by Ian Hastie –
There have been few upsides to the recent pandemic but, for me, one has been the spectacle of more kids and adults taking an interest in the wildlife in the local area.
It’s rare for me to be walking around Stonehaven without a pair of binoculars around my neck and people are generally interested in what I’m looking at as well as happy to tell me what they have seen recently.
One of the biggest problems with viewing birds or wildlife in general is that sometimes they don’t always make themselves apparent. This brief introductory guide to some accessible sites in our area will hopefully help those interested in seeing a few more species. I’ve outlined the birds most likely encountered with a little bit of effort. This is not an exhaustive list of birds you will see at any one time but with patience and persistence you will encounter many of these and more. Certain species will be seen during particular seasons, whilst some can be seen all year round.
Area 1 – Cowie water
Cowie Water (from Cowie Bridge). Follow the water course from the bridge and you will likely encounter a good few species.
Before walking up river, check the East side over the bridge (adjacent to tennis courts) for dipper or grey wagtail. These birds are synonymous with fresh water and you can encounter them anywhere along Cowie Water.
Its always satisfying to watch a dipper go about its business as they hunt for bugs underwater and if you are lucky enough to watch one feeding you will see them disappear under the water’s surface for a few seconds – the tell tall bubbles will give you a clue where they will reappear.
If you don’t see any dippers you will always manage to find signs of where they were…look out for good sized boulders on the river with tell-tale droppings!
I suppose most folk’s first memory of birds might be feeding ducks at a local pond and currently you are likely to encounter a good size group of mallard between the road bridge and the first foot bridge. They will readily respond to feeding but please avoid the temptation to offer them bread as its harmful to them. Try sweetcorn (tinned, fresh or unfrozen), shredded lettuce, defrosted peas, oats or rice (can be cooked or uncooked). From time to time you may encounter some other ducks along this stretch, notably goosander and we have been graced by the presence of a pintail duck for the last 4 years or so. The drake is an especially handsome bird.
The following can often be seen along this stretch:
Dipper, grey wagtail, pied wagtail.
Blue tit, great tit, coal tit, long-tailed tit.
House sparrow, dunnock, tree sparrow, robin, wren, blackbird, song thrush
Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Grey heron, woodpigeon, collared dove
Goldfinch, chaffinch, greenfinch, bullfinch, great spotted woodpecker (nearer viaduct area, amongst bigger trees).
Buzzard (listen for the mewing calls), sparrowhawk (a regular hunter but not always easy to see well)
Winter: Redwing, fieldfare
Spring arrivals: chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap, swallow, house martin, sand martin.
Area 2 Harbour to Cowie
Don’t overlook the gulls you see along this stretch. It’s easy to dismiss them all as seagulls but we have a good variety of gull species as you’d expect in a seaside town They are fascinating to watch. With a little bit of practice it’s easy to separate the commoner gull species (certainly adult birds anyway), these include Herring gull (the one most associated with the collective seagull descriptor), common gull (daintier than herring gull, yellow legs), great black backed gull, Lesser black backed gull (spring), black headed gull (heads in adults are chocolate brown in summer but they lose this in winter sporting a dark smudge in the adults, kittiwake (spring/summer) is a really dainty gull, easily overlooked. In Late summer there will be big numbers offshore as the nearby cliffs at Fowlsheugh empty. We do occasionally see rarer species including Iceland, glaucous, little and Mediterranean gull (I photographed one last year)
There’s a significant jackdaw population and they are often encountered as they beachcomb along with crows and rooks although they are undoubtedly more handsome with their two tone black plumage and blue eyes . Listen out for their “chack” or “jack” jack call.
If you see a smallish dull bird feeding amongst rocks tideline, it will likely be a rock pipit. There are good numbers along the coastline
As you walk along the beach and watch the tide line you may well encounter small groups of ringed plover but they blend into the background with ease.
Species along this stretch:
Wader/shore birds – oystercatcher, redshank, turnstone (winters here all the way from Greenland/Canada and will tip over stones and pebbles seeking out a meal), dunlin, purple sandpiper (rocky areas near harbour and particularly at Cowie), curlew, ringed plover, whimbrel (on passage)
Ducks – eider, mallard, goosander
Meadow pipit (spring), rock pipit, pied wagtail, cormorant, shag, sandwich tern (late March – Sept, watch out for them diving and listen for their very distinctive Kear-ik, kerr-ink call), common tern (April – Sept), fulmar (on cliffs at South end of harbour)
Summer visitors include sand and house martin as well as swallow. Swifts arrive a bit later than the aforementioned, generally in May and they are amongst the first birds to migrate back to Africa in August. They are always great to see and hear but appear to be becoming rarer each year. They nest in high buildings and Stonehaven has a few suitable structures.
Area 3 Dunnottar woods
Park in any of the car parks and enjoy a leisurely stroll.
A good selection of woodland birds can be found throughout the woods: the finch family is represented by chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, siskin whereas redpoll and crossbill can be encountered on a less regular basis.
Goldcrest (UK’s smallest bird), treecreeper and all 4 of the common tit species can all be readily witnessed here.
Buzzard are ever present and be alert to the smaller birds suddenly going quiet as it may indicate a sparrowhawk is hunting in the area.
Area 4 – RSPB Fowlsheugh
We are immensely lucky to have this gem of a site on our doorstep. The cliffs hold over 100000 seabirds, notably guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake, fulmar, shag and small numbers of puffin.
A note of caution though – be very careful of the cliff edges and ensure children are by your side at all times.
The best time to visit the cliffs are late March through to August and
at time of writing (March) the cliffs are filling up with auks and a few puffins are already delighting locals.
Take time to check out the bushes and gorse as you approach and walk through the reserve as yellowhammer, stonechat, song thrush, linnet may be present. Peregrine and raven are regularly seen around the area.
A reasonable pair of binoculars would be a definite help. Don’t be tempted by large magnification cheap ones, invariably they will be rubbish. Magnification of 7x or 8x is more than ample and if you wear glasses make sure you find a pair that has foldable rubber eye cups.
The RSPB sell a good range of reasonable quality budget binoculars. If you get hooked, there’s plenty time to upgrade!
A reasonable bird book would be useful, but if starting out, stick to a book that describes UK species only such as “The RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds, 2nd edition” Less than £6 on Amazon.
You can of course find many birding apps these days, many are free and the RSPB have lots of identification resources:
All photographs copyright Ian Hastie