Birding the Angus Coast by Stuart Green, from Birding Scotland
The following article is reproduced with permission from Birding Scotland magazine. For more information about subscriptions and back issues email Harry Scott.
Until fairly recent times, the county of Angus was simply an area that you by-passed on the way to see the next ‘good bird’. Despite an array of sites and a beautiful coastline, even I was guilty of ignoring the potential for many years and indeed spent most of my migrant hunting apprenticeship at Fife Ness. Having since discovered the potential of the Angus coast, I hope to highlight some of its many migrant hot-spots in order to generate better coverage of these areas in the future.
My switch in tactics from Fife Ness to combing the seemingly huge and birdless Angus coastline was due mainly to the enthusiasm of one man … Jimmy Steele (now a member of the British Birds Rarities Committee). Jimmy always extolled the virtues of such evocative sounding places as Fishtown of Usan, Windyhills Farm and Castlesea Bay. I personally couldn’t get so excited about trips there, as they usually resulted in little more than the odd Blackcap or Pied Flycatcher. In contrast, by this time at Fife Ness I had already seen Wryneck, Barred, Icterine and Subalpine Warblers. It was only through reading The Birds of Angus by the late G. M Crighton, that my eyes were opened to the potential here, as I read of a Subalpine Warbler at Arbroath in 1970 and a Woodchat Shrike at Ethie Castle in 1974. There was then a lull in activity until Jimmy’s hard work eventually paid off in 1986 with a Yellow-browed Warbler at Mains of Usan, the first in the county since one had flown into a window in Carnoustie in 1954.
Having turned my attentions away from Fife Ness, I spent a few birdless seasons on the Angus coast. My persistence finally paid off in the magical October of 1988, finding both Great Grey Shrike and the county’s first ever Firecrest on consecutive days, followed by a Red-breasted Flycatcher a few days later. During that spell other observers found the county’s first Pallas’s Warbler, Radde’s Warbler and Richard’s Pipit. I vividly remember thinking, during large falls of thrushes and marauding flocks of Goldcrests using any cover they could find, where do you begin? Fife Ness always seemed nice and simple…a large obvious headland. There is no such place in Angus! It is merely a 40 odd mile long coastline with no obvious migrant hot spot. The advantage over Fife Ness, however, is that there are many sheltered, wooded areas on the coast. These areas hold tired migrants which often seem to stay in the exact same spot (where the feeding is good!) for longer periods of time. Many of these woods have ‘hot-spots’ which may be sheltered gullies, gardens or streams, and the trick on a blustery day is to find the most sheltered spot, preferably in the sun, where the birds will often be found feeding or preening in relative comfort. This is easily seen at places such as Seaton Den, where, when the wind is anywhere between north-west and north and east, you walk down the southern edge of the wood. When the wind is between south-east, south and west, you walk along the sheltered northern edge.
So where are the best sites?
Barry Buddon, Westhaven and Craigmill
Barry Buddon is a huge M.O.D. training area, having the twin problems of being closed to the general public for much of the year and no admittance for motor vehicles. A bicycle is the best way to get out to the furthest reaches of the peninsula. Access can be gained from either the Monifieth side at the car park (NO504324) or from the Carnoustie side, through Barry Station (NO542337). The pools and bushes at the Monifieth end had Temminck’s Stint, Red-backed Shrike and Subalpine Warbler in 1997 alone. The scrape by Barry Station last year served up a spinning Red-necked Phalarope and a stunning flock of nine European Bee-eaters to show the undoubted potential of this much under-watched area. The trees out by the firing range on the east side (NO557328) look good for grounded migrants. Birds seen at Barry Buddon in years gone by include; the ghostly Arctic Redpoll in 1988, as well as Hoopoe, Shorelark, Long-tailed Skua and last summer I had tantalising glimpses of a ring-tailed harrier, way off in the heat haze, which was almost certainly a Montagu’s.
On the very edge of Carnoustie (NO573347) lies the village of Westhaven. Check the tiny, natural harbour, just off the car park, in autumn as it is usually crammed with Dunlin. Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper are regular here. It was also visited, briefly, by a White-rumped Sandpiper in 1996. Turtle Dove, Common Rosefinch and Mediterranean Gull have also occurred here.
Just along the coast is Craigmill Den and Panbride Ponds (NO579353), a good place to look for migrant warblers and flycatchers. Look over the wall by the road to view the bushes around the pond as Reed and Yellow-browed Warblers have been recorded here (Don’t enter the garden as the dogs ARE big!). Follow the stream inland to look for migrants first, then check the mouth of the Craigmill Burn. This often holds large numbers of birds, particularly Little Gulls in autumn, and drake King Eider has been seen here in spring.
Easthaven and Hatton
Park in the car park on the seaward side of the railway line (NO592363) and walk just south to view gardens in Easthaven or north to the stream which runs up inland to Hatton Farm. Easthaven is small and very easy to check. The best birds in the past have included Arctic Redpoll, Ortolan Bunting (first county record), Firecrest (first county record) and Yellow-browed, Barred and Reed Warblers. My own personal highlight here was watching a male Montagu’s Harrier being mobbed by crows, directly overhead, as we stood and watched a male Long-tailed Rosefinch, which I had found earlier in the day. From the village walk northwards along the coast, then follow the wooded stream inland until you reach Hatton House (NO590371), with the adjoining Hatton Airfield just to the north-east. During fall conditions migrants funnel up the stream towards the house, with Pallas’s Warbler being the best bird here so far. The old airfield also supplied the first county record of ‘Siberian’ Stonechat in 1990 and the whole area looks good for larks, pipits, wagtails, wheatears and buntings.
Arbroath and Seaton
The esplanade just to the east of Arbroath (NO648408) is undoubtedly the premier seawatching site in the county. All four of the county’s Cory’s Shearwaters have been seen off here, as has Mediterranean Shearwater and Leach’s Petrel. There has also been, in the right conditions, high day counts of Little Auks, Little Gulls, Manx Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater and skuas. September 1991 saw 53 Long-tailed Skuas move north in a day. November 1996 had a day count of 400+ Little Auks, and late autumn day counts of up to 1000 Little Gulls have been recorded. The best conditions here for seawatching are a strong south-easterly with rain, and mist or fog about a mile offshore.
Follow the esplanade road east towards Whiting Ness, but turn inland just before you reach the cliffs to arrive at West Seaton Farm (NO659417). The old orchard can be viewed from the road here and is a reliable autumn site for Yellow-browed Warbler, Icterine Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher have also been seen here, as well as a cracking adult Rose-coloured Starling nearby in October 1980.
Continue up the road to East Seaton Farm (NO662423) and park in the car park. The gardens here are private, but views of the best trees can be had from the road and nature trail which runs down to the sea. The trees here are quite exposed but have produced Firecrest and the county’s only Greenish Warbler in 1989.
From here walk north-eastwards through the farm to the wooded ravine of Seaton Den (NO667427). The Den is reliable for warblers in autumn, with many Yellow-browed Warblers recorded, as well as Barred Warbler and Firecrest a few times. Walk towards the sea down into Carlingheugh Bay, where Bluethroats are often recorded in spring. The Den is a large wooded ravine and requires some patience. The best way to work it (like Dunninald further up the coast) is not to walk down the middle of the wood, but to stay up in the fields along the wood edge, thus staying at eye level with the birds. The site’s best bird was the male Subalpine Warbler in May 1970.
Auchmithie and Windyhills
Travelling north out of Arbroath on the A92, follow the signposts to Auchmithie (NO678443) and park sensibly in the village. Walk back to the churchyard and check the Sycamores there for warblers, flycatchers etc. before checking the willows in the gully which runs down to the sea. This small clump of trees has held Red-backed Shrike, Bluethroat, Icterine Warbler and Firecrest. I was stunned in May 1995 to walk into the churchyard and find the male Eye-browed Thrush, before it was re-located at nearby Mains of Auchmithie, where it was enjoyed by many birders.
From the church, follow the cliff-top path, south round to Castlesea Bay (NO680436) and follow the small, wooded ravine inland. The gully has had Yellow-browed Warbler and the county’s second Radde’s Warbler. From here follow the track inland to Windyhills Farm (NO673436) and check the trees at the farm. Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Icterine and Yellow-browed Warblers have all been seen here, and the county’s only claim of Hume’s Warbler came from here in 1991. From here simply walk the farm track back down into Auchmithie.
Ethie and Lunan
Ethie Mains (NO696480) is one of the best sites for finding migrants on the whole of the Angus coast. The area was relatively unknown, even in local circles, until quite recently, despite the fact that it produced the only county record of Woodchat Shrike in May 1974. There then followed a lull in significant records until a Yellow-browed Warbler was found in 1993 followed by a singing Icterine Warbler in spring 1996. The autumn of the same year produced a further two Yellow-browed Warblers and a Red-breasted Flycatcher to encourage migrant hunters. The big breakthrough came in spring 1997, when despite being aware of Ethie’s potential, I was completely awe-struck to find a first-summer male Collared Flycatcher in the trees around the garden. Although only staying two days in total, the bird remained long enough to be enjoyed by the assembled masses, many of whom had travelled from ‘down south’ showing the true rarity of this species in the UK (see Birding Scotland Vol 1:1 pp 39-41). A Pallas’s Warbler in the same trees in November of the same year, performed down to ten feet, to further enhance the areas reputation. Now the bad news…Ethie Mains is a private site at the end of a narrow, dead end road. The farmer has requested that it should not be visited except by a handful of local birders and should anything as big as Collared Flycatcher be found again, then visiting arrangements will be made.
Lunan Bay just to the north, especially around Lunan Church (NO687516) can also be worth a look with Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Hoopoe, Surf Scoter and Rough-legged Buzzard all being logged in the past, although the area as a whole is quite large and exposed. Try the trees around Red Castle (NO688509) for warblers, flycatchers etc. and follow the river northwards to the Churchyard.
Nether Dysart, Dunninald and Fishtown
Nether Dysart Farm (NO698534) has a small wooded garden, which has potential, but so far has only produced Red-backed Shrike and Black Redstart. From here walk down to the railway line, then follow it north for 1/4 of a mile until you come to the large wooded Dunninald Den (NO703535). Like Seaton Den at Arbroath, don’t walk down the middle of the ravine, but stay up in the fields along the wood edge. Yellow-browed Warbler and Firecrest have been the best finds here so far.
Leaving here, continue north to Fishtown of Usan (NO724546) and walk down to the willows by the beach. Although often exposed, these bushes in the last ten years have produced Bluethroat, Icterine Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Marsh Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler. They have also produced the county’s first Radde’s Warbler in 1988 (initially ringed as an Arctic Warbler and only re-identified years later from photographs thanks to the sharp eyes of local birder Martin Scott). The ‘scarlet pimpernel’ Thrush Nightingale tormented birders here for twelve days in August 1996. My own personal highlight here was the Wryneck in spring, 1988, which chose to ignore the bushes and spent most of its time playing ‘hide and seek’ in the lobster pots! Seawatching here in south-easterly winds can also be rewarding.
Mains of Usan and Ferryden
Just to the north of Fishtown lies the large wood around Usan House (NO723553). The wood is on private land and should not be entered, although the best part around the small dam is easily viewed from the road. This area often requires great patience as the birds tend to disappear for long periods of time, which can be frustrating. The plus side is that the wood is so big, a sheltered spot can always be found somewhere, no matter how strong the wind is. It is here that invariably the warblers will be found. Also try walking down towards the sea and check the reedbed in the fields on the right. The reedbed is difficult to view as it is very thick, but it does produce results, as shown by Reed and Icterine Warblers and a Common Rosefinch in the space of two days in autumn 1997. The large wood itself produced the county’s first and second Pallas’s Warblers in successive autumns and a string of Yellow-browed Warblers as well as Great Grey Shrike, Bluethroat and Red-breasted Flycatcher.
Just to the north lies Ferryden (NO721568) which although it has very little vegetation, has produced Yellow-browed Warbler and a Richard’s Pipit on the road out to Scurdie Ness. This road is now closed to vehicles, although the walk out may pay dividends as Red-breasted Flycatcher has occurred in the Lighthouse gardens (NO734568) and Lapland and Snow Buntings occasionally recorded here. Seawatching at the lighthouse can also be good, with the county’s only Sabine’s Gull being seen off here as long ago as 1978!
Montrose Beach and Kinnaber
This comprises quite a large area, and is a difficult area to work comprehensively. Although, actually in Montrose town, the trees around St Peter and Mary’s Church (NO717577) attract migrants. There has not been any rarities found here, yet the area is worth checking. Head out to the caravan park (NO724576) where Waxwing, Reed and Yellow-browed Warblers have been recorded. Just to the north of here lies the golf course and the links. This area in the past has produced Hoopoe, European Bee-eater, Shorelark, Surf Scoter (offshore) and the county’s only Laughing Gull on the beach in 1994.
About a mile to the north lies Kinnaber, where you can park at Fisherhills (NO729622) on the south shore of the River Esk. A long list of quality birds have been seen here in the past including the county’s only Broad-billed Sandpiper (1974), Long-billed Dowitcher, White Stork, American Wigeon, Little Egret, Temminck’s Stint and Grey Phalarope. There is a small series of channels and pools which regularly hold waders, just to the south of the river. The gorse bushes down by the river mouth can hold migrants with Bluethroat, Red-backed Shrike and Yellow-browed Warbler being the best finds in recent years.
As can be seen, there are a multitude of sites on the Angus coast that can be checked in spring and autumn, with each seemingly taking it in turn to produce an interesting bird. Of course the combination of easterly winds, rain, fog and high pressure systems over Scandinavia and the Baltic will increase your chances of finding something rare. My advice is to wait until these conditions show up on the weather map then go out onto the Angus coast and give it a go yourself. There are so few active birders in the county that you are in with a great chance of finding something for yourself when the conditions are right. On top of that it is a beautiful coastline anyway. If you require