Tartan Tales Part 3 – Flexing Our Musselburghs

Saturday and a united Team Sausage braved the Scottish heatwave and made for Musselburgh, one of East Lothian’s best birding locations. We took the train from Edinburgh Waverley to Wallyford and promptly took the wrong turning. Having been set back on roughly the right track by a friendly local, we made for the mouth of the River Esk where it meets the Firth Of Forth.

A seemingly never ending two mile walk, much of it along Musselburgh racecourse eventually saw us reach Goose Green Place, the residential streets giving way to grassy banks and a sandy shore. The ever present Crows and Herring Gulls were the first birds we came across. Mallards were also cruising along the river along with a few Canada Goose. Both the privet hedges of the nearby houses and areas around the river bank were home to a noise and sight long gone from our regular London birding, House Sparrows.

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Darting in and out of hedges and chirruping incessantly, these small brown birds have seen their population decline dramatically in England over the last thirty years. A once common sight, they seem to have all but disappeared from my regular patches. Strange that we have seen them in healthy numbers in both Singapore and Scotland.

A couple of Pied Wagtails eluded the camera along the river but I did manage to get this female Goosander diving and racing toward the Firth Of Forth.

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Having followed the river as far as we could and allowing Mrs Sausage to feel the sandy beach between her toes, we crossed back and made for the river mouth. From here we were greeted with the tide out and gulls everywhere. I am no gull expert but could make out Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Greater Black-backed among the crowd. With the tide out we did also notice a local phenomenon, at least half a dozen rusting shopping trolleys embedded in the soft sand. I know gulls are expert scroungers but I didn’t think they were quite up to supermarket sweeps!

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Wending our way along the sea wall, Mrs Sausage noticed a Grey Heron wading further and further out to sea. Although Mrs S was concerned this was some kind of suicide attempt, her fears were allayed when the Heron took off, relocated to shallower water and started all over again.

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Curlew and Oystercatcher then put in appearance, both probing the soft sand for food whilst the tide was out.

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We stopped for lunch on the sea wall, watching the gulls and some Mute Swans criss cross the exposed beach below us. Moving along following the sea wall, we decided to mount a high grassy verge as Skylark could be heard and I was hoping to perhaps see some Meadow Pipits too. Keeping an eye out for anything interesting on the sea, I spotted two dark shapes bobbing along on the waves. Sea ducks of some kind, and not the Eiders which I could also see. This area has regularly reported sightings of Scoters before and these distant shapes fitted their description. We made our way back from where we came in a hurry, in order to get as close as possible to these distant birds.

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We definitely had Scoters, not the Surf Scoter seen recently but Velvet Scoters. The pictures are really only record shots, such was the distance and the rising and falling waves the birds were riding. They were following a few Eiders in the direction of Cockenzie Power Station. We could only make out two though, a male and a female:

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Velvet Scoters don’t breed in the UK but are a winter visitor to the east coast of the country. Currently on the RSPB’s amber list, they are considered endangered, largely due to oil pollution and the reduction of fish stocks.

As we scanned further along from the Eider and Velvet Scoters, a local birder pointed out a larger group of sea ducks. Common Scoters this time:

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The Common Scoter is red listed by the RSPB due to a more than 50% reduction in the UK breeding population. Studies are ongoing in trying to halt this decline.

We were delighted to get these two life ticks and can only hope that efforts to preserve such species as the Velvet and Common Scoters bear fruit. We left the sea wall and took the short walk to the Ash Lagoons, the second prime birding spot in Musselburgh. The lagoons are land reclaimed from the sea, formed by the building of the sea wall and pumping large amounts of pulverised fuel ash from Cockenzie Power Station. The shallow pools formed have become a haven for waders and sea birds. We were greeted at the Ash Lagoons by this tree-top Willow Warbler, who refused to expose himself fully for a decent photograph.

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Settling into a hide, we watched a Cormorant fly past and a few Curlew land on the scrapes. Two Shelducks, two Teal and the usual gulls were feeding here when a huge flock of Oystercatchers descended in unison.

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What was interesting about the Oystercatchers was that not only did they fly in en masse but once landed and settled, all pointed in the same direction. We reckon this might be some form of protection against the elements, as the winds along the Scottish coasts can get quite bitter. Mrs Sausage can testify to this!

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With other commitments back in Edinburgh and a two mile walk back to Wallyford Station, we reluctantly had to leave the hide. We did get time before we left to snap this lovely Redshank though:

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We also finally had a raptor to add to our list as a tatty-winged Buzzard soared overhead just as we were leaving the hide. A lot of the observations at Musselburgh could have done with a scope rather than just binoculars and this is reflected in the quality of the photos on this entry. However, with the sighting of the two types of Scoters and the other great birds, we’re not complaining!

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