Great Northern Diver © Mark Lewis

Every year, with data collated through BirdTrack and other data painstakingly collated from other sources, an ‘annual report’ will be produced – a snapshot of the birdlife in your local area. These are fascinating and extremely useful things, but they are by no means a complete picture. Relying as they do on observers sharing their data, the picture painted depends on where all of those observers went, and how they recorded when they were there. There will be places that were never visited, and species that were overlooked – or more likely, not reported, and these are the missing pieces that you could help to fill.

Finding species that are under-recorded is easy. Think of unglamourous birds. Everyone wants to record every single Little Auk or Spotted Redshank that they see, but how many of us do the same for species like Dunnock? And here’s a question – what do Linnet, Greenfinch, Yellowhammer and Starling all have in common? Well, sadly, they were all red listed on  ‘Birds of Conservation Concern’ – which set out which species should be our highest conservation priorities going forward. They are declining species and yet I suspect that they also something of an afterthought in much of the bird recording that goes on these days. Data on any of these species would always be welcomed.

If you’re interested in finding some unglamorous species to focus on, you could do a lot worse than starting here, at the SOC’s very own ‘Online Scottish Bird Report’. And do you know the really cool thing? You can record data on these species when you haven’t even seen them! By recording in BirdTrack using a ‘complete list’, not only are you telling us where you were, when, and what you saw – you’re also telling us what you didn’t see, which can be just as valuable.

The other way of finding missing pieces would be to go where others don’t go. You could do that by trawling through past reports, but perhaps the simplest way would be to look at the map on the BirdTrack homepage. This map shows where data has been collected most intensively, but also where data hasn’t been collected at all, over the last 30 days. Why not go somewhere new? Find somewhere on the map with little or no coverage, and go and see what’s there. It might be an innocuous looking bit of farmland but who knows where you’ll find a stubble field full of Starlings, Linnets, Greenfinches and Yellowhammers? It might have a stream with a territorial Dipper singing on it, or it might be some sort of plantation, with drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers or although perhaps a little early, a singing Crossbill. Maybe you’ll see a Grey Partridge or find a flock of wintering Fieldfare or Skylark somewhere – yet more recently red-listed species.

December is a great time to find rare ducks, and particularly rare ducks from North America. December is a great time to find these things as they are generally settling to winter (usually in flocks of ‘carrier species’ which will have stopped moving around by now) and, male birds are coming into their breeding plumage, and as such, look great, and distinctive from their European counterparts. Look out for American Wigeon in among flocks of Eurasian Wigeon, and look for the distinctive vertical white breast-stripe of a Green-winged Teal among flocks of Eurasian Teal. Among rafts of Tufted Duck, look out for Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup. They are rare, but they are out there, and you never know when your lucky day will come. Even if you don’t find an American vagrant, scrutinizing flocks of wildfowl can often return interesting records of species like Greater Scaup, Smew, and the increasingly rare Pochard. All of these are species your Local Bird Recorder would be interested in receiving records for.

Another rare bird that seems to crop up in December is the Hawfinch. This species is quite widespread over eastern Scotland but is always present in pretty low densities, and as such can be difficult to find. They have a liking for mature deciduous trees, particularly Hornbeam, and perhaps they’re easier to see in December as they perch up in the leafless branches in the tops of these trees. In spite of their rarity, they may be expanding their breeding distribution, with recent breeding records from Strathclyde, and regular wintering birds around Speyside. Maybe these Speyside birds were reared locally, or perhaps, with this species nomadic winter lifestyle, they congregate there from elsewhere. If you find yourself in the countryside, far from a town and among some mature deciduous woodland, look out for their distinctive heavy billed profile in the treetops, or their calls. They give an abrupt, robin like ‘tick!’ and a high pitched ‘ziiap’, both of which can be heard in this recording.

Also, how about something to look out for over a town or city. The Raven is becoming increasingly common in lowland areas away from their traditional strongholds of the far north and west. Early spring is perhaps a better time of year to find these birds, when they are pairing up and looking for nesting sites, but both Dundee and Aberdeen have seen recent records, so why not somewhere close to you too? Surprisingly, this huge crow can be awkward to identify when seen in isolation (i.e. when there is nothing to compare it’s size with) so look out for the diamond shaped tail and the rather unique, deep, ‘Kronk’ call, which you can hear here.

Winter is a great time to catch up with wildfowl with drakes looking amazing in their ‘breeding’ plumage, and continental visitors contributing to large flocks. So where can you go to see wintery wildfowl near you? All of the following sites can be found on the brilliant (if I may say so myself…) SOC ‘Where to Watch Birds in Scotland’ app, with directions, and details on access and where to see the best birds.

For those near Edinburgh, one of Scotland’s most popular birding spots is right on your doorstep. This is one of the best places in Britain to catch up with some very specialist sea ducks. As well as Eiders (that may well be displaying around now), you may get really good views of Long-tailed Duck,  Red-breasted Merganser and Common and Velvet Scoter from the sea wall, as well as a good selection of divers and grebes. Also, keep an eye out for some rarities, as Surf and White-winged scoter have been seen and a King Eider just down the road. If you visit, don’t forget to have a look at the freshwater parts of the reserve too, where there will be a different selection of freshwater ducks.  At the other end of the M8, Lochwinnoch, to the west of Glasgow, will be worth a look, with a Smew being regular there. This is a great place to see Whooper swans, which share the loch with rafts of ducks such as Goldeneye, Pochard, Wigeon and Tufted Duck. Pink footed Geese are also regular in this area, and Lochwinnoch holds much more than wildfowl. Hen Harriers and Otters can be seen here, and the visitor centre has a feeding station which should offer good views of a variety of species.

With a similar selection of species to Lochwinnoch, those in need of a duck fix in Perthshire or Dundee should look no further than Loch Leven. Huge numbers of waterfowl use this vast lake in winter, and the shore is served by a path that can take you all the way around the loch, should you be feeling adventurous. For those with less time, the visitor centre at Vane Farm has telescopes, bird feeders and a lovely café and expertise on hand to tell you what is about. Loch Leven does well for rarer birds too. Keep an eye out for Smew, Slavonian Grebe, and maybe some rare geese among the Pink-footed geese that may linger there through the winter.

As we head north past Aberdeen, the Loch of Strathbeg is an excellent place to catch up with winter wildfowl. Whooper Swans and large numbers of Pink-footed Geese may be the star turns, but there are always good numbers of Wigeon and Teal around in the winter, along with Tufted Ducks and the like. Strathbeg has an excellent supporting cast during the winter, with Bearded Tit and Bittern regular, and other rare waterbirds likely.

Following the coast around towards Inverness, Alturlie point offers a fine selection of seaducks and other species, feeding along the shores of the Moray Firth. Teal and Wigeon aggregate there, and Goldeneye and Greater Scaup are easy to catch up with here. Look out for Eider, Long-tailed Duck and other seaduck further offshore, along with other species such as divers and Slavonian Grebe.

There are, of course, many other places where you can enjoy Scotland’s wonderful winter wildfowl. There are too many to describe here, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find somewhere suitable near you using the SOC’s ‘Where to watch Birds in Scotland’ app. Or, alternatively, why not choose somewhere off the beaten track. Go somewhere not listed on the app, and record the birds you see using BirdTrack.  

With the long dark nights of late December, it can be a great time to catch up on some admin. There’s generally nothing else going on around that time of year (tongue firmly in cheek!) so why not spend an evening making sure that all of your observations and data have been submitted. Local Bird Recorders are delighted to receive data in most formats, and around now will be turning their thoughts towards collating data for the year about to end. They will be keen to receive any data, but another task they often have to perform is to chase up descriptions and photographs of any rarities that might have been seen in your region. If you were lucky or skillful enough to find some species that require extra documentation, please get these records in promptly – waiting for submissions of this nature is one of the key obstacles in the workflow that ultimately leads to the production of the annual bird report. Your local bird recorder needs you and your records, and you can help them carry out their tasks by making sure they receive data in good time.