Lossie estuary

The Lossie estuary is the tidal area of the River Lossie to the east of the town of Lossiemouth, and is bounded by the dunes of the east beach to the north and the caravan park in the south, and extending from the footbridge over the River Lossie eastwards to the edge of Lossie Forest.

As the estuary is relatively small, viewing is easy from the car parking area along the northern edge of the ‘Lossiemouth Bay’ caravan park, and although good views of birds are possible with binoculars it is recommended that a telescope is used for close-up views and identifying birds at longer distances. Time of year, state of the tide and weather conditions all affect the numbers of birds, however, walkers, dog-walkers, canoeists and surfers can cause excessive disturbance.

Many species can be seen throughout the year on the Lossie estuary, but with the large number of pig farms locally, gulls are one of main groups. Best viewed at low tide large numbers of the common species, including Herring, Lesser Black-backed (rare in winter), Great Black-backed, Common and Black-headed Gulls, can be seen as they congregate to bathe and preen. Scanning these flocks in winter may produce Iceland Gull which has become reliable in recent years and possibly Glaucous Gull which is now less common than its smaller cousin. Similarly, in recent years Mediterranean Gulls have become a more regular feature.

In winter, a large number of Wigeon and Teal are present, with a smaller number of Mallard. These flocks are worthy of close scrutiny as both American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal have been located. Goosander and Goldeneye are regular but other wildfowl are more unusual and their presence may depend on local lochs being frozen or during rough sea conditions. Very rough seas may also force a Slavonian Grebe or Red-throated Diver onto the calmer waters of the estuary. On two occasions rough sea conditions have pushed a Red-necked Grebe onto the estuary. Little Grebes are commonly seen, usually feeding at low tide within a few feet of the southern river bank. Waders during this period are typically composed of the commoner species such as Redshank, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover and Dunlin. Small flocks of Snow Bunting are frequent, particularly in the dune area, though they regularly forage on the estuary mud at low tide or along the grassy southern edge of the estuary close to the car park.

Spring and early summer can be very quiet on the Lossie estuary as many of the northern breeders such as Wigeon depart. However, March and April sees large numbers of Redshank using the estuary as a stop-over on their migration and migrants such as Common Sandpiper, Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martin begin to appear in small numbers. Very occasionally during this period unusual waders such as Black-tailed Godwit can make brief appearances. Late May then sees a build-up in Ringed Plover numbers.

Summer is the quietest period with a few moulting Mallards, Grey Herons, the ubiquitous gulls and occasionally groups of Canada Geese as they move into the Inner Moray Firth to moult. Nevertheless, this season is one of the best to see fishing Ospreys at close quarters as they hunt over the river. During the summer months it is worth walking further along the southern edge of the estuary, especially the tracks through the gorse. Several songbirds can be seen here including Yellowhammer, Linnet, Stonechat and, in summer, Whitethroat. Walking into the pinewoods will reveal woodland species such as Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Blue Tit and Great Tit. The pines should also produce Crested Tits, their distinctive trill probably being the first indication that they are in the area.

As ‘autumn’ arrives during August-September the number of waders using the estuary begins to increase again as northern breeders return south; Redshank and Oystercatcher are much in evidence during this period, but other species such as Grey Plover, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank and Green Sandpiper are regular. The latter two species are most common a little further upriver from the estuary. Although they are not often seen on the estuary, the distinctive call of the Whimbrel will sometimes be heard, usually as single birds fly overhead but occasionally in larger groups. As migration begins to increase there is a chance of seeing more unusual waders on the estuary such as Ruff, Little Stint or Curlew Sandpiper.

Early autumn also sees a build-up in numbers of Common Tern and Arctic Tern using the estuary. Sandwich Terns are less common but large numbers pass offshore as individuals move into the Moray Firth from several North Sea breeding colonies. Kittiwake numbers at this time of year used to build up to several hundred birds loafing on the mud but this event is a rare occurrence now. Checking the small gulls at this time of year may reveal a Little Gull. Wagtails are common on the estuary as they feed on insects, most will be Pied Wagtails but White Wagtails are regular in small numbers at this time.

Mid-September and October sees the main passage of Pink-footed and Greylag Geese; both species are rare on the estuary but very common as they migrate overhead and both use the fields to the south of Lossiemouth. Barnacle Geese may also be seen in large numbers but usually as they migrate overhead or follow the coastline along the East Beach. Brent Geese, if present, are usually seen in small numbers although family groups of Light-bellied Brent Geese may stay for several weeks. The Dark-bellied Brent Goose is much rarer.

Late October and November see the flocks of Wigeon and Teal from earlier in the year begin to reach their maximum numbers. Whooper Swans, although rare on the estuary, can be seen flying overhead and it is worthwhile looking at any stubble fields south of Lossiemouth for any feeding flocks. As winter progresses and hard icy frosts occur, especially over prolonged periods, Snipe occasionally move onto the estuary to feed along the shore and may sometimes be joined by Woodcock. A walk along the northern edge at the East Beach (access over the footbridge) will produce sea-duck such as Eider, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Duck in small numbers. Very rarely a King Eider or Surf Scoter may be loafing among these groups. Divers are also likely to be present with Red-throated and Great Northern Diver the most regular offshore.

Bob Proctor 12 September 2016