Birdwatching on the Berwickshire Coast

By Kevin Rideout, from Scottish Bird News No 28 (December 1992)

When people think of Border country, the coast isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. That’s a mistake! What it lacks in quantity it certainly makes up for in quality, and the Berwickshire coast is as exciting as any stretch of coastline on mainland Britain, both for its scenic beauty and outstanding birdwatching.

The coastline stretches for roughly 40 km from Lamberton in the south to the boundary with East Lothian at Dunglass. It is principally a rocky coast with high cliffs rising up to 150 m, a few sandy bays and several scrubby or wooded deans penetrating inland. There are no mudflats or saltmarsh. Spring means the arrival of the coast’s greatest wildlife asset – its breeding seabirds. Well over one hundred thousand nest on the cliffs, principally Kittiwakes and Guillemots, with both having nationally important populations. There are also large numbers of RazorbiIls. Shags, Fulmars and Herring Gulls and small populations of Puffin and Cormorant. The majority of the seabirds are concentrated at St Abbs Head (NT915693) a rocky headland 5 miles north of Eyemouth which is a National Nature Reserve owned by the National Trust for Scotland and jointly managed with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Here there is easy access to a variety of viewpoints overlooking the best cliffs. Other good places to view seabirds are the cliff path between Eyemouth and Burnmouth and around Fast Castle head (NT860711 take the Dowlaw road signposted off the A1107 to its end then carry on down a farm track to a small car park just beyond a row of cottages). Remember that the seabird season is a relatively short one and Guillemots are already leaving the cliffs by the end of June. Peregrines also breed on the cliffs, taking advantage of the numerous feral pigeons and occasional seabird. Sparrowhawk and Kestrel are regularly encountered anywhere along the coast and Ravens, once a common bird, have recently recolonised the cliffs after an absence of forty years. A good variety of small, open country birds breed including Whinchat, Wheatear, Yellowhammer and Linnet. Corn Buntings occur between Eyemouth and Burnmouth and where there is scrub in sheltered hollows or deans Reed Buntings, Whitethroats and sometimes Lesser Whitethroats breed.

The only substantial area of woodland is at Pease Dean (NT793704), a wildlife reserve owned by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Here there is a remnant Oak-Ash-Hazel woodland in a steep sided, Y-shaped valley, though it has been heavily interfered with by forestry operations including the planting of Sycamore and conifers. The long term management aims of the reserve are to restore native, deciduous woodland. Here there is a good network of paths giving easy access to view the excellent variety of woodland birds which includes Marsh Tit, approaching the northern limit of its distribution in the UK. Dippers and Grey Wagtails also nest here and Lesser Whitethroats sometimes breed. Park at the Pease Bay caravan site (NT794708) and enter the reserve by a kissing gate at the roadside.

The East coast can be a magic place in the periods of spring and autumn migration (April-May and mid August-October) and the Berwickshire coast is no exception. Large falls may occur in east or south-east winds especially if accompanied by overnight rain or poor visibility. St Abbs Head tends to be the focus of birdwatchers’ attention because it is an ideal migrant trap due to its prominence and variety of habitats which includes a sheltered valley with a freshwater loch surrounded by trees and scrub. Here birds can find shelter and feeding before resuming their journeys. Large numbers of common migrants through especially Wheatears, Goldcrests, warblers and flycatchers. Rarities also occur on a regular basis – so far 1992 has produced King Eider, Red-footed Falcon, Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Little Bunting. However there are many other areas that are potentially very good but are rather neglected, for example, the steep valley down to Burnmouth harbour (NT957612) which is well vegetated with a variety of trees and scrub, Linkim Shore and Fleurs Dean (NT924655) midway between Eyemouth and St Abbs, Milldown burn at Coldingham Bay (NT918663), Dowlaw Dean (NT867705) just to the south of Fast Castle Head and Pease Dean. All these places are well worth exploring during the migration periods and some of them have produced rarities in recent years, for example Icterine and Greenish Warblers at Burnmouth, Pallas’s Warbler and Olive-backed Pipit at Coldingham Bay, Woodchat Shrike and Bluethroat at Dowlaw Dean.

The Berwickshire coast can also offer good seawatching especially in strong north or north-east winds between August and September, though there can be good movements of Manx Shearwater in July in relatively light onshore winds. Arctic and Great Skuas pass close to shore and Sooty Shearwater are regularly seen. Sea duck, divers, terns and Gannets add variety and there is always the chance of a rarity such as Long-tailed Skua or Cory’s Shearwater. St Abbs Head is a popular watch point either from the cliffs at the lighthouse or from a lower point called Black Gable about 400 m south of the lighthouse (NT916690). In very strong winds it is possible to seawatch from a car parked in the lighthouse car park. If you prefer to be at sea level, try watching from the rocks at the end of the golf course on the south side of Eyemouth harbour (NT950646).

Even in the quieter winter period, the Berwickshire coast still has much to offer. Seawatching can still be rewarding with perhaps Little Auks, sea duck and divers.

Divers and grebes may occur in sheltered areas at Linkim shore, Coldingham Bay and Pease Bay while Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper can be found along the rocky shore. The area around Dowlaw and Coldingham Moor (NT850690) can produce Red Grouse, Peregrine, Merlin. Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier with large mixed flocks of finches and buntings which may include Twite, Lapland or Snow Bunting. The pond at Dowlaw Dam (NT852698) is a Greylag roost and may also have ducks and waders.

The Berwickshire coast offers great birdwatching in tremendous scenery; whatever the choice of site or time of year, it will not disappoint you.

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