Last week I sat in the spacious and comfortable hide on the south shore of Udale Bay in the Cromarty Firth and thought how fortunate we are that there are so many such hides in the Highlands. They are mainly bird watching hides although there is always the chance of seeing other wildlife. There are also hides for watching otters such as the one on Skye and one on Speyside for watching badgers. Some of the bird watching hides are thanks to the RSPB such as the ones at Loch Ruthven famed for its Slavonian grebes and Nigg Bay for its wildfowl and waders. For many the most outstanding one is at Loch Garten where the ospreys attract so much attention.
I was at the opening ceremony of the hide at Udale Bay in August 1993 and it is one of my favourites because at the right stage of tides it gives, at this time of the year, superb views of waders and wildfowl. In the early days of being a reserve there were problems with wildfowlers but then a voluntary exclusion zone was agreed. This was between the RSPB and the wildfowling organisations and clubs and full marks to all concerned that the problems were overcome. The boundaries of the zone are marked with posts that have two yellow bands. At one time, for very many years, it was a National Nature Reserve but according to my list this no longer applies.
For my visit I had judged the tide all wrong as it is best when the tide is making or ebbing and the birds anxious to feed. The tide was high and full but there were compensations as the majority of the waders and wildfowl were packed onto a small area of saltmarsh and wet grassland to the left of the hide. The nearest birds were on open water and on the edge of the freshwater that flowed past the hide. They were eight mute swans and two of them had cygnets with them that would have been hatched last summer and in all probability in the nearby area of reeds and sedges. Looking at the number of adults and cygnets can give you an idea of the breeding success last summer but you have to be careful with such analysis. For example, what looked like adult swans with no cygnets were in fact immature birds that would not have bred last year. They lacked the orange beaks and had one or two brownish feathers. This is not surprising as they do not breed until they are 3 or 4 years old.
There were so many waders packed together it was difficult to concentrate as there were lapwings, bar tailed godwits, oystercatchers, redshank, knot and curlew. The ¬ ducks included teal, wigeon and mallard. What stole the show for me were the seven shelduck swimming on their own on some open water beyond the other birds. Shelduck are one of my favourite birds and their combination of colours is remarkable. What other bird has a combination of chestnut breast bands, blood red beak, pink legs offset by black “shoulders” and a bottle green head? They look so aloof partly because of their size and upright stance. How amazing that such a large and colourful bird nests in burrows in the ground, often old rabbit burrows. How do they survive with so many predators from foxes to hooded crows and stoats to mink? There are only around 1,750 breeding pairs of shelduck in Scotland and the 2008 Highland Bird Report classes them as “Uncommon breeder but scarce in north and west”.