Archive - December 2018

30th December 
Skateraw and Barns Ness

Our final Sunday outing of 2018 was inspired by a Twitter report of a Water Pipit near Skateraw in East Lothian. The weather prediction was favourable so we drove east, first to Dalkeith Morrisons for breakfast (another 9.75/10), then to a pile of manure in a field overlooking Torness Nuclear Power Station. It was there we were expecting to see the Water Pipit and we were mightily encouraged to find many small birds picking their way along the high ridges of straw and excrement (that was probably straight out of the cowsheds of the local farm). The majority of birds we saw on the manure were Rock Pipits . Their dark olive green plumage on their backs and wings and generally duller undersides set them apart from other pipits. There are two main subspecies of Rock Pipits found in the UK, the ‘UK’ Rock Pipit, Anthus petrosus petrosus, and the Scandinavian rock pipit,  Anthus petrosus littoralis (Follow this link to learn of the identifying characteristics of Rock (and Water) Pipits). The much lighter Meadow Pipit  was also present. From a distance we mistakenly thought the first Meadow Pipit that came along was a Water Pipit, only to be disappointed when it came closer. The Meadow Pipit’s back and wing plumage is mainly dark ochre, and its underside has a light cream colour with prominent dark streaks.

Rock  Pipit Meadow Pipit

As we waited to see if the Water Pipit would make an appearance, I recalled that there once was a huge cairn in a field close to Skateraw. It was cleared in the late 19th century, to reveal a burial cist containing skeletal and a Bronze Age dagger . It’s exact location may have been on the site of the power station, or even under the piles of manure. A Pied Wagtail snapped me out of my thoughts of the ancient and modern, and back onto the job at hand. The wee waggy posed obligingly, its beauty contrasting wonderfully with the brown background. I caught sight of a few Whimbrel grazing in the far side of the field, however they were put up by cars passing along the old A1 road. After an hour of waiting I decided as a last resort to relocate the car to the roadside 30m on, facing the far side of the pile. As soon as we arrived there we spotted the Water Pipit. After watching the other Pipit species we both were struck by the differences in plumage of the Water Pipit . On its underside it had a much whiter base colour and less dark streaks, and it had a much browner back and wings. A bonny wee bird.

Pied Wagtail Whimbrel Water Pipit

Having succeeded in achieving our “target” we moved on to Barns Ness where we walked a circuit around the lighthouse and along the beach. However, the tide was very low and the sea a long way off, and so were the birds! A Chaffinch and Carrion Crow were by the lighthouse but that was it. We did though come across a large, 1m high, plant close to the birds. I think it is Tree Mallow  but I’m not 100% confident.

Chaffinch Tree Mallow? Tree Mallow? Carrion Crow

As we finished our circuit I pointed out how the Gorse  bushes were loaded with their yellow blooms. Usually by the turn of the year there would be far fewer flowers. John in turn thought the Scots Pine trees were pretty well loaded with cones. Disappointed with the dearth of wildlife we said goodbye to the lighthouse and made for Belhaven. Our final sighting though was taken by John from the passenger side of the car as we left on the Barns Ness single track access road. It was of a Pheasant high on the grassy banks of a ridge at the north end of the Cement Works.

Gorse Scots Pine Barns Ness Lighthouse Pheasant

The light had been OK at the start of our visit but had deteriorated as time went on. As we left Barns Ness it was very dull. We stopped at Belhaven Bay for tea and a special treat - John had baked a treacle and ginger bun. It was the highlight of the day for me, pushing the Water Pipit into 2nd place. It was an excellent conclusion to an otherwise quiet day.

Pictures of the Week:

Rock Pipit MeadowPipit
Water Pipit Pied Wagtail

23rd December 2018 :


The weather map on Sunday morning showed the Forth-Clyde valley was blanketed in fog which was to clear slowly, with rain possible later in the west of Scotland. We headed east making for Barns Ness, encouraged that the fog had lifted in the Edinburgh area, but when we got to Dalkeith for our usual breakfast (another 9.75/10)  we couldn’t see the usual high landmarks far to the east, such as North Berwick Law, only a wall of grey mist. A report on Twitter of  Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes at Musselburgh made up our minds - Musselburgh it was.
We started at the River Esk at Millhill car park where we found a large gathering of birds in the water. There were great photo-opportunities as Mallards flew in to bread as did a Duclair Duck. A flock of Goldeneye were busy diving for food in between flirtations with the opposite sex. The males display before females by throwing their heads back vigorously onto their rumps (see “Pictures of the Week”, below). As I photographed the Goldeneyes, four Mute Swans paddled past very close to the bank.

Drake Mallard Duclair Duck Goldeneye Mute Swan

The Goldeneyes found a food source below the Swans. According to the RSPB website, they like mussels, insect larvae and plants. John pointed out that he could see them swimming under the water and I managed a few shots of a busy submerged drake. A few Greylag geese flew in honking noisily as they landed (see also “Pictures of the Week”, below), watched carefully by a Black-headed Gull and Canada Geese that had been snoozing contentedly in the shallows.

Goldeneye Greylag Goose Black-headed Gull Canada Goose

We relocated downstream to the Esk mouth. The tide was high and getting higher. Although a few patches of blue sky were breaking, it was still rather overcast so the light wasn’t great. Looking across the Firth of Forth we could see a blanket of mist stretching from Burntisland west down the Estuary. Only a hilltop transmitter was visible above the mist. We walked east, peeking regularly over the sea wall hoping to spot small waders very close to shore. Some Redshanks, Turnstones and a solitary Mallard obliged, only to be put up by walkers.

Redshank Turnstone Drake Mallard

The walk toward the Scrapes yielded some nice sightings. A lonely, sleeping drake Eider bobbed in the waves. We thought it could have been unwell. John caught sight of a Great Crested Grebe fishing warily, as did, a bit further out, a few Velvet Scoter. Then I thought I had snapped a Slavonian Grebe, but, on inspecting the picture, saw it was a winter plumage Black-necked Grebe  - a newby for us.

Eider Great Crested Grebe Velvet Scoter Black-necked Grebe

As we continued our amble towards the Scrapes, four Wigeon left their flock that was about 400m offshore, and flew over the sea wall into the reserve. I photographed a pair of male Reed Buntings  that had landed on the wall. I noticed that the view across the Forth had brightened. Perhaps we too were to be treated to some late sunshine. At the path into the Scrapes a cheeky wee Blue Tit checked me out before tweeting it’s discontent and flying off.

Wigeon Reed Bunting Blue Tit

From the middle hide we were pleased to see quite a number of birds settled on the rear pools. They were mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Lapwings, each numbering in high double figures.

Bar-tailed Godwit Oystercatcher Lapwing

We moved to the “left hide from which I spotted some Widgeon in the grass - most likely those we’d seen earlier. On the scrape some Redshanks and Dunlin were foraging in the mud, while on the grassy banks Oystercatchers were preening, feeding and, most characteristically, sounding off. I caught a nice shot of a Black-headed Gull, lit up by the emerging sun.

Wigeon Redshank Oystercatcher Black-headed Gull

In the centre-pool there were Lapwings, ever-watchful for that aerial threat of the hunting raptor.


I took some images of Teal dabbling on the edges of the pool (see also “Pictures of the Week”, below) before we decided to make our way back to the car. On our return journey I managed a shot of a Shag fishing close-in. We saw the sleeping Eider still in the same place strengthening our initial suspicions that it was ill. The sun disappeared once more as reached the car. Perching birds became silhouettes.

Teal Shag Carrion Crow

Another enjoyable outing had reached its end, but not before we had downed some lattice pastries with mugs of strong tea. Highlight of the day for me was the Black-necked Grebe sighting as I love a newby, and for once we actually managed to see one of our “target” birds.

Pictures of the Week:

Mallard Goldeneye
Greylag Goose Teal

16th December 2018:

 Tyninghame Bay

It was another very encouraging weather prediction last Saturday night. Sunday was to be rainfree, with only moderate winds. I chose to visit Tyninghame Bay, which is part of John Muir Country Park (JMCP), just west of Dunbar. It is a great place to see waders and sea birds. Recently Shore Larks were seen in the salt marshes at the edges of the Bay, so we hoped for better luck that last week at Aberlady. The skies were indeed cloudless and blue when we entered Dalkeith Morrisons for breakfast (a superb 9.75/10, but -0.25 for a leaky teapot!), and it was still fine weather when we reached the JMCP car park. It wasn’t long until we were making our way along the salt marsh towards the Tyne Sands and the area where the Shore Larks had been seen. The marsh was very quiet. Only a few distant Redshanks and a Herring Gull graced us with their presence. But that changed when we reached the end of the salt marsh. I spotted a half dozen Redshanks some 50m away and as I edged closer to them I came across a half dozen or so Skylarks . I also noticed that there were a few Twites nervously moving about the grasses (also, see “Pictures of the Week”, below). When some passing walkers put them up, we were amazed to find that there were at least a couple of hundred Twite in the flock, which was nice to see as nationally their numbers have plummeted  in recent years. The Twite were active in the area the Shore Larks were seen - but, sadly, we didn’t see them.

Herring Gull Skylark Redshank Twite

The flock drew large figures of eight in the sky as the birds searched for a safe place to land.
I managed some pretty decent shots before they eventually settled near the sand dunes. Just beyond them I noticed a well-lit Goldfinch sitting munching seeds on top of a stalk (also, see “Pictures of the Week”, below). We were able to move across the extensive sands to the River Tyne as the tide was reaching its low point. An Oystercatcher was picking at seaweed before taking off as we arrived. We settled on our 3-legged stools, precariously, as they were slowly sinking into the soft sand. A female Red-breasted Merganser  flew upstream past us, it’s face nicely lit by the low sun.

Twite Goldfinch Oystercatcher Red-breasted Merganser

There were a few birds across the river, all well illuminated. A Bar-tailed Godwit trod knee deep probing the riverbed for invertebrates, as a Common Gull sat motionless, watching. A Curlew that had originally been on our side of the river, had just landed on the sands, about 10m from the Gull. A pair of Carrion Crows  (also, see “Pictures of the Week”, below) flew upstream into the sunlight, one attempting to rob the other of a tasty mollusc.

Bar-tailed Godwit Common Gull Curlew Carrion Crow

We trudged through the deep, damp sands towards the mouth of the river, trying to catch up with a swim of Shags. They were too fast for us, but we “cut the corner” across to a point ahead of them and sat and waited on them rounding the bend. Already on the river mouth was a handsome drake Eider. Then, after a short delay, the Shags turned up. There were 9 of them, still diving for fish, unsuccessfully as far as I could see. Another one joined the group from the air as they moved onto the opposite rocky shore to dry their wings. Shortly after a solitary Turnstone  flew past, and turned out to be the lead bird of a mini invasion.

Drake Eider Shags Turnstone

We next had an exciting few moments as a sizeable (100+) flock of small waders flew in, obviously searching for a suitable place to land. As they were passing we could see that the majority were Dunlin and Sanderling  with a few Turnstones. They circled our position a few times before eventually going down on an area near where we had photographed the Curlew. Very satisfied with our sightings at the river we decided to make our way back to the car via the beautiful beach of Tyninghame Bay. Apart from a solitary Herring Gull, the shore was devoid of birds. Perhaps the waders we’d just seen had been put up from there by dog walkers (of which there were more than a few - and, to be fair, they had every right to be there). We reasoned that we might see more if we crossed the sand dunes back onto the salt marsh, so that’s what we did.

Dunlin Dunlin Sanderling Herring Gull

We found the entrance to a suitable path through the stiff dune grasses but paused briefly to absorb the stunning view of the east side of the Bay. The picture shows the largely deserted sandy beach. Note the lobster trap  in the foreground. This was one of about a half dozen we saw on the edges of the river. Maybe the recent stormy weather had displaced them from their usual positions. In the background you can see Dunbar golf course and the spires of Dunbar Parish Church. On the right of the photo note the smoke belching out of the Dunbar Cement Works . Depending on how the wind is blowing, the acrid smoke can spoil a visit to Barns Ness, despite assurances on the Tarmac website).

The trek across the dunes took longer than we’d expected and, apart from grass, all we saw were a few stems of Teasel  and a bold first cycle Great Black-backed Gull, its plumage lit by the ever- reddening amber light of the setting sun. We didn’t see anything on the salt marsh, other than a few Redshanks lurking in the long shadows. Back at the car park there was a tent pitched as a base for “The Wave Project” , a registered surf therapy charity, “Changing lives through surfing”. Next to it was a food van, “The Big Blu”. Somewhat unusually it was a Pizza van, complete with a flaming oven, easily seen below the shiny metal chimney.

Great Black-backed Gull Teasel Wave Project The Big Blu

We agreed it had been a very pleasant walk in a delightfully beautiful part of East Lothian. Our sightings had been many and various. My particular favourite was the “invasion” of the flock of waders swooping speedily over the blue waters of the Tyne mouth. We celebrated, of course, by demolishing Cinnamon Danish pastries washed down with strong tea. We were both weary, but mellow, satisfied with all aspects of the visit. Hopefully our next visit will be just as good.

Pictures of the Week:

Goldfinch Skylark
Carrion Crow Twite

 9th December 2018: Aberlady and Port Seton

Like last week we had the same weather predicted across the whole of Scotland’s Central Belt, but this time it was to be bright sunny weather throughout. I rather fancied going to Aberlady as in recent weeks there had been reports of interesting sightings, such as the Shore Lark at Kilspindie. We drove, then, east to the Lothians where, much to our disappointment, we found the skies were filled with low, grey clouds. Hoping that it would soon clear, we went into Dalkeith Morrisons for breakfast (8.5/10, nice food but slow service). When we emerged the clouds were punctuated by patches of blue so we were fairly optimistic as we completed our journey to Aberlady.


We parked on the A198 just before the approach road into Kilspindie Golf Club. On the shore we immediately found a flock of about 30 Wigeon nibbling in the salt marsh. They were fairly close to us, but the light was still pretty dim (see also “Pictures of the Week”, below). We picked our way west along the marshy shoreline. The tide was well out and there were a few patches of birds visible but they were fairly distant. To our great delight the sky cleared pretty quickly to leave the bright conditions we had expected and we got some passable pictures of a few Lapwings that were on the exposed sands. John spotted a solitary Golden Plover near to the Lapwings. We wondered why it had become detached from its flock. Perhaps it was unwell. As we veered north towards the area the Shore Larks had been seen, we passed wrecks of some fishing boats. Apparently there were 8 boats that were sunk there in the period at the end of the 19th to the start of the 20th centuries. 

Wigeon Lapwing Golden Plover Fishing Boats

We searched the salt marshes just to the north of the Kilspindie Golf Club car park but sadly the Shore Larks were nowhere to be seen. Another birder told us they had flown off an hour before we arrived (I subsequently learned they had returned soon after we left!). We observed that there were some birds in the channel of the Peffer Burn, notably more Wigeon, Eider and Mallards. About 500m to the north beyond the Burn, John pointed out an impressive collection of 250 +/- 50 Shelduck . Overhead, in the distance I heard the honking of geese flying in from the Forth. As they came nearer I saw by their orange beaks that they were Greylags. They flew across our view and towards Aberlady LNR.

Eider Mallard Shelduck Greylag Geese

To the north-east, the light of the low sun had coloured the very prominent hill called North Berwick Law . It is the remains of an ancient volcano that was active about 300 million years ago. About a mile away from us we could see the south shores of the Forth where very large flocks of Oystercatchers were in the air, with south Fife in the background. As we retraced our footsteps back to the car, I snapped a few Bar-tailed Godwits flying up the Peffer Burn. A cautious Curlew left the channel and crept towards us along a trickle of water. The low sun was behind us so it probably was unaware of our presence.

North Berwick Law Oystercatcher Curlew Bar-tailed Godwits

Next I captured images of a fly-past of a quartet of Oystercatchers and of a well-lit Lapwing that was sitting amid a nearby pile of rotting seaweed. Greylags were still wandering the skies in an excited state, this time flying even closer. Just as we were about to move off of the salt marsh, John directed my attention to a single Red-breasted Merganser sitting mid-channel looking rather lost.

Oystercatcher Lapwing Greylag Geese Red-breasted Merganser

I used my iPhone to record an impression of the scene before us as we left Kilspindie.

Aberlady LNR 

I next wanted to check out the Marl Loch  in Aberlady LNR as it has thrown up some interesting sightings in the past, such as the
Long-eared Owl . The walk there too can be rewarding, as we found out on crossing the rickety wooden footbridge. We heard the familiar calls of Fieldfares in the Sea Buckthorn thickets, then one of them suddenly appeared just in front of us. It must have been starving as these birds are normally very flighty, and will fly off at the mere glimpse of a human. It was feasting on the mass of orange berries. Then to our surprise and delight, a female Bullfinch joined the feast, although it didn’t seem to eating berries. After snapping a Magpie that had been sitting in the conifers beyond the fieldfares, we moved on to the Marl Loch and sat expectantly on our 3-legged stools waiting for something to photograph. John spotted the fairly uncommon sight of a Moorhen nibbling at the berries on the branches of the
Sea Buckthorn 

Fieldfare Female Bullfinch Magpie Moorhen
As the sun started to set and low clouds crept ever-nearer from the west, the light deteriorated. A raptor sped across our view from right to left above the Loch - its dark brown vertical stripes on the underside of its body identified it as a juvenile Peregrine . Somewhat pleased, we headed back to the car, after quickly taking a picture of some Sea Buckthorn berries. Back at the wooden bridge, some Teal  were dabbling in the salt marsh. These are smallest of our ducks. The tide was now coming in and what had been wide expanses of sands had become a seascape. As we crossed the bridge a pair of Teal passed overhead down the Peffer Burn.

Juvenile Peregrine Sea Buckthorn Teal Teal

Port Seton

At the car in Aberlady we decided we were about done for the day and we’d move west along the coast to Port Seton where we’d watch the last of the incoming tide as we sipped our tea inside the car. However when we got there we discovered that rocks nearest the sea wall, which were uncovered by the sea, were covered by flocks of small waders. Most were Dunlin, now in their winter plumage. Also, a few Redshanks were hanging onto the wet rocks. Right by the sea wall on the last remaining patch of sand there were several Turnstones scurrying around, dodging the action of the waves as they tried to feed. Their dark, mottled, brown plumage contrasted with that of a fourth species we saw, the Sanderling  which has light grey and white winter plumage.

Dunlin Redshank Turnstone Sanderling

The light was now very dusky. A pair of Herring Gulls ghosted past, an adult and a first cycle  juvenile. Out in the Firth of Forth we could just make out a navy vessel, HMS Scott, an ocean survey vessel. An impression of how the light was at this point can be had from our final image of the bridges over the Forth, which can just be seen in silhouette, and the flashing warning lights on their posts can also be seen. The rocks that had provided perching positions for the waders had become fully submerged. The birds had flown. It was time for tea.

Herring Gull 1St  Cycle Herring Gull HMS Scott Forth Bridges

One again we had failed to see our target species, and once again we had seen a fair old collection of sightings. My favourite was the Peregrine. Although it was brief and in poor light, it was quite thrilling to see one of the world’s foremost species (IMHO). To our regular readers it probably goes without saying that the teas and pastries were very enjoyable, but this would be an understatement as the Danish pastries were particularly scrumptious. Roll on next week!

Pictures of the Week:

Female Wigeon Fieldfare
Dunlin Sanderling

2nd December 2018:


This week we had the whole of Central Scotland to choose from as the weather was similar throughout - dull, gloomy and damp - hardly conditions conducive to fine photography, but, we’re experienced enough at watching nature to know that it can be observed in all conditions, and interesting pictures are still possible. We headed east to Musselburgh via Dalkeith where we enjoyed a fine, warm breakfast in Morrisons cafe (9/10, -1 for leaky teapot and messy table).
In Musselburgh I thought it would be nice to start near the Millhill car park that overlooks the River Esk at a point where water birds usually congregate. On arrival it was evident I’d made a good decision as there were lots of birds on the river. I managed some satisfying shots of a few Mute Swans that were feeding off the river bank (see also, “Pictures of the Week”, below). I quickly moved away from there to capture some shots of a pair of fighting Mallard drakes. It seemed the drake with the brighter-coloured bill was getting a pounding from a male with a duller bill. Apparently a Mallard’s bill colour  is symptomatic of it’s sexual health. Maybe that had something to do with the argument.

Mute Swan Mallards

I don’t know if the duck commotion had an unsettling effect on some of the other birds, but there was an outbreak of preening  and wing flapping. Female Mallards, Mute Swans, Canada Geese and even Herring Gulls were all in a flap.

Female Mallard Mute Swan Canada Goose Herring Gull

We walked up to the footbridge that overlooks an island and the area where some kind people turn up to feed the birds. I noticed a single Duclair Duck  amongst the feeding melee of Canada Geese, Mallards and of course, Black-headed Gulls. Below the footbridge, on the edge of the island, I spotted a pair of geese, a Greylag with a Greylag/Canada hybrid .

Duclair Duck Canada Goose Greylag/Canada Hybrid Greylag Goose

On the walkway that runs along the river, some feral pigeons were picking  up the leftovers after the feeders had gone. One pigeon caught my eye due to its unusual plumage. I have called it a “Pied Feral Pigeon”, which, like most wild pigeons, is descended from Rock Doves . Also nibbling at the crumbs were Jackdaws , the smallest members of the Crow family, and Black-headed Gulls (see also, “Pictures of the Week”, below). John pointed out a pair of female Goosanders floating mid-channel further upstream. They were inactive. Maybe they were resting after a hard morning’s diving for fish.

Feral Pigeon Jackdaw Black-headed Gull Goosander

Having had our fill of observations at Millhall we moved down to the end of Goose Green Place, just before the Cadet Hall, where we immediately saw a Goldeneye midstream at the mouth of the Esk. We put up a large flock of Redshanks that had been sheltering out of sight on the near bank. The tide was high, so the birds were fairly inactive waiting for the feeding opportunities that would come as the waters receded. That must have been about to happen as waves of Oystercatchers were flying into the area from their high-tide roosts, such as the Scrapes. We came across the Redshanks flock on the rocky shore further downstream (see also, “Pictures of the Week”, below). Mingling with them were a few Turnstones.

Goldeneye Redshank Oystercatcher Turnstone

The weather had been dull but dry, but as we left the Esk mouth the light got really dull and it began to rain. The view across to Portobello will give you an impression of the conditions - as we say in Scotland, it was “dreich”.

We scanned the seascape as we headed to the Scrapes at Levenhall Links. Some Velvet Scoters were about 70m out. We couldn’t make out much detail with the naked eye, but my camera did not too bad. They seemed to be courting rather than diving. Further east, another diving species, a pair of female Red-breasted Mergansers , were passing. They didn’t dive but seemed to be moving closer. Not far behind were a pair of Shags, more divers, that also edged towards us and actually got close enough for as good a picture as we were going to get in the conditions. The fourth diving bird we saw on our walk to the Scrapes was a winter plumage Great Crested Grebe . It too was close to the sea wall. It dived a few times before it presumably saw us and moved off.

Velvet Scoter Red-breasted Merganser Shag Great-crested Grebe

As I photographed the divers in the rain and gloom I was joined by an insect that looked like a Mosquito or Gnat. It seemed very late in the year to be seeing it, a sign of the mild weather we’ve had. A familiar “cheep” heralded the arrival of a Pied Wagtail, that, given the choice, would surely have gobbled up the Gnat. Simultaneously, a female Reed Bunting (linkI) flew onto the wall. It was no more than 5m away but we could hardly make out its plumage due to the terrible light. Honking Greylags flew overhead and into the Scrapes, leading us to move away from the sea wall to observe them and the birds they had joined.

Gnat Pied Wagtail Female Reed Bunting Greylag Geese

As we entered the Scrapes we weren’t too hopeful of seeing much but we pressed on. From the east-most hide we found about a dozen Wigeon feeding in the grass in front of the hide (see also, “Pictures of the Week”, below). In the west-most hide we found ten Lapwings resting in the middle of the scrape.
Closer to the hide a half dozen Dunlin and a few Teal were feeding. I felt as if I was taking pictures in the dark, so we called it a day and made our way back to the car. En route John was sure he saw a Short-eared Owl around the area I call “the bing”. As we investigated, we met a couple who also had seen it. Unfortunately it failed to reappear so I didn’t get a picture. However, the banner at the top of this page shows a photo of the Short-eared Owl  we saw in the same area almost exactly three years ago.

Wigeon Lapwing Dunlin Teal

Instead of our more usual al fresco cuppas, we had our tea and very nice Danish pastries inside the car. We’d had quite enough of the cold damp weather. We were satisfied with the sightings (some of which we struggled to see!) and the pictures were satisfactory and fairly interesting. We hope next week’s weather is much better, but if it’s not, we’ll once again do our best to get some more interesting pictures.

Pictures of the Week:
Mute Swan Black-headed Gull
Redshank Wigeon

Back To Top