The autumn has come to an end and now the winter is upon us in the stunning Scottish highlands; our Day Guiding throughout November and early December has been amazing. There has been some fantastic bird and wildlife sightings, especially along the moray coast.
I will start with mentioning a beautiful looking bird that is an iconic species at this time of year. The Waxwing needs no introduction; it is unmistakable. There is no other British bird quite like it; easily recognisable with its black mask and bib and long pointed crest. Its plumage is a lovely pinkish brown and the tail is yellow at the tip. They have a voice to match their looks, with a silvery trill distinctive. They are winter visitors to the Scottish highlands, some years arriving in large numbers, whereas other years very few turn up. They are termed an ‘irruptive’ species, meaning if weather conditions are hard in their breeding grounds they will migrate large distances in order to find food.
Another highlight seen recently is the splendid Purple Sandpiper. This small, secretive wader can be found on our rocky shores often mixed in with other waders. They are a bit Dunlin-like but are darker waders and the bill is orangey yellow at the base. They have a dumpy look to them and shuffle around; certainly quite an endearing bird. Their plumage appears bluish black and they have lovely markings, making them a beautiful bird to see. A migrant, and like the Waxwings, they arrive on our coasts for the winter, coming from their breeding grounds in Norway.
Another wader species that was seen amongst the Purple Sandpipers was the handsome Sanderling. This shorebird is a similar size to other small waders, but Sanderlings are very distinctive being a pearl grey colour above and with very clean white underparts, making them very obvious when seen next to other similar sized shorebirds. They are almost always found on the coast and can often be seen running along the beach, resembling clockwork toys as they sprint backwards and forwards feeding along the shoreline.
Out on the sea, another noticeable species was present. The Black Guillemot is one of our rarer auk species. They are charming small seabirds. In the breeding season they have a smoky black plumage but at this time of year appear a smudgy white colour. When seen flying past a coastal headland they have a quick whirring wingbeat giving them a distinctive flight action; they have an obvious big white oval patch on the upper wing with a white patch on the underwing which also aids in their identification, separating them from other seabirds.
Keeping the theme of seabirds, a graceful and stunning seaduck that is always a pleasure to watch is the handsome Long-tailed Duck. Regarded as one of the most beautiful ducks of the world, the males in winter plumage are a mixture of white, brown and black. They have a pink band to the bill and an elongated long tail which gives the species its name. At this time of year they can be seen in good numbers along the moray coast. They are very much a winter visitor, not breeding in the UK; arriving to our northern coasts from breeding grounds in Iceland and Scandinavia. They have a wonderful yodelling call which is unique and far carrying.
Two other species of seaduck that were seen recently on our Guided Days Out that are quite similar to one another, are the Common Scoter and the scarcer Velvet Scoter. Both species are always a highlight to see on any days birding. These birds are very much ducks of the sea and are often distant when seen through a telescope but occasionally can be seen at a closer range. Telling them apart can sometimes be tricky as both the males of the species are black. The drake Velvet Scoter is slightly larger than the drake Common Scoter but the Velvet has a yellow patch to the bill and a white tick mark behind the eye. It is a real pleasure to watch flocks of both these species trailing over the waves.