Birdwatching around Inverness – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

eider ducksNow is a good time to go birdwatching along the coasts and we are spoilt for choice on the east coast around Inverness. Some of the hot spots are at Udale Bay near Cromarty where  there is  superb RSPB hide on the south side of the firth, whilst on the north side is the RSPB hide at Nigg. Chanonry Point near Fortrose on the Black Isle is now famous for its dolphins but with so many people visiting there the bird life has been shown to be outstanding as well.

There are other hotspots such as in and around Findhorn  Bay and Burghead whilst, to the north, Loch Fleet is well worth a visit at this time  of the year and throughout the winter. Seals are also a feature of Loch Fleet and close views can be obtained by the old ferry crossing.   In many of these areas waders are a feature from curlew to redshank and oystercatchers to turnstones.  Geese are also likely to be flighting and the rarer divers and grebes can be found.  Gannets are often in large numbers often depending on how rough the seas are way out and  the last few weeks storms have driven many gannets towards the shore much to the delight of birdwatchers.  Look out for the very dark birds as these are  birds that have hatched this year from the northern gannetries  and they do not breed until they are about four years old.

One group of birds that can often be seen and they often  dominate the numbers of other species  are the seaducks so called because  they spend most of their lives at sea.   If you are lucky you may see three of the scoters the common, velvet and the comparatively rare surf scoter.  All three are very dark ducks, smaller than a mallard and , particularly  the common scoter, often in groups feeding on shellfish such as mussels.    The velvet and surf scoters do not breed in Scotland and are only winter visitors but around 80 pairs of common scoters nest here although the numbers are declining  each year.   In contrast the winter population is around 30,000 individuals and they mainly overwinter in the  firths of the east coast. One of the seaducks  that, at least the adult males, contrast  with the scoters  is the long-tailed duck.   They are much smaller  than  mallard but the magnificent tail of the male adds another 13 cm.  to the length.  The wintering numbers in Scotland are a round 15,000 but, unfortunately,  none linger to breed here during the  spring.  The birds move to the northern coast of Scandinavia and await the thaw on their inland  breeding areas   on the tundra.

There is another common seaduck that, as a breeding bird, far outnumbers many others   in having  around 20,000 breeding pairs in Scotland and, in winter, numbers of  around  65,000 individuals and it is the eider.    This is many peoples favourite duck, particularly the outstanding males. It is larger than a mallard and the males have conspicuous  black and white plumage offset by the lime green feathers on the nape.   They often gather in large numbers such as at Burghead and Loch Fleet and in most winters a single king eider joins them.    The females are famous for their eiderdown, the feathers they line the nest with  and many artificial materials have been used to try  to copy the qualities of eiderdown but none have succeeded.  Eiders are still farmed in such countries as Iceland  for this down but, needless to say, the end result is very expensive.  Why not go out this weekend and look for eiders along the coast – they are always so thrilling to watch.