The Black Isle is a fantastic area to go birding all year round, but especially at this time of year. Our Guided Days Out throughout the winter months in this magical land are very rewarding, with a large variety of different bird species seen. Some of these species encountered are to many birdwatchers highly sought after and provide a sense of thrill and excitement; many of the birds wintering on the Black Isle have travelled epic distances from their breeding grounds further north.
I will begin by mentioning a truly special and iconic species; the Great Northern Diver. These are large goose-like birds with sharp, pointed, dagger-like bills. Of the three regularly seen UK diver species, the Great Northern is the largest. Unlike the Red-throated and Black-throated Diver ‘Great Northerns’ don’t breed in Britain; they breed in Iceland but migrate to Scottish waters to spend the winter with us. All three British diver species can be seen on the Black Isle and it is the Red-throated that is the most regularly seen. Red-throated Divers are the smallest of the divers with a slimmer neck and a more delicate bill. All are master fishermen; the Red-throated taking a variety of marine fish such as Herring, Sprats and Sand-eels.
Many species of ducks are seen throughout the winter months in large numbers, one obvious charismatic species is the delicate and delightful Teal; Britain’s smallest duck. Teal get their name due to the green flash on the wing. The male is most elegant with a chestnut head and dark green eye patch; males also have a highly distinctive white stripe running horizontally across their grey body. Female Teals resemble female Mallards but are clearly much smaller and the green speculum is the obvious identification feature. Most Teal found on the Black Isle have migrated from Iceland, northern Europe and Russia. Due to their small size and rapid wingbeats the Teal can appear quite wader-like in flight.
The charming Wigeon is another duck species that is easily encountered on the Black Isle in winter. The drakes are handsome birds with a chestnut head and yellow forehead. They have a pink breast and in flight, not only show a large white wing patch but, compared to other species of ducks, appear short necked. They are known as ‘grazzers’ as they feed on mainly vegetation. The loud whistling call Wigeon make is an iconic evocative noise that carries far and wide and is the essence of winter arriving.
Another handsome duck is the Shelduck. This is Britain’s largest duck and appears quite goose like. They are unmistakable in appearance being largely white but with a bottle green head and neck, blood red bill and an obvious chestnut breast band. They are very much a coastal species and feed on a variety of food, but their main diet in estuaries is a tiny snail called Hydrobia. Interestingly, unlike other duck species Shelducks often nest in rabbit burrows.
Several species of Auk can be found along the coastline of the Black Isle in winter including two well known species. Auks are the penguins of the northern hemisphere and are birds that only come to land in order to breed. The Guillemot and Razorbill, from a distance, can look very similar both being black and white seabirds of a similar size and shape. What the obvious difference is, is the bill. The Guillemot has a long pointed bill whereas the Razorbill’s is quite extraordinary being a chunky short but deep bill with grooves down the sides.