Now with the much shorter days and colder temperatures, winter is well and truly here in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Our Day Guiding throughout December and early January has been superb, with some wonderful bird and wildlife sightings; our winter visitors here in abundance.
I will start with mentioning a couple of special wader species that can be encountered on our shorelines. The charismatic Ringed Plover is an endearing species and can often be seen mixed in with other waders such as Dunlin. Ringed Plovers have broad black head bands and a black breast band, these are both obvious field identification features. Also obvious is the short reddish bill which is black at the tip. The call is distinctive being a loud musical ‘too-ee’. In flight Ringed Plovers have a prominent white wing bar which again aids in their identification. In the winter months the UK population increases dramatically as many Scandinavian birds overwinter on our shores.
Quite a different looking wader that is seen in the same habitat as the Ringed Plover is the delightful Turnstone. They are chunky looking waders with a large head and a short, stubby, wedge-shaped bill. When seen well this species looks unique. In the summer months they are most attractive with orange and black upper parts; in winter they loose this colour and became dark greyish brown. Turnstones very rarely breed in the UK; this is a migrant that breeds in northern Europe, Greenland and north-east Canada. They are opportunistic feeders with a wide variety of food being recorded in their diet, from mussels to sand hoppers.
Out on the sea a very smart sea duck can often be noticed when scanning with the scope. The endearing Eider is always a pleasant sight to see. They are large sea ducks, slightly larger than a Mallard, with a wedge shaped head. The males are stunning birds with beautiful black and white plumage and a lime green patch on the sides of the head. Courtship begins in the winter when the drakes make a heart warming dove-like cooing call, ‘ar-oooo’ when displaying. Sadly Eiders can be vulnerable to accidental oil spills.
Another seabird regularly seen on our day guides is the Shag; these birds appear quite prehistoric and reptile like. They are large seabirds, very slim having a long neck and bill and show a lovely greenish tinge to their dark plumage. Shags are specialist fish eaters but are unfortunately threatened by global warming with sea temperatures rising and like the Eider are also at risk from oil spills. Another species related to the Shag that is very similar in appearance is the Cormorant; larger birds with a more powerful bill. Unlike the Shag, Cormorants can be seen inland away from the coast.
Winter wouldn’t be complete without the arrival of our winter thrushes. Redwings and Fieldfares are often encountered on our day guides at this time of year. Both species are smart looking birds. Redwings are lovely small thrushes displaying an obvious whitish stripe over the eye and another white stripe below the cheek. They are called Redwings due to the beautiful red feathers under the wing. They are our smallest Thrush being slightly smaller than a Song Thrush. Fieldfares are large thrushes similar in size to a Mistle Thrush; they have a clear grey head with black markings around the eye. Both Redwing and Fieldfare arrive in the late autumn from northern Europe and remain with us until April when they will return to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia.