Tayport turn east off the B945 at Elizabeth Street and continue into Golf Road with Scotscraig Golf course on the right and turn right into Shanwell Road. After about 200 yards park sensibly and continue on foot to the Point (about two miles). Kinshaldy Beach car park [NO498243] is reached by turning east off the B945 at NO449245 (signposted) or by taking the unclassified road heading north-east from Leuchars. A fee is usually payable at the car park, where toilet facilities are provided. From the car park head north along the beach to the Point (about two and a half miles).
There are two records of Buff-breasted Sandpiper from Tentsmuir (September 1973 & 1975), and a Stone Curlew was seen here in January 1965. More expectedly, this is one of the better areas for Snow Bunting in Fife, while Shorelarks have been recorded several times. Great Northern and Black-throated Divers and Slavonian and Red-necked Grebes can be present offshore in winter/passage.
Earlshall & ‘the Goosepools’ [NO496219]
Earlshall Muir is the open area to the south of Tentsmuir Forest and is of outstanding botanical and entomological importance, and was formerly a major nesting area for wildfowl, waders and Black-headed Gulls. The old WWII buildings in the dune edges at the north-east part of Earlshall are a good vantage point to look for Little Gulls and skuas on passage, with counts of Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas often better here than at Fife Ness. Access is easiest along the beach heading south from Kinshaldy Beach car park.
The beach area adjacent to the south-east corner of Earlshall often retains water in tidal pools – ‘the Goosepools’, and this area has proved particularly attractive to passage waders and terns. Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints are regular, and Fife’s first Pectoral Sandpiper was found here as recently as September 1995.
Morton Lochs [NO465264]
This was the first NNR designated in Fife (1952) and is currently managed by SNH. It lies within the northern part of Tentsmuir and is reached by turning east off the B945 about one and a half miles south of Tayport. Follow the track for just over half-a-mile and the car park is on the right by the disused railway bridge. Walk back to the public hide which looks onto the North Loch. The hide features an unusual array of letter-box style viewing shutters!
This was formerly a regular site for Garganey and the first Scottish record of Broad-billed Sandpiper was shot here on 12th August 1912. The only recorded breeding of Golden Oriole in Scotland occurred here in 1974. Other notables are a male Little Bittern in May 1979 and a Spotted Crake in September 1983. In recent years, natural succession of the vegetation has reduced the number of species to be seen, with passage waders and waterfowl no longer a regular feature. SNH are currently reviewing the management of this reserve. (Keys for the hide on the South Loch and the Fullerton Hide, overlooking the north end of the North Loch, can be obtained from SNH, 46 Crossgate, Cupar, Fife, KY15 5HS.)
Eden Estuary LNR
This one of the best sites in Fife for observing wildfowl and waders and is host to the largest concentration of Black-tailed Godwits in Scotland, with individuals present all year round and a notable peak in late March/April.
The mudflats in the north-west corner of the Estuary can be viewed from a short path which leads east from the A919 in Guardbridge and follows the north bank of the Motray Water beside the Papermill. The birds can be quite close here, but the light is often poor. The north side of the Estuary is dominated by RAF Leuchars and is essentially inaccessible. On the west side of the road a Spotted Crake was seen in the reeds of the Motray Water in March 1985.
South-West corner & the Eden Centre [NO451192]
On the south side of the Guardbridge Papermill, Fife Council have built an observation centre which also includes interpretive displays and information about the Eden Estuary. The Centre affords views over the south-west corner of the Estuary and the River Eden to the south as far as the bridges over the A91. This area is favoured by Common Sandpipers, Ruff and Greenshanks on passage and Kingfisher is seen quite regularly. You can view the river upstream of the bridges by following a muddy path that begins at the South-East corner of the current road bridge, and the fields around here are sometimes favoured by geese and Whooper Swans, with Jack Snipe possible at the reedy area where the river bends to the west.
The inner part of the estuary can be viewed, if somewhat distantly, from the east end of the lay-by at Edenside [NO455188] where there is a noticeboard with details of recent sightings. The lay-by overlooks the saltmarsh area used as a roost by most of the birds in the inner estuary, and this is the best place to look for the Black-tailed Godwits. Viewing is best in the couple of hours before/after high tide when the birds are concentrated towards the saltmarsh – at low tide the birds can be very distant and dispersed. In addition to the usual range of waders, Little Stints Green and Curlew Sandpipers are regular and Wood Sandpiper has been recorded. Among the more unusual species seen here are Kentish Plover, Avocet, Temminck’s Stint, Broad-billed Sandpiper (2nd for Fife & Scotland), and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. There are two recent records of Wilson’s Phalarope, and unusual wildfowl have included several Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon. The Fife Bird Club has a hide (members only) positioned on the edge of the saltmarsh [NO458191], behind the Edenside stables, which affords good close views of the inner estuary and the roost (over 120 species recorded since 1992).
The outer part of the Eden Estuary is rather more awkward to view, but access is possible at Cobbleshore [NO486183], and Fife Council has provided a hide in the south-east corner of Balgove Bay (Keys from Fife Ranger Service, Silverburn House, Leven, Fife. Tel: 01333 429785). Cobbleshore has very limited parking – do not block access, and do not enter the pig farming areas. From the point it is possible to scan over the mudflats back towards Edenside and also Balgove Bay to the east. The Balgove Bay hide is easiest reached from the Eden Course car-park of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club towards St. Andrews, and it is possible to walk round the Bay by keeping close to the shoreline. Do not encroach onto the golf courses. The Bay is the favoured area for Pintail and Brent Geese, but this part of the estuary is underwatched and would definitely repay more coverage.
Most birders associate St. Andrews with winter birding, scanning through gulls and the seaducks, and in particular searching for Surf Scoters. However, it has produced two remarkable firsts for Scotland in recent years; a Little Swift on 29th May 1985, and a heavily twitched Chimney Swift on 8-10th November 1991 – it may pay to gaze upwards regularly when walking round the town! More recently, the first (documented record of) Nuthatch in Fife was seen/heard at several places in the town in winter 1997-98.
St. Andrews Bay can be readily viewed along the length of the ‘West Sands’ and it is possible to drive along (north) almost to the tip at Outhead. Access is off the A91 at Golf Place just to the east of the roundabout where the A91 (Links Crescent) joins the A915 (City Road) in the NW corner of the town. The Golf Place turn-off is signposted for the Royal & Ancient Golf Course/British Golf Museum/SeaLife Centre. Follow the road down towards the beach and then turn left to connect with West Sands Road. A fee is often payable to drive along here. It is possible to view the Bay at several points in the dunes, but probably the best place to park and scan is where the dunes just finish and you can get right up to the edge of the beach. Shorelarks and Snow Buntings have been recorded here. At Outhead, a noticeboard details recent sightings, and there are a series of paths to the beach and through the dunes allowing views of the mouth of the River Eden.
Alternatively, the Bay can be scanned from the car park adjacent to the British Golf Museum, which is reached by turning right at the beach end of Golf Place. Again a fee is usually payable to park. The Surf Scoter(s) can often be close from here. In choppier conditions a better, elevated viewpoint is the grassy bank between the Golf Museum/SeaLife Centre and ‘The Scores’.
It is also possible to scan St. Andrews Bay from the north-east corner of the town, from an elevated position on the road (East Scores) running east of the Castle. The rocks below the cliffs are viewable from the path which runs down from the Castle to the Harbour, and from the Harbour itself. In addition to the seaducks, this is the best area to look for grebes and Purple Sandpipers, and Glaucous Gull has been seen here.
The East Sands beyond the harbour, are prone to disturbance by other users but may repay regular visits.
This small village is reached by turning north off the A917 at a sharp bend about four miles south of St. Andrews. It is possible to walk through much of the woodland along the Kenly Water which eventually winds down to the sea about a mile to the east. The coastal path which runs from there to the north of Boarhills is well worth a look and allows views into the small reedy pool near Craig Hartle. This area is underwatched, but produced a Yellow-browed Warbler in October 1998.
Kingsbarns & Cambo
Kingsbarns lies on the A917 about three miles south of Boarhills. On the south edge of the village turn east along Back Stile/Sea Road which leads down to the beach car park at Cambo Sands [NO602124]. The sea to the north and south of here can be good for divers, grebes and seaduck, and Cambo Sands played host to Fife’s second Bonaparte’s Gull in August/September 1997. Cambo Estates have recently opened up some excellent walks between Kingsbarns and the Cambo Burn (about one mile to South-East). Details are given on noticeboards at the access points along Sea Road. For the walk along the west side of the estate it is more convenient to park at the square in Kingsbarns. This path leads South-East through woodland to the main estate gates (access also possible here using the lay-by to the south on the other side of road) and from here it is possible to walk through the wooded areas alongside the Cambo Burn back down to the sea. At the sea follow the beach/coastal path north back to Cambo Sands car park. As well as the more typical range of woodland species, there is great potential for migrants in this area – a Pallas’s Warbler was found by the coast path in November 1997.
Fife Ness and Crail
This area has dominated migration watching in Fife, and over half of all rare/scarce birds seen in mainland Fife to date have been in this area. In the 1970s ‘The Ness’ produced first records for mainland Scotland of Red-flanked Bluetail, Greenish Warbler, Radde’s Warbler and Yellow-breasted Bunting, which contributed to a strong reputation as a migration watchpoint. While fortunes have varied since then, it continues to attract a wide variety of rare birds, and has also proven itself as one of the best seawatching sites on the east coast of Scotland. Over the last 15 years the Fife Bird Club has done much to establish a good relationship with the Golf Club, farmers and other residents at Fife Ness, and overcome a previously hostile attitude towards birdwatchers. The Golf Course areas are out of bounds for birders, as are the airfield and the buildings on the north side of the road opposite the airfield. Please follow the relevant access guidelines below and ensure your behaviour does not jeopardise future access to the area.
The Fife Ness area is reached by following the unclassified road (Marketgate becoming Balcomie Road) which heads east at the sharp bend of the A917 in Crail [NO613077]. For Fife Ness Muir and Foreland Head you should proceed for two miles towards the Balcomie Links Clubhouse of Crail Golfing Society. There is a public car-park on the left where the road reaches Craighead Farm [NO632099], and it is about half a mile from here to the point. However, it is still currently possible to drive down towards the Coastguard Station at the Ness, in which case turn right at Craighead Farm and then left soon after to head downhill past a row of cottages on the left and carefully proceed across the golf course. There is very limited parking in two grassy areas on the left about 50 yards after you have crossed the course and before you pass Rose Cottage (pink) on the right. If these areas are full return to the car-park near Craighead Farm and walk down to the point. Do not park on the road, at the caravans, at the Coastguard cottages or at the Lighthouse. (There are several other areas to check for migrants and specific access/parking details for these are given under the relevant headings).
The Fife Bird Club has recently built (November 97) a seawatching hide (members only) below the Coastguard Station at Foreland Head. Over 110 species have already been recorded since then including Surf Scoter, Hen Harrier, Hobby, Woodcock, Mediterranean and Glaucous Gulls, Black and White-winged Black Terns, Short-eared Owl and Snow Bunting. Rather more expected, Cory’s (5), Balearic (6) and Sooty Shearwaters, Storm and Leach’s (2) Petrels and all four skuas have been seen. Notable species in the past have included Great Shearwater (four records – last in 1984) and Black-browed Albatross (1972). It is always possible to seawatch beside the hide and nearby pillbox, which are reached by following the coastal path around the front of the Coastguard Light. Late summer and autumn are the best times but any time of year can produce interesting birds e.g. Long-tailed Skua in December 1994. The coastal path continues round from here on the south side of the Ness to join up with the Kilminning Coast SWT Reserve.
Migrants & Vagrants
The scarcer migrants such as Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike, Bluethroat, Icterine Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Barred, Reed and Yellow-browed Warblers are seen most years on passage, and Hobby has been recorded several times in recent autumns. While many observers seem to concentrate on the area around Fife Ness Muir and the point (Foreland Head), it has been increasingly evident that sites further west towards Crail are often more productive.
Fife Ness Muir & surrounds
This area, now a SWT Reserve, is synonymous with Fife Ness and the hard work of Dr. Jim Cobb, who established the site, known locally as ‘the Patch’ [NO635097]. A mixture of gorse, coniferous and deciduous trees and open grass on the raised ground behind the cottage, this is the largest area of cover near the tip of Fife Ness. In recent years, Richard’s and Red-throated Pipits, Subalpine, Greenish, and Pallas’s Warblers, Firecrest, Isabelline Shrike, Ortolan, Little and Yellow-breasted Buntings have all been found in this area. Access to/from the Muir is by the footpath which starts by the stone wall on the north side of the garden of the (pink) Rose Cottage. No other route should be used – the Golf Course is strictly out of bounds. The ‘Patch’ is used as a ringing site during migration times so please be careful not to disturb these activities if you visit at these times. There is absolutely no access to the gardened area around the cottage or caravans or the bank of vegetation behind. View only from the road or the access path to the Muir.
There is a small tidal pool (Stinky Pool) on the seaward side of the grassy parking areas which is worth checking – a Grey Phalarope spent a week here in November 1997, and Temminck’s Stint and Avocet have been seen here too! The Fife Coastal Path continues north from this point towards Balcomie Beach which can also be reached from the car-park at the Golf Clubhouse.
Irishman’s Garden, Balcomie Beach and coastal path
These sites are easiest reached by parking at the public car-park at the Golf Clubhouse on the north side of the road junction at Craighead Farm [NO632099]. There is a neglected garden by the two houses opposite Craighead Farm (beside the entrance to the new golf course) known still as ‘the Irishman’s Garden’. It has produced many good birds in its time e.g. male Red-breasted Flycatcher in October 1993, and is always worth a quick scan. Please respect the privacy of the residents.
Balcomie Beach can be reached by walking east from the car-park past the Golf Clubhouse and down a small track by the practice putting green. The bushes either side of the track have held Wryneck, Icterine Warbler, and mainland Fife’s first Pallas’s Warbler. The beach area itself is just north of where the track reaches the coastal path and it regularly attracts flocks of gulls and waders with Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper noted on passage. In November 1993, this beach was the favoured feeding area of mainland Fife’s first Isabelline Shrike and more recently Fife’s third Pectoral Sandpiper was found here in September 1999. The coastal path leads south to the point at Fife Ness, or north towards Wormiston Farm, Randerston and eventually Cambo (just over two miles). This stretch of coast can be good for migrants and on consecutive days in August 1997 produced two Wrynecks and two Icterine Warblers.
Balcomie Castle Farm Garden [NO626098]
Fortunately, the current owners of Balcomie Castle Farm allow access to the excellent walled garden area by the farm. Please park only at the entrance of the turn-off [NO626096] to Kilminning, do not park at the farm. Walk back the 100 yards to Balcomie Farm, checking the adjacent trees and fields (mainland Fife’s only Woodlark was here and more recently, two Buff-breasted Sandpipers in 1977, and three in Sept ’96). If anyone from the farm is around ask permission to check the walled garden, otherwise proceed to the small garden on the right before the entrance to the farmyard. The trees here have held Pallas’s and Yellow-browed Warblers, Firecrest and Red-breasted Flycatcher, while the garden has hosted a number of goodies including Subalpine Warbler in September 1996 and the only Nightingale recorded in mainland Fife was seen here in May 1990. Do not walk around the front of the Castle.
Kilminning Car Park [NO631087]
There is now considerable cover at the entrance of the turn-off [NO626096] to Kilminning, and this is well worth checking when you stop to look at Balcomie Farm garden. There is ample space for parking near the entrance. Bluethroat, Black Redstart, Barred and Yellow-browed Warblers and Red-backed Shrike have all been found here. For the car-park proceed along the road past the Go-Kart track on the left for just over half a mile to the parking/picnic area which overlooks the coastline. From here there are paths down to the Kilminning Coast SWT Reserve which extends east to the ‘Fish Factory’ building and west back towards Crail.
The car-park area hosted a Little Bunting in September 1993, while the nearby fields have held Fife’s only Pied Wheatear (September 1992) and two Richard’s Pipits (October 1997).
Wormiston Spinney [NO614093]
This is a narrow strip of trees at the junction of two roads/tracks, and can be reached from two directions. There is a potholed road/track connecting the Spinney with the road out to Fife Ness which starts opposite the airfield at NO619087 and passes the cottages at Kirklands. This is one of the better areas to see Corn Bunting at Fife Ness. The other route is by a better paved road which starts at the sharp bend of the A917 to the north of Crail at NO606093 and heads east past Wormiston House (out of bounds to birders) to the Spinney. Park sensibly at the road junction and check the trees and fields. The road heads north from this junction down to Wormiston Farm – access by foot only, and passes some renovated cottages on the left with a large garden and pond. Please respect the privacy of the residents. This is the site where the Lesser Grey Shrike was found in October 1999 (fourth Fife record), remarkably the first for Fife was also at Wormiston (June 1958), while the last (third) county record of this species was of one at the Crail end of the airfield in September 1996.
Denburn Wood, Crail [NO614080]
Denburn Wood is a narrow strip of open woodland situated towards the north-east edge of Crail town, just beyond the church at the end of Marketgate (the route out to Fife Ness, which then becomes Balcomie Road). There are three points of access, but it is usually most convenient to park on the road by the south-east entrance or near the entrance to the church. The south-east entrance to the wood is via a small wooden gate beside the road at NO615080, and a path leads down towards the burn and then back up and along to the north-west corner at the end of Bow Butts Road, with a side path leading up to the graveyard at the back of the church. Adjoining the graveyard and Bow Butts Road is a sizeable area of parkland, while a track continues north-east from this end of Denburn towards Balcomie Caravan Park, and all of these areas can hold migrants. The level of cover in Denburn is greater on the north-east side and towards the north-west corner, and has provided shelter to mainland Fife’s only Thrush Nightingale in May 1985, and only Arctic Warbler in September 1996. Other notable species seen include a Swedish-ringed ‘Black-bellied’ Dipper in 1988, Pallas’s Warblers in 1990, 1994 and 1999, several Yellow-browed Warblers, the Subalpine Warbler of 1996, Red-breasted and Verditer Flycatchers and Golden Oriole.
East Neuk Harbours
From Crail upriver to Elie and Earlsferry are some truly delightful small harbours much beloved of photographers and tourists in the summer. For birdwatchers, these areas are generally more productive in the passage and winter periods when there is a possibility of Little Auks and white-winged gulls, as well as the more usual grebes, divers and seaduck. Anstruther is the most regularly watched of the harbours and has produced Fife’s only Caspian Tern in September 1985, a pair of Surf Scoter on 12th February 1989 and a Leach’s Petrel in June 1993, while Purple Sandpipers are often to be seen on the rocky areas adjacent to the harbour in winter/passage. It is possible to check all of these harbours within a couple of hours, and in many cases it is possible to scan from your car – a real bonus in inclement weather conditions.
Crail Harbour is reached by turning south-east off the A917 (Westgate /High Street) into Shoregate [at NO612075] which leads down to the harbour.
The main harbour area at Anstruther can be reached by turning south-east off the A917 at the junction [NO 565037] with the B9131 (St. Andrews Road) which leads down to the harbour via Rodger Street. Alternatively turn south from the A917 into Toll Road [at NO571041] where the B9131 loops back up to the main coast road. There are car parking (fee payable) and toilet facilities (fee payable!) at the harbourside. The small harbour (Skinfast Haven NO577037) at Cellardyke can be reached by turning east off Toll Road into East Forth Street or John Street.
Pittenweem Harbour is reached by turning south off the A917 at the crossroads junction at NO551027 and then heading south-east along Abbey Wall Road to the harbour.
St. Monance Harbour can be reached by turning south-east off the A917 at the staggered crossroads [NO524019] into Station Road which leads down to West/Mid/East Shore.
Elie & Earlsferry
The sea off Elie Bay and Elie Ness can repay scanning for grebes, divers, ducks and gulls, while Elie Ness can prove an excellent vantage point to observe Manx Shearwaters and other seabirds which come into the Outer Forth. At the right state of the tides, the bays can be good for waders, and the first record of Kentish Plover in Fife was at Elie Bay on 21st April 1966.
The east side of Elie Bay is reached by turning south off the A917 in Elie on Stenton Row and following the road towards the shore where the road becomes ‘The Toft’ which leads round to the granary building and pier. It is possible to stop and scan all along this stretch.
For Wood Haven/Ruby Bay and Elie Ness [NT496993] take the short road which leads south at the start of Wadeslea, a hundred yards east of the junction of The Toft and Admiralty Lane. This leads round to a small car-park at ‘Ruby Bay’ (fee may be payable) and proceed on foot across to Elie Ness where paths lead to Lady’s Tower and the lighthouse which provide good vantage points.
The west side of the bay can be checked from Earlsferry which is reached by continuing west along Bank Street at the sharp bend of the A917 in Elie. This road continues round to become the High Street and from here various roads lead down left to ‘The Shore’. Again, ducks, gulls and waders are the main attraction. The west end of the High Street leads to Chapel Green from where it is possible to check Earlsferry Links and the adjacent bay by foot.
Just west of Earlsferry is the prominent landmark of Kincraig Head, which played host to mainland Fife’s fourth Richard’s Pipit in November 1996 – a superb find that indicates not all rare passerines turn up at Fife Ness. Snow Buntings have been recorded here in past winters. Access is by a variety of unclassified roads/tracks from Grange (by the Golf Course) on the west side of Earlsferry. Alternatively, and probably easier, is to use the car-park [NO469004] on the access road which leads down to Shell Bay (Kincraig) Caravan Park. Park sensibly and explore the area on foot.
Largo Bay Ruddon’s Point, Shell Bay & Cocklemill Marsh
Largo Bay, and in particular Ruddon’s Point [NO454004], has gained recognition amongst British birders as the most reliable site to see Surf Scoters in Britain (indeed, Europe). This seems to be connected to the presence of large numbers of Common Scoters and, more particularly, Velvet Scoters during the winter months. After the first bird off here in January 1946, there were no further records until the end April/May 1981. However, since 1985, Surf Scoters have been recorded annually in Largo Bay with birds typically present from late October to end April (earliest return date is 30th September and the latest stay was 13th June 1997). However, there is much more to see than ‘the Surfies’, and this is one of the best sites in Fife to look for divers, grebes and seaducks, while the adjacent beach areas are excellent for waders and gulls.
Access to these sites is via an unclassified road signposted for Shell Bay/Kincraig Caravan Park at the crossroads junction on the A917 at NO478016 just west of Kilconquhar Loch. Follow this narrow road south-west through the trees for about a mile until you emerge from the trees and there is a car-parking area on the right. Park here if intending to explore Kincraig Head. When the caravan park is open it is possible to continue down by car to the site. Turn left at the T-junction just after the small bridge over the ditch, and continue to follow the road round to the left for about 400 yards to a small parking area beside a brick building. From here it is usually necessary to proceed on foot.
Shell Bay lies to the south-west and is worth checking for gulls and waders. For Ruddon’s Point and Cocklemill Burn you should follow the track heading west and after a couple of hundred yards the path heads left for the Point or straight on for Cocklemill. Follow the left path for about 400 yards, beyond the end of the small line of trees on the right and the raised grassy mound, to the south-west tip of the headland. It is very exposed here and can be bitterly cold – in such instances some shelter can be gained by sitting below on the beach.
The Surf Scoters are normally in the bay to the west, often in line with Leven/Methil, but sometimes closer in the bay to the right or off the Point to the south-west. The birds can be quite distant, and more typically loosely associate with the Velvet Scoters rather than the Common Scoters. There are plenty of grebes and divers off here in the winter, and Fife’s third White-billed Diver was found here in October 1994.
The Cocklemill Burn runs down to the Forth at the extreme east end of Largo Bay, adjacent to Ruddon’s Point. It is reached by heading west on the track from the car-parking area of the caravan site, and after about 400 yards the track passes through a gap in the trees, to reveal Largo Bay.
To the south-west it is possible to scan the mouth of the burn and shoreline for waders and gulls and any other close-in birds on the Forth. A Grey Phalarope was present here on 22-24th January 1995, attracting many admirers. A path cuts along the west side of the trees from here and leads out towards Ruddon’s Point.
To the north-east it is possible to explore Cocklemill Marsh, and two recently constructed wooden bridges make it easy to check both sides of the burn. This area often attracts Short-eared Owls, Snipe, and occasionally Jack Snipe, in the winter, plus a variety of pipits, finches and buntings. The third Water Pipit recorded in mainland Fife frequented the marsh and burn areas from mid March to early April 2000. Just to the west of Cocklemill Marsh, the first Scottish record of Long-billed Dowitcher was of a bird shot at Dumbarnie Links in September 1867.
Birthplace of Alexander Selkirk of Robinson Crusoe fame, this was perhaps better known to birders as a regular haunt of the Surf Scoters back in the 1980’s, though currently Ruddon’s Point is the best viewpoint for these. However, this part of Largo Bay is still much favoured by divers, grebes and seaducks and is one of the best sites in Fife for Red-necked Grebe. Wintering auks have included Black Guillemot, while the line of rocks parallel to the stone pier behind the Crusoe Hotel is used as a gull and wader roost in winter and is a reliable site for Purple Sandpiper.
The two best places to view from are the pier behind the Crusoe Hotel, and the car-park a few hundred yards further east. The hotel is adjacent to the harbour where the bridge crosses the Kiel Burn, and is reached by turning south off the A915 Largo Road at the crossroads by the War Memorial [NO416031] down Harbour Wynd. Alternatively, turn south-east off the A915 in Lundin Links at Crescent Road [NO410028] opposite the turn-off for the clubhouse of Lundin Ladies Golf Course, and follow this road down to the bridge at the harbour. There is limited parking in the Crusoe Hotel car-park.
The second viewing area is a car park [NO423026] reached by heading east from the harbour area on the very narrow Main Street (If approaching from Upper Largo, it is easier to turn left down Durham Wynd [NO419030] – the first left as you approach Lower Largo, and then turn left into Main Street). Go past the Alexander Selkirk Memorial, and after a sharp right bend and left turn along the shore, the car-park is on the left in front of the embankment of the disused railway line. There are public toilets here. When the water is a bit choppy, viewing from the embankment can be be advantageous.
While most visitors to Leven concentrate on the birds visible from the Levenmouth car-park, it is worth scanning the whole length of Leven Beach. There is vehicle access from the small roundabout of the A955 in Leven at NO385007 along the promenade as far east as the caravan park at Leven Links.
In the winter a high-tide wader roost can often be found where the Scoonie Burn drains down onto the beach just to the east of the amusements hall at NO389010. There is a car-park here, and it is often possible to scan the roost from your vehicle without disturbing it. For the caravan park continue east along the promenade to the next car-park. From here you can explore the rest of the beach, stretching just over a mile back towards Lundin Links, on foot. The range of species is much the same as at Levenmouth, although viewing is perhaps not as easy, but this section of Largo Bay is somewhat underwatched, and would probably repay regular visits.
Levenmouth & Methil Power Station
The combined elements of the River Leven draining into the Forth, the warm water outflow from Methil Power Station and the short and leaky sewage pipe alongside, plus ease of viewing, have served to make this one of the best and most favoured birding sites on the Forth. The concentration of gulls, waders, divers, grebes and seaducks off the car-park provides superb birding, and this is currently the most regular site in Scotland for Mediterranean Gulls, one of the best UK sites for Scaup, and a female King Eider has put in annual appearances since 1997.
Sadly, the recent closure of the Power Station means there is no water outflow anymore, and the sewage pipe is due to be upgraded and extended out into the middle of the Forth. How this will affect the attractiveness of the site to birds remains to be seen.
The most convenient place to check through the birds is from the car-park adjacent to the mouth of the River Leven at NO382004. This is opposite the north-east corner of Methil Power Station and about 100 yards south of Leven Bus Station, and is reached by following the A955 into Leven and down to the foreshore. The area can be good at any time of year, though passage and winter tend to give the biggest numbers of most species – over 115 species have been recorded from the Fife Bird Club hide within the grounds of the Power Station.
During the winter months, the build up of seaducks just offshore here can be quite considerable, and close views can be had of a good variety of species. Of particular note is the large number of Scaup which are present, usually just to the east of the two structures by the sewage outflow. Numbers vary, typically with a peak in January, but over 1280 were present in January 1997.
Mediterranean Gulls have been recorded at all seasons, but late summer to winter are probably best, though even when present can be frustratingly elusive. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls have also been recorded in past winters. At high tide there is a regular wader roost on the east wall of the Power Station, with good numbers of Knot and several Purple Sandpipers regularly present in winter. Surf Scoters have been recorded on several occasions, including a juvenile in November 1998 (which side of the Atlantic did that one hatch?), while a female King Eider has turned up with the flock of moulting Common Eiders in 1994 and annually in late summer/autumn since 1997. The ‘Queen’ Eider is often to be found among the other ducks in the vicinity of the sewage pipe.
This area receives considerably less attention than Levenmouth, but can be worth a quick check. The ‘Queen’ Eider has been seen in this area, and a moulting adult Mediterranean Gull spent a couple of months here from August 1994. When not disturbed by work in the harbour, there can be sizeable wader roosts here.
The harbour area is reached by turning off the A955 at the small roundabout at the junction with the B931 at NO377004, immediately west of the bridge over the River Leven. Continue to follow South Street as it curves round to the right and take the first left after about 500 yards. This road leads round to the Harbourmaster’s building. Park sensibly and seek permission to walk around the three dock areas.
Though not matching the current numbers and concentration of species as Levenmouth, Kirkcaldy offers a couple of good places to look for birds in the Forth with most of the same species present.
Pathhead, at the north end of the seafront played host to an immature male Surf Scoter in 1980, and started the run of modern day sightings in the county. This area can be scanned from near Ravenscraig Castle, and there is a car-park part way down the embankment off the A921 Nether Street at NT288923, and a track continues down further towards the sewage plant. It is also possible to check this end of the bay from the nearby harbour area, in which case there are more convenient car-parks at the junction of the High Street and the north end of the Esplanade.
At the south end of Kirkcaldy is an excellent stretch of coast from the Tiel Burn to Seafield. The mouth of the Tiel Burn attracts large numbers of gulls and is readily scanned from the car-park at the south end of the Esplanade at NT279903. There are public toilets and an excellent cafe here. For Seafield, continue south-west from the esplanade /A921 past the bus depot to the double roundabout and take the A921 Kinghorn Road to the left. Then take the first left turn into Seafield Road and continue down to the car-park area at the shore [NT279896]. The female King Eider, more typically to be seen at Levenmouth, was present off here from the end of June to the start of August 1998 – a superb find and an interesting observation as to just what a wide area this bird travels in the Forth.
A remarkable series of records have well and truly established Kinghorn as one of the top birding sites on the Firth of Forth. Though there are historic records of a Red-footed Falcon (shot in 1880) and a Woodchat Shrike in May 1953, it is for the seabird sightings that it has earned its reputation in recent years.
Kinghorn is one of the best sites in Fife and the Forth for Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas. Roseate Terns are regular on passage/summer and Mediterranean Gulls have been recorded annually since 1996. A Balearic Shearwater lingered offshore on 20th-22nd December 1996, a juvenile White-winged Black Tern flew west past here on 24th August 1997 and a Hobby flew through on 29th August 1999. More generally, this site is excellent for the whole range of seabirds from divers to auks, and its attraction probably owes much to the narrowing of the Forth at this point.
However, it is two remarkable and unprecedented events which really stand out. In July 1999 a Cory’s Shearwater lingered offshore for most of the month, allowing the species to be twitched in Scotland for the first time, and amazingly a second bird was present on several dates. A further set of sightings in 2000 raise all manner of questions. The second event was perhaps even more stunning, with up to 2814 Black Terns recorded heading west past Kinghorn between 26th August and 26th September 1999. This very concentrated and localised passage of birds included consecutive day totals of 473, 625 and 566 which completely overshadowed the previous best Scottish day total of 19 birds!
The best place to watch seabirds at Kinghorn is the car park at the pier [NT265861] at the end of Pettycur Road. This is reached by turning south in Kinghorn into Rossland Place at the junction of the A921 Burntisland Road/High Street/Balliol Street and Station Brae. Continue from Rossland Place straight into Pettycur Road and follow the road down to the harbour. There are public toilet facilities here. The pier and Pettycur Bay road which leads to the north-west also provide viewing of the east end of the bay.
A small car-park on the left near the start of Pettycur Road can provide a good, elevated, alternative viewing point for this part of the Forth. Pettycur Bay and Burntisland This area gained recognition when it was one of the sites frequented by at least four different American Wigeon which overwintered in Fife in the early 1990s. Pettycur Bay was host to two Mediterranean Gulls in July/August 1990 and more recently, Burntisland played host to another in February 1999. The bay is much favoured by the larger waders, being particularly good for Bar-tailed Godwits, but would doubtless repay regular scanning through the smaller species. Access to the east end of the bay is difficult, though it can be watched from a small pull-in off the A921 near the top of the hill opposite ‘The Bents’ holiday park. A Sabine’s Gull was seen from here on 30th July 1998.
There is pedestrian access nearer the middle of the bay by means of a short tunnel through the railway viaduct not far from Burntisland Cemetery.
It is possible to scan the west end of the bay at Burntisland. One of the best vantage points is a car-park just east of the swimming pool at NT238858. This is reached by turning south into Links Place near the junction of the High Steet with the A921 Kinghorn Road where it turns sharply back into Cromwell Road (approx NT235859). Cromwell Road leads up to the East Toll roundabout at the intersection of the A921/A909 and B923.
Dalgety Bay and St. David’s
A definitely underwatched site with much potential, Dalgety Bay attracts waders and gulls, often in large numbers. In addition, there can be good concentrations of grebes, divers and ducks offshore.
Access to the foreshore is probably easiest by turning south off the A921 (A92(T) on old maps) at West Moss Plantation [NT166847] on the unclassified road. Continue straight on at the roundabout into Moray Way South which soon turns south-west parallel to the shore. Paths lead to the shore about 400 and 800 yards beyond the roundabout.
For St. David’s continue south-west straight across the roundabout into Moray Way and after just under a mile take the left turn into Link Road. At the T-junction turn left into Harbour Drive and follow this road down to St. David’s Harbour. From here it is possible to scan the east side of Inverkeithing Bay.
Alternatively, St. David’s can be reached by turning south into Harbour Drive at the A921/B916 junction at Hillend/Dalgety Bay railway station.
The harbour (Inner Bay) here has great potential and attracts gulls, waders and a variety of ducks. Divers and grebes are regular on passage and in winter. There is a regular wintering Greenshank, which favours the mouth of the Keithing Burn, and the site has recently produced records of Mediterranean Gull and Green-winged Teal in February and March of 1999 respectively. The coastal path on the south side of the harbour mouth (West Ness) has also proved to be an excellent place to watch the autumn skua passage in the Forth. While numbers tend to be less than observed from Hound Point, just opposite on the Lothian side, the views are often much closer, sometimes amazingly so.
To view the mouth of the Keithing Burn, and to scan from the north side of the harbour, the best vantage points are along the south-west side of Ballast Bank Playing Fields [NT134824]. These are reached by turning off the B981 in the north end of Inverkeithing (Church Street/Chapel Place) east into Boreland Road – signposted for the railway station. Proceed over the railway bridge to the end of Boreland Road, and turn left at the T-junction (into Hillend Road) and then take the first right, Fraser Avenue. Continue for about 800 yards to the junction with Preston Crescent, adjacent to the playing fields, and park sensibly.
It is also possible to walk down past the sports pavilion and then east along the foreshore as far as St. David’s Harbour, to view the outer harbour and the north side of Inverkeithing Bay.
For the south side of the ‘Inner Bay’ and the West Ness area and footpath, head south out of Inverkeithing towards the junction with the A90 and the Forth Road Bridge. On the south edge of town the B981 (Hope Street) passes under a railway viaduct and after 200 yards turn left into Ferryhill Road (signposted North Queensferry) just before another viaduct over the B981 and the A90 junction. Ferryhill Road itself passes under a railway bridge, and immediately turn left into Cruikness Road. Either park here and continue on foot or carry on until you enter the Cruiks Quarry site. Follow the path east to the harbour mouth (=West Ness) and view from here and along the path as it heads south towards North Queensferry.
Thanks to Dr. Jim Cobb, Dougie Dickson, Dave Fotheringham, Dave Ogilvie, Mark Oksien and Ken Shaw, who have all provided site information in Fife Bird Club Newsletters which has been of great use in compiling this article, and again to Mark for checking over the draft copy.
Further information on birds in mainland Fife is available in the award winning Fife Bird Report.
For details of the Fife Bird Club, access to FBC hides and other aspects of birding in Fife contact Willie McBay, FBC Membership Secretary, 41 Shamrock Street, Dunfermline, Fife. KY12 0JQ.
Please remember to send details of all your bird sightings in Fife to the County Recorder – general sightings by 31st Jan of following year at the latest; rare/scarce records should be notified immediately.
Visit the SOC Fife branch
Find out our recommended birdwatching sites across Scotland. Visit our Where to birdwatch pages