For birds the UK is a huge international airport with long distance travellers arriving and leaving all the time. By the autumn, our summer visitors have departed for Africa and seabirds have left their cliffs and islands to spend the winter in the Atlantic or beyond.
Taking their place are millions of wildfowl and wading birds pouring in from the far north after raising their young in the high arctic. Geese from Iceland and Greenland, ducks and wading birds from as far away as northern Canada and Siberia travel thousands of miles – all seeking a relatively mild climate with safe feeding and resting places for the winter. Some will stay with us while others transit through on their way further south.
Pink-footed Geese are the most numerous of several species of geese wintering in Scotland and huge numbers can be seen in the autumn at various key sites up the east coast such as the Loch of Strathbeg and Montrose Basin. Aberlady Bay on the Forth estuary is another great place with up to 30,000 birds coming into roost after feeding all day on nearby farmland. An autumn evening there can provide one of wildlife’s great experiences with thousands of geese descending around you – the birds twisting and rolling (whiffling) to lose height while making contented calls as they anticipate their rest for the night.
Barnacle Geese from Svalbard (north of Norway) spend the winter on the Solway Estuary and the RSPB reserve at Mersehead is an ideal place to see them as well as other wetland birds. The island of Islay is a wonderful place during the autumn with spectacular numbers of Barnacle Geese (from Greenland) as well as White-fronted Geese and the very rare member of the crow family, the Chough, which is dependent on the coastal grassland.
The foreshore – the land between high and low water – is biologically incredibly productive, full of marine life enriched twice daily with nutrients brought in by the tide. To us the foreshore can seem bleak and dangerous but for many birds it is their vital source of food for the winter. Estuaries provide the most extensive areas of inter-tidal ground and thus support the main concentrations of wading birds. Their life is driven entirely by the tide as they feed day and night whenever the foreshore is uncovered, only pausing around high tide when they congregate with other birds to rest and sleep at safe roost sites. They cannot escape this relentless treadmill so try not to disturb them needlessly and think of them when the autumn gales arrive.
The various species of wading birds have evolved to take advantage of the different habitats and feeding opportunities that exist between high and low water. For example, Curlew with its long curved bill can catch large lugworms deep in the mud, the Oystercatcher’s chisel bill is able to smash open cockles while Turnstone with short legs and stubby bill are able to find tiny shellfish and sandhoppers among rocky pools and seaweed.
Identifying small wading birds can be difficult and it is best to start by assuming that anything you see is a common bird. Look carefully at its size, bill and legs as well as wing markings before you go to a field guide. Get to know the common birds well and then you will become more confident about the rarer ones. Even if you cannot identify the birds, enjoy watching them. Who cannot be delighted by tiny Sanderlings scampering along the edge of the waves feeding furiously on near-invisible invertebrates.
Ducks can be easier to identify especially if they are colourful species such as Wigeon which graze on salt marsh grasses or Shelduck searching for small snails out on the mudflats. One group of birds that are likely to be out at sea are Diving Ducks such as Eider, Common Scoter, Goldeneye and Long Tailed Ducks. These ducks dive for mussels and crabs on the seabed and may be well offshore and easily overlooked despite occurring sometimes in large flocks. The Moray Firth and the estuaries of the Forth and Tay are good places for seaducks though the Isles of Orkney and Shetland are where big numbers occur. Look out to sea with binoculars, preferably on a calm day, when you may also find Divers and Red-breasted Mergansers.
So, if you can, do have a walk along the shore and enjoy the ever-changing sea and sky. On any stretch of Scottish coastline there will be birds to be seen. While you are puzzling over the identity of those small waders do not miss Peregrines and Sparrowhawks which may streak past, perhaps grabbing a Dunlin or Redshank as they go. Don’t ignore Gulls – they are beautiful birds and now is a good time to make sure you can identify the different species. Spot the resident Rock Pipits and marvel that they thrive all year round in the harsh coastal environment. If you are lucky a flock of Linnets, Fieldfares or Redwings may pass by eating seeds and berries on the coastal scrub.
Out at sea who knows what you might discover – anything is possible.