Birds in Findhorn Bay
Findhorn Bay is by far the largest of Moray’s three estuaries. It is a spectacular, almost land-locked, tidal bay covering some six square kilometres. The importance of this bay for waders and wildfowl has been recognised by its designation as a Special Protection Area under the European Community Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds and also as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 1998 Findhorn Bay was also established as a Local Nature Reserve.
Like anywhere, the seasons vary for birdwatching and although the summer is fairly quiet as water-sport activities take over much of the bay, there can still be some good birdwatching available for anyone visiting the area.
In late summer and autumn the bay really comes to life as large migrations of waders start. Towards the end of August, numbers of Redshank rise rapidly to well over 400 and a similar number is present in the bay over winter. At the same time, 1000 or more Dunlin arrive forming spectacular flocks.
Large flocks of waders flying around the bay can also be a sign that there is a Peregrine hunting, which they do throughout the year. At low water the bay almost empties so the sand and mudflats provide a valuable source of food in the form of worms, crustaceans and molluscs. Knot can also be quite numerous at times but their numbers fluctuate throughout the winter. Small numbers of Sanderling are often present with the Dunlin.
Some waders also migrate through the bay stopping for a while to take advantage of the food available. The Ringed Plovers are most numerous in the spring and to a lesser extent during the autumn migrations, occasionally rising to 600 or more. Only around 30 remain over winter and a few also stay on for the summer and breed on some of the nearby shingle banks.
Black-tailed Godwits occasionally appear, particularly in the autumn, as they move to and from their breeding grounds in Iceland but Findhorn is too far north for them to stay over winter. The Bar-tailed Godwits do however remain all year but not in any great numbers.
Other waders breed locally and are present year-round including Oystercatchers and Curlew, although even these will drop in number slightly for a while in the summer. But by August several hundred of each can be seen. The Golden Plover breed on the moors inland and by October their numbers in the bay often exceed 300.
Other, less commonly seen, waders include Greenshank, Grey Plover, Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper.
The bay is also well known for its wildfowl. Apart from Mallard and Shelduck, that are present year-round and breed locally, most of the duck will not arrive until September.
Wigeon are the most numerous and will typically reach in excess of 2000 though even this number is well down on the figures that were seen 20 years ago.
By contrast, only a handful of Pintail could be seen 10 years ago, but in the winter of 2014-15 there were regularly over 200 and their numbers seem to be steadily increasing year after year. Teal and Goldeneye will also be present all winter, but in smaller numbers.
A few other species may occasionally be seen, including Shoveler, Gadwall, Scaup and Tufted Duck.
From mid September onwards, large numbers of geese arrive from their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic regions. In recent years, the vast majority have been Pink-footed Geese and at the height of their migration 20,000+ can be recorded on the bay. These numbers drop as the winter progresses and many continue their migration to estuaries further south, but several thousand remain. Greylag Geese are also present but in smaller numbers than formerly.
When the huge flocks arrive, careful searching can occasionally reveal birds of other goose species, such as Barnacle, Bean, White-fronted and Snow, accompanying them. The flights of geese in and out of the bay at dawn and dusk provide a memorable sight and sound on a winter’s day.
Sea ducks and divers
A short walk from the bay, Findhorn beach provides good birdwatching over the Moray Firth for many of the sea ducks that over-winter. Eiders can often be seen feeding off the mouth of the bay where there are large areas of mussel banks.
Long-tailed Ducks arrive offshore in October and at the same time scoters, both Common and Velvet, start to appear in good numbers. Most of these species will stay out at sea, but a few will venture into the bay where close views can be obtained. Also out at sea over the winter will be divers: Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern. The Black-throated always seem to keep fairly well off shore but the others will come in much closer and occasionally will even venture into Findhorn Bay.
The Great Northerns do not breed in the UK and return to Iceland in summer, but some of the Black and Red-throated Divers breed on inland lochs, particularly up in the north-west of Scotland, and some non-breeders are occasionally seen off Findhorn during summer.
Gulls, terns, Ospreys and other migrants
As one would expect, the bay also provides a home for many gulls and other sea-birds. Herring and Common Gulls are abundant and around 20-30 Great Black-backed Gulls are usually present. Lesser Black-backed Gulls though are relatively uncommon, in contrast to the situation further south in the UK. Black-headed Gulls do not breed in the area, but outside the breeding season several hundred are present. Terns are also summer visitors, but these too do not breed in the Findhorn area. Sandwich Terns arrive first in the spring before going off to their breeding sites and then returning for a while before starting their migration to over-winter in waters off west Africa. Common and Arctic Terns are also present in good numbers and occasionally Little Terns can be seen.
As mentioned earlier, the summer is the quietest time of the year but it is also when one of the most spectacular birds is present – the Osprey. The females arrive at the start of April, followed by the males and nest in many of the surrounding forests. They can be seen flying around the bay throughout the summer, with sometimes as many as ten or more fishing or perched on logs and posts in the bay. The last birds depart in late September for their migration to southern Europe and western Africa.
Just occasionally some more unusual birds appear in the bay and in the last few years we have seen Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Little Egret and several Spoonbills.
Where to watch birds on Findhorn Bay
The following is a rough guide to birding on Findhorn Bay and the surrounding area. Much of it is very dependent on the tide, with the best times usually 2-3 hours either side of low tide. However, even at higher water there are still some areas that are good particularly where the waders are roosting.
- Burghead Bay from Findhorn beach. The best area tends to be east of the car parking area. In winter, Velvet Scoters, Common Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Eiders and divers can be seen – although a telescope is often necessary.
- Findhorn East Dunes area. Waders such as Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Golden Plover often roost here at high water. The point at the mouth of the Bay is also sometimes used as a high tide roost for the Dunlin and Ringed Plover during the spring.
- Findhorn foreshore south of the village will usually contain large numbers of Redshank in winter, together with a few other waders such as Dunlin and the occasional Greenshank. Along the village foreshore a group of around 30 Turnstone can usually be seen in winter. In summer it is a good area to watch Ospreys fishing. Whimbrel can sometimes be seen on the sands and grass near the bird hide. The channels running along the eastern half of the bay will usually have plenty of Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers in winter.
- The channels in the south-east corner by Kinloss village often hold large numbers of Black-headed and Common Gulls. Waders on the sands here may include Golden Plover in winter and Black-tailed Godwits when they are on passage in spring and autumn.
- The central area of the bay is the main feeding area for large numbers of waders at low tide, including Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Knot and Sanderling. Oystercatchers and Curlew will be widely scattered around the bay. Bar-tailed Godwits feed by the channels in the northern central area.
- Mosset Burn will usually hold wildfowl in winter such as Teal, Wigeon and Mallard. The grassy areas either side will often have large numbers of feeding geese in spring. The southern end of the bay also holds the main overnight roost for Pink-footed Geese during the winter.
- The sands on the southern end of the bay are a good area for waders just as the tide is receding. At low water there is less to see, although most of the Shelduck will be seen along these sands in winter. On the fields near Netherton Farm there are often Lapwing, and Grey Partridge can sometimes be seen by the hedgerows. Also worth checking are the pools on the southern edge of the embankment – Green Sandpipers are occasionally seen here.
- The western side of the bay has large numbers of Wigeon and Pintail in winter as well as Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye. These are probably best viewed from Findhorn village at lower water levels – as the tide fills the bay most of these duck will move back to the southern end of the bay.
- The channels of the Findhorn River in the south western corner are some of the hardest to get to but some of the birds that can be seen here include Little Grebe, Common Sandpiper, Grey Wagtail and on rare occasions Kingfisher and Little Egret. In winter there will also be good numbers of Teal, Mute Swan and Grey Heron.
Richard Somers Cocks
6 September 2016